Food (Policy) For Thought

A recent grad's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!


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Watch: Cocoa Farmers Taste Chocolate For The First Time

Short but sweet today, in more than one meaning of the word: Look at this awesome video of cocoa farmers tasting the final product of their beans for the first time. Many of them had no clue what the beans they make their living with are actually used for.

Optional: Let’s take a second to acknowledge our good fortunes in the world to have been born into (relative) privilege when we next bite into our (fair trade) chocolate, and think of the hard work that went into it, ok?

Have a great Wednesday!


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McDonald’s News – One True, One False.

Relying on the internet as your main source of information is great for the wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, but can in some cases lead you astray. Let’s play a game, right? I will present two news items related to fast food giant McDonald’s, both with quotes and links, that came to my attention in the last weeks. However, only one seems to be true once you trace the articles back to the original source. Let’s see whether you can figure it out!

1) McDonald’s goes (temporarily) burgerless in wake of expired meat scandal

In China, McDonald’s afficionados are having a hard time: last week, “video footage of a U.S.-owned meat processing plant in Shanghai showed workers reprocessing expired beef and chicken, picking meat up off the floor, and throwing it right back on the line.” In the wake of the scandal, a massive recall of the meat provided by the processing plant (that also supplied KFC and Pizza Hut in the country), many McDonald’s in the country, including in Beijing and Shanghai, cannot offer any products that include beef or chicken. I guess now they are realizing they have a pretty pithy vegetarian selection, since, as this picture below (that was tweeted on July 25) shows, the only thing they are currently able to supply in their menus are fries and drinks. Though the Wall Street Journal reports (hilariously) that they seem to be aggressively pushing fish burgers, the only protein they have on offer. According to a spokesperson, a full menu “is not expected in restaurants until early August, while some outlets may need more time.”

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2) McDonald’s to add lab-grown ‘chicken’ McNuggets to its menu

However, this precariousness could soon be a thing of the past, as McDonald’s has recently committed to researching and developing lab-grown meats to its menu in the form of ‘chicken’ McNuggets. In May, it announced that they will ‘grow’ their own chicken McNuggets in special laboratories across New Jersey. This step forward is expected to significantly reduce its need for real chickens across its 35,000 outlets worldwide, and is seen by environmentalists as an impressive innovation in terms of its corporate responsibility toward the climate and animal welfare. The company’s CEO Don Thompson is quoted as saying that “with climate change raging out of control, we decided that it doesn’t make sense to use water and feed to keep real chickens alive anymore. Plus, animal rights activists have been on our case for a long time about how chickens are treated. This should put their concerns to rest.” However, PETA, though welcoming this first step, feel that more could be done, as explained by its president Ingrid Newkirk: “Although we think it’s bizarre that future McNuggets will be grown in a lab, we’re relieved to know that chickens no longer have to be sacrificed to feed McDonald’s customers,” Newkirk said. “But we won’t truly be happy until the company stops selling real beef burgers too, since cows suffer in disgusting feedlots across the United States.” Well, one step at a time, right?

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So, what do you think? Which one is true, which one is fake? Is it obvious or not? The revelation is after the jump!

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An Eye-Opener on Waste and an Ear-Opener on Marketing Strategies

Do you know how much waste you produce? Would you want to know? Artist Gregg Segal’s impressive project ‘Seven Days of Waste’ impressively hold a mirror to our consumerist society and make you reflect. Truth be told, I try to minimize my waste and was fortunate in Sweden with an comprehensive recycling system in front of my door, but especially if you move around a lot it’s hard to figure out the specifics in every city and region. Still, I think we take waste on too light a shoulder, and Segal’s project shows just how little we care.  Click through for more impressive pictures!

"Dana." By Gregg Segal.

“Dana.” By Gregg Segal.

Producing less waste however is also to a great part dependent on the infrastructure that surrounds us which makes this easier or harder. I would, for instance, love for more infrastructure like this German supermarket to pop up everywhere: Original Unverpackt will open to the public in August and be the first supermarket that will work without any disposable packaging materials. Instead, all products – fruit, vegetables, pasta, etc. – are stored in bulk bins, and the consumer can come and shop for as much of each product as he or she needs. Truly a revolution!

Finally, I just listened to a great podcast on why the milk is always in the back of the supermarket – is it to manipulate the customer to navigate all the aisles, or are there more benign reasons for this arrangement? Leave it to Planet Money to find out, and two renowned journalists/economists – Michael Pollan and Russ Roberts – to have a fascinating debate.

