Sustainable Food News Bites

June 25, 2010

sites/default/files/cows_alfalfa_0.jpgHere’s a quick breakdown on the biggest food news of the day, in a short, easily digestible form.

GMO Alfalfa Ruling Legitimizes Contamination Claims

The upshot: good news for anti-GM advocates: Monsanto still can’t sell genetically modified alfalfa.

As one of the primary feeds for dairy cows, alfalfa is a crucial part of the food system. The sale of genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds (designed to withstand heavy applications of the powerful herbicide Roundup) concerns many sustainable food advocates — especially organic milk producers.

This week, in their first decision involving genetically modified crops, the Supreme Court ruled on a California case surrounding genetically modified alfalfa. Although, the ruling was initially reported in the mainstream media as a victory for Monsanto, which created and sold the seeds from 2005-2007, it’s far more complicated. While the justices technically overturned an injunction on the sale of GMO alfalfa, they reaffirmed that its sale should remain contingent on an environmental impact study focused on cross-pollination and contamination.

The debate about contamination (i.e. whether genetic material can spread from GM crops to non-GM crops through cross-pollination) has long been at the core of the discussion of genetically engineered agriculture. And while companies like Monsanto have often claimed that contamination is not a risk, the Supreme Court now officially disagrees. “By ruling that that GM crops could cause environmental harm through cross-pollination,” Barry Estabrook reported in the The Atlantic, the justices made “a decision that may have wide-reaching effects on future GM cases.”

Related: 50 U.S. lawmakers ask USDA to deny biotech alfalfa, say organic dairy industry threatened

strawberry_plantMethyl Iodide in the Spotlight

The upshot: Californians have 4 days to comment on the introduction of a noxious new pesticide.

The California food and farming community is up in arms over methyl iodide. The fumigant, which has been proposed for use in commercial strawberry farming to replace ozone-depleting methyl bromide, has many scientists, environmentalists and activists worried.

Just how toxic is methyl iodide? The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is proposing acceptable exposure at levels 96 parts per billion, but that’s 120 times the .8 parts per billion the department’s own scientific review committee says is acceptable for farmworkers.

Methyl iodide is a neurotoxin, and its impact reaches far beyond the workers who come in direct contact with the substance. As Theodore Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University Medical Center and a member of DPR’s scientific review committee, told the New York Times: “Once out in the environment, neurotoxic chemicals like methyl iodide contribute to neurodevelopment disorders including learning disabilities, conduct disorders, autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

At a State Senate hearing last week, dozens of activists showed up to deliver some 40,000 letters of opposition to the DPR proposal to Governor Schwarzenegger. Concerned consumers may submit comments until June 29.

sites/default/files/school_lunch2.jpgSchool Lunch Upgrade On the Horizon?

The upshot: Congress is in the position to increase federal funding for school lunch for the first time since 1973.

Most healthy school lunch advocates say it would take at least a dollar per meal to reform the convoluted system of commodity dumping and overly processed foods that is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In the meantime, however, Congress is inching toward a partial solution.

In March, a bill passed through the Senate that would provide an additional 4.5 billion dollars toward school lunches and the infrastructure that supports them. In addition to six cents more per meal, the The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act includes farm-to-school programs and increased training for cafeteria workers.

In early June, a similar eight billion dollar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. If passed, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act would also provide six more cents per meal, while expanding eligibility requirements and nutrition education.

The current status quo law has been in place since 2004, was extended for the last year, and – if neither of the above bills makes it through congress by September 30 – may be extended again.

See Kim O’Donnel’s useful School Food Cheat Sheet for an in-depth look at the issue.

More News Bites:

Comedian Colbert Takes up Farmworkers’ Cause
In a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform, farmworkers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge unemployed Americans: Come on, take our jobs.

You Get What You Pay For
A Pennsylvania farmers breaks down the cost of farmers market food.


Photo of cows eating alfalfa by Mike Shipman of Blue Planet Photo. School lunch photo by Jay Morthland. Photo of strawberry plant by Gwen Harlow.

Topics: , ,