Decline of the Carnivore: American consumers are losing their appetite for meat

MeatconsumptionAlmost everyone that's not selling meat agrees that it would be a good thing for Americans to eat less meat. Nutritionists tell us it would be good for our health. Environmentalists tell us it would be good for the environment and one of the most helpful ways to combat global warming. Animal welfare advocates tell us that reducing meat consumption is one of the most helpful ways we can address the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As we're learning in our Tables of Plenty journey, most religious traditions teach that constraining the consumption of meat through fasting is helpful on the journey of spiritual formation. 

Apparently the message is starting to sink in because, as Mark Bittman reported earlier in the week, American consumers are putting less meat in their shopping carts and that trend is likely to continue into the future. (See chart taken from this Daily Livestock Report)

The rising price of meat is probably the single biggest contributor to these trends but Bittman attributes part of the decline to a shift in consumer conscience:

Some are choosing to eat less meat for all the right reasons. The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.

The livestock industry in their report on the trend attributes the change to growing exports which reduced the amount of available meat in the market, higher costs due to the growth of the ethanol industry that diverts corn to the production of fuel and increases the costs of those inputs for animal feed, and finally they attribute the decline to "the fruition of 30-40 years of government policy." 

Bittman, along with many others, have expressed shock at the dubious nature of this last statement. One feature of the American food scene over the last 40 years are the generous farm subisidies that have fueled the industrialization of meat production. Instead of dealing with the reality that consumers are choosing to eat less meat, they are stuck on the idea of a government conspiracy against them. 

I guess I'm not surprised that the livestock industry doesn't mention changing consumer values but, as I've written in the past, the industry ignores this reality at their peril.

Cornageddon - Congress Ends Subsidies for Corn-based Ethanol

This is a long overdue. As reported by Detroit News:

The United States has ended a 30-year tax subsidy for corn-based ethanol that cost taxpayers $6 billion annually, and ended a tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol.

Congress adjourned for the year on Friday, failing to extend the tax break that's drawn a wide variety of critics on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Critics also have included environmentalists, frozen food producers, ranchers and others.

This will help bring down the cost of corn inputs into the food chain, help ease world hunger, and hopefully it will reduce the ethanol-crazed rush to plant food acres with corn. This is good for land and good for people. 

World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin


A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."

This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.

I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities

Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing. 

Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.

Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans. 

Shepherd's Grain Wheat Co-op Still Stirring National Food Conversations

I write about Fred Fleming and the Shepherd's Grain wheat co-op in Year of Plenty. I wish I could claim to have made them famous but the truth is that national media outlets have been doing stories on them for years. When they are interested sustainable wheat farming, Shepherd's Grain and their no-till farming methods have been a go-to source of information. They have even been featured on CNN

The latest story comes from Helene York and the Atlantic Monthly. She is intrigued by SG's partnership with ADM, a company usually touted as the arch-enemy in conversations about sustainable food. York sounds a little conflicted as she writes:

I came away from my weekend with some complicated questions. Can locally baked bread be called "artisanal" if the wheat is from cooperatively farmed wheat fields that end up processed by ADM? What if the opposite were true: if the wheat were milled in an employee-run facility but came from the commodity markets? 

Perhaps the lesson is that there's no one path that can suit every region, especially now, with consolidation having left producers with only a few scalable choices. ADM may have bought up most large-scale mills over the last century, giving groups like Shepherd's Grain nowhere else to turn. But if a plant manager takes a political and operational risk, and makes it possible for a co-op that grows wheat responsibly to survive, is that bad? 

Re-regionalizing our food system will surely mean creating new alliances, some with small entities wishing to grow bigger, some with large entities whose ways we often (rightly) criticize. Perhaps the most sustainable solutions will be those forged by individuals who need each other's support and resources, at interim steps along the way, regardless of the size of the entities they represent. 

I wrote in a previous post about the nature of this unusual partnership between an "artisanal" co-op and a mega-corporation. My post was sparked by a conversation with Fred Fleming and his words, "Hello, my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer." I wrote:

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

Picture: Palouse wheat fields as seen from Steptoe Butte.

"Peak Herbicide" - What Happens When Weeds Acquire Weed-killer Resistant GM Traits?

New Scientist is reporting that oil-seed rape (aka canola) has escaped cultivated land and become a tenacious weed. The battle against weeds is an age-old story, but this new problem comes with a twist. These "feral" canola plants have acquired a resistance to two of the most common herbicides - glysophosphate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty Link). 

