MoJo Author Feeds: Tom Philpott | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en WTF Happened to Golden Rice? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Like the <a href="" target="_blank">hover boards of the <em>Back to the Future</em> franchise</a>, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality.&nbsp;</p> <div class="sidebar-small-right"><a href="" target="_blank">5 Surprising GM Foods</a></div> <p>"This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year,"&nbsp;<a href=",9171,997586-3,00.html" style="line-height: 24px;" target="_blank">announced</a> a <em>Time </em>magazine&nbsp;cover back in 2000. Orange in color, the rice is genetically modified to contain a jolt of beta-carotene, the stuff that gives carrots their hue and that our bodies transform into vitamin A. Diets deficient in that key micronutrient are the leading cause of blindness of children in the global south, where rice tends to be a staple grain. A decade and a half since the <em>Time</em><em> </em>article, golden rice has yet to be planted commercially&mdash;but it continues generating bumper crops of hype. "Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?" the great hipster-foodie journal <em>Lucky Peach</em> <a href="" target="_blank">wondered</a> last fall, adding that "it might save millions from malnutrition."</p> <p>If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it's intended to grow? The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains. This is made all the more challenging in the face of debates over genetically modified crops and eternal disputes about how they should be regulated.</p> <p>After seed developers first create a genetically modified strain with the desired trait&mdash;in this case, rice with beta-carotene&mdash;they start crossing it into varieties that have been shown to perform well in the field. The task is tricky: When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth. The Washington University anthropologist and longtime golden rice observer Glenn Stone <a href="" target="_blank">describes</a> this process as "bringing a superfood down to earth," and it gets little attention in most media accounts.</p> <p>The most serious effort to commercialize golden rice is centered at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the globe's most prestigious incubator of high-yielding rice varieties. Launched with grants from the <a href="" target="_blank">Rockefeller and Ford foundations</a> in 1960, the IRRI<strong> </strong>spearheaded the Asian part of what became known as the Green Revolution&mdash;the effort to bring US-style industrial agriculture to the developing world. (My review of Nick Cullather's excellent Green Revolution history, <em>The Hungry World</em>, is <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p> <p>Today, the IRRI <a href="" target="_blank">coordinates</a> the <a href="" target="_blank">Golden Rice Network</a> and has been working to develop a viable strain<strong> </strong>since 2006. And so far, it's having trouble. On its website, the IRRI <a href="" target="_blank">reports</a> that in the latest field trials, golden rice varieties "showed that beta carotene was produced at consistently high levels in the grain, and that grain quality was comparable to the conventional variety." However, the website continues, "yields of candidate lines were not consistent across locations and seasons." Translation: The&nbsp;golden rice varieties exhibited what's known in agronomy circles as a "yield drag"&mdash;they didn't produce as much rice as the non-GM varieties they'd need to compete with in farm fields. So the IRRI researchers are going back to the drawing board.</p> <p>Via email, I asked the IRRI how that effort is going. "So far, both agronomic and laboratory data look very promising," a spokeswoman replied. But&nbsp;she declined to give a time frame for when the IRRI thinks it will have a variety that's ready for prime time. Washington University's Stone says he visited the IRRI's campus in the Philippines in the summer of 2015 and heard from researchers that such a breakthrough is "at least several more years" off. The IRRI spokeswoman also declined to comment on Stone's time frame report.</p> <p>That's not a very inspiring assessment, given that researchers first successfully inserted the beta-carotene trait in the rice genome in 2000, and that the technology has been lavished with research support ever since&mdash;including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill &amp; Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Syngenta Foundation, and others,&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">according</a> to the <a href="" target="_blank">Golden Rice Humanitarian Board</a>.</p> <p>Of course, among people who think biotechnology has a crucial role to play in solving developing-world malnutrition, the IRRI's agronomic struggles are compounded by anti-GMO zealotry as well as what it sees as overregulation of GMOs in the global south. David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that <a href="" target="_blank">most developing-world nations, including the Philippines</a>, have adopted the <a href="" target="_blank">Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety</a>, which stipulates a precautionary approach to introducing new GMO products, including restrictions on how trials are conducted. The Cartagena regime stands in sharp contrast to the much more <a href="" target="_blank">laissez-faire one</a> that holds sway in the United States, Zilberman says.