Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Anti-ethanol advocacy fuels an exchange of letters

Sabrina Wu, a graduate student in my class on U.S. Food Policy, contributes this blog post:
On October 28, 2008, Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) CEO and President C. Manly Mopus (.pdf) demanding to know when and how GMA and the trade association’s 300+ member companies plan to reduce retail food prices to reflect recently lower input costs.

From the letter: “When oil prices and commodity prices rose earlier this year, food processors and grocery stores reflected their higher input costs almost immediately, passing them onto consumers. However since commodity prices have declined over the past three months, we have seen retail food prices continue to rise.”

This letter is the latest correspondence in a back-and-forth between Grassley and GMA, which started in May 2008. At that time, GMA was outed by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, for spearheading a multi-million dollar anti-ethanol campaign (.pdf).

The GMA campaign launched a website, providing consumer information on ethanol’s impact on food prices and an opportunity for visitors to express opposition to ethanol policies via an online petition; formed a broad-based advocacy coalition with largest representation from the food industry and livestock associations and a smattering of environmental and anti-hunger organizations; and funded research, including an economic analysis on ethanol’s long-term effects on commodity and retail food prices (.pdf) and a telephone survey to assess taxpayers’ concern about food price increases and opinion on ethanol policies. Results from both support GMA’s position of reducing or eliminating ethanol subsidies and mandates.

Grassley, senior U.S. senator from the corn state of Iowa and strong supporter of ethanol, vociferously opposes the GMA campaign. A few days after the Roll Call article came out, he delivered a statement about the “smear campaign” on the Senate floor and posted documents from GMA and Glover Park Group, the public relations firm with whom GMA contracted to coordinate the campaign, on his website. “They’ve outlined their strategy of using environmental, hunger and food aid groups to demonstrate their contrived ‘crisis,’” Grassley said. “I think it’s important for policy-makers and the American people to know who’s behind this effort.”

One week prior to Grassley’s letter, the major U.S. livestock trade associations—American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Meat Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, and United Egg Producers—sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer objecting to proposed plans to provide rural development loans to ethanol plants, who are struggling to pay above-market rates on corn purchased through futures contracts. They write, “High commodity prices have been wreaking havoc in animal agriculture for almost two years. Yet no one at USDA has suggested that the government could provide loan funds to cover our members’ losses in the corn market.” And: “We urge you to rethink your intention of selectively lending taxpayer funds to private facilities that are having difficulty with the price of commodities.” This objection marks a departure from the livestock industry’s long-standing support of selective subsidies, namely commodity payments, which also address “difficulty with the price of commodities” and as some have argued, indirectly subsidize livestock producers by keeping the price of animal feed low.

The New York State "fat tax"

New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines has endorsed Gov. David Paterson's revenue-generating budget proposal to create a so-called "fat tax" - an 18 percent levy on sugary drinks like non-diet soda. His endorsement, published on You Tube December 26th, is a five minute dialog which describes the increased consumption of sugar laden drinks, the concurrent rise in obesity, and the cost and impact of the obesity epidemic on the public. The tax is arguably focused on health care policy as opposed to revenues. Elizabeth Benjamin of The Daily Politics covers the issue in her blog post The Doctor is in (Cyberspace).

Daines also quotes a research editorial from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association called How Discretionary Can We Be with Sweetened Beverages for Children which concluded: "Only one high-risk dietary practice emerged as being linked to overweight in children: the intake of sweetened beverages."

[Note from Parke: Cool video, Ashley. I like Daines' effective use of props for data visualization. Because of this New York proposal, I've been getting questions from consumer advocates about the economics of soda consumption. In a nutshell, if people greatly change their consumption in reaction to such a tax, their response is called "elastic." If consumers don't change their consumption much, the policy does better for revenue generation. In a 2004 study of low-income Americans, in the journal Agribusiness, Steven Yen, Biing-Hwan Lin, David Smallwood, and Margaret Andrews estimated the price elasticity for soft drinks to be -0.8, which means that a 10% increase the soft drink price leads to about an 8% fall in soft drink consumption. At the same time, the price increase for soft drinks makes milk and juice products comparatively more attractive to consumers.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

Human fat for fuel

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, a Beverley Hills doctor has been transforming the fat from his liposuction operations into biodiesel to power him and his wife's SUVs. According to the article:

Fat--whether animal or vegetable--contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year's batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.

