That’s not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads

That's not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads(Credit: Big Pants Productioner ryan via Shutterstock/Salon)

Food Technology is an industry journal that showcases the latest technologically modified and nutritionally engineered foods, offering an array of claimed health benefits and marketed with a proliferating range of nutritional buzzwords. Probiotic ice cream, heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, satiety smoothies, calorie-burning green teas, fiber-rich snack bars, omega-3-fortified baby foods for brain and eye development, and low-glycemic-index meal replacements are part of a new generation of so-called functional food products. Other health-enhancing products include fat-free yogurts with three grams of fiber per cup; heart-healthy chocolate bars with high concentrations of flavonols to reduce blood pressure; a Women’s Wonder Bar chocolate bar with soy, cranberry seed oil, and flax for “easing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause”; and candy and chews with echinacea for “boosting immunity.”

Alongside these premium-positioned food products are much more conventional processed foods, sweets, and beverages that have had some nutrients added to or subtracted from them. These are the standard fare of the supermarket shelves, including vitamin-enhanced breakfast cereals, low-fat reconstituted chicken nuggets, calcium-fortified orange juice, caffeinated and sugar-dense “energy” drinks, and processed/refined white sliced breads with invisible added fiber. Even confectionery and soft drinks are being nutritionally enhanced, such as Diet Coke Plus with added vitamins B6 and B12, zinc, and magnesium and Diet Pepsi Max with added ginseng and increased caffeine. Some of these products fit into the category of “lesser evil” foods—foods of poor nutritional quality that have been nutritionally improved by reducing the quantity of some of their “bad” nutrients and food components.

Within the food industry and among nutrition experts, the code phrase for all of these types of foods marketed with nutrient-content and health-related claims is functional foods, foods they claim can target and enhance particular bodily functions and overall health. The functional foods term is, however, so poorly and broadly defined that virtually any food with added nutrients, or carrying some type of health claim, seems to qualify. Through their ability to overwhelm consumers with nutritional and health claims on food packaging and in advertisements, food corporations have become the primary disseminators of the most simplified and reductive understanding of food and nutrients in the present era of functional nutritionism.



This piece examines food companies’ various nutritional engineering strategies, and their use of nutrient-content and health claims, to create a demand for their products. I also consider how the food industry and governments have proposed or implemented other front-of-pack labeling schemes, such as nutrition scoring and traffic-light labeling systems, in order to inform or influence consumers’ understanding of the nutritional quality of food products.

From Restoring Nutrient Balance to Health-Enhancing Foods

In “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” Marion Nestle characterizes functional foods—or “techno-foods,” as she refers to them—as “flatly reductionist; the value of a food is reduced to its single functional ingredient… . This logic is flawed in that it fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.” Nestle portrays the food industry’s reductive rationale for the design and marketing of these functional foods as a deliberate misuse and distortion of the otherwise sound and rigorous scientific knowledge that she claims underpins mainstream dietary guidelines.

However, while the food industry has certainly exploited nutrition science for its own commercial interests, the types of reductionism that Nestle identifies are also a key feature of the nutritionism paradigm that nutrition scientists and experts have themselves adopted and promoted over the past century. The focus on single, isolated, decontextualized nutrients has been a long-standing feature of scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century and of dietary guidelines since the 1970s. The idea that these isolated nutrients can impart their full benefits when added as a supplement to foods is also supported by the nutrient fortification programs promoted by governments and public health institutions, as well as the health claims approved for use by food regulatory agencies. The single-nutrient and multinutrient supplements that many nutrition experts endorse are similarly underpinned by these kinds of reductionist assumptions.

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Biodiversity is an environmental necessity

Biodiversity is an environmental necessity. The vast, distinct combinations of DNA needed to create the foods we eat and the world we live in are a resource that needs protecting. Without this resource we risk famine and disease. Without it, we lose the resiliency to adapt to our changing world. This dire reality is a good reason for Slow Food to embrace the need to support biodiversity through projects like the Ark of Taste and Presidia. Still, there may be an even better one: wonder.

I visited Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois recently, where the farmer’s capacity for wonder is reaping a rich harvest. The Travis family, in their eighth generation of working that land, take inspiration from the wealth of biodiversity. Most recently they imagined rice growing on their farm. They don’t have any experience with the grain, or any wetland to grow it in the rice paddy fashion usual in tropical climates. So, they sought out a rare dry land variety traceable back to the Asian mainland. It’s growing pretty well. Two rows, alive so far. Just enough to save seed for next year, and more than enough to feed Will Travis’ boundless imagination for what the future of his family farm could be.

