The Long Arm of the Biotech Industry

On May 20, 2014, Jackson County Oregon voters approved a ban on genetically engineered organisms.  A similar ban was approved in nearby Josephine County.  Both measures were counter to a previous state law, Senate Bill 863, which was enacted in 2013 and prohibited Oregon counties from regulating or banning GMOs.  Jackson and Josephine Counties were exempted from SB 863 as their petitions had already been approved to appear on the ballot.

A new measure, HB 4122, or the Transgenic Contamination Prevention Bill, sponsored by Representative Paul Holvey of Eugene and Representative Peter Buckley of Ashland, would repeal SB 863 and would allow local governments the power to ban the “production or use of seed or seed products for purpose of protecting seed or products that are not genetically engineered seed or products.”  House Speaker Tina Kotek sent the proposed measure to the House Consumer Protection Committee where its fate is to be decided.

The biotech industry would prefer not to have individual fights with counties, particularly after having conquered the state as a whole.  After all, in the Jackson County fight, Monsanto spent $183,294 to defeat the ban, DuPont $129,647, Syngenta $75,000, Dow AgroSciences $22,353, and many other contributions poured in from other agribusiness interests amounting to about $1 million.  Pro-ban activists were outspent by more than two to one.  All of the donations from the biotech industry were funneled through two lobbying groups in Oregon.

Oregonians for Food and Shelter (OFS) proclaim that they “proudly feature board members from Monsanto and Syngenta,” and the Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB) also receives funding from biotech companies.  Scott Dahlman, a previous executive director of OFS openly stated that the group defends “the right to…use pesticides and biotechnology.” A previous version of its website stated that it was initially founded in order to “do battle with activists seeking an initiative to ban aerial application of forest herbicides.”   Anne Marie Moss, Communications Director at the OFB, states that their mission, in part, is to fight regulation.  She said that there is “already a lot of regulation so, as a whole, we try to push back.”  Monsanto and Syngenta together donate close to 30% of the Oregon Farm Bureau’s annual budget.

Both groups, which function essentially as lobbying arms for the biotech industry, are actively involved in preventing the passage of HB 4122.  They wish to maintain the fundamentals of SB 863, or the “Monsanto Protection Act” as it was dubbed by critics, and which was clearly chemical company driven legislation.  SB 863 was enacted when the governor at the time, John Kitzhaber, wanted to ensure other aspects of his legislative program and so capitulated to the biotech industry.  Kitzhaber said at the time that the GMO preemption bill had “nothing to do with the purposes for which I originally called the session,” and that there was no “rational reason for it to be in the bill package.”  He said he supported it because “it was the reality of the negotiating process.”  He promised at the time to find a legislative solution, but then he became embroiled in a political scandal that drove him out of office.  HB 4122 grew out of a lack of solutions inherent in SB 863.

Basically, HB 4122 comes down on the side of farmers who need to be protected against contamination from nearly genetically engineered crops.  “We lose money when we have a GMO contamination event, which I’ve had happen twice,” said Don Tipping, an organic seed grower.  “We lost money directly, as have other growers.”  There cannot be any form of coexistence between conventional and organic farmers with GMO farmers as there is no way to control wind blown GMO pollen from contaminating other fields.  “This bill puts the decision-making back to the local government,” said Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer.

HB 4122 is simply a remedy to keep money from outside corporations from convincing local politicians to abandon a democratic process.  Oregon needs to distance itself from legislative initiatives proposed by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has actively promoted its “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act.”  That Act, as well as SB 863, contain this passage:  “A local government may not enact or enforce a measure, including but not limited to an ordinance, regulation, control area or quarantine, to inhibit or prevent the production or use of agricultural seed.”

OFS officially took credit for drafting SB 863 in 2013 and most certainly, on the behalf of the biotech industry, will fight hard against the passage of HB 4122.  No one guarantees that passage of this bill will automatically result in outright bans of GMOs.  What it will do is return control of our farmland to local governments and allow the farmers who live and work on the land to make decisions that affect them and the communities in which they live.

Recipe of the Week

Black-Eyed Peas

1/2 lb black-eyed peas, preferably soaked in water the night before

1 onion, chopped

6 large cloves garlic, minced

3 or 4 celery stalks, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 tbls. dried oregano

4 pieces of bacon, chopped (optional)

Pour the peas and their liquid into a soup pot.  Add all other ingredients except the bacon. Cover with water (about 3 inches over the top and you may have to add more as it cooks down).  Cook for about 2 hours or until beans are done.  While beans are cooking, saute the bacon until crisp and then chop.  Add to the finished beans.  Taste for salt and pepper.  You can eat them plain or serve them over rice with hot sauce.

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Hillary Clinton and Monsanto

The Iowa caucuses revealed more than who the front runners might be in the upcoming presidential race.  In a meeting of Iowa’s Tri-County Democrats, there existed a rather large block of women who had expressed strong and vocal support for Hillary Clinton.  When these women discovered, however, that Mrs. Clinton is a visible supporter of genetically modified organisms and the biotech industry that’s pushing for their introduction across the globe they immediately switched their allegiance to  Bernie Sanders.  Iowa is the biggest producer of corn in the country and much of that is genetically modified.  Perhaps these Iowan women know first hand the effects the massive amounts of pesticides necessary to grow GMOs have on the health of their families and the land itself.

