10 things we should do to fix our broken food system

10 things we should do to fix our broken food system

Columnist, Food  Washington Post reprint

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was the Dr. Seuss classic “If I Ran the Zoo,” in which young Gerald McGrew decides he wants none of the humdrum lions and tigers and bears. Instead, he’ll fly to Ka-Troo and bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo. My fondness for that book-length Seussian fantasy of control was an early indication that I like being in charge — which could explain why I am a freelancer and an atheist.

As a nod to Dr. Seuss, I wanted to write my “If I Ran the Food System” column in anapestic tetrameter, but nothing rhymes with “crop-neutral insurance,” so I had to stick to prose.

Tamar Haspel writes Unearthed, a monthly commentary in pursuit of a more constructive conversation on divisive food-policy issues. She farms oysters on Cape Cod.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten ideas about food from a lot of people who grow it, regulate it, supply it, cook it, study it and just think about it. And the list of potential improvements, from farm to table, is long. But making the changes necessary to fix the problems in both our agriculture (pollution, greenhouse gases, soil erosion) and in our diets (too few vegetables, too many calories) requires a fundamental shift in attitude. We all have to pay attention to things that haven’t been on our radar. And so, although there are many smart suggestions floating around, I’m focusing on 10 that have a ripple effect: changes that, with luck, will beget other changes that, ultimately, can change the zeitgeist.

Because some problems began decades ago, with government incentives that rewarded production of just a few commodity crops, I’ll begin with what government can do and follow with ideas for manufacturers, consumers and farmers.

Food stamps subsidize recipients’ purchases of food — almost all foods, even unhealthful ones. 

Develop a best-practices standard. Right now, the only USDA-certified standard defines organic crops. And, while that’s an important way for producers with a focus on naturalness to find customers, every agricultural expert I’ve spoken with says it’s not an optimal standard for environmental health. Farmers are experimenting with cover cropping, no-till, precision agriculture and lots of other strategies to reduce runoff, conserve water and cut greenhouse gas emissions. If we can codify best practices, and certify the crops of farmers who use them, those farmers can attract customers willing to pay more for foods grown that way.

[What we need is a standard beyond organic]

Move to crop-neutral insurance. We are disproportionately subsidizing crops that form the backbone of what public-health experts are telling us to eat less of: processed foods and meats. We should keep helping farmers reduce risk through insurance premium help, but eliminate the supplemental programs that support commodity crops, primarily corn and soy.

[A rallying cry for a crop program that could change everything]

Overhaul SNAP. If we want to move away from subsidizing farmers for growing what’s not healthful, we should consider the same idea at the consumer level as well. Scrap the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps), which is a cash subsidy for buying foods — almost any foods, even unhealthful ones — and reinvent it as a program that ensures Americans have access to healthful foods in their time of need. (That’s how the Women, Infants and Children program — WIC — works). And, along with it, perhaps recruit some food people — lots of us either write about or cook food for a living — to volunteer to teach classes. Let government food assistance be a ticket not just to the healthful foods we all should be eating more of, but also to help with figuring out what to do with them. That would also create demand in some “food deserts,” where wholesome foods are less available — an important step in righting that imbalance.

Teach food in schools. Over and over, I’ve heard that it’s very hard to change adults’ habits but not quite so hard to change kids’. Start ’em young, learning what’s good and what isn’t. Consider bringing back home ec, which helped generations of kids ( mostly girls) learn to cook. How about making farm visits a standard part of the curriculum? And a slaughterhouse visit a standard class trip for high school seniors?

healthy foods

fresh fruits and vegetables

Consumers can make more-informed choices if food manufacturers and vendors help with clear labeling. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)
Food manufacturers

Food manufacturers do a lot of things I take issue with. I’d like to see more-healthful products on the market. I’d like to see kids exposed to less advertising and less nutrition-free food. I’d like to see fewer products marketed as healthful when they aren’t; the new Cheerios Protein, with 18 percent more protein but seven times the sugar, stuck in my craw.

