From an organic pioneer, a vegan cookbook

© Scott Campbell PhotographyOne of my favorite events each year is Cooking for Solutions, a conference and food festival staged beautifully by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a gathering of smart people who are passionate about food–how it’s produced, its impact on the environment and on health and, of course, how it tastes. Monterey is a great place to spend a few days and the aquarium is world-class. This year, I met some great chefs who I hope to be able to write about in the weeks and months ahead.

I also re-connected with Myra Goodman, who with her husband Drew co-founded Earthbound Farm, an organic industry powerhouse. Myra and Drew host a breakfast outdoors each year at Earthbound’s Farm Stand in Carmel Valley, which is usually followed by a panel about the organic industry.

imgresThis year, Myra made news herself. She and Drew sold Earthbound to an even bigger organic firm, White Wave Foods, and she and her daughter Marea have written a cookbook called Straight From the Earth: Irresistible Vegan Recipes for Everyone. I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes yet, but I did write about Myra and her book last week for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Myra and Drew Goodman never planned to become farmers. They were two kids from New York City who graduated from the same high school, went to college and then made their way to northern California to take a year off before grad school. Living in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley, they grew organic raspberries and sold them at a roadside stand. “A romantic adventure”, Myra calls it.

That was 30 years ago. Grad school never happened, but their company, Earthbound Farm, became America’s largest grower of organic produce. In January, the Goodmans and their shareholders sold Earthbound to White Wave, a Colorado-based company whose brands include Silk and Horizon Organic, for about $600m.

That’s a lot of lettuce.

I sat down with Myra Goodman last week during Cooking for Solutions, a conference and foodfest presented by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We talked about the growth of the organic food industry, the problems with meat and why the word “vegan” isn’t in the title of her new cookbook of plant-based recipes, Straight from the Earth.

Over the past three decades, Goodman, who is 50, has helped change the way crops are grown in America; now she’d like to help change the American diet. “We need to eat a lot less meat,” she says, “and a lot more plants”.

It looks like America may be moving in that direction. Last week, the organic food industry reported that it is growing again after a sluggish few years, post-recession. Sales of organic products in the US jumped to $35.1bn in 2013, up 11.5% from $31.5bn in 2012, the fastest growth rate in five years, according to the Organic Trade Association.

The story goes on to explain why eating less meat — particularly conventionally raised beef — is one of the simplest steps anyone can take to reduce carbon emissions. You can read the rest here.

Flour power? Soon you may be eating coffee

0408_coffee_cherry_inline_315Maybe because I do a lot of writing in coffee shops (thanks, Quartermaine!), I’ve long been interested in the coffee industry. Many years ago, I wrote about Starbucks in my book Faith and Fortune. Last fall, I covered McDonald’s efforts to source sustainable coffee. And I’m currently reporting a story about Green Mountain Coffee (and looking for its former CEO, Bob Stiller, so if anyone reading has his email address, please pass it along).

Today, though, the topic is a startup company that intends to turn a waste product that piles up at coffee mills around the world into a new ingredient called Coffee Flour, which can be baked into cookies or brownies, combined with chocolate, worked into candy corn and used in a variety of gourmet recipes. This startup, called CF Global, has some impressive investors, including Intellectual Ventures, the company started by former Microsoft executive and renowned foodie Nathan Myrhvold, and two coffee industry giants, ECOM Agroindustrial Corp, a Swiss-based coffee millers and traders,  and Mercon Coffee Corp, a trading firm with roots in Nicaragua. If CF Global gets traction, the company could help eliminate a pollutant (the coffee waste often gets into waterways), provide added income for coffee farmers and create a source of nutritious food for a hungry world.

My story ran today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Dan Belliveau is not a coffee guy. He is an engineer who has helped design factories for General Motors, Frito-Lay and Starbucks, among others. At the coffee giant, while helping to automate roasting and packing plants, he stumbled upon a big problem: coffee waste.

Specifically, Belliveau learned that billions of pounds of reddish pulp, known as coffee cherry, are left over after coffee beans are extracted from their shells. Some discarded pulp is used to make tea, some is worked back into the soil as fertilizer, but most of it piles up around coffee mills and pollutes nearby waterways.

Why, Belliveau wondered, couldn’t the waste be made into something useful?