The Travis’ share their inspiration too. I was with a group of chefs from Chicago and Champagne that day. As we walked the Travis’ fields the chefs kept nibbling on what grew around them. We tasted fava bean leaves: pretty good. The berries of asparagus after it had gone in to its frond stage: not so good.  “What’s this?” “Can I eat it?’ “What will I do with it?” We speculated on how the foraged diets of the Guinnea Hogs (an Ark of Taste breed) effects the flavor of their meat, and how best to work with that flavor. The fire of creativity was lit in these chef’s eyes. Protecting biodiversity is much more than simply storing genetic information. It is protecting the raw material that feeds the fire of human creativity, of imagination, of wonder.

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Tasty, and Subversive, Too

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DEL AIRE, Calif. — Fruit looms large in the California psyche. Since the 1800s, dewy images of oranges, lemons and other fruits have been a lure for seekers of the state’s postcard essence, symbols of fertile land, felicitous climate and the possibilities of pleasure.

Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Nectarines at the public fruit park in Del Aire, Calif.

Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Nectarine harvest from the park.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

An apricot branch grafted to an ornamental plum in San Francisco, the work of Guerrilla Grafters.

Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Virgie Shields, a resident of Del Aire, Calif., for more than six decades, next to a newly planted persimmon tree at her home.

Now a cheeky trio of artists have turned fruit trees into cultural symbols as well. The group, known as Fallen Fruit, recently planted what is being billed as the state’s first public fruit park in an unincorporated community with neatly clipped lawns outside Los Angeles.

The park is part of a growing “fruit activist” movement, a variation on a theme of urban agriculture. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission initiated the project to “fulfill a civic purpose,” said Laura Zucker, the commission’s executive director, addressing the public-health advantage for communities that are so-called food deserts, with few stores and healthy restaurants.

“They give endlessly and don’t ask for anything in return,” Austin Young, one of Fallen Fruit’s members, said of the fruit trees that make up the group’s latest “art piece” — a fledgling orchard of Tropic Snow white peaches, Mariposa plums and other trees installed alongside swing sets and basketball hoops here in Del Aire Park.

Fallen Fruit, which also comprises Matias Viegener and David Allen Burns, has become well known among art and culinary cognoscenti here and across social media. One of the group’s first activities was mapping publicly accessible fruit trees in Silver Lake and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, including private trees with succulent fruit tantalizingly draped over public rights of way.

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Whose world food prize?

Last month, the 2013 World Food Prizewas bestowed on Monsanto and Syngenta in recognition of their development of genetically engineered seed technologies. The news shocked the sustainable food and farming community — driving farmers, people’s movement leaders, reknowned scientists and development experts the world over to express their outrage and dismay.

Many excellent responses blasting the decision have been published (herehere and here). Perhaps the most powerful rebuke came from 81 laureates of the Right Livelihood Award and members of the prestigious World Food Council, who shredded the Prize organizers’ argument that GE seeds are feeding the world.

The possible silver lining in this whole farcical affair is that the interests behind the Prize have finally come to light — what they are and who they represent. Just follow the money, my colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman at Union of Concerned Scientists urges. The list of Prize corporate sponsors reads like a who’s who of the world’s largest industrial agribusiness interests: Walmart, Cargill, various corn, soy, beef and pork industry associations, and three of the Big 6 pesticide/biotech companies — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta (Foundation). No wonder they can’t help but reward one of their own.

The corporate ag leanings of the Prize and its chosen recipients has long been a fact (with a few notableexceptions), but here’s what’s new: ordinary people — like the software developer neighbor of my co-worker, who had never heard of Monsanto a few years ago — are now exclaiming in disgust, “What, the World Food Prize went to Monsanto?”

By abandoning pretenses of being independent, the Prize may have finally burst its own bubble.

Real solutions to world hunger

Vanquishing hunger requires understanding its underlying causes. Here the World Food Prize falls short. As I’ve previously explained (here and here), global hunger and poverty persist today due to a host of complex political, social, economic and environmental factors — most having to do with the destruction of local food systems and extraordinary imbalances of power in national and global food systems.

GE seeds, and the pesticides that most have been engineered for use with, offer little in the way of solutions for the poor and hungry. But they do generate enormous benefits for their corporate manufacturers. In 2012, Monsanto reaped over $7 billion in gross profits, up nearly 50% since the $5 billion it gained in 2010.

Meeting the food needs of future generations — in the face of today’s severe climate, water and energy challenges — requires a swift and decisive transition towards ecological and organic farming practices, along with the democratization and dismantling of structural oppression within our national, regional and global food systems.

These were among the key findings of the four-year World Bank and U.N.-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD), authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries. The IAASTD report — the most comprehensive global assessment of agriculture to date — was published in seven massive volumes in 2008, with the endorsement of 59 governments.

New evidence in 2013

The IAASTD’s release was followed by a raft of expert papers from U.N. agencies, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and independent scientists. They affirm that agroecological production can double food production; increase household income; save our soilprotect biodiversityreduce dependence on fossil fuels; help farmers adapt to climate change; and safeguard rural communities’ health from the harms of chemical pesticides. 

