Archive for February, 2011

Posted on February 28, 2011 - by

Chunky Monkey: Obesity Research on the Modern Diet

Photo: Barbara C. Hansen, University of South Florida via NYT

Meet Fat Albert. Like many in contemporary society, he is overweight, enjoys indulging in a sugary treat or two, and does not get much exercise. Unlike many, he is a lab monkey—living a lifestyle designed to induce weight gain and obesity.

At the Oregon National Primate Research Center, scientists have developed a colony of overweight monkeys to study the effects of diet on weight gain and diabetes (NYT). Director Kevin L. Grove explained, “We are trying to induce the couch-potato style. We believe that mimics the health issues we face in the United States today.”

The monkeys are used to gauge the effects of high fat and sugar diets on health, along with experimental drugs used to treat related illnesses. Studies are being conducted on appetite suppressants and hormonal mechanisms that can be used to treat diabetes. In addition, it is much easier to monitor a monkey’s dietary intake, compared to relying on surveys of human subjects who may fudge their numbers.

To fatten the monkeys, they are fed dried chow pellets with a high fat content contributing to one-third of caloric intake. (This is comparable to the level of fat in the average American diet.) Peanut butter, popcorn and peanuts are also given to the monkeys as snacks, along with a fruity punch that contains as much fructose as a can of soda. To limit movement, the animals are kept in individual cages without access to swings or climbing equipment.

Surprisingly, about 40% of the primates do not gain a lot of weight. Researcher Barbara Hansen suggested that caloric intake was more influential on weight gain than fat. “To suggest that humans and monkeys get fat because of a high-fat diet is not a good suggestion,” Hansen said. Other results hinted that it is the combination of high fructose corn syrup and calories that leads to obesity and diabetes. “It wasn’t until we added those carbs that we got all those other changes, including those changes in body fat,” said Anthony Comuzzie, scientist at the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

Is this research providing valuable insights on diets high in calories, fat and carbohydrates? Or do you think this is a form of animal abuse? Is it any worse than the average confined factory farm operation?

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Posted on February 25, 2011 - by

Good Food Around the World: Switzerland

This weekend, FRESH will be screened at the Festival du Film Vert in Geneva, Switzerland. For the occasion, we’ll take a look at the state of sustainable food systems in Switzerland. Allons-y!

When it comes to things the Swiss excel at, people automatically think of trains, chocolates and efficiency. However, there is another area that Switzerland is a leader in: sustainably-produced food.

More than ever before, the Swiss have become socially-conscious consumers, and actively seek out products with organic, fair trade and sustainable labeling. The country is the world-leader in per capita consumption of fair-trade goods, at 35 ChF per person, and there is a strong sense of awareness that high-quality food cannot be bought for cut-rate prices (Swiss Info).

Even the large-scale supermarkets are in on the act. Both Migros and Coop, the two largest grocery retailers in the country, carry several lines of organic products. Their weekly flyers are sent to households, touting the benefits of local, organic and seasonal food to one in every three people (Swiss Info).

Coop alone accounts for half of all organic food sales in the country. By 2013, the company hopes that at least 20% of food sales will be through the Coop Naturaplan organic line. In addition, Coop has jumped into the green energy market by selling vouchers for a quantity of electricity that is generated in an eco-friendly manner before being added to the national grid (Food & Drink Europe).

And it doesn’t stop there. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is committed to strengthening food security internationally, with initiatives to eradicate hunger in far-flung locales, from East Africa to Peru. For instance, in North Korea, the agency has supported biological pest control measures, increasing cabbage yields by 40%. The organization hopes to halt the degradation of natural resources, improve land governance, and strengthen family farming in developing nations (SDC).

Is this what it looks like when sustainable products go mainstream? Can large retailers find a happy coexistence with small-scale producers? Will Walmart lead the charge in the US for greener retailing?

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Posted on February 24, 2011 - by

The Happiest Pigs in France

We’ve been talking about genetically-modified and factory farmed pigs lately, so let’s take a break to look a decidedly more pleasant sort of pig farm.

Anyone who has even briefly investigated livestock production at industrial farms knows that the process is wholly unnatural, with animals reduced to meat-generating machines, forced to live in dirty, cramped conditions.

