Wednesday, October 17, 2012


All Together Now: World Food Day 2012
by Jezra Thompson
Published on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 by Civil Eats
One in seven people around the world will feel hunger today. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) brings global awareness to this issue every year on October 16th, and have done so since 1981. Today, there are more than 100 countries that will celebrate World Food Day. Over 450 national and private organizations in the U.S., such as Oxfam America and Ending Hunger, will host events around this year’s theme, “Agricultural cooperatives–key to feeding the world,” to bring better understanding around what cooperatives are and how they help relieve food insecurity and improve community self-sufficiency.
Agricultural cooperatives are enterprises owned and democratically operated by the employees that work there. They range from farming to retail coops that pool together resources and share in the costs and benefits of running a business. “There are many examples of co-ops and they take away the hierarchies that make it difficult to create a quality of life,” says Madeleine Van Engel, a baker-owner at Arizmendi, a cooperative bakery in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many examples of agricultural cooperatives in the U.S. not only feed their community, but also create economic and social sustainability in places often deemed unlikely.
Mandela Marketplace, a West Oakland non-profit, worked within their predominantly African-American and Latino community to identify ways to improve livelihoods and to create neighborhood investment. Together, they wanted to address the poor health statistics, where obesity rates are three times higher than the national average and where forty-eight liquor stores and zero grocery stores attempt to feed around 25,000 people. As a result, theMandela Foods Cooperative opened its doors in 2009 as a worker-owned community market selling healthy food at an affordable price.
Mariela Cedeno, Senior Manager at Mandela Marketplace, describes the cooperative as community driven. More than forty percent of the produce sold at the cooperative comes from small farmers within a 200-mile radius, most of them minority farmers. They also employ community members, like Leroy Musgraves, a retired African-American farmer who hosts nutrition education sessions in front of the cooperative twice a week.
Three years later, Mandela Foods Cooperative is improving food security and the community marketplace in West Oakland. Ms. Cedeno says that, “being a cooperative means that everyone gets value out of the business and everyone is engaged in its mission to increase access to healthy food and increase the community’s wealth, they are equally invested in economic development and food.” Since the success of Mandela Foods Cooperative, the community of West Oakland and Mandela Marketplace has organized a produce delivery service that works with community youth to stock the shelves of corner stores with fresh produce.

The Toolbox for Education and Social Action lists 10 reasons why cooperatives work, starting with democracy and ending with viability. The FAO estimates that one billion people are members of cooperatives worldwide and they are generating more than 100 million jobs. The way we think about agriculture and food businesses is moving away from the trailblazing farmer tasked with feeding the world and moving closer towards business models that share resources, ideas, and finances. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives found that“cooperatives account for nearly $654 billion in revenue, over two million jobs, $75 billion in wages and benefits paid, and a total of $133.5 billion in value-added income.”

World Food Day invites us all to take action and join the conversations. Many community-based organizations, agricultural cooperatives, and community leaders will host dinners, organize food packaging events, arrange food drives, plan community gardening events, and engage schools and institutions. There are also several national and international conferences and workshops taking place around the world that you can tune into. This year’s World Food Day conference will be hosted by Gorta in Dublin and will stream live on today at 9am here. You can find out more about agricultural cooperatives and how you can get involved in your community to end world hunger one dinner at a time here.
© 2012 Civil Eats
Jezra Thompson
Jezra Thompson is a food system planner in California’s Bay Area. She writes about food justice on a national and local level for Civil Eats. She has spent time talking about food access within government, non-profit and academia. Her portfolio can be found here. Follow her on Twitter:@JezraThompson.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


BBC Profile: Big Tobacco Lawyers Target Big Food
Attorney Don Barrett demands mislabelled food be "taken off the shelves"
- Common Dreams staff
Published on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 by Common Dreams
More than a dozen lawyers who took on big tobacco in the 1990's have turned their attention to the food industry and the criminal mislabeling of food products. BBC Newsnight spoke with Don Barrett, one of the attorney's who's career capstone was the decade-long battle that forced tobacco companies to admit they knew cigarettes were addictive.
Attorney Don Barrett, made famous by the 1998 Big Tobacco settlement, is going after the food industry. (Photo by James Patterson for the New York Times)"Nobody's trying to tell the American people what they have to eat or what they cannot eat, the American people can make those decisions for themselves," the Mississippi attorney told BBC. "It's all about free choice. To have free choice you have to have accurate information. That means Big Food, the food companies, have to start telling the truth about what's in their product. The law requires it."
