‘Ethical eating’ has taken the food world by storm, but the farms that produce most of our food have changed very little. Thank goodness. Ten years on, it is hard to think of a book that has influenced the public conversation on food more, and Pollan in his foreword is too modest about the impact of his masterpiece. As a farmer, I’ve participated in this discussion, in the same way a pig participates in a pig roast, though I should be clear that the pig roast is a metaphor, because no dedicated disciple of Pollan would ever attend such an event — unless the pig had a backstory complete with pastures, bucolic nature, local origins, and a life worthy of E. B. White’s Wilbur. In the wake of Pollan’s blockbuster success, the main course on the food movement’s menu has become the “industrial” farmer, a farmer like me, who specializes in only a couple of crops or animals and uses the latest technology to grow his wares economically. Although identified with the political Left, the movement Pollan inspired is profoundly conservative, if one defines conservatism as a nostalgia for a romanticized past that existed only in children’s storybooks and in the reminiscences of forgetful farm wives. Pollan today is happy that he’s helped move “the question at the heart of [his] book” to the “heart of our culture.” That’s quite an accomplishment for a journalist whose only experience in agriculture is the four years he spent writing the book. Clearly, as Pollan notes, the public was already questioning the food system as it existed in 2006. But as I sit here on my front porch, surrounded by the kind of “monoculture” that food activists detest, I’m struck by how little has changed in the process by which genetically modified seed hits heavily fertilized soil. We’re still raising corn and soybeans, even more than we did in 2006. In fact, in 2016, farmers planted 94 million acres of corn in the United States (as Pollan himself notes), up from the 78 million we planted in 2006. Soybean planting has increased from 64 million acres to more than 80 million acres.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the supermarket shoppers have very little understanding of what it takes to release a hen from a cage and most do not even understand what “cage-free” actually is; but then neither do I. There are free range systems, aviary systems and birds on the floor of a house like the broiler breeders inhabit today and likely some other arrangement that I have not yet encountered. Regardless of the system, a change to cage free is not simple. The number of birds that can be maintained must be significantly reduced or a new, larger facility must be constructed. If a farmer has the land to expand, he must plan not only for the building but for the birds. Thus far, retailers still have plenty of the less expensive eggs available, so they have no reason to rush to achieve the cage free status in advance of the promised deadline. So, until we are approaching the magic year of 2025, there is no rush to pay a higher price.
Organic farming should be in a Golden Age. The public is already spending $13,000,000,000 on organic food in the U.S. alone, and margins have shown to be much higher. I have long wondered why everyone doesn't switch to organic farming. It's that pesky free market. The GMO and pesticide apocalypse we were assured is just around the corner never actually came to pass. Over 100 billion animals have eaten genetically-engineered food over 20 years and we've seen no difference in the animals, their meat or their milk. Meanwhile, in that 20 years, notes The Economist, we've had up to 60,000,000 dead kids from malnutrition. Thanks, environmentalists. And farmers who have switched looking for a big payday haven't seen it comes to pass. They say all the right things about eco-friendly pest and soil management practices, they do the paperwork and pay for the sticker, they pay for toxic organic pesticides instead of toxic synthetic ones - and then it turns out processors they sell to don't actually want to pay more. Organic farmland remains stuck at around 1% because organic food itself is for the 1% - it is lots of things; a lifestyle, a world-view, a way of self-identification and being distinct from the peasants - but it is not a mass movement. Vermont was able to get a warning label law passed on foods containing GMOs because, well, it's Vermont, and they exempted everything that might annoy people there, like alcohol and restaurants and the Whole Foods deli counter. In the rest of the country, unprompted, only 7% of the public cares whether food is mutagenesis or hybrid or RNAi or GMO or kosher or free-range or shade-tree grown. Over half of Americans think the organic label is just a scam, a way to charge more for nothing. They may be right, if you look at all of the exemptions that organic lobbyists have created under which you can still claim to be "organic." The public has Label Fatigue, as anyone in a California store or hotel or coffee shop can tell you, with the warnings about BPA and Prop 65 and pregnancy. And the market for lettuce, which is the big organic seller, is only so large. The public does not care about organic corn at all, despite that being the top GMO product, and they can't buy an organic banana. When General Mills announced Cheerios were going GMO-free, sales went down, not up. Now that company is trying to incentivize farmers to switch to organic also, so that it might bring the cost lower.
