MoJo Author Feeds: Tom Philpott | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en The Science That Will Make You Question Everything About Weight Loss <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>NBC Reality show <em>The Biggest Loser</em> stands at the intersection of a great American contradiction:<strong> </strong>We have a food system geared toward moving mountains of cheap, flavor-engineered, and <a href="">fattening junk</a>; meanwhile, our pop culture equates <a href="">thinness with beauty</a>.</p> <p>Add the show's appeal to our thirst for degrading spectacles and our appetite for self-help treacle, and you've got quite a <a href="">profitable enterprise</a>&mdash;complete with a <a href="">16-season run</a> on network TV, <a href="">four resorts</a>, <a href="">cookbooks</a>, <a href="">workout videos</a>, and <a href="">exercise gear</a>.</p> <p>But as a <a href="" target="_blank"><em>New York Times</em> piece</a> underscored earlier this week, what <em>The Biggest Loser</em> doesn't do is provide any kind of recipe for sustained weight loss. That's the obvious takeaway from a dramatic peer-reviewed <a href="">study</a> published in the journal <em>Obesity</em> that tracked 14 of 16 <em>Biggest Loser</em> contestants from the <a href="">2009 season</a> to see how they fared in the years after time on reality TV.</p> <p>Two things struck me about the story. One is the brutality of the regimen that contestants subject themselves to. Here's the<em> Times, </em>describing the routine of 2009 contestant Danny Cahill, who arrived on the show's set weighing 430 pounds and exited weighing 191 pounds&mdash;a 56 percent drop:</p> <blockquote> <p>Sequestered on the "Biggest Loser" ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him. He took electrolyte tablets to help replace the salts he lost through sweating, consuming many fewer calories than before.</p> </blockquote> <p>To put those numbers in perspective, consider that the US Department of Agriculture <a href="">estimates</a> that a moderately active adult male should consume about 2,600 calories daily to maintain body weight. Cahill was routinely burning through more than three times that much.</p> <p>The second thing was the punishing effort contestants have expended in the years since, in a futile effort to keep the pounds off. For four years, Cahill exercised two to three hours per day to keep his weight below 255 pounds while pursuing a "new career giving motivational speeches as the biggest loser ever." Essentially, Cahill was spending about as much time exercising daily as a healthy adult needs in an entire week, according to the Mayo Clinic's <a href="">recommendations</a>. Not surprisingly, he couldn't keep it up. When that motivational-speaker work dried up, he returned to his old job as a surveyor&mdash;"and the pounds started coming back." Now Cahill weighs 100 pounds more than he did after stepping off Biggest Loser ranch, the <em>Times </em>reports.</p> <p>All the other contestants in the study followed a similar path: a steep loss for the cameras followed by a long and vexed struggle to maintain it. The participating contestants lost an average of 128 pounds during their stints on the show&mdash;and have regained about 90 pounds since. Some are heavier now than before they began their TV exertions.</p> <p>Their problem is a phenomenon about as ubiquitous and invisible as gravity: what the researchers call "persistent metabolic adaptation." That is to say, when your body adapts to a certain weight&mdash;based on genetic factors, but also on diet and exercise&mdash;it pushes to maintain that weight when those habits drastically change. It does so essentially by putting the breaks on metabolism. A lower metabolism translates to higher propensity to put on pounds&mdash;in essence, your body is less efficient at burning calories and more prone to storing the excess as weight.</p> <p>When they began their time on <em>The Biggest Loser,</em> the contestants had a "resting metabolism rate" (RMR) of, on average, 2,607&thinsp;calories. The RMR measures how much energy your body consumes per day maintaining normal functions. Anything you consume above that amount has to be balanced by calorie-burning activity or you put on weight.</p> <p>By the time they left the show, their average RMR had fallen to 1,996 calories&mdash;their bodies burned significantly fewer calories per day than they had burned before, putting pressure on them to eat very little and exercise a lot to maintain their new weights. Six years later, the researchers found&mdash;to their surprise&mdash;the contestants' RMR levels haven't budged much at all, even though they have regained nearly three-quarters of the weight they had lost. More than a half decade after their made-for-TV ordeal, their bodies are still geared to add more weight. Here's the<em> Times</em>:</p> <blockquote> <p>As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants' metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.</p> </blockquote> <p>In other words, the study suggests, for overweight people, extreme measures like hours per day in the gym and severe calorie restrictions&mdash;what <em>The Biggest Loser </em>presents&mdash;isn't a long-term weight-loss strategy.</p> <p>I reached out to the show's producers for comment on the <em>Obesity</em> study. "We have comprehensive procedures and support systems in place which we routinely re-evaluate to ensure all contestants receive the best care possible," they replied in an emailed statement. "The lead medical doctor on the show, who has worked with the National Institutes of Health on initiatives in the past relating to <em>The Biggest Loser</em>, has been made aware of this most recent study and is in the process of evaluating its findings."</p> <p>While researching this piece, I alighted upon the webpage for <a href="" target="_blank"><em>The Biggest Loser</em>'s resort program</a>, which runs resorts in Chicago, Florida, New York, and California and calls itself a "A Life Changing Weight Loss Program."</p> <p>A live-chat box popped up, offering assistance. To find out what sort of claim the company makes, I typed in a hypothetical query: "I weigh 350 and hope to get down to 200. Can you help?"</p> <p>"Absolutely!" came the response. "Are you associated with the TV show?" I asked. "Yes we are!" My chat interlocutor went on to estimate that I could expect to lose four to seven pounds per week at the resort, exercising "about" six hours per day. When I expressed concern about maintaining losses going forward, the person reassured me: "Our educational seminars are built to really help you keep the weight off and continue your program at home!" Rates start at $2,995.00 weekly, plus tax, the rep added.</p></body></html> Environment Food Wed, 04 May 2016 10:00:17 +0000 Tom Philpott 303176 at Here's Why Kids Are Still Getting More Obese <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>According to a 2015 <em>New York Times</em> <a href="" target="_blank">analysis</a> of government and private-sector data, the number of calories consumed annually by the average US child declined 9 percent between 2004 and 2013. And yet, researchers from Duke and Wake Forest have found that trend has not improved the child obesity situation.</p> <p>Using <a href="" target="_blank">body mass index data</a> from the <a href="" target="_blank">National Health Examination Survey</a>, which tracks randomly selected households with health exams and surveys every two years, the researchers calculated moderate (class 1), mid-level (class 2) and extreme (class 3) obesity rates among kids aged 2 to 19. Here's what they found, from a paper they <a href="" target="_blank">published</a> in the peer-reviewed journal <em>Obesity</em>.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/obesity%20chart_0.jpg"><div class="caption">From <a href="" target="_blank">"Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity in US Children, 1999-2014,</a>" Skinner et al, 2016.</div> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The "overweight" rate&mdash;which encompasses the above "obese" categories as well as slightly overweight kids&mdash;also nudged upward from an already-high level: 28.8 percent from 1999 to 2000, compared with 33.4 percent from 2013 to 2014, the study found. The authors broke out data by age, gender, and race, and not a single group showed a statistically significant decline in obesity or being overweight over the time frame. (The authors used <a href="" target="_blank">standard definitions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>: Overweight kids fall between the 85th and 95th percentiles compared with peers of the same age and gender, while obesity starts above the 95th percentile.)