Outsourcing today’s food commentary to Buzzfeed:
Outsourcing today’s food commentary to Buzzfeed:
According to today’s Federal Register (the daily roundup of announcements from the US Government’s agencies), the FDA is “amending the color additive regulations to provide for the safe use of mica-based pearlescent pigments…in distilled spirits…in response to a petition filed by E. & J. Gallo Winery.”
I’m not really sure what to make of that, except that E. & J. Gallo Winery (which according to their website is “the world’s largest family-owned winery and largest exporter of California wine”) had a vision of a world in which wine wasn’t merely white, red or whatever color this is, but instead shimmered with a panoply of magical iridescence, and the FDA wanted to help make that vision a reality.
I have no idea what the health ramifications are of ingesting mica-based pearlescent pigments. Presumably, if the FDA OK’d it, it means it’s probably fine, although the FDA has been known to make bad calls in the past. Common Sense seems to suggest that we probably don’t need glittery wine, and that rather than amending the color additive regulations to allow for more additives the FDA could revisit some of the controversial color additives already in use.
But who knows? Maybe I am totally wrong and the FDA was right to prioritize green-lighting mica-based pearlescent pigments over their other duties. Its not like they have more pressing things to worry about, procrastinating like a college student watching kitten videos at three in the morning the night before finals until, to pull a hypothetical out of thin air, the Center for Food Safety sued them for taking too long to implement several major provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This law, ratified on January 4, 2011, represents the largest overhaul of our food safety system in decades. Its delay, hypothetically speaking, “is putting millions of lives at risk from contracting foodborne illness” and “constitutes unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed agency action.”
This suit is actually almost a year old and the court ruled in April, finding that the FDA’s delay in implementing the FSMA was in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The judge ordered the FDA and CFS to work together to set a mutually acceptable schedule for implementation. In a turn of events that was surprising to no one, the FDA refused to set any specific deadlines so both parties submitted different timetables to the court. F for group effort on that one kids.
The FDA, explaining that “because there are numerous factors and variables that will affect the length of time required for the development of draft final rules for regulations that have already been proposed, as well as the development of proposed rules that are not yet completed,” concluded “it is not feasible to predict with anything approaching certainty when the final FSMA regulations will be ready to be published.” So they decided to give themselves the “aggressive but achievable” timeline of well into 2014 with the caveat “that future developments, such as the need to supplement the administrative records with additional information, or the need to re-open one or more regulations, may render FDA unable to act within all of these timeframes.” So basically they accomplished the opposite of setting a timeframe.
In response, CFS stated that the FDA’s proposal “utterly fails to comply with the Court’s Order…A deadline is a deadline, a firm parameter with meaningful consequences, not a “target timeframe.” Contrary to Defendants’ mischaracterization, Defendants’ Proposal provides nothing remotely resembling a closed-ended process, not in accordance with the Court’s Order and congressional intent in setting firm deadlines for rulemaking in FSMA.” CFS wants everything finalized by 12/31/13, with final rules submitted by 5/1/14.
Part of the problem here is with the Office of Management and Budget, which the FDA doesn’t have any control over and which likes to sit on finalized rules for a long time with no reason because otherwise our democratic system of government might actually work.
To summarize, this whole fiasco is basically the story of FDA, the hapless undergrad, trying to get a paper extension from stern professor CFS. Thanks to helicopter parent OMB, FDA is probably going to walk away with an Incomplete with option to submit the paper after a long summer break sipping on Glitter Wine™.
A set of basic beliefs commonly held among a group of people; the baseline of knowledge an individual is expected to have within their own community; simple facts drawn from self-evident conclusions; intrinsically subjective, i.e. “You ought to have known that, it’s common sense”; the aggregate of collective knowledge (does that mean the Internet is common sense?); a mushy term that is really hard to define in any satisfactory way.
Common sense might just be inherently vague and the exercise of trying to define it inherently silly. But I hope to show that in the context of overcoming our national crisis with food, a robust and shared notion of common sense has an important place, so bear with me.