The tobacco attorneys are taking an aggressive tack, claiming that companies are "misrepresenting their products, promoting them as 'natural' or 'healthy', when […] they are no such thing."
Barrett's team is focusing on the mislabeling of food and the prevailing practice of ingredient euphemisms. “It’s a crime—and that makes it a crime to sell it,” Barrett told The New York Times. “That means these products should be taken off the shelves.”
One example he gives is hidden sugars in processed food. Barrett cites the example of greek yogurt maker, Chobani Inc—one of their targets—which lists "evaporated cane juice" as an ingredient in their pomegranate-flavored yogurt, rather than sugar. According to the suit filed earlier this year, the FDA has repeatedly warned companies not to use the term because it is “false and misleading.” In total, the attorneys filed 25 cases against food industry players that also include ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz and General Mills.
Barrett draws a parallel between his infamous tobacco lawsuits and this latest round:
"The American people assume that if a product is legal to sell, then these people are telling the truth about this product. If it's legal to sell, it must be ok, otherwise the government would have done something about it. And that's what they thought about cigarettes."
Another similarity is the money at stake. Big Tobacco ended up settling for more than $200 billion in 1998. The suits against Big Food are class actions, where the class is defined as every person who purchased one of the misbranded products in the previous four years. For most of the food companies targeted, that could also amount to billions.
"I'm 68 years old, frankly I don't need the cash, the law's been good to me." According to BBC, what gets Barrett fired up is the epidemic of obesity among young people; the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports around two thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are now obese or overweight.
"This is my job, but here we have an opportunity to really help people."

Monday, October 15, 2012


Vermont Leads Way for "Farm to Plate" Planning
10 year plan seeks path to more sustainable local food system
- Common Dreams staffPublished on Monday, October 15, 2012 by Common Dreams
Big ideas can come from small states and when it comes to implementing innovation approaches its sometimes takes small pockets of dedicated individuals and organizations to show more populated areas exactly what's possible.
Dylan Zeitlyn of Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm sells produce at the Old North End Farmers Market. It's estimated that Vermonters consume about 5 percent local food. (Free Press File)This seems to be the lesson from Vermont, at least, where a state-funded initiative to foster the growth of local food systems has taken bold strides in less than two years.
And, as the Associated Press reports Monday, organizers of the program —called the 'Farm to Plate Strategic Plan,' and designed to boost the state's sustainable food system —"are celebrating its progress."
Open to all farms, food system-related entrerprises and trade associations, coops, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, private funders, and community groups, the state program carves a ten year path to a more sustainable food system within the state and region.  According to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which oversees the project, the program is designed to "catalyze and accelerate the development of markets for sustainably produced goods and services."
‘Local food is exploding in this state, and it’s because of consumer demand and consumer interest. It’s also really being led by entrepreneurs who see an opportunity and are finding new ways of accessing markets,’’ Ellen Kehler, executive director of the VSJF, told the AP.
Estimates cited by AP say that Vermonters consume about 5 percent local food on average—a national high—but that the state program's goal is to boost that to 10 percent by 2021. A state conference last week saw the gathering of nearly 200 experts and food system stakeholders for a conference to reflect on the progress of the intitiative.
Writing for, Jeff Gangemi, who attended Vermont's Farm to Plate Network Conference last week, highlights some of the key elements of the state's booming local food infrastructure:
• The Burlington (VT) Intervale Center operates one of the most successful food hub models around. Though it’s part of a 25-year-old non-profit organization, the five-year-old hub operation runs slightly over break-even with over $500,000 in sales and 25% growth per year. The hub distributes products from two dozen farms to 40 drop locations with the twin goals of returning as much money as possible to farmers, and delivering the best possible food to eaters.
• Sodexo, one of the largest food service companies in the country, has doubled down on its commitment to local. The company, which already operates the UVM dining halls and has passed the Real Food Challenge, now operates 18 locations in Vermont and is working with local farmers to develop tactics forgetting more local product into its cafeterias.
•, a really cool website developed by the Vermont Agriculture and Culinary Tourism Council, offers in- and out-of-staters 12 different food “trails” and 316 listings to explore Vermont’s rural food and culinary experiences.
• The Windham Farm and Food Network offers buying clubs for low-income residents to pool small amounts of money to buy affordable local food.