A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there's no difference, she says.

Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. "The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel--and I have more fat than I can use," Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. "Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth." Bittner's lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.

Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it's definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state's public health department.

Although it's unclear when Bittner started and stopped making fat fuel or how he made it, his activities came to light after recent lawsuits filed by patients that allege he allowed his assistant and his girlfriend to perform surgeries without a medical license.

Crossposted from EpicureanIdeal.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stevia sweetener gets FDA salute

Two agency response letters posted on the FDA site, confirmed to Cargill, Incorporated and Whole Earth Sweetener Company LLC that Rebaudioside A (a sweetener derived from the Stevia leaf) is, in fact, Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), thus giving the companies the green light for use in the US food supply. According to FoodProcessing: A Home Page for the Food and Beverage Industry, "Rebaudioside A's natural sweetening capacity makes it ideal for the food and beverage industries."

According to Food Navigator USA, “within hours Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced that their first drinks sweetened with Reb A will be hitting US shop shelves shortly. Coca-Cola partnered with Cargill to develop their rebiana brand called Truvia, and PepsiCo, along with Whole Earth Sweetener Company (a subsidiary of Merisant Company) and PureCircle, have their own product under the PureVia brand."

Many are still critical of the industry sponsored research and FDA's seemingly hastily 'midnight' decision, including Marion Nestle at What to Eat, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and
Based on the information provided by Cargill (Whole Earth), as well as other information available to FDA, the agency has no questions at this time regarding Cargill’s(Whole Earth) conclusion that rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni is GRAS under the intended conditions of use. The agency has not, however, made its own determination regarding the GRAS status of the subject use of rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni. As always, it is the continuing responsibility of Cargill(Whole Earth) to ensure that food ingredients that the firm markets are safe, and are otherwise in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

School lunch and school breakfast standards

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, today released a report on meal patterns and nutrient standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

There is a request for public comments.
The National School Breakfast Program feeds 10 million children each day, and the National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students. Yet the national nutrition standards and meal requirements for these meals were created more than a decade ago, making them out of step with recent guidance about children's diets. With so many children receiving as much as 50 percent of their daily caloric intake from school meals, it is vital for schools to provide nutritious food alongside the best possible education for the success of their students.

At the request of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Institute of Medicine assembled a committee to recommend updates and revisions to the school lunch and breakfast programs. The first part of the committee's work is reflected in the December 2008 IOM report Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs: Phase I. Proposed Approach for Recommending Revisions. Phase II of the report is expected in Fall 2009. This first report provides information about the committee's approach as it reviews the school lunch and breakfast programs. In the report's second part, the committee will share its findings and recommendations to bring these meals more in line with today's dietary guidelines.

The committee welcomes public comments about its intended approach. An open forum will be held January 28, 2009 in Washington, DC to receive input from the public.

New study confirms: restaurant meals have more calories

In the new issue of the Review of Agricultural Economics, agricultural economist James Binkley of Purdue University confirms that restaurant and fast food meals have many more calories than home meals do (see abstract).

For example, for a typical adult, and holding constant other variables, a lunch in a table-service restaurant has on average 184 more calories (kcal) than a lunch made at home. A lunch at a fast-food restaurant has on average 121 more calories than a lunch made at home.

A difference of 120 to 180 kcal per day is enough to contribute to weight gain over time.

Two concerns about restaurant meals are their energy density and their total calories. Binkley found that fast-food meals were the most energy dense, while table-service restaurant meals had the most total calories. Meals from home scored better on both counts.

From the Wiley-Blackwell press release:
“It is misleading to focus concerns about the nutritional effects of increased food away from home primarily on fast food. All food away from home should be considered,” Binkley concludes.

The King Corn guys spoof HFCS ads

Have you seen the corn refiners' ads defending high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its critics? Then you may enjoy the spoof by Ian and Curt, the guys from King Corn (reviewed earlier on this blog).

Vilsack to be appointed Agriculture Secretary

The New York Times online yesterday evening reported that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack would be appointed Secretary of Agriculture. I read the news on the Ethicurean, which was disappointed ("AgSuck," said the headline). John Crabtree from the Center for Rural Affairs gave an earlier more favorable review of Vilsack on the Blog for Rural America.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is the NPPC telling the truth about the pork checkoff referendum?

Following our earlier coverage of the pork checkoff referendum request, I read with interest Brian Depew's blog post on the Rural Populist.