His questioning eventually led him to invent coffee flour – a nutritious, gluten-free meal, made from coffee cherry, that can be baked into cookies, brownies, granola, candy corn and even chocolate. If coffee flour becomes a success, it could help solve an environmental problem, supplement the income of coffee farmers and deliver nutrition to a hungry world.

The story is generating a lot of, er, buzz. More than 2,000 shares on Facebook, as I write this. You can read the rest here.

Walmart’s food czar

Jack SinclairNational Geographic is running a months-long project about the future of food in the magazine, online and at live events, including one last Friday here in your nation’s capital. It’s an impressive journalistic undertaking, one very much worth following. I learned last week that a couple of top editors at Nat Geo are farm boys with ag degrees. Who knew? In any event, last week’s confab featured a series of lively and civil conversations about the global food system, and how to fix it.

One of a handful of speakers from business was Jack Sinclair, who oversees the grocery business for Walmart. Walmart, of course, sells more food than any other company in America, and the Bentonville giant is willing to throw its weight around, for better or worse.

Mostly for the better, in my view. Just in 2014, Walmart has supported (with its dollars) better working conditions for Florida farmworkers and a major rollout of organic foods under the hitherto defunct Wild Oats brand. Meantime, it is pushing its big suppliers to dig into their supply chains to make farming practices more efficient.

I sat down with Jack Sinclair before the conference last week, and wrote about him in a story posted today at The Guardian. Here’s how it begins:

One of the most powerful people in the US food industry is a 52-year-old native of Scotland who got his start in the business stacking groceries on supermarket shelves. Today, as an executive vice-president in charge of all the grocery operations at Walmart, Jack Sinclair is still stacking shelves – albeit on a grander scale.

Sinclair, who has been with Walmart since 2007, doesn’t just help to decide which products will make their way onto the shelves of America’s biggest retailer: he also exercises influence over how and where they are grown. In fact, joining Sinclair at a panel discussion at the National Geographic Society last week, former US agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said: “If you ask me what is the most important force in the agriculture today, I’d point to Walmart.”

It’s a startling claim, but there’s little doubt that Walmart’s impact on food and agriculture is vast. More than half of its annual revenues, which topped $476bn last year, come from groceries, and its market share is growing. Increasingly, the retailers has shown a willingness to use its buying power to influence the way that food is grown.

Last week, for example, Walmart invited the CEOs of Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and PepsiCo, among others, to its Bentonville headquarters for a sustainability summit. Several of these top food execs promised to persuade farmers in their supply chains to use less fertilizer and water to grow crops, and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

I liked Jack Sinclair, although after seven years at the company he has been thoroughly indoctrinated into the “everyday low prices” mantra of Walmart. He must have told me a half dozen times that Walmart’s food initiatives will lower costs and drive out inefficiencies, and will therefore make the food system more sustainable. That’s almost surely true — using less fertilizer on farms saves money and protects waterways from being polluted by runoff — but it will take more than a narrow focus on efficiency to produce affordable, healthy, sustainable food.

For example, those of us in the rich world will need to shift our diets away from meat and especially beef with its heavy carbon and water footprint. A healthy food system means people will drink less soda and eat fewer foods that are heavily processed and high in sugar, salt and fat. Those changes are part of a “sustainable food” movement. Will Walmart be supportive? That’s an open question.

You can read the rest of my store here.

Untangling the lexicon of sustainability

Douglas Gayeton

Douglas Gayeton

Words can illuminate. Words can mislead. Words matter.

That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by Douglas Gayeton’s videos, books and “information artworks,” all of which are part of a vast and sprawling series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. They’re designed to help people separate what’s b.s. from what’s real in the world of sustainability.

Gayeton’s focus, so far, has been on food, and that’s smart. Nowhere is there more confusion about what’s sustainable, and what’s not, than in the supermarket — where claims like “all natural” and “multigrain” and “no sugar added” hide as much as they reveal.

I wrote a story about Gayeton the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Art has long inspired environmental activism. The photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white images of the American west helped to build support for the US National Park Service, served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years, working closely with David Brower, the club’s first executive director.

So it’s fitting that The Lexicon of Sustainability, a collection of artworks and short films by Douglas Gayeton that are designed to educate and activate people, have come to the David Brower Center, the nerve center of green business and environmental activism in Brower’s hometown of Berkeley.

Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability artworks and films are based on a simple premise, he said. He explained that people can’t be expected to live “greener” lives, or act on behalf of the planet, until they better understand the language of sustainability. “Remember,” the films say, “your words can change the world.” This first series of works exploresfood and farming; future series will explain water and climate.