In June, the High Level Panel of Experts on Nutrition and Food Security issued its 2013 report, emphasizing interventions to protect farmers’ rights and ability to save and freely exchange seeds. These rights are directly violated by Monsanto and Syngenta, with every new release of their patented GE seeds.

Also last month, a new International Journal of Sustainability paper by molecular biologist, Professor Jack Heineman, skewered the argument that GE crops are either sustainable or more productive when compared with non-GE systems. The paper compared U.S. and European farms, and GE and non-GE cropping systems, and concluded that Europe’s non-GE farms were both more productive and more successful at reducing environmental harms than corresponding U.S. GE farms. Heineman says:

"GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields."

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Family Farming Food Heroes: Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell

The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.

On paper, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, this week’s Food Heroes, might seem better suited for the boardroom than the barnyard. But Ridge, a physician and former Vice President of Healthy Living for Martha Stewart, and Kilmer-Purcell, a New York Times Bestselling author and former advertising executive, truly epitomize the spirit of family farming. 

While living in New York City, Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell purchased the historic Beekman Farm located in Sharon Springs, New York in 2007. Although Beekman Farm was intended as a weekend retreat from the tumult of city life, it soon became their lifeline. Months later, as the economy began to crumble, both men lost their jobs within a month of each other. This challenge, however, provided the opportunity for Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell to delve into farming, their true passion, full-time.

To avoid foreclosure, they realized that they would have to transform Beekman Farm from a vacation home into a profitable enterprise. To achieve this end, they turned to their neighbors for advice and assistance, and before long were producing cheeses and other goods for sale in local markets. Since then Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell – the “Beekman Boys” – have expanded not only their product line, but also their representation in the artisanal foods market. Beekman 1802 has been called “one of the fastest-growing lifestyle brands in the United States,” and the duo is living proof that smallholder farms can thrive and flourish in America today.

In addition to winning the reality show competition The Amazing Race in 2012 and landing their own program on the Cooking Channel this past June, Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell were presented with a Farmer of the Year Award by the USDA. Ridge recently spoke with Food Tank to discuss sustainable business models for farming and how tomato sauce may help save homes.

What was your reaction to being recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for your work, and what role do you see public institutions playing in the success of the American farmer today?

We were so honored to be recognized by the USDA. Most Americans think that the USDA exists only to support large-scale agribusiness. While agri-business is important as a means to support the country’s growing population so, too, are the small and medium-sized farms that form the backbone of so many American communities.

What is your response to those who claim that being a smallholder farmer is economically unsustainable in America today?

Starting any business is difficult. Starting a farm-based business is even more so because of the low [profit] margins and the capital-intensive nature of the business, and so many variables that are beyond a farmer’s control. We have been very clear about our struggles, even documenting it throughout The Fabulous Beekman Boys TV show and our memoir, The Bucolic Plague. However, it is possible for small-scale farming to be a sustainable business model, but you really have to focus on listening to what the customer wants and being very in-tune and involved in your community. You also have to pay attention to the marketing trends that are being driven by larger entities and figure out how you can latch onto those movements. Lastly, value-added products are essential. How can you turn the low-margin product that you are growing or raising into a more valued product for the consumer? 

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Hawaiians fight back

The state of Hawaii has become a lot like the island of Dr. Moreau. Except that instead of Dr. Moreau — the mad scientist in H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel who vivisected animals into beast-people — Hawaii is ruled by the GMO industry.

The Big Island, HawaiiShutterstockThe Island of Dr. Monsanto.

Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, and BASF use the Pacific archipelago as open-air testing grounds for their experimental genetically modified crops, and they spray those crops with herbicides and other chemicals to test how they respond.

But now many residents, including lawmakers, are saying they have had enough of this science-fictionesque madness.

From a February article by Al Jazeera:

These transnational corporations prefer Hawaii for growing and testing GE crops because of its abundant sunshine, rainfall and year-round growing climate. GMO opponents say the companies also enjoy Hawaii’s isolation, largely removed from the public eye.

Yet these companies, which have been in Hawaii for decades, are now facing increasing opposition from residents concerned about GMOs, the health and environmental impacts of pesticides and what they see as a lack of oversight and transparency.

A flurry of bills have been introduced in the state legislature and by local lawmakers aiming to better regulate, limit, or prohibit GMOs. A bill to require labels on GMO foods appears to have died in the state legislature this spring, but at least two local GMO bills are very much alive.

One bill that’s moving forward, Hawaii County Bill 79, would “prohibit the propagation, cultivation, raising, growing, sale and distribution of transgenic organisms” on the island of Hawaii, aka the Big Island. The bill will be debated at a hearing today of the county council’s public safety committee.

And Kauai County Council Bill 2491, introduced last week, would impose a moratorium on the experimental use and commercial production of GMOs until an environmental impact study is completed. The legislation would also create new permitting requirements and procedures for growing such crops after the study is complete, including rules on the use of chemicals.

