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Food Links, 07.11.2012

Well America, you had us worried for a moment.

What hurricane Sandy tells us about New York’s food supply chain.

New York’s chefs helping with the Sandy clean-up.

The implications of Sandy for New York’s bees.

Why food trucks won’t be a novelty after Sandy.

Three views on Prop 37.

Lester Brown on food inflation.

The state of the world’s harvests.

Land grabs are endangering food production.

Is this the year that the US food movement finally enters politics?

We’re facing rising food prices.

The French right wing hijacks the pain au chocolat.

The relationship between coffee shops, gentrification, and crime (pdf).

Evaluating Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.

Michael Pollan on corn.

Sectarian traybacks in Belfast.

The strange persistence of the First Lady Bake-Off.

The doorless fridge.

Mary Berry biting into things.

The science of the souffle.

The fifteen professions that drink the most coffee.

Elif Batuman on Çiya Sofrasi in Istanbul.

How to crack black peppercorns.

In praise of the prickly pear.

Can you get thrown out of an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Reviews of new food.

The most beautiful coffee shops.

Behind the wine label.

The strange history of the spork.

Beautiful apples.

The link between chocolate consumption and Nobel laureates.

Beautiful paintings of food at the Bowes Museum.

The Middle Class Handbook on flat peaches.

Craig’s Artisanal Pickles.

The strange variety of McDonald’s meals.

Why drinking liquid nitrogen cocktails is a very, very bad idea.

Feathers fly in the South African fried chicken industry.

How to introduce a two year-old to Malaysian street food.

A nifty idea for storing fresh herbs.

A man makes beer from yeast found…in his beard.

To peel, or not to peel?

These are courtesy of my mum:

The fortified food conundrum in Afghanistan.

A coffee cup in the shape of a bird.

Japan’s themed cafes.

How to flip food in a pan.

Eight paintings of ham.

Artisanal mayonnaise.

The search for authenticity is futile.

Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 03.10.2012

Mexico’s small-scale maize farmers are under threat.

Tom Philpott considers the recent Stanford report on organic produce.

More reflection on the latest pro/anti-organics bunfight.

Water and meat consumption.

The history of the lunchbox.

Harvesting a climate disaster.

Chinese farmers in Russia.

A journey along the Silk Road helps to explain the genetic influence over food preference.

The science behind flavour combinations.

The names of pasta shapes. (Thanks, Mum!)

The Royal Society’s top twenty inventions in the history of food and drink.

The journey of a wheel of cheese, from Spain to New York.

Eating in Moscow.

The problem with TV cookery.

A socialist’s guide to drinking.

Re-imagining the ice cream shop.

In praise of buttermilk.

Three good things on a plate.

What it’s like being a chef in Silicon Valley.

The Zagat guide gets London badly wrong.

How to make bourbon salt.

A guide to African cuisine in Paris.

Ruth Bourdain remains at large.

Puddings made with berries.

The rise and rise of Peruvian cuisine.

Calvin Trillin on ceviche.

Food-based art.

Will Self on Garfunkel’s.

George Washington’s small beer.

Lebanese steak tartare.

Food future.

The Renaissance of Nigerian Cuisine.

Brooklyn Blackout Cake.

Seven things to do with apples.

Escher-inspired food art.

Fuck Yeah Biscuits.

What couscous to buy.

Eating fish in Greece.

Lausanne‘s weekend market.

A man drives across the US, using only bacon as currency.

The Onion on Hostess‘s bankruptcy.

Food Links, 29.08.2012

The hidden costs of hamburgers.

What can American’s healthcare system learn from Cheesecake Factory?

A former McDonald’s executive opens a chain of health food restaurants.

Baking bread in Beirut.

What Ireland eats every night.

The terrible tragedy of the healthy eater.

San Francisco has the largest number of restaurants per household in the US.  New Orleans has the most bars.

Favourite dishes from countries competing in the Olympics.

Are Japan’s eel restaurants in danger? (Thanks, Mum!)

Dan Lepard‘s pop-up bakery.

Paying with maple syrup.

Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food.

Woman vs (bread) machine.

So what *do* Britons call their mealtimes? (Thanks, Anupama!)

Bolivia seeks to expel Coca Cola.

How to make mole.

How to pick the perfect mealie.

Lamb biryani.

Seedless watermelon?

Early Modern recipes for medicine.

Imogen Heap sings Chladni lines into salt.

Red wine and coke.

Lake Trout, a deliberately crappy restaurant. In Williamsburg. Obviously.

A profile of Anita Lo, New York chef. (Thanks, Carl!)

Putting the ‘h’ back into ‘yoghurt‘.

British icons in biscuits.

New York’s biggest roof-top farm. (Thanks, Rafaella!)

Microwave turkish delight.

Four new flavours of ice cream.

Cake.

A pop-up shop which, quite literally, pops up.

Lobster and caviar burgers.

A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 08.08.2012

The corn harvested in the US for biofuel could feed 412 million people.

Raj Patel’s new project: Generation Food.

Americans drink more fizzy soft drinks than anyone else.

Why Britain’s food ‘traffic light‘ labels were never implemented.

The link between food and addiction.

Why does fast food love Mitt Romney?

The battle for London’s markets.

Cooking along with Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s Domestic Cookery (1845).

Food at the Olympics.

Sean Brock, the tattooed chef who’s reinventing southern cuisine.

An interview with Michael Pollan.

How to explode a watermelon with rubber bands.

The UnFancy Food Show.

All about hummus.

Why do some restaurants fear the number thirteen?

Stick twist bread.

Darina Allen on collecting sea urchins.

Marion Cunningham’s baking powder biscuits (scones to the rest of us).

Freezing herbs in olive oil preserves them.

How to make your own creme de cassis.

Looking for loganberries.

Papercraft food.

Has the mania for bacon gone too far?

Eat more beetroot.

Maslow’s hierarchy of coffee chains.

Recipes for blueberries.

A tablecloth which turns the table into a fort.

An advertisement for coffee from the 1650s.

Henna-patterned spiced cream cheese.

An interview with James Ramsden.

Food t-shirts.

Photographs of meals in literature.

How to make perfect rice.

Cupcakes vs pie.

Dead celebrities reborn in food.

Food Links, 12.10.2011

In praise of the Great British Bake Off.

The University of Stellenbosch now sells milk.

How Whole Foods encourages its shoppers to spend money.

I’m enjoying Grist’s new Food Studies series.

An interview with the amazing Joyce Molyneux of the Carved Angel.

Liberal and conservative food preferences.

The British government abolishes sell-by dates.

Curry in Japan. (Thanks Mum!)

Bum sandwiches.

The queue for the opening of the first branch of McDonald’s in Moscow in 1990. More recently, Russia seems to be embracing foodie-ism.

The best fish and chips in Cape Town.

Why African governments need to prepare for a food insecure future.

Somerset cider brandy gains protected status from the European commission. *hic*

Peruvian food seems to be increasingly popular.

Jay Rayner cooks with Rene Redzepi.

Check out the World Development Movement’s comprehensive report on food speculation.

Banks and the trade in food commodities.

Goldman Sachs and the food speculation frenzy.

Wall Street, food speculation, and grain researves.

The link between food speculation and high food prices.

How food speculation has impacted on Mexico’s maize farmers – and fuelled a tortilla crisis.

Why we need to regulate food speculation.

How to take action against banks involved in food speculation.