Meet Kiera Butler: MoJo’s Econundrums Maven on 4-H, Vaccines, and Homegrown Turkeys

Senior Editor Kiera Butler oversees Mother Jones‘ health, environment, and food and agriculture reporting, is the captain of our award-winning Econundrums blog and column, and is the author of the newly minted book, Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kidsand How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever. Since she isn’t busy enough, we asked Kiera what it’s like to, mostly literally, cover the world.

Mother Jones: Your recently published book Raise—from which an adaption appears in our current issue—uncovers how Big Ag in the US uses 4-H clubs to take over farming in Africa. What made you want to write this book?

Kiera Butler: For starters, a few years ago some friends and I raised two turkeys in our backyard for Thanksgiving. When it came time to slaughter them, a bunch of neighborhood kids unexpectedly showed up. They had so many questions, and we could see them beginning to make the connection between turkey-the-animal and turkey-the-thing-on-your-holiday-plate. It made me curious about how kids learn about food and farming. I discovered that, outside of farm country, they basically don’t. 4-H is one of the few organizations teaching kids about agriculture—and it does so even in urban and suburban communities. I wanted to find out what exactly this century-old club was teaching the next generation of farmers, ranchers, restaurateurs, policy makers, and grocery shoppers.

MJ: You traveled to Ghana where you witnessed club members building "demonstration plots" with seeds donated by DuPont. How do the local communities view these companies? What’s concerning in this practice?

 

KB: The people in the communities I visited in Ghana were quite enthusiastic about the hybrid seeds. They told me that the Pioneer seeds yielded more crops, and they withstood dry weather better than the local seeds. The problem was that no one could afford them—they cost ten times as much as the local seed. And on top of that, because they were hybrids, the seeds could not be collected at the end of the harvest and used the following year.

MJ: You edit Mother Jones‘ food and agricultural content, as well as oversee and frequently contribute to the Econundrums column with posts such as, "Sorry, Raw Sugar Is No Better for You Than Refined," "Why BMI Is a Big Fat Scam," and "The Truth About Bug Spray." How do you avoid getting bogged down in fear and anxiety?  

KB: Ha! Who said I avoid fear and anxiety? But really, it does make me feel better to slay fear-mongering when I see it. In the BMI piece, for example, we basically told people not to freak out about their weight, because the latest science shows that getting enough exercise is much more important than obsessing about your body mass index.

MJ: Gluten-free, Paleo, Atkins: Understanding that some people have legitimate food allergies, what are your thoughts on fad diets?

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone found a magic diet?

KB: Wouldn’t it be nice if someone found a magic diet? But to my knowledge, no one ever has. And every time one comes around, all of a sudden all of these products appear: Gluten-free bread, Atkins-approved microwave dinners or whatever. To me, those diets mostly seem like marketing opportunities. But I don’t want to be a diet Scrooge. I guess if they make you feel better and your doctor approves, then go for it.

MJ: Your interview with an anti-vaccination pediatrician got quite a response. Why has this trend caught on, especially in more affluent, educated areas, despite data showing the harm it has caused?  

KB: It certainly doesn’t help when a celebrity (ahem, Jenny McCarthy) spreads misinformation about vaccines causing autism. But I think another reason is that immunizations have worked so well that we’ve forgotten how bad infectious diseases like polio and measles really are. People think, "Oh, I heard something about vaccines being bad, so I’ll just skip it—my kid is never going to get one of those rare diseases anyway." That’s such a dangerous attitude, because we need a high percentage of people immunized if we want to keep those illnesses rare.

MJ: Our investigative reporting sometimes delivers sobering news about things we love (almond milk, quinoa, raw sugar…) and about the world we live in. Any favorite good-news MoJo stories?  

KB: I love Tom Philpott’s profile of David Brandt, an Ohio farmer who is basically a soil whisperer. All his neighbors are having the worst time with erosion, and meanwhile, he has figured out all of these cool tricks to keep his soil healthy and his crops thriving. And the best part is that he does this with hardly any chemicals at all.

MJ: Favorite holiday recipe?

KB: Maddie Oatman’s cranberry salsa, hands down. It’s in a whole different universe from the goop in the can.