Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was in the news because of a threat that the agency’s 8000+ inspectors would be furloughed as part of the sequester. Since, by law, all meat packing processing facilities in the U.S. must have a USDA inspector on site in order to operate, this would have brought the U.S. beef, pork and poultry industries to a screeching halt.
Of course, as soon as one of the most powerful, Inside-the-Beltway industries objects to any part of the sequester, Congress decides that although the legislation was designed precisely to inflict painful cuts in order to force action, they’ll make an exception in this one little case. (All of which shows that the real purpose of Budget Hysteria is to cut the parts of government that help the politically powerless: poor people, workers, sick people and children.) So when President Obama signed the continuing resolution, which keeps the government operating for the next six months, it included an amendment allowing the USDA to make cuts elsewhere in order to keep the inspectors on the job.
Sixty-eight percent. That’s the percent of corporate food and agriculture industry executives who said that weather extremes/volatility will be the “single biggest factor affecting North American food and agribusiness in 2013,” according to a poll by the Dutch bank, Rabobank in late 2012. Rabobank went on to say that business leaders’ concerns about weather extremes “far outweighed the next two closest factors—consumer demand (13%) and policy/regulation (10%).” “Geopolitical events” and “trade/tariffs/exchange rates” received votes in the single digits.
This striking data is another sign that the increasing volatility of our weather is not only real but is impacting even the largest food and agriculture businesses.
To dig more deeply into perceptions in the food industry about changing climate patterns, I recently conducted a series of conversations with produce distributors around the United States. These are folks who buy and sell vast quantities of fruit and vegetables from suppliers in the U.S. and all over the world, every day.
Although they are largely hidden from view, distributors are a key link in the chain of relationships that make it possible for most of our food (except that which is “direct marketed” via farmers markets and the like) to make its way from farms to grocery stores, restaurants and so on. Many I spoke with are multi-generation, family-owned businesses that sell a local and global supply of produce to institutions in their region of the country.
Commercialization of all kinds of nanotech is happening fast. As of March 2011, the nongovernmental Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) had registered more than 1,300 products whose manufacturers claim to include ENMs, and estimates that the number could grow to 3,400 by 2020—all without a broad-based body of science to support claims that it’s safe for public health or the environment.
With the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pushing for “sustainable intensification” to counteract a growing population and increasing resource scarcity, it seems our soil is in the nanotech crosshairs—whether we know the long-term impacts or not.
In a new IATP report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain?, Dr. Steve Suppan digs in to the science behind why companies are pushing ahead with nanotech, why governments are so far behind, and why real (read: non-industry) science and conversation is sorely needed before our soil and the microfauna that keep it functioning become nothing but dirt.
Until that research is available, IATP is pushing for an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) from sewage treatment plants near nanotech fabrication facilities.
As Dr. Suppan writes, “…if we are what we eat, surely what we eat is only as healthy and sustainable as the soil it comes from.”
Efforts to solve the problem of hunger and poverty by turning to the same corporations that helped create the problem have gone viral. Michelle Obama and the President of Mexico have hit on the same scheme (and the same companies) for solutions to hunger and the growing crisis of diet-related illnesses. Both will likely make matters worse.
In a recent commentary, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance asks the question, “Why is Michelle Obama’s food initiative promoting Wal-Mart?” Wal-Mart and other giant food retailers are part of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, a national campaign that includes in its goals eliminating “food deserts,” economically depressed communities with limited access to food. Wal-Mart, a scandal-riven corporation, has wreaked havoc on regional and local food retailers with its profits-at-any-cost business strategy that leads to thoroughly uncompetitive business environments. Local grocery stores, both chains and Mom and Pop operations, have succumbed to the market dominance of Wal-Mart, leaving many communities without a place to buy food. The Partnership’s promotion of opening new Wal-Marts in poor neighborhoods is like inviting the fox to live in the chicken coop after he’s eaten all the little chickens.
An overarching theme for the current fellowship class has been growing equity in the food system. The fellows have worked to address imbalances in wealth power—predominantly across racial lines—that contribute to discrepancies in health, food access, economic opportunity and overall quality of life. Such efforts often focus on the conduct of Corporate America and D.C. powerbrokers, as inequities can be exacerbated by their decisions. Yet we also recognize the need to look internally, within the food movement and within our own communities.
For example, many of the leading food justice organizations have struggled to diversify their leadership. There are plenty of reasonable excuses for not doing more to reach outside of the dominant culture, yet we know that diversifying leadership is key to expanding and equalizing our impacts. This digest taps into the wisdom of many fellows that have worked and studied these equity challenges.
