Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 2)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

(Part 1 of this 2 part series is here.)

As a possible antidote or balance for someone seeking ways ag-biotech might contribute to sustainable agriculture and food systems, I searched not the web, but local university library shelves, and located a 2012 edited volume that promised to fill out this more positive bill. In this essay collection, The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply, eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), I sought updates and possible answers to the role of biotech coverissues raised in The GMO Deception. Peggy Lemaux’s chapter, “Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply,” was the most likely candidate, but did not provide completely satisfactory responses. A multi-authored interdisciplinary project paper on Healthy Potatoes for Wisconsin was similarly discouraging on major issues, such as outlooks for social equity and renewable soils. From beginning to end, issues of equity, or shared prosperity, were also concerns.

Lemaux’s chapter was an update of her 2008 Ann. Rev. of Plant Biology 59:771-812 article: “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues. (Part I)” It briefly reviews and dismisses many of the safety questions raised in GeneWatch reports, which were collected in the edited “Deception” volume. Some of her analyses effectively blunt well-publicized anti-GMO concerns. For example, no food plants GE’d to express anti-freeze fish genes have ever been released or approved for human consumption. Lower nutrient contents found in some comparative studies of GE versus conventional food-plant varieties are within the normal range of variation found in conventional food-plant products. Higher than expected nutrient values that are purposely introduced by GE must be so labeled. There are many and more diverse food-safety studies on GE foods than GeneWatch editors would lead one to believe.

But other cases remain troubling. For example, “Were potatoes engineered to produce a lectin unsafe to eat?” The studies she cites, with respect to Pusztai’s findings, don’t accurately settle the matter whether it was the lectins or GE process that introduced damaging toxins into the small number of laboratory rats that consumed the lectin-containing potatoes. If the pro-GMO community was so concerned about the negative outcomes and publicity, why didn’t anyone reproduce the study with clearly presented, standard methodologies and proper controls?Analogously, why are there not more rigorous studies countering the possible toxic implications of Roundup Ready soybeans on reproductive outcomes, as asserted by Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose laboratory methods were also said to lack proper controls, and whose work was not subjected to rigorous peer review? Lemaux’s treatment of allergen issues similarly suggests the need for more diverse testing of Bt corn varieties. Finally, it would appear to be a no-brainer that GE of plants as pharmaceutical delivery vehicles should avoid common food crops, in order to prevent any possible contamination and unintended entry of pharmaceuticals into the food supply chain. Even “The Grocery Manufacturers of America urged the USDA to restrict plant-made pharmaceutical production to non-food crops” (Lemaux 2012:131). Her conclusions, that “In deciding whether the crop should be grown in the field the focus should be on possible consequences of such mixing” can be taken to suggest that this focus is not yet implemented. Her final point, on global production of GE crops, also raises alarms: “The potential use of a wider range of organisms as sources of genes to introduce new traits and the creation of GE crops and foods by countries with less rigorous regulatory structures present new identification and safety assessment challenges for foods” (p.133).

Then there are the “who benefits?” and “who takes the risks?” questions. A multi-disciplinary Wisconsin case study of Healthy Grown potatoes, which use GE traits to lower needs for chemical inputs and thereby lower toxicity scores admits: “The economic advantage to the grower, packer, or other parts of the potato industry is uncertain.” The researchers assume “Transformed varieties will certainly incur license fees for seed and other potential costs.” In addition, if pest-resistant potatoes raise production through greater efficiencies, this likely would cause prices to fall, with no certainty that consumer demand would increase to make up the difference. This would decrease profitability, although one might argue, on the positive side, that reduced expenses for inputs, and reduced exposure to pesticides are pluses. (p.207) (All these points are taken from the chapter: Bussan, Alvin J., Deana Knuteson, Jed Colquhoun, Lary Binning, Shelley Jansky, Jiming Jiang, Paul D. Mitchell, Water R. Stevenson, Russell Groves, Jeff Whyman, Matt Ruark, and Keith Kelling. Case Study. Healthy Grown Potatoes and Sustainability of Wisconsin Potato Production. Pp.192-211.)

