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New Tech Venture Seeks to Tackle Global Food Crisis

But one of the big names behind Farm2050 is a little troubling.
New Tech Venture Seeks to Tackle Global Food Crisis

It pretty much goes without saying that over the past generation, the tech industry has revolutionized the way we live in ways both big (um, the entire Internet) and small (ordering pizza through your Xbox). But one enormous area of supreme significance to human existence has, to a fair degree, been left out of the tech revolution: agriculture.

Now a coalition led by Innovation Endeavors, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s venture capital fund, and hardware tech firm Flextronics Lab IX is looking to change that. Dubbed Farm2050, the collective aims to “support AgTech startups with capital, design, manufacturing, and test farms to try out their innovations,” all in a bid to stave off a global food crisis.

As Lior Susan, Flextronics’ Head of Lab IX, tells TechCrunch: “It’s still not sexy to do agriculture. You don’t see IPOs and big acquisitions that pull Sand Hill into the game.” (For those not versed in Silicon Valley–speak, “Sand Hill” is shorthand for the road that’s home to a bunch of prominent venture capital firms.)


Dror Berman, managing director of Innovation Endeavors, adds: “You see a concentration where 90 percent of entrepreneurs are focused on 10 percent of the problems. Agriculture has been really underserved. You can build a ton of technology companies here that really matter.”

That all sounds great. After all, you probably don’t need to peruse the gloomy predictions of global policy wonks to know that the human population isn’t declining, while the amount of arable land isn’t getting any larger. Estimates vary about just how dire the situation is: The Farm2050 website says we’ll need to increase food production by 70 percent to feed the world’s expected population in 2050, ten billion people, while the World Bank puts those numbers at 50 percent and 9 billion. Then there's the recent National Geographic report that says we’re looking at a 100 percent increase in production to feed 9.5 billion people.

No matter which set of stats you choose, the numbers don’t look good.

So why not put the collective genius that has given us everything from next-generation smart-grid technology to manage the nation’s power supply to next-day delivery of your Chia SpongeBob from Amazon to work solving one of humankind’s greatest dilemmas?

Here’s what gives me pause: As sleek and seductive as the Farm2050 website is, it's maddeningly vague on specifics. In particular, it gives no theoretical framework for what sort of criteria it might use to select which ag-tech start-ups to support. That may be a sort of open-ended invitation intended to encourage all ideas, but it would seem any discussion of how the world might feed an additional 2 to 3 billion people would have to take into account how we might do it without destroying the planet in the process.

Despite plenty of green on the Farm2050 website—an extreme close-up of a leaf, a hand cupping green beans—there’s nary a word about environmental sustainability being a factor here, which gives it a whiff of the kind of greenwashing you find on big agribusiness websites. What do you know? Lo and behold, the ag industry giant DuPont is one of Farm 2050’s signature partners.


DuPont is the world’s third-largest chemical maker and a major developer of GMO crops. It is, in short, one of the “big six” multinational companies that essentially dominate global agriculture. As the Pesticide Action Network puts it:

Between them, Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont control the global seed, pesticide and agricultural biotechnology markets. This kind of historically unprecedented power over world agriculture enables them to control the agricultural research agenda; dictate trade agreements and agricultural policies; position their technologies as the ‘science-based’ solution to increase crop yields, feed the hungry and save the planet; escape democratic and regulatory controls; subvert competitive markets; and in the process, intimidate, impoverish and disempower farmers, undermine food security and make historic profits—even in the midst of a global food crisis.

Those companies were the tech wizards of their day, unleashing on the world a “green revolution” that promised a worldwide bounty of record-breaking crop yields through the wonders of industrialized agriculture. But dumping hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on farmland caused significant damage. It turns out, for example, that the increasingly heavy assault of pesticides and herbicides is killing off key pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies, while the nitrous oxide that forms through use of nitrogen-based fertilizers is a potent greenhouse gas. As Jonathan Foley writes for National Geographic, “Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined.”

Thus, without some sort of baseline criteria that might make the environmental ramifications of any future ag technologies an important consideration—or better yet, setting forth as a key objective the development of technologies that could both increase our global food supply and mitigate agriculture's huge environmental footprint—Farm2050 flirts with repeating the mistakes of the past: namely, letting the dazzle of tech innovation blind us to the laws of unintended consequences.

Conservatives Want to Take People's Food Stamps Away—Again

Meanwhile, a new report shows why low-income Americans need the program now more than ever.
Conservatives Want to Take People's Food Stamps Away—Again

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a time of year when the thoughts of many Americans turn to those less fortunate. Conservatives on Capitol Hill, emboldened by the Republicans’ outsize victory in the midterm elections, have turned their thoughts in that direction too—though their attention is one of the few things struggling Americans don't need.

