Better Safe Than Sorry

It was a source of great satisfaction to me to be able to wander into any food market in Italy, knowing the government, or the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), is, according to its motto, “committed to ensuring that Europe’s food is safe.”  Simply put, in Europe, any substance put in food must first be proven safe, while in the U.S., any substance can be  put in food until someone can prove it is not safe.

The EFSA was established in 2002 in Parma, Italy, making it a relatively young governing body, considering the plethora of threats to the global food supply that arisen in the last three decades.   The EFSA is “designed to serve as an objective, independent scientific reference point and to provide scientific advice and scientific  and technical support for the EU legislation and policies in all fields which have a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety.”

For example, the EFSA recently called for new restrictions on two pesticides from the neoicotiniod  family of pesticides, acetamidprid and imidaclorprid, both of which are suspected of affecting the developing human nervous system.  The differences between the EFSA and the USDA are evident in this decision, in that established scientific evidence isn’t essential in the EU, only that a substance may cause damage to human health.  Unless it is absolutely ruled out that these pesticides can harm development of children, they will be restricted or banned.  The USDA, on the other hand, recently found, after testing, that residues of both these pesticides were found on conventional fruits and vegetables.  Ken Cook, President of Environmental Working Group, states that “American parents should be outraged.  For years, children in the U.S. have been eating foods contaminated with these two pesticides even though there was little or no research to prove they wouldn’t harm children’s health.”  He goes on to point out, and this is critical, that “many…chemicals that were once thought to be safe turn out later to present a potential risk to people, particularly kids.”

Another example highlighting the differences between the EFSA and the USDA is the use of antibiotics on animal farms.  In the U.S., 80% of all antibiotic use occurs on animal farms, which has raised significant concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  The Union of Concerned Scientists, among many others, point out the salient dangers to our health should we not be able, in future, to fight bacterial infections.  The EU has banned all antibiotics used in human medicine on farms, and no antibiotics can be used at all for growth promotion.  The U.S., however,  has stated that regulation of the industry in this regard should be voluntary.  And the list goes on.

Because money speaks so forcefully in the U.S., we are all guinea pigs at the service of Big Ag.  Our government does not protect us from corporate practices and experiments put into place only to enhance profit.  To eat conventional and processed food is irresponsible and dangerous.  Buy organic.

I made some very simple meals in Italy that simply cannot be reproduced here as the ingredients are not available.  However, this simple pasta can be considered a main meal or as an accompaniment to grilled meat.

Recipe of the Week

Pasta with anchovies

1 lb of the pasta of your choice

10 cloves garlic, minced

1 tin anchovies, minced

1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan

parsley

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente.  Drain but do not rinse.  Heat the oil in a large cast iron frying pan  with the anchovies.  When the anchovies sizzle, add the garlic, cook for one minute, then add the pasta and parsley.  Save a little of the pasta water to add to the pasta mixture for moisture.  Turn off the heat and toss in the cheese.

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Resistance Is, Perhaps, Not Futile

The oil and gas industry spent $878,120 on city specific campaigns to oppose anti-fracking measures in Colorado this year, while proponents raised $26,000.  From 2009 through 2013, Chevron, BP and the Western States Petroleum Association spent more than $56 million lobbying the California legislature to resist anti-fracking legislation.  And lucrative royalty payments were offered to residents in Mora County, New Mexico if they allowed fracking on their property.  Although industry money persuaded the California Senate to prevent SB1132, a bill that would have imposed a moratorium on hydrofracking, a poll conducted this year found that “two-thirds (68%) of voters [in California] would support a fracking moratorium, support that cuts across all gender, age, ethnic, partisan, ideological and geographic subsets of the electorate.”  Despite the money, people are beginning to realize that fracking embodies a huge threat to our water supplies and public health.

Back in 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously adopted a first-in-the-nation ordinance against fracking within city limits, this in response to an energy company holding a lease that would have allowed them to drill under a city cemetery.  The ordinance, drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, also sought to limit the claim of personhood by corporations and to champion the rights of property owners above corporate interests.  In Mora County, New Mexico, 5,000 residents of a low-income ranching area supported a county wide ban on fracking, citing water safety concerns.  County Commissioner Chairman John Olivas, said the ban “is all about the water,” and estimated that 95% of the county’s residents supported it.

And then last November, three cities in Colorado, Fort Collins, Boulder and Lafayette, all approved measures that would either ban or institute a moratorium on fracking.  Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action, said that “Fort Collins’ vote [was] especially revealing [because it was] a decisive 10 point win in a swing county while being outspent 40 to 1.  The oil and gas industry poured in almost $900,000 to try and force citizens to be exposed to their cancer-causing fracking chemicals.  Their money back-fired.”  The Fort Collins initiative halts fracking and the disposal of related waste for five years.  Seventy-seven percent of voters in Boulder extended an expiring one year moratorium on oil and gas extraction.  In Lafayette, close to 60% of voters banned the practice outright.

