What do factory food and transportation have in common?

Browsing the Grist this morning on this sunny DC snow day I saw this interesting article on raising gas taxes.  Although it seems at first glance to be only tangentially related to food policy, there are some thought-provoking parallels that can be drawn between the two.  Ben Adler’s argument can be boiled down to this:  entrenched and deep-pocketed interests have created an enormous and not very cost-effective infrastructure that mandates government subsidization in order to work- in this case, transportation infrastructure.  The system could be improved to the benefit of everyone involved (i.e., by subsidizing mass transportation instead of gas subsidies), but the vested interests are powerful and large-scale change seems unlikely.  There are a few tendrils of positive change creeping in- an increase in bike lanes in cities, the declining number of Millenials interested in drivers licenses and car ownership- but overall it seems as though the dysfunctional system in place today is unlikely to change.

Dysfunctional is a strong word, but I believe it’s justified.  Commutes in New York and DC are the longest in the country, but the difference in DC- and something that has struck me since moving there- is the extent to which DC is a city defined by suburban sprawl and the vehicular traffic that goes along with it.  The roads around here are impassably choked up between 8-10 and 4-6; forget about doing anything between those times if you don’t want to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  People work in DC but live in any of the dozens of suburban bedroom communities ringing the city in a pattern made possible by cheap gas prices and highway subsidies.  The Washington Post article I linked to above point out that many Virginia and Maryland commuters often don’t use public transportation, relying instead on clogged highways.  So why is that?

It’s a vicious cycle– there are little to no viable public transportation options, so people favor gas subsidies over public transportation subsidies, leading to little to know viable transportation options… so on and so forth.  I’m not trying to demonize cars- they’re a fantastic resource when used in moderation.  But Americans aren’t using them in moderation.  It’s a thorny problem, because we’ve built our society to a car-centric scale rather than a person-centric scale.  For many people, it’s simply not feasible to not have a car (or a two-car household).

Sounds a bit like the food industry, don’t you think?  Except instead of subsidizing gasoline, we’re subsidizing unhealthy food choices in a myriad of ways.  There’s a similarly enormous system that appears unyielding and unchangeable; like transportation, there are only a few, scattered bright spots of innovation in the face of a monolithic and largely identical background (after all, highways and supermarkets very seldomly vary in appearance from state to state or even country to country).  Most importantly, it’s difficult to find alternatives to the existing, inefficient infrastructure.  

So what’s the solution?  When it comes to food I’ve always believed rather firmly that the path to change lies not in restricting peoples behavior, but in creating viable alternative options.  For food and transportation issues alike, that involves shifting government funding– and thus consumer spending- away from subsidizing existing infrastructure and towards laying the groundwork for better, more efficient, and more accessible alternatives.  Whether those options involve bike lanes, more bus lines, streetcars in DC, or new-farmer incubation programs, it seems to me that the road to improvement lies in weaning expensive and cumbersome infrastructures off of government money.  But what do you think?

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State Department introduces ‘food diplomacy’ program

I’m writing a final paper on the diplomacy of food right now… how cool is this? The establishment of a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and Chef Corps to “extol the virtues of American cooking and food products”- fascinating!

Eatocracy

Something was amiss in the White House kitchen.

The staff was already keenly aware that the newest residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a 40-something couple with a teenaged daughter) presented a significant cultural and demographic shift from the previous regime and they wanted things to go smoothly. A frantic call was made to the first lady’s office, and her assistant, Capricia Penavic Marshall, picked up the phone. “The first lady is in the kitchen, and she wants…a pan!”

“Am I missing something?” asked Marshall. Further explanation revealed that first daughter Chelsea Clinton wasn’t feeling especially well that day, and her mother wanted to make her some eggs. This, in the experience of the staff, had not happened before. They needed guidance.

“Welcome to a new day,” said Marshall. “Get her the pan.”

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IPM, Antibiotics, and Fire Blight- is there a happy medium?

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Applpy over at Thought + Food recently published an interesting article talking about increased antibiotic use in organic pear and apple orchards.  These antibiotics—Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline—are used to combat fire blight, a contagious disease that can destroy an entire orchard in a season.  It’s spread primarily by pollen-bearing insects such as bees, and although it’s indigenous to North America it has since spread to the rest of the world.[1]  It’s extraordinarily damaging, especially to organic farmers whose orchards tend to contain more pollen-bearing insects thanks to decreased pesticide use.  That’s why organic farmers received an exemption to allow them to use these antibiotics on their fruit—but applpy pointed out that organic labels don’t require disclosure of antibiotic use anyway.

So where do we draw the line between antibiotic use and orchard health?  Fire blight is devastating, but antibiotic use in food has proven to be problematic;[2] is there a way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of fire blight without the use of antibiotics?  Applpy raised this question, and I had commented on the potential of Integrated Pest Management/Control (IPM/IPC) to do exactly that.