But consumers have an obligation, too. At the end of the day, someone has to buy it. If we all buy what’s bad for us and balk at what’s better, it’s tough for even well-intentioned manufacturers to change. And so I’ll confine my wish list to two:

Use sourcing as a selling point. This is beginning to happen, as more companies ask farmers to reduce antibiotic use, let chickens out of cages and eliminate gestation crates, so they can give concerned consumers a way to support those practices. Unilever is one of many companies going further, looking to source from farmers who comply with a more rigorous set of standards; it hasn’t been easy, and it won’t be easy for other companies. If there’s a best-practices standard (see above), though, and companies aren’t left to develop their own, perhaps it’ll get easier. Consumers can’t vote with their wallets unless there are better choices to be had.

Label everything. The only way consumers can vote for those better choices is if they know what goes into products. How was the broccoli grown? How was the pig treated? The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently announced an initiative that would put QR codes with hundreds of product attributes on tens of thousands of products, and I’m cautiously optimistic. I also hope the QR solution will put the ongoing debate about GMO labeling — something I’ve long supported — to bed. Knowing that something is genetically modified isn’t particularly helpful unless you know how it’s genetically modified. Disease-resistant or herbicide-tolerant? Boilerplate language on the box can’t get into such detail, but information accessed via QR Codes can. And codes can be made accessible by putting scanners in stores.

[Is the fight over GMO labeling worth it?]

One way consumers can get closer to food: Grow something.

Vote with your wallet. Look for those labels and buy the products that align with your priorities. Create a demand for products grown with best practices. Food companies respond to consumer demand. Farmers respond to food companies’ buying practices. We have the power to spark change in the entire chain.

Get closer to food. Grow something. Anything. Plant some herbs in a window box or a tomato plant in a pot. It’s particularly important if you have kids. We all need a reminder that food begins with a plant that turns sunlight into energy. I don’t have a scintilla of evidence to support this, only my own experience, but I’ve found that spending time with those plants makes the bright-colored boxes in the center aisles of the market seem less like food. Spend time with animals, and you end up giving more thought to the lives they lead. Raising (and killing) my own livestock has also forever cured me of wasting any part of an animal.

Cook. You’ve heard it so many times that I won’t elaborate.

[How to get people to cook more]

Many farmers need to make changes that will benefit the planet, and some will need help to make that happen. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Farmers are the interface between planet and people. No matter what the rest of us do, the environmental impact of farming is in the hands of the people who are actually doing it. It is a breathtaking responsibility, and the farmers I’ve talked to take it very seriously. Everyone agrees that reducing pollution, safeguarding soil and sequestering carbon are important, but no one knows how to do that on any particular farm, or particular field, better than the farmer. I’m sure not going to be the one to tell her what to do.

My list is, instead, a way to give farmers the help they might need to make changes. Create a market for crops and animals raised with attention to the rights of farmworkers, the welfare of animals and the impact on the planet. Make what benefits all of us benefit farmers, too, by creating a standard that allows them to charge a little bit more for products raised according to higher standards. And, on the flip side, stop creating incentives to grow a few commodity crops at as high a capacity as possible, with insufficient attention to environmental repercussions.

Farmers have to grow what people will buy, and the cost of improvements that benefit the environment have to be shared among us all.

Know Your Farm Sources

Know Your Farm Sources

Come to the table. Just about every food person I’ve talked to, from every perspective, wants a more inclusive, constructive conversation. Over and over, the people most engaged in our food system have told me some variation on what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told me: “Food should be uniting.”

What has been most interesting and eye-opening to me in the two-plus years I’ve been writing Unearthed is spending time with people who disagree with me. It has made me acutely aware of my own biases (we all have them) and impatient with the tenor of the public conversation. So, to have a better conversation in 2016, consider spending more time with people you disagree with. Surely, if you’re a GMO proponent, you know an opponent you could have lunch with. Organic advocate? Spend time with a conventional farmer. Expand your social media circle to include “them.” Mute anyone who routinely calls names or hurls insults.

If you’re part of the food industry, and a member of an organization that gathers people together to talk about food at conferences and events, invite some outsiders. When everyone in the room sees the world in the same way, progress is unlikely. It’s harder to believe people are greedy, or duplicitous or anti-science when you sit down together with a beer and discover you both like fishing, or Portugal or “Zoolander.”

Local Fresh non-GMO produce

Local Fresh non-GMO produce

That last one’s particularly important because it doesn’t cost anything to implement. It requires no particular expertise. It has no downside.