“The term sustainability has been totally debased,” Gayeton told me. “You can find sustainable shoes. You can find sustainable soda. Anything can be sustainable. People have hijacked the term. My wife and I thought, ‘Why not take it back?

The best way to understand what Gayeton is up to is to check out his artworks or watch one of his films. here’s one about eggs that told me things I didn’t know. The film is courtesy of PBS.org and you can read the rest of my story here.

Watch The Story of an Egg on PBS. See more from The Lexicon of Sustainability.

Yet another reason to eat less meat

chickens-4The more I learn about the way most chickens, pigs and cows are raised and slaughtered in America, the less appetite I have for meat. I’m not a vegetarian, and may never become one. But, hey, I’ve given up the NFL. I’d like to give up industrial meat, too.

I’ve long been aware of the negative environmental impacts of factory-produced meat. There’s plenty of evidence that the meat-heavy American diet isn’t good for our health. We’re learning than the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture puts human health at risk. And chickens and pigs raised for food are confined in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. It’s not a pretty picture.

Last week. at a forum organized by the New America Foundation called The New Meat Monopoly: The Animal, The Farmer, and You in the New Age of Global Giants, I heard about another reason to avoid factory-farmed meat: Big meat companies, and in particular Tyson Foods, have grown so powerful that they have made life harder than it needs to be for small-scale farmers and ranchers. At the Washington event, farmers, ranchers, anti-trust experts and animal welfare advocates lined up to pillory the big guys.

Among the speakers at the event was  New America Foundation fellow Christopher Leonard, the author of a well-reviewed new book called The Meat Racket:  The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Leonard argues in the book (which I haven’t read, but hope to) that companies like Tyson “keep farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.” They are able to do so in part because many farmers have only one or two customers to sell to, so the customers hold all the cards.

Subsequently, I read Obama’s Game of Chicken, an excellent 2012 article Lina Khan in the Washington Monthly about abuses of power by companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, and how Obama’s USDA and DOJ have failed to curb them. Khan, who’s also affiliated with the New America Foundation, describes in rich detail what she calls “the stark and growing imbalance of power between the farmers who grow our food and the companies who process it for us, and how this imbalance enables practices unimaginable in any competitive market.”

I wrote about the New America event last week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Like politics, industrial-scale meat production creates strange bedfellows. Animal welfare advocates are joining up with farmers, environmentalists and supporters of stronger antitrust laws in the hope of engaging consumers on the issues involving the meat they buy. The aim? To counter the power of big meat companies like Tyson Foods and JBS, the world’s largest protein company and the owner of brands including Pilgrim’s Pride and Kraft.

“Maybe it’s time for a citizens revolt,” said Barry Lynn, director of the markets, enterprise and resiliency initiative at the New America Foundation. Lynn was speaking at a half-day forum in Washington called “The New Meat Monopoly: the animal, the farmer and you in the new age of global giants“.

The accusations thrown at the global meat giants were mostly familiar. By raising and slaughtering chicken, pigs and cattle on a large scale – about eight billion chickens will be raised and killed this year in the US – these companies squeeze out family farmers, treat animals cruelly, create waste and air pollution, and feed their livestock antibiotics that, over time, put human health at risk and raise healthcare costs, at least according to their critics.

What’s more, these critics argue, is that the meat industry’s consolidation and power have been supported by government policy. Subsidized corn and soy reduce the price of meat. Bank loans to farmers are backstopped by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Government regulations make it harder to build and operate small-scale slaughterhouses.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Who’s responsible for obesity?

photo (7)While I have long been inclined to think of American’s obesity epidemic as fundamentally a matter of individual responsibility — after all,  despite what has been called an obesogenic environment, many Americans manage to keep fit or at least avoid getting too fat through a combination of healthy eating and exercise — I’m gradually coming around to the belief that big food companies and the US government need to take some of the responsibility for obesity-related diseases, and for their costs.

The other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, I wrote a story about Lunchables, the fun-to-assemble packaged lunches aimed at kids that were invented in 1988 by Oscar Mayer, then and now a division of Kraft. I did the story after learning that a healthier and more “natural” packaged lunch had been introduced by Revolution Foods, a company I admire. (See my 2012 blog post, Healthy school lunches: You say you want a revolution.)