</p> <p>So, despite the above-mentioned drop in calorie intake, our kids are still packing on too much weight too fast. What gives?</p> <p>I put the question to Barry Popkin, a veteran obesity researcher and professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health. (He wasn't involved in the paper). He said that while kids have eased up on problematic items like sugary sodas in recent years, they're "not shifting the quality of [their] diets toward healthy foods." Instead, "we continue to see our children mainly eat what we would call junk food," relying heavily on cookies and other grain-based sweets, along with plenty of salty snacks, fruit juice (which <a href="" target="_blank">acts an awful lot like soda</a> in our bodies), and other sugary beverages.</p> <p>A recent <a href="" target="_blank">analysis</a> of another big federal data set, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), bears out Popkin's claim. When infants transition from baby food to solid food, they still tend to get plied with plenty of processed junk and few vegetables, the study found (more <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>). The report noted that 40 percent of babies get brownies or cookies, and that French fries and chips are the most common form of vegetables kids eat by the time they're two years old.</p> <p>But obesity doesn't exist just because of individual choices by parents and kids. On the policy front, the US government "has yet to aggressively do more than try to make some minor changes in a few programs," Popkin added. For example, Congress and President Barack Obama reformed the school food environment in important ways back in 2010, cutting down on the once-ubiquitous availability of sugary snacks and beverages, but public school cafeterias are still constrained by tight budgets to churning out plenty of highly processed food. (More <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> on the the modest US lunch reforms and the brewing congressional backlash against them.) In <a href="" target="_blank">Brazil</a>, by contrast, "70 percent of all food served in schools must be real food that is healthy," Popkin said.</p> <p>And then there are chemical factors not directly related to food choices. Chemicals like&nbsp;bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are ubiquitous in food packaging and <a href=";BPA.pdf" target="_blank">all manner of consumers products</a>; yet there's "strong mechanistic, experimental,<a href="" target="_blank"> animal, and epidemiological evidence</a>" that at tiny doses they mess with our endocrine systems and can trigger obesity and diabetes, <a href="" target="_blank">warns</a> the Endocrine Society. Kids can be saddled with a higher risk of obesity before they're even born, when <a href="" target="_blank">their pregnant moms are exposed to BPA.</a></p> <p>Add all of this to s<a href="" target="_blank">tubbornly low rates of physical activity</a> among kids and the <a href="" target="_blank">long decline of time and resources</a> devoted to physical-education classes and even recess, and it's no wonder our childhood obesity problem persists.</p></body></html> Environment Food Thu, 28 Apr 2016 10:00:28 +0000 Tom Philpott 302746 at This Bill Could Make More Kids Obese—and No One Is Talking About It <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>You probably haven't heard much about it with the presidential election sucking up all the oxygen, but US lawmakers are mulling one of the nation's most important and influential pieces of food legislation: a once-every-five-years bill that sets the budget and rules for school meals. And it hasn't been a very appetizing process.</p> <p>In a <a href="" target="_blank">recent episode</a> of <em>Bite</em>&mdash;the <a href="" target="_blank">new podcast</a> I host with colleagues Kiera Butler and Maddie Oatman&mdash;the excellent school lunch analyst and blogger&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">Bettina Elias Siegel</a> lamented that there's no push to increase our miserly annual outlay on the lunch program, which serves about 30.5 million kids each school day. Currently, we spend about <a href="" target="_blank">$13 billion</a> in federal dollars on it each year&mdash;equal to about 2 percent of <a href="" target="_blank">annual defense spending</a>. That leaves cafeteria administrators with a bit more than a dollar per meal to spend on ingredients, leading to <a href="" target="_blank">generally dismal-quality food,</a> often <a href="" target="_blank">served reheated from a box</a>.&nbsp;</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript"></script><p>Instead of pushing for more resources, advocates are having to play defense, fighting to preserve reforms made in the previous Child Nutrition Reauthorization (as the bill is known). That <a href="" target="_blank">act</a>, passed in 2010, included a tiny per-meal budget increase but also required cafeterias to serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and to cut back on sugar, fat, and salt. It also limited the amount of <a href="" target="_blank">junk food that can be served in a la carte lines</a>&mdash;restricting a practice that has been linked to higher obesity rates. And it adopted a program to allow schools in high-poverty areas to automatically offer all students free lunches&mdash;a provision widely <a href="http://" target="_blank">praised</a> in anti-hunger circles.</p> <p>The 2010 reforms have largely proven a success, Steven Czinn, the chair of the department of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, recently <a href="" target="_blank">showed</a> in a <em>Washington Post </em>op-ed. While the new rules got off to a rough start in some districts, things have improved, and tales of rejected lunches and fresh fruit piling up in cafeteria trash cans are overblown, he wrote.</p> <p>Even so, those healthier food provisions provoked a furious backlash from tea-party-associated Republicans. In a notorious 2014 rant on the House floor, US Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) <a href="" target="_blank">thundered</a> against what he called "nanny-state lunches." Then there's the School Nutrition Association, a group that represents cafeteria administrators but gets about <a href="" target="_blank">half its $10 million budget from the food industry</a>. As <em>Politico</em>'s Helena Bottemiller Evich <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> in 2014, the group initially fought for the changes, but suddenly, in 2014, it began "standing shoulder to shoulder with House Republicans" in an effort to gut them.</p> <p>In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee cobbled together a bill that preserved the 2010 reforms. But now its counterpart in the House, the Education and Workforce Committee, is pushing a bill that would ease restrictions of sales of junk like chips and cookies in cafeterias. "Children as young as five could go from having cookies or fries with their lunches once in a while to buying and eating them every day," <a href="" target="_blank">writes</a> Jessica Donze Black, who directs the the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts.</p> <p>More egregiously, the proposed House bill would undermine universal free-lunch programs for many high-poverty schools. Under the 2010 bill, when at least 40 percent of students in a school qualify for free lunches, the school can claim "community eligibility"&mdash;meaning all students automatically have access to free lunches. The program eases the administrative burden for these financially strapped schools, allowing them to "shift resources from paperwork to higher-quality meals or other educational priorities," <a href="" target="_blank">writes</a> Zo&euml; Neuberger of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It also eliminates the "stigma that sometimes accompanies free meals" and increased meal participation, which, in turn, "improves student achievement, diets, and behavior," she adds.</p> <p>The House bill would raise the threshold from 40 to 60 percent. If it becomes law, Neuberger writes, more than 7,000 schools&mdash;with nearly 3.4 million students&mdash;"would have to reinstate applications and return to monitoring eligibility in the lunch line within two years."