Loss of biodiversity in major food crops is also a persistent issue recognized among proponents. Whereas in the US, within less than a decade, Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant, Roundup-Ready (RR) trait had been inserted into more than 1,100 local varieties of soybean, which had been selected by farmers and breeders over the years to “optimize yields and other product properties specific to local conditions,” such rapid GE breeding facilities are not routinely available in developing countries, where “When a transgenic trait is not available in a local variety, a farmer must switch to a generic variety in which the trait is available. This switch is likely to result in yield and other losses. Farmers trade off gains from the trait with losses from the generic variety.” Only where the proper “incentives” are available will “seed supplier … add the transgenic traits to local varieties” ; that is, “where the necessary genetic materials are available at low transaction costs and where there is sufficient technical capacity to backcross or modify local varieties at relatively low cost” (p.256) Although these conditions may be met in large producing places, such as the US, China, and India, “Concern regarding lack of technical capacity may lead to the introduction of only a few generic transgenic varieties in Africa, unless that capacity is upgraded.” Such observations are consistent with GeneWatch reports indicating pressures on seed stores to sell transgenic varieties and concerns about reductions in biodiversity. (p.256). Concerns about co-evolution of pests, including Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-tolerant weeds are also acknowledged as management challenges that emerge in the proliferation and expansion of GE crop plants (p.257). All these points are raised in the chapter by Graff, Gregory D. and David Zilberman (2012) “Agricultural Biotechnology. Equity and Prosperity”, pp.252-266.)

Hopefully Lemaux will continue to explore and communicate new findings on the ways GE crops can be part of sustainable food systems. (Lemaux, Peggy G. (2012) Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply. In The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply. Eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper. Pp.122-140. New York: Cambridge University Press.) Her frustrations at being unable to commercialize products that she has developed in the lab, are chronicled in a 2014 Berkeley Science Review interview (Gadye, Levi (2014) GM to Order). This journalist’s piece identifies new breeding technologies, including CRISPR gene-editing techniques, as possible solutions, which can circumvent corporate intellectual property rights and high patent and licensing fees that keep university scientists from moving useful, targeted products to market. These innovative gene-editing techniques take GE products out of the hands of Monsanto and a few other domineering corporate conglomerates and potentially have wide applications across a range of crops. Targeted species include vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava that have proved more difficult to genetically-transform and regenerate consistently to deliver traits of interest.

But these innovative techniques continue and possibly raise the risk-monitoring concerns that currently constrain university and other scientists and technologists, whose reasoning will not automatically dispel public distrust and questionable understandings of science. High profile GE salmon and Campbell Soup’s recent decision to label all GMO ingredients should contribute to a flavorful and simmering stew for 2016.

 

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Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 1)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

GMO deception cover

Krimsky, Sheldon and Jeremy Gruber, eds. 2014. The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know About the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

This collection of short essays, most taken from the anti-GMO watchdog newsletter, GeneWatch, provides a thirty year documentation of the wiles of Big Ag agrochemical and seed operations, which now dominate US agriculture and increasingly, the rest of the world. GeneWatch and its Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit non-governmental organization, since 1983 have been dedicated to monitoring biotechnology’s social, environmental, and ethical consequences. Here you can read and reflect on their evidence and arguments, and draw your own conclusions, which the editors intend should replicate theirs, which assert that past through current developments in ag-biotech are a credible threat to future food, environment, and society in the US and the world.

If you enter these readings with a mind-set already made up that Monsanto and its corporate competitors and co-conspirators are untrustworthy, you will find all the reference points to document your positions. If you were pro-GMO and have been following the controversies, you will encounter studies, like Hungarian-Scottish scientist Arpad Pusztai’s claims that selected lectin (protein) from genetically-engineered potatoes sickened laboratory rats, that you probably questioned, because you wondered at the methodology and the conclusions, which were announced prior to view or vetting by peer scientists. But you will also engage troubling essays that compellingly argue that there needs to be much more holistic analysis of genetically-engineered products in wider and longer-term farm, field, dietary, and nutritional contexts. Martha Crouch’s “Patented Seeds vs. Free Inquiry” clearly documents Monsanto’s unwillingness to let independent scientists run experiments to determine biological values, such as levels of glyphosate in pollen and nectar, from fields sown with their Round-up Ready (herbicide tolerant) soybeans. Probing questions of “who benefits?” versus “who bears the risks?” pervade most of these essays, which strongly support the views that corporations predominantly enjoy the rewards whereas the considerable risks are borne by the farmers, seed stores, and consumers who cultivate, sell, or ingest their products.

