General Mills reverses course; coupon seekers sigh with relief

In recent days there was an outcry after eagle-eyed observers noted a change General Mills had perhaps hoped to make quietly. As reported by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times,” GM’s revised terms of use meant that

consumers interacting with the company in a variety of ways and venues no longer can sue General Mills, but must instead submit any complaint to “informal negotiation” or arbitration

The practical result? Say you purchased a General Mills product with a coupon obtained after you “liked” a product on Facebook. Later, after using (or ingesting) the product, you believed you have a legal claim. Your friendly litigator agreed, and thought your tale of woe was sufficiently strong to file a claim. But wait, not so fast: The pennies saved with the coupon bought General Mills what amounted to a get-out-of-court-free pass, requiring that the aggrieved consumer submit to “information negotiation” or arbitration instead of initiating a lawsuit.

Wisely, General Mills has swiftly reversed its course, reinstating the prior set of legal terms and assuring those who may have secured coupons or otherwise participated in General Mills promotions that

the arbitration provisions we had posted were never enforced. Nor will they be. We stipulate for all purposes that our recent Legal Terms have been terminated, that the arbitration provisions are void, and that they are not, and never have been, of any legal effect.

While I’m happy to argue strenuously against frivolous lawsuits–and in food matters there are many stunning examples–this kind of blanket policy change isn’t the way to streamline the system. Sometimes reversing course is the smart choice, and good to see a company like General Mills acknowledge that.

Back in the saddle again (or, back to the keyboard)

It’s been a month of administrative tasks and behind-the-scenes work, and while I’ve felt it, there’s not been much visible here. That’s about to change and regular posting resumes this week.

Thanks to all of you who’ve asked, and continued to follow.

“Monsanto Does Not Condone Cannibalism”

Good to get that out of the way. In case you were worried.

Modern Farmer recently considered the prevalence of evil Monsanto memes, and why the company seems to have perennial public relations problems:

If you set aside for a moment from the usual debate about whether GMOs are bad or good, a curious fact emerges. For a rich and powerful company that seems to excel at nearly everything it does, Monsanto sucks in one important aspect: spin control.

2014 Science & Food Public Lecture Series at UCLA

Events in April, May, and June on “The Science of Sushi” (with Ole Mouritsen and Morihiro Onodera), “How We Taste” (with Dr Dana Small and Wylie Dufresne), and “Harnessing Creativity (and the Science of Pie)” with Dave Arnold and Lena Kwak. All on UCLA’s campus; tickets can be purchased by phone or in person from UCLA’s Central Ticket Office, or via Ticketmaster.

More information on the science & food website.

Gabriel Axel, R.I.P.

thefeast
The director of Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel, died last weekend. Based on a story by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), the film is a quiet, beautiful film about food, art, and their transformative power. If you haven’t seen it, you should; if you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again. The Criterion Collection website offers several resources related to the film, including links to rent or purchase a copy. And it’s available on Netflix.

Also, don’t miss this essay, “Babette’s Feast, A Fable for Culinary France,” from Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Michael Pollan on the Rise of Industrial Agriculture (Edible Education 101)

The first of this year’s Edible Education lectures from the UC Berkeley class is by Michael Pollan, co-chair of the course. (Because this is a class each video presentation captures administrative and other housekeeping announcements; the lecture itself starts approximately 30 minutes into the video.)

Edible Education 101: “The Rise of Industrial Agriculture” by Michael Pollan from The Edible Schoolyard Project on Vimeo.

Can’t read this fast enough

How can you not make a mad dash to read an interview that begins with this quote:

We have this whole idea that to be anti-materialist is somehow to be reverent, and to materialist is to be fallen. Meanwhile, if we were just genuinely materialist, that would make us reverent. I guess that’s why I like cooking. That is reverence, as far as I can tell. So is how you treat people; it’s all the same stuff.

I’m an unabashed admirer of Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal so I’m delighted to see this conversation between Tamar and Sheila Heti in The Believer. Now…off I go.

Passing on knowledge to the next generation (of farmers)

Not sure how many readers of this article in today’s New York Times will understand what an incredible gathering this was. What these farmers share is amazing talent and dedication, and a deep commitment to the importance of growing food in a way that nourishes not only the eater but also the earth.

Oyster Fraud, Oyster Poaching

Oyster fraud is about more than just getting duped out of a couple bucks. By law, oysters must carry a tag that includes information on the grower or harvester, origin, harvest date, and more. There’s a reason why strong traceability requirements are in place: For the most part, we eat oysters raw. They’re a high-risk food. The CDC found that incidence of vibrio infection, associated with eating raw shellfish, was 43 percent higher in 2012 than it was from 2006 to 2008.

and then there’s oyster poaching:

“If it’s a poached oyster, they’re probably not doing any paperwork on it,” says Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, paperwork that would include traceable information such as history of temperature controls and harvest location.