</p> <p>Happily, none of these rollbacks are likely anytime soon, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a veteran of the school food wars. That's because first lady Michelle Obama pushed hard for the 2010 reforms, and her husband will veto any school lunch reauthorization bill that attempts to roll them back. Until a new bill passes, the 2010 reforms hold sway, she said. "For once, the status quo is on the side" of people pushing to widen access to free lunch and remove junk food from the cafeteria, she added.</p></body></html> Environment Food Wed, 27 Apr 2016 10:00:11 +0000 Tom Philpott 302581 at Inside the Country's Most Controversial Company <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>I normally cover the agrichemical industry from afar&mdash;parsing W<a href="" target="_blank">orld Health Organization pesticide assessments,</a> say, or analyzing <a href="" target="_blank">megamergers</a>. But on a recent afternoon, I found myself plunged into the industry's very bosom: <a href="" target="_blank">Monsanto</a>'s global R&amp;D center in suburban St. Louis.</p> <p>Alongside Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone&mdash;whose undergraduate class on "brave new crops" I was in town to address&mdash;I spent five hours winding through the labyrinthine corridors of the vast facility, speaking with researchers, scientists, and managers from all five of the company's "innovation platforms": biotechnology, plant breeding, soil microbes, pesticides, and data science. Our long march through the building was bookended by interviews at a conference table with Monsanto's chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, who's an early innovator in genetically altered crops and a tireless defender of the controversial company.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/20160408_151629%20%281%29_0.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>What I look like through the heat-sensing camera Monsanto uses to asses heat stress in crops in its research greenhouse. </strong></div> </div> <p>In his classic 2001 book on the rise of Monsanto as an agribusiness titan, <em>Lords of the Harvest, </em>Dan Charles portrays Fraley as a ruthless figure. "He's a really smart guy, but absolutely merciless," a former Monsanto exec tells Charles. I found Fraley formidable: a barrel-chested man with a large bald head and a steady, skeptical gaze. But he was also unfailingly friendly and even occasionally light-hearted&mdash;we joked about our common baldness, and he expressed regret that he hadn't donned a flat cap like the one I wore that day, "just to fit in."</p> <p>Monsanto once had a reputation as a tightly guarded company, but has made an effort in recent years to be more transparent. My entire visit was on the record, and Fraley and other Monsanto workers spoke freely. Here are some things I learned.</p> <p><strong>The company doesn't seem too keen on old-school GMOs anymore.</strong> Fraley accompanied us to the biotechnology wing of the research center, the first stop on our tour. Strikingly, we didn't hear a peep about the GM wonder crops that the industry used to claim were just around the corner: corn that grows well in drought conditions, say, or thrives with minimal amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Instead, we heard vigorous defenses of a trait that Monsanto has been selling since <a href="">genetically altered crops first hit farm fields in the mid-'90s</a>: the insect-killing gene from the soil bacterium<em> Bacillus thuringiensis, </em>known as Bt.</p> <p>A researcher from India described his childhood on a two-acre farm applying insecticides with a backpack sprayer&mdash;a hazardous activity made obsolete, he said, by the rise of Monsanto's Bt cotton in India. Then the same researcher launched into the benefits of another crop&mdash;a soybean product now taking off in Brazil. It's engineered to contain both the Bt insecticide and the other GM trait that Monsanto has been selling since the 1990s: resistance to glyphosate, the company's flagship herbicide. In other words, during our stop at the biotech wing, we heard about nothing completely new, but rather about the same two traits Monsanto has been selling for two decades: herbicide tolerance and Bt.</p> <p>Later, back at the conference table, Fraley gave a surprisingly sober assessment of GMOs for an executive who has spent his career promoting and defending them. He declared that classical plant breeding, sped up by genomic tools, is the "mainstay," "base engine," and "core" of Monsanto's business, and stressed that it always would be, adding that it takes up half of the company's R&amp;D budget.</p> <p>"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said. "I helped invent it [GM technology], and we've been the leader in that space," he said. "But by far the biggest contribution we've made to yield gains around the world is how we've applied biotechnology to the [classical] breeding engine itself."</p> <p>Gene transfer is an expensive technology&mdash;"it costs us $150 million to develop a GMO product," he said. "We only use it on things we can't do any other way. The only way to get a Bt gene into a corn or soybean plant is to use gene-transfer technology and create a GMO," he said.</p> <p>Otherwise, Monsanto prefers to use classical breeding or seed treatments&mdash;pesticides that are taken up by the plant as it grows. I asked him whether GM technology could, as boosters used to insist, one day achieve grand visions like <a href="" target="_blank">corn that mimics legumes and snatches nitrogen out of the air</a> for self-fertilization. "Not likely," Fraley said. He and his team have concluded that creating a nitrogen-fixing corn through gene transfer would require 30 separate traits, he said, and thus be way too costly.</p> <p><strong>But that doesn't mean Monsanto is giving up on cutting-edge techniques.</strong> While downplaying the role of gene transfer, Fraley and other Monsanto employees embraced other genetic methods for altering crops: gene silencing, or RNAi (which I've discussed at length <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>), and gene-editing techniques, like the much-ballyhooed CRISPR-Cas9. Fraley declared these technologies "transformative" and took pains to classify them as variations on breeding, not GMO technologies. (Washington University's Glenn Stone, who accompanied me on the tour, has more on this rhetorical effort <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p> <p>Gene editing tools like CRISPR are a "superdirected" version of classical breeding. They "let you breed even faster and better, and allow you to do some of the things you can do [with GM technology], but won't let you introduce a new trait," he said.</p> <p>As for RNAi gene-silencing technologies, Monsanto has plenty in the pipeline, Fraley added. There's a corn product in the final stages of US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency vetting that contains RNAi matter that will target and kill specific crop-chomping insects, leaving everything else unscathed, he said (though this is <a href="" target="_blank">not a universally held belief</a>). He also pointed to an <a href="" target="_blank">RNAi spray</a> in the works that will silence the genes that allow weeds to withstand the glyphosate herbicide&mdash;adding new life to a key Monsanto product now losing effectiveness as weeds evolve to resist it.</p> <p><strong>Soil microbiota supplements are hot! (And they apparently go well with pesticides.)</strong> My favorite episode of our trip was our stop at Monsanto's emerging soil microbial unit, which develops supplements meant to boost soil health and produce more robust crops.</p> <p>"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained. "A plant is no different&mdash;I guarantee there are more cells [in soil microbes] than there are in plants." And so Monsanto is working diligently to identify and market the "most beneficial" of the microbes&mdash;ones that can help make nutrients more bio-available to crops, or crowd out soil-borne pathogens. And just like people can eat yogurt or take "probiotic" supplements to add beneficial microbes to their gut biomes, farmers can buy microbial seed treatments and sprays to fortify their soil, he said.</p> <p>Now, I'm not someone who's readily convinced that Big Pharma is going to come up with some magic probiotic mix that transforms human health; nor do I think Big Agrichemical is going to stumble upon and package just the right combo of microbe species for growing robust crops without lots of fertilizers and pesticides. The microbial communities that exist in animal guts and in the soil have evolved over eons. I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations&mdash;not lab-grown potions&mdash;are key to engendering healthy biomes, both within our bodies and in the dirt.