Tag Archives: Michael Pollan

GMO Alfalfa: A Lose-Lose Situation

A hot topic in the news you may have heard about recently is the deregulation of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready alfalfa, which shows the Obama Administration’s lack of support for small farmers and food system reform.

What this means is that genetically modified organism (GMO) alfalfa has the ability to contaminate both conventional and organic alfalfa fields. For conventional growers, contamination prevents them from exporting because many markets outside the U.S. won’t accept GMO crops. For organic farmers–especially dairy and beef–contamination of alfalfa can make it difficult to find GMO-free feed, which is a requirement under organic rules.

While USDA Secretary Vilsack had suggested a “co-existence plan” requiring geographic buffers between fields planted with GMO alfalfa and conventional or organic fields, the compromise was reportedly overruled by the White House.

I subscribe to emails from Michael Pollan, which is where I first heard the news about the GMO alfalfa. Pollan claims, “In my view, Round-Up Ready alfalfa is a bad solution to a non-existent problem. Alfalfa is a perennial grass that doesn’t suffer from serious weed problems. In fact, ninety-three percent of alfalfa fields receive no herbicide at all. Which I suppose is fortunate for any farmers who plant GMO alfalfa, since Round-Up itself is well on its way to obsolescence, as weeds resistant to the herbicide proliferate around the country; I’m told that farmers in Iowa are already having to resort to hand-weeding to control weeds that no longer respond. So why is the Administration willing to risk damage to both organic and conventional agriculture to promote such an unnecessary product? Ask President Obama.”

Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said, “We’re disappointed with the USDA’s decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice. The USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.”

The CFS sent an open letter to Secretary Vilsack, calling on the USDA to base its decision on sound science and the interests of farmers, and to avoid rushing the process to meet the marketing timelines or sales targets of Monsanto, Forage Genetics, or other entities.

A Move Toward Modernizing the U.S. Food System

Today the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which contains a number of provisions that will protect consumers, as well as small food producers and processors. Other key provision in the bill include:

  • Providing the Food and Drug Administration mandatory recall authority for the first time;
  • Establishing  science-based minimum safety standards for fruit and vegetable production;
  • Requiring that imported food meet the same safety standards as food produced in the United States and increasing the frequency of foreign inspections;
  • Basing inspection frequency of  FDA inspected food processing facilities on the risk of the product being produced; and
  • Requiring food processors to identify where food contamination may occur in the production process and requiring them to take steps to prevent contamination.

As Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser noted in yesterday’s New York Times, “This legislation is by no means perfect. But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers.”

It’s one step toward improving the American food system, which, for years has been overseen by two agencies–the USDA and the FDA–with overlapping responsibilities, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The next step is a vote in the House. Stay tuned!

Cheap Food Isn’t as Cheap as It Seems

It’s chicken-and-egg week here on Life Is Fare: Bad news about the egg industry is balanced with good news for urban chicken farmers in New York, plus I posted a recipe for spatchcock chicken!

Let’s revisit Salmonella situation: Check out last night’s interview with Michael Pollan on CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He claims we didn’t have problems with Salmonella in eggs before the 1970s like we do now. Why? Smaller flocks of chickens were raised outside and on pastures the way they’re supposed to be, not crammed into cages en masse spreading disease. Although you may pay less for that industrialized chicken egg, you–and U.S. taxpayers–ultimately pay the price when there’s a massive Salmonella outbreak like we’ve seen this month.

It’s just common sense to buy eggs from your local farmer.

The Latest Culinary Obsession: Foraging

Photo via wildmanstevebrill.com

When I read Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it was the first time I got the lowdown on the foraging movement. As expected, this trend has been hot among foodies in California and New York City for years. (New York, you ask? Yes! Check out naturalist and environmental educator “Wildman” Steve Brill, who’s been foraging for decades.)  

Foraging–the act of looking or searching for food–is what humans used to do to survive before agriculture was introduced.

Now, foraging is the new organic in the culinary world. In fact, “searching the woods or parks or even cracks in the pavement for edible plants has become the latest culinary obsession,” according to an article in this week’s issue of Time magazine. 

In San Francisco, forageSF hosts the monthly Underground Market, a venue for tasting and purchasing the food that is being produced in backyards and home kitchens in the Bay Area. 

A restaurant in Los Angeles called Forage lets people bring in the stuff they find in exchange for credit toward dinner. 

There’s even a company, Mikuni Wild Harvest, which is “committed to exploration of nature’s greatest bounty: food”–especially food found in the wild. 

You can also check out Ava Chin’s blog posts about her urban foraging adventures in The New York Times. 

And, two cookbooks on foraging are coming out this fall: Noma, by Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s restaurant Noma (first on the list for the 2010 S. Pelligrino World’s 50  Best Restaurant Awards); and The Wild Table by forager Connie Green from Northern California. 

