The Guardian reports:
The horsemeat scandal of 2013 proved how vulnerable our food chains are to blatant fraud perpetrated on an industrial scale. Sixteen months later, the fact that no one died or was taken seriously ill as a result of the contamination of processed beef products has seen the issue demoted as a cause for concern. But, as in China in 2008, when an industrial chemical, melamine, was added to increase the protein content of baby milk, and in the Czech Republic in 2012, when vodka was laced with methanol, it is tragically evident that food fraud can be fatal.
It is to be hoped that it will not take something catastrophic to make us pay attention to the findings of the forthcoming Elliott report (the independent inquiry set up by the government in response to the horsemeat scandal) into the integrity of our food chains. But we note that, since the scandal broke, only a couple of individuals have been charged, despite manifold evidence of fraud perpetrated by organised criminal gangs. This, it can be suggested, reflects the limited importance that law enforcement, both in the UK and further afield, attaches to food crime. Indeed, it is noticeable that there is no unit within the major police organisations, such as Acpo or the Metropolitan police, that speaks out on the issue. The National Crime Agency’s national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime threats 2014, published last Thursday, made no mention at all of food crime.
And yet the evidence of its ubiquity is there for all to see. In February, Interpol’s annual blitz against criminal networks engaged in food crime, Operation Opson III, recovered 1,200 tons of fake or substandard food and nearly 400,000 litres of counterfeit drink seized in 33 countries across Europe, the US and Asia. Reports of food crime to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are rising sharply year on year. In April, it emerged that roughly a third of lamb takeaways sampled by local authorities’ trading standards teams contained meat other than lamb.
(via Justin Pickard)
Meanwhile, according to The Economist, organized crime gangs are diversifying out of drugs and into new markets:
The buyers may be besotted ornithophiles, air-brained fashionistas or greedy gourmets. But the sellers are crooks, supplying a market which, according to America’s Congressional Research Service, is worth as much as $133 billion annually. Commodities such as rhino horn and caviar offer criminals two benefits rarely found together: high prices and low risk. Rhino horn can fetch up to $50,000 per kilogram, more than gold or the American street value of cocaine. Get caught bringing a kilogram of cocaine into America and you could face 40 years in prison and a $5m fine. On January 10th, by contrast, a New York court sentenced a rhino-horn trafficker to just 14 months.
A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely. […]
These days, seeds are intellectual property. Some are patented as inventions. You need permission from the patent holder to use them, and you’re not supposed to harvest seeds for replanting the next year.
Even university breeders operate under these rules. When Goldwin creates a new variety of onions, carrots or table beets, a technology-transfer arm of the university licenses it to seed companies.
As the article notes, seed companies also often sell hybrid seeds, which don’t produce identical offspring — think of it as a biological “DRM” system for seeds. It’s sad that “open source” isn’t the norm in agriculture.
My latest for Wired:
The world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, according to a World Resources Institute report published last year, and that means we’ll need to increase food production about 60 percent in the coming decades — a task made all the more difficult by expected shortages in water, fuel, fertilizer, and arable land. One solution could be entomophagy. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that insects could be an increasingly important and sustainable food source in the future, and Imrie-Situnayake agrees. Insects are high in protein. They require little space to raise. And they don’t produce much methane or other greenhouse gases.
Two million people around the world already eat insects on a regular basis, and many consider them a delicacy. But here in the West, the situation is very different. Entomophagy is largely taboo, and our culture just isn’t geared towards finding and raising insects for food. That’s why Imrie-Situnayake and Tiny Farms have created what they call Open Bug Farm — a high-tech kit for raising your own edible insects. They’re trying to hack the Western agriculture world, and in true hacker fashion, they plan on open sourcing the kit’s basic design, so that anyone can build their own for free.
This is about where I’m at on GMOs:
Let me get a few things out of the way.
I’m a crazy fucking hippie. I go to Burning Man every year. I teach yoga. I live in a co-op. For the past two years I’ve been delivering organic vegetables for a local delivery service. I’ve been eating vegetarian for years, and vegan for the past four months.
