If you’re Monsanto, you’re probably really proud of your genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. Introduced in 2008, the beets are the company’s most recent Roundup Ready product genetically engineered to withstand the direct application of the herbicide glyphosate. Immediately successful, they took over the sugar beet market within two years. By 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto’s genetically modified variety.
This matters to us all because about 50 percent of white sugar sold here is made from sugar beets. In other words, unless that bag of sugar you just bought is labeled “Certified Organic” or “100 percent cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar made from GMO crops.
Mario Batali, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, and Alice Waters have had it with our food system. These well-known chefs -- along with a group of 70 food movement celebrities, including Michael Pollan, Will Allen, Laurie David, Robert Kenner, and Wendell Berry -- have set down their sauté pans for just long enough to sign onto a letter asking Congress to invest in healthy food.
It’s a timely statement by this star-powered group, as the Senate Agriculture Committee’s draft of the 2012 Farm Bill -- a package of federal farm and food legislation representing nearly a trillion dollars -- finally hit the Senate floor this week.
And they have a point. As we’ve reported in the past, the Senate draft probably won’t improve the big picture of the food landscape as-is. In the draft, farm conservation efforts and nutrition assistance both face deep cuts, while the industrial farm lobbies have ensured that the biggest commodity farms continue to rake in subsidy payments. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at this graphic, which ran with Sunday's New York Times op-ed on the subject. It shows that a full 76 percent of the subsidy dollars distributed between 1995 and 2010 went to a mere 10 percent of the nation’s farms.)
Signed, sealed, delivered
The letter signed by Batali, Waters, and co. was initiated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and describes the Senate bill as “falling far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges.” The letter continues:
It is also seriously out of step with the nation’s priorities and what the American public expects and wants from our food and farm policy. In a national poll last year, 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill. Members of the U.S. Council of Mayors and the National League of Cities have both echoed this sentiment in recent statements calling for a healthy food and farm bill.
Want to learn about dinosaurs and elephants and mountain gorillas? Head to your local natural history museum. But if you’re looking to study up on genetically engineered corn, lab rats, or Sea-Monkeys, get thee to the north end of Pittsburgh. There, on a rough little commercial strip with a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, and art galleries, you’ll find the Center for PostNatural History, an outfit run by a local art professor for the express purpose of exploring all the stuff the natural history museums leave out.
Rich Pell, the scruffy proprietor who teaches electronic media classes in the art school at nearby Carnegie Mellon University, sat behind the counter on a recent afternoon wearing a T-shirt from the Smithsonian decorated with a diagram of the tree of life. He explained that his mini-museum focuses on “intentional human changes to the biological world.” Read: dog and chicken breeding, genetically modified fruit flies, and everything in between.
"In a post-natural family tree, the common ancestor always leads back to a person," he explains -- "a breeder, a hobbyist," or a white-coated lab tech.
When President Obama announced a new program during the recent G8 summit to help bolster food and agriculture in developing nations through corporate “pledges,” I was most struck by his choice of partners in the effort. A Reuters report on the announcement read:
The initiative includes a new partnership with agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill, along with smaller companies, including almost 20 from Africa, which will commit some $3 billion for projects to help farmers in the developing world build local markets and improve productivity.
Those three companies are the good food movement’s equivalent of the law firm Dewey, Cheatem & Howe -- not the folks it wants to see put in charge of anything, much less “feeding the world.” These companies believe that exporting western-style industrial agriculture to the developing world (Africa in particular) is key to ensuring enough food for a growing population. And they maintain this position despite the growing evidence that industrial agriculture can’t solve the problem.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Observer.
Investigative journalist and author Fred Pearce has a new book out this week: The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, which explores "how Wall Street, Chinese billionaires, oil sheiks, and agribusiness are buying up huge tracts of land in a hungry, crowded world." Here he answers questions about the book and his long career reporting on environmental challenges.
Q.What inspired you to write The Land Grabbers?
