February 27, 2009

All the News that's Fit to Eat

Food Democracy in Action

Sustainable-minded eaters have something to celebrate this week with the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan to the role of Deputy Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Merrigan is being seen as a crucial balance to the new head honcho, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who many worry is prone to conducting (big agri)business as usual. Not only did Merrigan draft the Organic Food and Production Act of 1990 while working under Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, but her credentials include a nearly decade-long stint at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, which runs the National Organic Program. As Organic, Inc. author Sam Fromartz put it back in November, the new No. 2 is “someone who has pursued the change mantra in agriculture for nearly two decades.”

Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now!’s  “Sustainable Dozen,” was surely bolstered by the signatures of more than 80 thousand concerned eaters, but the work doesn’t end here. As Steph Larsen says in a guest post on Ethicurean, “there are hundreds of political appointments to be made at USDA, and we cannot be satisfied with this one.” See Larsen’s complete list.

Locavore First Lady

michelleWill sustainable food be Michelle Obama’s D.A.R.E Campaign? It’s still too early to say, but while her husband appears hesitant to speak to the resounding need for widespread change in our food system, Michelle is slowly but surely making herself into a prime spokesperson on the issue.
The First Lady’s comments to the New Yorker last March on her family’s transition to organic, whole foods have been widely noted. This week, she stepped it up, not only by speaking to the USDA in support of a community garden project initiated by Tom Vilsack (a garden that is either a publicity stunt or a step toward actualizing the victory garden idea, depending on whom you ask) and waxed poetic to the New York Times about the value of local food. 

When food is grown locally, she told a group of reporters and culinary students before the Obamas’ first official dinner, “oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you’re dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot…My kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious.”

School Lunch Retrofit

Alice Waters has been urging the powers that be to rethink our $9 billion school lunch program for over a decade. This year, as more of us draw the connections between the cheap calories we (and our children) consume and their externalized costs, the argument has become especially compelling. From the NY Times Op-ed Waters co-authored with Katrina Heron last week:

How much would it cost to feed 30 million American schoolchildren a wholesome meal? It could be done for about $5 per child, or roughly $27 billion a year, plus a one-time investment in real kitchens. Yes, that sounds expensive. But a healthy school lunch program would bring long-term savings and benefits in the areas of hunger, children’s health and dietary habits, food safety, environmental preservation and energy conservation.


cows Beef: The Plot Thickens

Grass-fed cows don’t have the same impact on the water, air and land that cows raised in giant factory farms do, but they’re not without their own environmental impact. According to an article in Science News, grass-fed cows are actually more likely to contribute greenhouse gases as much as 50% more to the atmosphere than those fed corn to “finish” their growth process.

A Nova Scotia-based scientist Nathan Pelletier says the primary reason is grass-fed cows have so much impact on the climate is the “much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions,” as well as the increased amount of land needed, among other factors.

Rather than scrap the grass-fed model, however, some scientists in the UK are developing techniques to reduce the amount of methane emitted by pastured cows by planting clovers and other leafy legumes that contain high sugar levels. According to the Guardian, “the altered diet changes the way that bacteria in the stomachs of the animals break down plant material into waste gas.”

USDA Proposes to Weaken GE Crop Regulation

According to the True Food Network, the USDA is currently taking comments on a proposal to completely overhaul its regulation of genetically engineered crops. The change could significantly weaken the agency’s oversight, so that biotech companies will be able to self-assess the safety of their own experimental GE crops. Read more or send comments to the USDA by March 17 here >

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »