Dr. Howard teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Community, Food and Agriculture, as well as a graduate course in Research Methods as an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the ‘food system.’ The food system involves all of the steps required to produce food and get it to our plates–from farming and processing to distribution and consumption. His work includes project involving food consolidation, eco-labels and food environments. He earned a PhD in Rural Sociology from the University of Missouri in 2002, and conducted postdoctoral research at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 2002 until 2006.
Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass, good afternoon on this Wednesday March 9, 2011. And you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me. We’ve got a really interesting program today. I’m looking forward to learning quite a bit. So what do we talk about on this show? We talk about food. Because it’s all about food and frequently we talk about how food affects our environment, our personal health, the health of the planet and certainly animals that are used in food production.
Sometimes it all seems so simple, food, where it comes from. For those of us who remember: you take a seed, plant it in the ground, give it a little water, it grows, and then some wonderful things come out of that plant: vegetables, tree may grow, fruit can be taken from the tree, etc. But it’s really gotten a lot more complicated than that and we’re going to be talking about a lot of that today with my guest, Phil Howard. Dr. Howard teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in community food and agriculture as well as a graduate course in research methods as an assistant professor at Michigan State University.
His research focuses on the food system. The food system involves all the steps required to produce food and get it to our plates from farming, to processing to distribution, and consumption. His work includes projects involving food consolidation, food environments, eco-labels and he earned a PhD in rural sociology from the University in Missouri in 2002 and conducted post-doctoral research at the Center for Eco Ecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 2006 until 2006. Dr. Howard, Welcome.
Phil Howard: Hello, thanks for having me on the show.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, you’ve done some really fascinating work and I’m looking at the MSU.edu website where it lists a number of your research articles, and really interesting subjects and I think something that most of us are so in the dark about. Let’s talk about some of your research. One of the things I’ve seen you working on is this consolidation of the food system, specifically, there are these small companies that create organic food, for example, and then these bigger companies come along and gobble them up somehow. You’ve got a very interesting diagram of the different companies involved and who they were and what they became. What is all this work about?
Phil Howard: Beginning in the late 1990’s, corporations started – do you hear an echo?
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t, do you? Do you want to call us back? I’m talking to the engineer here. They have no echo, but you have an echo?
Phil Howard: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Why don’t we have them call you back, because we want you to be comfortable.
Phil Howard: Okay.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so hang up and we’ll be right back with you.
Phil Howard: Great.
Caryn Hartglass: Great, okay. Well we’ve been having some interesting, technical challenges here today and that’s all that comes with the good stuff with Internet and technology, which is amazing. What we can do with it today, the fact that we can talk to so many different people all over the place and have everybody join in with us. So, Dr. Howard, you are back with us?
Phil Howard: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Is it better?
Phil Howard: That’s a lot better.
Caryn Hartglass: Great. Sometimes it’s fun, hearing your own voice, you know? Kind of knows you’re there, but very distracting, I know. So we were talking about corporations gobbling up little companies.
Phil Howard: Yeah and it started happening in the late 90s, yeah the echo’s back. I’ll just fight through the echo here. In the late 1990s, the USDA signaled that it was a national standard, which would replace differing state and regional standards so this was going to make it a lot easier for companies to sell nationally and internationally. So you saw a lot of organic companies begin to be acquired and what was interesting was very few of those acquisitions were made apparent on the products labels. So this is a phenomenon some people call stealth ownership. If you pick up a package on the store shelf what you won’t see is, for example if you buy Cascadian Farm you won’t see the big G for General Mills symbol.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, you get that feeling that it’s still that small, friendly, concerned Mom and Pop kind of company that creates a quality product and that may or may not be true.
Phil Howard: Yeah, in most cases you’re buying processed organic food. It’s not those pioneering innovative companies anymore. About a third of the top thirty food processors in North America have acquired those organic food companies.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. So when we think about food that’s organic, in a very simple sense, we think of when it’s related to plant foods. It’s plant foods that have been grown without pesticides and herbicides, not irradiated, not genetically modified and not much more beyond that and when it’s organic animal products, I’m not as clear on that because I don’t consume animal products personally but I believe it has to do with the feed that the animals get?
Phil Howard: Yeah, the feed has to be organic and they’re not allowed to use antibiotics or artificial growth hormones.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, and so what else is involved where the products change when they get purchased by a larger corporation?
Phil Howard: Well, sometimes there’s no change. But there are anecdotally some cases where some of those original ideals of organic have been lost for example when dairy company Dean bought a company called White Waves Silk, which makes soy milk?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Phil Howard: Originally those soybeans were coming from the US, and then after they acquired White Wave Silk they started buying soybeans from China and Brazil.
Caryn Hartglass: And what happens when they’re from China and Brazil? Does that mean they have different requirements?
Phil Howard: Well, it wasn’t until about 2008 that the USDA started doing inspections of certifiers in China so there is a lot of concern that there might be some fraud going on with certification in China. But also you don’t have the US farmers being supported. You’re sending money oversees where farmers are making a lot less money.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. So the big issues are #1, well a lot of issues, but the products we thought were organic and were healthful and by local or at least US companies are now bought up and some of those materials that are put into the products may not meet the standards we think they’re supposed to meet and they’re also being grown in other countries where we don’t know how the people who are doing the work and farming are being treated and moving all that work oversees. There are just so many different things involved with a simple soybean.
Phil Howard: Yeah, and another thing that’s happened when some of these companies get acquired is they take this product that is organic and then they start selling it as a natural product. So it’s not organic anymore. Odwalla did this with their juices. They used to have an Odwalla organics line and now less than five percent of what they sell is organic.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok this doesn’t sound very good. Is there anything good about this?
Phil Howard: There are some good things. If those companies retain the commitment to organic, which some of them do because there are price premiums, then the distribution becomes a lot broader. It’s a lot easier to get organic food now than it was ten years ago. We have Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants, even vending machines. In some cases it’s cheaper. When big corporations get involved they’re able to drive the prices down so the consumers pay less at the checkout.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you buy some of these products yourself?
Phil Howard: I try to buy organic foods. There are some companies that have made the conscious decision to remain independent and I try to support those as much as possible if I buy processed organic foods.
Caryn Hartglass: Is there a way for us to know who they are other than being a PhD professor who does research in this area?
Phil Howard: There are a couple of things you can do, one is go to my website and I have a chart of about eighteen brands that have remained independent. Another thing you can do is go to a website called goodguide.com and this was developed by a professor at UC Berkeley. They have ratings on about twenty-two thousand food products right now. And if you have an iPhone you can actually take a picture of a barcode in the store and pull up the product and see how it compares to other similar products.
Caryn Hartglass: Goodguide.com? And your website where this particular page is?
Phil Howard: It has a tilde symbol which is sometimes hard to find on the keyboard but it’s msu.edu/~howardp. Or you can just do a search on Phil Howard, Michigan State.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well that’s really good to know and there is always something. It’s kind of scary. Let’s talk about some other things. What are eco labels?
Phil Howard: These are voluntary identifiers on products that help a consumer know what standards were involved in producing it. Organic is one very well-known eco label and it shows that product embodies the things we were talking about avoiding: synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and for animal products the feed is organic and they haven’t been exposed to antibiotics. Another one that people are pretty familiar with is Fair Trade. The supplies are imported from other countries. It means the producers have a fair compensation for their product, particularly if they’re cooperative in producing it. Or if they’re working on a plantation that the workers are getting adequate wages and have the right to organize.
Caryn Hartglass: These labels, is this a volunteer thing or are there specific requirements in order to be able to give yourself a Fair Trade label on a product or an eco-label?
Phil Howard: Most of these eco labels involve third-party certifiers. So for organic, you can go to an organization like California Certified Organic Farmers, pay a fee, fill out some paperwork, show that you’re meeting the requirements and then you can use that label on your products.
Caryn Hartglass: And are these certifications pretty reliable? Can we trust them?
Phil Howard: Well, it depends on what it is. Some of these eco labels are first-party or second-party where there’s a financial conflict of interest.
Caryn Hartglass: Not good.
