Archive for the ‘Food in the media’ Category

Food Read Round-up: slave labour in the fish trade, small farm takeovers, the rise of unsustainable coffee, and more

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
(Photo: By Lettuce, via Flickr)

(Photo: By Lettuce, via Flickr)

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

I’ve been remiss in not having covered sustainable fish and fishing on Earthward before. This post touches on just a few of the issues: Canada’s lack of protection of its own coastal areas and marine life, and the use of slave labour in global shrimp production. On a more positive note, I’ve included an item on Community Supported Fisheries (like CSAs, but for fish). Other items this week? Concentration of farmland ownership around the world, and why shade-grown coffee is no longer the norm.

Canada behind in protecting oceans (and fish). Oceans play a key role in the food supply, so it would make sense for Canada to protect coastal areas that shelter and nurture marine life. However, a report released earlier this month by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) shows that this country ranks last in efforts to protect ocean biodiversity from human activity. Among countries with the longest coast lines, Canada lags behind China, Indonesia, Russia and six other nations.  In fact, Canada has protected only 1.3% of what’s known as “ocean estate”, compared with 30.4% for the U.S. and 33.2% for Australia. As far back as 1992, Canadian federal governments have set targets and deadlines for marine protection but never followed through. More recently, the government has declared that marine-protected areas will cover 10% of ocean estate by 2020, but as CPAWS notes, work must start now if this target is to be reached.

The emergence of Community Supported Fisheries. A recent article from Food Tank featured Vancouver-based Skipper Otto, a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) whose goal is to encourage consumers to buy direct from local fishermen. As you might guess, CSFs are a variant of CSAs, the community-supported farms we’re more used to seeing provide fresh produce, meat and dairy to their members. There are 35 to 40 CSFs in North America, according to the North Atlantic Marine Alliance; Skipper Otto is the first in Canada.

In an interview, Skipper Otto’s owner Shaun Strobel says that the biggest threats confronting global fisheries these days are large-scale extraction of fish and regulations that have been designed for larger corporations. By contrast, CSFs promote smaller-scale fishing, sustainable consumption and better prices for fishermen. Besides connecting consumers and fishermen, Skipper Otto is working on developing consumer education workshops on topics such as how to cut fish, sushi cutting, and canning and smoking fish.

Southeast Asian slave labour produces shrimp for Walmart, Costco, others. A six-month investigation by the Guardian has revealed that slave labour is widely in Asia to produce shrimp sold by Walmart, Costco, Aldi, Tesco and other US and UK retailers. Companies such as Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods buy fishmeal for their farmed shrimp from suppliers that own, operate or buy from slave-manned fishing boats. The slaves work 20-hour days and are beaten, tortured and even killed. Rights groups say that the need for cheap labour has been fueled by increased demand from North America and Europe for cheap shrimp and by labour shortages in the Thai fishing sector, and have called on consumers and retailers to demand action from the Thai government. For their part, the US and UK retail chains affected have condemned slavery and pointed to systems they have implemented to track labour conditions.

Global farmland ownership concentrated in a few hands. A UN studysays that the world’s food supplies are at risk because ownership of farmland is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and other wealthy interests. Small farmers grow as much as 70% of the planet’s food but mega-farms and plantations are squeezing them onto less than 25% of the farmland available. According to the UN report, the main reason for the shift is the global expansion of industrial-scale commodity crop farms. In fact, the land area occupied by oil palm, rapeseed, soybeans and sugar cane alone has quadrupled in the past 50 years. This is especially worrisome given that small farms are often more productive and more sustainable than big ones, the report says. “Beyond strict productivity measurements, small farms are…much better at producing and utilizing biodiversity, maintaining landscapes, contributing to local economies, providing work opportunities and promoting social cohesion…”

More coffee beans being grown with fertilizer and pesticides. Despite what looks like a proliferation of shade-grown, organic and other eco-friendly coffees on retail shelves, more and more of our coffee supply is made from intensively produced, sun-grown beans that require synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

As this article from OnEarth magazine describes, just 50 years ago most coffee was shade-grown, a method that doesn’t rely on chemicals and promotes healthier ecosystems that include plenty of pollinators, natural pest control and soil conservation. Today only about 2% of the world’s coffee is shade-grown. Vietnam has become the world’s second largest coffee producer, growing 75% of its beans on unshaded plantations; meanwhile, volatile prices are driving shade-growers out of business in traditional growing regions such as Africa and South America.

