Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Senior Research Editor

Maddie writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and human rights. She oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.

Get my RSS |

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Feds Just Approved Offshore Fish Farming

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 8:06 PM EST
Federico Rotman, of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Institute, holds a young California yellowtail at their facility in San Diego. The Institute is helping fund Rose Canyon Fisheries, which hopes to raise yellowtail and other species in a massive offshore farm 4.5 miles off the coast of San Diego.

If you eat seafood, you've likely swallowed some farmed fish: These days, the whale's share of shrimp, tilapia, mussels, and increasingly salmon sold at American restaurants and seafood counters comes from the hands of aquaculturists rather than local fishermen.

Yet while fish farmers have pretty much mastered the art of raising tilapia in ponds and shellfish next to coastlines, raising marine fin fish—think all the best kinds of sushi, like tuna, yellowtail, kampachi—presents some headaches. The closed saltwater tanks needed to house these species on-land are costly and energy intensive. When they're raised in nets right by the coasts, waste can build up and damage nearby ecosystems.

That's why many seafood entrepreneurs are applauding this week's announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The agency will now allow the large-scale farming of fish in cages deep in the ocean, in waters regulated by the federal government.

The new rule, effective February 12, will allow American seafood farmers to apply for a permit to operate an offshore aquaculture farm in the Gulf of Mexico. According to NOAA, the move will help the US, which raises only 20 percent of its seafood in native waters, catch up with the rest of the world in terms of seafood output. Gulf offshore farms will produce up to 64 million pounds of seafood a year. "Marine aquaculture creates jobs, supports resilient working waterfronts and coastal communities, and provides international trade opportunities," NOAA stated in a press release.

But not everyone is excited about these future offshore operations.

Gulf fishermen will have to compete with the new offshore ventures, and some worry that creatures that escape from deep underwater cages could breed or mess with their wild stocks. And while the farms will be several miles away from the coastline, some conservationists say that we still don't know the long term effect such outfits could have on marine ecosystems. According to Politico's Morning Agriculture newsletter, several organizations, including the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch, are "analyzing legal options" in regards to the new rule out of concern for the environment.

The announcement paves the way for offshore ventures in other regions of the US to acquire permits. Rose Canyon Fisheries has been waiting since 2014 for approval of its project, which will raise yellowtail jack, white bass, and striped bass in a massive farm miles off the coast of San Diego. Don Kent, head of Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, which is co-funding Rose Canyon, envisions the project as a way to correct America's seafood imbalance—the fact that we import roughly 90 percent of the seafood we consume. "The big advantage we'll have over those other supplies is the fact that we can grow it locally," he told KPBS News.

Renowned food journalist Paul Greenberg isn't convinced these ambitious aquaculture projects will solve America's seafood dilemma. Americans often eschew native fish species and import exotic varieties instead, he told NPR's The Salt. "Rather than trying to start up new and complicated ventures, first let's try to eat the fish we've already got."

These 4 Foods Will Be All the Rage in 2016

| Mon Jan. 4, 2016 6:00 AM EST

Packed with protein, loaded with vitamin C, or boasting "15 times the amount of iron in spinach," so-called superfoods continue to seduce health nuts and marketing gurus alike. You probably remember the quinoa craze, the hype surrounding coconut oil, the excitement about acai berries, or the hoopla about kombucha. They're not necessarily better for you than more familiar fruits and veggies, but their exotic names and stories convince consumers to fork over extra for these supposed elixirs.

So which superfoods will catch on in 2016? The good news is that this year's top trends combine appealing nutritional qualities with a lighter environmental footprint than the average provision. The only problem? They don't necessarily look or taste great, so companies are currently rushing to repackage them for mass appeal.