Several scenarios could explain how this happened, says Schafer, who conducted the project with her superviser, Cynthia Sagers. "It could have happened if one farmer planted glyphosate-resistant canola, and his neighbour planted glufosinate-resistant canola, for example." Canola plants escaped as weeds from one field could have been fertilised by pollen from the other, leading to a doubly resistant weed.

In case you're not familiar with how modern GM crops work let me explain. Modern crops have been genetically designed to resist the effects of certain herbicides so farmers can blanket their crops with herbicides that kill the weeds but not the crop. Seeds and herbicides are sold in tandem which is more expensive for the farmer, but the ability to kill off all the weeds leads to higher yields.

The scientists say this is not cause to freak out yet, but:

...there's a risk that genes for weedkiller resistance will spread to wild relatives. In 2002, two separate teams showed in controlled studies that wild sunflower and sugar beet could swap genes with genetically modified relatives and become fitter in the process. The latest findings in canola confirm that this is happening. 

The emerging resistance of weeds to herbicides is a ticking time bomb in American agriculture as reported earlier in July by St. Louis Today:

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is getting worse: Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or "multiple modes of action." But during this season especially farmers are finding that these other modes of action aren't working either — and there appears to be little relief on the horizon. In Missouri, herbicide dealers have sold out of Cobra, one of the herbicides most widely used in tandem with glyphosate.

"Are they running out of options?" asked Aaron Hager, a weed scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The simple answer is yes."

One way to describe the cycle is that we've reached "peak herbicide." If we soak our land in these chemicals over an extended period of time, weeds will eventually find a way around our toxic firewall and there will be diminishing returns. The answer right now is to add more chemicals, and to resurrect older more toxic varieties to use in combination with their modern replacements. This also means that farmer costs are going through the roof and food and other commodities are going to continue to get more expensive. 

Some voices are decrying the "fear mongers" who are questioning GM crops developments. A recent article reflects this:

"Fear mongering is easy to do," said Dr. Frank Shotkoski, Director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) based in Cornell University, describing a sustained campaign against crops that have been genetically altered to bring resistance to insects and environmental stress.

"We are reaching a phase when the campaign against agricultural biotechnology is at a high peak," he said.

The key line in the article for me is this one:

"Not a single food safety issue has been verified, there is no evidence of a safety issue in the 15 years and so many million hectares of Bt crops planted," said Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Global Coordinator for ISAAA.

If a consequence of GM crops is a huge spike in the use of more toxic chemicals, isn't that a safety issue? It's take us 15 years to get to that point, but isn't it likely that this will endanger ag workers and degrade land? And isn't it possible that we won't be able to "verify" these consequences until it's too late? Before we hand over the fate of our entire food system GM crops and their chemical antecedents, I'd like to see a lot more research into the consequences to the health of people, land, and economies. I'm not anti-science but for now count me among the fear mongers.

Africa Staring Down Worst Drought in 60 Years

image from I was startled when I read that statement in a yestereday's NY Times because I'm remembering some pretty horrible incidents of drought and famine in Africa over the last 60 years. 

Last week U.N. agencies monitoring a severe drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti increased the volume on existing warnings over food shortages in the region, a consequence, they say, of an unprecedented dry spell, instability and higher global food prices.

The potential human cost of this combination of drought, conflict, and poverty are hard to fathom:

UNICEF estimates that about 25 percent of people in Kenya's far north are now suffering from acute malnutrition, including more than 37 percent of those living in the Lake Turkana area. Throughout the Horn of Africa the aid group warns that "millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action."

I predict that in the next 6 months the issue of worldwide drought, crop failure, and famine will likely dominate the news cycle and will potentially change the landscape of the food movement conversation. Go here for a previous post on these emerging dynamics. It could go two directions. It might lead to further insistence on genetically modified crops and entrenchment of global commodities as the "only" way to respond to world food needs. The industrial food complex will double down on the refrain, "How are we going to feed the world without this technology?" 

I hope the crisis sparks the conversation in a different direction though. The other option is for the world's policy makers to recognize that locally-developed sustainable agriculture is a viable, and maybe the best option for addressing food insecurity among the world's poor. It's more complicated than the big bucks and bushels approach of food aid but is necessary to address long-term solutions. 

In the book "Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty", Wall Street Journalist writers Thurow and Kilman highlight the nature of the problem:

For decades, the world has grown enough food to nourish everyone adequately....In the modern world, like never before, famine is by and large preventable. When it occurs, it represents civilizations collective failure.