What can concerned coffee drinkers in Ottawa do? Buy shade-grown coffee from Bridgehead or Farm Boy. Or help raise money for the Ottawa School Breakfast program by purchasing a bag locally roasted, fair trade, organic, shade-grown, South American artisan coffee from more than 25 retailers, including Rainbow Foods, Thyme & Again, and the The Whalesbone.

What food stories have you been following in the media?

The Food Read Round-up: GM alfalfa launch delayed, plus — food insecurity in the Far North, regional food hubs, and why food sustainability matters to consumers

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair accessible to all. Photo: Toban B. via Flickr

The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of local food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair food accessible to all.
Photo: Toban B. via Flickr


The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

Farmers and consumers force delay in introduction of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa in Canada. Opposition from farmers and consumers has forced Forage Genetics International to delay its plan to release GM alfalfa seeds in Eastern Canada this spring, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

If launched, the seeds would have been the latest in a line of GM products sold in this country. The list includes corn, canola and soybeans and could eventually include GM varieties of apple and salmon. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved five types of GM alfalfa for sale, deeming them to be safe for people, animals and the environment.

The GM alfalfa from Forage is engineered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup, a herbicide farmers spray on their crops to kill weeds. Since alfalfa is a perennial that’s pollinated by insects, the GM varieties would be guaranteed to spread, contaminating non-GM alfalfa and hurting the livelihoods of conventional and organic farmers.

Alfalfa is Canada’s most widely grown forage crop. Besides feeding livestock and dairy animals, it helps enrich the soil and represents $80 million in exports to other countries, many of which don’t accept GM foods.

Visit to find out more about GM alfalfa and how you can help stop its sale in Canada.

Food insecurity affects a disproportionate number of Aboriginal peoples in Northern Canada. A new report on food security* from the Council of Canadian Academies urges Canadians to deal with the disproportionately high levels of hunger and malnutrition among northern Aboriginal peoples. Entitled Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge, the report provides data on the different rates of food insecurity among Indigenous populations, outlines the factors that contribute to it, and explores the health implications, which can include anemia, heart disease, diabetes, child developmental problems and more.

Among the data it presents, the report points to the results of:

  • the 2007-2008 International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey showing that Nunavut had the highest documented levels of food insecurity for any Indigenous group living in a developed country
  • the 2011 Canadian Community Healthy survey indicating that off-reserve Aboriginal households across the country experienced rates of food insecurity more than double those of all non-Aboriginal households

Given the many factors involved, from climate change to cultural and economic realities, the report recommends that Northern communities, governments, business and institutions work closely together to find solutions.

The report uses the widely accepted definition from UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food consumers are making sustainability a priority.  Good news: new research suggests that more North American consumers are making sustainability a priority when they buy food. While safety and nutritional value remain the biggest considerations, the survey shows that at least two-thirds of Americans also take sustainability into account, placing importance on where the food was produced as well as on eco-friendly production and packaging, animal welfare and  GMO-free. About 66% would pay more for food produced closer to home. In Canada, consumers demonstrate similar concerns. According to a 2011 survey from Vision, an agriculture research panel, 95% of Canadians reported that buying locally grown food was important to them while 43% said they would pay more for it.

Regional food hubs catch on. Regional food systems practitioners, supporters and food hub developers gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week for the sixth National Good Food Network (NGFN) conference. It’s another sign of the growing popularity of food hubs. According to a March 22 piece in Food Tank, hubs are the key to scaling up the system for food that’s healthy, eco-friendly, fair and affordable.

