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Monsanto-tied scientist abruptly quits key USDA research post

Roger Beachy: back from whence he came. On a slow Friday afternoon, a surprising bit of news came down the pike: Roger Beachy, head of  National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the main research arm of the USDA, has officially resigned his post, effective May 20. Who is Beachy? When Obama hired Beachy in 2009, I got a case of policy whiplash, because it seemed to me that the administration kept whipping back and forth between progressive food-system change and agribusiness as usual. Beachy, you see, came to the post from the Danforth Plant Science Center, where he had …

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Coca-Cola adds BPA to list of ways it doesn’t care about your health

Did you hear? The science around BPA -- a substance that the government of Canada has declared "toxic" and has banned in baby bottles -- "just isn't there," according to the CEO of Coca-Cola. If this kind of through-the-looking glass denial of science sounds familiar, it's because it's happened before, with tobacco and climate change and Obama’s birth certificate. The message delivered to the one-quarter of Coca-Cola shareholders who recently voted to remove BPA from the lining of cans of Coke, as well as the millions of people who drink the stuff, is that the Coca-Cola company would rather endanger …

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Is Walmart our best hope for food policy reform?

Photo: Code PoetTwo years into the Obama administration, most of the energy around food-policy reform resides in the East Wing, in the form of the first lady's Let's Move! campaign. So far, Let's Move has been about Michelle Obama pursuing what I have called a "soft power" campaign -- that is, using her stature to nudge private companies to reform their ways in the absence of real policy change. So far, the centerpiece of Let's Move! has been a non-binding deal the first lady and her staff worked out with Walmart in January, in which the retail giant vowed to …

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Are you enjoying your daily chemical cocktail?

A 1970s-era Monsanto ad.Photo: Christian MontoneChemicals and additives found in the food supply and other consumer products are making headlines regularly as more and more groups raise concern over the safety of these substances. In a statement released this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asked for reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The group is particularly concerned about the effects these substances have on children and babies. Last month, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) held hearings on the safety of food dyes but failed to make a definitive ruling. The most recent study …

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Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture

In last week's New York Times Magazine, the science writer Gary Taubes argues forcefully that a range of chronic health problems -- heightened rates of obesity, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer -- can be blamed on overconsumption of refined sweetener. It isn't just the surge of empty calories that sweeteners provide that's making us sick, Taubes argues; it's also -- and mainly -- the way our bodies process them. Taubes acknowledges that the science around sugar metabolism isn't fully settled. But he brings highly suggestive evidence to bear, and I find it convincing, with a couple of …

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The USDA’s top bee scientist talks pesticides and colony collapse at a D.C. luncheon

Buzz kill: honey bees face a variety of threats from industrial agriculture.Photo: Muhammad Mahdi KarimThere was a moment during a luncheon talk yesterday when Jeffrey Pettis, the United States Department of Agriculture's lead bee researcher, almost defended Bayer, the agrichemical company whose pesticide he has tied to the global destruction of bee populations. Pettis pointed out that the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids were developed as a better alternative to pesticides like DDT. "They were replacing things we knew were really bad," Pettis told the dozen or so naturalists, gardeners, and environmental advocates at the lunch at the Cosmos …

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Like the desert mouse, PepsiCo’s factory to survive on the water in the food it consumes

Some animals don't drink water -- and now some factories might not, either. The potatoes that PepsiCo turns into Walker's Crisps -- those sinisterly addictive potato chips that people in the UK can't seem to get enough of -- arrive at the factory containing as much as 80% water by weight. So why not harvest it rather than sending it up the chimney as steam? PepsiCo's new efforts aren't motivated solely by a desire to spruce up its corporate image: Water, an increasingly scarce resource, costs real money. The company believes it can save up to $1 million a year by …

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USDA moves to let Monsanto perform its own environmental impact studies on GMOs

"Everything looks A-OK. What a surprise!"Last August, Federal Judge Jeffrey White issued a stinging rebuke to the USDA for its process on approving new genetically modified seeds. He ruled that the agency's practice of "deregulating" novel seed varieties without first performing an environmental impact study violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The target of Judge White's ire was the USDA's 2005 approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets, engineered to withstand doses of the company's own herbicide. White's ruling effectively revoked the approval of Monsanto's novel beet seeds pending an environmental impact study, and cast doubt upon the USDA's notoriously …

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The food movement’s multiple-personality disorder: Let’s move beyond foodies and localists

It's time for people who care about food to quit navel-gazing.Photo: Jared WongThe food movement has a case of multiple-personality disorder. One of its personalities is the foodie, who approaches the movement as a vehicle to increase sensual-aesthetic pleasure. Another of its personalities is the localizer, who views the movement through the lens of the foodshed radius and food miles. Another is small-is-beautiful -- small farms, small artisan processors, small distributors. Two more of its personalities are the food-justice advocate and the broadener, who want the movement to expand to a robust, durable, fair, and deeply embedded system that really challenges …

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Big Ag is pissing away our nation’s rich topsoil

Midwest farmland is more scarred and eroded then previous reports suggested.Photo: Environmental Working GroupBad federal policy and intensifying storms are washing away the rich dark soils in the Midwest that made this country an agricultural powerhouse and that remain the essential foundation of a healthy and sustainable food system in the future. That's the alarming finding of a new Environmental Working Group report that highlights innovative research by scientists at Iowa State University (ISU). The report is titled "Losing Ground," and it shows in stark terms what industrial-scale crop production is doing to our soil and water in the Corn …