President Obama signed the farm bill today, bringing to a close a legislative odyssey. The president made it official at Michigan State University, apparently as a nod to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who midwifed the law into existence. Michigan State is also one of the institutions that will be doing basic ag research funded by the bill.
Grist started covering the voyage of the "2012 Farm Bill" (ha!) back in 2011. Early on, there were rumors that Congress would pass a quick farm bill in a couple of weeks. Instead it took a couple of years: The legislation still had to languish among the lotus eaters and sneak past the cyclops.
Now that it has become a law, many of its programs will run for five years, setting a stage for a new law in 2019 ... ish.
We've always thought that most fast-food bread, wherever it was from, tasted rubbery. And it turns out that’s on the right track: Two years ago food blogger Vani Hari started researching Subway's bread ingredients and discovered that one was a chemical used in yoga mats.
Hari said she was shocked to find azodicarbonamide, a plastic-based additive, on Subways' food labeling.
The World Health Organization has linked this chemical additive to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma, and it is banned in Europe and Australia. Azodicarbonamide is legal in the United States and Canada.
"It helps ... produce the air within the foam of a yoga mat," said Hari. "It does the same thing for bread."
Neat! Unless, uh, you are putting this into your body -- which, given the popularity and widespread takeover of Subway, many, many Americans are.
Hari didn’t feel great about all those people eating plastic.
For much of its history, the meat company Tyson defined itself as a family farm. Doing so allowed the company to pay workers less than minimum wage, dodge lawsuits, and get creative in its accounting. Farmers were allowed to do cash-basis accounting, which gave Tyson the leeway to claim to the IRS it was losing money year after year. But the company also kept another set of books, for investors, which showed profits. By claiming to be a primitive farming outfit, without the sophistication to keep proper records, it was able to keep $26.5 million out of the government's hands before 1985, when the company was struggling for dominance.
Farming is actually the one thing that Tyson doesn’t do -- as a new book-length investigation details. The company owns chicken breeders, hatcheries, feed companies, veterinary services, and slaughterhouses. The only part of poultry production that Tyson doesn’t own is the farms.
In the 1960s, Tyson tried running its own farms, but that experiment failed. The land was expensive and so were the chicken houses, which rapidly lost value as equipment wore out. And then there was the problem of labor: It was almost impossible to motivate workers to get up in the middle of the night to tinker with broken fans or wade through the stench of shit to pick up dead birds.
Contract farmers provided the solution to this labor problem. These farmers were highly motivated because they were nominally independent. Often, the farmers had bet their entire family’s savings on the chicken houses. They didn’t mind getting up throughout the night, or laboring 14-hour days, because they were working for themselves.
Or so they assumed. Christopher Leonard, the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, makes a strong case that contract farmers are more securely in Tyson’s thrall than paid employees.
People from Tlahuiltepa, Mexico, have long journeyed to the U.S. in search of farming work. But now, the Oregano Caxtle Co-operative aims to keep labor and revenues at home by cutting out "coyote" middlemen. Founder Isaias Dominguez tells how a favorite spice helps keep one community prosperous and intact:
A few years ago, I bought a little share in a dairy farm so I could receive my own portion of creamy Jersey milk. Each week I’d fish a heavy Mason jar out from under a blanket of tinkling ice cubes. It was delicious, and when it went off it only got better: mixed with scalloped potatoes, salt, and onions, the fermenting milk transformed in the oven into cheesy ambrosia.
But there was a big problem with this milk: It waited for me on the other side of town. It took me a little over an hour to fetch it by car. I know because I didn’t have a car at the time, and so I’d rent a Zipcar and try to run the errand in under an hour. Then the farm started asking for members to drive out regularly to do chores. That was too much for me. I bailed out and went back to buying milk at Safeway.
The experience taught me to appreciate the middleman -- someone who, for a reasonable fee, handles the logistics and transportation. Middlemen get a lot of grief. There are thousands of ads that exhort you to “cut out the middleman!” From the outside, the middleman just looks like a barrier between the consumer and low wholesale prices. But for small food producers, having a middleman can dramatically expand the number of eaters who can buy their stuff.
Middlemen might also help farmers fill the missing middle of our food system. Right now we have big farms that move their food to market with industrial efficiency, and we have little farms that rely on dedicated eaters to drive out over the potholes, but we don’t have much in between. In part, that’s because those companies that efficiently move trainloads of grain to market think making a trip to pick up a dozen pounds of salad greens is, ahem, just radicchio.
It sucks to be crapped on by a bird. So imagine being crapped on by hundreds of millions of them every year.
That's the reality for Chesapeake Bay.
In the adjacent state of Maryland, more than 300 million chickens in factory farms produce more than a billion and a half pounds of waste every year. Most of that waste is spread over farmland -- ostensibly as a fertilizer, but that just happens to be the cheapest way of disposing of all that crap. Now almost half the farms in the state are saturated with phosphorous from the manure; that phosphorus runs off the farms and into the estuary and bay, where it fertilizes algal blooms that threaten the seafood and tourism industries.
Last year, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) backed away from proposed new regulations to deal with the problem, caving to pressure from the poultry industry. But now two state lawmakers have stepped up by introducing legislation that would compel poultry companies to pay to help protect and restore Chesapeake Bay.
“Poultry companies are polluting with impunity while the public pays for the cleanup,” said one of the lawmakers, Shane Robinson, a Democrat.
With global warming changing growing seasons and ranges, and with droughts and storms picking up in intensity, the men and women who produce America's food could use some scientifically sound advice for coping with the changing climate.
The hubs will provide information about ways producers can prepare for potential threats to their crops and livestock as parts of the country are experiencing increasing severe weather events and pest invasions, which scientists have tied to the affects of climate change. And they will coordinate resources through federal and state governments, universities and non-governmental agencies.
Scientists have successfully grown vegetables at the International Space Station, and nobody has keeled over from eating them yet! If Michael Pollan starred in Gravity instead of George Clooney, this might have been the result.
Chief research associate Margarita Levinskikh told an audience at Moscow State Technical Institute that 23 plant-growing experiments have been performed in microgravitation, and everything turned out shipshape:
“The plants have been very developed, absolutely normal and did not differ a lot from the plants grown on Earth,” said Margarita Levinskikh of the Institute of Biological Problems to the Russian radio show The Voice of Russia.
Astronauts have also reportedly eaten the vegetables, which included peas, dwarf wheat, and Japanese leafy greens, without any problems.
You might know Tom Colicchio as a Top Chef, but he also seems to be in the running for Top Food Activist.
In addition to being head judge of the Bravo hit reality TV show and chef/owner of Craft Restaurants, Colicchio is an influential advocate for ending hunger and improving the safety and environmental practices of the food system. He is a board member of the nonprofit Food Policy Action, and he recently served as executive producer of A Place at the Table, a film about food insecurity in America directed by his wife, Lori Silverbush.
Colicchio is concerned that different segments of the food movement aren't coming together to support each other. In fact, he wonders if there's really a food movement at all.
Among other issues, he's worried about systematic overuse of antibiotics in the raising of animals, which has been linked to a rise drug-resistant superbugs.
We spoke last week, the day after the U.S. House passed its version of the farm bill.
Q.What got you interested in issues like hunger and food access?
After much delay, debate, and rending of garments, the farm bill is now just a presidential signature away from becoming law. Tuesday afternoon, by a vote of 68-32, the Senate passed the same bill the House approved last week.