Depending on how you define common sense, its opposite could either be rash stupidity or a set of contested facts that require explanation. Lets focus on the latter for the purposes of this post and say that the opposite of common sense is confusing information that is in no way intuitive. If you’ve spent any time today skimming The Atlantic, the health section of The New York Times or the abstracts of re-posted articles on your Facebook newsfeed, you’ll have probably encountered this kind of information.
1) The Atlantic’s The Great Salt Debate: So Bad? by Travis M. Andrews in which salt defender Gary Taubes explains that “people believe salt is bad simply because that seems logical, even if it isn’t.”
2) Foodnavigator-USA.com’s New research into exactly where Americans’ calories are coming from throws up surprising results by Elaine Watson, cites a study which found, “contrary to popular belief,” that fast food and junk food accounts for less caloric intake than previously thought.
3) The New York Times’ Don’t Take Your Vitamins by Paul A. Offit, which discusses the “antioxidant paradox,” where taking too many doses of antioxidants in the form of supplemental vitamins can be harmful to your health.
Eye-catching headlines like these introduce articles that are often as full of surprising data as they are void of measured assessment of the cited study’s structure, findings, and funders. These are the viral articles that get shared the most and satisfy our browsing curiosity by leaving us with the feeling that we learned something new, because it was unexpected and unconventional and deviated from common sense. We rush to click the share button as if it would earn us a virtual merit badge for being the first in our social circles whose worldview has been enriched with the nuance of the counterintuitive.
But here’s the thing: despite everything I just said above about these eye-catching articles, I do actually agree with one of them. The Atlantic did a terrible job of making it clear to its readers that while a handful of salt defenders being paid by the Salt Institute want salt consumption to stay the same, the American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Disease Control, and even the Institute of Medicine think that for 99% of Americans (yes that means you!) consumption needs to go down. And although Foodnavigator-USA did point out at the end of their article that the National Restaurant Association funded the study cited in the headline, i.e., the organization that stands to gain the most positive PR from the findings, who is going to read that far?
The New York Times article, however, was right on. I agree completely that the vitamin and supplement industry is a total racket. Excepting specific recommendations from your doctor, eating a balanced diet (mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some dairy, and fish for those EPA and DHA omega-3s) is almost always a better way of getting what you need than taking isolated vitamins and minerals in pill form. (Note, this isn’t to say the New York Times always gets it right. Earlier this year Pam Belluck’s article Study Suggests Lower Mortality Risk for People Deemed to Be Overweight forgot to mention that the study didn’t adjust for the test subjects who had lost weight because they were already sick or dying at the beginning of the study. Meaning the data didn’t prove that overweight people live longer than people whose B.M.Is were in the recommended ranges, it just confirmed the no-brainer that serious illness often comes with serious weight loss.)
What does it mean that out of these similarly formatted articles, all of which come from fairly reputable sources, only one offers useful advice? It’s a problem I am sure you’ve also encountered at some point, browsing online, flipping through the schizophrenic pages of a fashion magazine, or watching Dr. Oz at the gym: how are we supposed to navigate all the nutrition information being thrown at us and separate the good information from the bad?
There is another setting in which this question is sure to arise. An environment full of overwhelming and contradictory information describes a Facebook newsfeed as well it describes the uncharted aisles in the middle of the supermarket. Thanks to all those messy and misleading labels, shopping for food pretty is much the worst. You basically need a calculator to do the serving size math and work out how much fiber, sugar, fat and other ingredients are in your shopping cart. You also need to know how many of those things you are actually supposed to have a day to begin with. A PhD in longass words helps too, because how else is anyone supposed to know that Triplodextrins are refined sugars, Suchrolimaseors are useless artificial fibers, and why is there fire retardant in this energy drink? Also, you are balancing the limited resources of patience, will power, time, and money and doing it in a building without windows (this is on purpose, so you lose track of time) and large displays of junk food at the end of every aisle (this is on purpose, to grind away at your will power). And finally, you are doing all of this to keep you and whomever else you are responsible for feeding alive, preferably for the average healthy lifespan of a North American adult (ideally from your grandparents’ generation, since health stats during the last 30 years haven’t been so great). I spend a lot of time learning and reading about this stuff, and still I occasionally find myself in the aisle with the sugar-free workout energy water enhancers and olestra flavored low-fat Pringle’s.
