Thursday, June 23, 2011

The House Agriculture Committee and the New Harvest

The House Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing today "to review the opportunities and benefits of agricultural biotechnology." The testimony of Harvard professor Calestous Juma likens biotechnology opponents to Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th Century children's book writer, who disliked electric lights.  Carrying the analogy further, he writes:
The United States has been a leading light in agricultural biotechnology....  Failure on the part of the United States to champion agricultural biotechnology will undermine confidence in the ability of the global community to confront the challenges of food security.
I was surprised that the Juma testimony (.pdf) on the House Agriculture Committee website included the entire manuscript of his recent 2011 book for Oxford University Press, the New Harvest.  Was that a posting error?  The book can also be purchased on Amazon.

On the same topics, I found the balanced presentation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO's) new website and book, Save and Grow, more interesting.  See the terrific interview with Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division.  Perhaps this is a more persuasive way to make the case for agricultural technology as part of a vision of agricultural development that would make a difference for the world's poorest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Farming and fishing in collaboration

The work of recent Friedman School graduates Amanda Beal and Ellen Tyler is covered in an online Tufts Now article by Julie Flaherty.
What do farmers and fishermen dream about? A bumper crop of zucchini and calm seas? Perhaps. But both lose sleep over some of the same things: finding markets for their products,  transporting their goods cheaply, tapping into the local foods movement and protecting the  natural resources on which they both depend.
Although the two groups face similar challenges in keeping their businesses afloat, they rarely  compare notes. Two recent graduates in the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food and  Environment Program, Amanda Beal, N11, and Ellen Tyler, N11, are trying to change that. With  a grant from the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine, they organized a series of forums around  the state where farmers and fishermen could get together to talk and swap strategies.
“We’re looking for really creative solutions to help both groups,” Tyler says of the project, called By Land and By Sea. “So the more diverse perspectives we can pull in, the more innovative  strategies will emerge.”
Amanda Beal, N11, and Ellen Tyler, N11, organized a series of forums where farmers and fishermen could talk and swap strategies. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Loss of genetic diversity in food production

Whether using GMO or conventional technologies, plant breeders and animal scientists require good sources of genetic diversity to improve their varieties. Yet, this genetic diversity is being lost around the world.

I've been re-reading a 2005 report by USDA's Kelly Day Rubenstein and colleagues, which explains the problem:
Without continued genetic enhancement using diverse germplasm from both wild and modified sources, the gains in crop yields obtained over the past seven decades are not sustainable, and yields might eventually grow more slowly (or even decline).  Agricultural production increasingly relies on “temporal diversity,” changing varieties more frequently to maintain resistance to pests and diseases.

Three factors contribute to loss of genetic diversity—habitat loss, conversion from landraces (farmer-developed varieties) to scientifically bred varieties, and genetic uniformity in scientifically bred varieties. The loss of wild relatives occurs mainly through habitat conversion for agricultural use. Habitat loss is particularly problematic in developing countries, which often face greater pressures for wild land conversion than do developed countries. Crop genetic diversity also has diminished as landraces are displaced by scientifically developed varieties. Studies show that far less area is planted to landraces worldwide than a century ago. Finally, crop genetic diversity may decline with reductions in total numbers of varieties, concentration of area planted in a few favored varieties, or reductions in the “genetic distance” between these varieties. Thus far, yields for many major crops have been relatively stable as a result, at least in part, of frequent changes in modern varieties and breeders’ continued access to diverse genetic resources.
See also a recent article at New West -- "Are the Seeds That Spawn America’s Crops Too Homogenized?" -- and a related report from the National Research Council.  The new issue of National Geographic magazine has a feature covering this issue.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Some economic benefits and costs of vegetarianism

Vegetarian diets generally are the most economical way to acquire food energy and protein, according to a 2009 article in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Review by Oklahoma State University agricultural economists Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood.

The pattern is sufficiently strong, the authors find, that "sizable demand shifts away from meat consumption would result in significantly lower corn prices and production."  As a consequence, both plant-based and animal-based diets would become less expensive.

It is worth noting that some fruit and vegetable production is expensive on a per calorie basis, and also that animal food production makes efficient use of some agricultural resources that are particularly suitable, such as marginal grasslands.  Also, the authors emphasize that high-meat diets are highly desirable to many consumers.  Still, the basic thrust of the article is that more nearly vegetarian diets would make efficient use of food production resources. 