“If they’re taking oysters from an area not deemed for consumption—like marinas or sewage areas—someone could get very sick on that,” he says.

Jon Rowley (quoted in the article) and others recommend asking to see the shipping tag to confirm origin, harvest site, and shipping date. (Coastodian.org shares an image of what these tags look like and the information contained thereon.) But this advice seems to beg the question: If someone’s intent on passing off shellfish as something other/better than what it is, what would keep them from forging or modifying a tag, or otherwise giving the consumer wrong information.

Walmart Joins CIW’s Fair Food Program

This week brought another big victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the organization that has been working tirelessly to improve working conditions and wages for farmworkers.

The press release notes that the immediate benefits will accrue to tens of thousands of Florida farmworkers–not a small population by any means–but the real benefit as I see it as the potential for this to benefits farmworkers across the country. Each time another significant player in the food market signs on, the pressure becomes greater on others (ahem, Publix) to join the Fair Food Program.

The CIW announcement addressed the short- and long-term implications of this week’s development; Barry Estabrook, who investigated the conditions of farmworkers in the Florida tomato industry for his superb book, Tomatoland, described this as an “historic stride forward” in his contribution to Civil Eats.

Refining Gastronomica’s focus

An interesting and thoughtful editor’s note from Melissa Caldwell of Gastronomica on the decision to refine the journal’s focus and correspondingly revise its subtitle from “The Journal of Food and Culture” to “The Journal of Critical Food Studies.” Looking forward to seeing how the tone and content of the journal shift over the next few issues.

Putting the Cheerios announcement in perspective

Lots of tweets and shouts in the last few days heralding General Mills’ announcement that Cheerios–at least the “original” Cheerios–would be manufactured without GM ingredients. I was finding it hard to be enthusiastic about this development, and Mark Bittman helped me put my finger on why:

Taking the G.M.O.’s out of Cheerios is only a little bit harder than taking them out of oatmeal: there are no G.M.O. oats, and Cheerios are, essentially, oats. (Well, hyper-processed oats.) They also contain small amounts of cornstarch and sugar, so its parent company, General Mills, has done little more than source non-G.M.O. cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar to use in production. (There are G.M.O. beets, and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the United States use G.M.O. seeds, whose products find their way into most processed foods.) This is what they’ve done for years in most of Europe, where products with G.M.O.’s are almost universally labeled as such.

Some will argue that this step, though a small one in terms of ingredients, is meaningful as a sign that consumers’ voices are being heard. I think that’s true to the extent that manufacturers do realize that consumers are increasingly aware that perhaps this whole “genetically modified” thing is something they should be paying attention to. (Whether they’re paying attention to the right things is another matter.) But given how fast and loose many food manufacturers play with their labeling and marketing messages, the Cheerios announcement may not be the harbinger of great progress. Bittman addresses this, too:

If opportunistic marketers like those at General Mills can cash in by making insignificant changes in their products that lead to significant marketing benefits, what happens to people who’ve actually put work into making their products significantly cleaner — that is, organic? Once you have an “organic” label, you are forbidden to put “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” on your package — that’s theoretically understood, as are more important benefits, like antibiotic- and pesticide-free. But thanks to the way-too-loud G.M.O. screaming match, my guess is that it’s easier to market food using a meaningless “G.M.O.-free” label than an organic label.

Sigh.

Renewing the call for a 50-year Farm Bill

This week has brought another wave of Farm Bill conversation, mostly about the trades that have been proposed. What it brought to my mind was the proposal, made seriously and around the time of the last Farm Bill debate by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, to give the Farm Bill a much longer view:

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities. . . .

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

Keeping an eye on the (genetically modified) ball

On the heels of Amy Harmon’s New York Times piece (and Tom Philpott’s comment on it, posted here), there’s this, from Tom:

Over the weekend, listservs, blogs, and Twitter feeds lit up with reactions to Amy Harmon’s deep dive into the politics behind a partial ban on growing genetically modified crops on Hawaii’s main island. The fuss obscured a much more significant development that occurred with little fanfare (and no Times attention) on Friday, when the US Department of Agriculture took a giant step toward approving a controversial new crop promoted by Dow Agrosciences, that could significantly ramp up the chemical war on weeds being waged in the Midwest’s corn and soybean fields.

Keeping track of these developments is a bit like a game of Whac-a-Mole…

Tom Philpott’s take on the recent NYT GMO article by Amy Harmon

Tom Philpott has been a solid source of cogent writing about a range of food and agriculture issues, and yesterday, on Facebook, he shared his comments on Amy Harmon’s piece in the New York Times that’s been attracting a lot of attention, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops“. (The focus of Harmon’s article is Hawaii’s ban on genetically engineered crops.)

I’m grateful for Tom’s permission to share his comments, which I’ve copied below. Tom wrote:

Here’s my fast-and-dirty comment on that Amy Harmon piece (below) on GMOs lots of people are talking about.

