Food Politics: Jan. 21, 2011

USDA Fires Organic Farming Specialist for Expressing Opinions (by Jeff Deasy at

USDA to introduce “Biobased” Label (by Jessie Cacciola at SlashFood):

There’s a new eco label coming out this spring to address products — like water bottles and grocery bags — made with bio-based ingredients (primarily corn), which decompose instead of requiring recycling: “USDA Certified Biobased Product.”

Fish-Counter Sting Operation Suggests Illegal Mercury Levels May Be Widespread (by John Hendel of The Atlantic)

Plenty more articles after the jump…

Investing in Long-Lasting Change (by Danielle Nierenberg of World Watch):

Merrigan focused her speech on the necessity of investment in sustainable agriculture projects both worldwide and in the United States, and the ways in which the Obama administration is working towards improving agriculture productivity.  Investments promoting long-lasting change are crucial, noted Merrigan, especially during lean economic times. She went on to discuss how President Obama is currently calling for a shift in food supply that would lead to economic growth by improving productivity.

Fake Blueberries Often Masquerade as Real Fruit (by April Fulton at NPR)

Parsing the new ‘humane’ food labels (by Michelle Venetucci Harvey at Grist):

So what’s to be done? For now, as conscientious consumers we must take it upon ourselves to research standards and decide which practices we think can not possibly be considered humane. Or bypass those pesky labels entirely and speak directly to the farmer at your local farmers market.

Of course, one conscientious consumer does not a changed food system make. Yet something is happening. The sheer number of labels developing around the concept of animal welfare is indicative of consumer pressure. Hopefully this pressure will be able to translate into policy changes like California and Michigan’s ban on battery cages.

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just a Snow Job? (by KAT at Eating Liberally):

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

The Meaning of Walmart’s Healthy Foods Announcement (by Corby Kummer at The Atlantic):

But Walmart has a power across the entire supply chain, from farm to transportation to store, that no other marketer or grocer has. If and when it can choose to be a force for good—and if that impulse is largely the result of market demand and market share it doesn’t want competitors to claim—the First Lady’s team (and anyone else who cares about the country’s health) would be foolish not to try to guide the company in the directions it wants to see the whole food industry head.

Walmart Vows to use its Power for Good, Not Evil (by Tom Philpott at Grist):

All of this is fine and well. U.S. public health has suffered dramatically from the explosion in added sweeteners and trans fats over the past 20 years. If Walmart can force the withdrawal of some portion of that, more power to it. Walmart has graphically demonstrated the damaging aspects of severe market consolidation in the food industry. If it can now demonstrate a benevolent side to market domination, then I salute it.

But market power is a fickle thing. It answers to the demands of shareholders, not to the needs of communities. Walmart execs have convinced their shareholders that benevolence — or at least its appearance — will be profitable. But that could change. In the end, a robust, ecologically sound food system, one that nourishes the public and builds wealth in communities, won’t magically appear at the behest of some suits in Bentonville, Ark.

The hundreds of thousands of people working to build such food systems in communities nationwide shouldn’t sneer at Walmart’s announcement. Indeed, it’s likely that their work forced the company to make these concessions. But nor should it cause them to slow down, even for a second.

Why Walmart’s Healthy Foods Plan Takes the Right Approach (by Jane Black at The Atlantic):

Based on what I’ve heard from the people in West Virginia, what Americans want is significant but imperceptible changes to the foods they eat—and that’s if they want any change at all. Because most of them like what they are getting to eat, even if they know it isn’t necessarily the best thing for them. It’s what they are accustomed to. Whatever you think of Walmart, there’s no denying it knows how to serve its customers.

It’s the role of the public health advocate to push for more, faster. But from where I’m now living, such concerns can sound tone deaf. This is where Americans shop. More important, this is how Americans like to shop: 24 hours a day, with seemingly limitless options, all at cut-rate prices. Here in Huntington, one of the main obstacles to establishing successful farmers’ markets is not a lack of demand or high prices but the limited days and hours they operate. “It’s a Walmart world, 24/7, get it when you want it. That’s what everyone wants,” Ken Bolen, who ran the city’s main farmers’ market for 10 years, told me.


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