Spuds anyone?

Posted September 17, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

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Close Encounters of the Mashed Potato Kind

Posted September 15, 2009

In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.

8-logo_onetray The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for  $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.

Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.

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Industry standards vs. public welfare in produce food safety policy

Posted September 10, 2009

A new report, issued today by IATP and Food & Water Watch titled “Bridging the GAPs: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems,” explains why the current (non) food safety system for produce growers needs to change, and offers several ideas on how to improve safety and balance the playing field for small, diversified and organic farms.

Currently, a patchwork of public and private protocols are being used ostensibly to ensure food safety on produce farms, including the federal Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs), the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), private industry “super metrics,” and international food safety protocols. In the absence of federal regulations governing on-farm food safety, private industry third party auditors are quickly becoming the standard—not only for companies, but also for larger institutional buyers like hospitals or schools.

But these private industry protocols are geared almost exclusively towards large-scale, single crop operations. For small and diversified farms, the industry requirements effectively close them out of the market. Audit requirements differ greatly among buyers, most require extensive documentation, testing and other added costs; and many requirements conflict with those of environmental programs supported by state and federal agencies.

“Most produce-related food-borne illnesses have been traced to processors, not to the farm,” said IATP's Marie Kulick in today's press release. “For farmers, it’s important to have transparent, inclusive standards that reflect the diversity of U.S. farm operations. A nationally supported produce safety program can benefit everyone—more farms participating, safer food for consumers.”

View the full report here and get more information at IATP.org and foodandwaterwatch.org.

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Family farm, ag groups push to restrict overuse of antibiotics for animals

Posted September 9, 2009

Numerous agriculure and family farm organizations have issued a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate leaders urging support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) S. 619, in an effort to reduce the widespread overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

More than 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are added to animal feed to promote growth and manage stresses of animals in confinement housing. While PAMTA would still allow farmers to treat sick animals with antibiotics, it would withdraw the approval of seven specific classes of medically important antibiotics for nontherapeutic feed additive use. Under the bill, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would review each antibiotic to determine if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to public health.

According to the letter: "In supporting a restriction on nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, the FDA is joining a broad consensus of physicians, scientists and other governments that have taken the same position. The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science have all called for restrictions on the use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic purposes in food animals. And in 2006, on recommendation from the WHO, the European Union banned nontherapeutic antibiotic use in food animals."

IATP President Jim Harkness said in our press release, "The FDA believes we should act. We have thousands of farmers around the country who are already raising livestock without antibiotics. Now, it’s time for Congress to act.”

For more on how the overuse of antibiotics in raising food animals effects public health, check out the Keep Antibiotics Working Web site.

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Farm to Fork Dilemmas for Food Safety

Posted September 4, 2009

Farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) are the ultimate in food traceability. But they make up only a tiny portion of the food system. The rest is more difficult. There's been a decade-old global push for an integrated food safety system from farm to fork. In the latest issue of Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan reports on why building a "farm to farm" food safety system is so difficult.

Steve reviews the political compromises that watered down the food safety bill passed by the House of Representatives in July, Nestle cookie dough contamination and private company testing, and the latest from the World Health Organization and Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety.

You can read the full Global Food Safety Monitor here.

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A life in the (commodity futures) pits

Posted August 31, 2009

My Aunt Kathryn is the only person that I know who successfully and consistently invested in the commodities futures markets. During a visit to her and Uncle Claude's farm, as a 15-year-old, I tried to understand why she needed all those newspapers, a calculator and notebooks spread out on the kitchen table. She tried to explain to me, with increasing frustration, what she was doing; using the analogy of investing in the stock market, which we were studying in high school. She explained how traders made verbal deals on the trading floors (the "pits") of Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and how commodity futures markets helped to set the cash prices for what Uncle Claude produced. Then she looked an uncomprehending me straight in the eye and said, "Stevie, the next stop after commodity futures is Las Vegas." Even a callow youth could understand that explanation. 

Aunt Kathryn turned 90 a few days ago and soon my parents and I will go down to Iowa for a big birthday bash paid for by a trust fund filled with her killings in pork belly and corn futures. She wouldn’t recognize the markets now. The traders and "pits" are gone, replaced by Bloomberg "Market Masters" and other marvels of 24/7 round-the-clock and round-the-world electronic trading. In February, the last open outcry called out in the pits of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which I had first visited as an employee of IATP fourteen years earlier. I ran across my earnest notes from that visit: e.g., “speculators add enough liquidity to the market so that other speculators (farmers included) can get in and out of trades.”

