Category Archives: Food Policy

Permalink to Farm Bill Hackathon

Farm Bill Hackathon

Earlier this month, Food & Tech Connect brought together 120 people in-person and virtually to participate in a “hackathon” for the Farm Bill. During a 12-hour period, teams brainstormed new tools and visual aids to educate the public about the farm bill and related food issues.

First prize went to “FARM BILL of Health.” You can view the presentation below. It simplifies Farm Bill spending by showing how the government disproportionately subsidizes the foods it recommends to the public in its new MyPlate food pyramid.

Facts shared from the presentation:
  • $72 billions dollars is spent every year on food-related illnesses (e.g. diabetes, obesity, cancer)
  • $33.1 billion spent on commodity crops (e.g. corn, soy, wheat)
  • 4.3 billion spent on specialty crops (e.g. fruits, vegetables, nuts)
A Clean Bill of Health

View more presentations from FoodTechConnect

Permalink to Food, Politics and Wendell Berry

Food, Politics and Wendell Berry

Politics is one of those contentious topics most people don’t like arguing about. But regardless of party affiliation, the food we eat is becoming increases singly political topic. A recent blog post by Slow Food USA puts this issue front and center:

“Changing food and farming is political (not to be confused with partisan)—and by that we mean it has to do with issues of power and inequality. It raises questions about who controls our infrastructure and who has limited choices because of it, who defines the dominant culture (fast food vs. slow food, diverse or not?), who stays well-nourished and who is hungry or suffering from a diet-related disease.

The reality is that industrial agribusiness and government policies have more control over what farmers grow and what we eat than we do! Basta ya! Over the past decade, we’ve started to take back the power one meal, one non-GMO crop, one Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at a time. But we’re fighting a continuous uphill battle—and it isn’t right. This is our moment to level the field, to change the food system from our plates to our policies.”

While digesting this concept, I also simultaneously read some of Wendell Berry’s beautiful essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.”

“I begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture. They think of themselves as “consumers.” If they think beyond that, they recognize that they are passive consumers. They buy what they want — or what they have been persuaded to want — within the limits of what they can get. They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged. And they mostly ignore certain critical questions about the quality and the cost of what they are sold: How fresh is it? How pure or clean is it, how free of dangerous chemicals? How far was it transported, and what did transportation add to the cost? How much did manufacturing or packaging or advertising add to the cost? When the food product has been manufactured or “processed” or “precooked,” how has that affected its quality or price or nutritional value?”

If eating is an agricultural act and the government controls most agricultural policies in this country, then there’s no getting around the fact that food is political. We can no longer be the “passive consumers” Berry writes of. Instead, we must pay attention, engage and make choices that support the the food future we want. Sometimes the phrase “vote with your fork” can seem meaningless. Does it really matter which eggs I buy or if the spinach is local? It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your small actions don’t matter, but they do.

Permalink to Animal Welfare and the Revolution of Meatless Mondays

Animal Welfare and the Revolution of Meatless Mondays

“Our generation should be able to look back and say we took the side of the vulnerable.”

-Paul Shapiro, Humane Society

On November 12th I attended “Ethics and Your Plate,” an inspiring seminar at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History sponsored by Go Vegan Santa Barbara and the National Museum of Animals and Society. The speakers brought a range of expertise on matters of animal welfare, factory farms and sustainable agriculture. Fresh off feeling somewhat melancholy that all we seem to be doing is preach to the choir, I left feeling newly inspired about what we can accomplish together to change the food system.

Paul Shapiro from the Humane Society spoke about animal welfare and gave an overview of animal rights in this country. Pets in the U.S. have a certain amount of legal protection, with several states making abuse of animals a punishable crime. Farm animals, on the other hand, have almost no legal protection whatsoever. This makes them vulnerable to a host of unacceptable abuses.