</p> <p>Still, I was happy to see Monsanto was thinking in terms of adding life to soil, not dousing it with chemicals designed to stamp out life. So what I saw next made my jaw drop. The researchers pointed to a glass case (below) featuring hearty-looking corn and soybean plants grown with microbial products already on the market, with placards featuring names like Control, Tag Team, Optimize, and Biological.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/20160408_153303.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>New products from Monsanto's soil-microbiota team </strong></div> </div> <p>But for each of the six products, I noticed, the words "Acceleron&reg; Fungicide and Insecticide" appeared under the product name. I cleared my throat and asked why "biological" products were being marketed under biocide labels. The researcher handled the question in stride. "What we've done is taken biological products and put it on top of the fungicides and insecticides most [corn and soybean] growers are using today," he said.</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/detail.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>Fine print: "Acceleron Fungicide and Insecticide" </strong></div> </div> <p>Eventually, he said, they hope growers will begin to actually replace the chemicals with microbes. (In case they don't, Monsanto seems to be hedging its bets&mdash;earlier in the tour, I had met people from the chemicals division who informed me that the company is also developing new fungicides.)</p> <p>Later, I looked up the <a href="">Acceleron</a> product. It turns out it's marketed by Asgrow, one of Monsanto's seed subsidiaries. It's a mix of pyraclostrobin, the potentially worrisome fungicide I <a href="" target="_blank">wrote about last week</a>, and Imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that's suspected of harming <a href="" target="_blank">bees</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">birds</a>, and <a href="" target="_blank">aquatic creatures</a>.</p> <p>As for the microbial mix the company mashes up with those potent chemicals: It's made up of <em><a href="">Bacillus amyloliquefaciens</a></em>, a common soil bacteria, and <em><a href="">trichoderma virens</a></em>, which is, yes, a fungus. So probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package. (Presumably, that particular fungicide doesn't kill the <em>trichoderma virens</em> fungus.)</p> <p>Altogether, it was an informative and provocative visit. In addition to what I've chronicled here, I also learned<strong> </strong>about impressive non-CRISPR technology used to speed up good old classical breeding, and I had a fascinating conversation with Fraley and other executives about the data services Monsanto sells to farmers&mdash;topics I plan to explore in future posts.</p> <p>And I greatly appreciated the access and transparency granted to me. In our conversations, Fraley repeatedly mentioned the importance of open dialogue between Monsanto and its critics, and I agree. I hope we can continue it.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 20 Apr 2016 10:00:12 +0000 Tom Philpott 302231 at Disturbing New Evidence About What Common Pesticides Can Do to Brains <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>For defense against the fungal pathogens that attack crops&mdash;think the <a href="" target="_blank">blight</a> that bedeviled Irish potato fields in the 19th century&mdash;farmers turn to fungicides. They're widely sprayed on fruit, vegetable, and nut crops, and in the past decade they've become quite common in the corn and soybean fields. (See <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> for more.) But as the use of fungicides has <a href="" target="_blank">ramped up in recent years</a>, some scientists are starting to wonder: What are these chemicals doing to the ecosystems they touch, and to us?</p> <p>A new <a href="" target="_blank">paper</a> in the peer-reviewed journal <em>Nature Communications</em> adds to a disturbing body of evidence that fungicides might be doing more than just killing fungi. For the study, a team of University of North Carolina Neuroscience Center researchers led by Mark Zylka subjected mouse cortical neuron cultures&mdash;which are similar in cellular and molecular terms to the the human brain&mdash;to 294 chemicals "commonly found in the environment and on food." The idea was to see whether any of them triggered changes that mimicked patterns found in brain samples from people with autism, advanced age, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.</p> <p>Eight chemicals fit the bill, the researchers found. Of them, the two most widely used are from a relatively new class of fungicides called "<a href="" target="_blank">quinone outside inhibitors</a>," which have surged in use since being introduced in US farm fields in the early 2000s: pyraclostrobin and trifloxystrobin.</p> <p>Now, it's important to note, Zylka told me in an interview, that in vitro research like the kind his team conducted for this study is only the first step in determining whether a chemical poses risk to people. The project identified chemicals that can cause harm to brain cells in a lab setting, but it did not establish that they harm human brains as they're currently used. Nailing that down will involve careful epidemiological studies, Zylka said: Scientists will have to track populations that have been exposed to the chemicals&mdash;say, farm workers&mdash;to see if they show a heightened propensity for brain disorders, and they'll have to test people who eat foods with residues of suspect chemicals to see if those chemicals show up in their bodies at significant levels.&nbsp;</p> <p>That work remains to be done, Zylka said. "What's most disturbing to me is that we've allowed these chemicals to be widely used, widely found on food and in the environment, without knowing more about their potential effects," he said.</p> <p>How widely are they used? The paper points to <a href=";map=PYRACLOSTROBIN&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Pyraclostrobin" target="_blank">US Geological Survey data </a>for <a href=";map=PYRACLOSTROBIN&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Pyraclostrobin" target="_blank">pyraclostrobin</a>, a fungicide that landed on the UNC team's list of chemicals that trigger "changes in vitro that are similar to those seen in brain samples from humans with autism, advanced age and neurodegeneration." It's marketed by the German chemical giant BASF's US unit under the brand name <a href="" target="_blank">Headline</a>, for use on corn, soybeans, citrus fruit, dried beans, and more. BASF calls Headline the "nation's leading fungicide." The USGS chart below shows just how rapidly it has become a blockbuster on US farm fields.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/pyr_0.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>Use of pyraclostrobin in the United States has spiked since 2002. </strong></div> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then there's trifloxystrobin, which also made the UNC team's list. Marketed by another German chemical giant, <a href="" target="_blank">Bayer</a>, trifloxystrobin, too, boasts an <a href=";map=TRIFLOXYSTROBIN&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Trifloxystrobin" target="_blank">impressive USGS chart</a>, reproduced below.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/try.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>US Trifloxystrobin use has boomed since 1999. </strong>USGS</div> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an emailed statement, a BASF spokeswoman wrote that cell tissue studies like Zylka's "have not demonstrated relevance compared with results from studies conducted on [live] animals." She added, "While the study adds to the debate of some scientific questions, it provides no evidence that the chemicals contribute to the development of some diseases of the central nervous system. This publication has no impact on the established safety of pyraclostrobin when used according to label instructions in agricultural settings." A Bayer spokesman told me that the company's scientists are looking into the Zylka study and "don't have any initial feedback to offer right now." He added that "our products are rigorously tested and their safety and efficacy is our focus."