But what is IPM?  Well, it’s integrated pest management—so just as pesticides won’t be effective, IPM can’t control this bacteria-born blight entirely.  However, IPM is a series of practices that dovetails perfectly with fire blight prevention.   Rather than dousing orchards in fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, IPM advocates a more sensible, measured approach.  From the EPA’s website:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

So what does that mean for fire blight prevention?  Rather than spraying affected trees and fruit with antibiotics, farmers would instead scan for early signs of infection and plan new orchards based on existing knowledge.  For example, nitrogen containing fertilizer and heavy pruning increases susceptibility; farmers would know keep that in mind when selecting fertilizers and pruning.  Infected shoots can be pruned during the dormant season to contain spread; IPM involves year-round orchard maintenance and supervision.

Essentially, IPM is a low-chemical, common-sense approach to pest management that has the potential to cut down on fire blight without excessive use of antibiotics or pesticides.  It’s not so advanced yet as to make pesticide and antibiotic use obsolete in fire blight cases, but it can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed.  So what do you think?  Do you know much about IPM or exemptions for organic farmers?  What are your thoughts?

Liebster award!

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I’m very happy to have been the recipient of a Liebster Blog Award!  This is a cool award meant to recognize and encourage small and upcoming blogs (that is to say, blogs with less than 200 followers) and is awarded by other bloggers.  A big thank you to Janina at Food (Policy) for Thought for the nomination—I’d like to say I’ve never won anything before, but I did win a DVD of Clueless at a raffle once.  I can definitively say that I am prouder of this, though : )

So Liebster is a German word that means ‘favorite,’ and the award started in Germany in 2010.  There aren’t really any requirements for the award, other than having less than 200 followers.  There are, however, rules for receiving it!  And they are as follows—

  • Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog (Thanks again, Janina!)
  • Link back to the blogger who presented the award to you
  • Copy and paste the blog award on your blog
  • Present the Liebster Blog Award to 5 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed
  • Let them know they have been chosen by leaving a comment at their blog

This is a really cool award—I’ve found a lot of wonderful food blogs to follow through looking at other peoples’ picks.  What a wonderful community builder!

Anyhow, here are my picks for the Liebster award:*

  1. food (digested)
  2. Food (Policy) for Thought (am I allowed to nominate my nominator?)
  3. Thought + Food
  4. Cami Ryan
  5. Science on the Land

*Disclaimer:  I am very, very bad at wordpress, and can’t figure out how to find out how many followers someone has.  So if I’m breaking the <200 rule I’m very sorry!

US Food Aid Reform is Long Overdue

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Image courtesy of North Country Public Radio

I’m excited to see that Obama is proposing food aid reforms- US food aid as it stands today is an incredibly inefficient system that benefits US producers at the expense of the hungry.  Today the US is one of the few countries that still ‘ties’ its financial aid- in other words, the food that we provide abroad is grown, processed, and packaged in (and then shipped from, on US-flagged ships) the states.  The government buys surplus grain from farmers, then sells it to governments and NGOs who use the proceeds for development; this whole process is called monetization, and it’s incredibly inefficient.

I should also clear up some possible confusion in terms of nomenclature:  US food aid is a general term referring to food sent abroad to alleviate hunger/aid in development.  It’s generally provided through Food for Peace, a piece of legislation established by Dwight Eisenhower (more on that in a sec).  The Office of Food for Peace is situated within the US Agency on International Development (USAID), but one of its titles is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Whew, okay.  Got that?

So Food for Peace is a piece of legislation that was originally established in 1954 (albeit under a different name; it was JFK that gave it its present moniker); US farmers were experiencing record yields as a result of fertilizers developed in World War II and were looking for a way to offload the surplus without diluting domestic markets.  Food for Peace was developed as a way to kill two birds with one stone– alleviating hunger while “[laying] the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.”[1]  Sounds good, right?  A win-win situation.

Except that over the past sixty years, agribusiness interests have come to hold increasing control over government at others’ expense and the Food for Peace program is no exception.  Rather than using our resources to build infrastructure and shore up agricultural resources in target countries—which will cost everyone less in the long term, both in societal and direct economic costs— farm state representatives and various interests are trying to ensure that our food aid system stays expensive and inefficient.[2]

Andrew Natsios, head of USAID under George W. Bush, has been fighting for food aid reform for the past ten years, but it’s been an uphill battle: when he introduced one of his pilot programs to distribute cash in-country to humanitarian groups to an audience in Kansas City, he “was almost physically assaulted”[3]; these programs are near and dear to many American interests, who argue that they are job creators along with altruistic endeavors.  However, Natsios argues that the system as it exists today is unacceptably inefficient:  “I’ve run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone’s dead,” he says.[4]

Parker Wilde over at US Food Policy had a great blog post about this last week detailing the state of US food aid today, and it’s pretty sad.  He cites some astonishing statistics- more than 16% of Title II (emergency and development food aid) funds are spent on shipping from the United States. For example:

  • Buying food in-country, rather than shipping it from the US, costs about 50% less for cereals and 31% less for legumes
  • The average prices of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has increased from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 today.
  • These costs eat into precious resources designed to feed hungry people—causing more than 16 percent of funds to be spent on ocean shipping.
  • Buying food locally means that aid will be received 14 weeks faster.

