Sustainability advocates who deserve thanks

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I ran into Hunter Lovins last week at a meeting of business leaders at the UN. She’s wearing a black hat but she’s one of the good people. Author, activist, sustainability consultant, force of nature — Hunter always has plenty to say, and she says it bluntly and passionate.

At the UN gathering of executives from companies that are part of the UN Global Compact LEAD group, Hunter got into a friendly debate with Joel Bakan, a law professor and corporate critic, whose 2004 documentary, The Corporation, likened corporations to psychopaths.

Hunter argued that business, not government, is more likely to lead us to a sustainable future. Joel took the opposite view. I wrote about the debate here, in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

“We’re in a horse race with catastrophe,” Hunter told me afterwards. “Can corporations move fast enough? Government cannot. It will not. Corporations might. Will they? I don’t know. On that turns the future of the world.”

Not a bad summary of where things stand today. Hunter’s not just a good talker but a do-er, working with a variety of companies — her future and past clients include Walmart, Unilever, Patagonia, Clif Bar, Interface –to help them become not just sustainable but, ideally, regenerative.

With Thanksgiving approaching, this is a good time to thank people like Hunter–those who, as insiders or advisers, are working in the trenches of corporate America, trying to persuade their companies to become part of the solution to big social and environmental problems.

It can be a tough slog, but it’s important work. That’s while this fall in Guardian Sustainable Business, we’ve been running a series of brief q-and-a’s that showcase sustainability executives. Some are with people who I know well, and others I hardly know at all. But I persuaded my colleagues to run the series because they don’t get enough credit for the work they do.

Here are some of the people I’ve talked to, in no particular order:

Tim Mohin of AMD, about an electronics industry coalition that is seeking to improve factory conditions in the developing world.

Frank O’Brien-Bernini of Owens-Corning, about the need to be rigorous when dealing with environmental issues.

Kathrin Winkler of EMC, about electronic waste.

Rhonda Clark of UPS, about carbon emissions reductions.

Adam Mott of North Face, on the responsible cycling of down.

Vince Digneo of Adobe, about green teams.

Paulette Frank of Johnson & Johnson, about recycling.

Amy Hargroves of Sprint, about the importance of standards.

Marcus Chung of The Children’s Place, about the need to go beyond factory auditing.

If you’d like to nominate someone (or yourself) for this series, let me know. Meantime, thanks to all for participating–and for all the good work you do.

Feeding my grandson

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Meet my grandson, Hudson Scott, who is six months old and just started eating solid foods. This means that my daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Eric have to decide what to feed him–the baby food in jars from Gerber and Beech-Nut that have been around forever, it seems, the newer and hipper lines of organic baby food, which come in pouches from companies like Plum Organic, or do-it-yourself baby food that she makes at home.

As it happens, and perhaps not by coincidence, this is a question that has been explored lately in the pages of Guardian Sustainable Business US, where I am editor-at-large. This week, I profiled Plum, a B Corps which is nested inside the publicly-traded Campbell Soup Co. Here’s how my story begins:

Plum Organics, the leading brand of organic baby food and a unit of the Campbell Soup Company, has an impressive story to tell. As a certified B Corporation, Plum meets high standards for environmental and social performance. Its products are organic, its innovative packaging is lightweight (albeit not recyclable), its lowest-paid workers earn 50% above a so-called “living wage” and it gave away more than 1m pouches of food to needy children last year.

“Our mission is to get the very best food to kids,” says Neil Grimmer,Plum’s president and co-founder. “I have a goal of being in every lunchbox and high chair in America.” And more: Plum this fall plans to introduce its first product for adults, a collection of five-ounce snack pouches of blended fruits and vegetables branded as Plum VIDA. Sample flavors: cherry, berry, beet, and ginger.

So what’s not to like? To begin with, all that social and environmental goodness doesn’t come cheap. Plum’s products cost more than mainstream brands like Gerber, the No 1 seller of baby food. Then there’s the question of whether processed baby food is needed at all….Finally, Plum’s breakthrough innovation was the spouted pouch, which is convenient, but it enables babies to engage on-the-go eating, for better or worse.

You can read the rest here.

Meantime, just last month, my friend and Guardian contributor Erik Assadourian, who is a new father, assailed the baby-food industry in a column arguing that there’s no need to buy baby food at all. His column, Making our own baby food, begins like this:

Here’s the thing: the majority of Americans are fat. So much so that most people don’t even consider themselves fat, probably because everyone around them is also fat. Lots of kids are fat too – a trend I’ve really started to notice since becoming a father two years ago. Toddlers and babies are so fat that sometimes I worry that my own son, Ayhan, looks malnourished.

But my son isn’t malnourished. In fact he’s strong and lean, and acts like one of the healthy monkeys in the ongoing Wisconsin National Primate Research Center caloric restriction study: perky, energetic, and excited about eating proffered bits of fruit. So when I step back and get a bit of perspective, I’m not worried.