A roundup of the most promising (but not necessarily appetizing) new superfoods:

Crickets: They thrive in hotter climates and survive off decaying waste and very little water and space, making them seem like the perfect protein for the warming, drought-stricken landscape we humans have engineered for ourselves. Starting in 2014, edible cricket farms have sprung up in Ohio and California; San Francisco's Bitty Foods grinds the bugs into a baking flour, and Six Foods uses them in its "chirps." But Americans haven't seemed quite ready to embrace the age of the edible insect. Marketing research group Blueshift Ideas revealed in September that one in five of those surveyed were likely to buy a product with an insect-based ingredient, but that marked a 10 percent decrease in enthusiasm from six months ago. Maybe due to the bugs' subtle aftertaste?

Hemp: Many consider hemp a wonder plant—it's naturally resistant to many pests, it can require half the water wheat does, it grows in tight spaces and in many climates, and it outcompetes other weeds. But laws prohibiting marijuana cultivation in the United States have meant that production of hemp, which contains miniscule amounts of THC, has also been off limits. As pot prohibition lifts in some states, people have been stockpiling seeds to plant more acres of hemp for use in textiles, building supplies, batteries, and edibles (no, not that kind).

According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, hemp seed oil contains high levels of minerals, vitamins, and omega-3s. And move over, almond milk: Hemp milk offers way more omega-3 fatty acids, thought to help prevent heart disease. But online reviews of its flavor run the gamut, with some pointing out its "pleasant slight maltiness" and others saying "it tastes like rope." Bitter notes mean hemp milk might not be the best cream substitute; the blogger behind Veganbaking.net writes that it made her coffee "almost undrinkable."

Moringa: I wrote about this ingredient after attending a San Francisco event called the Future of Food last summer:

Over to the Kuli Kuli Foods table, where women in acid-green aprons peddle samples of bars made of moringa, a leafy plant that Time recently deemed the new kale. Kuli Kuli is the first US company marketing moringa. Its founder, Lisa Curtis, first learned about the plant while in Peace Corps in Niger in 2010. Feeling malnourished on the local diet, she was urged to try the nutrient-dense moringa plant, which is high in calcium, protein, amino acids, and vitamin C. The plant grows super fast and thrives in hot, dry climates. Curtis realized that locals weren't marketing the superfood because they had no international market, so she set out to create one in the US by importing the plant in powder form. Aside from fueling her own fruit and nut bar company, she tells me that local juice joints around San Francisco are picking it up for use in smoothies. (Side note: Fidel Castro is a huge moringa fan.)

I want to love moringa. If the current California drought is any predictor, we're going to need plants that survive harsher conditions and provide such an impressive array of nutrients. But this one tastes rather grassy, and goes down like a shot of wheatgrass, which is to say, abruptly. So power to Kuli Kuli, but here's hoping its moringa recipes continue to evolve.

Seaweed: New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear recently deemed seaweed one of the "world's most sustainable and nutritious crops." It requires neither fresh water nor fertilizer to thrive, and it grows at lightning speed. And rather than contributing to our carbon footprint, as many fertilizers and food sources do, seaweed cleanses the ocean of excess nitrogen and carbon dioxide. As far as its benefits on the dinner plate, certain types of the marine algae offer lots of protein and vitamin B12. That's all well and good, but remember, we're talking about a type of plant that tends to be dark green or brown, leafy, and slimy. As one of Goodyear's sources put it, seaweed is going to be "one of the toughest food types to convince Americans to eat."

Then again, unpalatability hasn't stopped other obscure ingredients from zooming to the top of American shopping lists in short periods of time. Chia, slightly bland little seeds that puff up with moisture, gained massive momentum due largely to savvy marketing; the number of food products with chia seeds in them shot up more than 1,000 percent between 2009 and 2013, reports Mintel. Many people stomach turmeric, an anti-inflammatory yellow spice that can be acrid on its own, in capsule form. If all else fails, there's always the blender. Cricket seaweed banana smoothie, anyone?

