Tag: food

USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

Want Better Tomatoes? Add Carbon Dioxide and a Pinch of Salt!

Who isn’t nuts about fresh tomatoes plucked from a garden at the peak of ripeness? And who doesn’t bask in the adulation of those to whom we give them?

According to work recently published by Maria Sanchez-González et al. (2015), the more years you garden, the more tasty your tomatoes are likely to get, as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. And, if you add a pinch of salt to the soil, they’ll taste even better.

Here’s the story:

The authors note “the South-Eastern region of Spain is an important area for both production and exportation of very high quality tomatoes for fresh consumption.” This is primarily due to favorable growing conditions such as a mild climate, good soils and saline waters that promote “exceptional fruit quality of some varieties,” including the Raf tomato hybrid. However, Sánchez-González et al. additionally note that, “despite the high value of Raf tomatoes in the Spanish national market, their productivity is relatively low and the consumer does not always get an acceptable quality, often because the fruit growth conditions, mainly thermal and osmotic, were not adequate.” Against this backdrop, the team of six researchers set out to determine if they could improve the production value of this high value commercial crop by manipulating the environmental conditions in which the tomatoes are grown. To accomplish this objective, they grew hybrid Raf tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv. Delizia) in controlled environment greenhouses at two salinity levels (low and high) under ambient (350 ppm) and elevated (800 ppm) CO2 concentrations. Then over the course of the growing season, and at harvest, they measured several parameters related to the growth and quality of the hybrid tomatoes. And what did their analysis of those measurements reveal?

Human Ingenuity and the Future of Food

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

Capitalism Defused the Population Bomb

Journalists know that alarmism attracts readers. Just yesterday, an article in the British newspaper The Independent titled, “Have we reached ‘peak food’? Shortages loom as global production rates slow” claimed humanity will soon face mass starvation. Just as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb  predicted that millions would die due to food shortages in the 1970s and 1980s, the article from yesterday tried to capture readers’ interest through unfounded fear. Let’s take a look at the actual state of global food production.

The alarmists cite statistics showing that while we continue to produce more and more food every year, the rate of acceleration is slowing down slightly. The article then presumes that if the rate of food production growth slows, then widespread starvation is inevitable. This is misleading. Let us take a look at the global trend in net food production, per person, measured in 2004-2006 international dollars. Here you can see that even taking population growth into account, food production per person is actually increasing:

Global Warming and World Food Security

In a recent study to come out of China, Liu et al. (2014) write “food security under the changing climate is a great challenge for the world,” noting it has been stated by Porter et al. (2014) in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report that “the negative impact of global climate warming on crop yield is more common than the positive impact according to the data from the past fifty years.”

That’s not true. Crop yields continue to rise, to the consternation of many, at the exact same rate that they have been rising at since the end of World War II. Even more telling, Liu et al. report studies based on historical data for the past several centuries suggest just the opposite, i.e. that “climate warming is good for crop harvests while climate cooling is bad for crop harvests in the world’s main crop production areas such as Europe (Braudel, 1992; Parker and Smith, 1997; Holopainen and Helama, 2009; Zhang et al., 2011) and China (Zhang, 1996; Ge, 2010; Su et al., 2014) in the temperate region.” They conclude “the current lengths of studies used to evaluate climate impacts on agriculture are too short to detect long-term trends.”

In making their case, the five Chinese scientists employed proxy data-based climate reconstructions that indicate that the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) had warm climates comparable with the present, citing in this regard the study of Ge et al. (2003) that shows a strong periodicity in China temperatures. They additionally note that within this primarily warm climate regime, there were imbedded temperature variations—with cooling segments of inter-annual, multiple-decade and century-scale magnitude—which enabled them to assess crop yield responses to both heating and cooling from information provided about food availability in numerous historical documents that have been brought together in several historical compilations that deal with various aspects of China’s past, including Wang (1955), Wei et al. (1973), Li (1974), Liu (1975), Ouyang et al. (1975), Sima (1975), Dong (1985), Wang et al. (1985) and Song (2008). What did they thereby discover?

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

‘New Food Safety Bill Could Make Things Worse’

That’s not just my view; that’s the view of writer Barry Estabrook, an ardent critic of the food industry (“Politics of the Plate”), writing at The Atlantic. You needn’t go along completely with Estabrook’s dim view of industrialized agriculture to realize he’s right in one of his central contentions: “the proposed rules would disproportionately impose costs upon” small producers, including traditional, low-tech and organic farmers and foodmakers selling to neighbors and local markets. Even those with flawless safety records or selling low-risk types of foodstuff could be capsized by new paperwork and regulatory burdens that larger operations will be able to absorb as a cost of doing business. (Earlier here and here.)

Things could reach a showdown any day now. The food safety bill had stalled in the Senate under criticism from small farmer advocates, as the New York Times acknowledged the other day in an absurdly slanted editorial that somehow got printed as a news article. Now Harry Reid is talking about forcing the bill through before the midterms. Significantly – as advocates of the bill trumpet – large foodmakers and agribusiness concerns have signed off on the bill as acceptable to them. Well, yes, they would, wouldn’t they?

I was on TV the other week (Hearst news service) trying to make a few of these points. I borrowed my closing line from an excellent Steve Chapman column, which I was unable to credit on air, but can credit here.