More than 1,000 people attended the first hearing on the Kauai legislation, with attendees speaking in support of and opposition to the bill. Paul Towers of the Pesticide Action Network wrote in a blog postthat “pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations bused in dozens of employees to attend the hearing.”

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The Impact of Transnational “Big Food” Companies on the South: A View from Brazil

  • Traditional long-established food systems and dietary patterns are being displaced in Brazil and in other countries in the South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) by ultra-processed products made by transnational food corporations (“Big Food” and “Big Snack”).
  • This displacement increases the incidence of obesity and of major chronic diseases and affects public health and public goods by undermining culture, meals, the family, community life, local economies, and national identity.
  • The penetration of transnational companies into Brazil has been rapid, but the tradition of shared and family meals remains strong and is likely to provide protection to national and regional food systems.
  • The Brazilian government, under pressure from civil society organizations, has introduced legislation to protect and improve its traditional food system; by contrast, the governments of many industrialized countries have partly ceded their prime duty to protect public health to transnational companies.
  • The experience of countries in the South that still retain traditional food systems provides a rational basis for policies that protect public health.

Traditional Brazilian Dietary Patterns

Analyses of household food expenditure surveys conducted in Brazil over the past 40 years [11][13] show that, in common with other Latin American countries, Brazil retains many long-established food systems and dietary patterns. These dietary patterns show the influences of native (“Indian”) populations, the country’s Portuguese colonizers, and African slaves and their descendants. Minimally processed food staples include rice, a variety of beans, and the root cassava (manioc). These staples form the basis of everyday main meals, and are made delicious and attractive by various methods of preparation and cooking, and by the addition of oils, seeds, leaves, herbs, and spices, some of which are rich in nutrients. (Wheat is not native to Brazil; processed wheat products such as breads, cakes, and biscuits followed relatively recent immigration of people from the Mediterranean region to the southern states of Brazil, and nationally were uncommon until well into the second half of the last century.) The amount of meat, fish, and other animal products in long-established Brazilian diets depends on availability, price, and income. In the past, these foods were usually eaten only in small amounts on a daily basis, and in large quantities only as part of feasts or other special occasions.

All Brazilian cities have restaurants, bars, and popular canteens, where a good variety of locally sourced traditional Brazilian food is offered, often buffet-style and affordably priced on a “per kilo” basis. More importantly, meals prepared and eaten by the family at home—including the midday meal—and therefore the habit of eating together, remain an integral part of the Brazilian way of life. Notwithstanding intense pressures, which include ubiquitous television and internet propaganda designed to turn eating and drinking into constant individual snacking [10], food and drink consumption is not yet dislocated and isolated from family and social life in Brazil. This is probably the most important factor protecting national and regional traditional food systems.

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Agroecological and diversified farming systems is crucial to meeting the closely interconnected climate, water, energy and food challenges of the 21st century.

Twitter-land was abuzz last week with news that a formerly ardent critic of genetic engineering (GE) has recanted his position. Mark Lynas gave a long mea culpa speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he apologized to the world for tearing up GE crops back in the day, and for what he described as his “anti-science environmentalism.”

Unfortunately, Lynas then went on to ignore the weight of scientific evidence (more on that below). He claimed that GE crop production is good for biodiversity and necessary to feed the world, that organic farming is bad, and that “there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment.” He then quickly slammed the door shut on public debate, pronouncing “discussion over.” Many of us in the global scientific community were left shaking our heads, bemused if disappointed in Lynas’ anti-science rhetorical flourishes.

Four excellent science- and evidence-based rebuttals to Lynas have since appeared, authored by University of Michigan evolution professor, John Vandermeer; Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman;Dr. Brian John of UK’s Durham University; and Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark.

Less rigorous was the response of journalists at the New York TimesNew YorkerL.A. TimesSlate and the Economist, who essentially reprinted large swaths of Lynas’ speech, congratulating him on his “courageous” about-face, without bothering to investigate the veracity of any of his claims. In so doing, they’ve demonstrated their adroit use of the copy-paste function on their keyboards, but little else.

Separating evidence from rhetoric

Lynas went wrong in several areas. First, he claims that GE crops are critical to feeding the world. There are two fundamental problems with his reasoning: a) GE crops do not increase yield and b) focusing on productivity is not actually the way to solve world hunger.

Taking the second, larger point first: people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. They cannot afford food because they are poor, and their poverty is related to a host of complex political, social, economic and environmental factors. It turns out that things like global trade policies, land tenure, commodity speculation, corporate concentration ratios and biofuel mandates are more direct determinants of hunger than a crop plant’s intrinsic yield.

That is why the most comprehensive global assessment of agriculture to date — the World Bank and U.N.-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD), authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries — highlighted the urgent need to undertake major shifts in governance, trade, finance and development policies in order to “feed the world.” This could be achieved, says the IAASTD, by rebalancing power in the food system, supporting small-scale farmers and advancing social equity.