What’s a food hub? There are different definitions, but basically hubs are managed locations that bring together food producers, distributors, processors, consumers and other buyers. Food that’s been verified at source as local or regional can aggregated, stored, processed, distributed and marketed. Hubs may also provide space for wholesale and retail sales, social service programs, community kitchens and other food-related activities.

There are an estimated 200 food hubs across the U.S. and many have sprung up in Canada as well. For example, the Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre works to increase access to healthy food   through a comprehensive program that includes a food bank, food and community gardens, a greenhouse, bake ovens and markets, education on sustainable food systems, community cooking, and more. Closer to home, Ottawa’s Just Food Farm is being developed as a community food and sustainable agriculture hub. In Ottawa West, the Torbolton Institute is planning a multi-purpose hub that would combine a community SPIN garden with a food storage facility, farmers market, forest farm, and space for food and recreational activities such as cooking demonstrations.

What food stories have you been reading?

The Food Read Round-up: How does Canada’s food system measure up? Plus, what’s next with GM terminator seeds and why we should celebrate the International Year of Family Farming

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

Canada’s food system came in 25th in a global ranking.
Photo: Torsten Reimer (Flickr)
Creative Commons 2.0 Attibution, Non-commercial


The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

Canada ties for 25th place in world food system ranking

As residents of a safe, prosperous country like Canada, we may assume that we have a top-ranking food system.

In fact, a new report from Oxfam shows Canada’s food system lagging behind that of the UK (13th) and the US (21st), and tying for 25th place along with Brazil, Estonia, Slovakia and Hungary. The rankings were based on four measures: having enough to eat; food quality; affordability; and unhealthy eating. While Canada scored quite well on measures of food quality and affordability, we took a hit in the “unhealthy eating” category, based on high rates of diabetes and obesity.

Netherlands made the number one spot in Oxfam’s ranking, followed by France and Switzerland. Mexico tied for 44th place and China for 57th.

The goal of the report was look at global food conditions and obstacles to eating more healthfully. Despite ample food supplies, more than 840 million people go hungry every day, 2 billion suffer from nutrient deficiencies, and another 1.5 billion are overweight or obese, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food safety system just squeaks through USDA audit

There was more negative press for the Canadian food system this month with the news that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) got the lowest passing grade in a 2012 safety audit by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Problem areas included oversight practices at meat facilities, sanitation and humane handling of animals.

Conducted on the heels of the massive 2012 XL Foods recall, the audit’s goal was to assess whether the CFIA could provide levels of food safety for red meat, poultry and egg products equivalent to US products.  Canada’s borderline grade means that future food exports to the US will face sharper scrutiny than products from countries with “average” or “well-performing” ratings.

The CFIA claims it has since fixed all the problems and introduced a plan to “develop and implement a sustainable internal inspection oversight role that allows for continuous system improvement ” (whatever that means).

Brazilian vote could threaten global ban on GM terminator seeds

Pressured by big corporate landowners and agribusinesses, Brazil’s congress will hold a vote in February on whether to allow biotech companies to sell genetically modified terminator, or “suicide”, seeds to farmers. The seeds are engineered to kill the crops after one harvest, forcing farmers to buy new seeds for each planting, threatening the livelihoods of millions of small farmers and making them dependent on giant seed and chemical companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta.

Right now, use of terminator seeds is banned under a UN treaty signed by more than 193 countries, including Brazil, which is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers. If Brazil overturns its ban, there are fears that other countries will follow suit, resulting in global adoption of terminator technology.

If you’d like to make your voice heard, there’s a SumOfUs petition you can sign.

It’s the International Year of Family Farming

The United Nations has designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. Its goal is to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming, highlighting their roles in providing sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty, improving food security and nutrition, and protecting the environment.  The initiative is supported by the World Rural Forum with support from more than 360 farmers’ and civil society organizations.

There are more than 500 million family farms worldwide. In developing countries especially, they represent 80% of all farm holdings and feed billions of people. Research suggests that by putting local knowledge and sustainable farming methods to work, family farming has the potential to boost yields and create millions of jobs.

