Tom Philpott

Did California Voters Defeat the Food Movement Along With Prop. 37?

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 8:00 AM PST

"Come at the king, you best not miss," the character Omar famously observed on The Wire. Does the law of the streets apply to the politics of food? Writing in the The New York Times Magazine last month, Michael Pollan laid down the gauntlet on Prop. 37, the California ballot initiative that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. "One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system," he wrote.

Pollan ended his essay by suggesting that passage of Prop. 37 would be a sure way to convince President Obama of the importance of food-system reform.

Over the last four years I’ve had occasion to speak to several people who have personally lobbied the president on various food issues, including G.M. labeling, and from what I can gather, Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.

And make no mistake, Prop. 37 was the food-system equivalent to a lunge at the king. No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it (more on that below).

Well, now the deed is done. We'll never know if Prop. 37 would have emboldened Obama, now re-elected, to change course on food policy. What does its failure mean for what Pollan calls the food movement?

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What Would "President Romney" Mean for Food and Agriculture?

| Sat Nov. 3, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

The election-handicapping guru Nate Silver reckons President Obama's prospects for victory at about 80 percent. Four-to-one odds might sound like a sure thing—but would you think so in a game of Russian roulette? In other words, there is a non-trivial possibility that people will soon be addressing Mitt Romney as "Mr. President." What would a Romney/Ryan administration likely mean for food and agriculture policy?

1) Regulations, beware. When Obama was running for office in 2008, he promised to crack down on the worst environmental and social abuses of industrial-scale farming. His record, though, has been mixed at best. Under a President Romney, even the pretense of regulating Big Ag is out the window.

The Romney campaign called its October 2012 white paper on ag policy "Agricultural Prosperity: Mitt Romney’s Vision For A Vibrant Rural America." A more accurate title might have been, "Feeling Over-Regulated? I'll Fix That." In it, he promises to "freeze and review new, pending, and proposed agriculture regulations, and eliminate those that are duplicative, ineffective, or not economically justifiable"; to require Congress to "approve all new major regulations proposed by federal agencies, returning responsibility for important decisions to our elected representatives"; and "impose a regulatory cap that forces agencies to spend as much time repealing and streamlining old regulations as they spend advancing new ones."

Among the regulatory efforts that would likely be blocked under such a regime is the FDA's tentative, voluntary proposed plan to reduce routine antibiotic use on livestock farms. Tentative and voluntary beats little or nothing, and that's what Romney is promising on the regulatory front.

A Geneticist's Take on California's Prop 37

| Fri Nov. 2, 2012 3:08 AM PDT

Editor's note: This is a guest post by geneticist and author Belinda Martineau, who was a principal scientist at Calgene Inc., where she helped commercialize the world's first genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr tomato.

Genetically engineered (GE) sweet corn is being sold at a Walmart near you. And because that company has said it sees "no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product," and because US regulations don't require it, it isn't labeled "GE."

Developed by Monsanto, this GE sweet corn is beautiful by fresh corn standards—not a worm hole in sight—since it contains not one, not two, but three insecticides engineered into each cell of every kernel. Having the corn make its own insecticides means that farmers don't have to spray those chemicals out in the environment. The end result is that no earworms or European corn borers will have anything to do with this good-looking GE sweet corn. But, you may be wondering: should I?

Why I Disagree With Kevin Drum on California's GMO Labeling Proposition

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 10:34 AM PDT
A rally in favor of Proposition 37 at Los Angeles City Hall in October.

In his recent "Guide to California's Ballot Mayhem," my colleague the prominent political blogger Kevin Drum came out against Prop. 37, which would require that all foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients be labeled.

In general, Drum says, he opposes the propositions that appear on his home state's ballots unless he sees a clear case for them. For him, Prop. 37 fails that test. "'l confess to mixed feelings about this," he writes. "But I'm afraid mixed feelings mean a No vote." Kevin is agnostic on the merits of compulsory labeling of GM foods. "I respect the desire to know where your food comes from, regardless of whether you want to know different things than I do, but on a substantive level I'm not convinced that GM foods pose enough of a genuine hazard to rate detailed labeling laws that are etched in stone forever."

It's technical issues push that Kevin to the "no" side. He writes: "as with so many initiatives, [it's] sloppily written; it can't be changed after it's passed; and it imposes expensive state labeling burdens on interstate commerce, something that I'm increasingly leery of."

I've written a lot about the hazards, potential and realized, that GM crops bring to bear: the complete domination of them by a handful of large companies, the accelerating pesticide treadmill on which they've placed farmers, and the still-little-tested potential health risks. For all of these reasons, I avoid GMOs, and would vote to require their labeling if I had a chance.

For now, I'd like to set those aside and respond to Kevin's technical concerns. I agree that California's ballot initiatives tend to be blunt instruments called upon to do delicate work. It seems to me that the state's meta-problem—the reason its public schools are a mess, the reason it keeps hacking away at its glorious public-university system—can be tied to the infamous, 1978 Prop. 13, still limiting property taxes and squeezing civic institutions a quarter century after its passage.

Is the Junk Food Industry Buying the WHO?