I’m more concerned about how children are being set upon an unhealthy dietary path that starts not just when they’re born, but when they’re conceived. Recent studies find that what mothers eat while pregnant shapes children’s palates in vitro. So if mama is regularly indulging in ice cream and salty snacks, baby may be predisposed to crave those too.

Then when they’re born, too many children are raised on baby formula, which is far less healthy than breast milk (a topic I already discussed, to much maternal anger). At around six months, when starting on solids, many parents lead their children down another wrong path – that of powdered cereals, premade baby foods, and junk foods disguised as baby-friendly snacks. No wonder childhood obesity is at 17.3% in the US.

One recommendation: make your own baby food.

Eric’s right that a lot of the foods given to American kids is unhealthy. His indictment is too sweeping, though. Plum and Beech-Nut offer early-stage baby food that consists of nothing more than apples, peas or sweet potatoes. Which, of course, raises the question: Why not make it yourself?

For now, that’s what Rebecca, who is a stay at home mom, and Eric have decided to do. It will take more time and effort that buying baby food at the store or online, but it will save them money and give Hudson a good start on what we hope will be a lifetime of healthy eating. Yams and carrots, so far. Next up? Avocados.

Why animal welfare is a “green” issue

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Where bacon begins

Environmentalists love animals, the more exotic, the better. You can find environmental organizations dedicated to the protection of pandas, polar bears, sea turtles and birds. Elephants and whales, too.

Pigs, chickens and cows? Not so much.

But the way we treat animals in agriculture has profound environmental implications. And the group doing the most to change that is not a green group at all but the Humane Society of the United States. I recently interviewed Wayne Pacelle, the HSUS’s president and CEO, about the environmental impact of the animal welfare movement for the website Yale Environment 360.

In the interview, Pacelle makes the point that crowding pigs, chickens and cows into so-called factory farms inevitably creates environmental problems, particularly around waste disposal. So, of course, does the sheer number of animals we raise for meat–about 9 billion in the US alone–and the enormous amount of grain that most be raised to feed them.

Pacelle told me:

We cannot humanely and sustainably raised nine billion animals in the United States. And we’re asking consumers, if they care about animals and the environment, to eat a smaller amount of animal products. 

As regular readers of this blog know (see this or this), I agree with Pacelle that all of us should, at minimum, think about how we consume meat and, to a lesser degree, fish. There’s debate about the environmental impact of animal products but  a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantifies the land, water and greenhouse gas burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production points to “the uniquely high resource demands of beef.” So there are compelling environmental reasons to avoid steak and hamburgers from factory-farmed cows. Of course, there are health reasons as well to eat less meat, as well as strong moral reasons to avoid meat from factory farms or, for that matter, all animal products.

HSUS has had a big impact on how animals, especially pigs, are raised in the US. The organization’s savvy campaign against gestation crates has helped persuaded big brands like Costco and McDonald’s to eliminate the crates from its supply chains, bringing pressure of major pork producers like Smithfield and Cargill.

Pacelle, as it happens, is a vegan. But HSUS is not trying to abolish animal agriculture. In our interview, he said

We are an organization that embraces humane and sustainable farmers. The vast percentage of our members eat meat, drink milk and consume eggs.

Others see that as a betrayal of animals. I saw this tweet the other day from Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, himself a vegan, which led me to an interview with Phillip Wollen, a former Citibank executive who became a hard-line animal rights activist after visiting one of his bank’s client’s slaughterhouses.

An Australian, Wollen has this to say about the so-called humane slaughter of animals:

Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.

Fascinating, no? You can read more here from Wollen.

I’m not yet persuaded, as Wollen is, that eating animals is being complicit in murder.

But I don’t feel good about continuing to eat chicken and fish.

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.

Ride on: The bike sharing boom…and its limits

Citi Bikes New YorkI haven’t been on a bike from Capital BikeShare in months because of the nasty winter here in  Washington. But before long, your nation’s capital will once again be home to one of the US’s most popular bike-sharing programs. I’ve raved about bike sharing before (See Pedal Power: Why I love bike sharing) and today my story about the phenomenon was posted on Guardian Sustainable Business.

Yes, bike sharing truly is a phenomenon, spreading rapidly across the US, now in well over 40 cities. But not in all the expected places–bike sharing, as the story explains, has been embraced by cold weather cities like Boston and Minneapolis, but it has yet to launch in such Sunbelt cities as Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta.

What’s more, even the most successful bike-sharing programs depend on taxpayer support, at least for their initial capital outlays.

Here’s how the story begins:

As the bike-sharing business gains traction in cities across America, two small companies, Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Oregon, and B-Cycle of Madison, Wisconsin, are making a big difference in the lives of tens of thousands of cyclists.

Alta Bicycle Share operates bike-sharing systems in partnership with local governments in eight cities: New York, Washington DC, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, Columbus and Chattanooga, as well as Melbourne, Australia.

B Cycle, a joint venture of the Trek Bicycle Corp, healthcare provider Humana and marketing agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, manages systems in about 30 cities, including Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Madison and Boulder, as well as Santiago, Chile.

Together, they have made bike-sharing one of America’s fastest growing “green” businesses. “Bike sharing has experienced the fastest growth of any mode of transport in the history of the planet,” according to findings from the Earth Policy Institute.