Brandon Turbeville, the author of “The Difference it Makes:  36 Reasons Hillary Clinton Should Never Be President,” outlines her ties to Big Ag.  It starts with her work at The Rose Law Firm in the 1980s when Monsanto was a client.  Her association with Monsanto may have led to an increasing co-mingling of former biotech employees with the federal government.  Many were hired and appointed to the FDA and the USDA during the Clinton administration in the 1990s.  He also points out that 10% of WikiLeaks cables released in 2010 revealed that “the U.S. State Department was essentially a marketing wing for biotech companies and ‘biotech’ products across the world.”

These particular cables were largely ignored until Food and Water Watch analysed  them and released a report in 2013.  Food and Water Watch say their study of the cables revealed “a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology overseas, compel countries to import biotech crops and foods they do not want, and lobby foreign governments – especially in the developing world – to adopt policies to pave the way to cultivate biotech crops.”  Hillary Clinton apparently has never wavered in her belief that GMOs are a solution to just about everything as she continued to push for their expansion while serving as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013.  As Secretary, Hillary promoted the USAID-funded “Feed the Future,” a program that promotes the use of Round-up Ready products.

Not only has Mrs. Clinton served as an adjunct lobbyist for the biotech industry.  In 2014 she spoke to a Monsanto lobbying group, Biotechnology International Organization (BIO), for which she received a $325,000 speaking fee.  For her speech, in which she coached the lobbyists on how to develop “a better vocabulary” to change negative perceptions of GMOs, she was labeled the “Bride of Frankenfood” by Iowan progressives.  Hillary dodges the question of whether she supports what 90% of Americans want, which is that products containing GMOs be labeled, but given her stance on GMOs it’s unlikely.

Moreover, Mrs. Clinton hired a Monsanto lobbyist, Jerry Crawford, to run her campaign.  Crawford has worked with both Democrats and Republicans, but aligns himself only with those who support Monsanto’s goals.  As Jerry Crawford served Monsanto he used his skills and connections to fight against small farmers who claimed that the main ingredient in Round-up, glyphosate, caused their cancers.  The World Health Organization, as you are aware, recently proclaimed glyphosate to be a “probable human carcinogen.”

Even though GM corn still dominates the market, and this in part because of subsidies provided by our government, farmers are beginning to question the efficacy of GM corn as well as the profits derived from such crops.  GM seeds are expensive and must be purchased every year.  Farmers are also becoming tired of dealing with “superweeds” and the money they must expend to defeat them.  Add to that the concerns of consumers and their increasing demand for “sustainable” agriculture.   And as the price of corn has been falling, farmers are realizing they can demand a higher price for non-GMO corn.

The changes are incremental, to be sure, but consumer driven, which proves the point that Americans want food that is grown in a less harmful manner.  And they want GMO labeling.  If Hillary is elected it will be even more difficult for environmentalists to check the excesses of Big Ag.  Some even believe that if she is elected it would lead to the Monsanto agenda being pushed as national policy and that there would be a nationwide federal ban on GMO labeling.  And as Monsanto right now is suing California’s ban on glyphosate, there could also be a corporate-government ban on all efforts to ban glyphosate and other harmful pesticides.

And, no, President Obama never acted on his promise in 2007 in Iowa to make sure GMO products would be labeled.  His cooperation with Big Ag has been disheartening, but he’s nowhere near as devoted to the promotion of GMOs as is Hillary Clinton.  As always, Clinton would be preferred over the likes of Trump, Cruz or Rubio, but the differences between most of the candidates is becoming blurred.

Listen to the women of Iowa and vote for Bernie.

Recipe of the Week

Not much this week as I’m on a forced diet of liquids.  But I made a good smoothie.

Breakfast Smoothie

1 banana

1 cup roasted hazelnuts

1 cup fresh blueberries

milk and/or yogurt

Put the nuts in a food processor and process until smooth.  Add the banana and berries and pulse until smooth.  Add enough milk and yogurt to make the smoothie drinkable.  It fills you up and tastes fine.

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Combating an Obesogenic Environment

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report last week that found that 41 million children around the world “under the age of five were either overweight or obese.”  The report also found that obesity is no longer restricted to the wealthiest countries.  Half of those overweight or obese children live in Africa and one quarter in Asia.  Peter Gluckman, one author of the WHO report, called childhood obesity “an exploding nightmare in the developing world.”

An obesogenic environment, put simply, is one in which people are encouraged to eat an unhealthy diet and not do enough exercise.   Clearly, children under the age of five are not in control of what foods they consume, and other than toddling around the park, they don’t require an exercise regimen.  The problem is centered, then, on the global food and drink companies that purposefully maintain an obesogenic environment, one where processed and nutrient poor foods are peddled for profit regardless of the consequences.

And the consequences are becoming more dire.  It has been established that obese children generally remain obese as adults and the subsequent diseases resulting directly from obesity are becoming a more expensive problem.  Chronic illness not only costs more money but also drains from the health and prosperity of any given country.  The obesity epidemic has been roundly discussed over the years with little effect and many scientists are once again arguing for governments to step up programs to reduce the problem.

One recommendation put forth by the WHO, the Lancet and Cancer Research UK, among others, is an imposition of a tax on all sweetened drinks and junk food.  Taxing products that have little or no nutritional value has proved to be effective where enacted.  In Mexico, a soda tax of 10% and a tax on junk food of 8% has been successful.  There has been a 12% drop in overall consumption of soda, and this in a country with poor water quality and a culture devoted to sweet beverages.  It is obvious that this tax affects the poor more than middle or upper income populations, but any such protests can be drowned out by the fact that the poor are also less able to manage the diseases resulting from obesity.

Another wonderfully extreme proposition put forth by Cancer Research UK is an outright ban on the advertising of junk food and soda on television from 6 am to 9 pm.  Their report notes that over the last few decades the food conglomerates have hijacked our food system.  They state that “food is now more readily available, more heavily marketed, promoted and advertised and, in real terms, is much cheaper than ever before.  [And] all of these nudge us towards overconsumption.”