I agree that the food-safety issue is likely overblown. But I think Harmon is looking at this question from a pretty skewed frame. Recently she did a big piece on a possible GM solution to an awful pathogen attacking citrus production globally. This one is on a ban on GMOs on a Hawaiian island that grows one GM crop—papayas engineered to resist a virus—and that one crop is exempted from the ban. Meanwhile, well more than 90 percent of actually existing GMOs concern two traits—herbicide resistance and insect resistance—and a handful of crops (maize, soy, cotton, and lately sugar beets and alfalfa). I don’t jave time to dig up the USDA’s pipeline of GMO products under review for deregulation, but I can assure you that they are almost all herbicide/insecticide related.

Both of those traits are breaking down in the field, under the weight of monocropping and simple evolution. It turns out that when you lash millions of contiguous acres of crops with a single herbicide—Monsanto’s Roundup—some weeds survive and pass their genes on. Then you get an accelerating pesticide treadmill—higher doses, and more and ever more poisonous varieties, of herbicides requited to control weeds—and weeds that evolve to resist multiple hebicides The same is happening with Monsanto’s Bt corn—engineered to express the pest-killing trait of the bacteria Bt. A certain corn pest has evolved resistance to those seeds, and farmers are responding by dramatically increasing their pesticide applications. It’s stating a fact, and not conspiracy mongering, to note that the same companies that own these seed markets also dominate the pesticide market.

On Friday, the USDA signaled its intention to approve a new GM seed, this one from Dow (in cahoots with Monsanto), that would withstand not only Roundup, but also a highly toxic herbicide called 2,4-D. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/03/agriculture-dow-enlist-idUSL2N0KD17720140103 A 2011 study from Penn State researchers predicted that new products would lead weeds to develop resistance to both herbicides (some already have–farmers have upped 2,4-d use in recent years) and lead to another upswing in herbicide use. Friday’s announcement generated far less discussion than Harmon’s piece, but it will have many times the real-world impact of that ban in Hawaii. Within a few years, it’s conceivable that a land mass around the size of California could be blanketed in 2,4-d corn and soy. Not great news if you live in the midwest and like to drink tap water.

But what about so-called complex traits—say, the ability to use nitrogen or water more efficiently? As climate change proceeds apace, it will be extremely important to use less water and nitrogen in food production. But not for lack of trying, GM seeds containing these traits have not emerged in any real way, and likely won’t: There’s no one gene that triggers those traits. Plants use nitrogen and water in complex ways, in biological systems that have evolved over millions of years.

Happily, there are ways to use water and fertilizer more wisely, but they involve farmer knowledge, or appropriate technology, much more than patented technology. See this piece: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/09/cover-crops-no-till-david-brandt-farms

The real question to ask isn’t: are GMOs safe? It’s: What kind of ag do we need as we head into climate change and another 50 percent rise in population—and what place to GMOs have? Examined thoroughly and not distracted by corporate talking points, the answer that emerges is, I think, not zero, but pretty marginal. Here’s the Union of Concerned Scientists’ top two ag people on just that question: http://www.tulsaworld.com/opinion/the-cost-effective-way-to-feed-the-world/article_3ce9821e-c3f7-5db0-a403-2459c2bc0882.html

Side note: The reason that GMOs are so controversial in Hawaii has little to do with papayas. It’s that the seed companies own huge tracts of land and develop their seed strains there, because the climate allows for three growing seasons per year. And those crops include the herbicide-sucking ones discussed above. Here’s the NYT, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/08/22/22greenwire-king-corn-takes-root-in-hawaii-28466.html?pagewanted=all:

“Over the past decade, the five major companies that dominate the world seed industry have starkly increased their operations in Hawaii, where they have long tested experimental biotech crops. Rushing into a void created by the collapse of the islands’ sugar cane and pineapple plantations, the firms are buying and leasing prime farmland to, in large part, grow corn seed.

“Growing on limited acres, the seed farms are now Hawaii’s largest agricultural sector, valued at $223 million last year — worth more than sugar cane, coffee or pineapple. The companies have hired the plantations’ former workforce and begun currying favor with state agriculture officials. In many ways, they have stepped into the leading, and sometimes domineering role, once played by the islands’ sugar barons.

“‘They’ve become as strong a force as what sugar cane once was,’ said Carol Okada, manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch. ‘They’ve replaced essentially sugar cane and pineapple.’”

Anyone looking for the broad historical context of this debate should read Nick Cullather’s book on the Green Revolution, The Hungry World. I reviewed it here: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/08/green-revolution-cullather and David Reiff, here: http://www.thenation.com/article/158676/where-hunger-goes-green-revolution#

Yale 2013 Chubb Lecture with Wendell Berry

The Yale Sustainable Food Project has shared the video of the 2013 Chubb Lecture by Wendell Berry, recorded in New Haven on 6 December 2013. One could do far worse than listen to or read Wendell Berry once a week; his clear writing is both therapeutic and provocative.