At Ferme des Levées, owners Anne and Jacques Volatier firmly believe in treating their pigs with respect and raising them with traditional, organic farming methods. Jacques began raising pigs in 2000, and prior to purchasing this farm, he had no farming experience and worked as a civil engineer in town planning. “I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to find a way to help grow the planet and start a project that would benefit the local economy. The intuition has now become certainty and a way of life in the countryside.” He attended an agricultural training program for a year, acquired the necessary capital and decided to launch a pig breeding operation because it was a product that could be raised and transformed entirely on the farm.

Fermes des Levées is now fully organic and consists of 40 hectares of fields, some which grow cereals that will be used for pig feed. The pigs also eat the natural vegetation of whatever field they live in, and over the course of a year, they are capable of mowing down a field to its roots. Between the fields, Jacques has planted 400 elderflower plants to provide shade. The resulting fruit is used to make elderflower preserves and a syrup perfectly suited for flavoring water.

The Volatiers hold about 150 pigs, and it is impossible not to smile as Jacques waves at his drift of pigs and says enthusiastically, “I know this sounds funny in English, but I call them ‘Mes ti-tis!'” (This is a shortened version of “petits,” or “little ones” in French.) The pigs will grunt, root and frolic here for one year before being taken to slaughter; compare this to an average lifespan of four months for an industrially raised pig.

Each week, 3-4 pigs are chosen to bring to the slaughterhouse, 18 km away in Beaune. “We are lucky that there is a slaughterhouse so close by, because more and more often these days the small slaughterhouses are closing down,” explained Jacques. Even so, being in a new, noisy environment can visibly stress the pigs, and Jacques has lost several to the red ravages of porcine stress syndrome. He now tries to minimize the time the pigs spend at the slaughterhouse and spends time calming them beforehand. Unfortunately, due to legal restrictions, you cannot slaughter a pig on site in France.

Some of the meat is sold fresh, but much of it is cooked, cured and transformed into charcuterie products. We sat down to a buffet of crusty baguette, salads, and a platter of fresh pork products: ham with mustard seed, a specialty of the farm; pâté en croûte, marinaded meat wrapped in pastry crust; jambon persillé, jellied ham with a strong dose of parsley; farm-smoked ham; country pâté; rillettes. “All done without e-numbers!” said Jacques.

Some charcuterie products are sold directly to people who travel to the farm or randomly stroll past, but 80% of the goods are sold through the Dijon market at Les Halles. You can find the Volatiers there twice a week on Friday and Saturday mornings.

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Posted on February 22, 2011 - by

A Chat with Slow Food Founder Carlin Petrini

In 1986, the first branch of McDonald’s in Italy opened in the heart of Rome, at the Piazza di Spagna. As in many other countries, protesters howled and demonstrated. One man took decisive action.

Carlo Petrini, or Carlin as he is known to Italians, has quietly grown from being a little-known left-wing journalist, to becoming the leader of one of the world’s largest food activism organizations. Concerned about the encroachment of multinational influence on traditional food culture, he built a resistance movement to defend and protect local food ecosystems, a counterpoint to the unrelenting onslaught of corporate hegemony.

Today, Slow Food spans over 100,000 members in 153 countries, promoting thousands of small-scale producers, communities and educational initiatives. I sat down to interview Petrini, and asked him about the direction of Slow Food, the global food system, and what you can do to get involved.

In America, there are many people involved with Slow Food, but more who have never heard of Slow Food. For these people, what is Slow Food?

Slow Food is an international movement that is involved in the defense of biodiversity, not only in agriculture and food, but also culture; in the defense of small-scale producers, small farmers, fishermen, and artisans because these small producers are the ones who maintain biodiversity. So, Slow Food is a network of these actors that will grow ever stronger, until it finally reaches every country in the world. However, it makes no pretense of having a strong structure or hierarchy–no, it is very, very agile.

In Italy, I can shopping at the market and buy organic vegetables and artisanal products that will not cost much more than the industrial versions. But in America, the difference between the two is significant, and it can cost double or more to buy organic. Why should we spend more time and pay more money for food, especially impoverished people?

