Half shell hero

Grist – Tuesday 24th March

Madeleine Thomas writes this special report for Grist on the rise of oyster farming in Chesapeake Bay. For once, aquaculture is bringing some hope to a much damaged waterway. With a long history of oyster fishing on the bay, wild stocks have been in decline for almost a hundred years, with stocks destroyed by over-fishing and increasing pollution. With desperation and vision in equal measure, fishermen have been turning to oyster farming since the state of Maryland legalised it in 2009. There is hope that farming the bivalve molluscs could both save a dying business and help restore the bay’s damaged ecosystems.

Oyster farming is largely environmentally friendly, particularly on its current scale. It manages to escape many of the damaging impacts of most aquaculture: farmed oysters are sterile so they don’t spread their genetically modified genes; they are resistant to disease, so they won’t kill off what’s left of wild populations and they are not treated with prophylactic antibiotics; they don’t feed on fish (farmed fish are fed with wild fish, which has significantly impacted wild stocks); and farmed oysters have a very low carbon footprint. So, over all, farmed oysters are pretty sustainable.

Chesapeake Bay is heavily polluted.There is a lot of farming on its shores, particularly chicken producing some 1.5 billion pounds of manure which cause ‘dead zones’ in the Bay, depleted of oxygen. The many wastewater treatment plants along the shore also contribute to this and, as a result, the bay is full of nitrogen and phosphorus run-off. This is where oysters can be very helpful – they absorb nitrogen into their flesh and shells and function as a kind of filter in the water. Thomas writes that “At their most plentiful, the Chesapeake’s oysters were capable of filtering all 18 trillion tons of bay water in about a week, rendering it nearly crystal clear.” This is truly remarkable. The numbers being farmed are still too small to completely transform the waters of the bay, but this is unquestionably a hopeful tale with its potential to renew a damaged ecosystem. What a mighty little creature – delicious too!

Is the era of Big Food coming to an end?

The Guardian – Thursday 12th March

This blog isn’t quite as hopeful as the title might suggest, but it offers some interesting insights into the growing interest in fresh, local and organic food. Trends are changing and more and more people are critical of the predominance of processed goods in our food system. They are reading the labels, recognising that E-numbers are bad and becoming more discerning about their food. We hope…

But savvy as ever, ‘Big Food’ is shape-shifting again into a new guise, taking the GM out of cereal, creating lines of ‘minimally processed’ food in contrast to their ‘ultra-processed’ mainstream products, and buying up organic product lines. They’ve got to keep growing and that means changing to meet the demands of their eaters. With brands like Cheez-Its, Jell-o and Velveeta delivering lacklustre returns, it’s time for a little reinvention. ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ should be their sales line.

And this is where the hope runs out. Despite what Campbell’s CEO, Denise Morrison, says is an “explosion of interest in fresh foods” and “a mounting distrust of so-called Big Food”, a lot of what consumers want is aspirational. They want to “feel” like they are eating healthier. Big Food is moving fast to accommodate this attitude, developing products that are, in the words of one food consultant, ‘packaged fresh’ foods. It makes you wonder whatever happened to eating fresh food without the packaging?

Big food sponsorship taints school nutrition association

Beyond Chron – Wednesday 11th February

Dana Woldow, a blogger on food issues for the San Francisco webzine Beyond the Chron, exposes the conflicts of interest embedded in Big Food sponsorship.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is in charge of the largest number of school meals in the United States, feeding 30 million children a day. For the past few years the SNA has been complaining about the higher nutritional standards in school meals that are required by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed in 2010, suggesting that schools should have more ‘flexibility’ in what to serve. Woldow was one of many who wondered why a group dedicated to school nutrition should complain about better nutritional standards? The new standards made it harder for processed pizza and french fries to be on the school lunch menu, leading Woldow to comment that:

“It’s understandable that the processed food industry would try to protect their business, but doesn’t the public have the right to expect that school nutrition directors, who are paid with public funds, should be advocating for the health of the children they have been hired to serve, and not the interests of Big Food?”

You would think so, wouldn’t you? But lucrative sponsorship by Big Food companies has a way of shifting priorities.