Phil Howard: So you have to be careful. Consumer Reports has a website about eco labels and you can look at this and see which ones are more trustworthy than others.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I’m definitely going to check that out. A lot of people talk about organic food. I buy organic food and I feel good about it, in some ways, well I try and buy as best I can locally grown produce, as close to the farmer as possible, but the thing is many people say, ‘well how do you know food is really organic?’ and they’ve heard a lot of things where it really isn’t true and you’re just paying a lot more money for something that doesn’t bring you any more benefit. Is there something to this or can we be confidant for the most part when foods are labeled organic?
Phil Howard: I think we can be pretty confident that most organic food is meeting the minimum standards afforded by the USDA. They’ve been pretty vigilant about checking certifiers in the United States and Latin American, more recently they’ve started to check into things that are going on in china. So at least with domestic produce you can be pretty confident that organic means what it says. Although on the other hand, it’s become pretty difficult for the small-scale farmers to meet the certification fees and the paperwork requirements. Some of them have made a decision to go outside of the organic certification system so they either tell their customers directly about their production practices and how they’re either meeting or going beyond organic standards, or they might use something, there is a peer certification system called Certified Naturally Grown which uses organic as kind of a base minimum standard and then farmers who are participating inspect each other’s farms to make sure they’re actually following those practices.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’ve heard about this and I’m glad you brought it up and it brings up so many different issues. Here you have the small farmers who are, for the most part I want to believe, are creating quality products, are doing the best they can and yet thanks to government regulation, which indeed we need, it kind of pushes them out of the market because the red-tape, the paperwork is expensive and time consuming and really not doable for these people. So it’s good that they’ve come up with this alternative. What’s the name of this peer group again?
Phil Howard: Certified Naturally Grown.
Caryn Hartglass: I imagine they must have a website, too.
Phil Howard: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Certified Naturally Grown. I’ll definitely check that out. Do you eat organic food?
Phil Howard: Yeah and I try to grow as much of my own food as I can. I’m a member of my local food cooperative and most of what they sell is organic.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Phil Howard: I try to buy unprocessed food as much as possible but there are times when it’s much easier to pick up processed foods, which tend to come from bigger companies.
Caryn Hartglass: I think what’s really important, at least in my opinion, is really trying to seek out local community sources for the bulk of our food. We’ve gotten so detached from where our food comes from, how it’s made, who grows it, who manufactures it, what goes in it. There are kids today who don’t know that apples grow on trees. We are that detached from where are food comes from. It’s having a tremendous toll on our environment and on our health and I don’t know about anybody else but I feel really good when I got a Farmer’s Market or a Co-Op and you talk to the people that are making the food. There’s this great bond and this great feeling of community and I think there’s a certain amount of, more than nutrition in the food. There’s energy and other things we can’t really measure that give us a higher quality of nourishment. Maybe some nourishment for the spirit as well when we get closer to our food.
Phil Howard: Yeah, it’s great for the community to actually be able to interact with people who are producing your food. They’re a lot more accountable when they know who’s going to be at the other end, eating that food.
Caryn Hartglass: While we’re on the subject of community, I know you’ve done some research work about communities, minority communities that don’t have access to quality food, or aren’t consuming quality food. What are some of the things you’ve discovered about these disenfranchised communities and nourishment or nutrition?
Phil Howard: Yeah, this is an area of research that’s really taken off in the last ten years, looking at retail food access. In the United States most studies, but not all, have found that low-income minority neighborhoods tend to have less access to sources of affordable nutritious produce like super-markets and they tend to have better access to foods that aren’t as good for you, retailers like convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. So I’ve been doing some work in California and Michigan. We find that there’s a pretty big difference depending on what form of transportation you use. If you have access to a car here in Lansing you can get to a supermarket within a ten-minute drive almost anywhere in town. But if you’re on foot there are very few people within a ten-minute walk of many types of fresh produce.
Caryn Hartglass: Are there, you know I live in New York City and I don’t have a car and it’s by choice because we have good public transportation and we have great stores within walking distance, but are there a lot of people who don’t own cars?
Phil Howard: Yeah, depending on where you’re at the in the US in urban areas about ten to twenty percent of people in a typical city won’t have cars. That makes it really difficult. What the pattern is that supermarkets have closed their inner-city stores and moved to the suburbs where it is a lot less expensive to build a new store and they see a higher profit margin.
