Saturday, August 29, 2015

The food that nurtures us

Several very interesting, at times counter-intuitive and different, articles about agriculture and food have been sent to me. Previously I have written about food, farming and Zen practice, especially the relieving of harm and serving being, in "72 Labors Brought Us This Food" as well as elsewhere. Here are excerpts from the recent articles and links.

"Another consequence is that Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data, while others in many developed countries—including the Netherlands, Belgium, France and New Zealand—spend at least twice that. People in less developed countries spend four to eight times as much.

It may not be politically correct to say so, but Big Agra is far more productive than are small “family farms,” particularly organic farms. The yields on these farms, according to recent studies, including in the science journal Nature, range between 5% and 38% lower than yields on non-organics, depending on individual crop and on tillage method.

The typical response I get to all this is one of disbelief or insouciance. To many folk here Big Agra is the enemy, foisting endless amounts of tasteless food on unenlightened consumers, meanwhile despoiling the environment through vast quantities of animal waste and excessive use of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Such criticisms are debatable. Most experts on food point out that taste is more related to freshness than to organic or inorganic status or even production site. Given the high quality of American logistics, fresh, tasty food produced by large agricultural enterprises is readily available almost everywhere in the country, even if it is produced thousands of miles away...."

"Yet the indictment I hear most often is that American food is too cheap. Many locals point reverently to food journalist and guru Michael Pollan, who suggested in 2010 that we eat less and pay more, specifically, $8 for a dozen eggs and $3.90 for a pound of peaches in order to support local food systems. I wonder if the 45.3 million Americans living beneath the poverty line—14.5% of the country’s population and almost 18% of North Carolina’s—agree.

The organic sector, while growing, accounted for only 4% of “at home food sales” in 2012—and, perhaps ironically, Costco may already have surpassed Whole Foods as the biggest player in this niche market, with Wal-Mart coming up fast."

(One comment on the article: "No one understands that the U.S. has the same amount of corn acreage as it did in 1900 but it has 10 times the yields. Most small Africa farm yields or still stuck at the 1900 level.")

The full article is here:

The second article has some surprising and at times almost contradictory perspectives:

"While Monsanto’s 2014 net sales of vegetable seeds, at $867 million, were a fraction of what it sold in seeds and traits for corn ($6.4 billion) and soybeans ($2.1 billion), according to the company’s SEC filing, Monsanto is building a robust division nonetheless. In 2014, it included 21 vegetable crops sold in more than 150 countries, allowing the company to slowly inch its way out of the center of the grocery store and into the world’s ever busier outer aisles.

Nor is this just about capturing the most lucrative and discerning broccoli-eaters: The company is setting its sight on global vegetable domination. “A big part of our focus is expanding the geographic scope of production in order to achieve a global market,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, told Quartz. It’s testing several different seeds to make sure Beneforté can grow year-round, in different regions depending on the season, to make for a consistent product that is available everywhere, all the time. It doesn’t want Beneforté to be the Champagne of broccoli; it wants it to be the Coca-Cola of broccoli. If anyone can achieve that with a vegetable, it’s Monsanto. “A big part of our focus is expanding the geographic scope of production in order to achieve a global market.”  

 Beneforté broccoli and Monsanto’s other vegetables, like the non-tear-inducing EverMild onion, the smaller BellaFina bell pepper, and the sweeter Melorange melon, are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They are the results of selective breeding, the age-old process by which farmers make better crops by crossing varieties with desirable traits (though as Ben Paynter explained in Wired, Monsanto’s computer programs have both sped up and replaced much of the dirty work). Seminis’s technology allowed it to capitalize on the nutrition research by Beneforté’s original developers, breeding commercial broccoli varieties that had high levels of a beneficial compound."

For the full article:

For another aspect on food availability and nutrition, an excerpt from an article that was passed on to me:

“We buy huge portions at the store and we bring them back in a big car to a big refrigerator, and we’re not eating it all,” said Dana Gunders, who wrote the NRDC report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.

In addition, she said, a lot of edible food is discarded prematurely because shoppers misunderstand the purpose of sell-by or use-by dates stamped on food labels. Infant formula is an exception, but in most cases, the dates aren’t required by the government, and, according to the USDA, they aren’t a threshold for food safety.

“They are meant to suggest peak quality,” Ms. Gunders said. “It’s not necessarily that the food will make you sick if you eat it after the date, but it’s come to be interpreted that way.”

While the U.S. government hasn’t tried to figure out how much food waste is avoidable, the U.K., which tosses about 30 billion pounds of food annually, has.

In its campaign to curb waste, the U.K. concluded that 60% of its wasted food could have been used."

After post the above material I was sent another article which is interesting and challenges many "accepted" beliefs:

"It has happened to all of us. You’re standing in the produce aisle, just trying to buy some zucchini, when you face the inevitable choice: Organic or regular?

It’s a loaded question that can mean many different things, sometimes all at once: Healthy or pesticide-drenched? Tasty or bland? Fancy or basic? Clean or dirty? Good or bad?

But here’s the most important question for many customers: Is it worth the extra money?

The answer: Probably not.

Higher price doesn’t really mean higher quality....

(and furthermore)

Organic produce is not necessarily better for the environment....

Organic farms don’t treat their workers any better."