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News for March 3, 2010

How Your Dining Hall Can Buy Local

For all that's written about the benefits of seasonal, fresh food, the challenges faced by institutions purchasing local food are less well-known. How hard could it be to get more fresh produce on school menus? As the point person for approving Bon Appétit Management Company's "Farm to Fork" vendors—a program since 1999 to have 20 percent of the food in all of our kitchens be "truly local" —I am regularly asked by food advocates about the biggest barriers for "farm to institution" sales. Whether they want to see small farmers gain access to expanded markets or feed students more fresh produce, many are surprised by my take on the most significant obstacles:

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USDA research chief concerned about ‘safety of organic food’

GUADALAJARA, MEXICO—In another post, I’ll explain why I’m in Mexico for the next two weeks, and how I came to attend a conference sponsored by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, titled “Agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries: Options and opportunities in crops, forestry, livestock, fisheries, and agro-industry to face the challenge of food insecurity and climate change.”

For now, I want to report on a fascinating interaction I had there with Roger Beachy, director of the USDA’s newly formed National Institute of Food and Agriculture. 

First, a little context. NIFA, as it is known, is essentially the USDA’s research wing—it sets the agenda for the kind of research the agency funds. Meaning NIFA may have a pretty substantial effect on the kind of food system we’ll have in the future, because today’s research shapes tomorrow’s farming.

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Sen. Harkin Sees Floor Action Coming Soon on Food Safety Legislation

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, predicted that the Senate’s food safety legislation, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) is "about ready to go.” During an appropriations agriculture subcommittee hearing on Mar. 2, he said, "We're hopeful we'll have the food safety bill on the Senate floor, if not this work period, then it'll be at the top of the list when we come back after Easter." He ventured that food safety legislation would be "on the President's desk by May," if things go smoothly.

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Cost of food-borne illnesses is deemed much higher than earlier estimates

DES MOINES, Iowa | Debate about the health attributes and risks of raw milk is spilling into statehouses and courtrooms across the country as proponents of unpasteurized dairy products push to make them easier for consumers to buy.

Supporters of the raw-milk cause say pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and extend shelf life, destroys important nutrients and enzymes.

"We have new science today that shows raw milk contains … enzymes that kill pathogens and strengthen the immune system," said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group pushing for increased access to raw milk.

Enzymes and other nutrients are "greatly reduced in pasteurized milk," she said.

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Raw-milk fans fight bans

DES MOINES, Iowa | Debate about the health attributes and risks of raw milk is spilling into statehouses and courtrooms across the country as proponents of unpasteurized dairy products push to make them easier for consumers to buy.

Supporters of the raw-milk cause say pasteurization, the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria and extend shelf life, destroys important nutrients and enzymes.

"We have new science today that shows raw milk contains … enzymes that kill pathogens and strengthen the immune system," said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group pushing for increased access to raw milk.

Enzymes and other nutrients are "greatly reduced in pasteurized milk," she said.

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China woos Aussie dairy farmers at conference

THE CHINESE market opportunities for Australian dairy products go well beyond milk powder and heifer imports: the giant dragon economy is crying out for dairy technology, farm know-how and experienced farm managers.

Chinese dairy companies are even offering to help Australian farming operations set up dairy enterprises in China, and then buy their milk.

That’s the attractive message from leading Chinese dairy entrepreneurs attending last week’s 2010 Australian Dairy Conference in Wollongong,

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Foodborne Illness Costs US $152 Billion Annually: Study

WASHINGTON - Foodborne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year, according to a study released by consumer and public health groups on Wednesday.

Food safety advocates are hoping that the study will boost efforts in Congress to overhaul the nation's antiquated food safety system.

Dozens of pathogens, many of them unknown, creep into the food supply each year, sickening millions. The price tag includes medical costs, lost productivity and quality-of-life, according to a study from the Produce Safety Project.

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Are you a farmer at heart? Start a ‘Crop Mob’

A growing number of young people are finishing college and resisting the pressure to plunk down in a cube behind a computer. Others skip college altogether—given the spiraling costs involved, it’s hard to blame them—and yearn for meaningful, hands-on work.

Community-scale organic farming has emerged as an attractive profession for such talented, energetic youth. But there are problems with this choice. Hours are long, the pay too often stinks, and land prices remain crushingly high. To top it off, our nation lacks universal health coverage.

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Obama’s cholesterol beef isn’t with the burgers, but the buns

It must have surprised many that a president as young and vigorous as Barack Obama could be experiencing rising cholesterol, as reported last week.

But even more surprising is the misinformation being doled out by the people around him about the likely causes. “Too many burgers,” came the ready explanation. More likely, Mr. Obama’s beef isn’t with the meat he eats or even the fat in it, but with the cushy bun surrounding his burger and his apparent weakness for White House pies.

In his most recent physical exam, Obama’s cholesterol had spiked. His total cholesterol was up to 209, compared to 173 previously. His HDL—or “good” cholesterol—had dropped slightly, to 62. But the LDL—or “bad” cholesterol—was up to 138. Borderline high cholesterol starts at 200, with LDL considered unsafe above 130.

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New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health

For all of its ecological baggage, synthetic nitrogen does one good deed for the environment: it helps build carbon in soil. At least, that’s what scientists have assumed for decades.

If that were true, it would count as a major environmental benefit of synthetic N use. At a time of climate chaos and ever-growing global greenhouse gas emissions, anything that helps vast swaths of farmland sponge up carbon would be a stabilizing force. Moreover, carbon-rich soils store nutrients and have the potential to remain fertile over time—a boon for future generations.

The case for synthetic N as a climate stabilizer goes like this. Dousing farm fields with synthetic nitrogen makes plants grow bigger and faster. As plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the plant is harvested as crop, but the rest—the residue—stays in the field and ultimately becomes soil. In this way, some of the carbon gobbled up by those N-enhanced plants stays in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

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A Future for Agriculture, A Future for Haiti

What would it take to transform Haiti's economy such that its role in the global economy is no longer that of providing cheap labor for sweatshops? What would it take for hunger to no longer be the norm, for the country no longer to depend on imports and hand-outs, and for Port-au-Prince's slums no longer to contain 85% of the city's residents? What would it take for the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake to have a secure life, with income?

According to Haitian peasant organizations, at the core of the solutions is a commitment on the part of the government to support family agriculture, with policies to make the commitment a reality.

Haiti is the only country in the hemisphere which is still majority rural. Estimates of the percentage of Haiti's citizens who remain farmers span from 60.5% (UN, 2006) to 80% (the figure used by peasant groups). 

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Man Gives Company To Employees On 81st Birthday

In his 81 years, Bob Moore has built a mini empire with his health food company, Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods. During his recent birthday celebration, he told his dedicated employees that he's passing the torch and ownership of his multimillion dollar business to them, the Seattle Times reports.

Under Moore's plan, any worker with at least three years tenure is now fully vested in the company, and will receive cash from revenues when they quit or retire. While Moore declined to say how much the company is worth, a 2004 publication estimated that year's revenue at $24 million and recent company news releases have reported an annual growth rate of 20 to 30 percent.

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Study: Food-borne illnesses cost U.S. $152 billion

Food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, cost the United States $152 billion annually in health care and other losses, according to a report released today by a food safety group.

The report comes as the Senate considers legislation that would require more government inspections of food manufacturers and give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to order recalls, among other things. The House passed a similar bill last year.

The government estimates 76 million people each year are sickened by food-borne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about 5,000 die. Recent outbreaks have resulted in large recalls of peanuts, spinach and peppers.

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