Despite having lost some battles in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association is fighting back.  A month after the elections, they filed a lawsuit against the city of Lafayette to overturn the newly passed Community Bill of Rights.  The residents, however, are continuing with their fight and have in turn filed a class action suit.  “This class action lawsuit is merely the first of many by people across the United States whose constitutional rights to govern their own communities are routinely violated by state governments working in concert with the corporations that they ostensibly regulate,” said Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.  The Colorado Oil and Gas Association calls residents who assert their right to local self governance “extremists.”

There are, apparently, many such extremists among us.  Canadaigua, New York passed a permanent ban on fracking in June.  Kirkland, New York banned fracking last January.  Santa Cruz became the first county in California to ban fracking last May.  Los Angeles passed a moratorium last February.  Washington, D.C. passed a resolution banning fracking in the George Washington National Forest, which contains the headwaters of the Potomac River.  Dallas, Texas (!) banned fracking last year.  And the list goes on.  Food and Water Watch said that as of June, 2014, the list of actions passed against fracking in the U.S. has risen to 418.

If there’s any doubt about the evils of fracking, one needs only to consider the source.  The 2005 Energy Act, which exempted the oil and gas industry from adhering to practically every foundational health and environmental law on the books, was written by the industry in then Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.  Cheney, as you may remember, was the former head of Halliburton Industries, one of the major providers of fracking fluids.  The 2005 Energy Act contained a provision that has come to be called the “Halliburton Loophole,” which is an exemption for gas drilling and extraction from requirements in the underground injection control program of the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Other exemptions are contained in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.  Fracking, and its collusion with federal energy policy, is not about clean energy, but a continuing grab for profit by the oil and gas industry.

For those of you who read my blog weekly, I’ll be spending the next two weeks in Tuscany, where I’m sure to come up with some excellent recipes.

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Business as Usual

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), the global food system is responsible for up to one-third of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions.  This study examined, for the first time, the carbon emissions resulting from all stages of the food system, including the release of nitrous oxide from soils due to farming techniques such as tilling.  The researchers also examined the contributions to climate change made by fertilizer manufacture and refrigeration.  The study was international in scope, showing for example, that in high-income countries like the United Kingdom, post-production (storage and transportation) contributes to the largest portion of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions, whereas in China, fertilizer manufacture plays the largest role.  The study focuses on what crops we grow, why we grow them and how we grow them.

According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “only about 2 percent of U.S. cropland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 59% is devoted to commodity crops, such as corn and soy beans, which are used primarily to produce three things:  meat, processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup, and biofuels such as ethanol.”  The report also examines current farm policy, which provides subsidies for commodity crop farmers.  The farmers who receive these subsidies are then prohibited from growing fruits and vegetables.  Moreover, federal crop insurance programs focus on commodity crop farmers, which makes it more difficult for fruit and vegetable farmers to obtain insurance and credit.

The CGIAR study examines how climate change affects the yields of the dominant crops.  Another study conducted by researchers at Columbia University and North Carolina State University shows that the yields of three of America’s biggest cash crops, corn, soybeans and cotton, will decrease by as much as 80% of 2100.  Dr. Michael Roberts, one of the authors of the study, said “while crop yields depend on a variety of factors, extreme heat is the best predictor of yields.”  The report suggests that if nothing is done, the impact of climate change on global food security would be disastrous.

Farming techniques also play a role in the continuing unsustainability  of our food system, as well as animal husbandry.  Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, has pointed out “that nothing in nature repeatedly and regularly turns over soil to the specified depth of 15 to 20 centimeters.  Therefore, neither plants nor soil organisms have evolved or adapted to this drastic pertabation.  Modern mechanized farming makes the problem even worse:  the heavy machinery compacts the soil further, requiring deeper plowing to loosen the soil.  As greater volumes of soil are churned up and exposed to air, the soil carbon – which has been lying in place under the soil line for hundreds or thousands of  years – meets oxygen, combines with it to form CO2, and departs for the upper atmosphere.”  Lal also points out that by concentrating herds of animals in contained areas and allowing them to reduce grassland to bare ground, which prevents photosynthesis, also contributes to climate change.  “No other natural process steadily removes such vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as photosynthesis.”  Lal estimates that, overall, the world’s soils have lost up to 80 billion tons of carbon due to misguided farming practices.

Michael Pollan, the author of, among other books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggests that no-till farming would go a long way in reducing the effects of climate change on our planet.  Instead of plowing, a tractor would insert seeds into the ground with a small drill, leaving the earth essentially undisturbed.  This practice has in fact been gaining ground in the U.S. since the 1970’s, which has contributed to a 40% drop in soil erosion. A 2008 report in Scientific American details the effects plowing has had on the health of soil.  The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) argues that governments need to encourage the practice of no-till farming.  If the trend catches on, there would be effective climate benefits.  The UNEP estimates that no-till operations in the U.S. have helped avoid 241 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since the 1970’s, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 50 million cars.