Brian was a hog farmer himself at the time of the 2001 referendum on the pork checkoff, in which pork producers failed to approve the program's continuation, but nevertheless had their vote overturned in a deal between the National Pork Producers Council, the checkoff program, and USDA. He calls upon all pork producers to send in USDA's form requesting a new vote before the Jan. 2 deadline.

Then, I read the comment on Brian's post, by Dave Warner. Here is my comment in response at the Rural Populist:
I read Dave Warner’s comments with astonishment. Is this the same Dave Warner who is a director of communication for the National Pork Producers Council?!

Dave writes, “The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) does NOT receive Checkoff funds.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC received millions of dollars in checkoff funds each year as a contractor to the checkoff program, carrying out checkoff-sponsored activities. In addition, I thought the NPPC in 2006 won an especially sweet backroom deal, in which the checkoff program agreed to pay the NPPC $60 million ($3 million each year for 20 years!) — with no work required at all — for the use of the property rights to the “other white meat” brand. I thought this deal was dreadful from the point of view of pork producers, because they had themselves already paid for most of the advertising that built the “other white meat” brand. And I thought it was a travesty that nobody at the NPPC, the checkoff, or the USDA would share with the public the dubious “appraisal” on which this sale was based.

See this link for details:

Dave writes, “NPPC has nothing to do with the Checkoff.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC was a major player in the deal that overturned the democratic outcome of the last pork referendum in 2001, when pork producers failed to approve the continuation of the checkoff and yet are still to this day forced to pay the “mandatory assessment” (please, nobody call it a “tax,” even though it is collected involuntarily using the federal government’s powers of taxation). The NPPC was one of the parties to the “agreement” with the checkoff and USDA which ended a lawsuit over the 2001 referendum and led belatedly to the current request for producer input.

See this link for details of how the NPPC was involved in that agreement:

I think of the NPPC and the checkoff as closer to each other than tweedledee and tweedledum, with just the thinnest veneer of official separation.
In the end, I fear the tricky maneuver of scheduling the request for producer input over the Christmas season will succeed in denying pork producers a vote yet again. I notice that the independent organizations that were actively involved in the 2001 referendum still have up only a forlorn timeline whose last entry is 2004. It seems doubtful that anybody is getting organized to represent pork producers' interests vigorously before January 2. And both the mainstream press and the agricultural press gave little coverage to this issue.

[Update: For producers who want to request a vote, here is the link to the USDA site. Please post to the comments here if you have any trouble with internet access.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Soybean association alleges misuse of checkoff funds

Today's press release from the American Soybean Association (ASA), a private-sector trade association for the soybean industry:
"Serious ethical, legal, and financial allegations have been raised about how farmer checkoff funds and program activities are being conducted," said ASA President John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa. "These significant allegations have caused ASA to ask the Inspector General to conduct an investigation and audit so that the basis of the allegations can be impartially investigated to find the truth."
Allegations include the improper and wasteful expenditure of both checkoff and federal funds; potential evasion of mandated salary and administrative spending caps by [the United Soybean Board (USB)]; conflicts of interests at USB; use of checkoff funds for prohibited purposes by USB; and wasteful and excessive spending by USB. There are additional allegations concerning improper USB oversight and tolerance of actions that have taken place at the [United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC)], an entity created by USB and ASA in October 2005. These allegations include improper conduct by a USSEC employee at USSEC functions; the firing of whistleblowers; improper employee relationships; contracting violations; management malfeasance and the inability of ASA Directors serving on USSEC Board to obtain an independent and objective investigation of the allegations.
See also links to the Association's longer summary (.pdf) of the controversy, and today's articles at AgricultureOnline and the Des Moines Register.

Similar to the checkoff programs for beef, pork, and dairy, the soybean checkoff program uses the federal government's powers of taxation to collect more than $100 million per year in mandatory assessments to support industry marketing and promotion efforts, but it is controversial with many producers.

These large and influential programs deserve greater attention than the minimal oversight they get from government authorities, public interest groups, and the major media.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Downsizing and mouse print

As part of a series of reports called "Squeezed at the Supermarket," NBC's Today Show this morning featured Edgar Dworsky, the longtime consumer advocate and blogger behind Consumer World and Mouse Print (discussed in an earlier post). Matt Lauer and Janice Lieberman have great fun going over examples from Skippy peanut butter to Tropicana orange juice. At the end, they read a list of explanations from the manufacturers.

