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Food & agriculture - Aug 31

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When genetically modified plants go wild

Gregory M. Lamb, Christian Science Monitor
Even advocates of these crops were shaken recently when GM plants 'escaped' from test areas.
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...many who closely watch how biotechnology is changing agriculture, including those who see a valuable role for GM crops, are disturbed by what appears to be a series of recent incidents showing lax supervision of experimental plantings by the government and agribusinesses.

"You absolutely should be in compliance with regulations," says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, an internationally recognized advocate for the uses of biotechnology based in Davis, Calif. She directs the University of California's systemwide biotechnology program. The three incidents "aren't health concerns, but they are regulatory concerns," she says. "It's incumbent on the companies, on the USDA ... to ensure that everybody complies with these regulations."

The three incidents convey a message that "the US government has been somewhat lax in its oversight of the biotechnology industry and in some instances has not taken its responsibility to regulate as strongly as it should," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington that has expressed qualified support for the use of genetic modification in agriculture.

"Clearly this shows that the companies and the government don't have as much control over experimental crops as they need to have," Mr. Jaffe says. "I think there's a sloppiness out there. Industry doesn't take the rules of conduct as seriously as it should."
(31 Aug 2006)


Monsanto buys ‘Terminator’ Seeds Company

F. William Engdahl, Geopolitics-Geoeconomics
The United States Government has been financing research on a genetic engineering technology which, when commercialized, will give its owners the power to control the food seed of entire nations or regions. The Government has been working quietly on this technology since 1983. Now, the little-known company that has been working in this genetic research with the Government’s US Department of Agriculture-- Delta & Pine Land-- is about to become part of the world’s largest supplier of patented genetically-modified seeds (GMO), Monsanto Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri.

Relations between Monsanto, Delta & Pine Land and the USDA, on closer scrutiny, show the deep and dark side of the much-heralded genetic revolution in agriculture. It proves deep-held suspicions that the Gene Revolution is not about ‘solving the world hunger problem’ as its advocates claim. It’s about handing over control of the seeds for mankind’s basic food supply-rice, corn, soybeans, wheat, even fruit, vegetables and cotton-to privately owned corporations. Once the seeds and their use are patented and controlled by one or several private agribusiness multinationals, it will be they who can decide whether or not a particular customer-let’s say for argument, China or Brazil or India or Japan-whether they will or won’t get the patented seeds from Monsanto, or from one of its licensee GMO partners like Bayer Crop Sciences, Syngenta or DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

While most of us don’t bother to reflect on where the corn in the box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or the rice in a box of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice come from, when we grab it from the supermarket shelf, they all must originate with seeds. Seeds can either be taken by a farmer from the previous season’ seeds, and planted to produce the next harvest. Or, seeds can be bought new each harvest season, from the companies which sell their seeds.

The advent of commercial GMO seeds in the early 1990’s allowed companies like Monsanto, DuPont or Dow Chemicals to go from supplying agriculture chemical herbicides like Roundup, to patenting genetically altered seeds for basic farm crops like corn, rice, soybeans or wheat. For almost a quarter century, since 1983, the US Government has quietly been working to perfect a genetically engineered technique whereby farmers would be forced to turn to their seed supplier each harvest to get new seeds. The seeds would only produce one harvest. After that the seeds from that harvest would commit ‘suicide’ and be unusable.
(27 Aug 2006)
Also published at Financial Sense Online.

Contributor Corrie Collins writes:

This is such a chilling revelation - that the farmer's ability to regrow crops will depend on buying new seeds every season from a corporation. The corporate control on our ability to eat will become complete - at a time when cooperative farming may be the only way people will have left to survive the petro-collapse era. This sheds new light on the importance of Norway's world seed bank. Let's hope that the genetically modified seeds cannot contaminate normal plant seed production or that will eventually mean certain doom.

Grist gets hungry
David Roberts and Tom Philpott, Grist and Gristmill
Food and pleasure:

I'm too lazy to find any actual poll numbers on this, so I could be wrong, but my strong guess is that most U.S. consumers involved in the recent growth of organic food are choosing organic for health reasons. One might even think of the organic boomlet as a subspecies of the general American health mania -- the same one that sent customers herding toward fat-free and low-carb food.

If this is true, we wouldn't expect consumers to particularly care about how far the food has traveled or what size farm it was grown on. They see "organic" as another health label; if it has any specific content to them at all (as opposed to vaguely healthful connotations), they probably associate it with lack of pesticides, and pesticide-free is pesticide-free, whether from an industrial farm in Chile or Farmer Bob's family farm down the road.

How can we get U.S. consumers to care about the broader food system?

Edible Media: The left gets hungry:

The left has always had an uneasy relationship with pleasure -- and thus with food. For every freewheeling beatnik or free-loving hippie, there must be 10 dour left-wingers who see personal pleasure as an obscene indulgence in a world wracked by war, hunger, oppression, and environmental ruin.

Yet one of the most powerful critiques of consumer capitalism is that it drains life of vivid pleasure and offers instead "pleasure." A handmade dark-chocolate custard becomes a dull, corn-sweetened "chocolate" shake. Peddling boundless diversity and freedom, mass-market consumerism delivers regimentation, sameness, and mediocrity. As Michael Pollan showed in Omnivore's Dilemma, the dizzying variety arrayed on U.S. supermarket shelves boils down to endless combinations of two ingredients: corn and soybeans.

By treating pleasure and food as beneath responsible discussion, the left cedes too much to the hucksters who run the show. Rather than deride pleasure as a vice of the rich, the left should try to revive it as a principle for all.

Cold Comfort Farm:

Could small farms provide fresh food year-round, even in northern climes?