If you were resisting polarization on the issues, and trying to find ways to make genetic-engineering science and technology more friendly and compatible with agroecological methods, these essays, as a set, will prove discouraging. Their individual and overall messaging indicate that corporations, led by Monsanto, deal in deception. These large seed-chemical conglomerates, furthermore, control government regulators; as lobbyists, they write most of the legislation and regulations. More fundamentally, most of these essays argue that it is unrealistic to expect genetic engineering (GE) to help solve agricultural and ecological problems because GE science-and-technology is simplifying. Seed-chemical constructions seek one or a few stacked genes at a time to resolve what are complex moving targets and agricultural challenges. Although GE experimental research can help pinpoint genes, biochemical processes, pathways, and gene-products of interest, the resulting information and materials are best applied through marker-assisted breeding, where the pleiotropic effects, or unanticipated consequences for the whole plant-in-ecosystem, can be more completely studied and controlled. This is as close as proponents get to a “middle” path that spans the arguments on both poles.

Personally, as someone who favors a middle path, I did not come away convinced that GM foods are unsafe or unhealthy for people or livestock to eat, which is the argument of the essays in “Part 1: Safety Studies: Human and Environmental Health”. But I already endorse arguments for labeling (Part 2), think that much more should be written about GMOS in the Developing World (Part 3), worry about the risks of corporate control over agriculture and associated limitations on more holistic research (Part 4) and corporate dominance of regulation, policy, and law (Part 5). Essays on “ecology and sustainability” (Part 6), some newly written for this volume, and the ethics of GMOs (Part 7) are thought-provoking, especially for those who challenge ungrounded assertions that genetically-engineered plants and animals are critical for eliminating world hunger. World hunger is largely caused by social, economic, and political factors, and not amenable to a technological fix, which ostensibly threatens to increase local to global inequalities. These ethical debates spill over into Part 8, “Modifying Animals for Food”.

The editors of this volume, philosopher Sheldon Krimsky, and environmental (legal) activist Jeremy Gruber, would like to relegate the future of genetically-engineered food to the dustbins of history. But this is unlikely to happen because there are so many economic and political investments in biotech industry profiting from deceptive claims and promotions. An appendix of “Resources: What You Can Do About GMOs” lists 23 research and advocacy organizations that will make sure the polarization continues and ten lively, but by now outdated volumes on perils of genetic technologies. The Foreword, by seasoned consumer advocate Ralph Nader, sets these essays firmly in his “consumer take action” camp.

Sheldon Krimsky has just published a meta-analysis of the health consequences of genetically-engineered foods. He finds no consensus, as alleged by proponents, that GMO products are safe. This is the next chapter in his “GMO Deceptions” writings. The editors are also updating the paperback edition of the book, which contains new links to activist organizations.  (Krimsky, Sheldon 2015 An Illusory Consensus Behind GMO Health Assessment. Science, Technology, and Human Values, pp.1-32. Sage.)

 

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“D.C. is Mambo Sauce”

Early in my fieldwork, I met Kameron (pseudonym) at Denny’s, the only sit down restaurant in Ward 7 at the time. Our conversation spanned several topics, but when we turned to gentrification, she made a distinction between “Washington” and “D.C.”:

“Washington is government. It’s politics. It’s the capital. D.C. is east of the (Anacostia) river. D.C. is carryouts. D.C. is mambo sauce. That’s the real D.C.”

This distinction between “Washington” and “DC” is not an uncommon for the city’s natives, particularly African-American natives, to make. They have long experienced the tensions between Washington, DC as the center of national and even international politics and as the site of persistent inequalities. However, this conversation was the first time someone used mambo sauce to symbolize the difference between the city’s two halves.

Though its origins are murky, Mambo sauce is a recognizable staple for many in D.C. and

IMG_1109

Sept. 2015: I wore this shirt honoring D.C. staples to my dissertation defense. It reads, “Mambo Sauce, Go-Go, & Half Smokes.” 

in some ways is used as a barometer for authenticity. Mambo sauce’s origins are as illusive as its ingredients. The mysterious mix of ketchup, hot sauce, and BBQ sauce is sometimes credited to a restaurant owner in Chicago, though DCers claim it as their own.

The real D.C., as Kameron put it, is marked by the recognition of a staple like Mambo sauce that had become associated with predominantly black and low-income communities.

The same year, The Washington Post published an article title, “Mumbo* Sauce Gets Gentrified.” The popular “D.C.” condiment made its way on upscale menus in “Washington,” blurring that distinction that my research participant pointed out.