They go on to identify a major policy shift in world food-aid circles that has led to some of the problems we are seeing today. Instead of helping developing countries nurture their own local food systems to make them self-sufficient there was a move in the 1980's to make countries dependent on imports from wealthy nations.

John Block, Reagan's agricultural secretary as the U.S. farm economy struggled under the weight of price-depressing gluts, put it bluntly: '[The] idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era.... They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agriculturals products, which are available, in most cases, at lower costs.'

...In the view of the World Bank and other development organizations, food self-reliance became more important than food self-sufficiency: It made more sense for the poorest countries to develop businesses to earn the money needed to import food rather than grow their own. 

Instead of helping poor farmers develop local and sustainable agricultural systems, they were encouraged to get out of agriculture, go to the city and move into the manufacturing sector where their low-wages could be put to "good use" in the world economy. 

This arrangement worked OK as long as their was a glut of grain commodities and low food prices. We are now finding out how that all works when stores of grain are low (because of recent crop failures and biofuel competition), and food prices are high. It's not a pretty picture. 

They also describe a shift in the crops that farmers do grow in developing countries. They have been encouraged to move into cash crops that can be put into the commodities markets and sold, instead of aiming toward crops that lend their communities to self-sufficiency. This has put these farmers at the mercy of world commodities markets whose prices rise and fall without a care to issues of hunger and self-sufficiency.

Le'ts hope in the coming months as this impending human disaster unfolds in Africa and other places around the world we'll be hearing the words "agricultural self-sufficiency" as the center-piece of addressing the crisis.

Fortunately there are some indications massive food corporations like Nestle and Unilever recognize there is a problem as reported in this Fast Company article:

Your local grocery store may be stocked with foods from around the world, but make no mistake: Our food system is starting to fail. Resource constraints, unpredictable weather, increases in food-borne illnesses, and malnutrition (925 million people are malnourished while one billion are chronically obese) are all making the major food corporations rethink the way they do business.


Fun with USDA Food Atlas: Mapping Food Deserts, Food Insecurity, Local Food Access, and More

The Food Desert mapping tool at the USDA has received a lot of attention lately, but I'm more impressed with the USDA Food Atlas that offers a whole variety of ways to map America's food landscape.

Here are some screen grabs of my favorites. (Note that the maps have keys indicating precise numbers but the gist of the color scheme is that the darker the color the higher the number or the greater the concentration.)

Fast Food Expenditures Per Capita: Dark Red = $700 to $1,043

Fast food expenditures

Pounds of Beef & Poultry Consumed at Home Per/Capita/Year: (Dark blue indicates 81-120 lbs/year)

Screen shot 2011-05-25 at 10.34.34 AM


Gross Direct Farm Sales Per Capita 2007 (dark blue indicates more than $50/capita in 2007. Maybe more significantly the lightest color indicates less than $5 per capita)

Screen shot 2011-05-25 at 10.41.14 AM


Percent of High Schoolers physically active (dark red indicates 47-49%, lightest color indicates less than 38%)

Screen shot 2011-05-25 at 10.44.03 AM

Food Scarcity Spells Trouble for World's Poor

I wrote a post a few months ago about the role of bread prices in the Egyptian uprising. Foreign Policy has a new article on how rising food prices and increasing food scarcity around the world could mean there is more severe political unrest on the horizon. There are indications that the world's food economies are entering unprecedented territory. Lester Brown at Foreign Policy sums up these new dynamics:

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.

Food crises and famine are familiar patterns in modern history but the drivers of the current crunch are more complex.

Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry.

To make matters worse the U.S., whose stockpiles of grains have traditionally been a cushion for supply shocks, has depleted its storehouses and is less able to absorb world demand. 

As the article reports, this new world food landscape has countries that rely heavily on grain imports scurrying to secure supplies. Countries like South Korea are moving to create direct relationships with US farmers. Don't be surprised if you start to see large silos adorned with Korean lettering pop up around the grain-rich Palouse region. This has alread happened with hay supplies in central Washington. It's hard to miss the huge hay barns alongside I-90 near Ellensberg that are marked with Japanese lettering.

The author of the Foreign Policy article warns of an impending food armageddon marked by food nationalism and driven by climate change. It is a forboding message and one worth paying attention to, but the most important observation he makes is that the world's poor are on the hook for the worst of this impending crisis.

