November 15, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Food Stamp Diets, Warsaw Worrying, and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Too much, too little. The Washington Post ran this sobering story about quality over quantity in the “food stamp diet.” This piece follows families in South Texas as they try to eat on a food stamp budget and find that even with an excess of low- or no-nutrition calories, they still go hungry. Here’s what the reporter has to say about the Rio Grande Valley: “For one of the first times anywhere in the United States, children in South Texas have a projected life span that is a few years shorter than that of their parents.” The article raises good questions about whether and how government should be involved in managing the options of items available for purchase with SNAP dollars. Is restricting the use of SNAP to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages and the kinds of junk food described in this article similar to banning smoking in public places? Or, as some anti-hunger advocates argue, is it applying paternalistic and disempowering pressure on the poor?

New USDA certification may open overseas markets. Looking to help animal producers who have lost market share overseas, the USDA has announced a certification program, assuring Russia and other countries that US beef and pork is free from growth promoting drugs. According to Food Safety News, the “Never Fed Beta Agonists” label (beta agonists like ractopamine, which is fed to hogs, promote weight gain and increase muscle mass) would allow US pork and beef back into closed or restricted markets in Russia, South Korea, China, and Taiwan. It’s been over 10 years since Russia said “nyet” to the importation of meat containing ractopamine. We still allow its use in the US.

Warsaw, Lima, Paris. On Monday, representatives of more than 190 countries gathered in Warsaw, Poland, to debate how to deal with climate change beyond 2020. According to this Washington Post story, not much is expected to happen at this conference; instead, “these talks have been described as sessions that will lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for 2015 talks in Paris.” The 2014 talks will happen in Lima, and by 2015 in Paris, a global accord should be finalized. There have been increasingly dire warnings about missing our window for halting climate change before reaching a tipping point where non-linear, and probably catastrophic, effects will occur.

Unsafe salads. This USA Today story tells us about the 90 tons of prepackaged salads and sandwich wraps that have been recalled because they may be contaminated with the O157:H7 strain of E. coli that causes severe illness in humans, including the hemolytic-uremic syndrome. So far the products have been linked to 26 patients in three states. The salads contained cooked chicken, but it’s rare to find E. coli on chicken—it could be the greens themselves that are contaminated, but the CDC has not yet sorted that out. E. coli O157:H7 usually originates in beef or dairy cattle and has been traced to the alterations in acidity in the large intestine resulting from the grain diets routinely used in industrialized food animal production. My bet is contaminated irrigation water for the fields growing salad greens.

Obama and Big Meat. In this Mother Jones story, Tom Philpott uses the “landmark” 2008 Pew report on the state of industrial food animal production (IFAP) and CLF’s follow-up assessment from last month to indict the Obama administration’s failure to curb the abuses that take place on factory farms. Once again giving us a list, Philpott illustrates the five ways in which Obama has gone easy on the livestock producers who jeopardize the environment and human health with their profit-guided practices.

Take-down of GDP as a measurement. Earlier this month, CLF friend Vandana Shiva penned an essay for The Guardian about how our obsession with economic growth eclipses our concern for sustainability, justice, and human dignity. When Ms. Shiva delivered our 2009 Dodge Lecture, she spoke about how biodiverse organic farming increases traditional knowledge, improves nutritional content of foods, helps alleviate poverty and protects against environmental damage and climate change. Now if we could only find a sufficient number of politicians with backbone to legislate the policy changes to support this approach to producing our food.

The Swiss are not so tidy? Last week the New York Times ran this rather sad story about how Switzerland’s litter problem is putting livestock in peril. As the reporter says, “The idea of cows dying of litter hit a nerve.”

New food system class at the Bloomberg School. I’m pleased to announce that CLF’s Roni Neff and Meg Bullamore will lead the inaugural session of a new course offered by the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, titled Food System Sustainability Practicum. This course will run in the fourth quarter; students may register in February 2014.

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