</p> <p>If the developing world embraced US-style regulation and treated vitamin A deficiency as a medical emergency solvable by golden rice, "it would have become available in 2000," Zilberman says. Based on that premise, he and German agricultural economist&nbsp;Justus Wesseler co-authored a 2014 <a href=";aid=9402215&amp;fileId=S1355770X1300065X" target="_blank">paper</a> claiming that golden rice has "been available since early 2000" and opposition to it has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone. Such claims abound in pro-GM circles. At a <a href="" target="_blank">speech</a> at the University of Texas last year, the Nobel laureate British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts <a href="" target="_blank">accused</a> golden rice opponents of have having committed a "crime against humanity."</p> <p>To be sure, opposition to golden rice has occasionally gone overboard. In 2013, activists <a href="" target="_blank">destroyed</a> one of the IRRI's golden rice field trials in the Philippines, for example. "Anti-GMO activism has set back our work, in that we not only concentrate with our research, but we have to also spend time and resources to counter their propaganda," the IRRI spokesperson told me. But the group makes clear that regulation and activism are only two of the challenges facing golden rice&mdash;getting it to perform well remains a major task.</p> <p>Even if and when the IRRI does come up with a high-yielding golden rice variety that passes regulatory muster, it remains unclear whether it can actually make a dent in vitamin A deficiency. As the&nbsp;Washington University's Stone notes, vitamin A deficiency often affects people whose diets are also deficient in other vital nutrients. Vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning it can't be taken up by the body unless it's accompanied by sufficient dietary fat, which isn't delivered in significant quantities by rice, golden or otherwise.</p> <p>According to Stone,&nbsp;only one feeding study <a href="" target="_blank">(PDF)</a> has ever showed a powerful uptake of vitamin A by subjects eating golden rice. The paper was much cited by golden rice proponents, but Stone says it had a major flaw: The subjects were "well-nourished individuals" who already&nbsp;took in sufficient fat in their diets. The study "demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it," he <a href="" target="_blank">writes</a>. (The study has since been <a href="" target="_blank">retracted</a> on claims that the author failed to obtain proper consent from the parents of the participants).</p> <p>Meanwhile, as the IRRI scrambles to perfect golden rice, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is declining in the Philippines&mdash;according to the <a href="" target="_blank">IRRI itself</a>&mdash; from 40 percent of children aged six months to five years in 2003, to 15.2 percent in 2008. "The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to preventing vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding," the group noted. That drop is part of a long-term trend that involves all of Southeast Asia. According to a 2015 <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Lancet</em> study</a> funded by the Bill &amp; Melinda Gates Foundation, vitamin A deficiency plagued 39 percent of children in the region in 1991 but only 6 percent in 2013&mdash;without the help of golden rice.</p> <p>But VAD, as the deficiency's known, remains a huge scourge on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, the study found, affecting more than 40 percent of children in both regions. Whether golden rice will ever help mitigate that ongoing tragedy won't likely be known for some time. But the technology's hardly the slam-dunk panacea its advocates insist it is.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 03 Feb 2016 11:00:55 +0000 Tom Philpott 295676 at Almonds Are Getting Cheaper, But Here's the Catch <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Ye almond-loving hipsters, rejoice! The revered&mdash;and lately <a href=";code=PLA15&amp;k_clickid=14f8436e-1c82-a209-e202-0000241623cc&amp;abkId=403-983033&amp;gclid=Cj0KEQiArJe1BRDe_uz1uu-QjvYBEiQACUj6osYJku1ugnD_hy4-7Ruxwd1T6a-NGQr7h12yv6bOU_kaAgsn8P8HAQ" target="_blank">quite expensive</a>&mdash;nut is likely to get cheaper soon. The wholesale price for almonds&mdash;the one paid by supermarkets to stock their bulk bins, or by processors to make their trail mixes&mdash;has fallen from a high of $4.70 last August down to $2.60, <a href="" target="_blank">reports</a> the<em> Financial Times.</em></p> <p>And the reason has nothing to do with a <a href="" target="_blank">viral screed against almond milk </a>penned by a certain wag in 2014. Rather, it's the same set of forces that triggered California's massive almond boom in the first place: the vagaries of global demand.