The dangers to our food system from climate change seem to be insurmountable, especially when you consider the control multinational food companies have over our economy and political will.  Oxfam, an advocacy group, estimates that the world’s “Big 10″ food companies emit more greenhouse gas emissions “than Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway combined.”  Because of an Oxfam petition, and another petition put forth by a Missouri farmer, which called on Kellogg’s and General Mills to contribute to policies that lessen the effects of climate change, those two companies have indeed publicly pledged to reduce their carbon pollution.  Both Kellogg’s and General Mills have set reduction targets for their entire supply networks by 2015.  Many things need to happen if we are to survive climate change.  If the big food companies actually move to reduce carbon emissions, perhaps our government will follow their lead.

Recipe of the Week

I was recently asked to make Muffuletta, something I haven’t done in a long time.  It really is delicious, just very high in fat, but a treat now and again doesn’t hurt.  The key is in the olive mixture, and high quality ingredients are a must.

1.5 cups of a mix of black and green olives, chopped

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 red bell pepper, roasted, skinned and chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, minced

juice from 1/2 a lemon

2 tsps. fresh oregano, chopped

a few sprinkles of red wine vinegar

Combine all of the above.

Buy a good quality loaf of French bread, about 9 inches long.  Cut in half length-wise and hollow out much of the bread on both sides.

Add the olive mix and

.25 lbs. of ham

.25 lbs. of salami

.25 lbs. of provolone, sliced

Wrap the loaf in plastic wrap and place on a plate.  Put in the refrigerator and weigh down with a heavy cast iron pan, or something of equivalent heft.  Leave for a minimum of 6 hours before slicing and eating.

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Dirty Little Secrets

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group of countries established in 1961, exists in order to promote economic growth, mostly through encouragement of free trade.  It was this body, encouraged and abetted by Reagan’s presidency, that introduced, in 1993, the “substantial equivalency” concept, which states that if a new food (GMO) is found to be mostly equal to an already existing food it can be treated the same way as the existing product in respect to safety.  The U.S., Canada and Japan all base their GMO safety regulations on substantial equivalence.  In essence, the biotechnology companies wanted government regulators to help persuade consumers that their new genetically modified products were safe.

Monsanto had not, at this time, received clearance from the USDA for its GMO technology, but Ronald Reagan helped speed up the deregulation process.  Vice President Bush publicly toured a Monsanto biotechnology facility in 1987 as part of the process to keep GMOs unregulated.  And it was during G.H.W. Bush’s presidency that V.P Dan Quale first announced the substantial equivalence policy in a speech.  The policy itself was crafted by Michael Taylor, the infamous former Monsanto lawyer who was then hired by the Bush FDA to become the deputy commissioner of policy.

Having introduced GMOs to the market, the biotech industry wanted to streamline their acceptance.  It was argued at the time that one obvious solution would have been to treat GMOs in the same way as pharmaceuticals, pesticides and food additives, which would have required the industry to conduct toxicological tests.  These tests would then have provided evidence from which “acceptable daily intakes” could be set.  The industry reacted against this solution as it would delay marketplace access and cost, by some estimates, $25 million per product.  Reagan, Monsanto and Bush made sure that the biotech industry could sell their products immediately and with no testing or labeling.  Substantial equivalence thus became the standard, with the industry continually referring to it as though it provides scientific proof that GMOs are safe.

Substantial equivalence, however, is vague and nowhere precisely defined.  Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner and Sue Mayer, all of whom have studied the differences between GMOs and conventional crops, stated in a paper that “it is exactly this vagueness that makes the concept useful to industry but unacceptable to the consumer.  Moreover, the reliance by policymakers on the concept of substantial equivalence acts as a barrier to further research into the possible risks of eating GM foods.”  The Institute of Science in Society published a study which concluded that “the principle [of substantial equivalence] is intentionally vague and ill-defined to be as flexible, malleable, and open to interpretation as possible.”  The paper also states that “comparisons are designed to conceal significant changes resulting from genetic modifications.”

Another study, done in 2013 by Professor El-Sayed, found significant toxicity levels in Monsanto’s 810 Corn.  And Thomas Bohn conducted a study that evaluated pesticide and herbicide residues in genetically modified soybeans, from which he concluded that the overall chemical composition of the plants were altered.  The Permaculture Research Institute states “that [the] new studies, independent of the biotech industry, are showing glaring differences between GMOs and their non-GMO counterparts.”  They go on to say that “this makes a mockery of the regulatory principle of ‘Substantial Equivalence’ which has facilitated approvals of GMOs with practically no protection for public health and the environment.”  Indeed, a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology demonstrated dangers to non-target organisms (in this case, aquatic organisms.)  The Bt toxins inserted into plants to make them insect resistant are leaching into nearby rivers and streams and affecting the health of essential insects.

The precept of substantial equivalence was designed specifically to facilitate the rapid commercialization of GMOs.  The effect has been to allow GMOs on the market with no testing or labeling, which continues to put our health at risk.  Tests are now being conducted outside the biotech industry, and immediate findings are, at the minimum, that substantial differences exist between GMOs and conventionally grown crops.  The concept of substantial equivalence has been debunked.  There are major differences between GMOs and conventional crops, including the amount of herbicides and pesticides used, and some of these differences are disrupting our environment and endangering our health.  The government is slow in recognizing these dangers and that the continuation of GMO promotion is also detrimental to our economy.  You can’t destroy the infrastructure and expect growth and prosperity.