It’s clear that in order to combat obesity governments must be involved.  Although the Mexican government fought an uphill battle against the soda industry, it was able to prevail with the 10% tax on soda, even as they initially campaigned for a 20% tax.  It’s exceedingly difficult to counter the political influence of the food and drink industry but it must be done.  Industry has responded to a degree because of consumer demand for healthier food, but that still leaves us with pop tarts, even though they may be reduced sugar pop tarts.

The Lancet has labeled obesity “a form of serious malnutrition.”  They cited The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as showing that the “US population has a shortfall of vital nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, and C, folate, calcium, magnesium, fibre, potassium, and iron.”  It is easy to see how this could occur when the average diet consists of fast and/or processed food and sugary drinks.  All of the organizations mentioned above call for governments and health organizations to pay much more serious attention to the health of its citizens.

Education programs for children in schools must be developed and implemented.  Along with that nutritional information, federal and local governments must ensure that fresh, locally grown food is provided for school lunches and after school snacks.  Offering up deep fried factory chicken most certainly sets them up for a lifetime of struggles with their weight and subsequent health issues.

Obesity among children, especially those younger than five, is not a matter of self control or personal responsibility.  It is rather the result of poor nutritional education, wholesale and unregulated advertising practices and a lack of government oversight.  Screaming about the “food police” only lines the pockets of multinational food companies and does nothing to reduce the global epidemic of obesity.


Recipe of the Week

Pasta is not necessarily a good choice for a meal, but once in a while it’s fine and this recipe is simple, vegetarian and I found it to be tasty.

Pasta with Lentils and Tomatoes

1/2 cup lentils

6 cloves garlic or more to taste, minced

1 can Muir Glen Fire Roasted whole tomatoes, pureed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, chopped small

1/2 lb of pasta, your choice

About 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Parmesan cheese

Cook the lentils in plenty of water until completely cooked, anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.  Drain.  Pour oil into a large cast iron frying pan.  Heat to medium high and add onions.  Lower heat and cook until onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.  Add the garlic, stir it in and add the tomatoes.  Cook the sauce on low for about 1/2 hour.  Add the lentils and heat through.  Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar.  Taste.  Add the cooked pasta that has not been rinsed and serve with Parmesan cheese.

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Just Say No to Farmed Salmon

I have long eschewed eating farmed salmon, most of which is Atlantic salmon, for a variety of health reasons.  Among them are that farmed salmon have seven times the levels of PCB’s as wild salmon, 30 times the number of sea lice, are given chemicals to make the fish red, are given antibiotics at levels higher than any other livestock, and contain half the amount of omega-3’s, which lower the risk of heart disease, dementia and arthritis, among other things.  And farming salmon necessitates the over fishing of wild sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herring for feed.  Atlantic salmon are the fish of choice for farms because they are less aggressive than Pacific salmon and grow faster.  As Pacific salmon are apparently more prone to disease, production costs would also be affected.

There are certain environmental dangers associated with salmon farms as well.  University of British Columbia professor Daniel Pauly calls fish farms “floating pig farms,” as the amount of fish excrement accumulates on the sea floor, which provides a breeding ground for bacteria that negatively impact other marine species.  Another concern is that as farmed salmon regularly and in large numbers escape from holes in the nets they are out competing wild fish for food (they’re bigger).  And these escaped fish breed with wild fish which dilutes the gene pool.

And now another risk associated with salmon farms has spread to the northern Pacific Ocean.  Infectious salmon anaemia virus (ISAV) is a pathogen that until recently was restricted to Europe and the Atlantic farmed salmon on the east coast of Canada.  It is widely considered to be “the most feared viral disease of the marine farmed salmon industry,” as it is, essentially, according to Alexandra Morton, a co-author of a study published this month in Virology Journal, “a member of the influenza family, and it mutates easily and rapidly.”

Outbreaks of ISAV have occurred at regular intervals since 1984 and the majority of outbreaks have involved Atlantic farmed salmon.  The study also revealed that salmon escapees are infecting wild salmon at higher rates than previously recorded.  Unfortunately, the economic consequences of this virus, for which there is no cure, can be devastating to the industry.  ISAV was detected in Chile in 1999 and no attempt was make to contain it.  Chilean salmon farmers allowed the virus to reproduce and mutate which caused a new form of the disease to occur in 2007 resulting in a $2 billion loss.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association is responding to the study by lashing out at its veracity as well as denying access to their farms by researchers.  Not surprising considering that the combined wild and farmed salmon industry is worth approximately $1 billion a year in British Columbia.  According to Ms. Morton, “ISAV is a notifiable  disease meaning that if the finding is confirmed Canada would be obliged to report it to the International Organization for Animal Health.  This notification would permit other countries to block imports without fear of incurring trade penalties.”  This confirmation would obviously devastate the industry.

Aside from economic devastation, any outbreak of an ISAV strain can cause death rates of 30% on any given farm.  Since ISAV can be transmitted by sea lice, and salmon farms are infested with sea lice because of the large numbers of fish crammed into small areas, ISAV is more likely to occur.  This is a great cause of concern for the continued health of wild salmon populations as “sea lice from salmon farms are one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon.”  Since many salmon farms are, for reasons beyond my understanding, “located along salmon migration routes,” it should be obvious that wild salmon will be more exposed to the disease than they would otherwise be in the wild.