</p> <p>As Zylka's team points out, both of these chemicals turn up on food samples in the <a href="" target="_blank">US Department of Agriculture's routine testing program.</a> Pyraclostrobin residues, according to USDA data <a href="" target="_blank">compiled by Pesticide Action Network</a>, have been found on spinach, kale, and grapes, among other foods, in recent years, while <a href="http://" target="_blank">trifloxystrobin </a>has been detected on grapes, cherry tomatoes, and sweet bell peppers. Again, there hasn't been sufficient research to establish whether these traces are causing us harm, Zylka stressed, but since they are entering our bodies through food, he thinks more research is imperative.</p> <p>Meanwhile, a disturbing picture of the ecosystem impacts is emerging. These same chemicals also leave the farm via water. A 2012 US Geological Survey <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> found pyraclostrobin in 40 percent of streams in three farming-intensive areas. In another 2012 USGS <a href="" target="_blank">study</a>, researchers looked for a variety of pesticides in the bed sediments of ponds located within amphibian habitats in California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, and Oregon. Pyraclostrobin was the most frequently detected chemical of all, turning up in more than 40 percent of tested sites.</p> <p>Studies suggest that as the fungicides leach out into the larger environment, they're harmful to more than just fungi. Oklahoma State researchers <a href="" target="_blank">found</a> BASF's pyraclostrobin-based fungicide Headline deadly to tadpoles at levels frequently encountered in ponds. And a <a href="" target="_blank">2013 study</a> by German and Swiss researchers found that frogs sprayed with Headline at the rate recommended on the label die within an hour&mdash;a stunning result for a chemical meant to kill funguses, not frogs. I <a href="" target="_blank">wrote about</a> the study when it came out. "These studies were performed under unrealistic laboratory conditions," a BASF spokeswoman told me at the time. "The study design neither reflects conditions of realistic agricultural use in practice nor the natural behavior of the animals."</p> <p>Then there are honeybees. In a 2013 <a href="" target="_blank">study</a>, a team of USDA researchers found pyraclostrobin and several other fungicides and insecticides in the pollen of beehives placed near farm fields&mdash;and that bees fed pyraclostrobin-laced pollen were nearly three times more likely to die from common gut pathogen called Nosema ceranae than the unexposed control group (more <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>).</p> <p>Meanwhile, the industry is enthusiastically marketing these products. "Headline fungicide helps growers control diseases and improve overall Plant Health. That means potentially higher yields, better ROI and, ultimately, better profits," BASF''s website <a href="" target="_blank">states</a>. "It can help secure a family's future, fund a college education, finance an equipment upgrade, or maybe buy just a bit more of a vacation for the whole family." Such <a href=";searchHistoryKey=&amp;" target="_blank">supposed benefits</a> aside, I wish we knew more about the environmental and public-health costs of these increasingly ubiquitous chemicals.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 13 Apr 2016 10:00:10 +0000 Tom Philpott 301376 at Here's a Great Way to Make Juice Even More Wasteful and Expensive <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>The tale of Juicero, a home-juicing startup, has me wondering about the longevity of the tech boom that has overtaken the Bay Area over the past decade. According to this <em>New York Times</em> <a href="" target="_blank">piece</a>, Juicero has drawn $120 million in "investments from Silicon Valley titans, including Google Ventures and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers, and big companies like Campbell Soup."</p> <link href="" media="screen" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css"><div class="art19-web-player awp-medium awp-theme-dark-orange" data-episode-id="81935eed-46e6-4516-83e8-7f0c37d7975d">&nbsp;</div> <script src="" type="text/javascript"></script><p>Here's the value proposition (to employ VC-speak): You fork over $700 for a shiny new juicer; order <a href="" target="_blank">some pre-cut fruits and veggies at $4 to $7 </a>a pop, bundled in <a href="" target="_blank">"next-level packaging"</a> and delivered via Fedex; stick the pack into the juicer, which then checks (via wifi) if the veggies are still fresh; and then, <em>viol&aacute;,</em> you get an 8 ounce glass of "cold-pressed" juice, with no cleanup other than discarding the fancy packaging (reportedly <a href="" target="_blank">soon to be compostable</a>).</p> <p>Nutrition gurus <a href="" target="_blank">Gwyneth Paltrow and Dr. Oz </a>are reportedly impressed. Paltrow's <em>Goop</em> even <a href="" target="_blank">declared</a> Juicero the "coolest invention of 2016." But it's not hard to poke holes in the model.&nbsp;<em>Washington Post</em> reporters Roberto Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham <a href="" target="_blank">point out</a> that, on top of the initial $700 investment, Juicero users pay between 63 and 88 cents per ounce for the resulting elixir. By comparison, they found, the fanciest pre-made supermarket juice runs&nbsp;33 cents per ounce.</p> <p>The eye-popping prices aren't the only potential trouble for Juicero. As the <em>Times</em> noted, the juice craze may have already peaked: Retail juice sales dropped 2 percent last year, while home-juicer sales dropped 6 percent.</p> <p>And I predict the same health nuts who drove the juice boom in the first place will continue abandoning it,<strong> </strong>especially if more of them realize that<strong> </strong>even cold-pressed juicing <a href="" target="_blank">removes the insoluble fiber from</a> vegetables and fruits. Among its <a href="http://" target="_blank">many benefits</a>, insoluble fiber may play a key role in slowing the liver's absorption of sugar, or <a href="" target="_blank">so says </a>sugar expert Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California&ndash;San Francisco. And Lustig's analysis applies even more strongly to juices than it does to smoothies, because while pureeing fruits and vegetables degrades insoluble fiber, juicing completely separates it out&mdash;so it never reaches your stomach.</p> <p>Lusting told me that the absence of insoluble fiber isn't such a big deal for low-sugar items like kale, but it matters for sweet stuff like most fruit and high-sugar vegetables like beets and carrots. Note that Juicero's "<a href="" target="_blank">Sweet Greens"</a> packet includes apple and pineapple and delivers 17 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. The <a href="" target="_blank">"Sweet Roots"</a> also brings 17 grams of sugar, while <a href="" target="_blank">"Carrot/Beet"</a> contains 15 grams. That's not so much different from the sugar content of the same amount of Coke (<a href="" target="_blank">26 grams</a>), and as with Coke, there's no insoluble fiber to protect the liver from an instant sugar jolt.</p> <p>It's undeniable that unlike Coke, Juicero's juices deliver nutritional value along with the sugar. But how long before customers realize that they're better off dumping those pre-chopped goodies into a bowl, adding a few seasonings and a little oil (which helps the body absorb vitamin A), and consuming them as a salad? But then, what's the point of the $700 machine and the price premium on that little packet of produce?</p> <p>Now, I'm no visionary venture capitalist, so there's a good chance I'm wrong. People have been calling the end of the tech boom for a while. Perhaps Juicero will emerge as the Uber of $7 juices, turning a $120 million bet into a gold mine. Maybe I should pitch a TED Talk about how the future of food is single-use gadgets designed for proprietary ingredient packs, hauled cross-country (cue thunderous applause). Anyone want to invest in my Uber-of-salad idea? What the world needs now is a wifi-enabled salad bowl&mdash;one that does the tossing and dressing for you, with ingredients shipped to your door.