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Dr.Elaine Ingham, soil micro-biologist, was interviewed for Abundant Land, read here to learn about the soil food web.

Dig deeper

Dig deeper (Img src: Rodale Institute)

The following article is from a presentation that Dr. Ingham gave at the Shumei Natural Agriculture Conference on January 21, 2012, at Shumei Hall in Pasadena, CA. The text was edited and printed in the Shumei magazine and we are reposting edited portions of it here. This is the first of a four-part series. These words are taken from the Rodale Institute Newsblog and is reprinted here given the respect we have for Elaine Ingham in this country. We will attempt to highlight the remaining parts of the story as well.

Life in Natural Agriculture Soil, Part 1

By Dr. Elaine Ingham, Rodale Institute Chief Scientist

In March of 2011, just after starting as chief scientist at Rodale Institute, I toured the Shumei garden at the Institute and began to understand the principles that embody Natural Agriculture. It was wonderfully enlightening to find people who share a similar attitude that natural processes must be the basis for agriculture. My expertise is focused on the organisms that exist in soil, and the processes these organisms perform. Looking at what happens to these organisms in current “conventional” agricultural systems is extremely depressing. We need to understand what life is necessary in soil, how these organisms function, and what conditions must be present for soil organisms to perform their beneficial jobs. The more we maintain the proper conditions for the workers in the soil, the better we mimic nature and the higher the quality of our foods.

Conventional agriculture does things differently than the way things are done in natural systems. We need to understand how those differences influence and affect the soil, plants and the quality of plants. We need to understand the damage conventional practices cause. We need to learn how to maintain our plant production systems as naturally as possible, realizing that short term gain in yields costs too much to the long–term health and balance of the system. What are the constraints we impose? What are the sets of organisms that need to be there? How do these organisms behave in a natural system and how we can use them in our agricultural systems?

The Soil Food Web

The soil food web is comprised of the different organism groups in soil: bacteria, fungi (including mycorrhizal fungi), protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, and larger organisms. These organisms interact to perform the functions needed by plants in the soil: disease suppression (around roots and around above-ground parts of plants), nutrient retention (so loss of nutrients through leaching does not occur), nutrient cycling (making nutrients available to plants in the root zone), decomposition of waste materials, and building of soil structure so roots can grow as deep as the plant requires.

Food web structure varies with season, climate, soil type, age of the ecosystem, etc. The existing food web will select for the growth of certain plants, and against the growth of others. Thus, defining health of the soil must be done relative to the desired plant. Is this food web healthy for this plant? To promote health, we need to understand soil as nature designed it. Plants have existed on this planet for at least the last billion years, meaning that the linkage between certain plants being selected by certain sets of organisms in the soil, and vice versa, has had plenty of time to develop.

To understand this system, then, we need to start at the beginning. The process of photosynthesis in plants uses sunlight energy to bond carbon molecules together and form sugars. Plants store sunlight energy by bonding one carbon, from one carbon dioxide molecule, with another carbon from a second carbon dioxide molecule. Depending on what the plant needs, and its physiology, additional carbons can be bonded to the chain, storing energy in that sugar for future use. The sugar formed can be used to grow the plant, or it can be sent to the root system to escort nitrogen, in the form of an amino acid, or protein, for example, to where the plant needs it. These sugars will bond with phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, or any other nutrient in order to move those nutrients to where the plant needs that nutrient to continue growing.

All nutrients, except CO2 and sunlight, are provided to the plant through the soil. Soluble, inorganic forms of nutrients move into the plant by simple diffusion into the roots, but the inorganic nutrients have to be converted from the ionic form into carbon–bound forms once inside the root in order to prevent harm to the plant. Thus, once the soluble nutrient is inside the root, the plant uses enzymes to attach the nutrients to the carbon backbone of sugar from photosynthesis.

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Functional Ecosystems as the Engine of the Green Economy

Functional Ecosystems as the Engine of the Green Economy

ConsumerismEconomicsSociety — by John D. Liu July 3, 2013

by John D. Liu


This is not how it works…

“If the world is a table with four legs (US, Eurozone, China/India, and the Arab world), right now, all four legs are shaky”, said Thomas Freidman, New York Times columnist after listening to discussions at the Davos World Economic Forum in January. Old capitalism, many exclaimed, is dead. What has led us to this crisis point?

Studying the Earth’s ecosystems is fascinating and can show us the way to sustainability if we are willing to act on the evidence before our eyes. When we consciously observe nature – the tides, atmosphere, movement of clouds, river systems, microbial communities, living soils, plants and animals – evolutionary logic is revealed. Nature is always adapting to changing conditions and seeking equilibrium. Everything has a purpose, nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, and nothing is extraneous. We know that the Earth’s naturally functioning ecosystems are the basis of life on Earth, providing air, water, soil fertility, raw materials and energy. It is also clear that the global economy does not recognise that the production and consumption of all goods and services depends entirely on the ongoing functionality of these ecosystems, and, as a result, fails to value it correctly. This is not surprising for a system that was founded on feudal privilege, military force, colonisation and slavery. While our stock market screens and bank accounts claim we have generated wealth, in reality, we have enriched a small minority of people while impoverishing a much larger majority of people on Earth, and destroyed ecological function over huge portions of the planet.