I saw this first hand at our last food distribution with Second Harvest here in the west valley of Spokane. It was a smaller-than-usual delivery of food, mostly because the stockpiles in the Second Harvest warehouse are depleted right now. I asked them about the current dynamics of food donations and they explained that with food prices and demand so high right now the large food companies are selling off more of their supplies, leaving less excess in the supply chain for food banks. This dynamic is a microcosm of what happens around the world. There is less excess in the system for impoverished peoples in regions with depleted land. 

These are challenging days ahead and it's easy to get overwhelmed but there are actions that can be taken to help those who are going to be hurt the most. It's a good time to get involved with and make a donation to organizations like Bread for the World where they advocate for the poor and hungry in important food-related legislation. Local food banks are going to need all the help they can get in the coming months as transportation costs increase. One of my favorite international aid organizations is Plant With Purpose, where they empower people in poverty to practice sustainable agriculture in their communities to help them become more self-reliant and less vulnerable to world food shocks.

It's also a good time to grow your own food.

UC Santa Barbara Study: Local Food Consumption Doesn't Reduce Carbon Footprint

All the locavore haters will be dancing with joy at the results of a new study done by UC Santa Barbara. The premise of the study is that if any place can pull off a truly local food economy it should be Santa Barbara County that ranks as one of the top vegetable producing counties in the country. A professor and students set out to see how local Santa Barbara County's food system is, and to understand the carbon impacts of local food vs. non-local food. The results are surprising.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported, some of it from as far away as Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. The study also found that, surprisingly, if all produce consumed here was grown in the county, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions less than 1 percent of total agrifood system emissions, and it would not necessarily affect nutrition.

"Most of what's grown here is shipped out," Cleveland said while standing in a tomato field about a mile from the UCSB campus. "And most of what's eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy."

This is the same kind of craziness we discovered during out year of local consumption. Our biggest "that just seems crazy" moment was when we were told that we couldn't get local Darigold cheddar cheese because most of it was shipped to Wisconsin.

Here's another interesting tidbit:

"I talked to a manager who was very excited about his local fruit, Santa Maria strawberries," Radka said. "But he said he got all of his strawberries from the warehouse. I asked him where the warehouse was, and he said that it's not in the county. Turns out it's in the Bay Area. So strawberries from Santa Maria are transported by truck to a warehouse in the Bay Area and then trucked back here to be sold in stores."

The authors of the study still advocate for local food systems, despite the CO2 findings, but they say that local food systems should not be the goal but the means toward the end of improved nutrition and sustainability.

Greenhouse gas savings has never been the primse motivator for my advocacy of local food systems and these findings don't come as a surprise to me. I've heard them before. I think it's important to note in this conversation that the current far-flung food system is highly dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of oil. From fertilizer, to pesticides, to diesel fuel for semi-trucks and tractors. The main reason the transport of food is only 1% of total agrifood emissions is that there is so much fuel used in the rest of the system. When oil prices spike there are a lot of food companies that would love to shave 1% of their fuel expenses off the bottomline.

Here are some of my arguments for a local food system:

1. It helps develop relationships between farmer and consumer.

2. It helps build connections between consumers and land and farming practices.

3. It educates people, especially children, about where their food comes from.

4. It promotes seasonal eating.

5. It disrupts our assumptions that we can have whatever we want, and we can have it now.

6. It connects us with the seasons.

7. It connects us with a place and the story of a place, helping us shape a hopeful future community story.

What about you? What are your reasons for supporting local food.

Good Friday/Earth Day: How the Food Movement is Making the Church Green

image from
In a fluke of this year's calendar, Earth Day and Good Friday both converge today. I wrote an article for CNN Belief Blog arguing that these two events aren't such a bad pairing. The wider context of the article is that the Christian church and the environmental movement in North America have often struggled to cooperate and find common ground. Maybe the experience of sharing this day will be a trial run at a new future of collaboration. Go here for one of my many posts on this disconnect. 

It may not always be self-evident here on the blog, but I am a full-time Presbyterian pastor, and one of the motivations for this blog is to flesh out connections between faith and earth. Go here to see the "faith" thread on this blog. Year of Plenty is an extended exploration of the intersections of the environment and faith, especially the food movement. My experience with locavores, backyard farmers, and community gardeners makes me more hopeful than ever that despite past disconnects, the church may end up being the best friend of advocates for earth care.

Perhaps the greatest reason for a potential new future in this relaitonship is what some are calling the death of environmentalism and the rise of the food movement. 