We try to keep our heads above water with the handful of nutrition facts we happen to remember, things like: antioxidants and flavanols are good for you, eating lots of fruits and vegetables is important, and Vitamin C helps fight colds. But these facts can sometimes run away from us, leading to conclusions like “I should eat dark chocolate because it has antioxidants and flavanols, drink V8 Fusion because the label says each serving of juice has a cup of fruits and vegetables in it, and buy Emergen-C December through February to boost my immune system.” But eating chocolate because of its purported health benefits is crazy, because chocolate isn’t healthy. Its delicious, its fun to eat, and in small amounts its fine. But that is different from healthy. Water and spinach are healthy. You would have to consume a lot of either of them before their benefits to your health were in any way compromised. You only need a little too much dark chocolate before the antioxidants in them are totally trumped by the calories and sugar and the precedent you set up in which things you want with a little qualification become things you need. As for those fruits and veggies, at 24g of sugar per serving (Coke has 27g), V8 Fusion’s pulverized, powdered, and reconstituted vegetable matter is as good as the plastic it comes in. And Vitamin C? Unless you are training for a marathon you probably don’t need more Vitamin C than you can get from an orange. Just eat an orange. Or a bell pepper or broccoli or kale or strawberries or cauliflower or kiwi or Brussels sprouts, which all have tons of naturally occurring Vitamin C.
To summarize: we live in a chaotic food environment. Most of the time it feels like even with complete access to an endless amount of food information, we are ill-equipped to meet one of the most basic requirements for survival: feeding ourselves. No other animal manages to make itself as sick as we do by eating. Probably because no other animal is as good at creativity, productivity, and deceit.
What seems to be missing in our relationship with food is a guiding principle, some larger philosophy to organize our food knowledge around and to help us sidestep the questionable information coming out of People magazine.
And the first step to establishing that guiding principle? Recognizing that every diet decision depends on your individual context. Your weight, your health, your medical history, the time of day, your level of physical activity, the part of the world you find yourself in, the season, your income, how many other people you have to feed and a laundry list of qualifiers that only you know about yourself.
I’m guessing this is not the answer you were hoping for. It probably seems like taking all these factors—lets call it your health context—into account is going to make feeding yourself harder, not easier. But here’s the thing: your health context is not nearly as fragmented as the nutrition facts spilling out of Oprah’s empire or Special K advertisements. We are constantly being bombarded by nutritional information produced by people who have no interest in our well-being. No, none. Not even the people at Kashi. They have shareholders that they are accountable to, they need to grow every quarter, and they will do it at your expense. Food manufactures and the people they pay to advertise their products hype counterintuitive studies, label their products with patent nonsense, and trick you into wandering supermarket aisles for hours because are have a vested interest in keeping you confused and overwhelmed. That way, next time they début a useless food product with high profit margins, packed with fat, sugar, and salt, and plastered with promises (Protein! Fiber! Acai! Coconut Water!) and tell you that it will make up for all your previous food errors, you will be more likely to break down and buy their argument and their product. The longer we stay lost in the muck and details of these contradictory food facts, the longer those industries trying to sell us shit win.
But you, you are invested in your own health. This is the underlying and unifying fact of your health context. Remember this each time you choose what food to buy or vitamins to take. Rather than complicate your purchasing decisions, it should simplify them.
Obviously, just caring about your health isn’t going to be enough. If it were, we wouldn’t be seeing the current rates of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, childhood obesity and so on.
So what else goes into a guiding principle of food?
This is where I see common sense coming back into the picture. What do I mean by common sense? It’s a story from your grandma’s farm, it’s something you learned about another country, it’s what makes up the bedrock of a culture’s cuisine, it’s what feels right all the time, it’s what worked for you after years of doing it wrong, it’s what you wouldn’t be embarrassed to explain to someone on the other side of the world, it’s what’s different for everyone but also the same, it isn’t going to change with the next fad diet, it’s going to keep you and your kids healthy and alive, it’s sustainable and affordable and simple, it’s elusive but it isn’t a unicorn, it’s yours.
