I hope you had a good break over the holiday season, if you had a break at all. I know I did. So, here we go again, with my hand-picked selection of food and farming stories from around the internets.
There is, apparently, a ding-dong battle going on in Europe over two competing front-of-pack food labelling schemes.
In the red-yellow-green corner is France’s Nutri-Score, which gives foods a single score from A to E.
In the pale-blue corner is Italy’s Nutrinform which gives the value of five measures along with an indication of the percentage of an adult’s “reference intake” that each offers.
I had been blissfully unaware of the fight, reported in excruciating detail in Politico, probably because I am the kind of nerd who reads the actual list of ingredients to decide whether, to pick an example at random, a jar of pickled cucumbers would be best treated as dessert.
And, of course, I can see merit in both proposals. It is, as the Italians say, absurd to give Parmesan cheese a D because it is salty, and olive oil a C because it contains fats, at the same time as giving an A to both plain pasta and “ultra-processed pasta with a lot of additives and parmesan and oil”.
The excuse – “that the reason Nutri-Score does not take into account additives or how processed a food is is that it’s technically impossible to do so in a single labeling system” – tells me that the system needs re-inventing rather than mere correction.
On the other hand, Italy’s Nutrinform battery sends me, at least, completely the wrong message. Surely I want my batteries to be fully charged. So I should seek out foods that give me my entire “reference intake” for each component in every bite. That seems to require a rethink too.
Two wonky and somewhat related pieces tackle some of what’s wrong with US farm and food policy head on. The first is an article by Nathan Rosenberg and Peter Lehner that distills the conclusions of their new book Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture.
Long-time listeners of Eat This Podcast will recall Rosenberg’s contribution to demolishing some of the myths that surround America’s view of its farmers. The book continues in that vein, and the article points out six ideas that the authors say we need to revise our views on. I can’t possibly do justice to their summing up of their book, so here’s a simple list of those ideas.
There is a huge amount to unpack in all of those, and one underlying truth: the United States Department of Agriculture may not be up to the job. Which links neatly (too neatly?) to the second wonky item: Abolish the Department of Agriculture from Gabriel N. Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz at The New Republic. Their challenge:
The USDA, at this point, is so thoroughly captured by big agribusiness that it barely matters which party picks the secretary; whoever serves will ultimately serve mega-corporations and rich farmers. That’s partly because our political system over-represents rural voters and monied interests. But it’s also the product of more banal dysfunctions: poor institutional design, inertia, and mission-drift at an agency built for a different country and a different time.
The article is long and thorough and in addition to levelling some of the usual charges also offers some positive ideas. Separating the regulation of farming and food from support to farmers certainly seems like a good idea at the outset. Is change possible? It better be.
Which is why government needs to resist the food industry.
That seems to be the gist of a Guardian article on a review for the UK’s obesity research unit. “Efforts to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis are likely to fail because the public are constantly ‘bombarded’ by unhealthy food options.” Those efforts currently include plans to ban TV ads for unhealthy food and and drink before 9pm (because no-one wants an unhealthy snack after 9pm?) and more general restrictions on advertising. But the commissioned review says that something needs to be done about the easy access to unhealthy food 24 hours a day.
Even Britons who are “trying really hard” to lose weight are being “thwarted in their efforts” because of the amount of unhealthy food they encounter each day.
The review also points out that unhealthy foods are not only ubiquitous, they are also cheap. As a result, “weight management [is] ‘particularly difficult’ for people on a low income, with unhealthy food more likely to be promoted and on offer in shops and supermarkets”.
Quite frankly, on past form I cannot imagine the UK government doing anything at all about the problem. I will however, offer a very old idea of mine: Get rid of the cost benefit of larger packages. Make a 1kg bag of sweets or snacks the same price as 10 x 100g bags.
The USDA recently published this chart of wheat prices and the price of baked goods over the past 15 years or so.
The basic point is that while the price of wheat and, to a lesser extent, flour fluctuate quite a bit, the prices of baked goods change far less, because the cost of raw materials is a small part of the total cost.
It was fun, therefore, to read about the history of potato breads in the US as a response to high wheat prices. (Leave aside the fact the the author would do well to read (or listen to) Rebecca Earle on Parmentier.) While potatoes were generally touted as an antidote to expensive wheat and flour, German settlers brought with them their own fondness for kartoffelbrot, which was widely available. During World War One, the US government took up the cause of potato bread to save wheat, but had to contend with anti-German sentiment. Enter Liberty Bread and Victory Bread. Shades of Freedom Fries.
I should note that people I trust rave about a potato sourdough from the Dusty Knuckle bakery in London. There’s a recipe in Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, so I gave it a whirl. Definitely tasty, but also it contains only 15% potato (wet weight) so not much of a cost saving there.
Very interesting story: Smallhold’s Mushroom Minifarms Give New Meaning to the Term “Local Food”. I’m really not sure what to make of it. I think I would need to see a proper life-cycle analysis before I make my mind up, but the idea is certainly cute, especially for those of us who every morning wish we had the facilities to make use of the local bar’s coffee grounds, steam-sterilised for the taking.
p.s. The UK obesity unit found that Nutri-Score had the greatest impact on consumer behavour, but they didn’t check Nutrinform.