Bryan Walsh wrote a provocative article in February describing significant shifts in the Go-Green movement. He says:

These are dark days for the environmental movement. A year after being on the cusp of passing landmark legislation to cap greenhouse gases, greens are coming to accept the fact that the chance of national and international action on climate change has become more remote than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack by newly empowered Republicans in Congress who argue that the very idea of environmental protection is unaffordable for our debt-ridden country. Accustomed to remaining optimistic in the face of long odds, the environmental movement all at once faces a challenge just to stay relevant in a hostile political climate....

He even evokes the "death of environmentalism" mantra coined in a controversial essay from a few years ago. This decline of the traditionally framed debates about the environment may provide a helpful opening for the church. One of the reasons environmentalists and church leaders have often been at odds is that the issues fall so easily into the well-worn ruts of our cultural and political divides. I don't like that the Christian faith in America is politicized and held captive by powerful interests, but that is the current reality. As long as the environmental movement is robustly allied with one side or the other of American politics, I fear that it will remain a niche issue in liberal mainline churches, and fail to make real headway in more conservative evangelical circles.

Walsh says this so-called death of environmentalism may turn out to be a re-birth in the form of a thriving food movement.

Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm — away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables — but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.

This shift away from a politically entrenched environmental movement toward a vibrant food movement opens up a new opporunity for the church to enter the conversation and even take the lead in some cases.

Food is not so easily politicized. Not that the usual characters don't do their best to turn food into a political football, but the food movement is too complex and the interested parties too diverse to easily pigeon hole. 

Here's how I put it in a previous post on politics, church, and food,

Concerns about food short-circuit political divides in some wonderfully mischevious ways. Farmers' Markets may be the most politically diverse gathering in the community, with Glenn Beck conspiracy theorists rubbing shoulders with neo-hippie peace activists. The recent Whole Foods CEO curfluffle highlights some of this diversity and forces the question, "Is it OK for conservatives and liberals, who disagree on so much, to agree on food and work together in that agreement?"

I sure hope so. In today's intense, hyped up political landscape, a good potluck with arugala and country style pork ribs (and of course grandma's jello salad) could do us a lot of good. There's something about gathering around food that makes us more human.

Not only does food allow for more diverse entry points, it plays to the church's strengths - theology, history, and practice. Here's how I put it in Year of Plenty:

The pattern in the Bible of forming community is surprisingly down to earth…The first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat.” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat.”

In the wilderness it was the manna, gathered daily in the dew of morning that forged the faith of Israel. Once the people were settled in the land, the warning loomed large from Joshua to serve the Lord alone and remember that God “gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Joshua was telling them to nurture a deep connection between the harvest of the vineyard and the God who made them a people and gave them the land.

To a people disoriented by exile in Babylon, Jeremiah said, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer. 29:5). In other words, they were to attend to necessary things and do necessary things for one another. In doing so, they would find their way to God.

This pattern continued with Jesus as he sent the disciples out among the people to proclaim the kingdom of God. He told them to enter the homes of the cities to which they were sent. “Stay there,” he said, “eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:7-8). The disciples had this grand vision of the kingdom of God to proclaim and live into, but the proclamation was always in the context of shared meals, working side by side with others, doing necessary things.

I think if you look closely, the shift in the American church is already evident. Churches are taking the lead in their communities starting community gardens, promoting Plant-A-Row for the Hungry, hosting farmers' markets, and teaching classes on food and health. Churches and Christians of all political stripes are becoming environmentalists, but be careful - some of them may not like the label. They'd prefer faithful foodie or sustainable backyard farmer or guerilla gardener, but those are just different ways of describing environmentalists. And this earthy move in church circles bodes well for the big debates about land, CO2, and going green.

As Walsh points out in his Time article, this emphasis on food leads us into the heart of issues dear to the traditional environmental movement.

As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals. The industrialized way we farm today damages our land, our water and our climate. Reforming agriculture and promoting sustainability won't just help us get better and healthier food; it will also fight greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution....

Environmentalists once thought that the only way to create lasting change in the U.S. and the rest of the world was by controlling our carbon emissions. Not quite. As Brian Halweil, a leading thinker on sustainable food, put it in Saturday's TED conference, "If the environmental movement is dead, then I say, 'Long live the food movement.'" Environmental and social changes are coming — and they will be served up on our dinner plates.

Not only will they be served up on dinner plates, but the church will say a prayer before the meal.

New Report: 1 in 4 Packages of Meat at the Grocery Contain Multi-Drug Resistant Staph

A few weeks ago I wrote a post highlighting the book, Superbug by Maryn Mckenna. The book tracks the emergence of antibiotic-resistant MRSA and claims that the heavy use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture has contributed to the rise of these resistant strains of bacteria.