Similar points have also been made by many other writers covering food production and the environment, but it is interesting to see the issue quantified so plainly by economists at a leading land-grant university.

Salinas Valley, 2011 (P. Wilde)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Unreasonable complaints about local food

From Arnold Kling at EconLog:
Ed Glaeser writes about another one of my pet peeves, locavorism. I always tell locavores that they should go further and only buy clothes made from local materials. Only use computers made from local materials. In fact, they should only consume goods that we can make ourselves using materials we can find on their own property.
My response:
It's easy to deliver an off-the-cuff dismissal of local food. But, did you even read Glaeser's article? Like many of the commenters here, he likes local gardens for their educational value. And surely Kling doesn't mind people choosing local food according to their own preferences.
You might object to government policies that strictly favor local food, but basically there really aren't many policies like that in the real world. Most government policies favor the conventional food system. And you might object to an over-sold argument that we should eat ONLY local food, but if that's your complaint, you should quote a particular opponent, because I think most writers on this topic are more reasonable.
The thing that I don't like is headline writers who exaggerate an argument to get us arguing among ourselves, when we all probably come pretty close to agreeing on the substance anyway. Notice that the Boston Globe subheading -- "Urban farms do more harm than good to the environment" -- has nothing to do with what Glaeser wrote.
Really, Glaeser should write the Boston Globe to ask the newspaper to change its dimwitted headline.

Transparency in the food service contract for DC schools

Journalist and Slow Cook blogger Ed Bruske has been digging tenaciously -- like the gardener he is -- for information about rebates in the food service contract for DC schools.  This is great citizen journalism.
In a development that could finally crack the code of silence surrounding rebates in school food service, lawyers for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray have reversed a longstanding decision by local school officials and ordered the release of data showing how much money food manufacturers pay in rebates in order to place their products on children’s cafeteria trays in the nation’s capitol.
The decision comes in response to an administrative appeal I brought before the mayor after attorneys for D.C. Public Schools denied access to the rebate information on grounds it constituted “trade secrets” that could, if disclosed, harm the competitive position of the schools’ hired food service provider, Chartwells.
I originally had sought the information more than a year ago through the city’s Freedom of Information Act in an effort to determine the extent to which rebates might influence the choice of food D.C. schools serve. As a result of my FOIA requests, I was able to determine that Chartwells had claimed receiving more than $1 million in rebates from food manafucturers during the second year of its contract with the schools. However, the schools, citing a “trade secrets” exemption to the FOIA law, refused to release an itemization of which manufacturers had paid the rebates. The schools also declined to release detailed contract proposals submitted by Chartwells and Sodexo in the original bidding process.
John F. Carroll, an assistant New York attorney general invesitigating rebates in that state, has said the manufacturer discounts pose an “inherent conflict of interest” in school food service because they provide a financial incentive to choose highly processed and often sugary products over healthier foods. They also encourage purchases of large, national brands over locally produced goods that might be less expensive and more healthful, but do not pay rebates.
My own investigaton of school food in the District of Columbia showed that children routinely were being served the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar in the morning in the form of popular branded products such as Apple Jacks Cereal, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, along with chocolate and strawberry milk. D.C. schools have since stopped serving those products, removed flavored milk from the menu and otherwise taken steps to lower the sugar in school food.
The rebating practice is pervasive in the food industry and in school food service, especially where large food service management companies such as Chartwells, Aramark and Sodexo are involved. But while rebating no doubt generates billions of dollars to grease the wheels of the processed food industry, precise information about the practice  is a secret closely guarded by manufacturers as well as by those who benefit from the cash it produces. Essentially, the manufacturers write checks to companies who purchase their products in large volumes. Chartwells’ parent company, the $22 billion international conglomerate Compass Group, maintains an entirely separate entity called Food Buy solely to write purchase contracts and collect rebates generated by its many subsidiaries.
Under the federal school meals program, food service companies retained through “cost reimbursable” contracts must pass any rebates they receive to their school district clients. After I tallied the rebate amounts Chartwells had declared on its monthly invoices to D.C. schools, it was revealed that school officials had asked Chartwells for an itemized accounting of the rebates but had been waiting nine months to receive one. School food services Director Jeffrey Mills was said to be troubled by the rebates and their influence over Chartwells’ food purchases.
As a result of the ongoing investigation in New York, Sodexo last year agreed to pay $20 million to settle claims that it had failed to reimburse schools and other government clients for the rebates Sodexo had received. Subsequently, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of a “Healthy Schools Act,” asked the city’s then-attorney general, Peter Nickles, to assist the schools in recovering any rebate monies they might be owed. Cheh also oversees implementation of the District’s FOIA laws.
Information about rebates is so sensitive that the School Nutrition Association, which counts Chartwells and other food management companies as well as numerous manufacturers as members, removed from YouTube a taped version of a speech Carroll delivered to the group in March. In that speech, Carroll disclosed that rebates typically generate checks from manufacturers worth 10 percent to 15 percent of all food purchases. Some items are rebated up to 50 percent of the purchse price.
In Denver earlier this year, representatives of the Service Employees International Union were ejected from a conference held by the American Association of School Administrators because they were distributing information about school food rebates and planned to hold a workshop on rebates in school contracting. Aramark and Chartwells were both sponsors of the event, and Sodexo lists itself as one of the association’s “strategic partners.”
In a letter to me dated May 26, the mayor’s deputy general counsel Donald S. Kaufman wrote that attorneys for D.C. schools had erred when they invoked the “trade secrets” exemption to my FOIA request without showing how releasing the rebate and contract information would “result in substantial harm to the competitive position” of Chartwells, a requirement of the D.C. FOIA law.
“DCPS has not pointed to any authority, nor are we aware of any, which holds that the amount or source of rebates or volume discounts is, as a matter of law, protected commercial or financial information for the purposes of FOIA, nor is it apparent that the disclosure of such information would result in competitive harm,” Kaufman wrote.
“The response of DCPS is insufficient to justify the withholding of the documents,” Kaufman wrote in this “final decision” of the mayor’s office. “The documents must be provided to Appellant,” meaning me.
Under the D.C. FOIA, decisions by individual city agencies can be challenged in court, or appealed administratively directly to the mayor. I chose to appeal to the mayor. I suspect that Chartwells may now be contemplating a court filing to block release of the rebate information.
As with many debates in U.S. food policy, the behind-the-scenes argument over transparency is at least half the battle.  If Chartwells does block the release of the rebate information, we will share the news here.