I can’t tell you exactly what your common sense is, but I believe that by talking about a common sense vision of food and sharing individual food knowledge we make our communal consumer identity stronger and more resilient against the exhausting and endless misinformation that comes out of the processed-food-industrial-complex. I think more and more people are looking for and returning to this kind of food knowledge and when I hear people talk about a new ‘food movement,’ I feel optimistic for this reason.
OK, that’s nice and fuzzy, I hear you thinking, but what about some examples?
Well the poster above, put out by the US Food Administration during World War I, is a good start. These rules are flexible enough to mesh with the idiosyncrasies of each family’s dinner table. When I first saw this poster, I was struck by how straightforward and useful the advice seemed. Just good common sense.
Another is Michael Pollan’s oft quoted “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly fruits and veggies.”
Why are these suggestions different from what is on the back of a box of breakfast cereal? Maybe because Michael Pollan doesn’t make money every time you hear those three sentences and the Federal government, while it did have an agenda to limit food waste during a war, also had a duty to maintain the health and wellness of its citizens. That seems to be another common quality in common sense—it tends to come from people who aren’t trying to sell you something.
I believe in common sense. I think that the most compelling food movement advocates—Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama—also believe in common sense. Yes, they sometimes say controversial things and everyone won’t always agree on the details. But we have forever to quibble over facts, like which fats are good and which are bad, what is a responsible serving size, how much red meat should you eat, is corn syrup a natural ingredient and seriously, what is the deal with women taking calcium supplements. But these details shouldn’t get in the way of overall balance, moderation, and a less manic relationship with our food.
We kept ourselves alive with way fewer resources for thousands of years and while you would be right to point out that quality of life and length of life were shorter then, common sense would dictate that somewhere between starving with no access to modern medical care and eating whatever you want whenever you want, no matter the fat, sugar and salt content or season and being totally dependent on modern medical care because of it—somewhere between those two poles is a healthy human who lives a good life and finds joy in food without really having to think about it.
I recognize that the constraints of income and access to fresh produce pretty much make the common sense point moot for some families. I wrote this post with the intention of empowering consumers and encouraging healthier choices where and when possible, knowing that it wouldn’t even begin to cover all of the obstacles consumers face getting healthy food on the table.
I also hope that, in the context of my other posts, this will not be construed as blaming consumers for lacking common sense as they continue to struggle with food purchases, meal preparation and their health. I take it as a given that the food landscape we currently inhabit is in no way set up in favor of consumers. Ultimately, while the responsibility shouldn’t be on us to outwit the multimillion dollar ad campaigns of large food companies and make up for the relaxed regulation of the agencies mandated with keeping our food supply safe, if we wait on industry and government action, we will miss out on the chance to take back our shopping carts and our health and live with the blissful privilege of not having to think so much about food anymore.
This advertorial was featured on the op-ed page of the NYTs two days ago by the Washington Legal Foundation (tagline, “Advocate for Freedom and Justice”). Rather than share my thoughts on this creative piece of freedom and justice advocacy, here are three reactions from good friends:
- “Pretty obvious where the money to fund these ads is coming from. I’m so sick and tired of the “freedom” marketing because the companies behind it are the ones taking away any type of choice. lskdjfslkdjflksdjalksdj.”
- “I like how they condemn alarming catchy phrases and use the term “self-appointed diet overlords” in the same paragraph.”
- “I’m guessing these guys just pulled their pro-smoking file and just pressed control replace cancer with obesity.”
Actually, I will share just one thought:
“The purported goal — reducing obesity — may be worthy, but their misguided approach will only succeed in enriching these self-appointed diet overlords at the expense of American consumers and their health.”