Over the next 12 months, you can expect to see media coverage of reports, conferences and other activities focused on the obstacles and opportunities of small- and medium-size farming. For more information on the initiative and its upcoming events, visit sites such as the FAO, the International Year of Family Farming Campaign, the World Rural Forum, Food Tank, Via Campesina and Food First.

What have you been reading about the food system recently?

The Food Read Round-up: Opposition mounting to GMOs and pesticides

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Rallies against Monsanto and GMOs took place in Canada and more than 50 other countries on May 25, 2013.
Photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer, Flickr

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

The genetically modified chickens are coming home to roost. Opposition to foods that contain genes from different species (known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs*) and to the agro-chemical companies that make them seems to be building. Resistance reached new heights over the past few weeks with worldwide public protests and anti-GMO actions from international governments.

At the same time, more evidence has emerged linking the use of pesticides with the decline of honeybees and other food crop pollinators. Scientists, beekeepers and environmentalists are calling for restrictions on these substances and some government bodies have already responded.

The bottom line: awareness is growing that the food system is too important to entrust to agro-chemical corporations and their wares.

Monsanto takes heat from international governments and the public.  It’s been an eventful few weeks for Monsanto.  In the face of staunch opposition from most European countries, the multinational maker of GM seed and the herbicide Roundup has decided to walk away from its drive to expand GM crops in those markets. This means no more lobbying efforts or attempts to seek approvals for new plants. Instead, Monsanto says, it will focus on the handful of European markets where there is broader public acceptance of GM technology, such as Spain, Portugal and Ukraine.

In addition, as the European Union (EU) and the U.S. prepare for trade talks, it’s predicted that Europe could force GM crops off the table entirely – bad news not only for Monsanto, but for agro-chemical competitors like DuPont and Syngenta. European farmers, environmentalists and consumers worry that if trade restrictions are loosened, GM seeds and U.S.-grown GM crops would flood farmlands and grocery stores, jeopardizing human health and natural ecosystems.

But it’s not just Europeans who are turning their backs on GM food products. On May 31, Japan and South Korea suspended imports of some U.S. wheat after a rogue GM strain was found on an Oregon farm.

And while GM corn, soybeans and other crops dominate in North America, pressure for change has been building here, too. On May 25, rallies against Monsanto and its products were held across Canada and the U.S., as well as in 50 other countries. This past week, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law requiring GM foods be labeled. Although there’s a major catch – the requirement won’t take effect until at least four other states pass similar legislation – Connecticut lawmakers are hoping that the precedent they’ve set will persuade others to get on board.

Fourth insecticide added to list of risks to honeybees. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has added fipronil to its list of high-risk insect nerve agents, or neonicotinoids, believed to have contributed to the worldwide drop in populations of honeybees and other insects. Together, these insects pollinate three-quarters of the world’s food crops. In its assessment of fipronil, the EFSA noted that drifting pesticide dust has been found to pose a “high acute risk to honeybees when used as a seed treatment for maize.”  A product of German chemical manufacturer BASF, fipronil is used on more than 100 crops in 70 countries.

The EFSA move came on the heels of an April 29 ban by the European Commission on three other neonicotinoids.

In North America, there are similar concerns about pesticides and pollinators.  Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has linked the pesticides with mass bee deaths during last year’s spring corn planting in Ontario and Québec; beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups have begun calling for restrictions on neonicotinoid use. In the U.S., the American Bird Conservancy wants a ban on the pesticides as seed treatments because of the potential to harm to birds and other wildlife. In March 2013, a group of beekeepers, conservationists, and supporters of sustainable farming sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allowing registration of neonicotinoids without sufficient study.

*Genetic modification is defined by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) as the alteration of “plants or animals at the molecular level by inserting genes or DNA segments from other organisms. Unlike conventional breeding and hybridization, the process of genetic engineering enables the direct transfer of genes between different species…that would not breed in nature.” 

What food stories have you been reading?

