Food, Wrapped Up

This week I would like to wrap up my series on food, and leave you with a little light reading and a film to watch.

Wrapped up Food

Wrapped up Food

My first post Technology in Food Production contained a general overview of how modern farming techniques are effecting our lives. Most of the comments made expressed surprise at the levels of GM organisms that are currently being farmed and the profits generated by the industry.

The following are taken from comments posted, from various different contributors:

“The statistics you cite are shocking. I had no idea GM was so widespread”.

“It is also scary to see the profits made by processed food companies matched with those made by agricultural businesses”.

“With so many farms producing GM foods and so much money behind it I really doubt anyone’s chances of keeping the products contained”.

The second post in the series was entitled What Actually is GM Food? In it I suggest that much of the population is unclear about what modification actually implies, and describe some of the most widespread techniques. Once more issues of money, safety and acceptance appeared throughout the comments.

The following is from Neil seems to sum up the debate quite beautifully:

“I can see the socio economic benefits of developing fast growing disease, herbicide and insect resistant crops. While on the other hand I worry about the potential long term effects on humans when we ingest the GM foods”.

And Christopher offered some thoughts on the pros versus cons debate that Neil touched upon above:

“I do however think that the reduction in pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide use is a good thing – as they all have proven negative externalities”.

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem was the third post, and it addresses changes in our bodies caused my the consumption of processed foods and other changes in food consumption patterns.

Comments once more raised the issue of profits from processing and improved food security and opposing sides of the same debate:

“Processing has always being a big part of the packaged food. That is why the packaging services and suppliers make such big fortunes from their services. On the other end, processing is necessary for food items as it improves security and safety. Most of the packaged food is bacteria free and safe to use”.

Experts, Regulation and Food described the close ties between regulating bodies and the industries they regulate in the USA, and also referred to similar problems that may be arising in Europe. The focus is on seed companies and the regulation of GM products, but the argument is much broader than this in reality.

The perspective is that when an industry looks for experts to form a regulating body, they inevitably look within the industries, raising the question of conflicts of interests.

Once more Neil summarizes in the comments:

“It’s a tricky one as in most industries the people who know the most about the industry will always be the experts who are working within the industry. In an area like GM foods I would guess that it would be very difficult for an outsider to have the same degree of understanding”.

I am not sure that I agree with him though that there is such a need for experts. If we take the GM issue the result of non public participation in the debate and regulation surrounding their introduction lead to physical and destructive confrontation. This is not a good result for either side in the debate, but maybe if the public had been consulted during the process (and not just the so-called experts) the result might have been less violent.

The fifth post in the series is a book review and description of Alternative Food Provisioning Networks. These networks offer an alternative to mainstream participation in the global agricultural market, favouring local organic production and co-production.

It is written from experience as I am a member of one of these groups described in the book in Italy and now a similar group in the USA. Once more Neil commented on the ammount of money these groups move into the alternative economy:

“80 million Euro’s is no small amount. I guess it is a bit like reverting back to a village type structure without the village”.

GM, Blowing in the Wind is the sixth post in the series. It addresses various legal issues that have grown out of the fact that GM organisms become airborne and blow onto other people’s land and grow there. There are two different problems addressed, farmers whose land is “contaminated” who lose money, and farmers who risk legal action for patent infringement because GM seeds are found on their land. Once again issues of regulation come to the fore as I raise the question of how they effect the development of the field.

Last week’s post was Wasted Food, and it is about the amount of food that the current system produces that is not consumed. It is a harsh analysis, but I take my data from respected sources.

The post addresses ideas such as freeganism and other ways of using waste food products, and concludes with some questions about the real reason for hunger in the world. Once more Neil offers a closing comment:

“It would be interesting to see the wastage levels before and after the introduction of use by dates. Given that the producers need to have a reasonable margin for error it must have been one of the biggest contributors to the wastage.

Also, in the US you appear to have a dining culture where it is expected that you get more food than you can finish (hence the invention of the doggy bag) and people are disappointed by smaller portions. This must create a lot of waste at the catering level as well as all of the doggy bags thrown away a week or so later.

It is a shame that there is no way of redistributing that food to poorer nations”.

As a final thought I would like to recommend a film and an article, both of which add flesh to the argument that I hope to have introduced over the last couple of months.

Food.Inc is a documentary made in 2008 about the US food industry. It is available here. It goes into further depth on many of the topics I have raised through interviews and investigation. It is a great film but I warn you, it is not a comedy!

This article in New Yorker magazine tells the story of how a herbicide producer spent years trying to discredit a University of California Berkeley Professor who seemed to find side effects linked to the use of the herbicide. It is a disturbing story of how the agricultural industry (and the regulators to some degree) maintain control of information and findings published to the public. I was going to write a post about it but I wanted to finish on a more positive note.

I would like to thank everyone who read and/or commented upon the series. I hope it was informative and even maybe will go some way to doing some good in the world. A quote from the greatest of all:

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”.

Alternative Food Provisioning Networks

As a continuation of my food series, I would like to take a look at alternative food provisioning networks, via a review of Italian anthropologist Cristina Grasseni’s new book ‘Beyond Alternative Food Networks’. The book describes strategies used by groups to avoid interaction with the industrialized food mechanism, much of which I have debated in the other posts in the series.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Grasseni’s book gives an account of the inner workings of Italy’s solidarity purchase groups. These groups are informal collections of families, working together to procure food and other products from mainly local producers in order to reclaim sovereignty over their purchasing.