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

The US Food and Drug Administration is notorious for bowing to food-industry interests at the expense of public health. Consider the case of trans fats—whose damaging effects the FDA ignored for decades under industry pressure before finally taking action in 2006, a story I told here. Then there's the barrage of added sweeteners that have entered the US diet over the last two decades, while the FDA whistled. This week, Cristin Kearns Couzens and Gary Taubes, who has been writing hard-hitting pieces on the dangers of excess sweetener consumption for a while, have a blockbuster Mother Jones story documenting how the FDA rolled over for the food industry on added sweeteners.

As evidence of harm piles up, the industry is only accelerating its effort to keep government action at bay. Back in April, a Reuters investigative report found that the food industry had "more than doubled" its annual lobbying spending under Obama and had successfully pursued a strategy of "pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation's diet."

But the food industry isn't satisfied with just keeping the US safe for its junk products. As a new Reuters report shows, the industry is also actively seeking influence at the global level by cozying up to the World Health Organization, the public-health arm of the United Nations. The WHO is most known for its efforts to fight communicable diseases like malaria and AIDS. But the UN has recently charged it with focusing on chronic, diet-related ailments like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Can Farms Bounce Back from Superstorms Like Sandy?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the "imagination of disaster"—the keen sense that there's always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts—all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.

In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a "500-year flood" visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second "500-year flood" in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state's previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August's Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented "superstorm" Sandy.

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What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 4:03 AM PDT

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose "jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea." The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls "blue zones"—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island's demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can't explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people "with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria," but "live no longer than average Greeks." So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians' good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We've learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.

VIDEO: Michael Pollan Talks GMO Labeling

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 3:13 AM PDT

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, is coming down to the wire as the Nov. 6 election approaches. (I've written about Prop. 37 here, here, and here.) As recently as Sept. 27, Pepperdine University's bi-monthly poll found 3-to-1 support among the state's voters for the proposition. Two weeks later, the lead had shrunk to 48 percent for to 40 percent against. Like the presidential race, the fight over Prop. 37 has tightened dramatically.

Pepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly.  Pepperdine UniversityPepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly. Pepperdine UniversityWhat happened? Most likely, it's the recent multimillion-dollar major television ad blitz, funded by agrichemical giants like Monsanto and processed food makers like Kraft, to whip up opposition to GMO labeling. (Dig into the latest contributions to the effort to defeat Prop. 37 here—on Oct. 19 alone, meat giant Smithfield came through with $454,908.15; Kraft ponied up $1,094,851.75; Pepsi chipped in $429,100.00, etc.)

"This is a great example of the power of advertising," pollster Chris Condon of M4 Strategies, which conducted the survey, told The Los Angeles Times. "A lot of money has been poured into the No side, and the effect has been dramatic."

On Wednesday's Democracy Now show, Amy Goodman hosted a no-holds-barred debate between Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, who opposes the measure. In the debate, Zilberman strains to convince viewers that labeling GMOs in California would mean the starvation of thousands in Africa.

Goodman also interviewed Michael Pollan, who recently argued in The New York Times Magazine that Prop. 37 is a key test for "whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system."

In another segment, Pollan holds forth on the food movement's burgeoning political power, agruing that the movement remains in its infancy—he argues that the food movement today is like the environmental movement before the first Earth Day in 1970.

Finally, for one more blast of Prop. 37 commentary as the election hits the stretch run, The New York Times' food guru Mark Bittman recently made the case for it.

Do Bayer's Pesticides Make Worker Bees Lazy?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 3:03 AM PDT
Must. Avoid. Corn.

Corn prices remain quite high, driven up by the summer's prolonged drought. And since the United States is by far the globe's largest corn producer, prices will likely stay high until the next bumper crop in the Midwest replenishes global corn reserves. To take advantage of high prices, US farmers will likely plant a whole lot of corn in spring 2013—at least as much as they did in 2012, which marked a 75-year high in corn acreage. And that could be bad news for bees, commercial honey-producing ones and wild bumblebees alike, both of which have experienced severe declines in recent years.

What does the health of bees have to do with the corn crop? A growing weight of evidence links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on nearly the entire US corn crop, to declining bee health. In March, I looked at three studies that had just been released, two of them published in the prestigious journal Science, making the link. Those papers came on the heels of a damning one from Purdue University researchers (which I discussed here). And now comes yet another, this one (abstract; I have the full study but can't upload it because of copyright issues) published by UK researchers in another prestigious publication, the British journal Nature.

Why Is the FDA Inspecting So Little Imported Seafood?

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

If you eat a lot of fish, likely as not you're eating something that was raised on a farm and hauled in from thousands of miles away. According to NOAA, we import about 86 percent of the seafood we consume, about half of which comes from from aquaculture. And just because you find it in a gleaming supermarket fish case or on a well-presented restaurant plate doesn't mean it's safe to eat.

Over at Bloomberg Businessweek, there's a pretty startling piece on the sanitary conditions on some of those farms. In Vietnam, farmed shrimp bound for the US market are kept fresh with heaps of ice made from tap water that teems with pathogenic bacteria, Businessweek reports. Tilapia in China's fish farms, meanwhile, literally feed on pig manure—even though it contains salmonella and makes the tilapia "more susceptible to disease." Why use hog shit as feed? Simple—it's cheap, and China's tilapia farms operate under intense pressure to slash costs and produce as much cheap tilapia as possible.