A. Over the last few years, I became aware of this hidden revolution taking place around the world: the buying up of vast swaths of land by foreign entities from beneath its occupiers. Soaring grain prices in 2007/2008 led to countries such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea worrying about their national food security and buying up overseas land. Then speculators and investors started piling in on the back of that. The net result is that poor farmers and cattle herders across the world are being thrown off their land. Land grabbing is having more of an impact on the lives of poor people than climate change. No one has put together the global picture of land grabbing so I wanted to take a closer look.
People in Alabama love to gather and, when they do, it’s usually around football or religion and it is always fortified with plenty of food and drink. What would happen, the organizers of a recent event called the Alabama All-Star Food Festival wondered, if you gathered people just for the eating and drinking -- and elevated the discussion of local food in the region while you were at it?
Yes, there was pulled pork and white bread drowning in sauce, but the convention center where the recent All-Star Food Festival was held on account of rain was also full of Gulf shrimp and grits, local gumbo, crab cakes, and of course cold cans from Good People and Back Forty, two of the state’s three microbreweries. The building filled up with farmers, chefs, and food pioneers celebrating a new wave of Alabama food, and wafting over the sterile convention center air was the smell of a place regaining its culinary roots.
As agriculturally rich as Alabama is -- both in soil and tradition -- the state produces less than 5 percent of the food consumed there.
The WaPo story was based on a national phone survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation, which found that the majority of Americans are trying to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are shopping at farmers markets at least on occasion, and say they know “a lot or a little about where their fresh fruits and vegetables come from.” These findings are interesting -- and they speak to the success of a whole array of efforts to get more of us cooking, examining what we eat, and honing in on the place where healthy and truly delicious foods intersect.
Less visible in the media landscape is the fact that the Kellogg Foundation survey also suggests that all this healthy eating has Americans looking outside themselves.
It’s always nice when someone writes an article so you don’t have to. In this case it was New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who has been doing the thankless job of writing about the health risks of toxic chemicals in our environment, as well as the politicization of the regulatory process that’s supposed to be in place.
Right now, the Farm Bill needs a hero, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow thinks she's up for the job. Despite serious setbacks, the Democrat from Michigan is confident she and the committee she chairs can work with the House committee to pass a new farm bill before the current one runs out in September.
And, while hearing Stabenow speak at a conference last week, I just about believed her. The senator has worked on a handful of farm bills before this one and she knows what it takes. But, as I mentioned in a recent post, she’s up against a formidable round of cuts. The Tea Party-driven House Agriculture Committee not only wants to cut $33 billion (compared to the Senate’s $23 billion), but they want to make most of those cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).
Alan Flippin comes from a long line of North Carolina tobacco growers. But, a few years back, the crop just stopped making sense. His family’s operation stopped making much of a profit as the cost of fertilizer and other inputs rose. And, Flippin says, “I don’t really enjoy growing tobacco; I don’t use it. I was looking to get into something else.”
He wanted to transition to growing produce instead -- something he could feel good about cultivating, eating, and selling. But shifting to a completely different crop is a hugely risky proposition. “With tobacco, you pretty much know how to grow it; you’ve got a market, and you get insurance for your crops,” Flippin says. “Whereas for produce, it’s very scary because there’s so much you don’t know.”
Flippin’s fledgling produce operation got off the ground with the help of a grant from something called the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. The grant enabled him to build a greenhouse and experiment with several varieties of organic vegetables to sell to wholesalers, farmers markets, and at a local co-op.
The fund was created in the wake of the Tobacco Master Settlement to help North Carolina’s agricultural communities transition to new sources of income. According to the terms of the settlement, announced in 1997, the country’s four largest tobacco companies would make perpetual payments to 46 states to compensate them for smoking-related health-care costs and, in tobacco-growing states, economic losses (four other states already had individual agreements with tobacco companies).
A percentage of North Carolina’s settlement money goes to the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which is a program of the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).