Caryn Hartglass: So what can we do in these communities to get access to healthy food if the supermarkets don’t want to be there?
Phil Howard: Well here in Michigan there have been some state incentives for supermarkets to come back to those areas they’ve left but you know that’s a pretty difficult battle to fight so there’s a group in Philadelphia called The Food Trust and one of the things that they’re doing is trying to encourage more stores to offer more healthy foods, and they’re trying to help them go together and buy in bulk so they can get much lower prices for the produce. That’s one of the problems they have; they can’t compete with the supermarkets buying from all over the world with the volumes that they buy. Trying to get more fresh produce into these corner stores is one approach.
Caryn Hartglass: The businesses are there, it’s just what they’re stocking on their shelves that isn’t really good and so if they had they ability either through some subsidy or help to put healthy food on the shelves would the people buy the food?
Phil Howard: Yeah, it’s kind of a chicken or the egg problem because over the years some of those foods are very perishable, they’re very difficult to keep in stock without losing money. It’s a lot easier to stock candy and soda and things that aren’t going to go bad quickly. Over the years those healthy foods have dropped off the shelves and people have become accustomed to not having access to them or going very far out of their way to get those types of food, so simply dropping it back on the shelves people might not be in the habit of buying them, might not even know how to prepare them.
Caryn Hartglass: Have you gotten involved in this sort of research with education communities about healthier food?
Phil Howard: Not a whole lot. There are some groups here, there’s an effort to bring fresh, local produce into the convenience stores here in town and doing that type of education. Maybe going to farmers markets and helping people learn how to cook the things they buy at the farmers market, which they might have seen in their local stores.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s so crazy because I think the solutions are so simple. When people eat simple, healthy food that’s easy to prepare, they end up being healthier, they have more energy, kids are shown to have better IQs, they do better in school, they do better in life and it’s like a cyclical thing where one thing enforces the other and it’s all improvement. But when people aren’t eating healthy food and they don’t have access to it, it just makes it harder to rise above. It just takes a lot of energy from so many sources to get us back to where we were at some point.
Phil Howard: Yeah, it does.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve seen a number of different documentaries where they interview people who are poor and don’t have access to healthy food and they just want something that’s quick and cheap and you’ve got this kind of crazy competition, not even competition, but McDonald’s dollar meals. But I know beans and rice, probably the cheapest food you could get and I eat it grains and beans every day. It’s because it’s healthy food and so many people have forgotten this. It’s supported so many populations, so many civilizations over thousands of years and yet we seem to have forgotten this.
Phil Howard: There is a great success story in the Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the fourth largest city in Brazil, and they made it a goal to eliminate hunger in their city so they committed one percent of the city budget and they had a huge number of initiatives to try and make it easier for people to eat healthy food including more farmer’s markets, posting prices of produce on bus stops so people know where to go in town to get the most inexpensive produce. And one of the things they’ve done is create these people’s restaurants where they source food from the neighboring farms and they prepare meals that are very inexpensive. Although about eighty-five percent of the people that go there and buy these healthy, inexpensive meals are low-income; people of all income levels go. I’ve seen men in business suits eating meals there and it is a lot more convenient than trying to cook your own rice and beans.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. I like that story, I like happy stories. Do you have any more happy stories?
Phil Howard: There are a few out there.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well maybe we’ll take a quick break and when we come back you can tell us a happy story or two and I’d like to talk about some other subjects like seeds. Well, we’ll be right back.
Transcribed by Heather Simmons, 4/3/2014
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food! And I am here with Dr. Philip Howard and we’re talking about food systems, where our food comes from, what goes into it, how it gets to our plate, and all the complications involved in between. Okay, Dr. Howard, I wanted to talk a little bit about seeds. And something so simple…we can’t live without seeds because our food comes from seeds. And there seems to be a lot of control going on with seed availability. You’ve been doing some work with the consolidation of seed availability, something like that?
Phil Howard: Yeah, I’ve been looking at changes in ownerships in the seed industry at the global level. And what we’ve seen in the last few decades is, it’s a big multinational chemical and pharmaceutical companies have gotten involved in the seed industry, whereas back in the 1970s it was mostly just a mom and pop industry, a lot of very small companies, there were thousands of them all over the country. Now you have these big six chemical and life science companies that have become pretty dominant in the global seed industry.
