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Food & agriculture - June 12

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Why our food is making us fat

Jacques Peretti, Guardian
We are, on average, 3st heavier than we were in the 60s. And not because we're eating more or exercising less – we just unwittingly became sugar addicts
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... Why are we so fat? We have not become greedier as a race. We are not, contrary to popular wisdom, less active – a 12-year study, which began in 2000 at Plymouth hospital, measured children's physical activity and found it the same as 50 years ago. But something has changed: and that something is very simple. It's the food we eat. More specifically, the sheer amount of sugar in that food, sugar we're often unaware of.

The story begins in 1971. Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board – the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.

Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. US cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier. Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses for corn.

... By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it's often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap. HFCS had been discovered in the 50s, but it was only in the 70s that a process had been found to harness it for mass production. HFCS was soon pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that "just baked" sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years. A silent revolution of the amount of sugar that was going into our bodies was taking place.

... Moreover, there was something else going on. The more sugar we ate, the more we wanted, and the hungrier we became. At New York University, Professor Anthony Sclafani, a nutritionist studying appetite and weight gain, noticed something strange about his lab rats. When they ate rat food, they put on weight normally. But when they ate processed food from a supermarket, they ballooned in a matter of days. Their appetite for sugary foods was insatiable: they just carried on eating.

According to Professor Jean-Marc Schwarz of San Francisco hospital, who is currently studying the precise way in which the major organs of the body metabolise sugar, this momentum creates "a tsunami" of sugar. The effect this has on different organs in the body is only now being understood by scientists.
(11 June 2012)



Greece's 'potato movement' grows in power

John Psaropoulos, Al Jazeera
A growing group of grassroots activists are cutting out agricultural middlemen and connecting farmers and shoppers.
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Athens, Greece - When an economy shrinks, prices are meant to go down in response to falling demand. This has not happened in Greece - at least not yet. While the Greek economy shrank by an average of five per cent a year between 2009 and 2011, consumer prices rose by an average 3.7 per cent a year. The combination of falling revenues and rising prices has led to an explosive political mix.

It is not politicians but grassroots activism that has come to address this issue. In April, the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) reported a 24.6 per cent drop in potato prices from March 2011 - the largest ever one-year drop in any commodity. The reason for this historic deflation was what has come to be known as the potato movement - and it is having an empowering effect on Greeks, not only as consumers, but also as citizens and voters.

The seminal event of the movement was a free distribution of more than ten tons of spuds in the centre of Greece's northern metropolis, Thessaloniki, on February 5. It was organised by a group of farmers from the village of Nevrokopi, Greece's potato-growing capital.

The farmers were protesting against imports of Egyptian potatoes - while they had barns full of the Greek product - after a meeting between the agriculture minister and potato importers days earlier failed to yield any concessions.

... The entire greater Thessaloniki area now holds regular sales of cheap produce, and the movement has spread south to the capital, Athens, and beyond.

The potato movement is changing the food market. "Competition has increased," Kamenidis told Al Jazeera. "The stores that once sold for 75 cents are selling for 45 cents, and I heard prices as low as 19 cents." And the effect has not been limited to potatoes. Other basic durable goods such as olive oil, flour, rice, and honey have also gone on sale directly from producers, undercutting market prices by half.

... Arnaoutoglou was vindicated. She and the growers she coordinates sold their potatoes at the cost price of 25 cents a kilo, and have cash in hand to sow next year's crop. Those who held out for a higher price are stuck with potatoes they may have to sell over the border to Bulgarian middlemen for 10 cents a kilo, or with cheques and IOUs from Greek middlemen that haven't been honoured in two years. She now plans to sell abroad via a website.

Perhaps the ability to foster a can-do spirit and generalise it is the potato movement's most lasting - and subtle - contribution to Greek culture. It has already begun to transform civic attitudes in Katerini. "It takes me an hour to walk a kilometre from my house to the centre of town, because people stop me and the other volunteers and beg us to take over the local government," Tsolakidis told Al Jazeera. "This happens every day. They see this movement as something very hopeful."

The group's organisational power and economic potential give it a possibly subversive political appeal. "We can mobilise more people than anyone else," Tsolakidis told Al Jazeera. "We receive about 5,500 orders for each sale of produce, representing about 45,000 people, or 55 per cent of the population of our town … Political gatherings are lucky if they get 50 people."
(11 June 2012)



Australia's two biggest supermarket chains are reshaping the nation's agriculture

Melissa Fyfe and Royce Millar, Sydney Morning Herald
Does the food business stack up?

Australia's two biggest supermarket chains are reshaping the nation's agriculture, diet and understanding of what fresh food is.

IN THE middle of the night, while Melbourne sleeps, they arrive. Every night the big trucks come, some from the fringes of the city, others from Queensland, some from South Australia. As the early-morning hours tick on, they unload bananas, mangoes, packs of herbs.

By 8am at Woolworths' distribution centre in Mulgrave, this nationwide logistical feat is over and another begins. Within 24 hours, most of these fruits and vegetables are repacked and trucked to 189 stores around the state.

It wasn't always like this. Once, buyers from Coles and Woolworths-Safeway joined the early-morning haggle at Footscray's wholesale fruit and vegetable market. In the past decade, after multimillion-dollar investments, the supermarket giants have turned their supply chains inside out.
(4 June 2012)
The system is apparently moving in the wrong direction at the moment! Any disruption to fuel supplies will have very large impacts. -ML


Food, Farmers and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement

Andrea Brower, Scoop (New Zealand)
I write this as an American living in Aotearoa who is deeply concerned by the ‘trade’ deal being negotiated between our countries (or more correctly, between our countries corporations and their political cronies). On America’s side, Monsanto, Big Pharma, and Wall Street are attempting to manipulate New Zealand’s laws to eliminate anything that might get in the way of their expansion and bottom-line. On New Zealand’s side, Fonterra hopes for access to the US market. So they are endeavoring to devise a plan amongst themselves (and the elite of several other countries) to maximize their interests (profit, power, market consolidation) -- a plan brilliantly named with the most amiable of words, the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement’(hereafter referred to simply as the TPP).

I say ‘devise a plan amongst themselves’ without sounding like too much of a conspiracy theorist because there is really no other way to describe closed-door talks that include 600 corporate advisors and exclude journalists, civil society, and Members of US Congress / New Zealand Parliament. Participating countries have agreed that no background documents will be released until four years after the agreement comes into force, and since the US took control of the negotiations, the only pretense of transparency (a daylong ‘stakeholder’ programme) has been removed. Not only is the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP fundamentally anti-democratic, but the agreement itself is attempting to establish corporations rights to skirt domestic courts and laws and sue governments directly (demanding taxpayer compensation for any domestic law they believe will diminish their ‘expected future profits’).

There is a lot to loose in the TPP -- control over land and resources, the tino rangatiratanga of Maori, affordable medicine, intellectual and cultural heritage, internet freedom, the ability to regulate the financial sector, tobacco laws... (check out tppwatch.org and citizen.org). But lets start in this article with food and agriculture, since Fonterra’s bottom-line is the only justification I’ve heard for the deal on New Zealand’s side. There are three main points to be made about ag and the TPP: it’s bad for farmers and local food security, especially in less industrialized countries; it’s bad for New Zealand ag and food safety; and it’s not even good for Fonterra.
(3 June 2012)

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