Interestingly, he cited a survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau in Oklahoma where results showed that Americans care deeply about the way the animals they eat are treated during their lives (e.g. 95% said it is important that animals are well cared for; 75% would vote for laws requiring better treatment). Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between the way we feel and how we shop for our meat. The reason? Consumers simply don’t know what they’re eating and what takes place at factory farms.

Paul, a committed vegan, is interested in “common ground campaigns,” or issues that vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike can come together and agree on. He cited 1) banning factory farm practices and 2) reducing the number of animals raised and killed as the two campaigns to pursue to do the most good.

Progress has already been made on many states, but he spent some time recalling the 2008 Prop 2 campaign in California which required animals to have basic human rights including the ability to lie down, turn around and extend their legs. People from all walks of life came together that year to support animal rights. Religious leaders, public health workers, vegans and meat eaters, all believed that our animals deserved better. The proposition passed by a 63% vote, the largest majority than any other state initiative to date.

I was able to speak with Paul after his presentation and he told me that he felt the Meatless Monday campaign is one of the best ways to promote change in our food system. But it can’t only be in our individual homes. Meatless Monday needs to take hold at an institutional level, so that means corporate cafeterias, school lunch rooms and restaurants should collectively promote this effort which would ensure that millions of Americans have at least one meat-free day per week, saving approximately 1.4 billion animals per year from a life on factory farms.

I appreciated his optimism and practical application to an overwhelming topic. I immediately felt more confident not only in my own food choices, but in the possibility to significantly reduce the practice of factory farming in this country. Following are a few more facts from the day you may find interesting

  • North Carolina is the second largest pig producer in the country, but you could drive through the entire state without seeing a pig due to factory farm practices.
  • 1 million animals are slaughtered every hour in the United States; 10 billion are slaughtered each year
  • Due to feed and waste automation, the average amount of time a pig experiences human contact per day is 8 seconds

Permalink to Food Dictionary 101: GMOs

Food Dictionary 101: GMOs

Many buzzwords fly around in the food industry, sometimes without clear definitions. After glazing over a few acronyms, the average consumer can move on feeling overwhelmed instead of educated. Food Dictionary 101 is a new series to help demystify some of the common terms that you often hear, and help give some context to their meanings. First up: GMOs.


Definition: GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

History: GMOs have a history dating back to the 1900s when European plant scientists began using Gregor Mendel’s genetic theory called “classic selection” to manipulate plant species. It wasn’t until 1987 that the first genetically engineered crops (tomato and tobacco) were conducted in the United States. By 1994, the FDA declared that genetically engineered foods did not require special regulation and were “not inherently dangerous.”

GMOs today: Today, GMOs remain largely unregulated and are found in 80% of packaged foods in the U.S. Forty countries (including European Union nations, Australia and Japan) have significant use limitations or complete GMO bans.

The most popular genetically modified foods are cotton, canola, soy and corn. Other ingredients are being experimented with, including Atlantic salmon by AquaBounty who spent 16 years and $67 million developing the fish.

In January 2011, the government approved the unregulated planting of bioengineered alfalfa, along with two other bioengineered crops—sugar beets and a type of corn used in ethanol production. This prompted retaliation from the organic community. Alfalfa is a key source of feed for cows and is inextricably linked to milk, often considered the gateway product for families new to organic foods. Genetically engineered crops certainly have the capacity to drift into nearby farmland and jeopardize organic crops.

The debate over GMOs is in full-force and many organizations are fighting for regulations and labeling. In 2007, labeling GMOs was one of President Obama’s campaign promises (watch the video here) that has yet to be fulfilled.

Get Involved: It takes just a few seconds to add your name to a petition organized by Food Democracy. If you want to avoid GMOs in your food, go organic. USDA certification states that “irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms” are not used in organic products.

News around the web

The Daily Beast | Political Battle over Genetically Modified Foods (10/12/11)

Grist | What do you know about GMOs? (10/12/11)

Slow Food | Food Crisis as Kenya Opens its Doors to GMOs (11/3/11)

Food for Thought

"To care about food but not food production is clearly absurd." // Wendell Berry

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