Tag Archives: Food policy

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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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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Farm To Table, New Orleans, August 8-10 2015

Symposium-Logo-Website-Header1

The 3rd Annual Farm to Table International Conference is scheduled for August 8-10, 2015, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. F2Ti features the brightest thought leaders and leading practitioners in the burgeoning farm-to-table movement. F2Ti explores the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of food and drink sourced locally to globally. It takes place in tandem with the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s Annual Foodservice & Hospitality EXPO, an event attracting food and beverage professionals from across the country.

This year’s theme, “A Feast for the Senses,” spotlights the sensual aspects of food and drink at every stage of the agricultural-culinary cycle. Topics will include, but are not limited to, best practices in urban farming, bringing products to market, sourcing locally, enhancing sustainability, and the latest trends and developments in the industry, including food science, security, and safety.

Program Features:

  • Panels on best practices in the following educational tracks:

•    Crop to Cup (Brewing, Distilling, Vinting, plus non-alcoholic beverages)
•    Farming and Production
•    Food and Beverage Journalism and Media
•    Farm to School
•    Food Innovation (Science, Technology, Trends, etc.)

  • Keynote speakers of national and international standing
  • Numerous opportunities for networking during the three-day conference program
  • Chef Demos and “Knowledge Center” presentations

WHO SHOULD ATTEND:

  • Chefs, mixologists, and restaurateurs
  • Researchers, academics, and policymakers
  • Farmers and agricultural professionals
  • Writers, publishers, and media
  • Slow food advocates
  • Brewers, distillers, vintners, and distributors
  • Farmers markets and urban farmers
  • Nutritionists and health professionals
  • Grocers and retailers
  • CSA/RSA
  • Foragers
  • Food incubators
  • Food hubs

Additional information can be found here. Registration is here.

F2T is produced by the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in partnership with the SoFAB Institute and the LSU AgCenter.

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What’s happening with the Washington Metro Food System?

Star Gazing Farm, Boyds, Maryland, photo by Sheila Crye

Star Gazing Farm, Boyds, Maryland, photo by Sheila Crye

Sheila Crye
Young Chefs, Inc.

The National Capital area is home to more than 6.52 million socioeconomically and culturally diverse people. Urban areas are surrounded by a rich agricultural community that comprises 28 percent of the region’s land mass and contributes about $1 billion per year to its economy. Because the much of population is relatively well-educated and affluent, there is an increasing demand for locally-sourced foods.

The food movement provides both an opportunity and a dilemma for regional farmers and producers of value-added products. There are growing numbers of new farmers and food entrepreneurs ready to expand small-scale, local food production. Local governments support the training of more table food producers to meet the growing demand for local, sustainable food, because they see it as a long-lasting element of their economy.

Farming is only sustainable if it is profitable. The dilemma for the prospective farmers comes from agriculture’s many challenges, particularly the high cost of land, labor and housing. Because the average cost of an acre of land in the Washington region is more than $75,000, prospective farmers often rent or lease land.

In an effort to control nutrient runoff that continues to foul the Chesapeake Bay, farmers must deal with extensive Federal, State and County regulations. Small-scale farming yields a low return on investment, and many farmers must seek off-farm income to make ends meet. Farming is hard physical labor. Unirrigated farmland is a high-risk endeavor, but water access can be difficult. There are comparatively few new farmers. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, the average farmer is 60 years old.

Much of the Chesapeake region’s 1.5 million acres of agriculture is dedicated to growing corn and soybeans for animal feed. Most of this goes to the Eastern Shore poultry industry, ranked sixth among the nation’s poultry producing areas. Delmarva chickens consumed over 104.3 million bushels of corn and soybean feed in 2013.

Some counties, such as Loudoun in Virginia, have begun developing a food hub to aggregate local produce and work out the logistics of implementing farm to school programs. The D.C. Central Kitchen is the only USDA-recognized food hub in the District of Columbia, aggregating and redistributing more than 200,000 pounds of local produce each year. In northern Virginia, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture includes a farm, mobile market, food hub and new farmer education program.

Without a doubt, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), affiliated with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, is the region’s leader in educating food policy councils and coalitions as well as high school and college students.

On October 5-8, 2014, the CLF hosted the Chesapeake Food Policy Leadership Institute. The goal was to build a network of food policy leaders who can more effectively lead food policy groups and better understand food policy actions.