Recipe of the Week

Greek Garbonzo Bean Salad

This is a great meal for a hot summer evening, and can be served alone or mixed with organic greens.

1 1/4 cups dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight (or you can use two 15 oz. cans of organic beans, drained and rinsed.

1/2 large cucumber, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped

1 large tomato, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 ounces or more to taste of goat cheese or feta

1 lemon, juiced

1/4 of a large, sweet onion, minced

salt and pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

a few sprinkles of red wine vinegar

Cook the beans until done, about two hours.  Drain and pick out as many of the peels as possible as this will affect the texture.

Mix with all ingredients and taste for salt, oil and vinegar.

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A Nail in the Coffin

Contrary to the prevailing belief at the onset of GMO production, that these crops would reduce herbicide use, and that claim is still being purported by the industry, it is now proven that these “herbicide-resistant weed management systems [have] brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied.” In addition to herbicides, GMO crops are also using more pesticides which have been increasingly linked to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) affecting honeybees and other pollinators.  And considering the impact bees have on our agricultural system (a Cornell University study done in 2000 estimated “the value attributable to honey bees alone …is $14.6 billion), increased usage is a problem.

Also contrary to past responses of the federal government in ignoring the effects increased herbicide use has on not only pollinators but human beings, the announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to ban GMOs and neonicotinoid insecticides is a profound step in the right direction.  This would be the first U.S. government agency to ban GMOs.  Their decision did not come without a fight.  The Center for Biological Diversity, Beyond Pesticides and the Sierra Club have all been involved in lawsuits, legal petitions, etc., for almost a decade to stop the FWS from using GMOs and neonicotinoid pesticides in national refuge farming programs.

The FWS has allowed farming on national wildlife refuges for decades, but recently many farmers have switched to genetically modified crops.  The environmental groups that sued the federal government have done so on a case by case basis.  The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Food Safety managed to stop the FWS from allowing GMO farming at refuges in twelve Northeastern states and at twenty five refuges in eight Southwestern states.  Now, of course, all refuges in all states will be protected, by 2016, against the dangers, real and potential, that GMO farming brings.  “GE crops and toxic pesticides violate the basic purposes of our protected national lands,” says Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.  “We applaud the Fish and Wildlife Service for recognizing what our legal challenges have repeatedly held:  that they must stop permitting these harmful agricultural practices.”

Continuing studies are documenting the risks posed to bees and the environment, such as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.  “This report should be the final wake-up call for American regulators who have been slow to respond to the science,” said Emily Marquez, PhD., staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America.  “The weight of the evidence showing harm to bees and other pollinators should move the EPA to restrict neonicotinoids sooner than later.  And the same regulatory loopholes that allowed these pesticides to be brought to the market in the first place – and remain on the shelf – need to be closed.”

Another study, this one conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, found what they said were “alarming contamination levels in regional waterways exceeding known chronic and, in some cases, acute toxicity levels for aquatic insects and other animal life critical to healthy ecosystems.”  Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, said that “these findings reinforce what scientists around the world have been suspecting for several years now.  As the body of evidence against neonicotinoids continues to grow, our government has fewer and fewer excuses for their inaction.  If meaningful action is not taken, we may be headed toward a second Silent Spring.”

The fight to ban genetically modified crops from wildlife refuges, although significant, is not complete.  Many environmental groups are continuing litigation to close an FWS loophole that would still allow genetically modified crops for “habitat restoration,” and these groups seek also to put the ban in effect immediately rather than by 2016.  Nevertheless, this first, small step by the federal government to at least recognize the dangers of GMOs is encouraging.

Recipe of the Week

I love raw oysters, but the following recipe is the best way I’ve found to cook them.  This is excellent party food, particularly in the grilling season.

The Sauce

1 stick unsalted butter, very soft

1 pinch sea salt

1 tsp freshly ground pepper

1 Tbsp minced garlic

1 pinch cayenne

1 spritz lemon juice

Whisk together all ingredients.

Shuck 12 oysters, removing the top shell and keeping the oyster in the bottom shell with its juice.  Grate about a cup of fresh, good quality parmesan.

Heat a charcoal or gas grill.   Place the oysters on the grill and quickly spoon the sauce over each one, and sprinkle with the cheese.  Cover the grill and cook until the sauce starts to bubble and the edges get brown.  If you want them pretty, sprinkle with fresh parsley.

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McLawsuit

Stan Dorn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a public policy research center in Washington, D.C., has stated succinctly that “some companies are making huge profits off obesity.”  There are people who wish to fight obesity by incorporating tactics used against the tobacco industry.  What ultimately proved to be effective in reducing tobacco use was to hold cigarette manufacturers accountable for harmful products.