Mckenna has an article at today that reports on a new scientific study on the presence of drug-resistant bacteria in meat for sale in stores. She reports:

A team of researchers from Arizona bought meat and poultry in five cities across the United States, tested them for bacteria, and found this: 47 percent of the samples contained the very common pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and 96 percent of those isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Of more concern: 52 percent of those staph isolates were resistant to at least three antibiotics that are commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine.

That is: Roughly one in four packages of meat and poultry from across the US contained multi-drug resistant staph.

Here's the breakdown of how different types of meat compared:

Among the types of meat tested, turkey carried the most resistance, with 77 percent of the meat samples showing at least some; that was followed by pork (42 percent), chicken (41 percent) and beef (37 percent). Interestingly, it wasn’t all the same staph. Though there was a great diversity of staph types, each animal species seemed to carry mostly one sequence type or strain of staph: ST1 in pigs, ST5 in chickens and ST398 in turkey.

Perhaps the most important finding in the study is that the source of the bacteria was not human contamination, rather the bacteria came from the animals themselves. Mckenna quotes study team member Lance Price:

“There’s an important second point: We found that each of the meat and poultry types had their own distinctive staph on them. That provides strong evidence that food animals were the primary source of the resistant staph. The source wasn’t human contamination of the meat at slaughter, or when it was packaged for retail sale.”

This is an important data point in the debate about the impact of antibiotic use in raising farm animals. The Ag. community has argued for years that no one has been able to prove a link between such use and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that is harmful to humans. The evidence is mounting that concentrated animal operations are not only bad for animals, but they are bad for humans as well.

Go here for a previous post on safety issues with America's meat supply.

Ag Community Paranoia in Florida Leads to New Law that Would Criminalize Farm Photos


There is a proposed law working its way through the Florida legislature, that would make it illegal to photograph or film farms without the permission of the farmer. The proposed law, that would take effect in July, reads:

A person who enters onto a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the first degree...

A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the first degree...

This law seeks to curtail the activities of undercover videogarphers posing as farm workers, documenting the horrific treatment of animals as shown in the above Humane Society video. While media law experts have pointed out that such a law is unconstitutional, some local farmers in Florida defend the law as reported in the Florida Tribune:

Wilton Simpson, a farmer who lives in Norman's district, said the bill is needed to protect the property rights of farmers and the "intellectual property" involving farm operations.
Simpson, president of Simpson Farms near Dade City, said the law would prevent people from posing as farmworkers so that they can secretly film agricultural operations.

In a surprising twist to the story, the proposed law has raised the most concern among legitimate photogaphers and stock photo enthusiasts, or "croparazzi," as the New York Times has dubbed them. I count myself as an avid amateur croparazzi, so I share in those concerns, and more generally see this as a big step in the wrong direction for the American farm community.

From what I have seen, there is a persecution complex that has taken hold in some segments of American agriculture that is not serving it well. I hear farmers say they are under attack by extremists and people who are ignorant about real farm practices. I hear passionate resentments expressed by ag leaders that non-farmers, like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, have unfairly painted American agriculture in a negative light. So on the one hand U.S. consumers are dismissed as ignorant, but then when consumers show interest in the actual practices of U.S. farms, like the use of gestation crates for pigs, the farm community comes up with a law like the one in Florida, that essentially says, "Our farm practices are none of your business." 

If I could sit down with the Florida Farm Bureau I would explain that U.S. consumers are actually very interested in the practices of the farms that bring food to their tables. The local food movement, concerns about the environment, and yes, movies like Food Inc., are rapidly changing the consumer landscape. And this movement is only just beginning to hit the mainstream. The presenting issue is not that consumers are ignorant, the problem is that they are actually very interested, and in some cases they don't like what they are finding. What the Florida Farm Bureau should really be afraid of is not guerilla reporters taking undercover video, but consumers passing up your products at the grocery store because of unacceptable farming practices. Trying to cover-up unacceptable practices is a losing proposition in today's information age.

Instead of reacting defensively, giving consumers and those interested in food production practices a metaphorical middle finger and a threat of 30 years of jail, why not clean up your act and open your doors to let people in. And if there is nothing to clean up, then all the better. Show consumers that the Humane Society video shown above is inaccurate and unfair. Create ways to bring people onto the farms to see what's going on. Follow the lead of the #agchat folks on Twitter who are working hard to get out the real stories of farms and farmers. 