Food Read Round-up: Ontario re-introduces Local Food Act, and more on how pharmaceuticals, pesticides and superbugs have made our food system toxic

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Photo: Flickr, thornypup


Earthward is on hiatus for a few weeks due to a family emergency but Tweets will continue at vw_ward

Local Food Act called “stepping stone”.  On March 25, 2013, the Ontario government re-introduced a local food bill that bit the dust last fall when former premier Dalton McGuinty decided to prorogue the legislature. Welcomed as an important first step by local food advocates and food and farm workers, the proposed act aims to build food security and boost jobs in the province.

If the act is passed, the Canadian Environmental Law Association says it will strengthen the local food economy by:

  • making the Minister of Agriculture and Food – who happens to be Premier Kathleen Wynne –responsible for implementing the act and advising the government on local food issues
  • requiring the minister to prepare an Ontario local food strategy
  • providing funding to develop the distribution system for local food
  • requiring the public sector to procure more local, local sustainable, or local organic food
  • encouraging eco-friendly practices farming, goods and services for farmers, and production and processing of healthy food
  • promoting food, agriculture and garden-based educational activities in schools.

Read the draft bill online.

OMA wants ban on antibiotics in livestock feed.  The Ontario Medical Association has called for a ban on the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, citing the worldwide increase in antibiotic-resistant strains of pneumonia, tuberculosis, staphylococcus and other pathogens.

An estimated 80% of all antibiotics solid in the U.S. are added to feed to keep factory farm animals free of illnesses that can slow their growth and reduce their market weights.  (It’s likely the percentage is similar in Canada but no comparable statistics are available.) Poultry, beef, pigs and other animals raised on factory farms live in crowded conditions, close to, or on top of, one another’s waste. The drugs used in feed are similar enough to those prescribed for humans that their overuse can result in “cross-over bacteria” with resistance to human medicines. A wide variety of medical and scientific organizations have expressed concerns on the issue and in the EU, antibiotics in animal feed have been banned since 2006.

In a related story, scientists have found conclusive proof that a drug-resistant superbug (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus , or MRSA) that caused human infections in Denmark actually came from livestock. The findings provide further evidence that routine use of antibiotics in meat and poultry leads to development of superbugs.

Ottawa refuses to say whether drug-tainted horse meat entered food chain. In a March post, I wrote about a scandal in the European Union (EU) which involved the adulteration of beef and beef products with horse meat. Now it appears that Canada has its own horse meat problems. An investigation by The Toronto Star has uncovered major gaps in the country’s system for inspecting horse meat –specifically, meat from the many racehorses sent to slaughter each year.  Racehorses are given performance-enhancing drugs that can be toxic to people who consume the meat, yet Canada has no reliable way to keep the drug-tainted meat out of the food chain. To boot, Canada is a major processor of horse meat, supplying thousands of tonnes of it to Europe and Asia, as well as to Quebec and some Toronto restaurants. As part of the investigation, The Star learned that a former racehorse of Magna’s Frank Stronach had been slaughtered and packaged for human food, despite having recently been injected with a drug linked with bone marrow disease in humans. Neither the slaughterhouse nor the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) would say whether the meat had entered the food system.

Lawsuit seeks to address bee Colony Collapse Disorder and demands EPA protect livelihoods, rural economies and environment. No bees, no food. We all rely on bees to pollinate crops and produce honey but bee colonies are declining thanks to routine use of pesticides on food crops. On March 21, 2013, four beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups in the U.S. filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to protect pollinators such as bees from dangerous pesticides.  The coalition wants to suspend use of insecticides that have been demonstrated as toxic to honey bees and major contributors to colony collapse disorder (CCD). 

The pesticides involved — clothianidin and thiamethoxam — are “neonicotinoids,” a newer class of systemic insecticides that are absorbed by all parts of a plant. Neonicotinoids have been used heavily since the mid-2000s, at the same time as beekeepers started observing widespread cases of CCD.  

What food stories have you been reading?

The Food Read Round-up: What are we really eating?

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

If there’s a theme to the food news of the past few weeks, it’s that what you see is not what you get when it comes to processed food.

