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Food & agriculture - June 6 (updated June 7)

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Analysis: E.coli outbreak poses questions for organic farming

Kate Kelland, Reuters
The warm, watery, organic growing environment suspected as the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany may produce delicious, nutritious bean sprouts, but is also an ideal breeding ground for the dangerous bacteria.

Bean sprouts are often prime suspects in E.coli outbreaks around the world, and health experts say it is no surprise the hunt for source of the lethal strain that has killed 22 people and made more than 2,200 sick has led to an organic bean farmer.

Some say the case raises questions about the future of organic growing methods.

"Bean sprouts are very frequently the cause of outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. They're very difficult to grow hygienically and you have to be so careful not to contaminate them," said Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at Britain's University of East Anglia.

"And organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilizers, carry an extra risk."

Hunter said he personally bought organic fruits and vegetables, but steered clear of organic raw salad foods "for precisely that reason."

The original source of the contamination in Germany is highly likely to be manure, farm slurry or faces of some sort, since the Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli or STEC found in this outbreak are known to be able to lurk in cattle guts...
(6 June 2011)



Are Bean Sprouts the End of Organic Farming? Nah.

Sharon Astyk, casaubonsbook

My current favorite news story is one by Reuters about an outbreak of e,coli in Germany attributed to organically grown bean sprouts with the ridiculous headline "E. Coli Outbreak Poses Questions for Organic Farming." Now it is absolutely true that there is a nasty outbreak of e.coli in Germany that has made thousands of of people sick, and caused 22 deaths. This is awful. But Reuters has a little accuracy problem as it leaps to attack organic agriculture:

The warm, watery, organic growing environment suspected as the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany may produce delicious, nutritious bean sprouts, but is also an ideal breeding ground for the dangerous bacteria.

Bean sprouts are often prime suspects in E.coli outbreaks around the world, and health experts say it is no surprise the hunt for source of the lethal strain that has killed 22 people and made more than 2,200 sick has led to an organic bean farmer.

Some say the case raises questions about the future of organic growing methods.

"Bean sprouts are very frequently the cause of outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. They're very difficult to grow hygienically and you have to be so careful not to contaminate them," said Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at Britain's University of East Anglia.

"And organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilizers, carry an extra risk."

Problem the first - the WHO actually has no idea whether sprouts were involved - so far all indications have been negative. That doesn't mean a batch of organic sprouts couldn't have been contaminated - it is perfectly true that sprouts are particularly prone to bacterial growth whether organic or conventional - just that the statements of implied certainty in the article are nonsense.

On Tuesday, the EU health chief warned Germany against premature -- and inaccurate -- conclusions on the source of contaminated food. The comments by EU health chief John Dalli came only a day after he had defended the German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure.

Dalli told the EU parliament in Strasbourg that information must be scientifically sound and foolproof before it becomes public.

In outbreaks, it is not unusual for certain foods to be suspected at first, then ruled out. In 2008 in the U.S., raw tomatoes were initially implicated in a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Consumers shunned tomatoes, costing the tomato industry millions. Weeks later, jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico were determined to be the cause.

In the current E. coli outbreak, tests are continuing on sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany, but have so far come back negative,

Previously, imported Spanish conventional produce was implicated. I cannot find, however, any indication that Reuters ran an article arguing that the whole globalized food system was in jeopardy because important cucumbers might have been the source.

The second problem is that even if organic bean sprouts were the problem, this would have absolutely nothing do with the larger project of organic farming. Bean sprouts are not "farmed" in the same way that most food is farmed - they are instead kept in a warm, moist environment, almost always inside. They need stable, extremely warm temperatures - growing bean sprouts is a lot more like raising fish in an aquarium or hydroponics than it is like most organic farming. Observing that bean sprouts are a risk for carrying e.coli has absolutely nothing to do with organic agriculture in general.

There's also no statistical evidence that organic bean sprouts have sickened more people than conventional ones. The single largest e.coli outbreak in history, in Japan was linked to conventionally grown, industrial radish sprouts. The German outbreak is the second largest ever - and most of the next largest ones on the list are associated with two things - industrial beef or groundwater water contamination from nearby industrial animal production. And yet somehow, this never seems to raise questions or flags about the larger industrialized food system.

Indeed, the rise of some of the nastiest forms of bacterial illness are directly associated with confinement and industrial agriculture - those of us who use manure on crops are now faced with a culture that blames organic agriculture for disease outbreaks caused by packing animals into feedlots and pouring antibiotics into their food. Now all of us must face the consequences that the bacteria that emerge from these environments affect us all.

(June 7, 2011)


Hedge Farm! The Doomsday Food Price Scenario Turning Hedgies into Survivalists

Foster Kamer, The New York Observer
On the rare occasion that New Yorkers talk about farming, it's usually something along the lines of what sort of organic kale to plant in the vanity garden at the second house in the Adirondacks. But on a recent afternoon, The Observer had a conversation of a different sort about agricultural pursuits with a hedge fund manager he'd met at one of the many dark-paneled private clubs in midtown a few weeks prior. "A friend of mine is actually the largest owner of agricultural land in Uruguay," said the hedge fund manager. "He's a year older than I am. We're somewhere [around] the 15th-largest farmers in America right now."

"We," as in, his hedge fund.