“It’s never too early to start on the next farm bill,” Rep. Mike Conaway, the next chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told Politico. Considering that the legislation won't be up for renewal until 2019, the Texas Republican is taking preemptive aim at one of conservatives’ favorite love-to-hate federal programs: food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).


You may recall the bruising and painful debate over the last farm bill earlier this year—and in particular, the aggressive campaign by conservatives in the House to cut a whopping $40 billion from SNAP. Conaway was among the majority in the House that voted for $20 billion in cuts, an amount that got reduced to $8.6 billion in a compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But while politicians continue to focus on the price tag of the social safety net, a new report released this week by Oxfam America and Feeding America adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that what should be an oxymoron in the richest country on earth—to be working poor—has instead become an intractable way of life for millions. 

The new report offers a portrait of the Americans who must resort to private food charities like food banks to feed their families every month. “While many of us think of those using food banks as destitute or homeless, the reality is much different,” the authors write.

Despite such signs that hunger is a concern for a broad swath of voters, politicians like Conaway can’t wait to slash away at SNAP, although he’s careful to couch his bloodlust in the rather bloodless bureaucrat-ese conservatives so often use to downplay their radical agenda.

“We ought to do a soup-to-nuts review of the entire program,” he told Politico. “What works? What doesn’t work? Are there moral hazards baked into the system? Where can the system do a better job? You spend $80 billion [per year] on a program, it ought to work.”

Never mind the program is working. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Its error rates stand at record lows; fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.”

Still, as Conaway’s allusion to “moral hazards” suggests, conservatives are obstinate in their belief that the food stamp program is rife with cheats, and a shadowy horde of Americans are loafing about, gobbling up hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

“What I’d like to be able to say is, at the end of the effort, that the food stamp program is now judged on the success basis, not on how long you can stay on the program,” Conaway told Politico. In other words, success should be determined by how fast SNAP beneficiaries “can get off [the program] and get back on their own two feet and take care of their families.”

There’s only one problem with that timeworn, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps logic: Conaway and his fellow conservatives are making it increasingly hard, if not impossible, for low-income Americans to do just that.

According to the Oxfam–Feeding America report, some 54 percent of all households that sought help from a food pantry or the like had at least one member who had been working in the last year; 20 percent had at least two members who were employed. Yet only 17 percent of households with full-time employment were able to earn more than $30,000 in a year.

Who are these people? They’re single mothers like Noel, who manages a fast-food restaurant full-time and also attends school while struggling to raise her three kids. Or single dad Derek, who works in security for the St. Louis transit system. Or Cary and Nick, who are both ski patrollers in Portland, Oregon, and the parents of two kids. “Despite the fact that each of us worked and worked hard, we did not have the resources to buy our children the nutritious, healthy food they needed to grow strong,” Cary says in the report, talking about the couple’s decision to seek help at a local food pantry. “It was difficult to walk through those doors. But ultimately it was about my children and my family’s future.”

Then there’s Jeff and his wife, both college educated and raising their two kids in North Carolina. During the recession, the only work Jeff could find was a minimum-wage job. “I was lucky to have any work at all, but minimum wage isn’t enough to support a family of four,” Jeff says. “We tried to trim our budgets anywhere we could, but we still couldn’t find the money we needed to feed our kids.”

Jeff’s family qualified for SNAP, and like half of the households with employed adults that responded to the survey, they receive food stamps (in addition to relying on private charities). Jeff even echoes Conaway when he says, “Food stamps are a critical resource that help families like mine get back on their feet again, and on the road to a better life.”


The dismal reality, though, is that for many Americans, that road is in as bad a shape as our ever crumbling infrastructure.

“Compared to other wealthy nations, the United States has the highest proportion of workers in low-wage jobs,” the Oxfam–Feeding America report states. “Overall, since the recession, lower-wage jobs have grown by 2.3 million while medium- and higher-wage jobs actually contracted by 1.2 million.” The U.S. Labor Department predicts that nearly half of the 15 million jobs the economy is likely to add over the next decade will be low-wage.

This is the dirty little secret of our lumbering economic recovery, which goes a long way toward explaining why, despite falling unemployment rates, the rate of food insecurity among U.S. households has remained stubbornly high, close to the dramatic spike that occurred after the economic collapse in 2008.

Analysts say raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would lift 5 million or more of the nation’s working poor out of poverty—but don’t count on conservatives like Conaway to get behind that anytime soon.

Is Eating Out Really Less Healthy Than Home Cooking?

A new study says yes—but the difference might be less than you think.
Is Eating Out Really Less Healthy Than Home Cooking?

If you need another way to convince yourself not to order takeout for the second or third night this week, science may be here to help. In addition costing more, eating out regularly may be more unhealthy than cooking at home. 

In a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who regularly cooked at home consumed fewer calories and carbs on average, as well as lower amounts of fat and sugar.