The Only Way to Save Your Beloved Bananas Might Be Genetic Engineering

| Mon Dec. 21, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Bananas have reached such all-star status in the American diet that we now consume more of them than apples every year. Yet you're probably used to seeing just one type of banana at your supermarket: the relatively bland yellow Cavendish. It has high yields, ships pretty well, and ripens slowly, making it appetizing to global food distributors.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the Cavendish might also be its downfall. A nasty and incurable fungus known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has spread in Cavendish-producing countries around the world, and it could be making its way straight toward banana heartland: Latin America, which produces 80 percent of the world's exports.

For a paper published in November in the journal PLOS Pathogens, researchers confirmed that the version of TR4 afflicting bananas in different countries around the globe—including China, the Philippines, Jordan, Oman, and Australia—appears to come from a single clone. Ever since the fungus migrated from Asia and Australia into Africa and the Middle East starting in 2013, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has urged countries to step up their quarantining of sick plants. Yet the Pathogens paper confirms that these quarantines, seemingly the only prevention against the spread of the fungus, which can live in soil for up to 50 years, have mostly failed. "It indicates pretty strongly that we've been moving this thing around," says professor James Dale, one of the world's experts on bananas and the director of the Queensland University of Technology's Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities. "It hasn't just popped up out of the blue."

The finding seems to confirm every banana grower's worst fear: that the Cavendish will go down the same way our old favorite banana did. A century ago, Americans ate only Gros Michel bananas, said to have more complex flavor and a heartier composition than today's Cavendish variety. Then, the monoculture fell prey to the fungal disease Tropical Race 1, or "Panama disease," which wiped out the crop around the globe. There was nothing anything could do to stop it.

A farmer sells hill bananas in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. K.P. Sajith/NRCB/Musarama

So this time around, rather than attack the fungus, scientists have shifted their efforts into building a better banana to withstand it. Dale's research team, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has spent 12 years working on TR4. Three years ago, it started a trial on two very promising ideas: (1) inserting a TR4-resistant gene from a different wild banana species from Malaysia and Indonesia, musa acuminata malaccensis, into the Cavendish to create a fungus-resistant version of the popular variety and (2) turning off a gene in the Cavendish that follows directions from the fungus to kill its own cells. Dale says it's too early to discuss the details of the trials, but the team is "very encouraged by the results" of the experiment with the wild malaccensis banana—which means the genetically engineered fruit seems to have successfully resisted TR4.

GMO haters would not be too happy about a rejiggered banana plant. Dale's introduction of a different GM experiment in 2014, a vitamin-A-fortified banana meant to help deliver nutrients to impoverished Africans, was met with harsh criticism from the likes of Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, Friends of the Earth Africa, and Food and Water Watch. "There is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption," they wrote in a letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ruhuvia Chichi, or red bananas, grown on the Solomon Islands Gabriel Sachter-Smith/Musarama

Regardless of where you land on GMOs, there is another option to consider: We could stop relying on Cavendish bananas. If you've ever tasted one of the dozens of small, sweet bananas that grow in regions like Central America and Southeast Asia, you probably aren't terribly impressed with the United States' doughy supermarket varieties. Belgium's Bioversity International estimates that there are at least 500, but possibly twice as many, banana cultivars in the world, and about 75 wild species. The Ruhuvia Chichi of the Solomon Islands is sunset red and cucumber shaped; Inabaniko bananas from the Philippines grow fused together, giving them the name "Praying Hands"; Micronesia's orange-fleshed Fe'i bananas are rich in beta-carotene. Elsewhere, you can find the Lady Finger banana, the Señorita, the Pink French, and the Blue Java.

But Dale doubts the global food industry will suddenly switch to one of these tempting fruits. "To change over to another variety would be quite challenging, because the growers and shippers have really been set up to use [the Cavendish] around the world." And he points out, "Even if you did find a replacement, that's not to say that in 20 years another disease wouldn't come along and knock it over."

Flavored E-Cigarettes May Be Worse for You Than Nicotine

| Wed Dec. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EST

"An exotic fusion of pineapple and coconut with champagne infused blueberries."