This condiment is a lens through which to understand the many ways food becomes a clear indicator of social and cultural shifts—whether those shifts occur through diffusion or systematic shifts in the power to claim or name important cultural objects. What are the implications of mambo sauce’s inclusion on “upscale” menus in Washington? How does this shift the meaning and experience of it? The Washington Post’s use of “gentrified” alludes to this shift as something more than simple diffusion; instead, it implies unequal power dynamics. The systematic, oftentimes violent shifts in demographics, access, and power in Washington, D.C. have race and class implications. Mambo sauce, mostly found in Carryouts located in predominantly black neighborhoods, became a powerful symbol and metaphor for those changes. From the carryouts in the ‘hood to the upscale Hamilton’s menu. Where does “Washington” end and “D.C.” begin?

 

*Mumbo is an alternative spelling of Mambo

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What Food Anthropology Is Reading Now: January 24 Edition

January 24, 2016: Hello FoodAnthropology readers. Doubtless, some of you are getting buried in the East Coast snowpocalypse, and others are closely following the political race in caucus states. We have reads for both groups, and much more:

There were warnings this week for the snow-bound: do not eat the snow. Or, if you do: do not eat the first snow. Studies have shown that snow absorbs toxic pollutants from the air, and it’s possible that the freezing temperatures could cause the release of additional toxic compounds: Snow Soaks Up Toxic Pollutants In The Air, Study Shows

There was also speculation from a number of sources about Americans’ pre-storm panics. Why, given the wide variety of shelf-stable sustenance available, do Americans make a run on milk, bread, and (sometimes) eggs? A 2005 article from the Washington Post describes it as a “symbolic survival schema”–invoking manna and mothers’ milk–while the psychologists interviewed for “Milk, Bread, and Eggs: The Trinity of Winter-Storm Panic Shopping” suggest that the short shelf life of these items offers a psychological promise that storm will end soon. The only anthropologist consulted for the piece reminds us that it’s not just milk and bread: alcohol is also a pre-storm staple for many.

If alcohol was one of your pre-storm bulk buys, you may be interested in article from National Geographic’s The Plate discussing the long history of hangover cures: From Fried Canary to Pickled Plums, History’s Questionable Hangover Cures

In October 2015, cheesemonger Gordon Edgar released Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese. The Splendid Table interviewed him recently, and the short interview sheds some light on the history of cheesemaking and, along with it, the US food system: The history of cheddar cheese reflects the development of the U.S. food system

Anthropology News put the spotlight on a forthcoming book that may be of interest to food anthropologists: Eating NAFTA: Free Trade, Food Politics and the Destruction of Mexicofrom anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez: Eating NAFTA

Pacific Standard reported on a dentist-turned-sugar-industry-investigator is using sugar industry archives to prove “that Big Sugar steered scientists away from looking at the ingredients’ harmful effects”: The Former Dentist Uncovering Sugar’s Rotten Secrets

The Atlantic published a series of stunning photographers from a year in the life of an American wheat farmer: Faith, Family, and the American Farmer

Finally, a moment of bipartisan consensus: on the campaign trail Raw Hot Are Where It’s At, as Hillary Clinton munches raw peppers and Jeb Bush makes spicy guac to stay healthy on the go.

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The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the obfuscation of measurement

Andrea Wiley
Indiana University

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) were finally released on January 7 2016 to the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA).  The long delay between the DGA Advisory Committee Scientific Report completion (February 2015), the end of the public comment period (May 2015), and the announcement of the 2015 DGAs in January 2016 suggests a protracted period of lobbying by various food industries that ultimately produced particularly vague and timid DGAs that state that American diets need only be “nudged” by small “shifts.”  Most of the press has been appropriately cynical about these, and there is no need to belabor the role of food industry lobbyists and their insidious negative impact on the process of developing useful guidance and related policies that could actually enhance the health of Americans.  Most notably, the Scientific Report had highlighted sustainability as an important consideration for dietary guidance for the first time, and it specifically recommended that Americans reduce their consumption of red and processed meats.  Neither made it into the DGAs.

Instead, the 5 key messages of the 2015 DGAs are:

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern across the life span.
  • Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
  • Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
  • Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  • Support healthy eating patterns for all.

What is one to make of such a set of bullet points?  The only one that seems even remotely more than sloganeering is the third, and there is a curiously large gap between limits on nutrients and the overall DGA emphasis on whole eating patterns.   The third bullet point requires some knowledge of where items might be found, since nutrients, rather than foods, are its focus.  What are the main sources of added sugars?  Sodas!  Saturated fats? Red meat and cheese! Sodium?  Virtually all processed foods!