There are no obvious fixes for the potential of ISAV to at least diminish or even destroy whole populations of wild salmon.  Add that to the over fishing of smaller species of fish to provide feed for farmed Atlantic salmon and we have a recipe for a marine disaster.  The only thing we can do is to be aware of the situation and stop eating farmed fish altogether.  While farmed salmon is certainly a cheaper, albeit less healthy, alternative to wild salmon, consuming it only contributes to the problem.

Recipe of the Week

Since sardines are an excellent source of omega-3’s, this pasta recipe is easy to make and cheap.

12 canned sardines

2 tablespoons toasted  pine nuts

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 cup good quality pitted nicoise olives

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound pasta of your choice

1 cup toasted and seasoned breadcrumbs (seasoned with just olive oil, salt and pepper)

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the sardines and all other ingredients and heat through until warm.  Stir in the undrained pasta and top with the toasted bread crumbs.

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175 More Reasons to Avoid Processed Food

Most of us are aware of the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in most food wrappers and tin cans.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has stated that BPA can cause “altered development of the brain,  causing behavioral abnormalities and earlier onset puberty, [and] reproductive abnormalities such as lower sperm counts, hormonal changes [and] enlarged prostate glands.”  These conclusions are based on animal studies, but the NRDC says that “more than 90 percent of the general population has BPA in their bodies, at levels close to those which have been shown to cause harm in animals.”  A recent study by the Food Packaging Forum, which is blocked by a paywall, shows that an additional 175 hazardous chemicals are routinely used in food packaging.

Food packaging that is in contact with food continuously release these chemicals into food which are then consumed.  The fact that these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproductive procedures apparently doesn’t stop industry from using them or cause our government, at least, from banning them.  The study, “Food contact substances and chemicals of concern:  A comparison of inventories,” reveals that the list of chemicals have been long linked to health concerns – hence the term “chemicals of concern”) – and include formaldehyde, benzene, propylparaben, ammonia, carbon monoxide and asbestos.  Companies are legally allowed to use these chemicals in their packaging and there is no law demanding that these substances be labeled.

In Europe, for instance, all chemicals with toxic properties must be approved for use in toys, paints, textiles and medical equipment, but the rules don’t include food packaging.  This relatively new study may prod the same kind of scientific consensus that previously led to BPA being banned in certain reusable food containers, such as sippy cups, but an overall ban is far into the future.  At this point, the best effort is to educate people to avoid products containing BPA, which is a far cry from protecting people from something they may know little about.

Who among us knows anything about Phthalates?  They are apparently everywhere, but are also used to keep plastic wrap soft.  They are one of the 175 and have been identified with obesity and “reduced masculinisation in new-born boys.”  A 2012 Food Standards Agency report found that “31 per cent of everyday foods tested contained phthalates above the legal level, with the highest level in bread.”

Benzene is also used in food packaging.  It is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “Group 1 human carcinogen.”  And although most benzene in the body is inhaled, its use in food packaging, particularly in microwave products, causes it to leach into the food.  It is known to cause bone marrow abnormalities and leukemia.  And when in combination with propylparaben it has been shown to alter hormone signaling and gene expression.  And it is ubiquitous.

The Food Packaging Forum study clearly states that nearly all processed food packaging (cans, foil, paper and plastics) release synthetic chemicals into foods for as long as they are in contact.  “Among the 175 chemicals of concern are substances causing cancer or inflicting changes on the genes.  Others affect an organism’s ability to reproduce, or they act as endocrine disruptors interfering with hormone signaling.  In addition, the list contains chemicals that accumulate in the environment or the human body.”

Given that it takes time for certain cancers to develop, the industry and government have been able thus far to distance themselves from any action that would remove these toxins from contact with food.  Indeed, the FDA, just this month, banned three grease-resistant chemical substances linked to cancer and birth defects.  All three were PFCs and are still used as water repellents on clothing.  And it’s taken the FDA ten years to make even this very small decision.  They were under pressure from various environmental groups to ban these specific chemicals while at the same time approving other PFC chemicals for use in food packaging with no safety assessments being conducted.

Although it is impossible to avoid contact with these chemicals in our environment, at least we can lessen the toxic effects by severely restricting consumption of processed food.  We can also use glass and steel containers for leftovers and re-educate ourselves about “safe plastic numbers” and uses.  Aside from the other obvious dangers of processed foods, such as elevated levels of salt, fat and sugar, knowledge of the dangers of hidden chemicals should definitely propel us to cook exclusively from scratch.

Recipe of the Week

Lentils with Pasta

3/4 lb green lentils

1 onion, chopped

2 or 3 stalks celery including the leaves, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup pureed organic canned tomatoes (processed food!)

2 quarts homemade chicken or turkey stock

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup dried pasta of your choice

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

garnish with Parmesan

Heat a thin coating of olive oil on the bottom of a large soup pot.  Turn the heat to medium high and saute the onions, celery and carrots until the onions are translucent.  Add the garlic and stir in for no more than a minute.  Add the wine and cook until it evaporates.  Add the tomatoes, stock and lentils.  Bring to a simmer and cook until the lentils are thoroughly done, about 45 minutes.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente.  Taste for salt and pepper and serve with plenty of Parmesan.

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Be A Climatarian!

I asked a co-worker what she and her boyfriend had planned for Christmas Day.  As we work in a store that makes hundreds of connections with local farmers and ranchers while also providing organic meats, fruits and vegetables, I was a little irritated when she told me it was their tradition to eat breakfast at McDonald’s.  Very few people eat a perfect diet and many of us still consume some meat.  Having said that, however, I would at least like to see people have a greater understanding of how the foods they choose to eat have an impact on their health and the environment.