“If a person—or someone in their household—cooks dinner frequently, regardless of whether or not they are trying to lose weight, diet quality improves,” wrote authors Julia Wolfson and Sara Bleich, both of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This is likely due to the relatively lower energy [i.e., calorie], fat, and sugar contents in foods cooked at home compared with convenience foods or foods consumed away from home.”

What with the steady drumbeat of criticism leveled at restaurant chains by nutritionists and public health advocates for the often outlandish, gut-busting concoctions that populate menus these days (“Bruléed French Toast”—need I say more?), such findings hardly come as a shock. And consumers seem to have gotten the message: A survey released last year found that, for the first time, consumers were citing health concerns as their number one reason for eating out less, as opposed to budget constraints. Another report from the industry consulting firm NPD Group found the number of Americans eating at restaurants in 2014 has dipped to a 20-year low, despite the ecomonic recovery.

But what might be most surprising about Wolfson and Bleich’s findings is that the nutritional difference between home cooking and restaurant fare is not as hefty as you might think.

To come up with their results, Wolfson and Bleich crunched data from the 2007–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of those behemoth polls that asks a legion of participants a bunch of nosy questions about their diet and excercise habits. In this case, there were more than 9,000 participants, aged 20 or older.

The researchers found that just under half of those surveyed—48 percent—cooked dinner almost every night of the week. For 8 percent of respondents, it was essentially the exact opposite: On average, they cooked dinner one night a week or less.

Those who cooked at home most frequently consumed a daily average of 2,164 calories, 81 grams of fat, and 119 grams of sugar. Those who apparently use their kitchen counter primarily to collect junk mail averaged 2,301 calories, 84 grams of fat, and 135 grams of sugar a day.

Thus, people who ate out several times a week consumed an average of 137 more calories, 3 additional grams of fat, and 16 more grams of sugar. 

What does that equate to in the real world? Well, a single Nature Valley chewy granola bar (vanilla yogurt, to be exact) has 140 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar. That’s hardly the whopper of a difference you might have expected.


Wolfson acknowledged that the study didn’t consider what people meant by “cooking” when they said they cooked at home, according to the account in Time of her presentation at the APHA meeting. And as last month’s NPD report “Eating Patterns in America” puts it, “Americans now get eight out of 10 meals from home, but that does not mean that we are cooking more meals in our home.”

“You can see how Americans are making their lives easier, despite the economic limits, by looking at the foods and beverages that have become a part of more American diets,” NPD Group vice president Harry Balzer said in a release. “The real ‘Foods of the Decade’ are not hummus, quinoa, nor kale, and not even Sriracha.” Rather, they’re proccesed convenience foods eaten in the comfort of your own home instead of in a restaurant.

Among the seemingly disparate group of top 10 foods and beverages NPD found Americans consuming more of, there are some that seem healthy enough (yogurt, bottled water, fresh fruit) but more that aren’t (pizza, frozen sandwiches, potato chips and, oddly, store-bought pancakes).

“What’s the real preparation to consume these 10 items? A spoon for the yogurt and maybe a fork and knife for the pancakes!” Balzer says. “We are still leaving the cooking to others.”

So while it would be woefully premature to let America’s restaurant chains off the hook for their contribution to the ongoing obesity crisis, perhaps the next frontier is convincing Americans that what they think of as “healthy home cooking” may not be much more healthy at all.

Can We Eat Our Way Out of Global Warming—and Get Healthier Too?

Researchers put science behind the claim that what’s good for you is good for the planet.
Can We Eat Our Way Out of Global Warming—and Get Healthier Too?

America’s steady diet of red meat and junk food, and its rising popularity around the world, isn’t just killing off people—it’s strangling the planet.

That’s the message at the heart of a study published this week in the journal Nature, in which researchers from the University of Minnesota examined the impact of global diet trends on public health in relation to their impact on climate change.

While the notion “what’s good for you is good for the planet” has long fueled any number of environmental campaigns (not to mention Madison Avenue’s efforts to hawk everything from laundry detergent to face soap), there previously had been little effort put into scientifically establishing the link.


Indeed, as the study’s lead author, G. David Tilman, a professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, tells Civil Eats, “This is the first time this data has been put together to show these links are real and strong and not just the mutterings of food lovers and environmental advocates.”

That may not be 100 percent true—see, for example, the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health from 2011—but Tilman’s analysis nevertheless reinforces how insane it is for the world to keep adopting America’s penchant for burgers and fries.

Even as President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made global headlines this week by vowing to curb or limit their countries’ respective greenhouse gas emissions, Tilman shines a spotlight on what has long been ignored by the greater public as a significant source of climate change–causing pollution: agriculture. In the U.S., farming accounts for 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, but some of those pollutants are a real doozy, such as the methane emitted by cattle (which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and the nitrous oxide that’s generated when chemical fertilizer is applied to soil (some 300 times more potent).

