Tag Archives: USDA

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.

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The People’s Garden Starts at the USDA


Last fall, Bill and I made a trip to Washington, D.C. where I was on a mission to visit the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After all, I receive email alerts directly from this governmental entity, so I wanted to check it out first-hand.

After verifying there is, indeed, a garden on the White House lawn, we headed over to this block-or-two-long monstrosity of a Federal style building.

But before going inside, I just had to check out the People’s Garden.

The People’s Garden is actually an initiative that designates a plot of land located on federally owned or leased property at schools, faith-based centers, and other places within the community. The USDA challenges its employees to establish People’s Gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens for the benefit of the community and the environment.

People’s Gardens provide fresh fruits and vegetables for those in need, as well as native trees, shrubs and flowers for wildlife. The gardens follow sustainable landscape practices that nurture, maintain, and protect the health of our soil, water, and air.

According to the USDA Blog, it’s a movement that started with one garden and spread to 1,241 People’s Gardens in all 50 states, two U.S. territories, and three foreign countries. Check out this video showing how the initiative began:

By partnering with schools, the People’s Garden initiative helps  young people learn how to grow, tend, harvest and prepare nutritious seasonal produce in the educational settings of the classroom, the garden, the kitchen, the school cafeteria and the home.

And, it shows how the simple act of planting a garden can make real and lasting change to improve food access and promote healthy lifestyles in communities with highest risk and greatest need.

It really was impressive to see this plot of land, next to this mammoth Washington, D.C. structure, with plants I’d put in my own little garden plot at home in Michigan.

Isn’t it good inspiration for spring planting?

A Map of the U.S. Food Environment


Do you like maps?

Today the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent me an email about their Food Environment Atlas, a web-based mapping tool developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. It allows users to compare U.S. counties in terms of their “food environment”–the set of factors that help determine and reflect a community’s access to affordable, healthy food.

With the Atlas you can visualize and geographically compare a wide range of demographic, health, and food-access characteristics, most at the county level.

Some of the factors in a food environment include store and restaurant proximity, food prices, food and nutrition assistance programs, and community characteristics.

The Atlas assembles statistics on three broad categories of food environment factors:

  1. Food Choices—Indicators of the community’s access to and acquisition of healthy, affordable food, such as: access and proximity to a grocery store; number of food stores and restaurants; expenditures on fast foods; food and nutrition assistance program participation; quantities of foods eaten; food prices; food taxes; and availability of local foods
  2. Health and Well-Being—Indicators of the community’s success in maintaining healthy diets, such as: food insecurity; diabetes and obesity rates; and physical activity levels
  3. Community Characteristics—Indicators of community characteristics that might influence the food environment, such as: demographic composition; income and poverty; population loss; metro-nonmetro status; natural amenities; and recreation and fitness centers.

Originally launched in 2010, the Atlas has been upgraded and now includes 168 indicators–up from the original 90.

It’s fascinating, but in some ways difficult to use. I was drawn to the map because I’m a map geek who’s also interested in food. But some of the interaction is cumbersome.

For example, when I put my cursor on Michigan, I ended up on Clinton County. So I guess rule number one is to zoom in on the state you’re interested in until you’re at county level, then click on your county. Once I got to where I wanted to be on the map, the data that popped up in a box was difficult to comprehend. I think it was just too crammed in.

But if you go to the side bar on the left called “Map an Indicator” you can click on the topics you’re interested in and watch the map change colors as it fills in data related to the indicator you’ve chosen. Pretty cool.


One of the indicators I chose was under Local Foods. It’s called Farm to School programs, 2009. I’m interested in this topic because of all the farm-to-table restaurants I seek out, and because I think getting farms and schools synched up is a win-win for communities. But when you plug that in to the interactive Food Environment Atlas you’ll be disappointed when you see the results unless you live in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida, or California. I guess the U.S. has a long way to go with this program.

If you’re not a map geek and you love spreadsheets, you’ll be happy to know you can download the data and sort it by state.

Either way, it’s great to have access to this information!

Introducing the Wisconsin: Increasing Your Fat Intake at Domino’s to Support the Dairy Farmers


Did you see the New York Times article about how Domino’s Pizza teamed up with Dairy Management, Inc. to help improve their dwindling pizza sales? The organization helped develop a new line of pizza with 40% more cheese–which improved Domino’s sales–and also increased the amount of saturated fat per slice. Called the “Wisconsin,” the new pie has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust

How ironic that Dairy Management, a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is in the throes of an anti-obesity campaign (Let’s Move!) is helping to add fat to pizza.

The First Lady is behind Let’s Move!, a nationwide initiative that aims to solve the challenge of childhood obesity. Its comprehensive approach will engage every sector impacting the health of children and will provide schools, families and communities simple tools to help kids be more active, eat better, and get healthy.

The four pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign are:

  1. Empowering parents and caregivers
  2. Providing healthy food in schools
  3. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  4. Increasing physical activity.

Here’s a YouTube video of Michelle Obama talking about the campaign.

According to The New York Times, “Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.”

Something smells fishy here. Or should I say cheesy? The same government entity–the USDA–that is behind the Let’s Move! campaign is also helping Domino’s add more saturated fat to pizza?

Read the article for the whole story. It just doesn’t make any sense!

Biotech Beets Uprooted–For Now


Here’s some news from The Huffington Post: “A federal judge has revoked the government’s approval of genetically altered sugar beets until regulators complete a more thorough review of how the scientifically engineered crops affect other food.”

Really? Somebody’s getting the message in the federal government?

The ruling means sugar beet growers won’t be able to use the modified seeds after harvesting the biotechnology beets already planted on more than 1 million acres spanning 10 states from Michigan to Oregon. And further plantings won’t be allowed until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) submits an environmental impact statement, which could take two or three years.

Monsanto developed the beets to resist its popular weed killer, Roundup. Farmers have embraced the technology as a way to lower their costs on labor, fuel and equipment but the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and Sierra Club have been trying to uproot the biotech beets since filing a 2008 lawsuit.

“Andrew Kimbrell, the Center for Food Safety’s executive director, hailed Friday’s decision as a major victory in the fight against genetically engineered crops and chided the Agriculture Department for approving the genetically engineered seeds without a full environmental review,” reports The Huffington Post. “Hopefully, the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto,” Kimbrell said in a statement.

Genetically altered sugar beets provide about one-half of the U.S. sugar supply and some farmers have warned there aren’t enough conventional seeds and herbicide to fill the void. The scientific seeds account for about 95 percent of the current sugar beet crop in the U.S.

“The value of sugar beet crops is critically important to rural communities and their economies,” the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said Saturday.

Organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups contend genetically altered crops such as the sugar beets could share their genes with conventionally grown food, such as chard and table beets.

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.

The USDA’s List of “Safe and Suitable” Ingredients for Meat


The first thing you should be asking yourself, after reading the title of this post, is: “Ingredients in meat??”

It sounds bizarre, but then again, it’s so normal. Well, normal if you eat processed food. Any number of chemicals–from anticoagulants to antimicrobials to coloring agents to flavoring agents–can be used in the production of meat and poultry products, according to the USDA.

Here’s a snapshot of just a few of the ingredients listed in the 40-page PDF. You can go to the USDA site to access it. It’s amazing. Just another reason to buy local and grassfed meat.