As a self-proclaimed self-appointed diet overlord, I just wanted to say that when I read the sentence above, and then thought about my paycheck, I got a little bummed out that maybe the other self-appointed diet overlords might be getting more enriched than me. I know it is wrong to covet another diet overlord’s income, but here I am wondering if I shouldn’t be charging more per condescending demonization and request tips next time I knock someone’s freedom soda out of their hand and shout “fat bomb” while trolling mall cafeterias. Maybe its time to rethink my pricing structure; “Let’s Sue!” bumper stickers don’t grow on trees, after all.
As part of its Eating Away Our Freedoms project, Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) today placed an advertorial on the op-ed page of the National Edition of The New York Times. WLF first debuted its “In All Fairness” advertorial column in 1998 in The Times, and it has appeared on the newspaper’s op-ed page over 150 times. The Times national edition reaches 75% of America’s population and according to one survey is read by 90% of major newspaper editors.
We encourage you to peruse the Eating Away Our Freedoms site and please consider signing up to receive updates as WLF supplements the site and continues to counter those “public interest” activists, regulators, and lawyers whose approach to reducing obesity enriches them at the expense of their intended beneficiaries.
Great post from Tom Laskawy, founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, here.
“Congress tried and failed to pass a farm bill last year. The question now is whether Congress can do it this time.
Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.
Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts — almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!
That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.”
Coca-Cola’s “Beating Obesity Will Take All of Us” ad published in USA Today on 5/16. In it, Coke promises they will play an important role in the fight against obesity by 1) offering low and no-calorie beverage options in every market, 2) provide transparent nutrition information like featuring calories on the front of all of their packages, 3) help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where they do business, 4) market responsibility including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world and 5) by “creating awareness around choice, helping consumers make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families, and by inspiring people everywhere to find the fun in the moment.”
If I may, I am going to go ahead and translate:
1) “Offering low and no-calorie beverage options in every market” means sell diet soda where they hadn’t before, increasing sales of both diet and regular soda as a result. For example, while 41% of all Coca-Cola drinks bought in the US are for one of the brand’s low-calorie varieties, in China its estimated that diet drinks account for less than 10% of overall sales, leaving lots of room for growth (source here).
2) Saying “provide transparent nutrition information” when all you mean is “put calorie counts on the front of packages” is like saying “give everyone a new car” when all you mean is “show everyone a commercial for Carmax.com.” Front of pack labeling isn’t applause worthy, it’s becoming the norm in the food industry as food manufacturers are trying to pre-empt the FDA regulation that is being developed on this issue. There is still lots of nutrition information you won’t see on Coke labels, like how drinking one can of soda a day raises diabetes risk by 18% or how adults now consume 13% of their calories in the form of added sugar.
3) “Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business” is another way of saying “advertise all over the world in schools and gyms and parks and where ever people come together to do physical activity in their communities,” because you had better believe Coke is not going to host an event without plastering their name everywhere and handing out some of their products. And, while I don’t have the numbers, I am pretty sure that when you compare Coke’s spending on these feel-good activities to their entire operating budget for global marketing, the cost of “supporting physical activity programs” is pretty insignificant, unlike the returns.
A few years ago I spent some time tutoring in an elementary school in South Africa. Coke had graciously paid for the school’s sign in the front of the building, including their logo on the sign, because why be philanthropic if no one know’s whose doing the philanthropy? Unfortunately, the combination of poor diet and lack of proper health coverage in this community meant that many of the kids at the school had seriously rotted baby teeth. I learned later, speaking with a dentist in the States, that while the baby teeth fall out, this sort of damage also impacts the permanent teeth that follow. These kids needed toothbrushes, not soda. But that would have been real philanthropy.
4) “Market responsibly including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world,” except when Coke doesn’t feel like it. See story about the elementary school above as well as Dr. Freedhoff’s article on Coke’s “Santa’s Helper” smart phone game designed for the 4+ crowd here.
And finally, 5) “Creating awareness around choice, helping consumers make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families, and by inspiring people everywhere to find the fun in the moment.” Restated? Corporate speak for blaming consumers for eating too much and moving too little. See previous post on Coke’s anti-chair commercial here.