If current trends continue, with rising affluence around the world leading to more people adopting an American-style diet, Tilman estimates that by 2050 we could see an 80 percent increase in annual greenhouse gas emissions related to food production, from 2.27 gigatons to 4.1 gigatons.

The reasons for this are legion, including more land cleared to raise the copious amounts of sugar that fuel the American processed-foods industry. But when you’re talking about agriculture and climate change, much of the discussion invariably centers on meat—in particular, beef.

As the Environmental Working Group has charted, bringing a single kilogram of beef to your dinner table generates 27 kilograms of global warming pollution. Compare that with, say, just 1–3 kilograms for an equivalent amount of food such as beans, nuts, and vegetables.


Thus, it comes as little surprise when Tilman concludes that if, instead of embracing the global proliferation of American burger joints and the like, humanity veered to a more plant-based diet, the global warming pollution associated with food production would essentially flatline in the coming decades, even accounting for the rise in human population.

We’d all be much healthier too. Tilman finds that a vegetarian diet reduces the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 41 percent; a diet that includes fish yields a 25 percent decline; and the so-called Mediterranean diet (lots of fruits and vegetables and seafood, with some meat) is associated with a 16 percent drop.

Likewise, these diets have been linked to a reduction in your risk for death from heart disease by 20–26 percent, and a 7–13 percent reduction in cancer risk.

While this is not news to anyone inclined to click on the latest diet-related headlines, that Tilman is explicitly linking diet with health and climate change is big news—in the sense that it gives us the sort of bigger picture we all should be considering, even as we answer the humdrum question of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight.

From Ginger Crust to Sriracha Sauce, Pizza Hut Tries to Save Itself by Piling On the Flavors

And you thought getting everyone to agree on a pie was complicated before.
From Ginger Crust to Sriracha Sauce, Pizza Hut Tries to Save Itself by Piling On the Flavors

Watching Pizza Hut try to recapture its market mojo has been a bit like watching the first half of an episode of Kitchen Nightmares—only there’s no Gordon Ramsay to punctuate things with a few choice epithets before stepping behind the stoves and saving the day.

For eight straight quarters, the nation’s largest pizza chain has been hemorrhaging sales, losing out to rivals Domino’s and Papa John’s. Thus, you can imagine there’s a bevy of Pizza Hut execs down at headquarters in Plano, Texas, who have taken to reflexively touching their necks, just to make sure the ax hasn’t fallen.


Heaven knows they’ve tried to reinvigorate the ailing brand. But the effort has at times seemed like a schizophrenic approach, one that’s ranged from test-marketing purportedly low(er)-calorie Skinny Slice pizzas to unleashing their own calorie bomb, the Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza, in the long-running fast-food arms race to concoct the most outrageous gut-busting fare.

Now the struggling chain is pulling out all the stops in a desperate bid to woo the next generation of consumers, who apparently are all waiting in line at Chipotle for somewhat healthier and somewhat more sustainable burritos. How desperate? Three words: honey-Sriracha sauce.

That Johnny-come-late-to-the-flavor-party topping is just one of six new base sauces that will be available starting Nov. 19, according to The Associated Press, along with garlic-Parmesan, “premium crushed tomato,” and tried-and-true marinara. To round out the reboot, Pizza Hut is rolling out those aforementioned Skinny Slice pies nationwide.

Although Sriracha would seem to have jumped the shark around the time it made its way into a Lay’s potato chip, its inclusion on the new Pizza Hut menu is indicative of what passes for innovation at mega chains: Exhaustively analyze the market appeal of some trend, and then spend months devising your own take on it so that by the time you roll out the product, it’s already stale.

In addition to the six sauces, customers will be able to choose from an expanded offering of crust flavors, including fiery red pepper and salted pretzel, as well as limited-edition doughs like Curried Away and Ginger Boom Boom.

To multiply the matrix of choices even further, Pizza Hut will also be adding an unspecified number of new toppings, such as banana peppers, cherry peppers, and spinach—while trying to make you think it has added even more via a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, “rebranding” its black olives, for example, as “Mediterranean black olives” and its red onions as “fresh red onions.”

To top it all off, you can also choose from four flavor “drizzles,” such as balsamic or buffalo.

The chain is going for something of an image makeover too, with an updated logo and new “uniforms” for employees. Good-bye, black slacks and polo shirt; hello, T-shirt and jeans. Eating at Pizza Hut is just like hanging out at your chill cousin's place, the one who makes those crazy pizzas.


As the AP points out, the dizzying array of choices that will now be offered at your local Hut are apparently an effort to capitalize on a larger meta-trend in restaurant ordering: Customers, especially up-and-coming millennials, want at the least the illusion that they’re able to customize their order to suit their individual tastes. This has been a key factor behind the success of newer chains such as Chipotle, according to industry experts.