Monday, December 08, 2008

National and international developments in melamine


Walgreens is recalling 173 teddy bears with chocolate bars sold in stores since late September 2008. Analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that certain samples of the chocolate provided with the teddy bears were contaminated with melamine. Customers who purchased any of the 173 teddy bears should return them immediately to the Walgreens stores where they were purchased for a full refund. Walgreens already has instructed stores to stop selling the product, which is specifically described as an approximately 9-inch high Dressy Teddy Bear with 4-oz. Chocolate Bar.


The World Health Organization has released a tolerable upper limit of 0.2 milligrams of melamine per kilogram of body weight per day. A meeting of food safety experts held by WHO in Ottawa, Canada, made the decision Friday noting that there is no good reason to have any melamine in food products at all.

According to the Associated Press:

Jorgen Schlundt, WHO's director for food safety, said that threshold is lower than the European Union's limitation of 0.5 milligrams. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which originally set its limit at 0.63 milligrams, later reduced its tolerable daily intake to 0.063 milligrams.

WHO's guidance is used by governments to set their minimum food safety standards.Melamine, a nitrogen-rich chemical used in the production of plastics, was first discovered to be a major problem when it appeared in Chinese infant formula in September. Since then traces have been found in milk products around the world.

Last month the FDA said tests found traces of melamine in the infant formula of one major U.S. manufacturer and cyanuric acid, a related chemical, in the formula of a second major maker. Schlundt stressed that the threshold the WHO has set — which stipulates that a 50 kilogram (110-pound) person could tolerate 10 milligrams of melamine per day — is not a "safe" level for melamine, but merely the amount a human being can consume without higher health risk.

Melamine is used in some food packaging and can rub off into packaged food products. It also is part of a cleaning solution used on some food processing equipment.

Cross posted from www.epicureanideal.blogspot.com

Who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture?

The Washington Post on Thursday offered three names: Kathleen Sebelius (Governor of Kansas), Charles Stenholm (lobbyist and former Representative from Texas), and Dennis Wolff (Pennsylvania agriculture secretary).

The Ethicurean blog and Kim Severson's blog at the New York Times highlight candidates proposed by the sustainable agriculture community. From the Ethicurean's report (and photograph):
  • Gus Schumacher, Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.
  • Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, NE.
  • Sarah Vogel, former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, attorney, Bismarck, ND.
  • Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA and President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.
  • Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, cofounder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  • Neil Hamilton, attorney, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, IA.

    (Photos of the six are arranged above in order of this list)

  • "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough"

    The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment (CFFE) today released a report by Elanor Starmer, entitled "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program":
    The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was approved by Congress in 1996 with the backing of many family farm and conservation-focused organizations. Designed to provide cost-share and incentive payments to agricultural producers to address resource concerns on their farms, it has been used over the years by thousands of farmers nationwide to make environmental improvements that benefit the land and their communities.

    The 2002 Farm Bill opened up EQIP for use by industrial livestock operations, which house thousands of animals and generate massive quantities of manure. They often lack sufficient farmland on which to apply animal waste or make irresponsible management decisions in applying it, generating air or water pollution; the burden of addressing the pollution often falls on public services or community members living near the operations. When Congress made EQIP funds available to these operations in 2002, stakeholders worried that it would further subsidize an environmentally destructive method of production and that the share of funding available for the program’s original targets – small and mid-sized operations – would be diminished.

    The 2002 Farm Bill also severely restricted public access to information about the size of EQIP contracts and the practices that they fund. Moreover, the administrator of the program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, lacks the funding and mandate to track EQIP payments by the size of livestock operation receiving them. As a result, even though animal waste is now a priority issue for the program, there is no way for the public or policymakers to know how industrial operations are using the funds or to assess whether EQIP is subsidizing their expansion.

    This report uses the limited data that is publicly available to investigate the use of EQIP by industrial hog and dairy operations nationally and in the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. It finds that nationwide, these operations receive far more than their fair share of EQIP funding.

    Although industrial hog operations comprise only 10.7% of all hog operations nationally, they receive an estimated 37% of all EQIP contracts to the hog sector. In contrast, mid-sized hog farms represent roughly 15% of all operations but receive only 5.4% of EQIP hog contracts.