Kelly Brownell, author of Food Fight, a book published in 2004 which criticizes a “toxic food environment” in American culture, has also this year co-authored a paper titled “The Perils of Ignoring History:  Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died.  How similar is Big Food?”  The comparison he makes between the tobacco industry and Big Food shows the same tactics being used to fight off criticism.   According to Brownell, “the common strategies include dismissing as ‘junk science’ peer-reviewed studies showing a link between their products and disease; paying scientists to produce pro-industry studies; sowing doubt in the public’s mind about the harm caused by their products; intensive marketing to children and adolescents; frequently trotting out  supposedly ‘safer’ products; denying the addictive nature of their products; and lobbying with massive resources to thwart regulatory action.”

One side will argue that consuming unhealthy food is a choice, and that most people are fully aware that eating food loaded with fat, sugar and salt is unhealthy.  That position was also used by the tobacco industry, which denied the addictive nature of tobacco.  A Scripps Research Study done in 2010 showed that “the same molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction are behind the compulsion to overheat, pushing people into obesity.”  This study and others have had little effect on Big Food.  The annual revenues of the fast food industry have continued to rise, while the number of ads aimed at children have also increased.  The result, as we all know, is that the obesity rate among children and adults continues to rise.  A full 35% of American adults are obese, while obesity rates for children have doubled in the last 30 years and quadrupled in adolescents.

The costs of obesity to our society are great.  Kaiser Health News estimates that obesity accounts for $147 billion to $190 billion  in yearly expenditures, while the health costs of tobacco continue to drop and are now estimated at $96 billion annually.  The report states that “after decades of lawsuits, damning reports about industry practices, and stop-smoking campaigns, smoking rates have plummeted, from a high of 42% of adults in 1965…to just over 19% today.  Meanwhile, obesity has been soaring since the 1980’s…Currently, 45 million American adults are smokers, while 78 million adults and almost 13 million youngsters are counted as obese.”

The first fight against tobacco involved emphasis on personal responsibility and voluntary self-regulation.  It didn’t work.  Only when anti-tobacco advocates switched their emphasis from changing individual behavior to holding cigarette manufacturers accountable for harmful products, did Americans heed the message that their health was being compromised for profit.

Interestingly, while most of the lawsuits aimed at Big Food have failed in America, a Russian consumer protection agency has filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, as was reported by the New York Times on July 26.  The suit calls for a ban on certain products.  The claim accuses “the restaurant chain of violating government nutritional and safety codes in a number of its burger and ice cream products.”  The case will be heard on August 13.  While a lawsuit in Russian against an American company is probably a political game, at least it focuses on the detrimental affects of eating Big Food.

The fight against tobacco took decades, and despite the fact that it isn’t eliminated, it was largely an effective battle.  As more studies will emerge concerning the dangers of Big Food to our health, and as the public becomes more aware of just how much fat, salt and sugar there is in these “foods”, I believe we can reduce our dependence on unhealthy food.

Recipe of the Week

Many people will  continue to justify eating fast food because they don’t have time to cook.  Unfortunately, this is true for most families, but the way to provide home-cooked food is to plan menus and create them on the weekend.  The following is not so much a recipe as a demonstration of a “kit” that is partly purchased and partly cooked, and one that will provide a couple of different meal options throughout the week.

Lamb Kabobs

2 pounds of lamb leg steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 1″ pieces

1/3 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

10 grindings of fresh pepper

Place the lamb pieces in a large container, coat with oil and salt and pepper

Marinate in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours.

Prepare a grill, put the lamb on spits and grill for three minutes per side.

Yogurt Sauce with Garlic, Cucumber and Mint

5 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped

2 sprigs of fresh mint, chopped (optional)

1 1/2 cups non-fat plain yogurt

Mix all of the above.

I then purchased mixed greens, Greek olives, goat cheese, hummus and pita.  I now have ingredients for pita sandwiches with lamb, yogurt sauce, hummus and lettuce.  I also have ingredients for a Greek salad for another meal.  You can substitute feta for the goat cheese in the salad, and add any other vegetables you wish.

 

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One Small Step

It’s not completely on my radar that the federal government issues dietary guidelines every five years.  I know the food pyramid gave way to My Plate, but that’s about it, and I’m sure the majority of Americans are as vague about it as I am.  Big Ag, however, pays close attention to any and all minutiae potentially relating to their bottom line.  It has been suggested that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2015 will center on overall sustainability as a direct result of environmental degradation caused by industrial meat production.  This is all speculation, however; the meat industry is tying its knickers in knots because of the person appointed to lead the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Dr. Angela Tagtow.

Dr. Tagtow is a longtime sustainable food advocate who believes, as she stated in a 2011 lecture, that “a sustainable and resilient food system conserves and renews natural resources, advances social justice and animal welfare, builds community wealth and fulfills the food and nutrition needs of all eaters now and in the future.”  Her appointment sends a signal that the USDA, currently almost entirely in the pocket of Big Ag, may be responding to issues relating to climate change.