Now nature is warning us to stop and think.

We currently face numerous challenges, including human-induced climate change, biodiversity loss, large-scale deforestation, desertification, hunger, economic crisis, social instability, migration, armed conflict, political revolution and war. Commenting on this “litany of sins”, Lester R. Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0, recently said, “We must go beyond lifestyle changes and change the system, or civilisation will end”. In the face of such urgency, many of the assumptions that our civilisation has grown up with are thrown into question. Even the founder of that bastion of capitalist thought, the Davos World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab, recently declared: “Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us”.

From the study of natural ecosystems comes an economic answer that goes to the fundamental question of ‘what is wealth?’. Although everything that is produced and consumed comes from the bounty of the Earth, according to current economic thinking, the value of ecological function is zero. We now calculate the economy and money as the sum total of production and consumption of goods and services. By valuing products and services without recognising the ecological function from which they are derived, we have created a perverse incentive to degrade the Earth’s ecosystems.Carbon trading schemes barely scratch the surface of appropriately valuing nature. They continue to suggest that money is derived from production and consumption but offer a small proportion of that money to provide incentives for slightly less polluting behaviour. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is more comprehensive and tries to put prices on the various services provided by nature, but it too falls short of the ideal by incorporating the assumption that money in its present form is the starting point. We have collectively become Oscar Wilde’s cynic and ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. We need to go much further.

In order to survive and become sustainable we need to devise a system where instead of personal gain, the intention of all human effort is aligned with nature. Where is it set in stone that human work must be self-serving? Aren’t the great achievements that humans have made based on our ability to work together? In fact there have already been two Nobel Prizes (John Nash and Elinor Ostrom) awarded for recognising that if an individual pursues their own interest to the point where it damages the collective interest, it is no longer in their own interest. This means that the interest of individuals and the interests of humanity can be seen to be the same. Shouldn’t we be basing our society, economy and civilisation on the highest possible understanding and principles?

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An Easy Way to Start a New Permaculture Garden

I think that many people find it daunting to start a new permaculture garden as it appears to be a lot of work, especially digging to prepare the space. However this need not be the case, as there are ways of starting your garden without any digging whatsoever. I certainly found this the most discouraging thing, especially as the surrounding area was overgrown with kikuyu grass and various other weeds. I was not interested in bringing in a small tractor to plough up everything and digging the place up with so much overgrown grass was more than I could think of managing. So after contemplating this problem for some while I hit on an idea which I thought was very novel because I had never heard of anyone doing it. I have subsequently heard that some people implement this method, but that’s it’s not as well known as it should be!

What you need for this project though is empty cardboard boxes, which you can obtain from most supermarkets or bottle stores free of charge.

Step One would be tramping down and if necessary cutting down the weeds that are protruding up too high. All your weeds can remain in the ground, but if they are too tall then it is preferable to cut them down in order for the cardboard boxes to lie flat.

It is really best to tackle this task after it has rained, but if you have adequate water you can give it a good soaking before you start.

Step Two: The cardboard boxes get flattened and then placed on the area you want to garden, covering the entire surface as flat as possible. It is best to overlap your cardboard as some grasses and other plants are very persistent and tough and with the slightest bit of light they reach up a tendril to survive. However these single tendrils are much easier to get rid of later on than a whole area of grass.

Step Three: I always water the cardboard so it is somewhat soft and therefore malleable and easier to keep down.

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Pesticide experiments in Paradise

The tropical paradise of Hawaii is on the bucket list of many. Peaceful images of white sandy beaches, warm tropical waters and the welcoming spirit of Aloha is what draws tourists from around the globe. In 2012, Hawaiian tourism hit an all-time high. Visitors spent a record of $14.3 billion dollars and more tourists than ever before (close to 8 million people) visited the Hawaiian Islands last year. 2013-06-28-IMG_0657sm2.jpg

Simultaneously, the vibrant ecosystems and biodiversity of the Hawaiian Islands are under serious attack by the unrestrained growth of the biotech industry. The average tourist coming to Hawaii to enjoy a vacation, get married or possibly invest in a time share isn’t aware of the chemical contamination taking place due to unregulated GMO experiments and heavy pesticide use on the islands.

My intention with this article is to raise awareness and help shine a light on the environmental crisis that is happening right now, under our noses, in Hawaii. If action isn’t taken quickly and soon, I am fearful of what the long term, unrestrained use of pesticides will do to the ecology of Hawaii. What the general public needs to know, is that GMO research in Hawaii requires the use of powerful restricted use pesticides.