Of course, when you order a Chipotle burrito, you’ve got no other palate to contend with but your own. One wonders if in its frenzy to pile on the flavors, Pizza Hut took into account the reality that ordering a pie is typically a communal experience. To dramatically expand the range of options would seem to transform that experience into an exhausting game of Diplomacy, wherein strategic alliances of taste buds are forged or broken, negotiations break down over which drizzle to choose, and a weary, hungry table settles on something everyone can agree on. Pepperoni and cheese, anyone?

A Sushi Master’s Lament—and the One Fish You Should Always Avoid

Jiro Ono says his craft may be changed irrevocably by declining seafood stocks.
A Sushi Master’s Lament—and the One Fish You Should Always Avoid

When a famous chef speaks out to warn the dining public about the dire straits of the world’s fisheries, that’s hardly news. “Sustainable seafood” probably ranks just behind “wild-caught” as the descriptor of choice on the menu of your average haute eatery these days. But when that chef is the most renowned sushi master on the planet, people listen.

“I can’t imagine at all that sushi in the future will be made of the same materials we use today,” Jiro Ono said in an appearance this week. “I told my young men three years ago, sushi materials will totally change in five years. And now, such a trend is becoming a reality little by little.”


The 89-year-old chef isn’t just a guy speed-wrapping raw salmon in seaweed at some corner joint and slapping down a dollop of Kermit-green faux wasabi on the side. The subject of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ono, owner of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, is more like a sushi god. Those fortunate enough (with an emphasis on the “fortune”) to land a spot in the 10-seat restaurant are only too eager to plunk down the equivalent of $265 for 20 pieces of sushi bliss. When President Obama ate there last April, he reportedly said it was the best sushi he’d ever had.

There’s a poignant sadness to Ono’s declaration, the quiet melancholy of an old man who has spent his life perfecting his craft only to realize that the world as he knew it may be gone forever.

Indeed, that very poignancy may be more affecting than the steady drumbeat of desperate warnings that have been issuing from environmental groups for years about our oceans’ plummeting fish stocks. Let’s hope so, because in reality, for all his heartwarming octogenarian charm, Ono is pretty late to the game here.

As a recent press report on Ono’s comments relates, one of President Obama’s faves during his stop at Sukiyabashi Jiro was the chu-toro, or medium fatty tuna. According to Ono’s son, Obama “winked when he ate it.”

Of all the species that the world’s love affair with sushi have pushed to the brink, it’s bluefin tuna, or toro, that appears most at risk. 

Whether you think it was a sign of conspicuous consumption gone mad, a publicity stunt, or a depressing sign of the bluefin’s imminent demise, the record-shattering sale of a 489-pound bluefin for nearly $1.8 million in 2013 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market seemed to suggest that something out of whack was going on.

The tuna are as impressive in the water as they are delicious on the plate. They can weigh as much as half a ton, yet their sleek, ergonomic design, coupled with their warm blood—odd for a fish—means they can swim up to 60 miles per hour. They have few natural predators—unless, of course, you count us.

Northern Pacific stocks of bluefin have been fished to near oblivion, a crisis compounded by the big fish’s status, from an ichthyologist’s perspective, as a late bloomer: It doesn’t reach sexual maturity for four to eight years. In 2013, the Pew Environmental Group released a report estimating that the population has declined by more than 96 percent.

Ironically, the succulent red belly meat that reigns supreme on menus isn’t even traditional sushi by Japanese standards. As The Atlantic reported earlier this year, it wasn’t until Westerners began to develop a hankering for sushi in the 1970s and started to gobble up toro that the Japanese gave it a try—and they got hooked too. Before that, bluefin was mostly used for cat food.


Fast-forward to today, and with Pacific bluefin well nigh disappeared, the Japanese market has begun importing Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin. Now those stocks are imperiled.

The good news (such as it is) is that Japan, a nation whose historic dependence on fishing has long led to weak, if not meaningless, catch quotas, finally seems to be recognizing that there are only so many fish in the sea.

Earlier this year, the country announced stricter quotas for several species. Notably, Japan’s Fisheries Agency slashed the limit for immature bluefin by 50 percent in hopes that allowing more fish to come to maturity will help stocks rebound.

Even this has been criticized by ocean experts as too little, too late. In the meantime, if you’re looking to satisfy your sushi craving while keeping a clear conscience, steer clear of toro, and check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s handy sustainable sushi guide

A Radical Experiment in Local Eating: Making a Grilled Cheese From Scratch

A group of artists takes the concept of 'locavore' perhaps a bit too far.
A Radical Experiment in Local Eating: Making a Grilled Cheese From Scratch

Just when you thought shopping your local farmers market and signing up for a CSA made you a pretty committed locavore, along come the Dutch.

For anyone who’s ever had romantic fantasies of “urban homesteading,” the quest by a group of artists from Amsterdam to make a basic grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich from scratch—and I mean, from scratch—will no doubt prove something of an eye-opener.