It may seem a little odd that in 2011 anyone's thinking of putting money into assets that would have seemed attractive in 1911, but there's something in the air-namely, fear. The hedge fund manager and others like him envision a doomsday scenario catalyzed by a weak dollar, higher-than-you-think inflation and an uncertain political climate here and abroad.

The pattern began to emerge sometime in 2008. "The Hedge Fund Manager Who Bought a Farm," read the headline on one February 2008 Times of London piece detailing a British hedge fund manager's attempt to play off the rising prices of grains in order to usurp local farmland. A Financial Times piece two months later began: "Hedge funds and investment banks are swapping their Gucci for gumboots." It detailed BlackRock's then-relatively new $420 million Agriculture Fund, which had already swept up 2,800 acres of land...
(17 May 2011)



Mom-and-pop vs. big-box stores in the food desert

Gary Nabhan, Grist

A few weeks ago, when the Obama administration released its Food Desert Locator, many of us realized that a once-good idea has spoiled like a bag of old bread. If you go online and find that your family lives in a food desert, don't worry: You have plenty of company. One of every 10 census tracts in the lower 48 has been awarded that status.

Two years ago, when one of us (Gary) moved to the village of Patagonia, Ariz., he inadvertently chose to reside in what the USDA deems to be on the edge of a food desert. Its maps show that Gary now lives more than 15 miles away from a full-service supermarket or chain grocery store that has 50 or more employees and grosses $2 million or more in food sales each year. Apparently, that's bad. Gary and his low-income neighbors are now being told that if they were bright enough to reside within walking distance or five minutes driving distance to a Safeway, Alberston's, Winn-Dixie, or Walmart, they would undoubtedly be more "food secure."

Why? A USDA report [PDF] to Congress in 2009 suggested that the average food in such big-box grocery stores is priced 10 percent lower than its counterparts in independently owned corner stores, roadside stands, or farmers markets. What's more, the USDA claimed that "full service" big-box stores offer more affordable access to food diversity than do other venues.

Those assertions may be the biggest bunch of road apples that the USDA has ever tried to force down the throats of low-income Americans. The fatal flaw of the Obama strategy to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and obesity in America is that it risks bringing more big-box stores both to poor urban neighborhoods and to rural communities. It categorically ignores the fact that independently owned groceries, corner markets in ethnic neighborhoods, farmers markets, CSAs, and roadside stands are the real sources of affordable food diversity in America. But in its 2009 report to Congress, the USDA conceded that "a complete assessment of these diverse food environments would be such an enormous task" that it decided not to survey independently owned food purveyors. Therefore, it decided to ignore their beneficial roles and focus on the grocery-store chains that now capture three-quarters of all current foods sales in the U.S.

...
(1 June 2011)



Organic farming – India's future perfect?

Nishika Patel, The Guardian
A budding interest in organic food offers farmers soaring incomes and higher yields, but critics say it's not the answer to India's fast-rising food demands

India's struggling farmers are starting to profit from a budding interest in organic living. Not only are the incomes of organic farmers soaring – by 30 per cent to 200 per cent, according to organic experts – but their yields are rising as the pesticide-poisoned land is repaired through natural farming methods.

Organic farming only took off in the country about seven years ago. Farmers are turning back to traditional farming methods for a number of reasons.

First, there's a 10 per cent to 20 per cent premium to be earned by selling organic products abroad and in India's increasingly affluent cities, a move towards healthy living and growing concern over toxic foods and adulteration plaguing the food market.

Second, the cost of pesticides and fertilisers has shot up and the loans farmers need to buy expensive, modified seed varieties are pushing many into a spiral of debt. Crippling debt and the burden of loans are trriggering farmer suicides across the country, particularly in the Vidarabha region of Maharashtra. Organic farming slashes cultivation and input costs by up to 70 per cent due to the use of cheaper, natural products like manure instead of chemicals and fertilisers.

Third, farmers are suffering from the damaging effects of India's green revolution, which ushered in the rampant use of pesticides and fertilisers from the 1960s to ensure bumper yields and curb famine and food shortages. Over the decades, the chemicals have taken a toll on the land and yields are plunging...
(12 May 2011)



Challenges of a Colorado Local Food Initiative

Brendon Bosworth, The New West
Mark Guttridge peeled back the white fabric draped across the floor of his hoop house, a greenhouse roughly 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 12 feet high, with plastic pulled tight across its metal frame. He unveiled three neat rows of leafy vegetables ­– dark green spinach, bright lettuce and bok choy obviously thriving in the tunnel-like warm environment.

“We just planted these in the last week of January,” Guttridge said.

It was a cool afternoon in early April, with clouds hovering over Guttridge’s 30-acre Ollin Farms. The farm faces a suburban development and is flanked by Highway 119, which connects Longmont with Boulder.

Guttridge is a regular at the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, where he and his wife Kena sell their produce on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the warmer months. He also sells directly from a stand at his farm and supplies 120 families signed up for his community supported agriculture program with boxes of vegetables each week.

Guttridge’s operation is an example of a localized food chain. His vegetables are grown, sold and bought within Boulder County’s borders.

Besides locally grown produce being fresher than imported food and healthier than industrially processed foods, there is also a social value attached to buying and selling local food, Guttridge explained.

“There are obvious health benefits, there are obvious flavor benefits, but the subtle thing that drives it all, to me, is this idea of community and being able to share things with your neighbors,” he said...
(12 May 2011)

Editorial Notes: Photo: Ashton B Crew, wikimedia commons

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