I’m also fascinated by genetics. I read every book that comes my way on evolutionary theory, population genetics, and mapping the genome. I took several classes on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. All told, I have a pretty solid understanding of how genes work.
And ultimately, I’m just not that scared of GMOs.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand where my liberal friends are coming from. I share the same desire for a safe and healthy food supply. There’s a LOT that disturbs me about the state of food production and distribution in America.
I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.
But I’m also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research.
When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it’s a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply.
Full Story: A Liberal’s Defense of GMOs
When I wrote about Soylent and Silicon Valley’s quest to reinvent food for TechCrunch I checked with a registered dietician from the Oregon Health and Science University about stuff. She was pretty down on it. So was the dietician consulted by Business Insider. And now io9′s Lauren Davis has talked to three more experts:
We reached out to a handful of nutritional scientists to get their opinions on the product, and they were generally surprised that anyone would want to replace their food with a single mixture. Their opinions of Soylent were overwhelmingly negative. Steve Collins, founder and chairman of Valid Nutrition, a company that manufactures Ready to Use Foods for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition, said, speaking through a colleague, that, except in exceptional circumstances, he felt that trying to replace a diverse diet with a single product was misguided. Susan Roberts, Professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, likened Soylent to already available nutritional shakes. While there might be some benefit to Soylent’s low saturated fat content, she said, there are certain risks inherent in a non-food diet. “[T]here are so many unknown chemicals in fruits and vegetables that they will not be able to duplicate in a formula exactly,” she said in an email. She says that, if Soylent is formulated properly, a person could certainly live on it, but she doubts they would experience optimal health. She fears that in the long-term, a food-free diet could open a person up to chronic health issues.
Tracy Anthony, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, speaking to us in an email, criticized the formula specifically.
The Soylent company has now released an ingredient list and it’s much more “food like” than creator Rob Rhinehart had implied previously:
-Oat Powder (carbs, fiber, protein, fat)
-Whey Isolate (protein)
-Grapeseed Oil (fat)
-Powdered Soy Lecithin
-Ferrous Gluconate (Iron)
Food guru Michael Pollan has picked up on the “we’re more bacteria than human” meme and written an long, impressive New York Times article about it. He doesn’t go so far as to bring up the theory that oil is actually the excrement of bacteria that live beneath the earth’s crust, not the decomposed organic matter from the surface, as suggested by Thomas Gold (and apparently some unnamed Russians). If Gould is right then humans not just city-suits for bacteria, but also a waste disposal system for bacteria. This idea led Reza Negarestani to obliquely postulate that global warming will actually function to make the surface of the earth hot enough for those particular bacteria to live on the surface of the earth as well. Which means we’re doing, like, triple duty for our bacterial masters.
No, Pollan doesn’t go into any of that weird shit. He’s more practical, writing instead about the role that bacteria has in our health. For example, obesity, heart disease and other health issues may depend on what kind of gut bacteria we’re carrying around. Of course this reminds me of the 90s gene craze (“the obesity gene,” the “addiction gene,” the “wearing white socks with dress shoes gene”) and the 00s neuroanatomy craze. The upside is that a bacteria-focused model of health is less fatalistic than the genetic or neuroanatomical models — you can change your bacteria, you can’t change your genes. But there’s plenty of room for woo and quackery and unfulfilled promises. That’s not lost on bacteria researchers. Pollan writes:
My first reaction to learning all this was to want to do something about it immediately, something to nurture the health of my microbiome. But most of the scientists I interviewed were reluctant to make practical recommendations; it’s too soon, they told me, we don’t know enough yet. Some of this hesitance reflects an understandable abundance of caution. The microbiome researchers don’t want to make the mistake of overpromising, as the genome researchers did. They are also concerned about feeding a gigantic bloom of prebiotic and probiotic quackery and rightly so: probiotics are already being hyped as the new panacea, even though it isn’t at all clear what these supposedly beneficial bacteria do for us or how they do what they do. There is some research suggesting that some probiotics may be effective in a number of ways: modulating the immune system; reducing allergic response; shortening the length and severity of colds in children; relieving diarrhea and irritable bowel symptoms; and improving the function of the epithelium. The problem is that, because the probiotic marketplace is largely unregulated, it’s impossible to know what, if anything, you’re getting when you buy a “probiotic” product. One study tested 14 commercial probiotics and found that only one contained the exact species stated on the label.
