Food

Maintaining healthy wild-oyster beds isn't quite as easy as oyster pie

Pearl, interrupted. I have long been partial to oysters. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I came to understand the environmental challenges they face. Many folks assume that water pollution poses the …

Quicksilver lining

Jeremy Piven's sushi addiction: good for mercury awareness

Whether you believe the Hollywood rumor that Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow due to a heavy regime of partying and a subsequent rehab session, or his doctor's assertion that the star was ill due to mercury poisoning from a high dose of sushi (two servings per day, Pivs? Good Lord), the winner in this agent's nightmare is awareness of mercury contamination. Piven went on Good Morning America on Thursday to explain himself, warn about excessive consumption of fish high on the food chain like tuna, and point people to BlueVoice.org. BlueVoice correctly pins the blame largely on coal-burning power plants and their propensity to sprinkle lakes, rivers, and oceans with emissions high in methylmercury that bioaccumulates up the food chain. I'd call that, um, a quicksilver lining.

Shall I compare thee to a yummy filet?

An ode to the sea kitten

Today we give a tip o' the carp To the bitterlings at PETA Who've thought of yet another way To make us better eatas. Agog at all our fishy friends That on sharp hooks have bitten, They've launched a cutesy-boots campaign Called, yes, "Save the Sea Kitten!" If fish were "kittens," so they say, You'd view them differently -- Your tuna would change if today's lunch Were Kitten of the Sea.

Farm-policy reform -- where to start?

Trying to restructure the House Agriculture Committee might not be worth it

Michael Pollan suggested at a recent Grist potluck -- note to editors: for future reference, I make a mean lemon-cilantro chicken -- that we could improve "the situation for food policy" in Congress if we could: Make the House agriculture committee exclusive. The most important committees in the House -- Energy, Finance, etc. -- are "exclusive," which means their membership has to be drawn from diverse geographical and ideological sources. Ag isn't exclusive, which means it can be (and is) packed with representatives of Big Ag. It's where decent ag legislation goes to die. Pollan has been advocating this kind of committee reform for a while. In fact, he mentioned the idea in a Q&A follow up to his "Farmer in Chief" manifesto in the New York Times. But I think it's worth pointing out what it does and does not mean to make a House committee exclusive, and why it might not accomplish much. Warning: This post gets fairly deep into the weeds on House committee structure. Exclusivity does not, according to the Congressional Research Service, require geographical or ideological diversity. What exclusivity does is distribute plum assignments and ensure that individual members don't serve on too many powerful committees -- a member who sits on an exclusive committee can sit on no other committee. Only a few committees are considered powerful enough to warrant such limits (keeping in mind that each party can declare its own set of exclusive committees). Out of 18 committees, five are exclusive for Democrats: Rules, Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services. The last two have only recently been promoted, and thus only members who joined since the committees were made exclusive are limited to a single assignment. To put that in context, nonexclusive committees include the still very powerful Armed Services, Budget, International Relations, and Judiciary Committees. And no one is arguing those are packed by region or controlled by a particular interest group.

Hope and the new USDA chief

Coming together to work toward a sustainable food and farm future

On Wednesday, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began his confirmation hearing to become the 30th U.S. secretary of agriculture with the promise to be a forward-looking leader who would make the USDA a 21st century agency. While his nomination has been unpopular among some members of the sustainable-agriculture community, there is hope that under his guidance the USDA can grow into a very different agency than it has been during the past four decades, when it's been run by secretaries such as Earl Butz. As the next head of the USDA, Vilsack will be charged with revamping a sprawling agency that has an annual budget of $89 billion and more than 92,000 employees, a task that he is uniquely qualified to do. In Iowa, which my family has called home for six generations, Vilsack is known to be a smart, capable administrator who has been willing to listen to the concerns of family farmers and rural advocates. While attending a Practical Farmers of Iowa conference this past weekend, where many of the state's most progressive and sustainable farmers gathered, there was almost universal agreement that Vilsack is capable of much more at the national level than he was as the governor of a former red state, where almost any progressive policy he would have put forward would have been blocked by a Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate. CAFOs and GMOs That said, many are still upset over Vilsack's 1995 vote as a state senator to repeal local control (H.F. 519), which stripped local elected officials from having a say in where confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located. His promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has concerned members of the sustainable-ag community even more. They fear that his closeness with agribusiness companies will only prolong U.S. farm policies benefiting corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers. Here in Iowa, while we have been disappointed with many of our political leaders, we are pragmatic and understand when it is important to work with them and when it's time to hold them accountable.

Umbra on raw milk

Dear Umbra, My husband was raised with milk straight from the cow that he milked himself every morning, so he and his parents are very into organic milk. However, I am concerned about the benefits/dangers …

Fighting convenience

Does America have the food system that we deserve?

McDonald's is on a roll. Says the NYT: Six years into a rebound spawned by more appealing food and a less aggressive expansion, McDonald's seems to have won over some of its most hardened skeptics.The chain has managed to sustain its momentum even as the economy and the restaurant industry as a whole are struggling. Month after month, McDonald's has surprised analysts by posting stronger-than-expected sales in the United States and abroad. I've been won over all right. Won over to the argument that changing food policy in this country is a quixotic proposition. The article presents as progress that McDonald's responded to flattening beef consumption by going, quoth one executive, "at chicken hard." Firstly, um, ew? And secondly, learning that McDonald's now sells more chicken than beef worldwide doesn't quite feel like the revolution is right around the corner.

Tempest in a stock pot

White House chefs and the limits of personal choice

About a month ago, high-profile foodies got pretty amped up about whom Obama would choose as White House chef. Three of them -- Berkeley sustainable food doyenne Alice Waters, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and New York City restaurateur Denny Mayer -- even got together to pen a letter urging the incoming president to replace the current White House chef with someone who chooses locally grown, organic food -- preferably sourced from an on-site vegetable garden. According to a New York Times account, the letter states: A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter. Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation. Last week, Obama defied this gentle effort to convince him to send the incumbent chef packing. Cristeta Comerford, who has been in charge of cooking first-family meals for the Bushes since 2005, will retain her post, the Obama team announced. My first reaction to this news was disappointment. After choosing an agribiz-friendly pol as USDA chief, couldn't Obama at least make a symbolic nod in the direction of the sustainable-food movement by picking a new chef? Now I'm not sure what the fuss was about in the first place.

Food plight

Half of world's population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100

"Ignoring climate projections at this stage will only result in the worst form of triage." The headline is from the University of Washington news release on a study in Science, "Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat" ($ub. req'd). The quote is the study's powerful final sentence. The release explains: Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, will leave half the world's population facing serious food shortages, new research shows ... "The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor. Worse, the study must also be considered a serious underestimate of likely impacts since, as is common in such analyses, they based their simulations on "the 'middle of the road' emission scenario, A1B." In 2100, A1B hits about 700 ppm with average global temperatures "only" about 3°C warmer than today. In fact, on our current emissions path, we are going to get much, much hotter. Figure. "Histogram of summer (June, July, and August) averaged temperatures (blue) observed from 1900 to 2006 and (red) projected for 2090 for (A) France, (B) Ukraine, and (C) the Sahel. Temperature is plotted as the departure from the long-term (1900-2006) climatological mean (21). The data are normalized to represent 100 seasons in each histogram. In (A), for example, the hottest summer on record in France (2003) is 3.6°C above the long-term climatology. The average summer temperature in 2090 [assuming A1B] is projected to be 3.7°C greater than the long-term climatological average." The results are still alarming:

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