• The Green Mountain Farm to School program has launched a mobile farmers' market that is delivering fresh food to four food deserts around the state.
• Salvation Farms delivers food “gleaning” programs to help harvest and quickly distribute extra food to folks that need it around the state.
• The Grand Isle Farm Fresh Fuel Project out of UVM encourages farmers to grow sunflower seeds for fuel and food. So far, they’ve succeeded in planting 87 acres of sunflowers that produced 65 tons of seeds, 5800 gallons of oil, and 44 tons of meal (food).
• The Vermont Sheep and Goat Association enabled a “wool pool” that combined, sold and delivered 20,000 pounds of wood to a mill in Ohio. Instead of making waste, they made money for producers.
• Vermont Technical College just got a $3.4 million grant to develop anInstitute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems.
• The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has preserved 144,000 acres of farmland in the last 24 years.
• The Organic Valley Cooperative, which supplies Stonyfield Farm with all of its dairy, has shown that Vermont’s grass contributes to milk with twice the Omega 3 acids as conventional milk.
• After Tropical Storm Irene, the Vermont Community Foundation raised $2.4 million to support the state’s farmers, making grants to 225 farms. And perhaps most triumphant of all, none of the 470 farms affected by the storm ended up closing because of losses they incurred.
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Published on Monday, October 15, 2012 by The Asian Age
Giant Walmart vs. the Small Farmer
India is a land of small farmers. According to the United Nations, the smaller the farm, the higher the productivity.  Left party activists are herded into a bus as they are detained by police, during an anti Wal-mart protest in New Delhi. (AP)
Small farms grow biodiversity. They are falsely described as unproductive because productivity in agriculture has been manipulated to exclude diversity and exclude costs of high chemical and capital inputs in chemical industrial agriculture. When biodiversity is taken into account, small farms produce more food and higher incomes.
In the heated debate on FDI in retail, those promoting it repeatedly claim that the entry of corporations like Walmart will benefit the Indian farmer. Reference is made to getting rid of the middleman.
Any trader who mediates in the distribution of goods between producers and consumers is a middleman. Walmart is neither a producer nor a consumer. Therefore, it is also a middleman; it is a giant middleman with global muscle. That is how it has become the world’s biggest retailer, carrying out business of nearly $480 billion. So the issue is not getting rid of the middleman but replacing the small arthi with a giant one. The Walton Family is the global arthi located in the US, not in the local community. And this new kind of arthi combines the functions of all small traders everywhere from wholesale to retail. Instead of millions of small traders taking a two per cent commission at different levels, Walmart gets all profits. If three small traders mediate at two per cent between the producer and consumer, the difference between the farm price and consumer price is just six per cent. When Walmart enters the picture, the difference jumps with the farmer getting only two per cent of the consumer price and Walmart and its supply chain harvesting the 98 per cent. So the issue is not the number of middlemen but their size and their share of profits. It was to avoid this concentration of power over the agricultural produce market that India created the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act.
Our mandis are governed by cooperatives, which include farmers. No trader can buy more than a certain amount. This prevents monopolies. It creates a decentralised, democratic distribution system from wholesale to retail.
The government, especially the Planning Commission, has been trying very hard to dismantle the APMCs and mandis to facilitate the entry of big business in agriculture. The announcement of FDI in retail will radically change Indian agriculture. It threatens the survival of the small Indian farmer and the diversity of our farming systems.
Given the size of Walmart, it creates a monopsony through its buying power. It does not go to each small farmer and buys the five sacks of extra produce. It works through giant supply chains and giant suppliers which have no place for the small. Walmart and the small, independent farmer cannot coexist. When Walmart dominates, agribusiness dominates. Industry and corporations start to control agriculture.
We can already see early attempts at the industry takeover of agriculture to match centralised and giant production systems with centralised and giant retail. On March 5 this year, the government announced a new policy for the corporate control of agriculture called Public-Private Partnership for Integrated Agricultural Development (PPP-IAD) — a scheme for facilitating large-scale integrated projects, led by private-sector players in the agriculture and allied sectors, with a view to aggregating farmers, creating critical rural infrastructure, introducing new technologies, adding value and integrating the agricultural supply chain.
The department of agriculture and cooperation has launched the PPP-IAD, which is proposed to cover 10 lakh farmers across India during the period 2012-17. Each of the integrated agricultural projects would involve engaging a minimum of 10,000 farmers. The scheme would accept proposals from private corporate entities on integrated agricultural development projects with the proviso that intervention must cover all aspects from production to marketing.