In Canada, it turns out that the nutrition labels we count on to make informed food choices are based on information that’s decades out of date. In Europe, more products advertised as beef have been found to contain horsemeat, pork, and other undeclared meats. In the U.S., former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America were charged with 76 counts of fraud and conspiracy for their role in the 2009 Salmonella peanut butter outbreak. To cap it off, two new food industry exposés hit the market: Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by food safety journalist Melanie Warner, and Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us  by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael Moss.

While there are no easy fixes for an industrial food system that’s spiraling out of control, there are two things we can do as consumers. One is to eat fewer processed products and more real, whole foods. The other is to support a shorter, more transparent food supply chain by buying from local producers whenever possible.

Take food labels with a grain of salt.  Dietician and cookbook author Rosie Schwartz took aim at the accuracy of Canadian nutrition labels in February 22 op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen. When Canadians read food labels, Schwartz wrote, most of us don’t know that the information on daily recommended values, or % DV, is 30 years old and seriously out-of-step with recommendations Canada and the U.S. developed in the mid-2000s based on age, sex, and life stage.

Here’s just one example of how the outdated information gap affects consumers. Although the current recommendation for sodium is 1,500 mg per day, the figures on food labels are based on the old recommended limit of 2,400 milligrams per day. So if you eat two cups of soup with 650 mg of sodium in each, you may think you’re slightly over half of your daily sodium quota but in fact you’re close to the maximum of 1,500 mg.

Health Canada is looking to update its nutrition figures, a process that will take two to three years. But that hasn’t stopped them from launching a Nutrition Facts Education Campaign based on the old figures.  If – as the department claims – it wants to educate Canadians about the Nutrition Facts table and % DV, why not use the latest information? As Rosie Schwartz says: “Congratulations Health Canada.”

“Sh*t, Just Ship it”: Felony Prosecution for Salmonella-Peanut Executives.  In 2009, peanuts contaminated with Salmonella sickened 714 people in 46 U.S. states; one quarter of them were hospitalized and nine died. On February 24, 2013, former executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) were charged with 76 counts of fraud and conspiracy for knowingly distributing the contaminated nuts. Prosecution doesn’t happen in many cases of foodborne-illness. Why here? Part of the reason, says food safety journalist Maryn McKenna, is that the behaviour of PCA’s officials was so flagrant. In addition to being negligent, they were responsible for deliberate deception, including falsifying origin labeling and lab results. According to the indictment, PCA president Stewart Parnell instructed an employee who warned that a product would be delayed until the results of Salmonella testing were available: “Sh*t, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”

Horsemeat Scandal. The scandal that erupted January 15 shows no sign of fading, with horsemeat having now been found in beef and beef products in at least 14 European Union (EU) countries. Brands such as Ikea (their signature Swedish meatballs), Burger King, Nestle, Bird’s Eye, and many others have been affected. Criminal activity is believed to be behind the fraud, with the perpetrators taking advantage of global food’s long, complex supply chains that make it difficult to trace ingredients to their source. This infographic published in Food Safety News, shows the scandal at a glance.

Big Food exposés. Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal goes behind the scenes in the $1 trillion-a-year industry to learn more about really goes into what we eat and how we’ve developed such an appetite for foods that are cheap, addictive and nutritionally empty.  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss argues that food company scientists work hard to get people addicted to inexpensive convenience foods; our soaring rates of diabetes and obesity are among the consequences. You can find reviews and discussions with the authors at Huffington Post, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, and Democracy Now!, among other sources.

What food and farming stories have you been reading?

Photo: J.P. Goguen, Flickr

Food read round-up: Connecting food, water, energy and climate

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Food read round-up is a semi-regular post that highlights food/farming stories from around the world to add perspective on Ottawa’s sustainable local food scene.