Which brings me to an important point about lists like this. Just as Gerald McGrew doesn’t have to worry about exactly how he’s going to get to Ka-Troo to capture his Proo, or how he’s going to feed it, or what kind of climate control it’s going to need, journalists playing “If I Ran the Zoo” don’t have to worry about what it’ll take to implement these changes, and they don’t have to live with the consequences.

I don’t run the zoo. And, although I’m not short on hubris, mine doesn’t extend to believing I can sit at my desk and give the people who do run the zoo a definitive guide to doing their jobs better. They are ideas, some of which have originated with people in a zoo-running capacity, and all of which have some mainstream buy-in. They are a starting point.

Here’s hoping that the new year brings us more constructive public debate, and progress on improving what and how we grow and eat.

6 Things to Know About the EPA’s New Pesticide Rules

6 Things to Know About the EPA’s New Pesticide Rules

The agency has updated its pesticide protections for the first time in nearly 25 years. Will the people behind our food be any safer?

For the first time since 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has updated the pesticide protections it requires for the more than two million people who plant and harvest our food. The new protections, which will go into effect in early 2017, could be a game-changer for American farms and workers.

Pesticides can cause a wide range of adverse health effects, including skin rashes, nausea, and headaches, birth defects, reproductive disorders, and increased risk for certain types of cancer, and learning and behavior problems for children whose mothers were exposed while pregnant.


Pesticide Poisoning

Nonetheless, U.S. farms use over 900 million pounds of pesticides [PDF] each year. The EPA estimates that approximately 10,000 to 20,000 farmworkers are diagnosed with pesticide poisoning and between 1,800 and 3,000 occupational pesticide exposure “incidents” are also reported every year.* Ensuring that fewer people are exposed to these farm chemicals could make agricultural work much safer.

Here’s what you should know about the new rules:

1. The New Rules Will Protect Young People.

The rules will set a minimum age of 18 for workers handling pesticides. “This is particularly important,” Migrant Clinicians Network director of occupational and environmental health Amy Liebman told Civil Eats. While young children are particularly vulnerable, new research suggests that teens are also sensitive to pesticide exposure.

Until now there was been no age limit, and children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, as long as they’re with their parents. Now, those under 18 will also be barred from entering areas treated by pesticides for 48 hours (4 hours for greenhouses). This age limit, however, does not apply to a farm owner’s family members.

2. Farms Must Provide More Training and Information.

Under the new rules, workers will have to be trained annually rather than once every five years as under the old rules, and before they work where pesticides have been used in the past 30 days. Previously, “a worker could begin work without being trained. That’s very important,” says Liebman.

learning new science

Learning New Science

Training will also be expanded “to include how to reduce taking home contamination,” explained EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, on a recent press call. And information about pesticide hazards will have to be posted in a central workplace location in both Spanish and English.

Employers will also be required to keep specific records of pesticides applied along with farm worker training information for two years, making it easier to better track any violations and help enforce compliance with these rules.

3. Farms Have to Provide More and Better Gear.

Farms will now also have to provide all their workers with personal protective equipmentcomparable to what the Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require in other in other industries. For example, respirators will have to fit properly and be used effectively.

Employers will also now have to provide specific amounts of water on site to ensure workers can wash up properly after handling pesticides and for emergency decontamination.

4. Whistleblowers Will Be Protected.

The new rules include a new anti-retaliation standard. This, explained U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, will enable farmworkers to be “more free to speak up when they witness safety violations.” The rule will allow farmworkers to submit confidential complaints about safety violations involving pesticides without fear of losing their jobs as a result. This is particularly important in an industry with many workers on short-term employment contracts and as United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez said, “this allows even undocumented workers to protect themselves.”

The new rule will also allow a “designated” representative of farmworkers, such as a family member access to pesticide application information kept by employers for medical reasons

5. Farmworker Advocates are Applauding the Change.

The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by farmworkers and by farmworker and environmental advocates. Rodriguez called it “a dream come true.” Farmworker Justicedirector of occupational and environmental health, Virginia Ruiz called the improvements “vital.” And Earthjustice senior legislative representative Andrea Delgado told Civil Eats, “We’re glad the EPA finally took steps to close the historical inequity” between farmworkers and other workers.