That didn’t stop Pollan from seeking out a little bit of practical advise, which mostly consists of: eat a variety of fiber sources, don’t load up too much on processed foods, relax a little about hygiene and eat pre-biotics like kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt.
I interviewed Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart for my latest TechCrunch column:
Fake meats have been around for years, but a new crop of Bay Area startups backed by tech investors think they can make meat substitutes good enough to compete with the real deal. Beyond Meat — backed by Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone via their company Obvious Corp — created an eerily accurate chicken substitute, for example.
But the most ambitious project is Rob Rhinehart‘s cheekily named “Soylent,” an attempt to replace food entirely with a liquid shake that has all the protein, fat, carbohydrates and micronutrients you need. The only ingredients recognizable as food are salt and olive oil. He claims to have lived exclusively on the stuff for a month. He says he has started eating real food again, but two months later he still gets 92 percent of his meals from Soylent.
Rhinehart makes an unlikely food scientist. He’s an engineer fresh off a stint at a Y Combinator-backed networking startup called Level RF that never exited stealth mode. He says he doesn’t have a background in chemistry. “Formally no more than an undergraduate level, but I am a huge proponent of self-study, online courses, and textbooks,” he says.
Previously: The Food Free Diet
Rob Rhinehart claims that for the past two months he’s eaten very little food. Many days he didn’t eat food at all. No, he’s not a breatharian. He’s invented a concoction that he claims has all the nutrients necessary to sustain him. He calls it “Soylent.” Yes, that sounds disgusting, but he claims it’s delicious.
This past month 92% of my meals were soylent. I haven’t given up food entirely, and I don’t want to. I found if I wake up early I sometimes crave a nice breakfast, I’ve gone to lunch meetings, and on the weekends of course I love eating out with friends. Eating conventional food is a fun leisure activity, but come Monday I usually have a strong craving for a tall glass of Soylent.
Full Story: Rob Rhinehart: Two Months of Soylent
Rhinehart claims to be doing “trials” people. But if you want your hands on this stuff now, a blog post listing the nutritional content makes it sound not unlike a typical meal replacement shake or the mass gainers used by body builders.
This could be a hoax. Rhinehart hasn’t posted the recipe for the drink. He has posted some blood work, but he that could, of course be faked.
Today, Hui is the force behind Guerrilla Grafters, a renegade band of idealistic produce lovers who attach fruit-growing branches to public trees in Bay Area cities (they are loath to specify exactly where for fear of reprisal).
Their handiwork currently is getting recognition in the 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, as part of the U.S. exhibit called “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.” Closer to home, however, municipal officials have denounced the group’s efforts.
Even the urban agriculture movement is torn when it comes to the secretive splicers, outliers in a nascent push to bring orchards to America’s inner cities. While many applaud their civil disobedience, others fear a backlash against community farming efforts. And few believe their work will ever fill a fruit bowl.
(via John Robb)
The Oregonian reports:
“Our concern is that because it has been sensationalized and interpreted as, ‘Your cat can make you sick,’ that really is missing the most dangerous part of toxoplasmosis and human infestation,” says Dr. Theresa Cornwell of Cat Care Professionals in Lake Oswego. “You’re much less likely to get toxoplasmosis from your cat as you are from fruits and vegetables or meat that is contaminated.”
“People tend to forget that the consumption of uncooked or partly cooked meat can be perhaps a more significant source of infection for toxoplasmosis,” agrees state public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite toxoplasmosis as the third-leading cause of food-borne illness and death. Half of the 750 deaths attributed to toxoplasmosis each year are believed to be caused by eating contaminated meat, according to the CDC.