The SNA sells sponsorship to the highest bidder, blatantly offering access to the influential school nutrition experts that attend their annual conference and other events. Their brochure urges: “Sponsorship… will increase your visibility among the key decision-makers in the school nutrition segment.” If this is pretty shocking, what leads on from this is an eye-opening exposé from Woldow on how money talks – she lays it all out for us in the blog. Pursuing the lucrative funding provided by Big Food through sponsorship, the SNA has forgotten who it is and lost all perspective on what should be up for sale. It’s a startling picture of an organisation that has thrown its principles and integrity out the window in exchange for a good party. 

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines: cook and eat whole foods, be wary of ads

Civil Eats – Thursday 12th March

Civil Eats gives a good run-down of Brazil’s new, refreshingly sensible, dietary guidelines. Eating shouldn’t be a whole list of dos and don’ts, striving for a delicate and exacting balance between proteins, fats and carbs. All the numbers, percentages and statistics that turn up in most countries’ dietary guidelines don’t make eating well easy – in fact, they can overcomplicate what should be simple and straightforward. Guidelines such as the US’s My Plate also seem to forget that eating is one of life’s great pleasures. The many pages of recommendations turn eating into a kind of mathematical science of calorie counting, problem solving and quantitative analysis.

There is a wider context to eating than just the explicit nutritional content of food, and that’s what’s so brilliant about Brazil’s guidelines. They encompass this wider view and make it an integral part of a healthy diet. “Eat in company whenever you can” and “Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space” are listed in the ten one-line recommendations. It also, significantly, emphasises fresh food that you cook yourself over that which is bought “ready-to-consume”, making a clear distinction between cooking from scratch and processed food. Cooking and eating at home is the healthiest way to eat, and that should be foregrounded in any and every plan for healthy eating.

But Brazil’s most notable contribution to healthy eating advice is its last guideline: “Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.” That’s a brave statement in a world dominated by a multi-national global food industry with advertising as the engine of its business. Brazil realises that thinking about what we eat is the first step to a healthy diet.

48 hours that changed the future of rainforests

Grist – Tuesday 2nd April

Nathanael Johnson takes us through a story of how change happens, and the vital role that NGOs play in this. In autumn 2014, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil producer, committed to purchasing palm oil only from suppliers who were not deforesting their land. Wilmar’s decision has been critical in what is becoming a sea change in the palm oil industry – with every major trader of palm oil committing to the elimination of deforestation in its supply chains.

Palm oil production has ravaged forests across the globe. It’s been a key contributor to the deforestation of the Amazon and though this has eased in recent years, it’s picking up again. Recently Peru has been at the centre of a huge expansion of its industry in the Amazon basin, despite the country’s Forestry Law that makes it illegal to clear old growth forests. A loophole for ‘change of use’ allowed the development to go forward, though Peru’s new government is now reviewing the approvals.

The story of Wilmar illustrates the delicate dynamics of getting major multi-national companies to change their bad practices. For Wilmar, its CEO Khouk Koon, was instrumental. As Johnson notes, sometimes it’s “individual people making very personal choices” that makes the difference. Koon had been in dialogue with Glenn Hurowitz of Forest Heroes and Scott Poynton of The Forest Trust, who had been pushing the CEO to take a stand. Interestingly, Koon had contacted Hurowitz after seeing an interview in which he was critical of Wilmar. That opened a door for discussion, but getting Koon to sign on the dotted line of a pledge was anything but easy.

Greenpeace also had a role in the negotiations with Wilmar, by pressurising the company with the threat of protests. But in the end, it was internal pressure within the industry that made the difference. Hurowitz and Poynton enlisted the influence of Unilever, a major purchaser of palm oil, for a bit of timely pressure.

Johnson’s story maps some of the steps towards market transformation, but there is a back story that he doesn’t include which is why such a significant shift happened at that moment. For decades the industry had been resistant to change and then, within a year, significant shifts occurred throughout it. The bigger picture of these processes is mapped on Lucas Simons’ recent publication on our Spring Reading ListChanging the Food Game – well worth a read if you want to know more about what it takes to create systemic change.

Photograph: Farrukh

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