"Creamy milk chocolate and rich peanut butter flavors."

No, these are not excerpts from the dessert menu at a fancy hotel. They're some of the latest offerings from the makers of vape pens and e-cigarettes—which are the same thing, more or less. As e-cigs gain traction (sales are expected to soar seventeenfold over the next 15 years), manufacturers are having a heyday concocting flavors that can be inhaled—an estimated 7,000 to date. Public health experts warn of the addictive nicotine in e-cigs and vaping fluids, and their potential to serve as a "gateway" to tobacco, especially for teens. But a new Harvard study instead took a hard look at those tantalizing flavors—and found that a majority, at least of the samples tested, contained chemicals linked to a dangerous lung disease.

Researchers tested 51 e-cig flavorings, including "Cupcake" and "Alien Blood," and found chemicals linked to lung disease in 47 of them.

Researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed various e-cig and vape pen liquids for the presence of three related chemicals—diacetyl, 2,3-pentanedione, and acetoin—that are also used in artificial butter flavorings. By the turn of the 21st century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had deemed diacetyl safe to eat, but little was known about what happened when a person inhales it. Then, in the early 2000s, workers at several plants that manufacture microwave popcorn came down with a nasty lung disease after prolonged exposure to the fake-butter fumes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated cases of this so-called popcorn lung and later released guidelines for dealing with diacetyl in the workplace, along with a list of foods that contain the chemical. "Current evidence points to diacetyl as one agent that can cause flavorings-related lung disease," notes the CDC's National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH says it is uncertain whether the other two compounds pose health risks, but it points out their chemical similarities to diacetyl.

Now the popcorn-lung chemicals are turning up in vape pens. The Harvard researchers tested 51 e-cigarette flavorings they deemed appealing to youths—think "Cupcake" and "Alien Blood"—and found diacetyl in 37 of them. At least one of the three suspect chemicals was present in 47 of the 51 samples. The researchers could not determine conclusively that using an e-cig flavored with these chemicals is harmful. But they pointed out that "the heating, vaporization, and subsequent inhalation" creates "an exposure pathway" similar to that of the microwave popcorn workers. Two of the flavors tested—"menthol" and "tobacco"—do not appear on the OSHA's list of flavors likely to contain diacetyl.

Since they landed on the market in 2004, e-cigarettes and vape pens have been dogged by controversy. Fans claim they are far less toxic than regular cigarettes and might even help tobacco smokers quit. Public health officials counter that it's too early to know very much about e-cigs' health effects, especially on young people. (Their use among teens tripled from 2013 to 2014.) At least 43 states have placed age restrictions on the sale or possession of the products.

The FDA does not currently regulate e-cigarettes—it has stalled for years in proceeding with proposed rules that would allow it to regulate the devices as tobacco products. But given the new findings, the agency may want to take a closer look at the sweet flavors that make the nicotine go down.

Thu Jan. 14, 2016 8:06 PM EST
Mon Jan. 4, 2016 6:00 AM EST
Wed Sep. 24, 2014 12:24 PM EDT
Mon Sep. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Wed Mar. 19, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Sat Oct. 12, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Thu Sep. 19, 2013 1:27 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 1, 2013 4:46 AM EDT
Fri Jun. 14, 2013 2:39 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 22, 2013 4:30 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 18, 2013 6:11 AM EST
Fri Feb. 8, 2013 6:42 PM EST
Sun Dec. 23, 2012 6:11 AM EST
Wed Nov. 7, 2012 3:10 PM EST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 6:52 PM EST
Mon Oct. 29, 2012 5:03 AM EDT
Wed Oct. 17, 2012 5:03 AM EDT
Wed Sep. 26, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Mon Sep. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Tue Jun. 26, 2012 4:48 PM EDT
Tue May. 15, 2012 3:45 PM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Fri Dec. 26, 2014 6:15 AM EST