House bill would cut food assistance programs, protect farm subsidies

According to the Associated Press summary, the appropriations bill passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives would cut WIC and international food aid, while protecting most farm subsidies.

The AP report said the bill:
  • Directs the Agriculture Department to rewrite rules it issued in January meant to make school meals healthier. Republicans say the new rules, the first major overhaul of school lunches in 15 years, are too costly.
  • Forces USDA to report to Congress every time officials travel to promote the department’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, which supports locally grown food, and discourages the department from giving research grants to support local food systems. Large agribusiness has been critical of the department’s focus on these smaller food producers [note: see earlier post for context].
  • Prevents USDA from moving forward with new rules that would make it easier for smaller farmers and ranchers to sue large livestock companies on antitrust grounds. The proposed rules are meant to address the growing concentration of corporate power in agriculture.
  • Delays for more than a year new rules for reporting trades in derivatives, the complex financial instruments blamed for helping precipitate the 2008 financial crisis. A Republican amendment adopted Thursday would require the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which funded in the bill, to first have other rules in place to facilitate its collection of derivatives market data.
  • Prevents the FDA from approving genetically modified salmon for human consumption, a decision set for later this year.
  • Questions the scope of Obama administration initiatives to put calories on menus and limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
The tart AP article was mentioned in our comments section recently, and was covered by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution under the rueful headline, "Not from the Onion."

Thursday, June 02, 2011

USDA unveils new plate-shaped MyPlate graphic for dietary guidance

USDA's new food plate, unveiled today, makes a great impression.  It communicates proportionality in frank terms, just like the original Food Guide Pyramid.  The accompanying written messages are clear and well-chosen to focus on the most important nutrition and health issues.  The authors wisely did not try to communicate every nutrition science principle -- for a more detailed summary, one can read the Dietary Guidelines, which are themselves quite accessible.  Like the Dietary Guidelines, the new graphic seems fairly vegetarian-friendly, describing the protein group without insisting on meat.  The tone is upbeat and not preachy.  And the whole thing seems friendly to real foods rather than technocratic food inventions.  I give it an A+.  Enjoy your food!


  Balancing Calories
  Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  Avoid oversized portions.
  Foods to Increase
  Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
  Foods to Reduce
  Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  Drink water instead of sugary drinks.