“Teaching the Food System” curriculum, created by CLF, is free and downloadable. It includes topics like food history, food and animal production, processing, and distribution, food marketing, and food security. The curriculum is geared toward high school and college students and aims to give them a big-picture understanding of agriculture today.

“Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity,” edited by Roni Neff, PhD, CLF Research and Policy Director, was published last month, October, 2014. The textbook looks at a variety of food system issues and focuses attention on connections to public health and other fields.

Silver Spring Fresh Farm Market, Silver Spring,  Maryland

Silver Spring Fresh Farm Market, Silver Spring, Maryland. Photo by Sheila Crye.

In 2012, CLF published a Baltimore City Food Environment map of businesses where residents could buy food, along with neighborhood demographic data. The map pinpointed where healthy food choices were and weren’t available. It was the precursor of CLF’s Maryland Food System Map, an interactive mapping tool and database to investigate Maryland’s food system, including how food is grown, processed, sold and consumed.

Currently CLF is working with Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture to develop a foodshed plan for the mid-Atlantic region. They’ve partnered with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to better understand what food deserts mean in rural areas and how to map them accurately. And they’re working with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, which approved use of the map for city programs and policy development.

Sheila Crye is a founding member of the Montgomery County Food Council, where she chairs the Food Literacy Working Group. Her business, Young Chefs, teaches healthful home cooking skills to disadvantaged middle school youths through a grant-funded after-school program called Excel Beyond the Bell.

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CFP: Trusting the hand that feeds you

Conference of possible interest to readers of this blog:

The interdisciplinary research group Social & Cultural Food Studies (FOST) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel invites papers and panel proposals for its 2015 conference, Trusting the hand that feeds you. Understanding the historical evolution of trust in food, which will held in Brussels from 7 to 9 September 2015.

The conference will bring an historical perspective to the study of consumer anxieties about food. Paper proposals are due on December 15, 2014.  For more details, visit the conference web site.

 

 

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What FoodAnthropology is Reading

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

An occasional and somewhat random list of articles, books, web sites, movies, television shows, and other sources of inspiration from anthropologists of food and nutrition. Feel free to send us items we should include in future installments.

The adventures of a French ethnographic film maker traveling across the United States, exploring local foodways. This is a very intriguing web project and a stunning web site. Settle in and enjoy the experience.

Watch  a lecture by Yale historian Paul Freedman on the history of celebrity chefs, at the annual MAD symposium in Copenhagen. If you visit the Mad site, you will find lots of other interesting lectures.

An interview with historian Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, about the role of sugar in contemporary diets, spotted by anthropologist Leslie Carlin.

Anthropologist and former SAFN president Janet Chrzan sends in this article in Mother Jones , which looks at a few recent studies about the American diet and concludes that while some people are eating better, any overall change in national eating habits will need to be driven by changes in the economy (income inequality, for example), rather than in the food system.

From Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, to Green Acres, people have made fun of city folks who want to be farmers. But if you are seriously considering it, this piece from Modern Farmer might be a helpful read.

The U.S. Postal Service is honoring chefs with a new series of stamps. The article that explains this also discusses stamps in other countries that honor iconic foods. It might be even better if the stamps were scratch and sniff (maybe not the chef stamps, however).

School lunch has become one of the battle fields for the American culture wars. This article, by Franco-American journalist Hélène Crié-Wiesner, tries to make sense of the fight for French readers. The article, which is in French, suggests that the debate is less about food and kids and more about anti-Obama propaganda.

We have not seen the first issue of Render: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly, but the web site is pretty interesting and you may want to take a look. For example, Phylisa Wisdom’s article on loving Mexican food in the context of U.S. immigration debates poses some sharp questions about culture, representation, labor, immigration, and other issues and might help start a robust discussion in a food studies class.

On the subject of journals, there is a new(ish) Canadian Food Studies journal and it is open access, so you can go ahead a read it even now. And if you want, you can also submit articles. Details and issues (well, 1.5 issues, it looks like so far) on the web site.

And on the subject of immigration and labor, this recent article in The New Yorker describes the efforts to organize fast food workers that have resulted in increasingly large protests, sit-ins and strikes in the last few years. The central demand is for a $15 hourly minimum wage in the industry along with recognition for unions, but the industry objects that this is too much. From the daily lives of workers, to the history of unions, the organization of the fast food and broader restaurant industry, there is much in this article for class discussions.

What are other food anthropologists reading? Let us know!

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