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Food & agriculture - Nov 5

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Weed It and Reap

Michael Pollan, New York Times
FOR Americans who have been looking to Congress to reform the food system, these past few weeks have been, well, the best of times and the worst of times. A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill, traditionally a parochial piece of legislation thrashed out in private between the various agricultural interests (wheat growers versus corn growers; meatpackers versus ranchers) without a whole lot of input or attention from mere eaters.

Not this year. The eaters have spoken, much to the consternation of farm-state legislators who have fought hard - and at least so far with success - to preserve the status quo.

Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.

On Capitol Hill, hearings on the farm bill have been packed, and newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle are covering the legislation as closely as The Des Moines Register, bringing an unprecedented level of attention to what has long been one of the most obscure and least sexy pieces of legislation in Congress. Sensing the winds of reform at his back, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told a reporter in July: “This is not just a farm bill. It’s a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it.”

Right now, that stake is looking more like a toothpick. Americans who eat have little to celebrate in the bill that Mr. Harkin is expected to bring to the floor this week. Like the House bill passed in July, the Senate product is very much a farm bill in the traditional let-them-eat-high-fructose-corn-syrup mold.

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer at The Times Magazine and a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the forthcoming “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.”
(4 November 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.

Church urges supermarkets to give farmers a fairer deal

Alison Benjamin, Guardian
The Church of England is today calling for an independent watchdog to stop the enormous buying power of the big supermarkets putting farmers' livelihoods at risk.

In a report urging an end to the leading retailers' pernicious business practices such as squeezing farm-gate prices and making farmers pay for supermarkets' own promotions, the Church recommends that the appointment of an independent ombudsman should be "urgently considered".

It also calls for "fair trade" mark for food reared, grown, produced and processed in Britain that offer consumers and suppliers a fair product for a fair price.

The report, Fair Trade Begins at Home: Supermarkets and the effect on British farming livelihood, outlines concerns within the Church about the viability of some farming enterprises as a result of "unfair" business methods employed by major food retailers.
(5 November 2007)

52 Weeks Down - Week 25 - Change your Diet

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
This isn't the first post I've written about how to eat in this series, but I keep coming back to it because it is so central and potentially so powerful. At Community Solutions last week, a woman from Manhattan asked me and the other CSA farmers in our workshop why it was that she could only get local food for 20 weeks a year or so. It took me a minute to answer her, because the truth is that in one form or another, I can fairly easily produce food from April 1 to December 1, but the CSA delivery season is only mid-June to mid-October. Why is it then, that I'm not selling food 8 months of the year? Or twelve, for that matter, which I could do with a fairly small investment in season extension techniques.

The simple answer to that is that I can grow local food 8 months a year uncovered (longer sometimes), and another four months with cover, but what I can't do is find enough people who are truly committed to eating a real, seasonal diet to make it worthwhile.

...What grows in upstate NY in the winter? Green stuff. Cole crops like cabbage, Collards, Kale and Brussels Sprouts. Spinach. Some lettuces. Arugula. Asian greens like mizuna and bok choy. Cress. Mustards. Mache. Minutina. Lots, and lots and lots of greens. I can keep some root crops in the ground under cover (carrots, turnips, parsnips) as well. But in order for me to sell those crops, I'd have to have a large population that likes brussels sprouts, arugula and kale enough to eat large quantities of them daily.

I do. My family eats from our garden 8 months a year, and then gardens all winter under cover for our own pleasure. The food is wonderful - the cold weather transforms the taste of the crops, making them more flavorful than you can imagine. We love our greens - my oldest son will devour an entire plate of spinach, and all of my kids adore mee pad, a dish of noodles, greens and tofu. We really do eat greens several times a day, with most meals, and consider ourselves richer for it. We're weird, though.

Most Americans don't derive from a greens eating culture, and we're not sure what to do with multiple bunches of greens - unless you are southern and cook them with pork (not in my kosher home - but I don't feel the loss, since there are plenty of wonderful non-pork ways to cook greens), you probably eat greens once or twice a week - mostly in salad. So changing our agriculture to focus on local food has to start at the table.
(4 November 2007)

Food and community in Katine (Uganda)
- video
A guide to the sometimes basic diet of many people in Katine, one often lacking in sufficient protein - even with the addition of termites. However, villages are communal places, especially when there is a wedding taking place.
(5 November 2007)
Five minute video about food and customs in a village in Africa. More videos about the village available at the site.

Commodity, fuel costs boost grocery prices

Lauren Villagran, Associated Press
NEW YORK - This morning, your bowl of cereal and milk probably cost you 49 cents. Last year, it was 44 cents. By next year, it could be 56 cents. It’s enough to make you cry in your cornflakes.

The forces behind the rise in food prices - China’s economic boom, a growing biofuels industry and a weak U.S. dollar - are global and not letting up anytime soon. Grocery receipts are bulging because the raw ingredients, packaging and fuel that go into the price of foodstuffs cost more than they have in decades.

It’s the worst bout of food inflation since 1990, but not yet worrisome to the economy, said John Lonski, chief economist of Moody’s Investor Service. While high food prices can cut into consumers’ discretionary spending, the 4 percent rate of food inflation is still far below the crippling double-digit levels of the 1970s.
(3 November 2007)

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