    Similarly, the report finds that industrial dairies make up only 3.9% of all dairy operations nationally, yet they receive an estimated 54% of all EQIP dairy contracts. Meanwhile, mid-sized dairies, which account for 13% of all dairies nationally, receive only 7% of EQIP dairy contracts.

    This report estimates that between 2003 and 2007, roughly 1,000 industrial hog and dairy operations have captured at least $35 million per year in funding through the EQIP program....

    While EQIP continues to be used by many livestock and crop producers to carry out environmentally beneficial practices, a disproportionate share of funds now flows to highly polluting livestock operations. This is a fundamental flaw in the policy and may jeopardize the goals and long-term effectiveness of the program. Moreover, the program suffers from a lack of oversight and insufficient record keeping. As a result, it lacks public accountability.

    Sunday, December 07, 2008

    Purchasing power for peace

    I was elated this morning as I smeared Eggplant & Tomato Tapenade on my toast, that I was doing more than nourishing myself, I was helping to bring peace to a region of the world that has been at war for decades.
    MEDITALIA™ Tapenades and Pestos are produced in Israel through cooperation between Israelis, Arabs and other neighbours. The olives are grown in Palestinian villages, the glass jars are made in Egypt, and the sun-dried tomatoes come from Turkey. PeaceWorks believes that personal contact between these groups will shatter cultural stereotypes and help people live together peacefully. Five percent of the profits from MEDITALIA™ Pestos and Tapenades go to support the PeaceWorks Foundation to foster peaceful co-existence in the world.
    Meditalia is a brand under Peaceworks Holdings LLC pursues profits through our sales of healthful food products that are produced by neighbors on opposing sides of political or armed conflicts, whose cooperative business ventures we facilitate.
    Mission And Impact

    PeaceWorks is guided by the Theory of Economic Cooperation which states the following:

    Mutually beneficial economic initiatives can create good relations between rivaling peoples in the same way that business partners anywhere profit from cooperation in today's marketplace. In this manner, cooperative business ventures that capitalize on the strength of each partner can enable the conditions necessary to achieve long-lasting cultural understanding and eventually even bring prosperity to regions of conflict around the world. PeaceWorks acts at the catalyst for profitable economic interdependence.

    Our Cooperation Ecosystem, below, illustrates both levels at which the model works, and the resulting impacts:
    • Commercial Cooperation
    • Businesses profiting from joint ventures gain a vested interest in maintaining and cementing these valuable relationships.
    • Peoples and countries prospering through these cooperative activities gain a stake in the system, furthering stability.
    • Human Interaction
    • People working together under conditions of equality learn to shatter cultural stereotypes and humanize their former enemy.
    And this all results in...
    • Job Creation and Export-led Growth
    PeaceWorks connects local producers with manufacturers, and buys the food products they create for export. The increased demand thus created results in new jobs, which stimulates local economies and contributes to a rise in the standard of living for their region.

    Employment & Technology

    Increasing output through exports generates economies of scale and reduces costs, making ventures in regions of conflict more competitive. Export initiatives with overseas partners also benefit from enhanced professionalism, technology transfers and subsequent technical know-how. Peace Building As groups learn to work together, cultural stereotypes are shattered and the former enemy is demystified, and humanized.
    Never before have there been so many decisions and impacts on what food you buy. Buy local to support your local economy, buy fair-trade to help farmers get a fair market price, buy organic to preserve traditional farming methods and biodiversity, buy free range for animal rights, buy grass-fed because it has more conjugated linoleic acid, buy what's on sale, buy Kosher for personal beliefs, buy what tastes good. We have a lot of choices to make significant changes in our world through the food we eat. Never before has a social movement been more entrenched in our everyday decisions as what to buy at market. Choose wisely.

    Cross-posted from www.epicureanideal.blogspot.com.

    Friday, December 05, 2008

    Food retail in rough places

    Continuing a series of walks through urban U.S. neighborhoods that have been identified as food deserts, I journeyed in November on foot through the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles and the Anacostia neighborhood of my hometown of Washington, DC.

    Skid Row

    At least from an outsider's perspective, Skid Row seemed bleak beyond words. It is a defining failure for a prosperous society to tolerate such poverty. The food retail situation looked poor, but it would be naive to think food retail policy on its own would make much difference in such a setting. I carried a camera, but, despite being a hardened veteran of urban living in the United States, I felt so much like a tourist from another planet that I could not bear to pull it out. So, I have to link to Wikipedia for an image.