...Which is what Eliot Coleman, up in Maine, is famous for. He describes his bag of tricks in his classic Four Season Harvest, and has written elsewhere that "to make a real difference in creating a local food system, local growers need to be able to continue supplying 'fresh' food through the winter months ... [and] to do that without markedly increasing our expenses or our consumption of non-renewable resources."

If we wanted to make that vision come true for the nation's northern climes, all it would take is research tailored to particular regions and investment capital. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the USDA spews out $1.5 billion per year for conventional-ag research and extension. Its excellent Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, by contrast, draws just $14 million. The research money is there; all we lack is the political clout.

(30 Aug 2006)
Earlier this week, it was The Nation and now Grist - everyone's talking about food.


Rattling the Food Chain
A cornucopia of new books tells us where our food comes from

Tom Philpott, Grist
...Eric Schlosser, in his groundbreaking Fast Food Nation, brought an investigative reporter's zeal to tracing the holy trinity of American eating -- burger, fries, and a Coke -- back to the far-flung fields, factories, corporate marketing meetings, and laboratories from which they hail. Fast Food Nation, a best seller soon to hit the big screen as a fictionalized film, reminded many Americans that what's on their plate has a history worth thinking about. And it taught New York book editors that food politics can sell.

This year has been a watershed in the food-politics publishing boom. No fewer than four books released in 2006 tread down the path broken by Schlosser. The best-known, Michael Pollan's best-seller Omnivore's Dilemma, is probably also the best. The author provides an exhaustive "natural history of four meals." Broadening Schlosser's mandate, Pollan trains a hungry eye not just on industrially produced fare, but also on the alternatives that have arisen over the past few decades. He subjects the various U.S. food chains not just to a cold reporter's eye, but also to his gourmand's palate. He reminds us that the industrialization of the food supply has caused more than just environmental and bodily damage. It's also ruined many people's ability to take real pleasure in food.

...For Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the veteran animal-rights polemicists, the pleasure principle doesn't matter much. They've come out with The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, a book similar in ambition and scope to Omnivore's Dilemma. But if Pollan returns again and again to aesthetics -- parsing, say, the subtle differences in flavor between a grain-fed Whole Foods organic chicken and a pasture-raised one slaughtered on the farm -- Singer and Mason focus solely on ethics.

...Another book released this year, Samuel Fromartz's Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, focuses on the rapidly growing organic-food industry. Unfortunately for Fromartz, Omnivore's Dilemma, which came out a couple of months earlier, covers much of the same ground. But Organic, Inc. remains worth a read. A veteran business reporter, Fromartz knows how to lay out an industry's history in compelling fashion.

...Of all the food-politics books released in 2006, the one with the most impact may end up being the one that seems the least significant. Eric Schlosser himself, teaming up with journalist Charles Wilson, has come out with Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food. Like fast-food marketing execs, Schlosser and Wilson know that the easiest way to affect U.S. eating habits is to focus on the young and impressionable. The fast-food industry has pursued this goal by directing hundreds of millions of marketing dollars toward the young. Schlosser and Wilson have responded by repackaging Fast Food Nation to appeal to young readers. Their goal: to make kids who have been drawn in by the fast-food industry's well-engineered aromas "turn and walk out the door" without ordering.
(31 Aug 2006)


Kitchen stories - a craving for fellowship

Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva, The Nation
Although we call ourselves the Kitchen Sisters, food hasn't always been our beat. That happened relatively recently, when we began chronicling for National Public Radio the secret, unexpected, below-the-radar neighborhood cooking going on all around America. We call them "Hidden Kitchens": a midnight cab yard kitchen on the streets of San Francisco, a secret civil rights kitchen tucked away in a house in Montgomery in the '50s, a clandestine kitchen in a prison in Louisiana, the most unexpected hidden kitchen of the homeless--the George Foreman Grill.

Gathering these small kitchen stories, our microphone has become a kind of stethoscope, listening to the complicated heart of the nation--in the plazas of San Antonio, the racing pits of NASCAR, the ricing lakes of the Ojibwe, over the hard road of hunger that led George Foreman to boxing.

On Fourth of July weekend, 2004, Jay Allison, curator of our quest for hidden kitchens, went on NPR inviting listeners to call in and collaborate with us on our nationwide search. The hotline was flooded with calls--an astonishing array of voices from nearly every region of the country--tales of underground kitchens at nuclear test sites in Nevada, a shipyard in Michigan where the nightshift roasts chicken in the welding-rod ovens, clambakes in New England, church suppers in Kentucky, test kitchens, jailhouse kitchens, kitchens on movie sets...the response was overwhelming. Even more amazing to us than the stories was the sense of urgency intensity of the messages. People were demanding that we come chronicle their kitchens immediately because their tradition was just too good to miss, or the peaches would only be ripe for another week, or the senior center hot lunch program was being closed for lack of funds, or the last keeper of the clams was about to die. These weren't just invitations to interview, these were house calls.

We have received some 2,879 minutes of messages--an accidental archive of how people live, adapt and cook in twenty-first-century America. These messages have led us around the country to unusual, underground, almost-forgotten kitchens and traditions, and introduced us to the visionaries and cooks who tend and feed our communities.

If there is a single, unifying theme to the hours of stories and messages we've gathered, it is not about food itself, but about fellowship. It is really this that lays beneath most of the messages--that hidden thing happens in the best of kitchens--something is shared. The stories are offbeat and eccentric, poignant and powerful--full of hope and imagination--a map of possibilities for coming together through food.

This essay was adapted from the new paperback edition of Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More From NPR's The Kitchen Sisters (Rodale Press.)
(29 Aug 2006)
The original article at The Nation is much longer.

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