It is also bittersweet to note that this is our final dgest, released in the last month of our last class’s tenure. With eight classes and 86 fellows since the program’s inception in 2001, it has been a remarkable run with an amazing group of people and an impressive record of accomplishment. Overall, the U.S. food system has enjoyed some tremendous positive changes over the past 13 years, and I would like to think that the fellowship program has played a small role.
IATP joins many NGOs, academics and policy experts today in celebrating a move that could make U.S. food aid more efficient and responsive to the world’s hungry. Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 proposes to shift close to half the food aid budget to procuring food aid from local and regional markets rather than the shipping U.S. grains on U.S. ships halfway around the world. With local and regional purchasing, food aid can get to those who need it faster and cheaper while also building local capacity to deal with an increasingly unstable international food supply. It’s a big move, especially when you consider U.S. food aid makes up more than half of all food aid worldwide.
So why are some upset about a move that saves money and gets more food, faster, to those who need it? Enter the “iron triangle”— U.S. shippers, grain companies and a handful of humanitarian NGOs. Scared for their jobs, jealous of their profits, or concerned that Congress will not support more effective forms of aid—the members of the triangle had different reasons for supporting widely discredited programs. (See Kevin Drum’s aptly titled article “Obama Proposes Making Food Aid Less Insane” published by Mother Jones earlier this week.) None of those reasons was persuasive, though. And now the White House has joined the chorus for change.
With chemicals like chlorinated tris, a carcinogen, turning up infant changing table pads, the respiratory irritant formaldehyde in baby bath products and hormone disrupter, BPA in food can linings, what’s a parent to do? Parents try to protect their kids from exposures to toxic chemicals by making smart purchases, but they don’t have all the information they need to know what is harmful. It’s the government’s job to assure that harmful products don’t end up on store shelves in the first place. While states like Minnesota are taking action to protect children from toxic chemical exposures, federal action is also critical. The 37-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law regulating industrial chemicals in the U.S., is not doing the job.
A couple of years ago, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which proposed sweeping reforms of this toothless law. While the bill did get through one committee, it never made it through to the floor. The Safe Chemicals Act is back and both Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. Franken are original co-sponsors. We thank Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. Franken for being champions for protecting the health of our kids and families!
It’s tough not being perfect. Everyone who has ever had a bad hair day knows that. And that’s no more true than for those misshapen, oddly sized fruits and vegetables that Mother Nature inevitably produces. For them, the price of being imperfect is being consigned to a slow death, rotting in the farm field or the landfill, while their cosmetically perfect brothers and sisters head off to a grocery store near you.
Two fascinating reports from the Natural Resources Defense Council do a deft job of explaining why we should all care about “crop waste”—the widespread loss of otherwise edible fresh and vegetables that never make it past the farm gate or the landfill. One report, Wasted by Dana Gunders, looks at food waste across our food system. The other, Left-Out, looks specifically at fruit and vegetable losses on the farm.
The numbers reported by NRDC are astounding. For instance, from farm to fork, about 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States goes uneaten. That amounts to $165 billion of wasted food every year (a figure which, notably, is in the same ballpark as the annual cost of obesity). More than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold each year, and preliminary data from a cluster of fruit and vegetable growers in California suggests that losses on the farm and in the packing stage range as high as 14–60 percent for a variety of common crops.
The Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia has the largest collection of ancient mosaics in the world. Most of the mosaics, depicting Roman, Greek Phoenician and Nubian life, gods and royalty, are incomplete. Some have had to be radically reconstructed, with the help of archeology and very skilled and imaginative art conservationists. The Bardo mosaics have something in common with the World Social Forum (WSF): it is impossible to see more than a handful of the WSF’s nearly one thousand events, but it is possible to reconstruct a sense of the whole from some of its pieces.
The slogan of this WSF is The Revolution for Dignity. For a U.S. audience, this may seem like a strange slogan, but the Revolution in Tunisia, which deposed a dictator, began in January 2011 when a vegetable vendor harassed by police for operating without a license burned himself to death, literally crying to be treated with dignity. In a country with an unemployment rate of 60 percent and a large part of its wealth parked in European banks, rather than invested to create jobs, to be treated with dignity does not seem to be asking very much.
Healthy Legacy’s 2013 legislative agenda is making great progress. We are supporting three bills this legislative session that address priority chemicals in children’s products. After countless committee hearings, two of our bills have completed their committee paths and await floor votes in both houses.
Our third bill, the Toxic Free Kids Act (TFKA) of 2013 requires that manufacturers report the presence of a priority chemical in their children’s products and requires the eventual replacement of these harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. This bill passed through several committees in each house, but was voted down on March 18 in the Senate Commerce Committee. The bill was transformed through the committee process into a strong reporting bill that harmonizes with Washington and would put Minnesota on a solid path to address priority chemicals. We thank our chief authors Sen. Chris Eaton and Rep. Ryan Winkler for their leadership and hard work on these bills.