The proposed bill has been so widely panned that the Florida Farm Bureau has stepped in to do damage control. They are supposedly working on revising the legislation to address concerns about roadside or aerial photography, and to ease the potential 30 year jail sentence currently attached to the bill. Unfortunately, they are defending the basic premise of the law, even though no one has cited a single instance of anyone doing malicious undercover filming at Florida farms. 

After the jump you can see some of my favorite "croparazzi" shots from the Inland Northwest.

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New Proposed Laws for Spokane County to Allow Beekeeping in Residential Neighborhoods

We've been making progress in the Spokane area when it comes to chicken laws. The City of Spokane Valley looks set to approve new laws allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods. The new ordinance will have it's final reading on March 22 and based on the tenor of the meeting earlier this week, it looks like it will be approved. Our group of chicken activists is currently meeting with Spokane County Commissioners to garner their support to change the laws in Spokane County. You can help the cause by emailing the commissioners and letting them know you'd like them to ask the Planning Department to take action - , mrichard@spokanecounty.organd Go here to join the Facebook group and stay up to date on the Spokane Chicken Revolution.

While the Spokane chicken revolution has been unfolding in a public way, the move to change beekeeping laws in Spokane County has been quietly progressing behind the scenes for over a year. 

Here are the current laws regarding beekeeping in the Spokane area:

In the City of Spokane, Beekeeping IS ALLOWED as an accessory use on single-family residence lots.  View the Ciity of Spokane Beekeeping Ordinance can be found here.

The City of Spokane Valley municipal code provides an even broader use for beekeeping - allowing up to 25 hives on a residential lot.

icon City of Spokane Valley - Residential Zone Permitted Uses

icon City of Spokane Valley - Supplemental Use Regulations for Residential Zones

icon City of Spokane Valley - Definition of Beekeeping

Beekeeping is currently not allowed in residential areas in unincorporated Spokane County. Apparently the current laws are problematic in a number of ways, and so for the last year local beekeepers have been working with the County to improve the ordinance. According to Jerry Tate, who is among Spokane's beekeeping experts, the new and improved ordinance will come up for its final reading in April, and it includes a provision allowing up to two boxes on residential lots. While I haven't seen the ordinance, like the other area ordinances, it probably requires that you have to take a class and be a certified beekeeping apprentice before you can keep bees, and you likely will have to register your boxes with the County.

Did Seattle and Portland Get Their Foodie Inspiration from Eastern Washington?

At least that's what Jeffrey Sanders claims in a recent Op-Ed at the Seattle Times. 

The roots of the contemporary food movement in the Northwest run far deeper than Seattle's hastily tilled parking-strip gardens. The movement is more geographically dispersed and firmly established than most of us realize. Most surprising, despite its coastal image, its birthplace is not Seattle or Portland. This region's food movement pioneers originated in ... Eastern Washington.

He goes on to explain that the 1974 World's Fair in Spokane started a conversation that sparked the proliferation of P-Patch community gardens in Seattle, and the formation of Northwest Tilth, and Oregon Tilth, two pioneering organizations in organic agriculture and whole-earth ecology. Most significantly, Sanders points out, these conversations east of the mountains planted the seeds that eventually led to the Organic Agriculture degree program at Washington State University.

Sanders concludes:

...if we can look beyond the Interstate 5 corridor for a sense of bioregional identity, the contemporary food movement still has the potential to connect east and west, city and country, and hopefully in a way that is more equitable and, one can hope, a little less precious.

There is irony in the fact that the modern food movement tends to be culturally centered in trendy, urban neighborhoods, when it's actually farmers and universities in rural areas that are pioneering sustainable practices in agriculture. Given the urban-centrism of the conversation, it too easily reflects some of the well-worn prejudices against country folks that led to derogatory labels like "redneck." (Until I read Wendell Berry's commentary on this and other labels like it, I never made the connection that these terms originated as ways to socially alienate farmers, especially in the south. Someone has a red neck because they are out in the fields working all day.)

These prejudices play out in more sophisticated ways in today's debates, where crunchy urban centers are painted as the centers of virtue when it comes to sustinability, and rural farmers are painted with a broad brush as Round-Up loving, earth-raping, titans of agriculture. Neither caricature reflects the reality on the ground. I have yet to meet a farmer who doesn't care for the land and the food it produces and our big cities have at least as many vices as they do virtues when it comes to food consumption.

