A decade after ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, Michael Pollan sees signs of hope

The Washington Post – Monday 6th June

Michael Pollan looks back over the last ten years of what has now become the food movement, reflecting on what has changed since he wrote his seminal book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. With the release of a new edition of this text, Pollan pushes for the next step in the food movement – the institution of an overarching national food policy.

Pollan acknowledges that remarkable transformations have happened since 2006, when The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published: the number of farmers in the US is climbing for the first time since records on this began; there are now more than 8,000 farmers’ markets across the country; there is a significant and growing ‘alternative food economy’ which values local, smaller-scale sustainable food production with high animal welfare; and 4,000 school districts have farm-to-school programmes. There is much to be hopeful about in these facts and figures.

But Pollan also argues for the need to keep pushing. Big Food is savvy and it knows well how to allude to the ideas of sustainability, without actually committing to them. While consumer demand has made a lot of headway in changing industrial practices, Pollan thinks that, ultimately, this is not enough. Pollan, along with Mark Bittman, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter,  is leading the call for a national food policy which would bring fundamental regulatory change. This policy would ensure that the food values embedded in the food movement were a requirement of food production: animal welfare standards defined by compassion and concern for well-being; clear, transparent information for consumers on what’s in their food and how it was produced; fair wages for workers in the food industry; a food system that supports public and environmental health; and most, fundamental, the right of citizens to access fresh, healthy food. Such a policy could transform how Americans live and eat. For Pollan, this is the fight of the next ten years.

Extreme weather increasing level of toxins in food, scientists warn

Reuters – Tuesday 31st May

The challenges of climate change are growing ever more complex, and this latest one is particularly concerning. As the world gets warmer and the weather more intense, plants’ defence systems are kicking in. Recent research has found that some plants, among them many of our staple foods including maize, wheat and soybeans, are becoming toxic. This is because things like prolonged drought can affect the way that nitrate absorbed by plants is transformed: instead of turning it into something nutritious, it stores it and this can be deadly to humans and animals.

But it’s not just drought that can cause toxicity in plants, it’s also rain, which leaves us in a nasty double bind. When drought is followed by intense rain, certain plants – including staple crops like corn, sorghum and cassava – produce prussic acid. But that’s not all, affloxins, harmful plant molds, are on the rise helped by climate changes, and while these don’t have acute, immediate affects, they cause liver damage, cancer and blindness and also affect growth in children.

What are we to do, when our food turns against us? Cases of poisoning by nitrates, prussic acid and affloxins are on the rise in developing countries in tropical and sub-tropical regions. But there is also evidence to suggest that affloxins in particular could move into Europe if temperatures rise beyond 2 degrees. So this is not just a problem for developing countries. Again, biodiversity becomes important. Researchers are focusing on drought and heat tolerant varietals that might be hardier and not respond with dangerous toxins, as a means of mitigating the problem. As the gene pool of our major crops has been narrowed with industrialisation, much work is needed to turn around what could be a devastating problem.

Beekeepers feel the sting of stolen hives

NPR – Monday 6th June

Most of you are familiar with cattle ‘rustling’, the abduction of livestock, but bee ‘rustling’? Not so much. But the crime is on the rise throughout the US and even in Canada as the decline of bees has meant a high degree of demand for those available. California’s almond crop needs more than two million beehives for pollination and, at the moment, there’s not enough bees to go around and the price of renting hives is going up. It’s no surprise that the theft of hives has been increasing, likely perpetrated by other beekeepers – because, frankly, who else is up to stealing them? You have to know what you’re doing. The thefts are helped along by the fact that it’s very hard to track beehives – most are unmarked and when they are marked, the frames which contain the honey and bees, can easily be removed and placed in new hives. Beekeepers are now getting smarter about their hives, marking them and putting in GPS tracking units, because theft is so extensive.

All of this is a testament to how desperately bees are needed, but also to how much money bees generate. Colony collapse has been a critical issue in the States, where bees are shipped around the country to do their work in intensive conditions. Bees and beekeepers not only have to contend with countless environmental pressures related to pesticide use, climate change, and a monoculture system, but now face the additional problem of being ‘rustled’.

Industrial-scale farming denounced by international experts

Farmers Weekly – Monday 6th June

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has added its weight to calls for a fundamental global shift to sustainable food systems. The Panel is chaired by Olivier De Schutter, who was previously the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and comprises experts from a broad range of disciplines. They provide independent research and advice to both governments and businesses aiming to influence policy and practice.

Their most recent report argues for the need for a paradigm shift in agriculture and food systems which rejects the current industrialisation of food in favour of agro-ecological practices. It describes a catalogue of ills which industrial agriculture has wrought: soil and water degradation, the loss of biodiversity and an eroded gene pool; GHG emissions; and resistant pests, among other problems. All this for the sake of yields which are now becoming stagnant or falling in many parts of the world.

What is most interesting in the report is its analysis of ‘What’s keeping industrial agriculture in place?’ Taking a systemic approach, it outlines what makes industrial agriculture so predominant and ‘locked in’ to our food system. This includes: ‘path dependency’ that makes it hard for farmers to change their practices, noting agriculture policies and subsidies based on area; the premise that food is cheap upon which we have all become dependent; and what the report calls ‘feed the world narratives’ which tell us that the only way to feed a growing global population is through an industrialised food system. But perhaps most significant, is the recognition that our current food system, like our current economic system, is driven by a concentration of power, whereby a few key players exercise dramatic control over a wide-spread model of agricultural production, framing it, lobbying for it and keeping alternative models off the table. Read the report in full or in summary.

Palm plantations shaken by the green body they helped to create

Reuters – Tuesday 7th June

The palm oil industry has been going through a remarkable transformation in recent years as it finally bowed to pressure and committed to zero deforestation in its supply chain. It’s certification body, the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is developing real ability to enforce the standards of industry. It has recently de-certified one of its most powerful producers, which led to the company, IOI Group, being dropped as a supplier to major food corporations Mars, Unilever, Nestle and Kellogg’s. The company had been chopping down forests on peat land in Indonesia, contributing to the dangerous fires that spread across the country.

In retaliation, IOI Group, attempted to sue the RSPO for the trouble it had caused the company – a move which backfired when customers and activists kicked back at the company for their practices. The IOI Group has now come back into the fold, agreeing to the more rigorous standards that the RSPO is bringing in. The need to clean-up supply chains in the industry has now become an imperative for all companies.

The increased power of the RSPO is in part due to its expanding membership which is no longer limited to industry executives. It now includes NGOs and processors, both of whom exert pressure on producers to have clean and transparent supply chains. Despite criticism from some quarters, including Greenpeace which has taken the RSPO to task for its definition of ‘no deforestation’ and the voluntary nature of the organisation’s ‘Next’ scheme, it does provide a model of how an industry can push itself towards standards of sustainable practice.

Photograph: JPC24M

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