Food must be paid at the right price. Here in Italy, we pay too little. When I was young, in the 1970s, 40 years ago, Italian families spent 32% of their income on food. Today, they spend 12% of income. This cell phone here [points] costs the average Italian 13% of his income. You cannot say that food is expensive—the price of food is far too low! And because the price of food is so low, culture is being destroyed, and the young are being sent away from rural areas. Thus, we need an educated countryside, one that values food. Note that there is a difference between value and price. Food is valuable. If I pay a little more for good food—organic food—I help the environment, and I help farmers. This is what they call in economics “positive externalities.” If, however, I only want to pay as little as possible for food, farmers will leave the countryside, water is mismanaged, I eat what is not healthy, and hence, these are negative externalities. Today, the real problem is that food must be at the right price. Not low, but right.

There are many developing countries whose people dream of a lifestyle like those in first-world countries. For instance, in China, people think of McDonald’s as a fancy restaurant of good quality. How do we protect and preserve traditional food culture in these cases?

China has a food culture that is thousands of years old, much older than that of Europe’s. Today they are searching for ways to be different, to be individuals. But it will pass. Why? Because every people is tied to their traditions. And, what has happened in Italy is happening in China. Italy had its moment when it embraced modernity, fast food, etc.—but everything has returned back to the way it was. This is a sure passage. I cannot imagine that the people of China will only eat McDonald’s—no, I don’t believe it.

So, do you eat non-Italian or non-traditional foods?

Oh, certainly, it depends on where I am. Last week, I was in Germany, and I ate German food. I believe that every country has a food culture that should be respected and known. I would not go to Germany and eat a plate of spaghetti—spaghetti can be eaten here! If there is a different culture, my curiosity wants to know that other culture.

What new projects does Slow Food have for this year? Will there be a conference like Terra Madre [a biennial gathering of Slow Food producers and activists] in the United States?

There will be Terra Madre in different countries of the world. I hope that there will soon be one in the United States because the time is ripe. We would have to see if our chapters and members in America can put it together, but that is the difficulty of working with a big country. Many people have certainly been asking why we have never done a big conference in the U.S. Thus, the time is right.

Do you have any advice for young people who would like to participate in the good food movement?

Be curious. Be knowledgeable. Get the maximum information you can about what you eat, where the producer is from, how it was made, etc. My generation is one that is still very close to farming culture, so we know the products. Today, the new generation does not have these direct links to the farmer. Therefore, it is time to know the information and not be just consumers, but I would say, be co-producers. To be a co-producer signifies the value of food, being curious about food, knowing the producer, knowing the value of the merchandise, and most important, not wasting food.

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Posted on February 21, 2011 - by

What’s in a Food Dollar?

Source: USDA

Take a glance at your grocery bill. How much of that money do you think goes to the farmer who produced the food? Half? 70%? Actually, in the U.S., only 19% of the money spent on food goes to farmers and ranchers (USDA). And this share has been shrinking for the last few decades. The other 81% goes toward transforming these raw foods into processed products and transporting them to your grocery’s shelves.

From the National Farmers Union, here are some commonly-bought food items, their retail prices and the portion of the money that goes toward to the farmer:

Bacon, $4.39, $0.55 (12.5%)
Bread, $3.39, $0.15 (4.4%)
Eggs, $2.59, $0.74 (28.6%)
Milk, $3.99, $1.30 (32.6%)
Lettuce, $1.99, $0.37 (18.6%)
Chips, $3.99, $0.09 (2.3%)
Beer, $6.29, $0.10 (1.6%)

Intuitively, it makes sense that farmers would receive less of the retail price if the food is heavily processed, since there would be higher labor, packaging, transportation and marketing costs. Hence, a bag of Lay’s and a bottle of Coke do not return much financially to farmers, but instead go towards manufacturers and retailers.

It wasn’t always like this. Between World War I and the 1970s, farmer share hovered around 40% of dollars spent. But since then, the proportion has fallen steadily to its current levels (Farm Aid).

Meanwhile, the amount we spend on food has been declining for years. Americans spend just 10% of their income on food, the lowest proportion in the world. Of that money, 58% was spent on food eaten at home, and 41% was spent on food purchases outside of the home (Alabama Farmers Federation).

