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Not just the facts, ma’am: Why science alone can’t defeat Big Food’s policy stranglehold

Nancy Huehnergarth, Grist
Food-reform advocates like to stick to the facts, believing that if they can just construct a rational, air-tight argument, they’ll convince the public and transform policy around food. But that’s a bit like bringing a butter knife to a sword fight. As Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, declared at the May 4 Future of Food conference in Washington D.C., “We need to bring as much rigor to the fight [for a healthy, sustainable food system] as we have to the science.” (Hat tip to Marion Nestle for highlighting Dr. Ross’ speech in her blog, Food Politics.)

The world of public health and its funders can be very genteel. When a policy like the soda tax fails to get enacted due to strong, well-financed opposition from industry, public health advocates want more science. They often believe that the new data collected, the indisputable conclusions drawn, or the attendant policy recommendations will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action. But, as Ross pointed out, if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well. And so far in this food fight, public health is pretty bruised and battered.

The reality is, that when up against deep-pocketed, no-holds-barred opponents, like Big Food, Big Beverage, and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging.
(20 May 2011)

Somalia food aid cut amid UN funding shortfall

Martin Plaut, BBC News
A drought which began late last year has left many Somalis short of food. The country has also been ravaged by two decades of violence.

Already, one in four children in the south of the country are severely malnourished.

Aid agencies describe their plight as very serious indeed.

“We began having to cut ration sizes from February, to try and eke out what food we did have coming through the system,” WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon said from Nairobi.

“Now, in May, it has really got extremely serious. We have only about 30% of the food that we need to feed the one million people that we were expecting to feed this time of the year.

He said the organisation had been forced to reduce both the number of those it feeds and the ration given to each person.

“In fact we’re feeding 66% of the one million people we should be feeding but the amount of food being given out is only 33% of what we should be giving out.”

Often Somalis cross into neighbouring Ethiopia, to search for pasture and food.

But an attack on a convoy earlier this month has forced the WFP to cancel its aid distributions.

Until the security situation improves in Ethiopia, these cannot be resumed.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan army has attempted to prevent an exodus into the country, while across the Red Sea, another potential haven – Yemen – is in the throws of a political crisis.

The WFP is to hold consultations with donors in the next few weeks to explain the severity of the situation.

But currently there is little Somalis can do but wait and hope, as they face the prospect of war and drought as aid stockpiles are depleted.
(21 May 2011)

Washington conference on sustainable food: organic ag goes mainstream

Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle
Georgetown University last week packed a lecture hall usually reserved for presidential foreign policy addresses for a conference on food, keynoted by the world’s most famous organic farmer, Prince Charles.

“Topsoil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations,” the Prince of Wales told the crowd of more than 700, citing at times UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan and first lady Michelle Obama, heralds of the new food movement. “Why is it that an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatments, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit?”

The sustainable farming movement, cradled in Northern California, has gone mainstream, challenging the industrial model that has ruled American farming for more than half a century.

Eight big foundations – the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation – have just banded together in a group, called AGree, to examine food systems and mediate the conflict between conventional and alternative farming.
(16 May 2011)
We posted a transript of Wendell Berry’s outstnding talk at the conference: What must we do?. -BA

The oceans are emptying fast

Geoffrey Lean, Telegraph/UK
We must grasp one more chance to reverse the over-exploitation of dwindling fish stocks

It was a shameful par for a very long course when European, Middle Eastern and North African governments met in Rome this month to decide how to save the fast-vanishing fisheries in their common sea. You’d think there would have been a sense of the need for urgent action at the annual meeting of the cumbersomely named General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. After all, scientists had warned that 22 of the sea’s 23 stocks of bottom-living fish – including hake, mullet and red shrimp – are over-exploited, and called for drastic catch reductions in fishing.

But even though the commission’s raison d’être is to “promote the development, conservation, rational management and best utilisation” of fish and other “living marine resources”, the meeting broke up last week without having adopted a single measure to address the decline.

This was typical of the way governments have approached the ravaging of the seas
(21 May 2011)

Anton Smedshaug’s Definitive Guide To The Oil-Driven Food Crisis

Anton Smedshaug, Business Insider
One of the best presentations at last week’s peak oil conference in Chicago was given by Norwegian agronomist Anton Smedshaug.

Smedshaug showed how the Malthusian food crisis of the nineteenth century was averted by increased crop yields and a transportation revolution.

As fuel prices increase, however, food supply will be limited to what’s local. Moreover, governments will be forced to commit land to biofuel production, food production will diminished.

[slideshow at original] (10 May 2011)

Dung loaming: how llamas aided the Inca empire

Rory Carroll, Guardian
Inca culture spread from Andes after manure from llama herds provided fertiliser for corn crops at high altitude

The Incas may have created the biggest empire in the Americas and built Machu Picchu, among other wonders, thanks to a previously overlooked ingredient: llama dung.

Manure from llama herds provided fertiliser which enabled corn to be cultivated at very high altitudes, allowing the Inca civilisation to flourish in the Andes and conquer much of South America, according to research.

The “extraordinary plant-breeding event” about 2,700 years ago transformed the region’s political economy and enabled the Incas to emerge centuries later, said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima.

“This widespread shift to agriculture and societal development was only possible with an extra ingredient – organic fertilisers on a vast scale.” The study, published in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, found corn pollen in the mud of Marcacocha lake, near Ollantayambo, showing the cereal could be grown at least 3,350m above sea level. ,
(22 May 2011)