Subsidies will now go to corporations, not the farmers. In effect, 10,000 farmers will no longer be independent producers, but bonded to the corporation. These corporations will be Walmart’s partners, not the small farmer.
This scheme , and the policy framework of which it is a part, is in effect a subversion of both land reforms and our food security. Land reforms in India got rid of zamindari and put land in the hands of the tiller. Land ceiling was introduced to ensure there would be no concentration of ownership over land. What the government is calling “reforms” are, in effect, anti-reform reforms, aimed at undoing every policy and law that we have put in place in independent and democratic India to ensure the rozi roti of the last person.
Walmart will harm and wipe out small farmers and businesses in India the way it has harmed farmers and retailers in the US. And because the density of small farmers and small retailers is higher in India than anywhere else in the world, the destructive impact will be magnified manifold.
The argument that we need FDI in retail was made when the government allowed Walmart to enter wholesale business in 2007. No infrastructure has been built, even though five years have passed. In any case, the government has given away crores in subsidies for warehouses and cold storages since it introduced “reforms”. We need a black paper to assess all the public money that has already been spent on what the government says only Walmart can do.
And the more the government pushes policies towards monopolies and monocultures, the more committed I become to defend our economic democracy and diversity as a saner, more sustainable, more just alternative to the disease of giganticism.
© 2012 The Asian Age
Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist and eco feminist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology. She is author of numerous books including, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis;Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food SupplyEarth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace; and Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Shiva has also served as an adviser to governments in India and abroad as well as NGOs, including the International Forum on Globalization, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization and the Third World Network. She has received numerous awards, including 1993 Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize.


GMOs, pesticides, and the new scientific deadlock
By Tom Laskawy     
What a month it’s been for contentious science! The latest scrum is over a new study from the University of Washington agricultural scientist Charles Benbrook, who looked at the rate of pesticide use in the age of genetically engineered seeds, or GMOs. Benbrook’s results undercut one of the main arguments in favor of the seeds — the idea that they have significantly brought down pesticide use. In fact, according to Benbrook’s analysis, since their introduction in the 1990s, pesticide use for commodity crops like corn and soy has increased by approximately 7 percent.
What’s interesting is that the biotech industry’s claim about GMOs reducing pesticide use was true when the first GMO seeds came on the market. Those seeds, known as Bt corn and Bt soy cotton, expressed their own pesticide. And when they were the only GMO game in town, Benbrook confirms that pesticide use did drop.
But then came Monsanto and its herbicide-resistant RoundUp Ready product line — seeds engineered to withstand the pesticide RoundUp (whose active ingredient is glyphosate). These seeds had the opposite effect, encouraging farmers to use a single pesticide, ultimately to excess. Benbrook decided to figure out exactly how much.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture had ended its pesticide use tracking program years earlier, so Benbrook was forced to estimate the total use. He had to come up with a model using incomplete data from the USDA combined with other sources, like planting data and pesticide-use models. He arrived at this estimation: Since GMO crops were introduced 1996, U.S. farmers have used 404 million more pounds of pesticide than they would have with just conventional crops.
This conclusion is (surprise, surprise) not without its detractors.Graham Brookes of PG Economics, a U.K. consulting group specializing in biotechnology that has conducted its own industry-funded studies on the subject, told the Huffington Post that Benbrook’s figure was “biased and inaccurate.” And Keith Kloor, who recently compared GMO “skeptics” to climate deniers, has accused Benbrook of being biased because he’s affiliated with the Organic Center, among other things.
Kloor did not, however, mention that Benbrook is also, according to his bio, former “Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues” and former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Sounds like a total radical, doesn’t he! I guess even “realists” such as Kloor are not immune to selective editing.
But the main reason that Benbrook’s work is open to these criticisms has nothing to do with him. It’s the fact that, in 2008, the Bush USDA all but stopped tracking pesticide use. It was supposedly for budgetary reasons — but it is fishy that the last year of USDA data (2006) more or less coincides with widespread adoption of Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops — the same ones that encourage farmers to pour huge amounts of glyphosate on American lands.
Which brings me to another main critique of the study: Some scientists claim that while there’s lots more RoundUp used these days, RoundUp is much safer than the alternatives. But how much safer is it really?