And with that, happy weekend!


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Burgers, Cafeterias and Food Waste!

¡Hola, amig@s! Anybody grilling now at the height of summer? Then the first article might be interesting for you. In fact, all of today’s haul is extremely interesting – there doesn’t seem to be any lag in food news due to summer/vacation time!

This is what I was reading today:

Mark Bittman (or rather, his student intern, as it seems) has been trying for a year to estimate the true cost of a cheeseburger. Why is that so difficult, if every single fastfood restaurant has a well-established menu and price list? Because, to arrive at the true cost, you also need to take those costs into account that the firm doesn’t consider, but society still bears, so-called externalities:

Whatever the product, some costs are borne by producers, but others, called external costs — “externalities,” as economists call them — are not; nor are they represented in the price. Take litter: If your cheeseburger comes wrapped in a piece of paper, and you throw that piece of paper on the sidewalk, it eventually may be picked up by a worker and put in the trash; the cost of that act is an externality. Only by including externalities can you arrive at a true cost.

Bittman et al.’s results? “We estimate that Americans eat about 16 billion burgers a year of all shapes and sizes, based on data provided by the NPD Group, a market research firm. (The “average” cheeseburger, according to the research firm Technomix, costs $4.49.) And our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate. (Many costs can’t possibly be calculated; we’ll get to those.)” Most of the costs they calculate are from the contribution of fastfood consumption to obesity (requiring healthcare costs) and to global warming (through the CO2-emissions embedded in them). The article explains really well how difficult such a cost-benefit analysis is and how reliant on external data (what, for example, is the adequate price of one unit of CO2-emissions?). An educational read for sure. I especially like his conclusion:

In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.

Then, the FAO Regional Office of Latin America published new data that with the food wasted in the continent, one could easily nourish more than the number of food insecure persons in the region. According to the FAO, around 15% of the region’s production go to waste every year, which constitutes 6% of global food waste. Similarly to Europe and North America, the greatest share of waste is at the household and retail sector (28% and 17% respectively). Only with the food thrown away by supermarkets and small retailers, it is estimated that 30 million persons could be fed, corresponding to 64% of those suffering from hunger in the continent. Thus, as Raúl Benítez stresses,

“While it is important to highlight that the countries in the region dispose of more than enough calories to nourish all their citizens, the huge quantity of food that is lost or that ends up in the trash is simply unacceptable in the face of the fact that around 8% of the regional population remains food-insecure”.

One French supermarket could have one solution to share with the world on the topic of food waste, though: Check out their clever way to market ‘inglorious’ (or, as I would translate the French word ‘moche’, ‘ugly’) produce that didn’t fit the norms, raise store traffic and raise awareness about food waste: I am loving that campaign!

Finally, my attention was just drawn to a movie focusing on one man’s courageous, if seemingly quixotic battle for healthy cafeteria food in the United States. ‘Cafeteria Man’ follows Tony Geraci, food-service director for Baltimore, in 2011 as he pushes for big-level changes in the way his city’s school food system feeds its students. As Michael Pollan says in the movie, “If Tony makes this happen here the way he wants to, I think you’ll see this happening all over the country”. The question I asked myself is – has this change happened in more municipalities, 3 years after this apparent recipe for success was distributed? The FAQs on the movie’s website don’t answer that question, but give good inspiration for communities that feel inspired and ready to push for change in their own cafeteria. You can also “rent” the movie and watch it directly on the website. Finally, Tony has a series of ‘Tony’s Tips’ videos that explain how to get healthy food on kids’ plates, and how to get the kids to eat it.

And with that, happy summer (grilling)!


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Almond Milk – Yay or Nay?

I was hoping to be able to write some substantial pieces from here in Granada, but time seems to be flying away from me and I am trying to maximize my Spanish skills by working on it as much as possible, so I guess it will be another couple of weeks of short soundbites – at least better than no posts, right? I hope you understand that it’s hard to sit at your desk when you could be doing Spanish homework with this view:

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Aaaanyhow, where was I? Oh right, let’s get back to food politics. And the question – almond milk, yay or nay?

