News Bites

February 4, 2011

As always, there’s a lot going on in the world of food. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the chewier news bits from the last month.

sites/default/files/news_bites_alfalfa_bot_drawing.jpgGMO Alfalfa: What Now?

It’s been a little over a week since the USDA announced its sudden decision to fully deregulate alfalfa that has been genetically modified to withstand heavy doses of pesticides (named “Roundup Ready” after Monsanto’s infamous herbicide Roundup), and good food advocates are still reeling.

For one, it’s looking like the Obama administration — in its ongoing effort to appear pro-business — played a key role in urging the USDA toward the quick decision, despite Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s attempts in the weeks earlier to push for “coexistence.” The latter was a relatively bold move (given the conservative, pro-agribusiness makeup of the current House Ag Committee) that would have required some geographic separation between GMO alfalfa and its organic counterpart, which is vulnerable to contamination. The New York Times quoted outgoing Obama advisor David Axelrod while he urged the Obama administration to “plow forward” with the deregulation GMO alfalfa.

Alfalfa is an important forage crop, and this shift has the potential to significantly impact the nation’s organic dairy and meat producers. Will it be the “end of organic meat and dairy,” as so many advocates and journalists have warned? It’s hard to say, but — as Sam Fromartz points out over on the Atlantic website — ranchers may lose access to international markets, be forced to source organic forage crops outside the US, and ultimately have to pass the cost on to consumers (not a promising combination, when it comes to staying in business).

As Fromartz puts it: “Now you might argue over whether Roundup Ready alfalfa is safe or not. But long before that argument’s settled, organic farmers will face major economic losses — the same small farmers that the USDA likes to present as poster children for agriculture.”

organicMeanwhile, The Center for Food Safety is fundraising as it prepares to sue the USDA for what it sees as an illegal approval of the crop. On the local level, ranchers are also beginning to speak out against the ruling. Local organic dairy farmer, Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery released a statement today offering their support for a Center for Food Safety lawsuit and said, “Straus Family Creamery will support them in this fight. In the meantime, we will be calling on our customers and all consumers to join us in protest.”

Related breaking news:

USDA partially deregulating biotech sugar beets

Organic Milk and Grass-Fed Dairy: New Pieces of the Puzzle

Speaking of organic dairy, a recent study out of the UK says organic milk (or, more specifically, milk that comes from grass-fed cows) is not only better for us, but its production can help offset climate change. On a related note, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released its own study about the potential for lowering the greenhouse gases associated with grass-fed cattle ranching. Among other findings, the report says that a well-maintained pasture with a high percentage of legumes can translate to increased digestibility for the cows and therefore less, ahem, methane in the atmosphere.

Mark Bittman’s Recipe for Change

If you read about food online, chances are pretty good you’ve heard about Mark Bittman’s decision to stop publishing his popular Minimalist recipe column in the New York Times in favor of a new opinion column about the health-related, environmental, and political side of today’s food system. Jen Dalton spoke with Bittman last week on Civil Eats, where he laid out his goals:

sites/default/files/mark_bittman_1.jpg“I’d like to see a fairer form of taxation, subsidies moved from one place to another; a stronger FDA, a more sensible USDA (really, the USDA should be broken into two agencies, one for agribusiness and one for consumers); emphasis and support of regional food and food grown on small farms, by farmers making a decent wage. Oh, and better treatment of farmworkers and animals. And, of course, an increase in home cooking and support for that.”

Sounds good, but is that all?

Farm Bill Rumblings

It’s early in the game, but good food advocates around the nation are beginning to turn their attention back to the Farm Bill (which is expected to be revisited in 2012). Much remains to be seen about what changes are possible given the nation’s current congressional makeup, but that won’t keep the movement quiet.

In How the next farm bill could plant a new crop of farmers, Grist contributor Lindsey Lusher Shute proposed that the legislation should include an expansion of the Rural Youth Loan program to include young people ages 21-35, and more young farmers generally.

Kari Hamerschlag at the Environmental Working Group eloquently drew the connection between school lunches and Farm Bill-appropriated subsidies for commodity crops.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has authorized increased federal spending of six cents per meal.  That would cover part of the nearly $7 billion price tag. But …elementary school math tells us that we will still be short by about $6.5 billion over 5 years….Schools can make up some of the difference by rearranging menus and increasing efficiency. But at least half the $700 million needed annually to pay for additional fruits and vegetables should come out of the $5 billion USDA doles out yearly in direct payments to large and profitable farming operations that produce many of the commodities formulated into livestock feed and over-processed, nutrient-poor foods.”