How do you make sure your money goes to the people who deserve it? Leapfrog over the middlemen, and purchase directly from farmers markets and through CSA shares. Eat at restaurants that source their ingredients directly from farmers and support the local economy. Buy foods that have little or no post-harvest processing—you’ll also benefit from eating fewer additives and preservatives.

What other ways can we circumvent the globalized production and distribution of the food system?

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Posted on February 18, 2011 - by

Enviropigs, Coming to a Plate Near You?

Photo: National Geographic

Deep in a lab in Ontario, Canada, scientists are hard at work finding greener solutions for the waste streams generated by large-scale factory farms. No, we’re not talking about toilet-trained pigs. These Enviropigs have been engineered from conception to be less polluting.

The Enviropig is a project from the University of Guelph, and is line of genetically-modified pigs designed to produce manure that contains less phosphorus. Phosphorus is a nutrient necessary for plant growth, but if it is spread too intensively on fields and not absorbed, the phosphorus becomes a pollutant. When there is a deluge of phosphorus runoff, the resultant algae blooms can deplete the water of oxygen, resulting in dead zones and fish kills in local rivers and streams.

In the US and Canada, pigs are mostly fed corn and grains, which contain a form of phosphorus that is indigestible by pigs. To combat this, pigs are usually given a phytase supplement, an enzyme that helps pigs break down this type of phosphorus. However, the phytase does not break down everything, and a significant amount of phosphorus is still excreted by the pig.

The Enviropig has been modified to secrete its own phytase, which works more efficiently than a dietary supplement. Thus, 30 to 70.7% less phosphorus is excreted, reducing phosphorus pollution and manure treatment costs, and decreasing the amount of phytase supplement that is needed (Univ. of Guelph). To accomplish this, researchers isolated a gene in e. coli bacteria that breaks down phosphorus and incorporated it into the pig genome. Not only was the implantation successful, but the offspring of the pigs also inherited the modification (National Geographic).

So, the phytase supplement has been used in large hog operations for over a decade, and now we can have pigs that produce it naturally in their salivary glands. Woohoo, this is an innovative milestone in greener farming, right?

Not so fast. While the Enviropig may reduce phosphorus emissions, it does nothing to address the destructive issues underlying factory farming. Manure and phosphorus are assets in agriculture, and only become liabilities when animals are intensively farmed in a single location. Reducing the amount of phosphorus excreted does not resolve the myriad other issues that factory farming raises, like the spread of disease, animal welfare, nitrogen pollution, the loss of biodiversity, etc. Worse, the availability of the Enviropig may lead farmers, policy makers and consumers to believe that this is a panacea for factory farming, and that the practice is environmentally sound.

Besides, there are alternative ways to reduce phosphorus without resorting to genetic modification. By including fewer grains in the pigs’ diets and using phytase supplements, phosphorus excretions can be reduced up to 50% (CBAN). In addition, the cost of phytase supplements has dropped dramatically in recent years, to less than $5 per kilo, and one metric ton of feed only requires 250 g of phytase supplement, which works out to a cost of less than 25 cents per pig (Sean McGivern).

Commercializing the Enviropig will make it nearly impossible to control the spread and proliferation of this gene, as the pigs intermingle with conventional pigs. Farmers who may not want to raise genetically-modified pigs will be hard-pressed to avoid genetic contamination of their livestock. Finally, consumers are wary of genetically-modified meat, and may not even accept or purchase the product. So why bother genetically modifying animals when there are other solutions at hand?

The answer, as is often the case, is money. The University of Guelph holds patents and is looking to license the Enviropig for use, charging royalties on a product for which there are currently none. This will be an added cost to hog farmers, and require some kind of enforcement mechanism, much like genetically-modified seeds which are sterile. At any rate, in some way or form, someone will have to pay.

By the way, the Enviropig has been submitted for review by the FDA and Canadian regulators, so expect to hear about the Enviropig’s potential commercialization in the near future.

In a debate with the lead researchers from the Univ. of Guelph, Sean McGivern, hog farmer and regional coordinator of the National Farmers Union Ontario, concluded with the following declaration: “We need our universities to work on issues that empower farmers, and not depower farmers, such as the Environpig. The reason universities do not spend their time researching things that empower farmers is simple—most of those things do not return profits to multinational corporations and family farms simply do not have the money to pay for research to help keep the doors open at universities like Guelph. The university researchers are bought and sold, like the Environpig they were hired to create.”

