The year in Food

Alot happened in the food world in 2009, but the year may be most remembered as the year of the high-profile symbolic garden, thanks to the veggie patch Michelle Obama planted on the White House lawn. It created an instant buzz, and many other politicos around the world have followed suit, providing countless opportunities to educate and discuss why gardens are good.

According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households with gardens rose from 36 million in 2008 to 43 million in 2009. Obama’s garden certainly deserves some credit, but so does the recession, which inspired many people to stick their hands in the dirt, not only to save on their grocery bills, but to save on expenses related to their leisure time.

Ironically, this proliferation of home gardeners bears some of the responsibility for the rapid spread of a late tomato-blight fungus, which nearly wiped out the commercial tomato crop on the East Coast. Many gardeners bought tomato starts from stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, nearly all of which were raised by the Alabama nursery Bonnie Plants. Plant pathologists believe the nursery sent out infected plants, which slipped under the radar of agricultural inspectors and brought the spores to all corners. Unusually heavy rainfall encouraged the blight to take hold, prosper, and spread. The take-home message: Buy your plant starts from local nurseries, or grow them yourself from seeds.

In addition to kitchen gardens, another beneficiary of the recession is Clara Cannucciari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother whose YouTube videos combine salty commentary about life during the Great Depression with hands-on directions for cranking out simple delicacies that average 50 cents a serving. The videos helped win Clara a contract with St. Martin’s Press, which published Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression this past October.

It’s impossible to discuss the year in food without an update on the activities of biotech giant Monsanto, whose year can be summed up in a single word: chutzpah. In April, the company sued the sovereign nation of Germany when its agriculture minister banned the planting of a type of Monsanto corn engineered to thwart the advances of the corn-borer moth. Monsanto was unable to force Germany to allow its farmers to plant the corn, and recent research suggests Germany’s concern (which several other European countries share) may have been warranted: French scientists published a paper suggesting adverse effects of this corn — and two other types of GM corn — on the kidneys and livers of rats.

Meanwhile, Monsanto’s practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice, which this month has indicated it’s considering antitrust litigation. Monsanto’s string of acquisitions have squelched almost any possibility of competition, while its seed prices have risen by an average of 42 percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company hired the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of USDA chief Tom Vilsack. This is further indication that keeping Monsanto in line is about as easy as trying to wrestle an anaconda.

Monsanto owns the rights to genetic sequences found in more than 85 percent of the corn planted in the United States, and 92 percent of soy. Given the prevalence of corn and soy in the American diet, it’s hard to take a bite of any packaged food without eating Monsanto’s handiwork. What’s scary is how little research has actually been done in the area of food safety, and that nearly all such research has been conducted by the company itself.

While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto’s main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetically engineered seeds actually don’t increase productivity. Another study, by the Organic Center, found that since the introduction of “Round-Up tolerant” corn, soy, and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: Between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of other herbicides by 31 percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Nonetheless, the company’s website promotes the seeds as a key component in “sustainable agriculture.”

While Monsanto has coopted the term “sustainable agriculture,” retail giant Wal-Mart, already the world’s largest vendor of organic food, is now poised to capitalize on the popularity of locally grown food — it’s looking at ways individual stores can carry foods grown by local farmers. Another large grocer, Safeway, has this year begun aggressively pushing a “locally grown” marketing campaign, while blatantly taking advantage of the ambiguity in the term “local.” A writer by the name of Food Dude, on the Portland, Oregon blog Portland Food and Drink, busted Safeway with photographs of produce bearing out-of-state stickers next to signs announcing “I’m Local!” and “Locally Grown.”

That the “sustainable,” “local,” and “organic” bandwagons are becoming attractive to large corporations, arguably, is a good sign. It shows these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. And one of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message has been the movie Food, Inc., whose depressing yet important message about the American diet was seen by enough people to make it the highest-grossing documentary of 2009.

The year closed with the anti-climactic climate summit in Copenhagen, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged the huge role that livestock plays in global warming — more than transportation activities by most estimates. Vilsack announced plans to build methane-capture facilities at large dairy farms in order to turn that potent greenhouse gas into an energy source. Vilsack deserves credit for working to keep agriculture at the forefront of climate change discussions.

On the other hand, searching for ways to enable the cattle industry, while politically expedient in the short term, is shortsighted in the long-term. Which brings us to my prediction for next year’s (or next decade’s) hot topic: serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine. From the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses to the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, given the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat, the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point. •

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