As part of my research, I read a chapter about Lunchables in a 2013 book by Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I’ve since read nearly all of the book, and it delivers on the promise of its title, by showing how big food companies, notably Kraft, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, formulated their products with unhealthy ingredients, employed the world’s best food scientists to figure out how to get people to consume more of them, and then marketed them in ways that were often calculated to deceive. For example, they used unrealistic portion sizes on nutrition labels, or added a very small amount of fruit juice to a product and then boasted that it contains “real fruit.”

The government hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, despite the well-publicized efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. Farm bill subsidies flow to cheap corn and soy, used to feed chickens, fatten cows or sweeten soft drinks, and not to healthier fruits and vegetables. The USDA coordinates marketing checkoff programs to promote meat, milk and cheese. Dairy marketers “teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like ‘The Wisconsin,’ a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust,” Moss writes. Americans now eat about 33 pounds per capita of cheese and cheese-like products per year, he reports, triple the amount we consumed in the 70s.

As it happens, Lunchables deserve a small portion of the “credit” for the growth in consumption of fat-laden cheese and pseudo-cheese. Interestingly, the product was created way back when to increase sales of bologna–which were falling as a result of health concerns about processed meat. It worked, as my story notes:

Back in the 1980s, health-conscious shoppers began to shy away from processed meat because of worries about fat and salt. Executives at Oscar Mayer, facing declining bologna sales, could have sought healthier alternatives. Instead, they invented Lunchables, the packaged, refrigerated, convenient meal in a box.

Kids loved them – they found it fun to assemble the crackers, bologna and cheese – and so did harried parents. But food critics were, and still are, appalled by the fat, sugar and salt packed into Lunchables’ familiar yellow packages.

Today, Lunchables is a $1bn brand with a persistent image problem – and it’s facing a new competitor aimed at health-conscious parents.

The new arrival is Revolution Foods, a small company based in Oakland, California, that has already enjoyed success delivering healthier meals for kids to schools. Last fall, Revolution Foods introduced packaged Meal Kits. They can now be found in more than 1,000 stores, including Safeway, Target, King Sooper’s (a unit of Krogers) and Whole Foods.

Will Kraft Foods, Oscar Mayer’s parent company, respond with better-for-you versions of Lunchables, or will the company stand pat and risk further damage to its reputation?

To be sure, Kraft has already improved the nutritional profile of Lunchables, reducing sodium, fat and calories. What’s more, the company is in a tough spot because people like foods with fat, salt and sugar. When companies like PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup removed fat, salt or sugar from products, sales reportedly declined.

I’m not sure how to resolve what appears to be an unavoidable tension between what’s good for business and what’s good for the health of Americans. Despite the rhetoric about social responsibility that comes out of the food industry — this page about Kellogg’s “Passion for Nutrition” is a personal favorite — companies like Kraft and Kellogg’s and Pepsico pay people to go to work every day and sell as many boxes of Lunchables or Frosted Flakes, or bags of Fritos, or cans of Pepsi as they possibly can. Of course, as these companies are quick to remind us, they also offer plenty of healthier alternatives. Consumers do have choices.

So can we blame the food companies when some people make themselves sick by consuming too much of their products? Hard to say, but I’m less likely to brush away the question than I used to be.

You can read the rest of my story here.

A modest defense of the hamburger

imgresIf you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a hybrid car like a Prius?

The easiest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve argued, is to eat less meat. Because the emissions generated by the production of  beef, pork and chicken (in that order) exceeds those of plant-based protein, going meatless for a day or two each week makes a difference.

But curbing meat consumption won’t make nearly as much of a difference as driving a more efficient cars, some experts says–although comparing the climate impacts of Big Mac, a lentil stew, a Ford 150 truck and a Prius  is a devilishly complicated business.

Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, recently pointed me to an interesting new publication that explores this issue, and others. Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (available as a PDF here) report on a series of workshops held last year by the well-respected Institute of  Medicine that brought together environmental scientists, nutrition experts, government officials and business people to look at the effects of diet on the planet and on human health.

One of the experts, Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at   the University of California at Davis, who is chair of an FAO group studying the environmental impact of livestock, offered a defense of beef. He tried to  put in perspective the claims of activists who urge consumers to eat less meat for environmental reasons.

The report says:

In Mitloehner’s opinion, although scientists would agree that food choices are an important environmental emission source, they would also agree that food choices pale in comparison to transportation choices or energy production and use choices.