First, they planted wheat. Yeah, I’m not kidding—they planted wheat in a small field in the middle of Amsterdam. Then they built a barn big enough to house two pigs and two cows. For the next seven months, a rotating cast of volunteers cared for the animals and tended the wheat crop until August, when the group was ready to reap the grain and mill it. The hogs had to be butchered for the ham; the milk from the cows was made into cheese.


You can’t get much more local than that—but at what cost?

All in all, it took nine months, 20 volunteers, and the equivalent of almost $44,000 to produce 350 sandwiches—or about $20 a pop. Put a price tag on all that free labor, and you might easily be looking at a triple-digit tosti, as the sandwich is called in the Netherlands, a simple snack that's more expensive than a meal in all but the toniest five-star European restaurants.

“To be honest, business-wise, we were the worst project that ever existed,” Sascha Landshoff, the venture’s founder, tells Fast Company

Of course, the group’s experiment—an art project—was never about turning a profit. Still, Landshoff’s view of what the project was really about also feels a little off the mark.

“It’s not only about the most ecological, local food,” she tells Fast Company, “you also need a certain amount of efficiency to feed everyone on the planet.”

Maybe. But if you follow that line of argument too far, what you get is an apologia for the status quo in which the technological feats of industrial agriculture and big food—from GMO crops designed to withstand ever more potent chemical herbicides to ginormous factory farms—are seen as the most “efficient” way to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

Don’t get me wrong: Eating local is not the cure-all for the food-related ills that ail us. The locavore mania tries to boil down what is a complex issue—the environmental, social, and health impacts of what we eat—to a single magic bullet, as we humans are wont to do, much the same way serial dieters will glom on to the latest best-selling diet fad.

Take greenhouse gas emissions. You’d think that eating local would dramatically cut the amount of carbon pollution your groceries contribute to the environment. But as this chart from the Environmental Working Group attests, the lion’s share of the global-warming impact for most food comes from how it’s produced, not from transportation. A 2007 study from Carnegie Mellon found that although most food typically travels upwards of a thousands miles to reach your plate, transportation only accounts for about 11 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.

“Changing what we eat can have a bigger effect than changing where it’s from,” Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, has pointed out. Thus, if you’re worried about the environmental impact of the food you’re eating, a vegetarian burrito made with beans shipped across the country may very well be better than a burger made from locally raised beef.


But while buying local may not be the environmental panacea it’s sometimes been cracked up to be, the case of the Dutch Sandwich Factory, as the project was called, takes the issue well nigh to the point of absurdity. After all, few—if any—sustainability experts would argue that we should all start raising every scrap of food we eat in our own backyards, a sure recipe for environmental and social disaster.

There’s a whole world of agriculture that exists between that radical approach, however, and the kind of chemical-laden, increasingly GMO-reliant, government-subsidized corporate farming that forms the basis of our current food chain.

We'd also be wise to turn these questions on their head, so to speak, and look for answers in unconventional place. Sure, we need to be more conscious about what we eat, but what about what we don’t eat? As food-waste activist Tristram Stuart has pointed out, we could feed an extra 3 billion people not by inventing some newfangled crop system but by reducing the amount of edible food that gets pitched in the garbage.

Does a Body Good? New Study Adds to Milk’s Growing Image Problem

Milk may not be the healthiest choice after all.
Does a Body Good? New Study Adds to Milk’s Growing Image Problem

Long a staple of weekly grocery lists, the snow-white picture of purity, the unassailable go-to drink for good health, milk—yes, milk—is experiencing something of an image problem. The dairy identity crisis is no doubt thanks to a growing number of studies like the one released this week out of Sweden that suggests moo juice isn’t the magic elixir it has long been cracked up to be.

The new research calls into question one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that few of us would even think to disagree with. We all know that calcium-rich milk helps to build strong bones, right? For adults, that’s supposed to mean fewer bone fractures. Maybe not. A vocal chorus of public health experts, including those at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, have long pointed out that there’s little scientific evidence to support the notion that drinking milk leads to better bone health—and not enough to justify the current federal dietary recommendation of drinking three cups a day. The new study, published in the journal BMJ, would seem to add more fuel to this skepticism. Researchers reviewed the detailed dietary information of more than 100,000 Swedish women and men and tracked their health outcomes for up to 23 years, and they found no evidence that drinking more milk correlated with a decreased risk for bone fracture.


Among women, the results were most surprising. Women who drank at least three glasses of milk a day (which is consistent with U.S. guidelines) were 16 percent more likely to experience a bone fracture—and 60 percent more likely to break their hip—than women who drank less than one glass a day.

Even more alarming, women who drank more milk were 90 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 44 percent more likely to die from cancer during the course of the study. 

Milk-drinking men fared better, in the sense that those who drank three glasses of milk a day were “only” 10 percent more likely to die earlier, a risk that researchers tied to a 16 percent greater chance of suffering from cardiovascular disease.