Introducing climate change into nutrition policy, however timely and responsible, has predictably raised red flags for Big Ag.  If, as Tagtow has written, “dietetic education and practice must encompass the ecological, political, social and economical implications of a healthy diet,” industrial meat production must be heavily regulated and downsized.  Tagtow’s Good Food Checklist for Eaters is especially troubling for the food industry as it espouses, among many other things, a reduction in the amount of meat people should consume.  Tagtow also wrote a paper in 2009 that called for a sustainable food system less dependent on oil and gas.

Dr. Tagtow’s detractors take issue with her logical advocacy of a sustainable food system.  She has directly called for governmental reforms to be implemented and ensconced in other areas, such as the Affordable Care Act.  “When we make decisions about how food is grown and what food is grown, the quality and quantity and biodiversity of food that’s grown here in this country, it directly affects the status of our food system, and the status of our food system directly affects our healthcare system.”  She goes on to ask, “Do you think healthcare reform is really going to be as effective as it could be if we  had food system reform as well?”

Jeff Stier, of the National Center for Public Policy Research, has openly decried the appointment of Dr. Tagtow.  He calls her mission statement (“Establish healthier food systems that are resilient, sustainable, ecologically sound, socially acceptable and economically viable”) a “sin.”  Given the National Center for Public Policy Research’s own mission statement, which in part states “a firm belief that private owners are the best stewards of the environment,” this comes as no surprise.  Some of his statements concerning Tagtow’s appointment immediately reminded me of the line, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  “Here you’ve got the USDA’s top person on nutrition education who has made a career out of making sustainability central to how we eat, rather than healthy diets, ” he says.  Or, “Tagtow comes from an ideologically divisive perspective.  She’s not someone who’s views are mainstream in the nutritional community.”  Stier believes, basically, that Dr. Tagtow is a left wing “strident activist.”  Attacking the messenger seems to be his number one argument.  Jeff Stier has himself politicized any discussion on food related issues, such as labeling Michelle Obama’s attempt to reconfigure the school lunch program to be more healthy as “left-wing.”

At any rate, this very small but incremental sea change in the advice given to Americans by the federal government is to be celebrated.  Starting in 2015, school children will be taught about sustainability.  At least a seed will be planted.

Recipe of the Week

Pasta again, but so easy, meat-free and delicious.

Pasta with Olives and Tomatoes

3/4 pound pasta, any type you wish

1 28 ounce can of organic whole tomatoes

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, chopped

1 cup good quality olives, preferably Greek

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Mince garlic and allow to sit for ten minutes.

Chop onions

Puree tomatoes

Heat olive oil in an appropriate pan.  Add onions and saute until soft and turning brown, about 20 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for less than a minute.  Add tomatoes and chopped olives.  Cook for about 20 minutes on low heat.  If the olives are of good quality  you shouldn’t have to add salt.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil, add pasta, cook until al dente, about 8 or 9 minutes.  Drain but don’t rinse.  When the sauce is ready, add the pasta, stir and serve.  If you wish, you can provide a quantity of fresh parmesan.

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Right-To-Pollute

Right-to-Farm laws have apparently been in effect in every state since the 1980’s.  Originally they were designed to protect established farming operations from nuisance lawsuits, such as when a farm finds itself newly surrounded by a housing development whose residents may object to odors, etc.  Legally, there are three kinds of nuisance.  One forbids individuals from using their property in a way that causes harm to others.  A private nuisance refers to an activity that interferes with an individual’s reasonable use or enjoyment of his or her property.  And a public nuisance is an activity that threatens the public health, safety or welfare, or damages community resources, such as public roads, parks and water supplies.

Goaded by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works to persuade legislative bodies to enact laws that benefit their corporate members, states are attempting to enshrine a right to farm in their various constitutions.  If they succeed, any future legislation or ballot initiative seeking to regulate agriculture would be quashed.  The ballot language usually reads “Shall the state constitution be amended to ensure that the right of citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed.”  These amendments, however, seek to go beyond Ag-gag laws and provide corporations protection against outside interest groups who wish to protect either the animals or the environment from their practices.  Right to farm language, encoded into state constitutions, would simply act as a barrier against any restrictions on Big-Ag.

Specifically, these right to farm amendments to constitutions, which are far more difficult to change than state laws, would essentially shield large industrial farms from any environmental and food safety regulations.  They would also stifle lawsuits arising from individuals who become sick from the vast amounts of pollution these industrial operations produce.  All the state right to farm laws were created before the advent of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and genetically modified organisms.  And pesticide use has increased greatly overall, a direct result of GMOs.

Hawaii’s legislative body recently sought to amend their state’s right to farm law by preventing local governments from enacting laws restricting “the right of farmers and ranchers to use agricultural technology and other practices not prohibited by federal or state law.”  Hawaii and Kauai have passed laws restricting genetically modified crops, which would then put them in conflict with their constitution.  At least for now, the effort to change Hawaii’s constitution has failed.  And in Oregon, voters in both Jackson and Josephine counties have banned the planting of GMOs, which would then be overridden by a constitutional amendment.  Similarly, California passed a law in 2008 which required that pregnant pigs, laying hens and calves raised for veal would be kept in enclosures large enough for them to turn around and fully extend their limbs.  This law, too, could be overturned if ALEC gets its way.