You don’t think of institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as big sustainability advocates. But unlikely as it seems, the heads of these two organizations recently linked future prosperity to environmental sustainability and urged swift action on climate change. In particular,

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde noted that “good ecology is good economics” and made headlines with her statement that “unless we take action…future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether or what action will be taken. But it’s encouraging to see some economic bigwigs acknowledge the ecology-economy connection. Interestingly, the connection theme cropped up in several food and farming stories in the past few weeks.

 Knowing the nexus.  Two reports released in January highlight the interplay among food production, water and energy. Using – or misusing – one affects all the others, often in ways that can’t be foreseen. Add climate change and population growth to the mix and the uncertainties are magnified. The draft National Climate Assessment focuses on extreme weather events and their impact on human health, ecosystems, water supplies, energy facilities and our ability to produce a stable, adequate supply of food. Food, Water, Energy: Know the Nexus, a publication of the GRACE Communications Foundation, argues that, to create a more sustainable future, we need to understand the nexus – in other words, the point at which food, water and energy intersect. For commentary on these reports, try The Agricultural Fulcrum: Better Food, Better Climate and Climate Science Watch.

Food + fracking. Recent media stories have uncovered the links between hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – and the food we eat. Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from rock by injecting it with pressurized chemicals.  Practised across Canada and in the U.S., fracking has come under fire for contaminating groundwater and drinking water and boosting carbon emissions. In The Surprising Connection between Food and Fracking, Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott examines another aspect of the process: more natural gas from fracking will supply more of the nitrogen used in conventional farm fertilizers.  As Philpott points out:  “If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.”

Also worth reading:

 Top source of food poisoning? Leafy greens. Great – just what we wanted to hear. According to a study released by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five foodborne illnesses are attributable to leafy greens – more than red meat, poultry, fruits or dairy. The good news is that these illnesses were not the most dangerous (that distinction went to poultry).  Also that, as long as we handle (i.e., wash or cook) our greens properly, we shouldn’t stop eating them. Figures from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) show that there are about 11 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year in this country.

Can small farms benefit from Wal-Mart’s push into local foods?  Vowing to double its local produce sales by 2015, Walmart has moved aggressively to get local farmers on board in Canada and the U.S. This story from Harvest Public Media doesn’t investigate the situation in Canada, but for the moment it looks as if the main beneficiaries of the retail giant’s local food strategy are a small number of producers who’ve changed their business model to suit Walmart, and of course, Walmart itself.

What have you been reading about food and farming?


Food read roundup: Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and more

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

As you’d expect at this time of year, most media coverage of food issues has centred on reviews of last year’s trends or forecasts for 2013. In that category, I’ve picked two opinion pieces that I think offer particular insight. The past few weeks have also seen the issue of food waste finally get attention, while an unexpected controversy has emerged about soaring consumer demand for quinoa, the Andean super-grain.

Marion Nestle on food policy in 2013. She’s talking about U.S. food policy here, but since what happens south of the border often affects Canadian industry, consumers and policymakers, it’s worth including. Besides, this is Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. A professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, she has become one of the most respected and independent commentators on food safety. Nestle calls it as she sees it, and in The Potentially Transformative Year Ahead in Food Policy, she predicts a more eventful 2013 now that the U.S. is out of election mode. Among other things, she predicts: FDA approval of genetically modified salmon (these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama); more pressure to label genetically modified foods; continued efforts to control childhood obesity through size caps and taxes on soda, and; a bigger push from grassroots groups to “create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet.”

Mark Bittman on priorities and patience. Among the opinions on how to fix the food system this year, Mark Bittman’s January 1 column in the New York Times stands out for me. In it, the well-known journalist, author, and sustainable food champion counsels anyone who wants to reinvent the way we produce and consume food to set clear goals, accept failures as part of progress, and above all, to recognize that meaningful change takes time. A long time. Civil rights, the vote for women and other major social advances have taken decades, even centuries, to fully accomplish. By the same token, it will take time to dismantle the current, complex industrial food system and replace it with one that’s better for our physical, social and environmental health. “Nothing affects public health…more than food,” says Bittman. (Let’s just hope that we have the time that’s required and don’t get pre-empted by climate change.)