What do you have growing in your back yard and in the woods near you? If you want to give it a try, check out Foraging.com for resources to help you find edible plants where you live.

Michael Pollan: On Organic Food

Michael Pollan was interviewed recently on NBC Nightly News. Check out this nearly eight-minute video where he addresses when and why it makes sense to buy and eat organic food.

Monsanto’s Roundup Catastrophe

Where Weedkiller Won't Work (map via The New York Times)

Watch for higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs, and more pollution of land and water, says The New York Times, since American farmers’ “near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.”

Also known as glyphosate, Roundup has led to the spread of Roundup-resistant weeds across the country. As shown in the map above, at least 10 species of these weeds have infested farmland in 22 states since 2000.

It’s just like our antibiotic story: Organisms naturally evolve to defeat what originally kills them. But that’s not the only problem. Roundup is made by Monsanto, which also produces seeds for Roundup Ready crops–genetically engineered plants that are tolerant to glyphosate. Such crops allow farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. And, Roundup Ready crops are patented. In fact, Monsanto has a lot of control over what we eat in this country, and throughout the world. If you eat soy beans, it’s likely they’re a Monsanto Roundup Ready crop.

Roundup was introduced in the late 1990s and was well received because it kills a wide range of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States. 

However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds. Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned. Unfortunately, that means using more herbicides to tackle the Roundup-resistant weeds.

Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington was quoted in The Times saying, “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction.”

Looks like we’re in a pickle.

[See what Michael Pollan says in a debate about the topic posted on the “Room for Debate” page of The New York Times.

Time 100’s Thinkers and Heroes Who Influence Our Food System

This year’s “100 Most Influential People” issue of Time magazine includes several thinkers and heroes involved with the food movement: Will Allen, Temple Grandin, Kathleen Merrigan, and Michael Pollan

Photo via Time magazine

Will Allen is an urban farmer who believes that “everybody, regardless of their economic means, should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally.” 

Photo via Time magazine

Temple Grandin is a renowned animal scientist born with autism who, using her unique window into the minds of animals, has developed corrals for cattle that improve their quality of life by reducing stress.  

Photo via Time magazine

Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, practically wrote the book on organic. (See the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act.) But she also supports conventional farmers. With the task of  shouldering a complex agenda, she claims, “I displease pleasingly.” 

Photo via Time magazine

Michael Pollan “thinks about the ethical bonds that connect our bodies, farms and food. In so doing, he has become an example to the rest of us.” 

Congratulations to them all. And thanks to Time for showing that the food movement is moving into the mainstream.

“Food, Inc.” on PBS Tonight

If you missed it in the theaters, tonight’s your chance to watch this documentary that “lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that’s been hidden from the American consumer.” It’s on PBS television at 9 p.m.

When I saw “Food, Inc.” last summer, it’s what motivated me to start this blog.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you must!

Is Quality High on Your List when You Shop for Food?

Graphic via The New York Times

An article in yesterday’s New York Times insults you. Unless you’re not part of the mainstream of Americans who eat processed food. 

In case you weren’t aware, “Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries,” according to the article. 

“And Americans do not seem to be as discerning about quality,” says Mark Gehlhar, of the USDA’s Economic Research Service. That’s because our culture has emphasized cheap food over quality food for decades. 

T. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist at Cornell University who is cited in the article says, “there is a lot of money tied up in the industry because it is profitable for companies to make these foods….Processed foods contain large amounts of fat, salt and sugar, and Americans have become addicted to them.” 

What’s scarier is that the food industry enables that addiction, especially through the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). (For more background on how HFCS got into our diet in the first place, read my blog post from last fall.)  

According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 93-94), the addition of corn products in our food system has “less to do with nutrition or taste than with economics. For the dream of liberating food from nature, which began as a dream of the eaters (to make it less perishable), is now primarily a dream of the feeders–of the corporations that sell us our food…..Today the great advantages of processing food redound to the processors themselves. For them, nature is foremost a problem–no so much of perishable food…as of perishable profits.”

In case you haven’t noticed, the food processors in this country really don’t care about your health. That’s why the best thing to do–for your health, for your family’s health, and to send a message to the food corporations–is to take the time and spend the money on fresh, quality, local food whenever possible. Yes, it costs more up front but in the long run it’s better for your health and the health of the environment.

Aren’t you worth it? Poor quality food means poor quality living.

You are what you eat.

Michael Pollan on “Democracy Now!”

Can’t get enough Michael Pollan? Here’s another interview, this time from “Democracy Now!” Watch the first ten minutes via YouTube (above). Or, go to the “Democracy Now!” website for the full hour-long interview