A little over a month ago I was shocked to learn from a friend that Kauai and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands have become Ground Zero for open air testing of experimental pesticides and GMOs. After hearing this information I made my first visit to Kauai and researched what was happening on the island, and learned about the grassroots movement fighting back to stop the chemical trespass and assault on the environment.

This video, Molokai Mom, tells the story of one mother taking on Monsanto after her young son got sick from breathing in pesticide drift allegedly from Monsanto’s fields near her home.

How did this happen? How the GMO industry snuck onto Kauai… and the rest of Hawaii

In the mid-1990s, the sugarcane industry collapsed and vacated much of the agricultural land on Kauai. That agricultural land is now either owned by the State of Hawaii or several private landholders. All of which lease the land out to the biotech industry. Specifically, the Big Six; Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, BASF, Pioneer and Bayer.

What is taking place generally in GMO testing activities is research that involves the transferring of DNA from one species to another. This may include human genes introduced to crops such as corn, soy, rice and sugarcane and genetically engineered crops for use in the pharmaceutical industry. The end result is an organism (plant or animal) that would never occur in nature. For the farmers on Kauai that practice organic and sustainable agricultural practices, their crops are at risk for contamination. For the ecosystem(s) of the Hawaiian Islands, biodiversity is being threatened. For the people that live and work in the communities close to the GMO fields; their health and the health of their children is at risk from long term pesticide exposure.

The Garden Island of Kauai

On the west side of Kauai, in the town of Waimea, GMO test fields border on several communities and a school. In this small town, Atrazine has been detected in the water. Astonishingly, pesticide spraying is done without any buffer zones to public areas, schools or waterways. The spraying of undisclosed pesticides, often in combination with each other, can be done early in the morning, late afternoon or sometimes in the middle of the night. This practice of combining toxic pesticides, a process known as “Stacking,” carries an enormous risk since the impact on the environment and human health is completely untested and unknown. Individually, some of the confirmed pesticides used; Atrazine, 2,4-D (a derivative of Agent Orange) Lorsban and Chlorpyrifos have proven to have serious impacts on health and the environment. One can only imagine the toxic pesticide cocktail that is created by this practice of “pesticide stacking” and other experiments.

Records obtained from the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture indicate that 22 different restricted use pesticides, totaling 3.5 tons, have been imported onto Kauai by five commercial agriculture entities and constitute approximately 99% of the restricted use pesticides utilized by agricultural operations on Kauai. The chemical companies on the Island of Kauai have refused to disclose this information to the public or to the co-sponsor of the pesticide ordinance mentioned later in this article, Kauai County Councilmember,Gary Hooser.

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Sun Food vs. Oil Food: Michael Pollan on how changing agriculture could reverse climate change

American science journalist and author Michael Pollan, speaking at a Yale University "Masters Tea".

American science journalist and author Michael Pollan, speaking at a Yale University “Masters Tea”, April 2008.

Courtesy of Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons

Eating meat is bad for the planet, right? That hamburger you’re contemplating for lunch comes from a cow that, most likely, was raised within the industrial agriculture system. Which means it was fed huge amounts of corn that was grown with the help of petroleum, the carbon-based substance that has helped drive Earth’s climate to the breaking point. In industrial agriculture, petroleum is not only burned to power tractors and other machinery used to plant, harvest, and process corn—it’s also a key ingredient in the fertilizer employed to maximize yields.

Eating beef is particularly environmentally damaging: Cows are less efficient than chickens or pigs at converting corn (or other feed) into body weight, so they consume more of it than other livestock do. As a result, the industrial agriculture system employs 55 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of beef. Meanwhile, livestock production is responsible for much of the carbon footprint of global agriculture, which accounts for at least 25 percent of humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Despite its large carbon footprint, the agricultural sector is invariably overlooked in climate policy discussions.  The latest example: In his 50-minute speech on climate change last week, President Barack Obama did not even mention agriculture except for a half-sentence reference to how farmers will have to adapt to more extreme weather. 

Perhaps no one has been more influential in popularizing the environmental critique of industrial agriculture than Michael Pollan. His 2006 best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, revealed how corporate profits, misguided government policies, and an emphasis on convenience have given Americans food that is cheap but alarmingly unhealthy for those who eat it, not to mention the soil, air, and water relied upon to produce it.

These days, however, Pollan is delivering a deeper yet more upbeat message, one he shared in an interview while promoting his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (Disclosure: Pollan and I have been friendly colleagues since we met at Harper’s in the early 1990s, when he was executive editor.) Now, instead of just exposing the faults of the industrial agricultural system, Pollan is suggesting radical new ways to make agriculture work for both people and the planet.