Caryn Hartglass: Well they’ve obviously done that because they see some profit involved.
Phil Howard: Yeah, definitely. I mean, seeds are a pretty profitable business, second probably only to pharmaceuticals. But even so, some of the prices they’ve paid for these acquisitions, some cases three times annual sales, were pretty high and it’s obviously based on the expectation that they’re going make even greater profits in the future.
Caryn Hartglass: Now is it true that in order to get higher prices on seeds the companies have to manipulate the seed in some way to make it their own in order to charge higher prices?
Phil Howard: You know, that’s one of those things that’s driving this, is a 1980s Supreme Court decision allowed patenting of life. So now you can patent a gene, and therefore patent the seed, and require that a farmer has to go back every year to buy that seed. They can’t just save it and replant it like they could with seeds that weren’t genetically engineered.
Caryn Hartglass: So this all goes under the subject of genetically modified organisms in food, because that’s what they’re doing.
Phil Howard: To a large extent, although they’re trying to extend the precedent they set with this to even apply it to seeds that aren’t genetically engineered.
Caryn Hartglass: But seeds that are maybe hybridized? Or, what do we do to seeds if we don’t genetically modify them?
Phil Howard: Well what they do is they try and use genetic technologies to try and identify what they’re changing with conventional breeding, and then say that they also own that change.
Caryn Hartglass: And are you comfortable with this trend?
Phil Howard: No, not at all. I mean, as you said, seeds are the very foundation of life. So…
Caryn Hartglass: I’m totally freaked out about it personally!
Phil Howard: …it’s a pretty significant change we’re experiencing here, and it’s another one of those things that a lot of people aren’t aware of. It’s pretty hidden from them.
Caryn Hartglass: So these companies are looking to control all the seeds, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it because they’re buying up all the other companies, and then they’re manipulating the seeds, and so a number of things are happening. One is what’s happening to the original heirloom varieties, and will they even exist, and then the other thing that’s happening is diversity is kind of going extinct because they’re changing a few seeds and pushing all of the varieties out.
Phil Howard: Yeah it’s really difficult to fund research on heirloom varieties. Starting back in the ‘30s, really the first crops this happened with was corn. To that point, universities had been very involved in improving heirloom varieties of corn. But with the development of hybridization, which is a biological way of keeping farmers from saving their seeds, if you save your seed it doesn’t grow like the original plant. So you have to go back to the company every year and buy their seeds, and that is a lot of resources starting to be shifted into hybridization, and now more recently with genetic engineering. So the research is focused on a much smaller number of plants, or the ones that are ultimately going to be owned by big corporations.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember reading stories about different, the hundreds of varieties of rice in Mexico and further down in South America, and I’m sure it’s true of corn and so many other plants that we have. And they’re getting contaminated from the genetically modified varieties that are coming from the United States so even those that have wanted to preserve different varieties are having a difficult time doing so.
Phil Howard: Yeah, with corn in Mexico it’s just become very difficult to maintain that diversity and not have them pick out those genetically engineered traits.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you have any suggestions on what we can do about this?
Phil Howard: Politically one of the things people do is trying to reverse the decision that allowed patenting of life. There are groups like Greenpeace, coalitions of groups, that are saying, “We need to end patents on life…,” “…this is really taking things too far.” They’re taking seeds that have been developed over a millennium by farmers and then making one little change and saying, “Now we own this.”
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well I’ve read stories where they haven’t even changed things and they discover something that indigenous people have been using for thousands of years, and they say, “Well, it’s ours because we found it.” It gets really, really crazy when greed and profit are involved. And I’ve seen, it just seems like the government continues to support genetically modified food. We’ve seen recent discussions about sugar beets and alfalfa and it just seems like they just keep allowing more and more, rather than listening to our concerns and getting a little more prudent about approvals.
Phil Howard: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a different situation than in Europe. They approve some genetically engineered varieties of crops, but much less than here so you don’t get it on the same scale.