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Tue, 05 Apr 2016 10:00:19 +0000 Tom Philpott 301001 at GMOs Are Probably Safe. They Should Still Be Labeled. <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Over the past few weeks, an impending law in tiny Vermont has <a href="" target="_blank">re-ignited an old fight</a> about whether food containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled. The debate typically hinges on safety. Are GM foods safe to eat? If so&mdash;and most existing ones probably are&mdash;then there's no compelling reason to label them, critics <a href="" target="_blank">argue. </a></p> <p>But for me, the case for labeling comes down to how GM crops are regulated. The spread of GM crops has caused a dramatic uptick in herbicide use on America's farmland, and absent strong federal oversight, I think consumers should have a right to decide whether they want to support that system.<strong> </strong>Recent announcements from two of the main government agencies that oversee GMOs demonstrate just how fragmented and ineffective the regulatory process is.&nbsp;</p> <p>The first came from the US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for assessing all new GM products before they can be used on farm fields. Last Wednesday, the USDA <a href="" target="_blank">approved</a> two new varieties of GM corn, one each from seed-agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta, and both are engineered to withstand multiple herbicides. The news generated very little media stir because the USDA has been green-lighting herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean products since the mid-1990s.</p> <p>The second announcement came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which doesn't directly regulate GMOs but is responsible for vetting the environmental impact of pesticides (a category that includes insecticides and herbicides). Every federal department has what's called an Office of the Inspector General, which exists to make sure the department is doing its job&mdash;a kind of internal watchdog. On Friday, the EPA's Office of the Inspector General <a href="" target="_blank">announced</a> it had opened an investigation to "assess the EPA's management and oversight of resistance issues related to herbicide tolerant genetically engineered crops."</p> <p>It's easy to see why the EPA's internal auditors would be concerned. Corn and soybeans, which are typically grown in rotation with each other, are by far the two biggest US crops, together covering around half of US farmland. Since the mid-'90s Monsanto has been marketing "Roundup Ready" corn and soybeans, which are engineered to withstand its flagship herbicide, glyphosate (Roundup). As the crops spread and farmers treated fields year after year with the same herbicide, weeds evolved to resist it. Farmers responded by both upping the dosage of glyphosate and resorting to older, more toxic herbicides, a process I explained <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>. The seed-agrichemical industry, in turn, has responded by rolling out new crops that can withstand both glyphosate and those same older herbicides.</p> <p>Today, upward of 80 percent of US corn, soybean, and cotton acres are planted with crops engineered to withstand herbicides, the USDA <a href="" target="_blank">reports</a>; and as <a href="" target="_blank">herbicide use has risen</a>, weeds that can shake off glyphosate have spread rapidly. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the area of US farmland infected with glyphosate-resistant weeds nearly doubled<strong>,</strong> from 32.6 million acres to 61.2 million acres, according to the agribusiness consultancy <a href="" target="_blank">Stratus</a>. (For comparison's sake, California occupies about 100 million acres of land.)</p> <p>According to the US Geological Survey, the herbicides farmers use to fight these weeds don't stay on the farm. "Glyphosate was frequently detected in surface waters, rain, and air in areas where it is heavily used," USGS <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> after tests in 2011. "The greatest glyphosate use is in the Mississippi River basin, where most applications are for weed control on genetically-modified corn, soybeans and cotton," the report added.</p> <p>Meanwhile, last year, the World Health Organization declared <a href="" target="_blank">glyphosate</a> a "probable carcinogen," and <a href="" target="_blank">2,4-D</a>&mdash;one of those old herbicides now being widely used as glyphosate loses effectiveness&mdash;a "possible carcinogen." And a <a href="" target="_blank">2012 paper</a> from Penn State researchers found that the industry's strategy of just adding new herbicides to the mix&mdash;engineering crops to withstand not only glyphosate but also 2,4-d, for example&mdash;will likely speed up the resistance problem and trigger yet more herbicide use.</p> <p>Now, you may wonder why, given the scale of the problem, the USDA would approve two new herbicide-resistant products last week. The problem, as I showed at length <a href="" target="_blank">in this 2012 piece</a>, is that the USDA vets new GM products on a very narrow basis. The whole problem of resistance and the gusher of herbicides triggered by it does not figure into its decisions. The EPA, meanwhile, doesn't regulate GMOs per se, just pesticides. So the new herbicide-tolerant crops keep moving through the regulatory system.&nbsp;</p> <p>So it's great that the EPA's Office of the Inspector General is taking a step back and assessing what this fragmented system has wrought. Here are the questions it will ask:</p> <blockquote> <p>1) What processes and practices, including alternatives, has the EPA provided to delay herbicide resistance? 2) What steps has the EPA taken to determine and validate the accurate risk to human health and the environment for approved pesticides to be used to combat herbicide-resistant weeds? 3) Does the EPA independently collect and assess data on, and mitigate actual occurrences of, herbicide resistance in the field?</p> </blockquote> <p>It would have been great to have had answers <em>before</em> herbicide-tolerant crops conquered a huge swath of farmland&mdash;but better late than never. Meanwhile, if <a href="" target="_blank">present trends continue</a>, it looks like consumers will soon have a way to know which of their food purchases prop up the GMO-herbicide treadmill.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 30 Mar 2016 10:00:13 +0000 Tom Philpott 300661 at Cuba's Organic Revolution: Coming to Your Fridge? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>When President Barack Obama earlier this week became the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since the revolution, he brought along a<a href="" target="_blank"> veritable army of representatives of US business interests</a>&mdash;including agribusiness lobbyists<strong>.</strong> Among the most prominent was Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who now chairs the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.</p> <p>The Coalition&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">launched</a> early last year, soon after Obama announced he would ease trade and travel restrictions imposed by the long-standing US embargo against Cuba, and that he would prod Congress to revoke the trade ban altogether. It's a conglomeration of grain-trading giants like Cargill (the <a href="" target="_blank">globe's largest grain trader</a> and the <a href="" target="_blank">biggest privately owned US company</a>), Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge, as well as industry groups including the North American Meat Institute and the American Soybean Association. The group represents what might just be the wedge that will ultimately convince the GOP-led Congress to put aside its staunch anti-communism and agree to lift the embargo: As much as heartland Republican politicians despise the Castro family and all it represents, <a href="" target="_blank">they</a> l<a href="" target="_blank">ove the agribusiness interests</a> that dominate their states.</p> <p>It's easy to see why US agribusiness <a href=";contentidonly=true" target="_blank">has set its sights</a> on the island nation just 90 miles southeast of Florida and quite close to the Gulf of Mexico ports through which most American grain and meat exports flow. Before the revolution, the United States and Cuba maintained a robust trade in foodstuffs. At inflation-adjusted prices, pre-1959 Cuba imported about $600 million worth of US food&mdash;mostly meat and rice&mdash;according to a 2015 US Department of Agriculture <a href="" target="_blank">report</a>. Cuba, in turn, sent about $2.2 billion (current dollars) worth of sugar, tobacco, and pineapples our way. But then the revolution launched an era marked by a <a href="" target="_blank">thwarted CIA-led coup</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro</a>, culminating in an embargo banning US trade with Cuba.