Marion Nestle has already pointed out that “eat less” messages in the DGAs are couched in terms of nutrients, while “eat more” messages encourage foods (e.g. lean meats).  The cmp_slideshow_plateMyPlate translation of this guideline is: “Drink and eat less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars”.  These are not obvious items to avoid on grocery store shelves, nor do their food sources come with bold messages: High in Added Sugar! High in Sodium!

But an additional area of obfuscation in the DGAs specifically and nutrition labeling more generally, is quantification. The first two should make up<10% of total calories (a unit most of us struggle to comprehend), and sodium should be <2300 mg. Given American’s longstanding rejection of the metric system, it’s curious that nutrients are listed on food labels or referenced in the DGAs in metric units.  In science, these are standards, but from the perspective of metric-illiterate American consumers, they are utterly useless.  For example, a 12 ounce can of soda (note use of the U.S. customary weight measure for food) has 33 grams of sugar.  How much is 33 grams? A gram seems like such a tiny unit, so this must be a minuscule amount.  Measured in more familiar units, 33 grams of sugar is over 6 teaspoons (2 tablespoons or 1/8th of a cup).  In contrast, 2300 mg of salt seems like a lot, but it is in fact only 1 teaspoon (or 2.3 grams, which makes it seem like very little!).  The teaspoon unit appears only once in the DGAs, in the recommendation for oils (to replace solid fats).

There is much more to say about the 2015 DGAs as a lost opportunity to take a strong stance on diet in relation to Americans’ high risk of diet-related chronic diseases and the long term viability of our food supply.  As it stands, it continues a long history of vague dietary guidance that will have little impact on American dietary patterns.

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The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and other items. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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What FoodAnthropology is Reading Now: January 18 Edition

January 18, 2016: Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, FoodAnthro readers! There has been quite a bit of new in the past week. If you have a link you’d like to contribute to this round up, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Of the reads I bookmarked this week to assign and discuss with a class, I most enjoyed Kate Norquay’s essay on What I Learned from Four Years Working at McDonalds.

The Southern Foodways Alliance had an essay on Tasting Laos in the North Carolina Mountains.

There were three separate pieces on chickens this week. Two focused on change in the poultry industry, the first questioning whether John Oliver’s segment on the poultry industry had an impact on poultry farmers. Politco thinks it might, as some Democratic lawmakers use the publicity to protect growers: John Oliver vs. Chicken

Along those lines, NPR’s The Salt reported on a shift toward cage-free houses for egg production: Most U.S. Egg Producers Are Now Choosing Cage-Free Houses

Last but not least in the chicken round-up, there was a brief report in the New York times on new funding for a research project that could be called “All About Chickens,” which will investigate both chicken past and questions like “how did chickens get associated with Easter?”: Chicken Weren’t Always Dinner for Humans

Netflix just announced a new Michael Pollan documentary, which will be a four-park series “that explores different methods of cooking and their evolutionary and cultural impacts on humankind, with the ultimate goal of ‘[issuing] a clarion call for a return to the kitchen in order to reclaim lost traditions and restore balance to our lives.'”It will debut February 19th: Netflix Announces New Michael Pollan Documentary Series, ‘Cooked’

In food allergy news, there was a recent study suggesting that blood cells found in newborns’ umbilical cords could predict food allergies: Cord Blood Cells Foretell Food Allergy

A bill in California that would have put warning labels on sugary drinks was defeated for the third year in a row, even as some research suggests both widespread support and efficacy: California Soda Warning Label Bill Dies as Research Suggests Efficacy

From the New York Times, Bettina Siegel discusses cultural and political reasons why making U.S. school lunches more like France would be difficult: The Real Problem with Lunch

From Lucky Peach, writer Adriane Quinlan encounters the entire world through the tasting room in the Coca Cola museum in Atlanta. Carbonated ethnography? Around the World in Eighty Cokes

Curated by the Southern Foodways Alliance, Cornbread Nation 2015 is a collection of southern food writing from last year. The best, in fact, at least if the SFA folks are right. Cornbread Nation 2015

As most readers have likely heard, a federal emergency has been declared over contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan. In the Atlantic, David Graham raises questions about how the state of Michigan ended up poisoning the water supply in Flint and inflicting brain damage on children. Water is of course the essential food and the infrastructure that delivers it in much of the United States is in bad shape, raising the question about whether or not Flint’s problems will occur elsewhere. But this is also a question of democracy and politics, as Graham notes.

For an even more in depth view of the issues in Flint and elsewhere, this article by Alana Semuels, goes into how public policy in Michigan led to this situation: Aging Pipes Are Poisoning America’s Tap Water

 

 

 

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