The “sell” to voters and legislative bodies is that these amendments are all about the small family farmer trying to protect his or her way of life.  Considering that the vast majority of farming operations in this country are controlled by industrial producers, it’s obvious where the motive and money are coming from.  Many states have already enacted Ag-gag  laws that criminalize activities by  private individuals to expose the harmful practices of the industry (pollution and mistreatment of animals.)  To further “protect” the right of industrial agriculture to use whatever technologies they wish comes at the expense of communities and consumers.  We can’t allow Big Ag to tighten their grip on our food supply.

Recipe of the Week

On hot summer days, I occasionally will make a Nicoise Salad.  It’s got a good enough amount of protein to satisfy the appetite and is overall a very refreshing meal.

To serve two.

1 large tomato, cut into eighths

a handful of fresh green beans, washed and trimmed

1 green bell pepper, sliced thinly

6 anchovy fillets

a handful of whatever olives you prefer

2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and sliced

a few slices of sweet onion

half a head of red-leaf lettuce for the base

1 can tuna

Combine all ingredients, toss with a sprinkle of salt, olive oil and red wine vinegar.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Sue Vermont

The Grocers’ Manufacturers’ Association (GMA), a trade group representing, among others, Monsanto, General Mills and Cargill, is planning to sue Vermont because they passed a law that would require these companies to label products that are genetically modified.  The base of their lawsuit is that states shouldn’t be allowed to make such laws, that any mandate must come from the federal government, an entity Big Ag has in its pocket.

Big Ag continues their constant rant that GMO foods are perfectly safe, rolling out the patently false arguments that GMO crops consume less water and pesticides than conventional crops.  Big Ag, however, concerned exclusively with profit, is now, in order to protect their bottom line, slowly introducing  GMO-free products.  Cargill recently announced that they will offer a non-GMO soybean oil, which will then join corn and beans as two other non-GMO products.  Ethan Theis, food ingredients commercial manager for Cargill, released a statement explaining this seemingly contradictory behavior.  “Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GMO ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators.”  Consumer demand, in other words, is driving Cargill’s decision.

General Mills recently reconfigured Cheerios to make it non-GMO, and Post Foods is investigating how to alter Grape-Nuts cereal to become non-GMO.  “A lot of food manufacturers are looking at switching over to non-GMO.  The demand is there,” says Aaron Skyberg, director of SK Food International, a North Dakota-based bulk ingredients supplier to U.S. and foreign food companies.  Many of these companies are even seeking to enroll in a third-party verification program, the Non-GMO Project.  And business is booming.  According to the Non-GMO Project Executive Director, Megan Westgate, “the number of non-GMO ‘verified’ products surged to 14,800 in 2013, up from 4,000 in 2011, and 1,000 more products are in the verification pipeline.  We get about 80 new companies enrollment inquiries every week.  People want non-GMO.”  The push to create non-GMO products at this point is a difficult endeavor, but public demand is such that investors are beginning to pay attention.  The San Francisco company Equilibrium Capital Group is interested in developing infrastructure in grain storage, transportation and converting farmland to non-GMO crop production.

Other participants in the supply chain, such as the Illinois company, Clarkson Grain, believe that the trend back to growing conventional crops is soaring.  Lynn Clarkson, the company president, says, “we are able to find farmers to grow non-GMO, and we’ve been able to do that consistently.”  She adds, too, that “we are seeing a significant increase in demand for non-GMO this year.”

All of this is driven by consumer demand.  Debbra DeMarco, vice president of Top Health Ingredients, says that any decision by Big Ag to offer up more non-GMO products is the result of their occupation with the bottom line and not by opposition to GMOs.  She states simply that “the only thing that will drive change to non-GMO is profit and public pressure.”  A New York Times poll taken in 2013 found that 93% of Americans favor labeling genetically altered foods.  An MSNBC poll, the results of which were published in 2011, found that 96% of Americans desire labeling.  Reuters/NPR, 95%.  Washington Post 2010, 95%.  It’s clear by their new attention to the development of non-GMO products that Big Ag is indeed paying attention to its customers.

Incremental change can be frustratingly slow, but can also in this case lead to societal benefits.  The “invisible hand of the market,” a phrase coined by Adam Smith, applies directly to Big Ag adopting decisions that it’s loath to concede.  That public demand can cause these companies to self-regulate in order to make a profit may work to benefit us all.

Recipe of the Week

I make one pie a year, and it’s my favorite.  Pie recipes are easy to come by, but the crust, although simple enough, is the key to making a really good pie.  My mother taught me the basics, and they work every time.

Blackberry Pie

5 cups blackberries.  They’re everywhere.  Pick them yourself or at least buy them at a Farmer’s Market.