</p> <p>In 2000, Congress eased the embargo on food exports to Cuba, but in the 15 years since, they've rarely reached pre-revolutionary levels. Cuba is reluctant to trade with its old enemy, and lingering restrictions from the embargo make it difficult to do so. While US companies like Cargill are allowed to sell their goods to Cuba, they're still prohibited from financing the sales with credit&mdash;they are required under the embargo's terms to demand cash up front. That leaves them at a big disadvantage compared with companies from other exporting nations that don't restrict Cuban trade.</p> <p>While Obama would like to end the credit restrictions, he can't do so by executive order. That's why the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba is pushing Congress to repeal the embargo altogether. To get an idea of what kind business opportunity post-embargo Cuba might offer US agribusiness, the 2015 USDA report points to another Caribbean island nation with a similar population size and per-capita income: the Dominican Republic. US agribusiness firms export about $1.1 billion worth of goods to the DR annually, representing more than 40 percent of its food imports. In 2014, the USDA reports, US companies exported $286 million worth of food to Cuba, accounting for just 15 percent of its food imports, and less than competitors based in Brazil and the European Union.&nbsp;</p> <p>So, there's a lot of money on the table, which might explain why US agribusiness firms are licking their chops at the prospect of open trade with Cuba. But what do the thawing of US-Cuba relations and the potential end of the embargo mean for Cuba's domestic farms and urban gardens growing vegetable and fruits for local consumption?</p> <p>As readers might remember, necessity forced Cuba to embark on a remarkable experiment in essentially organic, local food production in the mid-1990s&mdash;a story explored in-depth by the climate writer Bill McKibben in this 2005 <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Harper's</em> piece</a> and by scholar-activist Peter Rosset <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>. The short version: Until the 1990s, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations propped up Cuba's food supply by sending over boat loads of wheat and rice, as well farm machinery and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, which the communist nation put to use on large, state-run farms. In exchange, Cuba exported its old colonial-era crop, sugar, at a wildly inflated price. When the Soviet Union collapsed, those perks dried up, and Cuba's sugar exports didn't earn nearly enough on the open market to maintain the same level of food and farm-supply imports.</p> <p>The result was what became known in Cuba as "the Special Period." According to McKibben, citing the Food and Agriculture Organization, per-capita food intake on the island plunged from 3,000 calories in 1989 to 1,900 four years later, the equivalent of removing one meal per person a day. What happened next has been described as an "agro-ecological revolution." Here's McKibben:</p> <blockquote> <p>Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens&mdash;and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They're still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal&mdash;they've gotten that meal back.</p> </blockquote> <p>Jullia Wright, a senior research fellow at the United Kingdom's Coventry University who studies Cuba's post-Soviet food system, told me that the nation's urban-farming networks remain highly productive today. The government doesn't keep precise data on how heavily Cuba's urban dwellers rely on these operations for food, but they supply a "high percentage" of the leafy greens, fruits, herbs, fresh corn (for human consumption), beans, and small livestock consumed in cities, she says.</p> <p>Of course, most of what Cargill and its US peers want to export into Cuba doesn't compete directly with these products&mdash;they're more interested in exporting things like corn and soybeans. At least initially, they'll be be trying to displace commodity-crop producers in Brazil, <a href="" target="_blank">Canada</a>, and the European Union, not market gardeners in Havana.</p> <p>For that reason, the eventual end of the embargo don't present an immediate threat to Cuba's small producers, said Miguel Altieri, a professor in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California&ndash;Berkeley who visits Cuba regularly. "The basic situation hasn't changed for the peasant movement," he said. Even if US firms eventually buy land in Cuba to grow export crops&mdash;say, pineapples or mangoes&mdash;it wouldn't necessarily affect the smallholder movement, he said, because only<a href="" target="_blank"> about 70 percent of Cuba's arable rural land is currently in production</a>. So there's room for both the kind of industrial production that might interest US agribusiness firms and the small operations currently supplying Cubans with fresh food.</p> <p>The problem, Altieri said, is that unlike those agribusiness lobbyists now on the ground in Havana, the main smallholder groups are "not actively involved in the conversations about the transitions in Cuba." The first generation of small-scale ag leaders were close to Cuban President Raul Castro&mdash;"they could go to Raul and say, 'Hey, man, don't forget about us&mdash;we're important,'" he said. But that generation has passed away or retired, and the new leaders don't have nearly the same access to decision-makers, Atieri said.</p> <p>With the right policies in place, Cuba's highly productive small farms could both feed Cuba <em>and</em> earn foreign exchange by exporting, Altieri said. The worst-case scenario is that the small farmers now feeding Cubans will start exporting their crops to the United States en masse to take advantage of higher prices, removing a reliable source of affordable food from the island, he added. He said that such a situation could be avoided if Cuban policymakers put incentives into place to ensure that about a third of farmland remains devoted to providing food to Cubans, but it remains to be seen whether the government views Cuba's robust domestic food system as an "achievement of the revolution" that's as much worth preserving and expanding as gains in health care and literacy.</p> <p>Meanwhile, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who <a href=";contentidonly=true" target="_blank">accompanied Obama on his Cuba foray</a>, has articulated a post-embargo vision of Cuba as a major supplier of organic vegetables to the US market. In an <a href="" target="_blank">interview</a> with <em>Modern Farmer</em> after he led a <a href="" target="_blank">trade delegation on a trip to the island</a> in November, Vilsack marveled at the productivity of Cuba's farms, noting the "impressive array of root vegetables," the "fairly significant garlic production," and the bounty of citrus and avocados. "I think they just have an unlimited opportunity" for exporting organic produce to the United States, he said.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 23 Mar 2016 10:00:07 +0000 Tom Philpott 300076 at Are There GMOs in Cheerios? Soon You’ll Know. <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Is Big Food ready to surrender to it critics and begin to label genetically modified ingredients? In the past week, grocery-aisle titans <a href="" target="_blank">Kellogg</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">Mars</a>, and<a href="" target="_blank"> General Mills</a>, have all announced plans to label their products. In doing so, they join soup giant Campbell's, which <a href="" target="_blank">announced its own labeling plan</a> in January.</p> <p>The spur, as I <a href="" target="_blank">reported recently</a>, is a Vermont labeling requirement set to go into effect on July 1. Rather than have to segregate products destined for Vermont (a state with a <a href="" target="_blank">population of 626,000</a>) for labeling, these firms have decided it's easier to just label everything.</p> <p>In a <a href="" target="_blank">blog post</a> on the company website last week, a General Mills exec laid out the rationale: "We can&rsquo;t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the US will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products."</p> <p>The moves represent quite a departure for large food manufacturers. Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association&mdash;a trade group made up of processors like the above-named companies as well as genetically modified seed/pesticide purveyors like Monsanto and DuPont&mdash;the food and agrichemical industries have fought labeling efforts mightily, pumping tens of millions of dollars to defeat initiatives in <a href="" target="_blank">California</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">Washington state</a>.</p> <p>The GMA has also enthusiastically promoted a series of bills before Congress that would nullify any state labeling requirements. The latest one <a href="" target="_blank">died in the Senate</a> last week. I asked the GMA whether it still hoped to reverse Vermont's law with federal legislation.</p> <p>"These company announcements show that the Senate needs to find and pass a uniform national standard for food labeling when it returns in April from its recess,&rdquo; a GMA spokesman replied.</p> <p>So, expect a renewed push for an anti-labeling bill later this spring. In the meantime, gigantic food companies appear to be none too optimistic this effort will succeed, if the announcements from Kellogg, et al, are any indication.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 23 Mar 2016 09:30:06 +0000 Tom Philpott 300126 at We Don’t Mean to Ruin Smoothies, But… <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>I encountered my first smoothie at the juice bar in the depths of an Austin food co-op back in the 1980s. Since then, the pureed-fruit drinks have risen to mainstream status under quite a health halo. The internet brims with <a href="" target="_blank">"super-healthy smoothie recipes."</a> Nationwide, shops that peddle these frothy concoctions draw $860 million in annual sales, according to market researcher <a href="" target="_blank">IBIS World.</a> Like countless others, I often jar myself fully awake in the morning with the roar of a blender grinding bananas, blueberries, and yogurt into a luscious, quaffable mush.</p> <div class="sidebar-small-right"><a href="" target="_blank"><strong>7 normal snacks with a crazy amount of sugar</strong></a></div> <p>Have I been doing myself a disservice? I began to rethink my smoothie habit about a year ago, when I heard a <a href=",-jonathan-golds-favorite-dishes-of-2014" target="_blank">segment</a> on the <em>Good Food</em> podcast featuring Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco, who argued that our bodies absorb blended-fruit sugars differently than sugars from whole fruit. Lustig is a high-profile proponent of the theory that excess <a href=";_r=0" target="_blank">sugar consumption drives</a> high rates of obesity, type II diabetes, and other diet-related conditions. He was a major source for a <a href="http://" target="_blank">2012 <em>Mother Jones</em> expos&eacute;</a> of the sugar industry's lobbying might.</p> <p>I recently called Lustig to hear more. To understand his smoothie skepticism, think of, say, an apple. In its whole form, it's a tasty bundle of sugar, beneficial nutrients like vitamins and phytochemicals, and fiber, the plant matter that our bodies can't metabolize but that drives proper digestion. Whole fruit contains <a href="" target="_blank">two kinds of fiber</a>: the soluble kind, which dissolves easily in water, and its insoluble counterpart, which doesn't. According to Lustig, the two kinds of fiber work synergistically to "form a gel within the small intestine" that "acts as a barrier" slowing the rate at which your body absorbs nutrients.</p> <p>And "that's a good thing" when you eat an apple, he said, because it buffers the rate at which the apple's sugar hits the liver. "That means you won't overwhelm the liver's capacity to digest the sugar, and the liver won't turn the excess sugar into fat," he explained.</p> <p>However, when you puree that same apple into a smoothie, the mechanical force of a blender's blades "sheers the insoluble fiber into tiny pieces" and functionally destroys it, he said. With the insoluble fiber gone, the soluble stuff can't alone form the barrier that slows absorption, and the liver gets "pelted" by the sugar delivered by the blended apple. And just like when you drink soda, that sugary jolt can trigger an insulin response, and thus push your body in the direction of metabolic conditions, including unwanted weight gain, insulin resistance, or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.</p> <p>Now, unlike sodas, smoothies do contain valuable fruit-based nutrients and soluble fiber, which delivers important benefits even when separated from its insoluble counterpart. For example, Lustig said, bits of soluble fiber "act as scrubbies" to purge the colon of potentially cancerous cells. But in sugar terms, he said, smoothies behave in our bodies a lot like soda.</p> <p>When I asked for more research on the topic, Lustig sent me to this <a href="" target="_blank">2009 paper</a> by Penn State researchers. The study, it turns out, doesn't directly bear on Lustig's claim that pureeing fruit destroys insoluble fiber. But its results are interesting nonetheless. The researchers gave 58 adults a premeal snack consisting of 125 calories worth of either whole apple slices, applesauce,&nbsp;apple juice tweaked with soluble fiber, or regular apple juice. A control group got no snack at all. The subjects were then treated to an all-you-can-eat lunch, and the researchers recorded how rapidly they reported becoming full and how many total calories they consumed (data <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>).</p> <p>People who snacked on whole apples ended up consuming, on average, 15 percent fewer calories than the control group; the people who ate applesauce&mdash;essentially, blended apples&mdash;ate just 6 percent fewer calories than the control; and the group who got fiber-fortified apple juice consumed 1 percent fewer calories than the nonsnackers. Drinkers of straight apple juice&mdash;essentially liquefied apples with insoluble fiber filtered out&mdash;actually took in 3 percent <em>more</em> total calories than the nonsnackers. In other words, whole apples essentially took the edge off hunger and inspired subjects to eat less, and juice, even when goosed with added fiber, didn't have much effect at all.</p> <p>To me, these results suggest there might be something to Lustig's analysis that subjecting fruit to the forces of blades fundamentally changes the way our bodies absorb sugar. The paper didn't comment on whether differences in soluble and insoluble fiber among the various forms of apple might have contributed to the difference, and the study's lead author, Barbara Rolls of Penn State, declined to comment on Lustig's analysis.&nbsp;</p> <p>So I reached out to David Katz, director of <a href="" target="_blank">the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University</a>, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for another perspective.</p> <p>In an emailed note, he wrote that while the blending process "certainly [has] an effect" on fiber, there has been little research documenting precisely how much it breaks down insoluble fiber and reduces the benefits of fruit. He added, "Let's face it: Chewing grinds up fiber to some extent, too." That said, "we have a fairly solid basis for saying: Whole food is best," he wrote.</p> <p>For one thing, "blenderizing takes away chewing, which reduces the time spent eating" and may inspire you to take in more. Also, "fluids are less filling than solids." Finally, he added, turning foods into liquids markedly raises their <a href="" target="_blank">glycemic load</a>, which is a measure of how much a particular amount of food affects blood sugar and insulin levels. Indeed, a whole apple <a href="" target="_blank">has a glycemic load</a> of 6, while a serving of apple juice clocks in at 30&mdash;higher even than Coca-Cola, at 16.</p> <p>But Katz isn't totally anti-smoothie. When they're made without added sugars and other junk, he wrote, downing a smoothie is "far better" than not eating fruit at all, and they're a "far better choice for a snack, or perhaps a meal on the go, than what prevails in our culture (chips, fast food, etc)." On the other hand, maintaining a regular smoothie habit is "not nearly as good" as eating the same amount of fruit in its native state.</p> <p>After digesting all this, I've been giving my blender a rest and opting for whole fruit. But after decades as a smoothie fan, I occasionally surrender to the craving for one. I'm sure I have other habits that are worse.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food Wed, 16 Mar 2016 10:00:09 +0000 Tom Philpott 299551 at