To illustrate his point, Mitloehner cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 33 percent of all GHG emissions are associated with production and use of energy and 27 percent are associated with use of transportation (EPA, 2013). Compare those figures to GHG emissions in the United States from the entire livestock sector, all species, based on life-cycle assessment9 at 3.4 percent (EPA, 2012). According to Mitloehner’s calculations, of that 3.4 percent, approximately 1.8 percent comes from the beef sector. Thus, GHG emissions from livestock in developed countries are dwarfed by carbon footprint contributions from other, larger sectors (e.g., transportation, energy, industry). The same is true of other developed countries.

Mitloehner questioned the impact of “Meatless Mondays” or “Beefless Mondays.” If 300-plus million people were to go beefless on Mondays, that would cut the 1.4 percent figure by a factor of 7 (number of days in the week), which would amount to a 0.2 percent reduction in the total greenhouse gas footprint. Mitloehner said, “While this is not nothing … it will not even compare to what we see from the transportation sector.”

Mitloehner may be right. He is especially critical of a 2006 FAO report that estimated that livestock contributes 18 percent of all GHG emissions, and those emissions were greater than those from the transportation sector. This number has been quoted widely but, he said, the comparison was inappropriate because livestock emissions were analyzed using a full lifecycle assessment, and then compared to transportation emissions that included only tailpipe emissions.

A very different view was put forth by Emily Cassidy of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues including Jon Foley has worked to quantify the environmental impacts of diet. The report says:

Americans consume a lot of meat, more than 110 kilograms per person per year, even though the nutritionally recommended amount is only about 23 kilograms per person per year (FAO, 2013). If meat consumption were to be reduced by 75 percent, to 30 kilograms per person per year, with the lost weight being compensated by fruits and vegetables, cereals, and other foods, what would happen to the environmental footprint of the U.S. diet?

Cassidy’s calculations suggest that such a reduction would significantlychange the environmental impacts associated with the U.S. food system. Specifically, a 75 percent reduction in meat consumption would result in a 27 percent reduction in land use, a 31 percent reduction in water use, and a 46 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

It’s complicated, no? One problem is that using global or even national averages when talking about the carbon impacts runs roughshod over important differences in farming and ranching practices, the electricity mix, shipping and a gazillion other variations. Did the corn that was grown and fed to the cow that was turned into a Big Mac require irrigation? Was the electricity fed to the Prius generated by a coal-fired power plant or by hydropower? Which has a greater carbon impact, salmon from Alaska or chicken from the Delaware shore? Climate change is a global problem, but all emissions are local, as Ory Zik has noted in developing his startup company Energy Points, which uses Big Data to analyze environmental tradeoffs.

So…if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a the Prius? The answer is, it depends. It sure looks as if switching to a Prius will have a bigger impact, but of course it’s easier to skip a few meals with meat than to buy a new car. What’s more, the health and environmental impacts of meat production in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) go well beyond climate, including the need to dispose of animal waste, potential water pollution, pesticide and fertilizer overuse to produce feed, antibiotic use and resistance, air quality and animal welfare issues.

Happily, it’s not an either or. You can cut meat consumption and drive a more efficient car.

Meantime, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill are working together to limit the environmental impact of beef production through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is all to the good.

That said, it would be so much simpler and more sensible to put a tax on carbon emissions and use price signals to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. Pricing carbon emissions into the costs of goods and services–electricity, gasoline, food and everything else–would unleash the power of markets and drive producers and consumers to smarter and greener choices.

Egg-cellent news: Hampton Creek raises $23M

BeyondEggs-logo-300x300Eggs from caged hens are the cruelest of all factory-farmed products, animal welfare advocates say. So if you care about animal welfare, you should be rooting for Hampton Creek Foods, a San Francisco-based technology company that says it aims to “enable the production of healthier food at a lower cost, starting with the displacement of the conventional chicken egg.”

Today, Hampton Creek is announcing that it has raised another $23 million in venture capital money in a Series B round led by Horizons Ventures, a technology fund overseen by Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men. He joins investors and partners of Hampton Creek that include Jerry Yang, the former CEO of Yahoo!; Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures; and Eagle Cliff, the investment fund of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor, the CEO of OnePacificCoast Bank. Bill Gates, who wrote about Hampton Creek here, has also invested, through Khosla.

I met Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s founder, last year at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, after writing about the company. (See What’s for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs) Josh is a very personable guy, a vegan, a former college football player and a Fulbright Scholar who worked in South Africa, Nigeria and Liberia before focusing on the food system, and how to improve it.