In case the USA Today ad still has you feeling warm and fizzy about soda and reading this post actually has you thinking about grabbing a can to go with your lunch, here is Exhibit B:
A 2011 document produced by Coca-Cola, detailing the increase in per capita consumption of Coke products in different countries around the world. In the lower left corner are the stats for worldwide consumption. In the two decades between 1991 and 2011, global consumption more than doubled. But in the US, consumption has stayed steady for the last 10 years, even falling slightly. This tells me two things.
1) Coke is in the business of selling Coke and they are very good at what they do. As a profit-making organization, there is no reason to think that they won’t do whatever they can to see Coke consumption double once again over the next 20 years.
2) That doubling isn’t going to take place in the supersaturated States and its going to take more then their low/no-calorie portfolio; Coke will need to focus its marketing of both low/no-calorie and regular beverages overseas to make that happen. Which is why they are happy to take out a whole-page ad in USA Today to brag about their anti-obesity initiatives; they weren’t going to convince American readers to drink an additional regular Coke today anyway.
“RALEIGH, N.C. — Cities and counties would not be able to ban the sale of sugary drinks under a bill that passed the House Judiciary A Committee late Wednesday.
The measure would also bar lawsuits against food manufacturers and producers based on claims that a product led to weight gain or obesity.
“Has a lawsuit of this kind ever been filed in North Carolina?” asked Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake. Bill sponsor Rep. Brian Brown, R-Pitt, said he couldn’t speak to suits in North Carolina. “They have been filed nationwide,” he said. “This is a law that will be helpful to restrict those types of frivolous lawsuits in the future and really drive home the personal accountability aspects of North Carolinas business-friendly lifestyle.”…The restriction on cities has been informally dubbed the “Bloomberg Bill,” a reference to the New York mayor who led the push to restrict the sale of large-sized sugary beverages there.
The measure passed committee 8-5. It next goes to the House floor.”
Not that consumer lawsuits claiming foods have led to weight gain or obesity have had much success in courts in the past, but this bill would bar plaintiffs from bringing these kinds of suits altogether.
As anyone who has read Salt Sugar Fat (or read the extended excerpt that the NYT published back in February) knows, while there is certainly a personal responsibility component to individual health, processed and fast food companies have worked hard to make their products as successful as they are by approaching taste, texture, ingredients, and marketing with scientific exactitude (see this earlier post for an example).
Saying that consumers are totally empowered to eat whatever and however they want in our super-saturated food landscape ignores the influence wielded by the millions of dollars that go into the marketing, research and development of, for example, the perfect potato chip. As Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, has said in interviews (like this one), when you start to learn about what goes into the making of processed foods, Lay’s famous slogan, Betcha can’t eat just one “starts sounding less like a lighthearted dare–and more like a kind of promise. The food industry really is betting on its ability to override the natural checks that keep us from overeating.”
Until the FDA wakes up from its prolonged nap and starts regulating the food industry on behalf of consumers, consumer lawsuits remain an important tool for keeping food manufacturers accountable and in check, which is what makes this proposed bill so troublesome.
This North Carolina bill would also prevent cities and counties from banning the sale of sugary drinks à la Bloomberg. As I said before when Mississippi passed their “Anti-Bloomberg Bill” in March, I don’t really understand how using state legislation to ban cities and counties from managing public health at the local level is an effective way of taking a stance against an overreaching nanny government, but hey, you do you North Carolina.
By the way, in 2012 Mississippi ranked as the second most obese states in the union, and North Carolina was one of only three states to experience an increase in obesity rate (along with New Jersey and Georgia). So NC and MS, if it does just come down to personal responsibility, it might be time to sit down and have a talk with your constituents.
Here is a helpful cheat sheet from Visually for meat-eaters interested in adding some new cuts to their weekly rotation. Ground beef can get a little boring after the millionth time, so click on the link to learn about different choices, how to cook them (stir fry, grill, marinate, stew, braise, roast, or pot roast) and how much each cut will cost you.