Caryn Hartglass: You don’t, but I get nervous too because I thought Europe was sort of, was going to be our rock. And yet they’ve let stuff in. Everybody kind of kowtows to these big corporations. It’s really scary. So are there things that we can do on an individual level? You know, I do what I can where I support local farmers. I buy organic, which means it’s not genetically modified unless it’s been contaminated a little bit. And sometimes we collect our own seeds. I live in an apartment and I have a balcony and I grow stuff there, but it’s kind of silly, it’s not a big farm. But I try and save seeds just to go through the process of it, because it’s, I don’t know, I just think it’s something that we should be doing, everyone.
Phil Howard: That’s a great thing to do because even if it’s on a very small scale, you’re at least maintaining the knowledge of how to save seeds. A lot of farmers, they switch from saving their own seeds to buying from a company every year, and then eventually they lose that knowledge of how to save seeds. So trying to cultivate heirloom varieties, and trading with neighbors, and maintaining the diversity of the varieties throughout there. Seeking out things based on taste, not, things are bred these days more for being very durable, and looking nice, and being able to be shipped very far, but not for taste. So there are groups like Slow Food that are working to preserve the varieties that are really selected for their taste.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well it’s good that there are little pockets of people, but we all need to be participating, and we need to participate with what we do with our dollars. To me, bottom line, that’s the only way to make change. You either support a product or you don’t, and change will happen when companies start seeing an impact to their bottom line. And it doesn’t take much. It could be 10 to 15 percent of a bottom line where they realize there’s less interest in a product, to make the product go away. Okay, and what about companies that sell seeds? I know that some of them too have been bought up, good ones, I mean I think of Seeds of Change… I know there are a number that sell organic seeds, and are they owned now by these larger corporations?
Phil Howard: For the most part, if you’re buying organic seeds, you’re not supporting those big six life science companies. Seeds of Change is a kind of unique case because they were acquired by M&M/Mars, and I think they’ve been a little more involved with changes on the process foods that they sell. But as I understand, they haven’t made many changes to the seed business. There’s one thing you have to be careful though, there’s a company called (11:00) which was put together by a Mexican billionaire, and it got to the point where it controlled about 20 percent of the global fruit and vegetable seed market, 40 percent of the US market, and then it was acquired by Monsanto. They carry some varieties that are popular with organic farmers, like Early Girl tomatoes. So some seed companies have gone out of their way to either drop those varieties or make it clear to their customers that this is coming from Monsanto.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. We don’t want to help them any way that we can. Do they do anything that’s good?
Phil Howard: They claim to.
Caryn Hartglass: I know! Everything they claim to do is good. Now I know you did some research with underserved communities, urban communities probably, but I’m not sure how involved or familiar you are with third world countries, for example. A lot of times, especially for Monsanto and other companies, they talk about how important genetically modified food is in
order to feed the world. And they really want to play on the compassion of most people, because nobody, for the most part, wants people to starve. We want everyone to have enough food to eat. And so when we hear that there’s a technology that can help feed people, we’re swayed by it. And yet, from everything that I’ve read, those in a developed world that need help, genetically modified foods are not high on the list. And it’s things like improvements in the way they grow food, access to water, improving soil quality, and better distribution, and certainly politics plays a part. Do you think genetically modified food can help feed the world?
Phil Howard: No. I mean if you look at the research, there are very few examples of genetically engineered varieties that have increased yields compared to traditional varieties. So there’s a lot of hype about increased yield and other traits, like drought tolerance, but ultimately the crops that had been adopted by farmers have been adopted primarily because they’re easier to manage. It’s easier to plant a round of pretty soybeans and then just spray right over the top of your crop to manage weeds, rather than trying to spray in between crops like you had to do with more conventional varieties. So there are a lot of claims and a lot of appeals to feeding the world. But people like Michael Pollan and others have pointed out, we’re producing a lot more food than we can eat right now globally. The problem is getting it to people who are hungry. We’re feeding it instead to a lot of animals, we’re seeing increased meat consumption all over the world from the affluent consumers. But the people who are hungry are just not able to access all the food that is being produced.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right, and I certainly know in this country we throw away a lot of food… a big percentage. So there’s a lot of food out there, we just don’t get it to the right people. What about food scares? When food gets contaminated? Are you involved in any of the studies with that?