Today liquidity is far in excess of what is required to clear trades. Huge financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, dominate the market, after having successfully lobbied for a decade to deregulate and de-supervise their industry. Among their achievements was the removal of the speculative position limits to which traditional speculators (such as Aunt Kathryn) had been subject. IATP joined other members of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) in an August 5 letter to the Congressional leadership, calling for the same aggregate position limits for all market participants and other measures.  

We also sent an August 12 comment to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in support of aggregate position limits. IATP noted that since the CFTC would be in charge of regulating the carbon emissions permit trading envisioned in the House of Representatives “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” (ACES) that the CFTC should hold hearings on how to write rules to prevent excessive speculation in carbon markets. If the CFTC fails to prevent excessive speculation in the carbon markets, the result could be more than the extreme price volatility affecting the market since 2007 (with a concomitant rise in food and energy insecurity). Speculators could jump in as short sellers to drive down the price of carbon emission futures, thus discouraging investment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. Excessive carbon speculation could fuel an increase in GHG emissions and the economic damage forecast to result, after a two-degree centigrade increase in the global average temperature.

There are at least some signs that the CFTC recognizes the need to address position limits. On August 19, the CFTC withdrew letters permitting Deutsche Bank’s commodity service and Gresham Investment Management to exceed position limits in wheat, soybean and corn futures. These limits apply to traders who use the futures markets to protect themselves against price volatility in commodities they trade or use for manufacture (commercial traders). For a decade these limits had not applied to “non-commercial” traders, such as investment banks. During a CMOC conference call discussing this CFTC action and others, one CMOC member said, “two down and 700 to go.” 

Even if Congress acts to prevent excessive speculation in the commodity and financial markets and the CFTC continues to withdraw the hundreds of “No Action” letters that enabled excessive speculation, the process of restoring fairness to the market will likely be slow. Deutsche Bank and Gresham had already reduced their positions in advance of the CFTC ruling. According to The Wall Street Journal, the two financial institutions will have until October 31 to comply with the rulings, but both were confident that they could already meet their clients’ trading needs within the new limits. 

The late Al Krebs, in his indispensable The Corporate Reapers:The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books, 1992) wrote, “No one enduring myth in American agriculture has taken deeper root than that which says that the law of supply and demand is the determining factor in establishing fair prices for agricultural commodities.” He documented how speculators in the1970s and 1980s determined prices by providing far more liquidity than what was needed to clear futures contract trades, 41 times as much liquidity in the case of soybean speculators. Al would not be the least bit surprised by the dominance of energy futures over agricultural futures in today’s commodity index funds—nor by the current spike in oil prices at a time when oil reserves are full to overflowing. 

I like to think that if Al had met my Aunt Kathryn (in the 1980s they lived fewer than 200 miles apart in Iowa), he would have advised her to get out the market until the CFTC started to provide a level trading field for commercial traders, such as Aunt Kathryn, with the financial speculators. And I like to think that she, despite the thrill of trading, which Al documents so eloquently, would have taken his advice.

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Foreign hormones in food—atrazine is just one of many

Posted August 25, 2009

On Sunday, the New York Times reported on new research suggesting the common pesticide, atrazine (often used on corn), may be more dangerous to human health at lower levels than previously thought.

According to the Times, "Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems."

Atrazine is just one of a slew of foreign hormones that contaminate or are intentionally used in our industrialized food system. Like atrazine, science now implicates many of them as contributors—even at very low levels of exposure—to hormone-related chronic diseases.

The latter includes not only birth defects and reproductive problems, but also diseases of the immune system, nervous system, and cancer—especially including breast and prostate cancer. 

Today, IATP released its new Smart Guide: Hormones in the Food System—an overview of dozens of different chemical-disrupting hormones that we likely ingest or are exposed to each day.

The Smart Guide covers steroids and arsenic given to food animals to spur more rapid growth: rbGH, hormone-disrupting pesticides, synthetic hormones in food packaging, as well as other hormone-disrupting food contaminants (such as dioxins, PCBs and flame retardants).

The bad news is that common, low-level exposure to these hormones just keeps looking worse, the more closely scientists study them. On the other hand, consumers have some easy, common-sense steps they can take to reduce their exposure.