Billions of tons of food waste. Thanks to an early January report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in the U.K., the massive scale of the world’s food waste has become a hot topic. According to the report, anywhere from 30% to 50%, or about 2 billion tons, of food gets tossed out before it reaches our plates. The IME report attributes global food waste to factors such as Western consumers’ insistence that food look perfect, as well as BOGO promotions and overly strict best-before dates. These practices keep food from the hungry, use up significant natural resources, and jeopardize our ability to feed the world’s steadily growing population, the IME says. The waste theme was echoed in a Globe and Mail story on possible food price hikes in 2013, which concludes that readers need to become more aware of their food-waste habits and find more creative ways to use leftovers.

The quinoa controversy. There really is one. And it’s noteworthy because it underscores the potential for conflict between the demands of consumers in affluent countries and the needs of people in developing countries. In a nutshell, super-nutritious quinoa has become so popular in North America and the UK that its price has tripled, making the grain unaffordable for low-income people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador — the countries that grow it and rely on it as a dietary staple. The issue has quickly become polarizing. For example, the past week saw the Guardian’s Joanna Blythman claim that quinoa has become a “troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange” while others, such as the Ottawa Citizen’s Elizabeth Payne, argued that all the angst is misplaced and that Andean farmers will benefit in the long run.

What have you been reading  about food lately?

Great reads about food and farming

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Food safety, sustainable food, urban farming, food security, food justice: they’re all getting media attention these days. Starting with this post, Earthward will round up some of the most compelling stories about the food system in Ottawa, across Canada and around the world. While the round-ups will only represent a fraction of what’s out there, my goal will be to include a range of stories that reflect the varied ideas, people and initiatives that make up the sustainable food movement.

Access to food key to good health. The Ottawa Citizen’s Joanne Chianello looks at the possible link between health and the distance to the nearest grocery store in her coverage of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study. Ottawa Public Health wants to help with poor food access and is already doing so by assisting programs such as the Good Food Box and Good Food Markets for underserved areas. In the meantime, the Ottawa Board of Health has approved a strategy to help overcome obstacles to accessing healthy food.

Grass-fed, natural beef? It’s likely no safer. In her November 21 feature in The Globe and Mail, author and locavore Sarah Elton explodes the myth that grass-fed, naturally-raised, local beef is necessarily safer than mass-produced hamburger meat. While there are lots of great reasons for buying meat raised without antibiotics and using low-impact farm methods, the risks of contamination remain, Elton says.

Large urban farm to take root in Windsor. In this latest example of farms transforming decayed urban space, Windsor, Ontario businessman Van Niforos plans to turn an old trolley yard into an integrated urban farm and restaurant. Already a restaurant owner, Niforos and his business partners will build a 3,000 square-foot greenhouse to grow tomatoes and other produce for the restaurant. In the longer term, they hope to expand and include an outdoor farm and a rooftop orchard.

Obama’s Game of Chicken. The November-December issue of Washington Monthly features an outstanding piece of journalism by Lina Khan on how the Obama administration tried to stand up for independent poultry, cattle and dairy producers but retreated in the face of Big Agriculture.  As the article shows, weakened anti-trust laws and the return of monopolies in food production and processing have reduced independent farmers to the status of sharecroppers – if that. The story focuses on the U.S., but similar forces are at work in Canada.  A long article, but worth it.

CIW vs Publix: Remembering Farmworkers on Thanksgiving. This year, Thanksgiving in the U.S. was marked by a week of grassroots action to urge grocery chains such as Publix to work towards a Fair Food Agreement. Fair Food activists, along with The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization working with immigrants in low-wage jobs, want the abolition of field slavery (yes, it still exists), payment of a living wage and fair treatment for tomato farmers in Florida. The CIW and Fair Food have made big strides since they began more than a decade ago, signing agreements with brands such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Aramark and others. As a major buyer of Florida tomatoes, Publix has refused to work with the CIW on an agreement that would pay farmworkers a penny more per pound and establish fair labour practices.


Have you read any stories about food you’d like to share?