Phil Howard: Yeah, I’ve done a few studies of this. I’ve looked at the spinach contamination epidemic in 2006 with (14:50), and then more recently the Salmonella eggs last year.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Phil Howard: In both those cases, it took an FDA recall for us to realize that in both instances there were over 40 different brands being packaged from one or two sources. So our food system has become so consolidated. We go to the grocery store and we see 50,000 different items and it looks like we have all this choice, but when we actually look at who owns or who is producing that food, it’s a much much smaller number. And it makes us very vulnerable when there is an outbreak, (15:32) shipped all over the country and it affects a lot of people.
Caryn Hartglass: Diversity is so important in so many ways: not just in people and respecting our individual cultures and backgrounds and who we are, but also with everything. With our food we can go back to the potato famine where one type of potato was grown and it wiped out a food supply for so many people. We need variety in so many ways and when there are food scares like this, where one supplier is supplying so many different products, it can be really really scary. But the thing is, why did that spinach get contaminated and why did those eggs get contaminated?
Phil Howard: Well in the case of the eggs they suspect that the feed was contaminated and so there were two producers in Wright County, Iowa that had the same source of feed.
Caryn Hartglass: And the feed got contaminated with what?
Phil Howard: With Salmonella. So that ended up in the eggs.
Caryn Hartglass: And the Salmonella came from where?
Phil Howard: Yeah I don’t know.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I’m, the reason why I’m going this way is because as a problem solver in my own training you always want to look for the source. Unfortunately a lot of times with personal health, doctors are always trying to treat symptoms rather than treat the cause. And it’s always so important to go back to the original source. So where did that Salmonella come from? And I don’t know in that particular case but what I do know is with animal agriculture, specifically these animals are crammed into very small places for the quantity of animals that are there. And they live in filth and excrement and all of this stuff creates disease and contamination and E. coli and Salmonella. And it’s no surprise to me, it goes into the water system, it goes into the soil, it goes into everything. I’m surprised we don’t hear about more contamination!
Caryn Hartglass: Huh. I get very wrapped up in this. So just back to bigger stores or corner stores offering food where food currently isn’t offered. Is this a good thing, that Walmart and Target and other stores like that are starting to have more space for produce?
Phil Howard: Well yes and no. I mean it’s great for consumers to have access to more types of produce, more affordable produce, but it’s not good for farmers. I mean Walmart is an incredibly powerful actor in the food system and they’re very famous for driving down the prices they pay to their suppliers. If you’re a farmer you can sell a lot of product to Walmart, but chances are every year they’re going to come to you and say, “We want to pay you less and less and less.”
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Do you know how the subsidies play into the food costs? I understand there are all different kinds of subsidies: subsidies for dairy producers and cattle producers and for corn growers. And it definitely affects, in strange ways, the prices we pay for food.
Phil Howard: Yeah, it gets really complicated. I mean, I’ve got a PhD and I can’t figure out the (19:18).
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Phil Howard: But one thing it does, it really benefits the companies like ConAgra and Cargill by subsidized commodities like corn and soybeans. So even though the farmers are getting some payments, ultimately most of the profits are being passed through to the big companies. And they benefit by having high profits and it makes unhealthy foods artificially inexpensive. So if you go into a grocery store, the cheapest calories are going to be in the soda aisle or the snack food aisle and it’s really expensive on a per calorie basis to buy fresh produce, the types of foods that aren’t subsidized.
Caryn Hartglass: That has got to change. That has got to change and I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to change, if Michelle Obama is going to have some influence there or what. But I remember the, was it the Sierra Club that put out the video, The True Cost of Food? Because even though on the shelf we might see a low price for something, like soda or chips or something, the real cost behind them we pay in our tax dollars. We don’t even see it. And so even though I try my best to buy healthy organic food, I’m still paying taxes to support all this junk that I don’t believe in. Yup, that’s a democracy! How did you get into this field?
Phil Howard: I just happened to go to the University of Missouri where there were a lot of professors who had been following this issue for a long time. And one of the things they’ve been doing is looking into consolidation in commodities like corn and soybeans and meat processing, and they’ve been concerned about high levels of consolidation that are getting higher and higher. I mean, you probably heard that the beef processing industry is more consolidated than it was at the turn of the century when there was a meat trust that ended up being broken up by the federal government. All the trends are really going in the wrong direction in terms of, we’re losing control of our food system, big corporations are getting more and more powerful. But that’s not inevitable, it’s just a system that was built by humans, and we have the power to change it.