Soylent, Silicon Valley's favorite meal-replacement drink, is using the boogeyman of ingredients in its product. And no, it's not people. The startup, which has attracted a cult following with its convenient powders and ready-to-drink bottles designed to replace eating actual meals, is made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But are GMOs harmful? The makers of Soylent don't think so. And guess what? Scientists agree. As the company's founders write, "GMOs currently on the market provide ample cases of tangible benefit with relatively negligible risk."
Sanderson Farms is going on the offensive against consumer perceptions antibiotic-free birds are better than conventionally raised animals. Sanderson Farms wants consumers to know the truth about chicken. On August 1, the Laurel, Mississippi, integrator announced the launch of an advertising campaign taking on the concept that broilers treated with antibiotics are inferior to antibiotic-free birds.
In a letter sent out yesterday, anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith says "Labeling GMOs was never the end goal for us. It was a tactic. Labels make it easier for shoppers to make healthier non-GMO choices. When enough people avoid GMOs, food companies rush to eliminate them. Labeling can speed up that tipping point—but only if consumers are motivated to use labels to avoid GMOs. Although this is clearly a defeat in our campaigns for getting mandatory labeling in the United States, we are still winning the bigger, more important effort to ELIMINATE GMOs from the market altogether."
Whole Foods Market says it's "America's Healthiest Grocery Store." Now, the grocery chain is looking to update its slogan to reflect a loftier moniker: "World's Healthiest Grocery Store." Unfortunately for the grocer's efforts, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently rejected its application to register that slogan. Whole Foods will have six months to update and refile the case and may choose not to do so, although that seems unlikely.
Consumers are reminded not to eat uncooked dough or batter made with raw flour. Due to four new confirmed illnesses, General Mills is adding additional flour production dates to the previously announced U.S. retail flour recall that was originally announced on May 31, 2016. The illnesses reported to health officials continue to be connected with consumers reporting that they ate or handled uncooked dough or ate uncooked batter made with raw flour. No illnesses have been connected with flour that has been properly baked, cooked or handled. The addition of new flour production dates is the result of General Mills conducting proactive flour testing and new information from health officials who are using new whole genome sequencing techniques to trace illnesses. E.coli (several sub-types) has been detected in a small number of General Mills flour samples and some have been linked to new patient illnesses that fell outside of the previously recalled dates. At this time, it is unknown if we are experiencing a higher prevalence of E.coli in flour than normal, if this is an issue isolated to General Mills’ flour, or if this is an issue across the flour industry. The newer detection and genome sequencing tools are also possibly making a connection to flour that may have always existed at these levels.
A recent survey showed twice as many consumers view bacterial foodborne illnesses as their top food safety concern as those who topped their list with chemicals, carcinogens, antibiotics use in food animals or GMOs. Consumers were asked to choose and rank their top three food safety issues from a list. Here are the percentages of respondents that ranked the items below as the most important food safety issue today: 29 percent: foodborne illness, 15 percent: carcinogens,14 percent: pesticide residues, 12 percent: chemicals in food, 11 percent: food additives (caffeine, MSG, flavors, colors, preservatives)n 8 percent: biotechnology (GMOs)n 7 percent: animal antibioticsn 5 percent: allergens in food
A leading critic of federal food and agriculture policy believes the GMO disclosure bill passed by Congress this month is a fair compromise that is likely to have little impact on consumer food choice.Tom Colicchio, co-founder of Food Policy Action and a judge on the Bravo series Top Chef, says he thinks his fellow activists were mistaken in opposing the bill, which would allow companies to disclose biotech ingredients through digital, QR codes as an option to on-package text. Colicchio said, “It was a big mistake for some of these anti-GMO folks to just completely roll over and say we got killed here … Right now everything is so politicized that if you don't get 100 percent of what you're after it's failure.”