I stumbled over this very thoughtful article by Tom Philpott arguing against the mass consumption of almond milk from a variety of perspectives. One, almonds are a very water-intensive crop (1 almond = 1.1 gallons of water!), and in general have a high ecological footprint, which is why they should be savored as treats, according to the author, and not be guzzled away thoughtlessly. Then, once you have the precious almond, why pulverize it and water it down, taking away much of the fiber, mono-unsaturated fats and protein that make one serving of almonds so healthy. Furthermore, there is the cost point (this was the main reason I clicked on the article and was amazed:)

“A jug of almond milk containing roughly 39 cents worth of almonds, plus filtered water and additives, retails for $3.99.”

Yikes, eh?

The article then goes on to point out that this plant-based milk (as others) is enriched with vitamins and a variety of additives which may or may not be related to health problems. And it questions our cultural craving for ‘cereal drenched in milk’ that people wanting to eschew animal products now fulfill buying boxes and boxes of environmentally intensive and heavily processed watered-down almonds.

This point is an interesting one and related to the questions the Third Plate raises about our tendency to maintain dietary patterns and just substitute – hemp, soy or oat ‘milks’ are other examples of plant-based drinks that may or may not be necessary in our diets.

But, but, but – cereal!!

What are your thoughts? Do you like alternative, plant-based ‘milks’ or other foodstuffs? Does it bother you that they tend to be heavily processed?


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What I am Reading

Summer times = happy times! Also in your book?

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Let’s see what we are reading on the terrace with an iced coffee in hand:

What is Organic? You might be surprised. This is a depressing reminder that labels are not the be-all and end-all of things, as the ASPCA highlights that American consumers assume organic regulations make much higher demands in the realms of animal welfare than is actually the case.

There is a new plan to rescue fish populations in the open – to make all international waters a sanctuary where fishing is not allowed. Oh, what a dream come true, but as an international relations major I can tell you that is very unlikely to happen.

The Next Breadbasket? is a great feature by National Geographic on the land grabs of fertile soil currently going on in Africa.

The continent is emerging as a laboratory for testing new approaches to boosting food production. If sub-Saharan African farmers can raise their yields to even two tons of grain per acre using existing technology—a fourfold increase and still a tall order—some experts believe they could not only better feed themselves but actually export food, earning much needed cash and helping to feed the world as well. [...] But the thorniest question is, Who will do the farming in Africa’s future? Will it be poor farmers like Chirime working one-acre plots, who make up roughly 70 percent of the continent’s labor force? Or will it be giant corporations like Wanbao, operating industrial farms modeled on those of the American Midwest?

And finally, this is a great commentary on the intellectual and educational bias that is threatening to perpetuate our current unsustainable farming model into the next generation. Just read the opening paragraph:

I stood at the front of the classroom, a veteran of 25 years of teaching at one of the nation’s front-line agricultural institutions, and I was trying hard not to show my disbelief. The young man who had just spoken was a superstar student and, like most agriculture students in Iowa, came from a farm. He’d just heard a team of fellow students report on the grass-fed beef system of the Argentine pampas, and his first reaction was to ask: “Cattle can really eat grass?” I had to simultaneously process how to handle the educational situation while absorbing the fact that this college senior was weeks from graduating with a degree in agronomy and our curriculum had clearly failed him.

P.S. The situation may have been a decade ago, but I can assure you that at least in agricultural economics, not that much has changed.

What are you reading right now?


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Review: Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate”

Hi again! After a couple of weeks of travelling with rather poor internet access, I’m back in a semi-routine, albeit in Spain (hola!) which will hopefully allow me to contribute more again over the summer. The upside was that during the trip, I had the chance to review and reflect on a truly extraordinary book – Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, published by Penguin Press.

In a time where we already have a number of journalists and writers tackling the question of what future we should seek for our food system, Barber’s contribution is unique from the very start due to his profession: he’s a chef. And as such, the quality of the food he cooks with – and, relatedly, the quality of the food system it stems from – is of uttermost importance to him.

I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen. A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer – to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable. This book is about these stories.

As Chef of the restaurant Blue Hills in Manhattan, and Blue Hills at Stone Barns, which is situated within the nonprofit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Barber sought to present a truly sustainable farm-to-table dining experience. But after the farm he collaborated with carefully raised a handful of grass-fed lambs over weeks, only for the lamb chops to sell out within minutes of their appearance on the menu, he realized that farm-to-table, or sustainable eating in general, defies simplistic approaches:

Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day (and I should know, since I do it often), but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating. It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don’t, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.

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