One simple way of gaining an understanding of what the corporate food lobby is doing in order to make a profit is to read the nutrition labels on the backs of all processed food.  Even buying a can of organic beans requires a peek at the back as the levels of sodium can be dramatically different.  One brand can have 30 mg while another 300 mg.  While rinsing the beans can reduce sodium amounts considerably, I don’t see any reason to buy the brand with more sodium.  Similarly, many people are under the impression that drinks such as those made by Odwalla, a brand owned by Coca-Cola are healthy.  These drinks, however, do contain roughly 40 grams of sugar for every 12 ounce bottle. The World Health Organization has stated that no one should consume more than 25 grams of sugar a day.  The good news is that roughly 60% of Americans do in fact read the nutrition labels.  The bad news being, of course, that nearly half do not.

And eating meat is considered by many to be one of the worst contributors to a host of human ailments as well as having the greatest negative environmental impacts.  Even a fanciful disappearance of factory farms would do little to change the fact that beef and lamb constantly release substantial amounts of methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.   The New York Times’ definition of a Climatarian is one who chooses “a diet whose primary goal is to reduce climate change.”

The definition specifically suggests that one refrain from eating beef and lamb but allows pork and poultry as those animals do not emit methane.  People who continue to eat beef and lamb, however, can at least buy meat from well-managed local farms where less energy is required.  Eating meat from fast food companies promotes excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers, much of which ends up as runoff that pollutes rivers, groundwater and oceans.  Eating factory meat means promoting the production of 500 million tons of manure with no place to go but to our waterways.

Eating food that’s locally produced is also beneficial for everyone.  The oddly named group, “Strolling of the Heifers,” a Vermont based local food advocacy group, has released a list of reasons to eat local food.  Among other things, buying local supports family farms, boosts the local economy, generates fewer greenhouse gases by eliminating travel, promotes better soil management and builds more connected communities.

The good news here as well is that local food sales are increasing.  The USDA reported to Congress early this year (January 2015) that local food sales in the U.S. continue to rise.  Part of the reason for these increases is that many states have passed laws that provide support for local food systems.

Aside from a few window dressing positions taken by the federal government to promote local foods – the 2014 Farm Bill establishes increased access to “locally and regionally marked food” – the primary agricultural focus remains on the promotion of Big Ag.  Subsidies are still being handed out to companies growing GM corn and soy, foods that are mostly used to produce the processed foods high in sodium, sugar and fat.

No one has to forgo the occasional treat in order to live a healthy life.  Being mindful of what you eat, however, is essential to both personal health and the health of the planet.  I ask that people educate themselves about the foods they eat and choose well.  Eating locally is by far the best option and puts fewer pennies into the hands of corporations that certainly do more damage than good.

Recipe of the Week

Years ago I found this recipe for spinach pie and made it more than once.  I stopped making it as I found it had too much meat.  I made it recently and it was still very good even as I eliminated much of the meat.

Spinach Pie

2.5 cups organic white flour

3 tbls butter

2 lbs fresh spinach, washed and trimmed

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 lb pancetta or bacon,, chopped

1 cup Parmesan cheese

Put the flour in a food processor with the butter and pulse until mixed.  Add enough tepid water until a soft dough is formed.  Knead for a few moments then wrap in plastic and set aside.

Put the spinach in a large pot, turn the heat to high and stir until wilted.  Drain, let cool, squeeze out the excess moisture and chop.

Put a little olive oil in a frying pan and cook the pancetta or bacon until the onions are golden.  Add the spinach and stir in well.  Allow to cool somewhat and add the cheese.

Roll out 2/3rd of the pastry and line a pie tin.  Add the spinach mixture and cover with the rest of the rolled out pastry.  Prick the pastry and smooth it with a little cold water.

Cook in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or when pie is bubbly and crust is browned.


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United Soya Republic

In December 2003 Syngenta triumphantly labeled the countries of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay as the United Soya Republic.  At this point, Big Ag had effectively taken control of regional agricultural systems, transforming them from sustainable operations that fed and employed rural populations to factory farms.  These industrial farms focus on producing cash crops for export to rich countries to be used primarily for animal feed and biofuels.  Putting aside for the moment the issues of massive pesticide use and the potential dangers to our health by consuming GMOs, the destruction of traditional farming methods, particularly in Argentina, has resulted in increased poverty, more food insecurity and deforestation.

Argentina traditionally followed an agricultural system that combined the growing of grains and the pasturing of cattle.  They were known worldwide for the quality of their grass-fed beef.  With the advent of biotechnology, introduced to Argentina in the 1990s, the traditional methods were at best marginalized and at worse, destroyed.  Argentina’s government continues to encourage and welcome the control Monsanto exerts over their agricultural economy as the income secured by exports to America and China has bolstered their ability to pay down dept.  The societal consequences were never considered and continue to be ignored.

As to the almost complete destruction of their traditional cattle industry, many would argue that worldwide meat consumption must be halved in order to contain climate change.  In fact, Argentineans continue to consume more meat per year than the average American, although now that beef comes from factory feedlots (CAFOs).  It has come to be understood that “our modern energy-,chemical – and genetically modified organism-intensive industrial food and farming systems are the major cause of man-made global warming.”  In addition, much of what Argentina now grows is intended to be exported to China for use as animal feed as the demand for meat in that country grows.

