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The Year Food Was Totally Schizoid: Growing Local Takes Off, As Giant Agribiz Becomes More Dominant

In the battle between Big Ag and Small Food there were notable victories on either side.

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Meanwhile, Monsanto's marketing practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice, which this month indicated it's considering anti-trust litigation. Monsanto's string of acquisitions have squelched almost any possibility of competition, while its seed prices have risen by an average of 42 percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company engaged the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It's further indication that keeping Monsanto in line is about as easy as wrestling an anaconda.

Monsanto owns the rights to genetic sequences found in more than 85 percent of corn planted in the United States, and 92 percent of soy. Given the prevalence of corn and soy in the American diet, it's hard to take a bite of any packaged food without eating Monsanto's handiwork. What's scary is how little research has actually been done in the area of food safety, and that nearly all such research has been conducted by the company itself.

While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto's main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetically engineered seeds actually don't increase productivity. Another study, by the Organic Center, found that since the introduction of "Round-Up tolerant" corn, soy and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of different herbicides by 31 percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Nonetheless, the company's Web site promotes the seeds as a key component in "sustainable agriculture."

While Monsanto has co-opted the term "sustainable agriculture," retail giant Wal-Mart, already the world's largest vendor of organic food, is poised to capitalize on the popularity of locally grown food. Wal-Mart is looking at ways individual stores can carry foods grown by local farmers. Another large grocer, Safeway, has this year begun aggressively pushing a "locally grown" marketing campaign, while blatantly taking advantage of the ambiguity in the term "local." A writer by the name of Food Dude, on the Portland, Oregon blog Portland Food and Drink, busted Safeway with photographs of produce bearing out-of-state stickers next to signs announcing "I'm Local!" and "Locally Grown."

That large corporations are jumping on the sustainable, local and organic bandwagons is arguably a good sign. It shows that these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. One of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message was Food Inc, the movie whose depressing yet important message about the American diet was seen by enough people to make it the highest grossing documentary of 2009.

The year closed with the anti-climactic climate summit in Copenhagen, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged the huge role that livestock plays in global warming -- more than transportation activities by most estimates. Vilsack announced plans to build methane capture facilities at large dairy farms in order to turn that potent greenhouse gas into an energy source. He deserves credit for helping to keep agriculture at the forefront of climate change discussions.

On the other hand, searching for ways to enable the cattle industry, while politically expedient in the short-term, are shortsighted in the long-term. Which brings us to my prediction for next year's (or next decade's) hot topic: serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine. From the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses to the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, given the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat, the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point.

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