“The same rules that have protected other American workers from dangerous cancer- and birth-defect causing pesticides are finally going to protect farm workers under the new EPA regulations,” said UFW’s Rodriguez.

“I can’t stress how important this is to real lives and real people every day,” said Farmworker Association of Florida pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator Jeannie Economos.

6. Despite the Change, There are Still Critics on Both Sides.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) have both questioned the new rules’ costs and benefits. The new rule, said the ARA, “is based on unfounded assumptions.”

For one, the AFBF objects to the “designated” representative provision, saying it will be “an open door for anti-pesticide activists to use the rule to further an agenda that has little to do with worker safety.”

And while most farmworker advocates say the new rules are a big step forward generally, some, including Earthjustice, had hoped for even stronger restrictions on reentering pesticide-treated areas.

Some advocates had also asked EPA to require on-site showers for decontamination but EPA did not include that in the new rules. “The bottom line is, in other industries, these [showers] are available,” Liebman told Civil Eats.

Another measure that farmworker advocates had hoped for was ongoing medical monitoring. According to Liebman, the EPA explained that there were enough protective measures in the new rule and that medical monitoring would be too expensive for the results it would yield.

Ongoing medical monitoring of workers exposed to hazardous chemicals “is a well practiced public health” measure, Liebman says. It can identify “subclinical” exposure levels—before symptoms become problematic—and prevent people from becoming overexposed.

This rule also comes at a time when many widely used pesticides are coming under increased scrutiny for their health effects. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen and California has now proposed adding glyphosate, along with three other pesticides, including malathion, to its list of state-designated carcinogens.

The American Farm Bureau Federation begs to differ. “The EPA has finalized a rule that imposes greater costs and obligations on farmers. The agency’s benefit assumptions appear to be little more than theoretical, while the costs are real,” said AFBF’s director of environment and energy policy Paul Schlegel via email. Yet according to EPA Administrator McCarthy, the new rule “will not adversely affect our nation’s farms.”

The bottom line? “No one should ever have to risk their lives for their livelihoods,” said Perez. And as McCarthy put it: “We will not turn our backs on the people that feed this nation.”

*These numbers don’t include many unreported illnesses, nor the children and other family members exposed indirectly.

Unhealth Eats – Hot Dog with unlabeled ingredients

Unhealthy Eats – reprint from Food Network Healthy Living Blog-hot dog with unlabeled ingredients

First, a recent “genomic” analysis by the online food guide Clear Food determined that 14 percent of the 345 different hot dogs and sausages sold under 75 brands it examined contained either ingredients not listed on the label or had “hygienic” issues, in which a “non-harmful contaminant is introduced to the hot dog.” What’s more, 2 percent of the samples were found to contain human DNA. (Ew.)

Vegetarians get no bragging rights, though: Two-thirds of the vegetarian frankfurters tested contained human DNA, and 10 percent of all vegetarian products tested were found to contain meat — be it chicken in a vegetarian breakfast sausage or pork in a veggie hot dog.

Still, some major brands fared better than others: Butterball, McCormick, Eckrich and Hebrew National received especially high marks, as did some regional and specialty brands.

Now, on the heels of that alarming news, comes reason for frankfurter fans to feel even more fearful: On Monday, the World Health Organization announced that bacon, hot dogs, sausage and other processed meats “probably” cause cancer — and that red meat likely does so as well.

The WHO’s conclusions were based on an in-depth research analysis of more than 800 studies conducted by a panel of 22 international experts. The panel considered research that showed that eating an additional 3.5 ounces of red meat daily boosts a person’s colorectal cancer risk by 17 percent and that consuming an additional 1.8 ounces of processed meat each day raises it by 18 percent, as well as studies suggesting that diets high in processed meats contribute to 34,000 cancer deaths annually worldwide.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” Kurt Straif, of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which produced the report, said in a statement. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

While the association was strongest for colorectal cancer, the WHO panel said that consumption of processed meats may elevate the risk for pancreatic and prostate cancers as well. Consequently, the group suggested that, although red meat has “nutritional value,” its findings support public-health recommendations that consumption of it be limited.

The North American Meat Institute called the WHO report “dramatic and alarmist overreach” and characterized it as simplistic.

“Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health,” the meat industry group said in a release.

More information about health diets can be found from Twitter Foodimentary

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.