The Smart Guide recommends eating low-fat meats and dairy products, eating certified organic when possible, avoiding pesticide hormones and using hormone-free cans and bottles. The guide also lists a series of steps for policymakers to take.

Check out the full Smart Guide.


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Do we need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

Posted August 24, 2009

Okay, only fair to warn you. I do not answer the question here. Second, the subject is not really one for a blog, more for a book. But it's important to say short things as well as long. Third, I have a bias. We all do. In this case, it matters that I like Michael Pollan's writing and that I believe there is much wrong with conventional agriculture as practiced in the United States. You will see why that is relevant in just a moment. Now back to the question.

This one really matters. The world (I guess I mean governments, but also private companies and a lot of NGOs besides) is spending on agriculture like it has not in decades. So how the money gets spent is important. Is more of what we have already better than trying to grow (and process and transport and sell) our food differently? Can we do better? If so, how?

This blog is prompted by a recent short and angry piece from the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association—Rick Tolman—in the Delta Farm Press. His article drew my attention to another article, this one in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American entitled "The Omnivore's Delusion" written by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst. The title is a play on Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

As I said, I am one of Pollan's fans—I think he writes persuasively and cogently; even if I do not always agree with him and find that he makes some issues too easy. So I was curious to see what Blake Hurst had made of it. Hurst writes well, which is always a pleasure. He makes some good points, too. But in the end, he fails to give his critics' point of view their due and thereby fails to persuade. Those who agree with him, people like Rick Tolman, are happy. But those who thought that conventional agriculture was the problem before will not change their mind after reading the piece. Sorry, but driving a tractor is no longer any kind of claim to special wisdom. The question on how we, as a planet, feed ourselves and the world deserves a lot more thought, humility and openness to debate. 

Rightly or not, farmers are having to fight hard to be heard, because they are not where the money is. They are not where the subsidies stick (they flow right back out the farm door), and they are outnumbered 440:1 (at a generous estimate) by the eating population (in the U.S. that is—in much of the world, those who grow food outnumber those who do not). As the most recent Farm Bill showed, the fight is no longer among farmers and between farmers and grain traders, or between food companies and consumers. The debate now engages doctors and public health experts, environmentalists and biologists, parents and school boards, anti-poverty organizations and churches, groups against racism, trade unions and a whole slew of more organizations. 

Hurst has his argument with Michael Pollan, but Pollan is just the journalist here—a smart, rhetorically astute, journalist. Behind Pollan are the people that inspired the stories that make Hurst angry—and Hurst's retort does not answer them. Because they, too, are farmers—some of them in a long line of farmers, and some of them new to the land. They are food workers, some of them living and working in conditions that have inspired latter day Upton Sinclairs to write about their condition (Eric Schlosser is just one for instance). And then there are the others—thousands of them, who, for myriad reasons, care about what we eat, how we grow it, and whether we can do better. 

Hurst opens with an attack on a man (nameless) who he overhears holding forth on all that ails the food system. The trouble for Hurst is, whether or not the man's diatribe is well informed, that man has a significant stake in what Hurst does. It is not a symmetrical relationship—Hurst would not presume, he tells us, to tell the man how to run his real estate or tax accountancy firm. All well and good. But actually, the man in question, just like every one of us, is directly involved in Hurst's business. We eat the food he grows, we pay to clean up the mess agriculture makes, we pay the costs of a grossly inefficient and market distorting farm bill—so we have a voice. Like it or not, agriculture in the United States is not "just another business." And with the somewhat hallowed ground of "feeding the world" comes a whole lot of necessary public oversight and meddling that is not optional, but just the way it is. 

There is a lot to respond to in Hurst's article, but let me focus on just one point: 

Hurst equates organic production with a return to 1930s technology. This would be news to people like Joe Salatin, whose farm Pollan is so enthused about in Omnivore's Dilemma. As Farhad Mazar with Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh explained to me, organic production in his community is not about worshipping the past, but combining traditional knowledge with modern science, and respecting certain basic principles (e.g., do not use pesticides that kill the life you want to preserve on the farm, or that harm the farmer and the farm workers). Rather than organic agriculture being a vision that is frozen in time, or a movement inspired by romantic city dwellers trying to get in touch with Little House on the Prairie (as Hurst implies), it is more like Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where the majority of U.S. farmers were pushed one way (industrial, increasingly concentrated, ever less diversified and ever more dependent on external inputs) and a few—now again on the ascendent, but still only about 1 percent of the total—chose to think about productivity per acre, not per plant; to think about how a symbiotic production cycle could be maintained among the sun, the rain, the plants and the animals (something Salatin's farm, as described so vividly in Pollen's book, brings alive). Alternatives to conventional agriculture are not historic relics. They are the future, and our present. 