As someone who lives on the east side of the mountains, and writes about food and culture, I share Sanders' sentiments.  There is a need for a more dynamic east-west interchange along I-90 that is at least as vital as the Seattle-Portland alliance that runs north-south along I-5. As he points out, this connection has been a key to past innovations in the Pacific Northwest food landscape, and holds potential to do the same in the future.

h/t Bike to Work Barb

America is the Bulging Waistline of the World: Comparison Map of Obesity in Countries 1980-2008 

The folks at The Economist have created this handy map to show the changes in Body Mass Index in countries around the world over the last few decades (males over 20 yrs old). Click on the 1998 and 2008 in the top right corner to see how things have changed in those 20 years. Can we all agree that obesity is the most significant health issue facing the U.S. in the coming decades? And if we can agree on that we have to agree that food policy and food culture are among the most important issues facing our communities. I can't help but notice the contrast between the the US and Africa. What do you notice?


h/t Daily Dish

The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

Time's Ecocentric blog has an interesting story about the link between rising food prices and the unfolding revolution in Egypt. 

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak's 30-year rule....Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt's 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don't have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices.

The most telling data point from the article is that bread is central to Egyptian culture and diet and they are in the unenviable position of relying heavily on imports.

In Egypt, the Arabic word for bread — "aish" — is also the world for life. Egyptians are the world's largest consumers of bread and Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer.

To make matters more tenuous, Egyptians spend a very high percentage of their incomes on food. By comparison, Americans spend around 10% of disposable income on food.

Egypt food chart

USDA New Dietary Guidelines - Eat More Plants, Can't Bring Themselves to Say Eat Less Meat

The USDA has issued new dietary guidelines. According to the executive summary there are four goals that shape the report that are based on their scientific review. 

Reduce the incidence and prevalence of overweight and obesity of the US population by reducing overall calorie intake and increasing physical activity. 

Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

Significantly reduce intake of foods containing added sugars and solid fats because these dietary components contribute excess calories and few, if any, nutrients. In addition, reduce sodium intake and lower intake of refined grains, especially refined grains that are coupled with added sugar, solid fat, and sodium.

Meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.  

In summary: Eat Less, Eat More Plants, Exercise More.

I was glad to see that the summary included a reference to increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables through "greater access to farmers' markets." 

Marion Nestle, for the most part, applauds the new guidelines but offer this interesting observation:

They say, for example: "limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium." This requires translation: eat less meat, cake, cookies, sodas, juice drinks, and salty snacks. That's politics, for you. 

This reluctance to just come out and marginalize "bad" foods can also be seen in the new food labeling system proposed by the Grocery Manufacturers' Association.

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That looks pretty transparent until you compare it to the labeling system in the UK where they put red warning signs on the particular nutrition content of food items that are unhealthy. 

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An Acre of Corn: A Surprising Window Into Our Agricultural Lives

A friend passed along this link to the 2011 report on the estimated costs of crops production in Iowa. I was most intrigued by the break-even worksheet at the bottom of the page. Among other things, this resource describes all the anticipated costs associated with growing an acre of corn in Iowa in 2011. I put together a little chart to show the data on a break-even scenario.

CostofacreofcornSome of the categories on the chart are hard for a non-farmer like myself to understand. I couldn't find a line item for herbicides. I think that actually may be accounted for in the "Seed & Tech" line item, which I've simply listed as "Seed" in my chart. The total cash flow needed per acre to cover the above costs is listed as $593.62, minus the $25/acre subsidy from the USDA.

What jumps out to me is that when we eat foods supported by corn commodities, which includes beef, pork, chicken, sweetened soda, etc. - we are eating fossil fuels and financing.

I was also intrigued by this chart that shows historical costs per acre of corn (page 13). Here's a graph, based on that data, showing the comparative costs in 2003 and anticipated costs in 2011 for an acre of corn that follows an acre of corn from the previous growing season.

Screen shot 2011-01-19 at 10.55.34 AM

The increase in costs per acre are certainly a reflection of inflation, especially in the cost of land and machinery, but the seed and chemical costs are a huge outlier. The justification for the genetically modified seeds is that they increase yields, but they also increase costs. In 8 years innovation in seed technologies have led to an impressive 22% increase in yields but, during that time, costs for the seed/chemical technologies have risen a flabbergasting 134%. That's what happens when we have an agricultural system built on fossil-fuel based inputs and expensive genetically modified seed. It's hard to see how the current system is economically and environmentally sustainable.

Note: They are using different calculations for the break-even worksheet and the total costs.