    My destination, after passing through Skid Row on my way along 7th Street from a conference hotel downtown, was the produce terminal for Los Angeles, an absurdly immense, congested, and seemingly run-down transportation facility. I can just imagine all the Southern California families, buying their fruits and vegetables in pleasant grocery stores and eating them on the dining tables in their pleasant homes, having no idea of the journey their food has taken through this bleak urban wasteland adjoining Skid Row. I told my students later that it is not much done any more for university teachers to quote Karl Marx, but I found the term "alienation" from his philosophical manuscripts running in circles around my head. Here is an image from the University of Southern California's geography department site describing walking tours in Los Angeles.


    In Anacostia, I met up at the lovely historic Frederick Douglass Home with David Garber, who keeps a fine blog called And Now, Anacostia. Historically a food desert, the poor neighborhoods in Ward 8 east of the Anacostia River in DC have benefited from a new Giant supermarket in Congress Heights (on Alabama Avenue just off the left edge of this Google map), but David pointed out that Congress Heights is more than a mile removed from the heart of the Anacostia neighborhood, which could still be considered a retail desert. Moreover, others have complained that Giant's strip mall grocery format was poorly matched to the needs of the neighborhod.

    View Larger Map

    On the walk, I was intrigued especially by this fairly rough store front (photograph by David Garber), which, on close inspection claimed in its overhead sign to be the "Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket," (point C in the Google map). In a year of living in the neighborhood, David said he had never been in once. Inside, it turned out to be a real mid-sized grocery store with a full line of food, from packaged manufactured food to fresh fruits and vegetables of adequate if unimpressive quality.

    I am sure this store is nobody's ideal. At the same time, a policy of tax breaks or other incentives to bring in a new supermarket to this neighborhood would raise a number of questions. Would the tax breaks and incentives be good public policy in tight fiscal times? Would a new retailer drive the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket out of business, and would that be a net benefit or loss for the neighborhood? Would the new supermarket fail, because of competition with the Congress Heights store a short drive (or long walk, or one metro stop) away? I don't know the answers. Like the other walks in this series, this walk offered a lot to think about on the topic of diagnosing retail deserts.

    Interstate countercyclical potato pricing policy

    From the Onion News Network (ONN).

    Suggested by Yoni of Weighty Matters and seen also on the Blog for Rural America.

    The Agriculture and Public Health Gateway

    The Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has introduced the Agriculture and Public Health Gateway, a new website on connections between agriculture and public health. The highlights section features direct links to source documents, such as journal articles and United Nations reports. A search element in the right sidebar draws on major literature databases such as Agricola (much as if one entered search terms directly, I think, without a specific screener for public health relevance). There is an RSS feed, for keeping track of updates.

    Flood tolerant rice breakthrough

    An article in the Sacramento Bee reveals that a geneticist at UC-Davis is receiving an award for her work developing a flood-tolerant rice. What is most exciting is that the research, which was funded partly by USDA, did not use genetic engineering. Scientists identified a gene, called Sub1A, that is responsible for flooding tolerance in rice. "Identifying the gene allowed plant breeders to use "precision breeding" to create new rice varieties that could recover after severe flooding and "produce abundant yields of high-quality grain," the release says.
    Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology, Julia Bailey-Serres, a UC Riverside genetics professor and David Mackill, of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, will be given the 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative Discovery Award Friday at UC Riverside.
    Other than their flood tolerance, the new plants are virtually identical to popular high-yielding varieties.

    Flooding in Bangladesh and India reduces rice yields by up to 4 million tons each year, enough to feed 30 million people.

    Researchers anticipate the flood-tolerant rice plants will be available to farmers within the next two years.

    The plants are not subject to the regulatory testing that can delay release of genetically modified crops because they are the product of precision breeding, not genetic modification, the release states.
    Study Background
    Ronald led the effort to isolate the gene, and her lab showed that the gene is switched on when rice plants are submerged in water. The project took 13 years to complete.

    "To be part of this project as it has moved from my lab in California to rice fields in Asia has been inspiring, and the project underscores the power of science to improve people's lives," Ronald said in a written statement.

    The research that led to the gene's isolation was funded by USDA grants to Ronald, Mackill and Bailey-Serres. The breeding work was funded by the USDA and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    All told the USDA allotted nearly $1.45 million to the research project, a UC Riverside news release states.
    Cross posted from http://epicureanideal.blogspot.com/