As the demand for biofuels, and particularly animal feed rose, Big Ag’s need for more land increased.  As a result, there has occurred a massive exodus from the countryside as small farmers were driven off their land.  Unable to afford the machines needed for soy production, the pesticides and the yearly outlay for patented seeds, many farmers left their fields or were driven out by threats and violence.  Increased soy production has caused deforestation to escalate, and malnutrition and hunger have arrived in a country that prior to the introduction of GMOs produced ten times as much food as required by the population.  Arguments against the expansion of GMOs in Argentina is growing, but with the complicity of their government and the corporate capture of their regulatory system progress in that regard becomes doubtful.  Argentina is the world’s third largest producer of GMOs after the U.S. and Brazil.

The use of pesticides required to grow GMOs continues to increase, causing environmental destruction and severe health problems.  Factory farms in Argentina apply double the amount of glyphosate and other chemicals to their fields as do Americans.  There is also little regard for the populations nearby due to a paucity of regulations or lack of enforcement.  Cancer clusters have been identified in rural communities as well as birth defects in children that far exceed rates occurring in urban areas of the country.  A report issued a couple of years ago by Michael Warren and Natacha Pisarenko, both AP reporters, noted that “in Santa Fe, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average.  In Chaco, birth defects quadrupled in the decade after biotechnology dramatically expanded farming in Argentina.”

The corporate takeover of Argentina’s agriculture is being fought against.  The National Indigenous Campesino Movement of Argentina defines food sovereignty as “the peoples’ right to define their agricultural and food policy, and the right of farmers and peasants to produce food.”  The organization has stated that “worldwide communities are seeking an alternative to a model controlled by Cargill, Monsanto, General Foods, Nestle and Kraft foods.”

The people of Argentina living in urban areas were famously surprised by what has happened to their agricultural system and the people who live in rural areas.  They are now becoming informed about the destruction brought by Big Ag.  We all need to know about the damage inflicted upon Argentina and fight against it anyway we can.

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Food Waste in America – An Update

As a retired chef, I currently work in a regional grocery chain that offers a mix of organic and conventional foods.  They continue to establish community connections and have actually become the main support for a variety of local food entrepreneurs.  The benefits provided to employees exceed those of most such businesses, one of which is a program allowing employees to take home food that has been discarded.  The wages paid are well above minimum pay, but considering the high costs of food and rent this particular benefit is enormously helpful, especially to those employees with children.  The store also welcomes gleaners from a variety of charitable organizations to pick up and distribute much of the food.  The daily accumulation of discarded food, however, is somewhat shocking.  Given the season, nearly every day I see approximately fifty to sixty pounds of apples on the free shelf.  Employees and gleaners take a good portion of that amount, but at the end of the day at least twenty pounds of apples remain, as well as a sizable amount of squash and other vegetables.  A lot of processed food, including cheese, yogurt, milk and eggs is also available, as the manufacturer-created expiration dates determines that it can no longer be sold.  All of the available food is perfectly edible for at least a week after the expiration date and often longer.  The apples and other fruits and vegetables merely contain a spot here and there or are otherwise slightly deformed.  I wrote about the enormity of food waste in this country in September (Food Waste in America), and now recently learned that, aside from any program initiated by President Obama, legislation is being proposed as a first real attempt to rein in the amount of edible food that’s being tossed into landfills.

This last week, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, announced that she was introducing legislation that would reduce food waste.  Considering that the National Resources Defense Council found, in a comprehensive study on food waste in 2012, that we are wasting roughly 40% of our food, this legislation is a much needed first step.  The details of the bill are still being drafted, but Pingree has stated that the legislation would, among other things, change the way “sell by” or “best by” dates are used on products.  “A lot of people mistakenly think there is some sort of government standard for ‘best by’ dates and that you have to throw out food once the date is passed.  The truth is it’s the manufacturer that comes up with those dates, and much of the time the food is perfectly safe to eat well after the date has passed,” Pingree said in a press release.  Ms. Pingree also would like the bill to provide tax incentives to farmers and retailers to sell non-perfect looking produce that often isn’t even harvested.  She suggests that school lunch programs could benefit by purchasing these foods at a lower cost.  Pingree would like the bill to focus on consumer awareness, incentives to alter our agricultural system so as to minimize food waste and programs to encourage retailers to sell “imperfect” foods.  Pingree would like the bill to contain “nearly two dozen provisions to reduce food waste across the economy.”

The Obama administration has recently set a goal to reduce food waste in this country by half during the next fifteen years.  It’s difficult to see how this program could succeed without a specific law aimed at the problem, although any public relations campaign would be beneficial.  And as a press release in September by the USDA and EPA acknowledges, reducing food waste does more than feed the many people in this country who suffer from food insecurity.  EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in the release that “by reducing wasted food in landfills, we cut harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve our natural resources and protect our planet for future generations.”  The press release points out that “food loss and waste is [the] single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste.”

I was recently given a bottle of locally made, organic yogurt by the vendor who also made the product.  He was perturbed that he had to pull so much yogurt off the shelf as the sell by date had expired.  He claimed the yogurt would still be good for another two weeks at least.  The date on the bottle was 11/23.  I just ate a spoonful of it today and it was delicious.  To change all of our perceptions concerning food safety will be difficult.  The Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, however, has posted a list of things to be aware of as we shop and cook.  Significantly, there is a statement concerning our understanding of food labels, saying that “such terms are not an indicator of food safety.”  There’s also a very funny quote by Calvin Trillin at the end.

I don’t know if the ridiculous Congress we have now will somehow find objections to a bill aimed at reducing food waste, although I can certainly see the Grocery Manufacture’s lobbying organization weighing against it.  Even so, the more we all become aware will be beneficial to this commendable campaign.

Recipe of the Week

This is a meal suggestion and one of my favorites.  I’ve posted recipes for homemade flour tortillas before and certainly refried beans, but it’s worth a reminder.