We have lots of evidence — some of it from USDA scientists — that RoundUp isn’t the innocuous product it’s cracked up to be. And Benbrook cited evidence of an increase in the amount of RoundUp residue present on retail produce, a phenomenon that was once quite rare. He suggests this is due to farmers using higher doses of RoundUp in fields in an early response to the rise of pesticide-resistant weeds, or as we like to call them, “superweeds.”
The RoundUp residue is a mere harbinger of things to come, however. As I’ve written about before, many farmers are now turning to older, more toxic pesticides to control those weeds. Take 2,4-D, a common replacement; it’s been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, kidney and liver problems, reproductive effects, and shows endocrine disrupting potential.
Benbrook sums up the implications like this:
A majority of American soybean, maize, and cotton farmers are either on, or perilously close to a costly herbicide and insecticide treadmill. Farmers lack options and may soon be advised, out of necessity, to purchase [GMO seeds] resistant to multiple active ingredients and to treat Bt corn with once-displaced corn insecticides. The seed-pesticide industry is enjoying record sales and profits, and the spread of resistant weeds and insects opens up new profit opportunities in the context of the seed industry’s current business model.
It’s a situation only a biotech company could love. It’s also worth noting that Benbrook calls not for a ban on GMOs, as his detractors intimate, but instead declares that “profound weed management system changes will be necessary in the three major GE crops to first stabilize, and then hopefully reduce herbicide use, the costs of weed management, and herbicide-related impacts on human health and the environment.”
It’s a sad day when a statement like that is seen as controversial. But it’s not surprising either, considering the way the science and media communities have been arguing about genetic engineering lately.
Take the recent, contentious “lifetime feeding study” [PDF] of rats and genetically modified corn that found health risks and high tumor rates, which I wrote about here. While there were issues with the study, especially surrounding the terms over which reporters could get access to the work in advance, the response from both media and other scientists was resoundingly aggressive (not to mention effective. Google the study and the first page of results contains only critical articles). The conventional wisdom quickly became that the safety of GMOs is “settled science.”
But how often is it made clear that this conclusion is based on the safety data provided by … the industry that developed and sells genetically modified seeds?
Even The New York Times hasn’t entirely ignored the lack of independent research on GMOs. A 2009 article documented a protest to the EPA by scientists who have been unable to get access to biotech companies’ seeds in order to do full analyses of their safety:
Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.
“No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” the scientists wrote in a statementsubmitted to the Environmental Protection Agency.
… [W]hile university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.
You cannot claim to understand or defend the science behind GMO safety without grappling with this reality. And Gilles-Eric Seralini, the scientist behind the rat study, is by no means the first scientist who has raised questions about GMO safety only to come under fire from industry (and in turn media).
A group of scientists recently penned a letter, which was cosigned by dozens of researchers, claiming a pattern of harassment of skeptical scientists by biotech companies and governments. The list includes:
Ignacio Chapela, a then untenured Assistant Professor at Berkeley, whose paper on GM contamination of maize in Mexico sparked an intensive internet-based campaign to discredit him. This campaign was reportedly masterminded by the Bivings Group, a public relations firm specializing in viral marketing — and frequently hired by Monsanto
And Arpad Pusztai, whose career as a biochemist “came to an effective end when he attempted to report his contradictory findings on GM potatoes.” The letter goes on to describe his experience this way:
Everything from a gag order, forced retirement, seizure of data, and harassment by the British Royal Society were used to forestall his continued research. Even threats of physical violence have been used, most recently against Andres Carrasco, Professor of Molecular Embryology at the University of Buenos Aires, whose research identified health risks from glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
It’s not easy for scientists to write letters like this — most prefer to produce research, not protests. It’s when they feel that their work is being suppressed or blocked that they get angry.
Of course, it’s easy to look at all this controversy as proof that all anti-GMO research is bunk — which is certainly a common opinion among traditional scientists. But we do live in a world where deep-pocketed industries can up and decide to “create their own reality,” as the Bushies liked to say. Fossil fuels, tobacco, and more recently, BPA and flame retardants have all benefited from a vigorous (and secretive)“product defense” industry to protect their interests (and bottom lines). Are we to believe GMOs are any different? The essence of product defense is — with apologies to Thomas Dolby – to blind with science. It hasn’t come to that point just yet; but it’s certainly getting hard to see through the fog.
Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has also appeared in The American ProspectSlateThe New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.