Caryn Hartglass: So do you see some hope for us? Are there some things that are turning around?
Phil Howard: Yeah, I think it’s been really amazing to see the level of interest in food. People are starting to get concerned that they know so little about where it’s coming from and how it’s produced, and they’re learning more about it. You have bestselling books that are kind of unveiling what’s really going on behind your food and you have a lot of young people that want to get involved in food production and they want to start farming and selling their produce at their local communities. So all of that’s really positive and I think, given rising oil prices and rising food prices, food contamination epidemics, there are a lot of things that make our food system really unstable. And I think things are just going to have to change for the better pretty soon.
Caryn Hartglass: It has to change. So what’s your vision for what our food system should look like?
Phil Howard: I think just to reverse the direction things are going now, going towards this global (23:00) system where we have absolutely no say in how our food is produced. If we could just swing that, get that going in the other direction so that more of our food is being produced locally by people that we know and by people that respond to our concerns, all of that would be positive.
Caryn Hartglass: So you think maybe the government would have some sort of incentive programs to get people back to small farming and maybe take away some of the subsidies to the larger, giant agribusinesses, so that it’s not so profitable to them and makes it more doable for smaller farmers?
Phil Howard: Yeah, I mean ending subsidies for the big corporations, all those indirect ways that we’re paying for their profits, would be a great start. And there are countries in Europe that have also tried to subsidize and encourage more organic farming and local farming.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, you have mentioned projects in Brazil and in Europe. Is there anywhere in the world where they’re doing it right?
Phil Howard: One example people use a lot is Cuba. They were kind of forced to deal with the loss of their fossil fuel supply, so they made a transition to ecological farming pretty quickly. And it was pretty traumatic. I mean, most people in the country lost weight when they switched from a more traditional western diet to a much more self-sufficient food supply. I haven’t been there, but people who have say that there are a lot of positive examples to take away from that.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s fascinating. But unfortunately something has to happen that isn’t so positive in order for us to get in a better direction. And I don’t want to see bad things happen, like people not having access to food, and people going hungry, but I hope it’s not inevitable. So we should be supporting these local farmers, we should, if we can, be growing our own food, saving our seeds. Are there particular foods personally, I’m just curious about your own diet, what you eat and what you don’t eat from all the knowledge that you have of where our food comes from.
Phil Howard: Yeah I think there are a number of reasons to eat lower on the food chain, to eat less meat, to eat more grains and fruits and vegetables. Mark Bittman talks about being a vegan, two meals a day…I think that can really shift our food system in a more positive direction, to increase demand for fruits and vegetables and decrease the demand for really inexpensive kinds of meats that are coming from confined animal feeding operations and things like that.
Caryn Hartglass: And you have a lot of exposure to young people obviously because you’re teaching students. Do you see, are you they open to this, open to eating more healthfully and buying food that’s better for themselves and better for the environment?
Phil Howard: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I have a lot of readings in my undergraduate class that the reputation is that the class is going to turn into a vegetarian even though that’s not my intent. I think just learning more about where your food comes from…students, it’s very common for them to talk about changing their eating and purchasing habits.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. You know, it’s too bad that people have that stigma about becoming vegetarian or not eating animal foods. But I have my personal desires where I would like this world to be, I would like no pain and suffering for any sentient being. But certainly we could all do our best by eating more fruits and vegetables, and it’s such an easy, easy thing to do. Well, Dr. Philip Howard, thank you so much. Thank you for the work you’ve done and you continue to do. I think you’re really helping make a difference.
Phil Howard: Well thanks, thanks for having me on the show.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, thank you, and keep doing it!
Phil Howard: All right!
Caryn Hartglass: And your website, again, I guess the easiest thing to do is go to MSU.edu and search on your name, Philip Howard.
Phil Howard: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Great, thank you!
Phil Howard: Thank you!
Caryn Hartglass: You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food, I’m Caryn Hartglass, have a delicious week!
Transcribed by Emily Roberts, 2/25/2014