Refried Beans

soak a full cup of pinto beans in cold water overnight or at least for a few hours.  Pour the beans and their soaking liquid into a large pot, cover with more cold water, add 1.5 teaspoons of salt and 1.5 teaspoons of sugar.  Bring to a boil and then allow to simmer for about two hours.  You may have to add more water during the cooking process.  When the beans are done, and still a little soupy, process them with an immersion blender or puree in a food processor.  Add one full tablespoon of organic tomato sauce and about 2 cups of cheese, your choice, cut up into small pieces or grated.  Taste for salt.


3 cups organic white flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 cup warm water, heated, not from the tap

Put the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixer or food processor.  Pulse the ingredients to mix.  Add 1 cup warm water and the oil and process for about 30 seconds in the processor and two minutes or more in the mixer until the dough has balled up.  Remove and knead briefly on a floured surface.  Cut the dough into ten pieces, flatten them out, put on a lightly floured backing sheet and cover with a cloth for ten minutes.  Heat a cast iron pan to medium high.  Roll out each piece very thinly and place in the pan.  Cook until bubbles appear then flip.  The whole cooking process for each tortilla takes a little less than 2 minutes, although I’ve never timed it exactly; I just look at it and maybe touch them to see if they’re done.  Put the tortillas on a plate.  Let them sit until cool (I usually flip them to let the bottom ones cool off).  Place in a plastic bag and freeze.  No need to place paper between them – they don’t stick together.

Now you have a few meals.  The one I like the best is to place beans on the tortilla, fold it over once and heat in a microwave.  As that’s heating, I scramble one organic egg – no salt necessary.  Open the flap of the tortilla, scrape the egg onto it and that’s it.  All you need is a little hot sauce.

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Paris Climate Talks and the Elephant in the Room

The front page of Le Monde on Wednesday showed a picture of President Obama shaking hands with Bill Gates during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.   As the owner of 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock and as one who has teamed up with Cargill, one of the largest agribusiness companies on the planet, he shouldn’t even be there.  It has been shown that the genetic engineering Monsanto purports and the large scale industrial beef processing conducted by Cargill are major causes of global warming.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all man made greenhouse gases as well as 37% of methane emissions and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions.  The monocrop structure of agriculture espoused by Monsanto also leads to climate change by deforestation, draining of wetlands and the nitrous oxide emissions released by the vast amount of pesticides required to grow GMOs.  Given the control these multinational corporations have over our governments, it seems doubtful that the Conference will consider the damage done to our climate by these agricultural methods.

It is a fact that greenhouse gases are warming the Earth.  And as found by the FAO, animal agriculture generates greenhouse gas emissions.  CO2 is considered to be the most powerful of the greenhouse gases and one having the most significant warming impact on global temperatures.  CO2 is released by the burning of fossil fuels, but is also produced by animal agriculture.  The feed given to animals kept in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is primarily genetically altered corn which depends on large amounts of pesticides.  “The FAO estimates that the production of fertilizer for feed crops may emit 41 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally.”  CAFOs also require large amounts of fossil fuel based energy to operate; the FAO estimates that this generates “at least 90 million tonnes of CO2 annually worldwide.”  The factory farms producing the corn to feed the animals are major contributors to global deforestation, and removing forests that capture CO2 is also responsible for an increase in global temperatures.  The “negative effect on the climate of methane is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2,” and CAFOs are producing three times as much manure as humans, much more than can be recycled as fertilizer.  Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is a key component of synthetic fertilizers and according to the EPA “agricultural soil  management is the largest source of N2O  emissions in the United States, accounting for about 74% of total N2O emissions.  Nitrous Oxide is also emitted during the breakdown of nitrogen in livestock manure.”

It is obvious that coal plants, fracking and other industrial, fossil fuel based operations are a major cause of global warming and these issues will most certainly be discussed at the Conference.  But given the impact that industrial farming practices have on global warming there should be discussions about how to encourage small scale operations for food production.   And again, for those who still insist that sustainable farming operations cannot feed the world, one must remember that feeding vast numbers of animals uses more food and energy.  It’s a well established fact that for every 100 calories of feed given to animals just 30 calories are produced for human consumption.

Michael Pollan, a well known food writer, recently issued a documentary to coincide with the Paris climate talks.  The focus of “Time to Choose” is on how industrial agriculture effects global warming.  As he notes, “while energy is indeed the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, the food system is #2.”  He explains that “approximately one-third of the carbon now in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter but since we began plowing and deforesting we’ve been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere.  The food system as a whole…contributes…between 20 – 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization – more than any other sector except energy.”  In other words, if we want to get serious about controlling the negative effects of industrialization as it relates to climate change then we must change how we manage agriculture.  And as individuals we can pay closer attention to what we eat and where it comes from.

Recipe of the Week

There are hundreds of variations for potato soup, and this one was easy, relatively cheap and quite good.

Potato, Sausage Soup

3 russet potatoes, unpeeled, washed and chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1/2 lb sausage of your choice (I used ground sage infused breakfast pork sausage)

2 quarts homemade chicken stock

2 cups grated sharp cheddar

3 Tbls. olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Pour the oil into a large soup pot.  Turn the heat to medium high.  Saute the celery, carrots and onion until the onion is translucent.  Add the potatoes and stock and cook at a simmer until the raw potato taste is gone, about 45 minutes to an hour.  While the soup cooks, saute the sausage in a frying pan until done.  Remove any excess fat.  When the soup is done, puree it and add the sausage and cheddar.  Taste for salt and pepper.

