2012: A Look Back at the Year in Food

Happy Holidays! It’s “Best Of” listmaking-time these days, and in spite of the groans of the blogosphere, we couldn’t resist taking stock of the past year. So now, in two installments, here’s an Ecocentric look back at some of the most contentious, disappointing, inspiring, anticlimactic, game-changing moments of 2012 in food, water and energy. Today: the Food Edition. And come back tomorrow when we talk water, energy and the nexus!

Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto

Right now we’re in – generally speaking – an anti-regulatory political and economic environment. So it wasn’t a surprise to look up from a tryptophan-induced haze after Thanksgiving to see that the US Justice Department had just up and quit their investigation into Monsanto for possible antitrust violations. Coupled with the USDA approval of Monsanto’s new GMO corn the food giant continues its operations rather unimpeded, so we end this year as we began.


Oh, what a year for the considered carnivore. Remember back in April when the USDA was floating proposed poultry regulations that would eliminate inspectors on the lines in processing plants? And how about “pink slime?” We also learned that there’s arsenic in our rice supply, which rice growers blame on the chicken industry, as it is fed to poultry to boost their weights. On the meat-less end of things, the USDA stirred up a controversy when they first endorsed, then retracted, support for participating in the Meatless Mondays initiative after the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (among others) issued complaints. (Our take here.) Closer to home, here at GRACE we’re still riding the euphoria of Hack//Meat, the hackathon that gathered 150 techies, foodies and creatives in early December for a whirlwind weekend devoted to taking on the biggest challenges to sustainable meat.


In March, a district judge in New York ruled in favor of several plaintiffs led by the NRDC to force the FDA to follow up on the 35-year old proposal to better regulate the use of antibiotics in meat production. In June, the Consumers Union published a report kicking off a campaign, “Meat without Drugs” along with FixFood. Currently, Consumers Union is circulating a petition asking Trader Joe’s to only sell meat raised without antibiotics. Given the growing presence of superbugs which threaten public health, this issue is poised to be a big one again in 2013.

Food Politics and Activism

Speaking of feel-good stories, how about this one: In October, Chipotle Mexican Grill finally signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, which helps to improve conditions for farmworkers through measures that range from a wage increase to a voice in working standards. On the scarier side, Iowa passed an “ag gag” bill making it difficult for animal welfare advocates to photograph or film inside the state’s factory farms. (Similar legislation was floated in several other states.) And while California’s Prop 37 was defeated, the effort to require labeling of GMO foods will continue in the new year. In reaction to the failed initiative, Tom Philpott (invoking The Wire’s Omar) assessed The State of the Food Movement, agreeing with Michael Pollan that it is absolutely capable of demanding – and achieving – change in our food system. 

Stanford Organics Controversy

Here’s our nominee for most-controversial headline of 2012 – from the September 4 New York Times: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." The study published results from a meta-analysis (simply put, a study of other studies) by scientists at Stanford University which found “that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.”  Whether on the basis of pesticide load, environmental impacts, flavor and even, yes, nutritional value, proponents of organic food critiqued the meta-study for its narrow scope. Findings from a similar data set analyzed by scientists at Newcastle University in England came to opposite conclusions, but curiously, got much, much less play from the mainstream media. Methodology matters, both generally and especially in this case. (And here’s Michael Pollan on the subject, in an interview with KQED Bay Area News blog.)

To Farm Bill or Not to Farm Bill…

As of this writing, we still do not have a 2012 Farm Bill, the legislation which must be revised and passed by the US Congress roughly every five years. Here at Ecocentric, we covered this bill from its early days as it journeyed through committees in both houses of Congress and was waylaid by the same political gridlock that has us in bigger policy and financial trouble these days. Whether subsidies for commodities, SNAP (the food stamp program), crop insurance or a raft of other supports for different food-related programs, ongoing arguments about the impending “fiscal cliff” have relegated farm bill talk to the background. That said, a farm bill could be used in negotiations underway between the parties. We won’t likely know much about that until it’s all over. Assuming we dive over the cliff, we’ll likely have bigger economic worries, anyway. (Recession redux, anyone?)

Join us tomorrow when we look back at the year in water, energy and the nexus. And please let us know about your favorite stories of the year – we’d love to hear from you in the comments, on Facebook at Ecocentric Blog or on Twitter at @EcoCentered!