The model is extremely innovative, both in terms of its positive health and social benefits and financial implications. Groups make agreements with local farmers to buy their produce in return for guarantees regarding production processes (organic, tax paid, worker’s rights etc). The producer benefits because they can sell their produce directly to the consumer, and so is not held hostage by distributors and retailers. The consumer gains because they know who has produced their product, how, where and under which conditions. Group members can buy hygiene and baby products, detergents and a range of household goods through the network, offering a source of income to specialist socially and environmentally friendly producers.

Although this system might sound like a Utopian fringe, Grasseni points out that the groups spend about 80 million Euro a year in Italy alone (about $110 million), in effect moving this sum from the regular economy into this more direct exchange. The number of groups is in rapid expansion and has led to the creation of networks of groups, national conferences and organizations and even the creation of ‘districts of solidarity economies’.

The book argues that this alternative economics structure is trust based, with all parties within the transaction knowing and directly relating with the others. Several organizations work entirely within the structure providing goods only for the groups. The following examples of the dairy and the shoemaker really show the potential of the model.

In 2009 a local dairy farmer converted to organic production in order to supply these groups. This involved downsizing and specialization, but several years later the farm found itself in financial difficulty. Members of the groups ran an email campaign and in about a month raised 150 000 Euro (more than $200 000) to bail the dairy out. The money was passed on, the dairy survived and now produces milk and cheese for the very same groups that saved it. With the banks no longer involved, the farmer can sell the produce at retail prices directly to the groups and make enough money to live and repay the initial bailout loan.

The story of the shoemaker is similar. After being forced into downsizing the shoemaker was left with capability but little market. He withdrew from the mainstream economy and now provides made to measure shoes through the network. There is a traveling catalog, so once found you can choose a style and size and order your new shoes that then arrive through the post. They are also sold through a network of non profit organizations that have relationships with the groups.

This book certainly leads the reader into a new way of thinking about food production. The cover contains a quote from Peter Utting, Deputy Director of the united Nations Research Institute for Social Development. He states that “Grasseni provides fascinating insights into how alternative approaches to food provisioning can transform social and economic relationships in ways that bode well for contemporary global challenges of sustainability, social justice and rebuilding human relations built on trust”.

If you would like to learn more about these alternative approaches, take a look at the following links:

Rete Gas is the Italian national GAS network.

The Food Alergy and Anaphylaxis Network has a dedicated page.

The Grassroots Innovation website also has plenty of information.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks by Cristina Grasseni is published by Bloomsbury and available through Amazon via the link above.

I would like to add that although this review is not paid, I do know the author very well. I am also a GAS member.

Fixed, a Film Review

A couple of weeks ago I went to a science conference called S.NET here in Boston. On the first day a film called Fixed was shown, followed by a discussion with the Director. The film was about commonly held beliefs about ‘disability’, and technological ‘fixes’ seen through the eyes of a series of people who use these fixes or work in the field. See the film website here.

My first post on Technology Bloggers was about elective amputation, and in that post I wanted to raise the idea that people may choose to replace parts of their body for better functioning prosthetic devices. This may seem far fetched, but today the US military are a leader in pioneering eye surgery. They operate on pilots with perfect vision in order to make it even better, see this article for a brief overview.

So this leads to questioning the entire idea of able bodied or not. And this is reflected in the title of the film. We are no longer able, now we can take drugs that enhance our learning, have the blemishes in our eyes touched up so that we see better than anyone else, and use body suits that give us super human strength.

It looks to me as if able just got better, but of course how far are we prepared to go? OK, once in a while I might think about helping my brain out a bit with a prescription drug, but of course not every day. Maybe just before my university exams though, and what when the other people in the office start using them every day? I will get left behind so I will have to join them, or should I stand by my ethical convictions and remain disabled?

But back to the film. The protagonists are an interesting lot. One makes bionic limbs, and uses a couple himself after a climbing accident. And he wouldn’t take our second rate skin and bone legs back for a moment! He can climb better, run up the stairs, doesn’t get cramp, can screw on a new foot when he needs different shaped toes, his legs are great.

Another follows one of my great interests, the implications of newly emerging technologies for prenatal screening. One is a test pilot, working for a company that is developing an exoskeleton that allows people with no leg use to walk, another at MIT working on human/machine collaborations, there is a biochemist and somebody who has had sensors fitted to his brain that allow him to use a robot arm through thought.

Not to mention the diving wheelchair.



The film speaks about ‘abelism’, an idea that leads to the possibility of using the dis prefix to describe somebody. The concept is obviously prejudicial and distinctly flawed, particularly today when our able state may not be as natural as we once thought.

There is a field called tranhumanism, more of a movement than a field, that celebrates the dynamic interplay between humanity and the acceleration of technology. There are many websites if you want to search the term. Practitioners see these developments as positive, a brave new future for an old model (the human).

There is a fine line here. Obviously helping someone who cannot walk is a great thing, but we might be moving towards improvement as a model, and no longer at fixing.

I would recommend the film to all. The website linked above has a trailer and list of upcoming screenings, and although it is not yet on general release, I think the film-makers would be pleased to receive contacts. Check out the Trailer here.