Do the benefits of the Enviropig outweigh the costs? Give that Americans already eat many products with genetically-modified corn and other plants, would you eat genetically-modified meat? What can we do to better align the interests of researchers and scientists with small-scale farmers?

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Posted on February 17, 2011 - by

Diversity Demons: The Struggle to Eat Local

The discontent arrived in fits and starts. Mere days after arriving in Italy, I stood crestfallen at the market, valiantly searching for a bunch of cilantro. Piles of parsley surrounded me, a taunting, isomorphic reminder that I was far from home. The bulk bins were swollen with cannellini beans and lentils, but there was nary a sign of black beans. In the baking aisle, I combed the shelves for baking powder. Instead, thin packages with florid photos of cakes touted the ammonia-based leavening agent inside. Skeptical, I stifled my frustration and went home to yet another meal with pasta.

In June, I fell in love with an avocado. The supple, emerald skin beckoned from across the supermarket aisle and I could not tear my eyes away. According to the label, the avocado had been imported from Israel. In lecture that morning, we had discussed the concept of food miles and the merits of buying local goods. I ignored a nagging feeling of guilt and bought the avocado anyway.

But wait, I moved abroad to learn about classic Italian cooking, did I not? Why on earth was I longing for corn tortillas? With freshly made focaccia and grissini in every corner bakery, how was it that I could not shake my yearning for one good bagel?

Italy is renowned for the depth and sophistication of its native cuisine, but the strength of this staunchly traditional food culture comes at a price. Despite the persistent forces of globalization, there have been few inroads made in the availability of international food products, particularly in Italy’s smaller towns. This poses a conundrum for an international student body, accustomed to cooking and eating in a more cosmopolitan fashion. In a land blessed with over 25 officially recognized types of cured meats and 400 cheeses, what happens when all you can do is fixate on finding a jar of peanut butter?

As I reluctantly settled into a more provincial lifestyle, whispers began trickling through the grapevine, hinting that there was more to the town’s food offerings than meets the eye. Check out the Ortobra grocery on Corso Novembre IV, they murmured, you just might find what you are looking for. One banal Tuesday afternoon, I strolled into the Ortobra and proceeded to the back corner. There it was, a shimmering oasis of foreign and ethnic goods, shelves lined with everything from cardamom to tapioca balls. Quaker oatmeal! Coconut milk! Best of all, stacked above the cans of condensed milk, there were jars of German-made peanut butter. Suddenly, it felt as though a hole of my life had been plugged with a dollop of gooey, finger-licking paste.

Upon hearing my ecstatic news, friends at home gently chastised me with bemused grins. “I’d love to be eating locally where you are now!” they exclaimed.

The principle of food sovereignty advocates access to “safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate” food for all. What does it mean to have access to culturally appropriate foods as an American? At the risk of sounding petulant and demanding, it means I want everything. It means that without leaving my hometown, I can explore and taste cuisines from all over the world. It means I can appreciate a fine glass of Barolo wine, followed by a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and end with a fish taco in hand. It means that the world is rapidly growing too small for any society to close itself off and sustain an entirely indigenous food culture.

The simple truth is that before “locavore” entered our lexicon, there was another word for people who confined themselves to eating foods produced near their homes: peasants. As the quintessential omnivores, we crave diversity in our diets and the pace of globalization means we are exposed to new and exciting foods at an unprecedented rate. I am certainly not alone. Already, consumers in developing countries have begun seeking a greater selection of international novelties. Italian wines in Brazil. Prosciutto in China. As palates grow more sophisticated, the demand will rise for the world’s finest truffles, authentic maple syrup, and fresh mangosteen. And why not? Maybe this cultural exchange will help bring us all closer together.

Is my kitchen filled with exotic condiments and imported cans? Yes. Do I encourage friends and family to shop locally? All the time. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. But in my opinion, traditional food culture is dead. Or maybe it never really existed, a romantic fairy tale valorized in modernity. Even in ancient times, wild game from Africa and spices from India traveled to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

Think about that the next time you reach for the soy sauce.

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