The questions are: Do we know enough? Can we make it work well enough? Can we bring about the simultaneous changes required (in storage, transportation, distribution, processing, retail and standards) to make this a revolution now, or will it be more incremental and hesitant and messy? It will surely involve biology and genetics, but maybe not biotechnology to promote the use of particular pesticides and herbicides. It will surely involve the market, but maybe also functioning competition laws, and a radical reassertion of the public interest in food that is healthy for the planet and people alike. 

Farmer Hurst may not like what he hears about agriculture as he flies about the country, but he might want to pay a little more attention to the science and politics behind it. If Michael Pollan was it, he can ride his tractor in peace. Thankfully, Pollan is a sign of the times. Hurst might want to turn his attention to the President, for instance, and reflect some more.

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Transportation and sustainable food systems: an open policy window?

Posted August 14, 2009

IATP is exploring the roles that different federal departments and agencies play in America’s food system. While policies and regulations that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) implements and creates make the biggest mark on what we eat, cumulatively, other federal entities have significant and sometimes surprising impacts on how food is grown, distributed, transported, consumed and disposed of. With the upcoming expiration of the largest transportation bill in history, transportation and sustainable food advocates have an opportunity to find common ground to help reach the goals of both.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) made its biggest mark on the American food system with the creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System (IHS). When President Eisenhower signed the 1956 act that authorized construction of the IHS, lawmakers knew it would revolutionize the transport of food and other goods; the project’s full impact on eating and agriculture, however, would have been hard to imagine. Those 42,000 miles of new roads not only reduced our reliance on trains and increased the use of trucks for food delivery: they gave rise to the car-oriented culture that spurred the growth of the fast food industry, made suburban development (much of it on farmland) more attractive, and increased centralization in food industries.

Now, another opportunity exists for transportation policy to change our food system. DOT's mission is to “serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.” Consumer access to healthful foods and farmer access to markets are among the most vital of interests, yet no transportation-related policies or programs currently address the issues. The reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) could be a vehicle to change that.

SAFETEA-LU, set to expire at the end of September, is the farm bill of transportation—a massive piece of legislation that guides federal transportation policy. Leading up to the passage of the bill and its predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), organizations like Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) presented articulate cases for including food access in the bill. They suggested pilot programs and grants to improve food access and funding for mobile farmers' markets, among other things. While these proposals didn't make it into past laws, the argument for incorporating food-related programs may now be stronger. Two recently published government reports address the issue of “food deserts”: places where access to healthful and affordable foods is limited. One was carried out by USDA’s Economic Research Service to fulfill a statute in the 2008 Farm Bill. Another, from the National Academies Press, summarizes proceedings of a workshop titled “The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts” held earlier this year. Both documents cite transportation as a critical factor in remedying food access issues.

In July, Congress began debating the immediate fate of SAFETEA-LU. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, an 18-month extension of the current bill's policies. The committee, backed by the Obama administration, says that more time is necessary to craft a reauthorization. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by its chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), strongly opposes this action—they are concerned that the Senate committee's approach will put the bill on a course similar to SAFETEA-LU’s passage, during which TEA-21 was extended 12 times. Instead, they’ve introduced a 6-year authorization that would replace SAFETEA-LU.

Whatever legislative path the new transportation bill takes, food advocates should weigh in on its contents. Let’s resurrect old ideas, like those put forth in this 2002 policy memo from UEPI and CFSC, and think of new ways that transportation policy can help both farmers and consumers. What would a transport system most supportive of sustainable food look like?

Many of the things that smart growth groups are already calling for—more money for bike trails and public transit, and rewards for communities that reduce their carbon emissions—could be helpful in improving food access and distribution, so if nothing else, sustainable food advocates should support the efforts of organizations like Transportation for America. Considering the role of transportation is one of many ways we can continue to broaden the definition of "food policy" and think beyond USDA to improve our food system.    

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Food Safety in the Legislative Grinder

Posted August 13, 2009

Before they broke for summer recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to improve food safety. In a new commentary, IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard dissects how jurisdictional battles among House committees ultimately weakened the bill and set back more fundamental food safety policy reform. You can read the full commentary here.

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