Posts Tagged ‘michael pollan

10
May
10

Lions and tigers and superweeds … oh, my!

florence in the garden

Florence scours our overgrown garden for callaloo

Who could have seen THIS coming?

A recent New York Times article on the rapid growth of “superweeds” notices that some species have done exactly what Darwin noticed living things do: under herbicidal assault, they adapted.

Now Roundup, Monsanto’s crack for farmers, is having trouble killing pigweed, and the expensive herbicide/seed program  isn’t looking like such a good deal anymore. But the large-scale farmers have a lot invested in industrial farming,  so many are just layering new poisons onto the Roundup, and are even encouraged to do so by Monsanto, which, the Times reports, “is it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.”

Michael Pollan, one of the Room for Debate voices in a Times discussion on the subject, points out that this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.  “A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, ‘sustainable.’ Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.”

The Times parrots without comment the claim that no-till agriculture with “Roundup Ready” seeds is “environmentally friendly.” True, it reduces erosion and lessens runoff, but I don’t think everyone really understands what really goes on in this kind of agriculture. (Interested in the details of how glyphosate works? Check  out this fact sheet from beyondpesticides.org (pdf). “Environmentally friendly”? I’m not so sure.)

And here is where I would like to make a rather bold suggestion: Why not just call the superweed callaloo and eat it?

Pigweed is amaranth, after all, and amaranth is edible and nutritious, both as  leaves and seeds. When we first moved to Kentucky, Florence, our friend and one-time babysitter (from a past life when we were both had jobs and 401ks and benefits in New York), came to visit us. She looked into a field of what we called pigweed, and saw callaloo, a delicious green from her youth near Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She waded in, harvested a few large bags, trimmed it and cooked it up with lots of garlic and hot peppers and it was delicious.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to eat the pigweed laced through with Roundup of course. And I’m not sure the resistant palmer amaranth is the same variety of amaranth that we enjoyed. But if there are varieties of a “superweed” that are edible and nutritious, a smart farmer might take the hint from mother nature and grow the native plant that doesn’t need massive doses of chemicals to thrive.

Or not. Even if that farmer is dead-set on continuing with the commodity crop (and of course that’s where the (subsidy) money is), The redoubtable Rodale Institute has been  doing some great work with organic no-till methods.

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12
Feb
10

“it will take 2 million angry moms to change school food”

free for all“It will take 2 million angry moms to change school food,” says Susan Coombs, former Texas Agriculture Secretary, who is quoted in Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

I’ve only just read a review of the book, and want this dad’s name added to the list of angry moms.

This happens to be a week I am also digesting  a full-hour interview with Michael Pollan on Democracy Now, as well as my third viewing of Food Inc., which is the best single document to introduce the unaware into the batshit crazy place that is America’s food system.

It’s a convoluted contraption, with a few big winners and lots and lots of losers.

Those profiting (mightily) from our national food dysfunction include executives and shareholders of the various Big Ag corporations–Monsanto, ConAgra, ADM, Cargill,  Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue– and the large farms that receive the bulk of subsidy payments for growing massive surpluses of corn and soybeans.

The losers are just about everyone else. The victims who suffer the most include small farmers; the abused cattle, pigs, and chickens who are treated like mechanical cogs, not living beings; the horribly stressed and underpaid factory farm workers who are treated only marginally better than the animals;  and … and … our children, who, via the school lunch program, are the last stop for the last bits of that surplus production that no one else wants.  Pollan calls it “a dispose-all system for surplus agricultural commodities.”

Here is a summary of the problem, and Poppendieck’s proposed radical solution, via Mark Winne on Civil Eats:

Why, for instance, have we developed three different ways to pay the lunch lady–one for the poor students, one for the nearly poor, and one for those who supposedly are being driven in BMWs to school? The logical answer might be because that’s fair; the rich kids should pay more and the government should subsidize the cost of feeding lower income children, as it does currently to the tune of $11 billion annually. But as Poppendieck peels back the layers of the onion, we find the issue has always been less about compassion for needy children and more about accommodating political and commercial interests. Harry Truman (school lunch is good for national security), Ronald Reagan (ketchup is a vegetable), nutritionists and nutritionism (its nutrients that count, not the quality and taste of food), and various agricultural lobbies wanting to unload their farm surpluses are just a sampling of what has driven the school food agenda. Somewhere low on the totem pole you’ll find concern for the health and well-being of boys and girls.

Poppendieck’s jargon-free narrative takes us step-by-step through the deals, concessions, and compromises that have bureaucratized the school food process while simultaneously dumbing down the food. Why is so much processed food used to prepare school meals? Because it’s cheaper and “cooking from scratch” kitchens have been removed from the schools. Why does it have to be cheaper when we’re talking about feeding our children? Because the federal government (or anyone else for that matter) will not provide enough funding to enable schools to buy fresh, whole ingredients. (And by the way, taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to subsidize corn and soybeans, the prime ingredients in processed food.) Why do we have so many junk food items sold “a la carte” in our schools? Well, in addition to using a French culinary phrase to disguise what is otherwise crappy food, schools must sell these items to those with discretionary cash–supposedly the ones in the BMWs–to compensate for the low reimbursements they receive for meals that meet mandated USDA standards. And on it goes.

Poppendieck has a solution that is as elegant as it will be hard to achieve–universal free meals for all students K through 12. She acknowledges the cost, an additional $12 billion per year (our present wars, please note, are costing about the same amount each month) that would not only feed all students for free, but also improve the quality of the food.

If the arguments for universal school meals–efficiency, equity, no one excluded–sound eerily familiar, then you’ve probably been paying attention to the arguments for universal health care. If nothing else, it’s certainly ironic to consider the consequences of removing each system’s respective middlemen: processed food purveyors for school food, and private health insurers for health care. Might we all be healthier as a result?

This food and kids thing is a big battle in our house. I work hard to have good food around: we raise our own meat and veggies (in season), but we’re always battling peer pressure, fast food and (this one really kills me) all the free toys the kids get when they eat fast food.

In spite of all my efforts, my kids ingest more than their fair share of sugary cereal, pizza, and chicken nuggets– both at school and (sadly) at home. I have to weigh the risk of alienating them from good food altogether (if I push too hard) against the ill effects of the crap they prefer. It ain’t easy. I like to hope that the exposure to real food will at some future point mutate into a desire to eat it, but I can’t be sure.

I’m not exactly optimistic that Congress and the White House will find the $12 billion to give free, nutritious school lunches for all of our kids. That’s putting it mildly. It’s not going to happen with the current crew. But we have to start demanding it.




Ineffable beauty, unspeakable evil, and all sorts of crap in between

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