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The (Real) Green Revolution

Just as I believe that no one benefits from Republican Party policies but rich white men, so too do I think that proponents of GMO crops are either paid by Big Ag to vilify anyone questioning the value of those crops or are allowing themselves to be misled by propaganda issued forth by the very companies that profit from them.  But that is neither here nor there.  Vociferous proponents of GMOs are becoming more and more irrelevant as the two truly biggest players, the consumer and the farmer, are slowly changing the face of agriculture in this country.  Public distrust of GMOs is growing.  A Pew Research Center study conducted this year shows that 57% of Americans believe GMOs are unsafe.  The study made no claims on the veracity of the majority belief; it simply illustrates a fact.  And industry is responding.  A recent example of how consumers shape the market can be found in the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of AquaBounty’s genetically altered salmon.  Immediately after the announcement sixty grocery store chains, including Walmart and Costco, have stated they won’t sell the product.  Other chains include Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.  Given the strength of consumer demand, more and more farmers are switching from growing GMOs to organic, and most are doing so simply to satisfy their bottom line.

Even though the market for organically grown products is relatively small, it continues to grow as demand dictates.  The number of organic farms in Iowa, for example, grew to 612 last year, making it “the 10th-largest producer…in the United States.”  According to Ginger Harris, a statistician with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), “Iowa is definitely playing a role in this sector of agriculture.  People find it profitable being in organics, so Iowa producers are meeting market demand.”  Joseph Reilly, an administrator with NASS, said farmers “expect to expand U.S. organic production in the coming years.”  A specific example of a farmer switching from growing GMO corn and soybeans to farming organic comes from Soper Farms, Inc. of Emmetsburg, Iowa.  The Soper family works an 800 acre farm and switched to organic in 2010.  The transition wasn’t entirely smooth and took about three years before it was successful, but in the end Soper Farms managed to increase their net income from $180 per acre with GMOs to $578 with organics.  Harn Soper, manager of the farm, added that they “reduced their costs by as much as 40 percent by eliminating expensive GMO seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers.”  Harn further stated that “the benefits of going organic were more than financial.  We don’t have superweeds…we use nature and crop rotations to deal with weeds.”  Harn also noticed an improvement in the soil.

The economics of switching from GMO crops to non-GMO crops is dependent on more than consumer demand.  Farmers are beginning to see that the costs of growing GMO crops are rising.  An Iowan corn breeder, tired of dealing with superweeds, stated recently that “the insect and herbicide traits are losing effectiveness with increased resistant rootworm and weed species.  Growers are tired of paying for input costs that are reduced in efficacy and funding additional forms of crop protection.”  And despite claims by Big Ag that non-GMO yields are smaller, farmers such as Harn Soper and the corn breeder have noticed that “the yield performance of non-GMO hybrids is similar to or greater than traited (GMO) hybrids.”  Farmers across the country evidently agree that growing non-GMO crops is beneficial.  Seed companies report selling more non-GMO seeds than ever before.  Tim Daley of Stonebridge, Ltd., says that ‘some companies have seen a 50 percent increase in sales of non-GMO seed, and some have said they’ve sold more non-GMO seed this year than in the last five.”  Iowa State University weed specialist Bob Hartzler says that “there is continual and accelerating growth in organic.  There has been more conversion to organic by farmers recently than I’ve ever seen.”

Consumer demand coupled with increasing costs and inefficiencies of GMO methods may very well mean the eventual demise of large-scale GMO farming.  Indeed, Monsanto’s “earnings fell 34% in its first fiscal quarter” and its “shares have decreased nearly 3% since the beginning of the year.”  As people become more skeptical of genetically altered foods, real or imagined, the market will simply follow.  Walmart not only is stocking more organic products but is also cutting costs so people can afford the food.  McDonald’s has been losing money for years, and in fact closed more restaurants than they opened last year for the first time.  They, too, are considering adding organic options to their menus.  General Mills recently paid approximately one billion dollars to acquire Annie’s Homegrown, a maker of all organic products, and nearly everyone is saying no to the GE salmon.  Walmart is still, in my book, an evil giant, and Annie’s foods, even though organic, are still all processed with high amounts of sodium, fat and sugar, but it is the perception people have that organic is better, and if purveyors of food wish to maximize their profits they will follow the will of the people.  And farmers wishing to make the most of their acreage will also follow the market.  When the USDA approved the GE salmon, a sense of futility settled in briefly.  Then I saw that, despite the power of Big Ag to impose its will on our government, what the majority of consumers demand determines how the market will respond.

Recipe of the Week

This soup is of Tuscan origin.  It’s a little different, but I found the taste to be quite good and it’s entirely vegetarian.

Tuscan Soup with Farro, Garbanzo Beans and Wild Mushrooms

1 large leek, white part only, chopped

1 cup organic canned tomatoes, pureed

1 cup dried garbanzo beans

1 cup farro

1/2 lb wild mushrooms, chopped.  I used chanterelles, which were silken and very tasty

2 tsps. fresh thyme, minced

lots of olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Soak the garbanzos over night in plenty of cold water.  Pour all the soaking water and the beans into a large soup pot and simmer until done, about two hours.  While the beans cook, saute the mushrooms and leeks in about 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil.  Add the thyme, and when the beans are almost done add the mushrooms and leeks to the soup pot.  The cooking water is serving as the broth, so make sure you have at least three cups in the pot when the beans are done.  Add the tomatoes and the farro to the simmering water and cook for about 1/2 hour.  When the soup is done, add salt and pepper and another 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.  It’s good the way it is, but sprinkling with a good pecorino adds a nice flavor.

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