Some might say that we’re already one of the biggest food aid donors in the world—what’s anyone complaining about?  But innovation has been a cornerstone in American success:  how do we do something faster, cheaper, better, in a way that benefits more people?  It’s taxpayers that are bearing the brunt of inefficient and expensive US food aid policies—not to mention the development dollars that are going to transportation and packaging costs instead of into local economies that need it.  The US food aid programs total $1.5 billion—that money could do a lot more good if it were being managed effectively.

It’s done!

So I finally turned my thesis in!  Several all-nighters and an inappropriate amount of animal crackers and coffee later (getting the economy-sized animal crackers jar from BJ’s was a very unhealthy choice) I turned in 55 pages of food policy glory.

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I’m proud and relieved- now all I have to do is wait to see if they call me in for an oral presentation.  I’m not going to stop blogging though- if anything, now I have more time for it!  The past couple weeks have been insanely hectic, but I’m glad to finally have this turned in and finished with.  Thanks to all of you who have been reading and following me through this journey- the thesis may be done with, but the food policy wonking is far from over!

Happy belated Easter!

The Legality of Kinder Surprise Eggs….

Another food policy blogger has written an interesting piece on Kinder Eggs- it’s a great example of the power government has over our food!  Kinder Eggs are outlawed in the states because the FDA banned “non-nutritive (inedible) object[s] inside a candy,” for fear of choking- a notably entertaining headline she mentions is “American Children Finally Deemed Smart Enough to Eat Kinder Eggs.”

The True Cost of Industrialized Food 

The True Cost of Industrialized Food

I can’t say how many times I’ve tried to explain all of this when people complain about the higher price of local food- you’re paying higher prices for it no matter what, even if it doesn’t show up on your receipt.

Some salient facts from this really quite excellently written article:

  • People in the US spend only 7% of their income on food, compared with 13% in France, and an astounding 38% in Vietnam.
  • The US has lost 800,000 small farmers and ranchers in the last 40 years (in large part thanks to consolidation – Food and Water Watch has a great report on this)
  • From 1970 to 2006 the US lost 88% of its dairy farms, while the average size of the farms went from 19 to 120 cows.
  • The US uses 22% of all pesticides in the world- 1.1 billion pounds per year.

That cheap food isn’t as cheap as it seems.

Effecting change in and from within the system

At the NOFA Vermont conference there was one session in particular that stood out amongst an array of great workshops:  an executive who works for a major food service provider gave a talk on effecting broad food system change from within the food service system.  I’m not sure how she would feel about her talk being blogged about however, so I have chosen to keep her identity anonymous and I ask that my readership respect that also.

 

Having worked for this particular food service provider for a number of years, she gave detailed information on the ways in which she had helped them move towards a more sustainable business model.  She made an excellent point regarding corporate social responsibility:  it’s important for individual consumers to make mindful choices regarding their food, but it’s equally important—if not even more so—for those consumers to pressure the food service providers around them to do the same.

 

One consumer—or ten consumers, or one hundred consumers—can ensure that they’re buying local meat, or sustainable produce, or responsibly harvested seafood.  The importance of these individual choices cannot be underestimated!  But if that consumer (or group thereof) pressures their corporate or campus caterer—Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appétit, Chartwells, etc etc—to switch to more sustainable food, then they create an enormous market for that local and sustainable food.  Whereas an individual may spent $100 per week on groceries, a catering service may spend $100,000 per week for a campus or corporation.  That’s an exponentially larger amount of food dollars that could be going towards growing a better food system.

 

Moreover, food service providers have the capital—both monetary and social—to work with large food production operations to improve their standards.  This executive gave a number of examples from her time working with chicken, pork, and dairy operations to bring her contractors up to better standards.  Large-scale food providers have the means to do this– to say “I want my pork to be grown humanely/my vegetables to be grown organically/my coffee to be fair trade, and I’m willing to work together with you to meet that goal.”  This has an enormous amount of potential to effect large-scale change.

 

The question comes down to consumers.  If enough consumers demand that their food service providers source better food, then food service providers will listen—money talks, and if business is on the line then companies will stand up and take notice.  Market realizable, widespread changes in the food system are profoundly difficult to obtain, but by working within established food distribution frameworks we won’t have to reinvent the wheel.  By harnessing the power of these established businesses, we can ensure steady and sustainable market growth for local and sustainable foods.