Bike-sharing systems reduce carbon emissions, cut local air pollution, make it easier for people to get exercise and, importantly, build political support for safe bicycling infrastructure. Some studies show that protected bike lanes enhance retail sales and real state values.

But the bike-sharing industry has yet to answer a couple of questions that could slow its growth. First, can bike sharing become a sustainable business, or will it forever require taxpayer support? Second, can it grow into a national phenomenon by attracting more ridership in car-centric, Sunbelt cities?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Walmart and Target, chemical cops

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Health care activists say some cosmetics made by Revlon contain cancer-causing chemicals

Cops of the global village.

That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of  workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.

Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”

This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:

Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”

Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.

So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?

In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.

But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.

What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.

All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.

Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.

I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.

In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.

Do you want (GMO) fries with that?

 

imgresIt’s a business cliche–the customer is always right–but unlike most cliches, this one is untrue.

I realized that years ago when I was talking with a top executive at Southwest Airlines. Southwest chooses its employees carefully. They are recruited, in large part, for their good character and values, as well as their friendly personalities and desire to serve. So when an airline passenger tangles with a Southwest gate agent or flight attendant, the assumption at headquarters is that the customer is probably wrong. Those customers who are particularly unpleasant or argumentative when dealing with Southwest are politely told that they will never be permitted to fly on the airline again.

I raise this because on the subject of genetically-engineered potatoes, McDonald’s, in all likelihood, will soon find itself caught in an awkward place–between the worries of some of its customers about GMOs and the desires of an important supplier to improve the health of the potato and reduce food waste. That is the topic of today’s column for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

“Do you want fries with that?” Not if they’re made from genetically engineered potatoes, say activists who oppose GMOs.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch is asking McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes, not to source a genetically engineered spud that was developed by its biggest supplier, the J.R. Simplot Co.

“This potato is anything but healthy,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a letter (PDF) to Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO. Altering the plant’s genes, she writes, could unintentionally affect other characteristics of the potato, “with potentially unforeseen consequences for human health”. The letter has been signed by 102,000 people.

Other NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, also oppose genetically engineered food. The Consumers Unionwants that food labeled. All of them argue that US government regulation of genetically modified crops is inadequate.

This is a problem for McDonald’s – and for anyone who believes that genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop yields, help solve environmental problems or deliver healthier foods.

The interesting thing about the new potato varieties developed by the J.R. Simplot Co., an Idaho-based potato processing giant, is that they are engineered to deliver consumer and environmental benefits, as my story goes on to explain. They are designed to lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. And they reduce black spots from bruising, which means fewer potatoes have to be thrown away. Unlike some other GMO crops, which primarily benefitted farmers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these will benefit people who choose to eat the fries at Mickey D’s.

The GMO debate is complicated, although rarely is it presented that way. See, for example, this page on the Organic Consumer Assn. website, blasting Monsanto with ridiculous headlines like “Monsanto’s GE Seeds Pushing US Agriculture into Bankruptcy.” That will come as a surprise to USDA, which says that the US agriculture sector will enjoy record high income of  $120 billion this year. But I digress. Few people truly understand the science of biotechnology. I certainly don’t. So if we take sides, we do so based mostly based on the opinions of others who we trust. As my story says, the debate

gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don’t inspire trust.

No wonder anti-GMO sentiments seem be growing. It’s easy for NGOs to stir up fear, and the record of government regulators–whether we’re talking about USDA, the FDA or the SEC–doesn’t inspire confidence. We should approach new GMO crops with humility and caution, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Like any technology, genetic engineering comes with risks as well as benefits.

But let’s not forget that Americans eat genetically engineered food every day, with no adverse health effects that can be attributed to GMO foods. There’s a broad consensus among mainstream scientists that the GMO crops now on the market are safe to eat.

Consumers may be fearful of GMOs, but that doesn’t make them right.

 

Our misguided fetish for “natural” foods

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Fresh Frozen Vegetables: Which is it?

The supermarket has become a festival of oxymorons.

Fresh-frozen peas. Jumbo shrimp. Boneless ribs. Chanukah ham.

And the most common of all:  Natural food.

If you are eating wild-caught fish or mushrooms gathered from the woods, you’re eating natural food.

Otherwise, probably not.

There’s nothing “natural” about agriculture, whether it’s practiced on the industrial-sized soy and corn fields  in the midwest, on the sprawling fruits and vegetable farms in the Salinas Valley of California or on the local and regional farms whose owners truck their crops to the  7,800 farmers’ markets across America. Agriculture is, by definition, about the management of nature– fertilizing the soil, getting rid of weeds, insuring that crops get the water they need. Even if you grow a few tomatoes or cucumbers in your backyard, you’re enjoying the product of decades of selective breeding.

The misguided fetish for the “natural” is a problem for a couple of reasons, as I’ll explain. But first, if you doubt that the claim of “natural” is a selling point, take a look at a few of the labels that I came across the other day at the Whole Foods Market in Bethesda, Md., where I live: [click to continue…]