Technology is central to Pollan’s vision, but, he says, “We have to think about what technologymeans. Does it only mean hardware and intellectual property? If we limit it to those two definitions, we’re going to leave out a lot of the most interesting technologies out there, such as methods for managing the soil and growing food that vastly increase [agricultural] productivity and sequester carbon but don’t offer something you can put into a box.” And why call even seemingly old-school methods “technology”? Because, he says, “technology has so much glamour in our culture, and people only want to pay for technology.”

With the right kind of technology, Pollan believes that eating meat can actually be good for the planet. That’s right: Raising livestock, if done properly, can reduce global warming. That’s just one element of a paradigm shift that Pollan and other experts, including Dennis Garrity, the former director general of the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute in Washington, D.C., are promoting. They believe that new agricultural methods wouldn’t just reduce the volume of heat-trapping gases emitted by our civilization—they would also, and more importantly, draw down the total amount of those gases that are already in the atmosphere.

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The Looming Food Crisis and the ‘Food 2030′ Report

ConsumerismDeforestationEconomicsFood ShortagesGMOsGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeHealth & DiseasePopulationSocietySoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Losspeak oil — by Craig Mackintosh

Not long ago I was standing in a bookshop, minding my own business, when a book title leapt out in front of me. The book was “History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them”. It documents the sorry tales of dozens of people throughout history who, with the best of intentions, made some fascinatingly terrible choices.

I scanned the book’s contents page, purposefully, looking for a specific name – that of the recently deceased, Iowa born agronomist, Norman Borlaug. I failed to find him amongst all the unfortunates chosen for inclusion, but then I really didn’t expect to. My lack of surprise was not because I didn’t think he was deserving – I would likely have put him at top of the list myself – but because, in general, the human race is largely ignorant of the grave implications of his work. This ignorance is made glaringly obvious when you consider he is widely celebrated as one of the greatest benefactors of the human race. He even received a Nobel Peace Prize, amongst several other awards, for his disaster of a contribution to mankind.

Mr. Borlaug is father of the very inappropriately named ‘Green Revolution’ – the post World War II industrialisation of agriculture. He is credited with saving millions of people from starvation after World War II. And, credit where credit is due – he probably did. He hybridised seed strains to develop high yield varieties, which in and of itself might not have been such a bad thing. But Borlaug’s work didn’t stop there. The outcome was the creation of a colour-by-numbers, fossil fuel-, chemical- and irrigation-dependent approach to agriculture that saw large scale monocrops become the system of choice worldwide and gave birth to the ‘get big or get out’ agricultural policies of the 1970s. The resulting reductionist bid to deal with, and capitalise on, all the symptoms of this unnatural shift then gave birth to that ultimate method of social control and profiteering – genetic engineering.

The industrialisation of our food supply means that our current production is extremelyoil intensive. It has been calculated that, on average, it takes ten calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food in our current setup. Some food has an even more ridiculous ratio – like corn-fed feedlot beef which consumes about 55 fossil fuel calories to one calorie of meat. We are effectively eating oil.

This is of course an insane state of affairs. As oil production wanes this puts us in an extremely vulnerable position. If our current system remains unchanged, we face acute food shortages in the near future, and that’s without even taking into account the major crop failures we’re getting now as a result of climate change. It is precisely why in 2008, when oil prices tripled in a matter of months, people began to riot worldwide as they got priced out of the ability to eat. The recession has somewhat alleviated this problem, but it won’t be long before crisis strikes again and becomes a permanent condition for humanity.

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GMO bill clears first reading

LIHUE — The Kauai County Council unanimously voted to move forward a bill that would allow the county to govern the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms on the island.

During his closing remarks, Councilman Tim Bynum, who co-introduced Bill 2491 along with Councilman Gary Hooser, described the issue as “serious.”

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“We’re talking about people’s lives, people’s livelihoods,” he said. “There are very sincere and passionate people on both sides.”

At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday — after roughly six hours of testimony from dozens of local residents and biotech company employees — the council approved the bill on first reading, sending it to a public hearing July 31.

A location for the hearing is not confirmed. Council Chair Jay Furfaro said he would be looking for a place able to accommodate a larger crowd. About 1,000 attended Wednesday’s meeting but only roughly 100 at a time were allowed in the council chambers.

During his eight years as a state senator (2002-2010), Hooser said he worked on many different and important issues.

“I think at the end of the day this will be the most important one that I’ve worked on, and maybe will work on,” he said. “It has tangible impacts to people’s lives and to our environment.”

The bill calls for Kauai’s largest agricultural corporations — namely DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, DOW AgroSciences, BASF and Kauai Coffee — to disclose the use of pesticides and the presence of GMO crops. It would also establish pesticide-free buffer zones around public areas and waterways, ban open-air testing of experimental crops and place a temporary moratorium on the commercial production of GMOs, until the county can conduct an environmental impact statement on the industry’s effects on Kauai.

Hooser believes the issue will never be resolved by the state Legislature, which is why he has chosen to fight it at the county level.

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