Bottom line: Researchers found no positive health benefits from drinking more milk. On the contrary, the study suggests that drinking too much milk might do a body more harm than good.

But the news wasn’t all bad for the dairy industry. Unlike milk, fermented dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and buttermilk appeared to have at least some protective benefits, at least for women. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Among all of the women in the study, those who ate more of these fermented dairy foods had lower rates of fractures and premature death compared with women who ate less of them. Each additional serving corresponded with a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in the risk of both, the researchers found. However, the effects for men were ‘more modest’ or ‘non-existent,’ according to the study.

The study’s authors weren’t able to determine why this was the case, although they have a theory. While milk is notably high in lactose, fermented dairy products aren’t (the fermentation process eats up the lactose). When the body metabolizes lactose, it generates something called D-galactose. Prior animal-based studies have found D-galactose isn’t so great for the body, causing “oxidative stress damage, chronic inflammation, neurodegeneration, decreased immune response, and gene transcriptional changes.” As the Times points out, “when scientists want to mimic the effects of aging, they give animals shots or food containing D-galactose.”

As the Swedish research team admits, none of this is conclusive evidence that milk is bad for you. But for many health experts, there’s now enough science to debunk the notion that you can never get enough milk. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine cites a litany of studies that have found milk consumption does not lead to healthier bones in children, adolescents, or adults, while drinking milk has been linked to a higher risk for certain cancers.

For its part, the Harvard School of Public Health doesn’t even list dairy as part of its “Healthy Eating Plate,” which it developed as an alternative to the federal government’s “MyPlate.” Harvard’s diet guide is “based exclusively on the best available science” and is not subject to “political or commercial pressure from food industry lobbyists”—like the dairy lobby, which has doubled its political contributions over the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As the Harvard website explains: “It’s not a news flash that calcium is key for healthy bones. Getting enough calcium from childhood through adulthood helps build bones up and then helps slow the loss of bone as we age. It’s not clear, though, that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.”

So what are some arguably better sources? Nutrition experts say you can get plenty of calcium from leafy greens (kale, bok choy, and collards are particularly calcium-rich), beans, and fortified beverages such as soy milk and orange juice.

How Do Your Favorite Products Rate According to New 'Food Scores'?

An NGO alternative to stodgy nutrition labels provokes a big food backlash.
How Do Your Favorite Products Rate According to New 'Food Scores'?

What happens when you try to come up with a better way for American consumers to make sense of the groceries they're buying? Well, for starters, you get lambasted by the processed food industry.

That's the short story of the new Food Scores program from the Environmental Working Group, which debuted yesterday. No sooner had EWG issued its press release about its new Food Scores database than the Grocery Manufacturers Association fired off its own, calling the nonprofit’s ratings “severely flawed.”


This is only the latest skirmish in the back-and-forth over efforts to account for the healthfulness of packaged foods. Public health advocates and nutrition experts have long criticized the inadequacy of those congressionally mandated Nutrition Facts labels found on the packages of everything from soda to soup. Even as the Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of the achingly slow process of revamping the labels, critics are already saying the FDA will likely buckle under industry pressure and fail to go far enough.

Just this week in The New York Times, health columnist Jane Brody said as much, pointing out that among other things, the new labels probably won’t be any easier for hurried shoppers to decipher. You can bet that whatever the FDA comes up with, it won’t be nearly as straightforward (and thus, anathema to big food) as the easy-to-read, color-coded label Mark Bittman dreamed up a couple years ago.

We just might have to wait until the devil nails a triple lutz before we ever see anything that remotely resembles Bittman’s label on American food products. But Food Scores represents a major step in that direction, despite its not being a federal program. The database rates more than 80,000 products based on nutrition, concerns about ingredients (such as whether they’re likely to contain pesticide residue), and the degree of processing.

It’s ridiculously easy to use: You can search for specific products or by manufacturer, or you can browse entire categories (“Cereals and Breakfast Foods,” for example). Each product is given an overall score between 1 and 10, and scores for each of the three categories are rated somewhere between “low concern” and “high concern.” All of it employs the almost universally understood color-coding system that ranges from green to yellow to red, similar to Bittman’s labels.

Most important, these are real products that you can find in real stores, ranging from Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to Coke Zero to Whole Foods' avocado lime vinaigrette salad dressing. Better yet, when you click on a product, you get a comparison chart of how that product ranks against others in the same category. Want an alternative to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, with its middling overall rating of 5? There’s always Whole Foods' 365 Organic Everyday Value Macaroni & Cheese (rating: 3).

“Eat whole foods that are minimally processed.” That’s become the mantra among those who see that our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with processed foods is bankrupting us with its hidden social and environmental costs. But let’s face it: Even those of us who repeat this mantra ad nauseam sometimes resort to the inarguable convenience of, say, canned soup.