1.5 tbls. fresh lemon juice

2/3 cup organic white sugar

1/4 cup organic white flour

Combine above ingredients and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Pie Crust

2 1/2 cups of organic white flour

2/3 cup chilled butter plus 3 tbls.

6 to 8 tbls. ice chilled water.

Cut the butter into the flour and mix with your fingers until a cornmeal consistency emerges.  Using a fork to stir, one by one add the tablespoons of iced water, stirring briefly.  If, when you are done, the flour mixture doesn’t quite hold together, add a little more iced water.  The key to a good crust lies in this next phase.  Gather the dough into a ball, without handling it too much.  Cut the dough ball in half.  Sprinkle flour onto a cutting board and gently roll out to fit the size of your pie pan.  Fold the dough gently in half and place it in the pie pan.  Cut any excess dough off around the edges.  Repeat with the second ball of dough.  When it’s rolled, place the berry mixture in the pie pan and top with one or two tablespoons of butter, then top with the second ball of dough, crimping the edges again.  Prick the pie crust all over with a fork.  You can, at this point, sprinkle the top with sugar and/or coat with an egg white wash.  The oven should be heated to 450 degrees.  A safe thing to do is to place a baking pan under the pie as it cooks to collect any drippings.  After 10 minutes, reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook until bubbly and golden brown, about 35 to 40 more minutes.

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Bully Politics

Prince Charles, of all people, and I applaud him for it, was one of the first to proclaim against Monsanto’s practice of forcing farmers in India to purchase genetically modified seeds.  A result of this was that small farmers were unable to pay the company when their crops failed and committed suicide.  The number of suicides are estimated at 270,000 since 1995.  As our government and others increase their ties to agribusiness, GM seeds are often the only purchasing option since non-GM varieties are then banned at seed banks.  It happened in India, and it happened in Iraq, where the U.S. essentially wiped out local, native agricultural practices, which were primarily sustainable, and replaced them with a Monsanto business plan.

And now the U.S. government is threatening to withhold $277 million in aid to El Salvador unless “specific” economic and environmental policy reforms are enacted.  A U.S. government agency, the Millenium Challenge Corporation, has put forth a compact for aid, and this compact contains a condition for purchasing GM seeds from Monsanto.  The Millenium Challenge Corporation’s intent is to provide economic assistance to “developing nations that demonstrate positive performance in three areas:  ruling justly, investing in people, and fostering economic freedom.”  With Michael Taylor in charge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a former V.P. of Public Policy at Monsanto and appointed by Obama, the compact with El Salvador became one in which Monsanto’s business goals trump any concerns about “investing in people.”

Taylor has been instrumental in establishing governmental policies that benefit agribusiness and Monsanto in particular.  He colluded with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to open up African markets for GM seeds and chemicals, even though it had already been shown that this misguided policy had been a failure in India.  Obama has expressed frustration that the fundamentals of the Green Revolution had not been introduced in Africa, but clearly he has not paid attention to what this revolution has wrought in India, where the farmers are in dept, are forced to pay high costs for seeds and pesticides, are committing suicide, (and often by drinking the same pesticides they were forced to buy) and resulting in a depleted water table and a poisoned environment.  Human health concerns include rising rates of cancer and autism as well.

Latin America, however, like much of the world, is slowly realizing that markets for GM food are shrinking.  Mexican judges recently banned GM corn and China has rejected the import of U.S. GM corn.  The President of the El Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technologies (CESTA), Richard Navarro, has demanded that the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, stop pressuring the government to buy Monsanto’s seeds rather than non-GM seeds from local suppliers.  “I would like to tell the U.S. Ambassador to stop pressuring the government…to buy ‘improved GM seeds,’…which only benefit U.S. multinationals and is to the detriment of local seed production.”  El Salvador also announced last year that they planned to ban the use of glyphosate (Roundup) and 52 other toxic chemicals, a result of an increase in occurrence of a rare type of chronic kidney disease that’s killing agricultural workers.  The Pan American Health Organization evidently decided that the health risks to workers were important enough to ban certain pesticides until evidence could be amassed as to the link between the high levels of cadmium and arsenic, heavy metals that are toxic to the kidneys, and the pesticides associated with GM crops.  Glyphosate sales are the main money maker for Big Ag, and this chemical provides the base of the entire system that allows GM crops to be grown.
“There is a harmful corporation on the planet called Monsanto…It is truly disturbing that the U.S. is trying to promote them,” says Navarro.  Monsanto, in its oblivious concern for human suffering and environmental destruction, continues, with the help of our government, on its singular path for more profit.

Recipe of the Week

I’ve mentioned Panzanella before, but it’s worth repeating, especially as a base for a summer meal, or as a pleasing contribution to a pot luck.

Panzanella

1 French baguette, cut into 1″ pieces

3 medium tomatoes

1/2 lb of provolone

1 cup olives, chopped

1 bunch fresh basil, chopped

extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar to taste

Mix all ingredients.  This salad will last for at least a couple of days in the refrigerator. For a main meal, mix the panzanella with lightly dressed greens and top with grilled chicken.

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