And for your non-meat eaters out there, I threw together a corollary, copied below:
A few choice quotes from WSJ article, Overeating: The Psychology of Small Packages:
“Hershey Co. learned that individual wrappers on bite-size candy were getting in the way of people eating candy in certain settings, like in the car. The company responded with Reese’s Minis, a small, unwrapped version of its classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, in a resealable bag. It facilitates “I-can-pop-one-in-my-mouth, on-the-go type of behavior,” says Michele Buck, senior vice president and chief growth officer for Hershey….Sales of unwrapped miniature chocolate rose about 14% in 2012 compared with the previous year, far faster than the 4% growth of miniature, wrapped chocolates, according to Nielsen data compiled for Hershey.”
“People are woefully inept at knowing when to hit the brakes with food. They eat to the bottom of the bowl or bag if that seems like a logical meal or portion size, a behavior dubbed “unit bias” by academics.”
From NPR article Supreme Court Rules for Monsanto In Case Against Farmer:
“Farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman had been using — and paying Monsanto for — the company’s Roundup Ready when he planted his main crop in the spring. He also signed a standard agreement not to save any of his harvest and replant it the next year. Monsanto demands exclusive rights to supply that seed. The farmer got into trouble when he planted a second crop of soybeans later in the same year, when the yield would likely be much lower. Bowman decided that for this crop, he didn’t want to pay top dollar for Monsanto’s seed. ‘What I wanted was a cheap source of seed,’ he says. Starting in 1999, he bought some ordinary soybeans from a small grain elevator where local farmers drop off their harvest. … He knew that these beans probably had Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene in them, because that’s mainly what farmers plant these days. But Bowman didn’t think Monsanto controlled these soybeans anymore, and in any case, he was getting a motley collection of different varieties, hardly a threat to Monsanto’s seed business. ‘I couldn’t imagine that they’d give a rat’s behind,’ he said.
Monsanto did care. It took Bowman to court. The farmer, as Dan reported, was ordered to pay Monsanto $84,000 for infringing on the company’s patent.
Monday, the Supreme Court upheld that decision. Kagan wrote:
“In the case at hand, Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article. Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct. We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.””
To put that $84,000 in perspective, Wikipedia puts Monsanto’s 2011 revenue at $11.822 billion.
Not that perspective matters, if you believe that a patent is a patent and should protect the owner whether the seed is worth $84, $84,000 or $84 billion. From that perspective, which is the one espoused today by the Supreme Court, Monsanto is the victim here, the seed is their property, and for “depriving [Monsanto] of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,” this 75 year-old farmer is the villain for planting something that wasn’t his to plant.
Strictly speaking, the Supreme Court is right. Loosely speaking, Monsanto is a global Goliath whose rap sheet includes Agent Orange, the overuse of pesticides and growth hormones, unlabeled GMOs, and aggressive seed patents and whose dissolution would be an immeasurable and unmitigated gift to the current and future generations of plants, animals and humans. Loosely speaking.
Today’s Supreme Court case reminded me of a brief video by The Perennial Plate that I watched awhile back. The video outlines the impact of Monsanto’s sale of a genetically modified seed that requires land-destroying quantities of pesticides to grow and is sold at debt-incurring prices to cotton farmers in India. Dr. Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, anti-globalization author, and incredibly compelling woman whom I admire greatly for her intelligence and eloquence, explains in this 7 minute video that I promise is worth your time:
I haven’t passed the bar, and I don’t know much about the history of patent law, but I am willing to bet that the original purpose of patents wasn’t to allow chemical giants to very nearly approximate the villainous attributes of a Disney-esque villain in their unrelenting destruction of the world. Pride Rock before and after Scar’s reign comes to mind:
Not to lean too hard on Disney here, but this whole story feels like a song right out of Pocahontas. You patented seeds? You litigated over a crop? Does it make me such a predictable hippie to believe that water, air, the internet and the miracle of a fall harvest ought to be free for anyone to use and everyone to be held accountable for?
Every once in a while I read a sentence that causes some of the brain cells behind my eyes to undergo autolysis. Monsanto’s tagline, “A Sustainable Agriculture Company” is one of them.