Among the many benefits of having worked at Gourmet before its sad demise was that I amassed a trove of treasured recipes—like this one for a creamless creamy squash soup. It’s amazing: delicious, yes, but every time I eat it, I also feel like I’m practically glowing with vitamin-rich good health. It’s not too hard to make either. But come a workaday lunch, there’s also no way that I’m going to spend a half hour peeling and dicing a bunch of vegetables. With Food Scores, I can now compare brands of store-bought squash soup. Campbell’s Homestyle scores a 6, with relatively high ingredient concerns but surprisingly low processing concerns; Trader Joe’s version scores a much better 3 overall.

Of course, you had to expect that any attempt not only to give consumers more comprehensible information about what they’re buying but to make an evaluative judgment about what’s in that food and how it’s produced was going to send the processed food industry into a conniption. Which is just what the GMA did in yesterday's press release.

“Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information,” the GMA says, “they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices.”


That’s rich, considering big food has lobbied for years to either block the implementation of nutrition labels or, when that failed, to make those labels arguably as confusing as possible. What’s even more ironic is that in its press release, the GMA holds up those labels as one of the best “fact-based sources” in an “already crowded landscape of subjective food ratings systems.”

Among the GMA’s litany of issues with the EWG system is that the ratings for the degree to which a product is processed are based on the best guess of EWG’s experts. Well, duh. Does anyone think the big food giants were going to divulge exactly how they make their products to some advocacy organization? This is also something EWG freely acknowledges, allowing consumers to weigh their faith in the organization’s expertise and independence against the corporate self-interest inherent in big food’s multibillion-dollar marketing apparatus—the likes of which, for example, has Coke simultaneously packaging its Vitaminwater to look suspiciously like medicine while denying in court that it has ever tried to convince consumers that Vitaminwater is at all healthy.

For whatever wonky flaws the EWG Food Scores database might have, at the end of the day, it’s a welcome challenge to the kind of disingenuous lobbying for “consumer choice” that has been big food’s modus operandi for decades—and which has given us the sort of federally mandated nutrition labels that all too often require us to read between the lines.

Vitaminwater Healthy? Coca-Cola Might Not Get Off Cheap on a Settlement Over Its Marketing

The soda company tried to settle a lawsuit on the cheap, but one advocacy group isn’t having it.
Vitaminwater Healthy? Coca-Cola Might Not Get Off Cheap on a Settlement Over Its Marketing

Coca-Cola’s no good, terribly bad couple of weeks appear to be dragging on. The company’s shares tumbled more than they had in the past six years after Coke announced disappointing third-quarter sales this week. The bad news must have been hard to swallow for the soda giant, considering that just last month, Coke was reveling in the success of its summer-long “Share a Coke” marketing campaign, which offered fresh hope that personalized cans could help reverse an 11-year downward drift in soda sales.

Now the world’s largest beverage maker has a revived lawsuit to contend with. 

The soda maker was so close to sweeping away the class-action lawsuit, which alleged that the company deceived consumers in marketing its sugary Vitaminwater as healthy. A spate of suits filed in various states had been consolidated into one big lawsuit in Ohio, and in July, the plaintiffs’ attorneys reached a relatively cheap $1.2 million settlement with Coke. That is, until one public advocacy group stepped in to say not so fast.

 

The nonprofit group Truth in Advertising is crying foul, and this week it formally requested permission from the court to object to the settlement. It’s not so much that $1.2 million is, essentially, pocket change for Coke—the company’s sales were almost $12 billion last quarter alone—but that the money will go to cover attorneys’ fees. Not a cent goes back to consumers. Even more troubling, Coke won’t be required to change all that much in terms of its deceptive marketing.

According to Truth in Advertising, “the settlement doesn’t stop Coca-Cola from continuing to call the drink vitaminwater, using the slogan ‘nutrient enhanced water beverage,’ or using health-conscious names such as ‘defense’ and ‘revive’ for its drinks.”

What’s the problem with that? In addition to a smattering of namesake vitamins, your average 20-ounce bottle of Vitaminwater contains 31 grams of sugar. Sure, that’s half the amount that’s in an equivalent amount of Coke, but it’s still the equivalent of guzzling seven teaspoons of sugar in one sitting. Meanwhile, nearly every major health organization is recommending we consume 10 teaspoons or fewer of added sugar per day.


If you think that’s shocking, wait until you get a load of Coke’s defense. Apparently, the company didn’t even try to contend that a product it markets with suspiciously medicine-ized labels, with names such as Power-C, Essential, and Revive—a product called Vitaminwater, for crying out loud—is healthy. Coke pretty much argues that you’d be an idiot to think Vitaminwater is good for you.

In court filings, Coke’s lawyers flat-out state that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  

For its part, Truth in Advertising is agitating for a more generous settlement, as well as more far-reaching changes in how Coke markets what is essentially sugar water. Meanwhile, another, similar suit concerning Vitaminwater is waiting in the wings, filed back in 2009 by the public advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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