Josh believes that the plant-based egg substitutes being developed by Hampton Creek will deliver health benefits (they’re lower in fat and have no cholesterol) and environmental benefits (they require less energy to produce, generate fewer greenhouse gases and less waste) over conventional eggs from caged hens.

Nor will they cost more than conventional eggs. In fact, Tetrick believes that his team of food scientists can outcompete the chicken. In the press release announcing the new round of funding, he is quoted as saying: “Solving a problem means actually solving the problem for most people – not just the folks that can afford to pay $5.99 for organic eggs.”

JustMayo-600x450Hampton Creek has made a lot of progress in the last year. It now has a product called Just Mayo on the shelves at Whole Foods. It’s described as a plant-based, egg-free, dairy-free mayo-style condiment. Up next is egg-free cookie dough and an a liquid plant-based product that could substitute for scrambled eggs.

Meantime, the company says that in the last 90 days it has “signed partnership agreements with 6 Fortune 500 companies, including some of the largest food manufactures and retailers in the world.” It won’t name the companies or talk about the scale of the agreements, so it’s hard to know how meaningful they are.

Still, this new round of fundraising means that Hampton Creek has now raised $30 million in venture money. That’s a sign that the company is moving in the right direction.

An update: Early this morning, Josh Tetrick sent me the picture below from China where he had just met with Li Ka-Shing. That’s Josh T. in the middle, and on the left is his longtime friend Josh Balk, an animal-welfare activist with the Humane Society of the U.S. who works with businesses like Smithfield to improve their treatment of animals.

Picture with Mr. Li

You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  “drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

Paul Polman: A radical CEO

Paul-Polman-chief-executi-005“We’re the world’s biggest NGO,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, sometimes likes to joke.

Literally, he is correct: “We’re a non government organization. The only difference is, we’re making money so we are sustainable.”

Lots of money, in fact. As one of the world’s biggest consumer products companies, with such brands as Dove, Hellman’s, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever generated about $67 billion in revenues and $7.2 billion in profits last year.

But while Polman has led a turnaround at Unilever since becoming CEO in 2009, he is best known because he is outspoken about his belief  that “business should serve society.” He sounds more like the leader of an NGO like Oxfam or Greenpeace than your typical CEO. He’d rather blather on  about the Millenium Development Goals than boast about his company’s earnings.

More important, Polman’s Unilever uses its global to work for change, around a set of big issues, ranging from curbing climate change to eradicating poverty to deforestation.

That’s why the Center for Global Development, a DC think tank, honored Polman the other night with its “Commitment to Development: Ideas in Action” award. Previous winners include Global Witness, the One Campaign and Oxfam. Polman is the first business guy to get the award, as best as I can tell.

One reason: Unilever’s strong commitment to reducing deforestation, which helped drive the decision late last year by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil producer, to sign a “no deforestation” pledge. Wilmar’s commitment has the potential “to create a global revolution in how we grow food,” Scott Poynton, executive director of The Forest Trust, wrote last month in Guardian Sustainable Business. Palm oil is used in a variety of foods, as well as personal care products, like soap.

At the awards dinner, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, said of Polman:  “He is surely the most outspoken and effective advocate for reducing the amount of deforestation that takes places to produce consumer goods.”

I went to the award ceremony not because I hadn’t heard Polman before — we spent time together last year when I profiled him in Fortune, under the headline Unilever’s CEO has a green thumb — but because he is such an outlier in the business world and I wanted to hear what was on his mind.

He didn’t disappoint. Some highlights from his remarks:

On the need for government policy to curb climate change: “We need to have the business community in the US speak up more, and then the Republicans will have to listen.”

On the urgency of dealing with global problems: “First and foremost, I am a businessman. I like to get to action. This worldis very long on words and very short on action.”

On the importance of sustainable development: “It is desperately needed that we build a new economic world order where we live within planetary boundaries.”

On global inequality: “The top 1.2 billion people consume 75 percent of the world’s resources. That is a system that is not in equilibrium.”

On the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh, who are paid 11 cents an hour“That’s as close as you can get to modern-day slavery.”

On the opportunity to have an impact: “In the next 15 years, we as a generation have the opportunity to be the people who eradicate poverty in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

On the need for business to step up to deal with social and environmental issues: “If you don’t make a positive contribution, you will be rejected…I  don’t understand why more CEOs don’t see this.”