</p> <p>The state's growers, who churn out 99 percent of almonds grown in the United States, have rapidly expanded their almond groves over the past decade and a half.</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>But that expansion didn't happen just to satisfy your trendy almond-milk latte habit. California farmers are almond growers to the world: They supply about 80 percent of the almonds consumed globally, and export demand has risen steadily for most of the past 15 years. About 70 percent of California's almonds are exported. According to the <a href="" target="_blank">Almond Board of California</a>, the great bulk of this massive outflow goes to Asia, the destination of 44 percent of California's almond exports, and Western Europe, which gets about 40 percent.&nbsp;</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>As a result of that booming global demand, the price farmers get for almonds has risen dramatically despite the big acreage expansion.</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>But in recent months, the global appetite for almonds has plunged. Here's the<em> Financial Times:</em></p> <blockquote> <p>Last year's surge in prices depressed demand, and buyers in China, the Middle East and India, who have led consumption over the past three to four years, have disappeared. Trading has ground to a halt as prices continue to decline and the number of rejected containers by buyers refusing to honor contracts has jumped.</p> </blockquote> <p>"It's a bloodbath," one California-based nut trader told the<em> Financial Times. </em>What happened was that California's multiyear drought took a bite out of crop yields, making almonds more scarce and pushing up their price. And then, in 2014, the US dollar began to rise in value against <a href=";med_usrid=zenilvana&amp;cid=901751" target="_blank">major Asian currencies</a> and the <a href=";to=EUR&amp;view=5Y" target="_blank">euro</a>, making US exports, including almonds, even more expensive in those regions.</p> <p>To make matters worse, the European economy stagnated, and China&mdash;the globe's biggest almond importer&mdash;saw its economic growth slow and its stock market tumble. Snack makers in Asia and Europe began to balk at pricey almonds, putting fewer in nut mixes and reducing the portion size of almond offerings, the<em> FT </em>reports<em>.</em> In 2015, almond exports to Asia and Western Europe fell 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively, according to <a href="" target="_blank">the Almond Board of California.</a></p> <p>And now, with a historic El Ni&ntilde;o triggering a wet and snowy winter in California, the market expects a big harvest in 2016. Econ 101 tells us that abundant supply and weak demand means lower prices going forward. That likely means you'll soon be getting at least a slight break on that bag of salty roasted almonds you keep at your desk. But what does it mean for California's almond boom?</p> <p>In previous posts, I've questioned whether the state has the water resources&mdash;or <a href="" target="_blank">access to sufficient bee hives for pollination</a>&mdash;to continue devoting ever more land to the crunchy treat. Unlike, say, vegetables or cotton, which can be fallowed during dry years, planting an almond grove requires farmers to commit to finding a steady water source for about 20 years, or risk losing a very expensive investment. (According to the <a href="" target="_blank">Almond Board of California</a>, establishing an almond grove&mdash;paying for land, saplings, an irrigation system, etc.&mdash;costs about $8,700 per acre, or about $2.6 million for a new 300-acre grove.)</p> <p>During the drought, water from California's massive irrigation projects, which deliver melted Sierra Nevada snow to the state's farms, was largely cut off. Farmers responded by <a href="" target="_blank">fallowing a portion of annual crops like cotton and vegetables</a> and irrigating the rest&mdash;including their ever-expanding almond groves&mdash;with water drawn from finite underground aquifers. While the current El Ni&ntilde;o might spell the end of a drought that <a href="" target="_blank">has haunted California since 2012</a>, California agriculture has gotten so ravenous for water that aquifers in its largest (and most almond-centered) growing region, the Central Valley, have been declining steadily for decades.</p> <p>For my <a href="" target="_blank">deep dive into the almond boom</a> last year, I asked David Doll, an orchard adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, how long growers could keep devoting ever more land to almonds despite the long-term water crunch. He told me it would only stop "when the crop stops making money."</p> <p>I checked back in with him to see what he thought about the current price drop. He said under normal conditions, when water is flowing from the state's irrigation projects, the break-even farmer price for almonds is about $1.45 per pound&mdash;at that price, farmers neither lose nor make money. But when water is scarce, farmers face higher irrigation costs, and the break-even price rises to somewhere between $2.60 and $2.85&mdash;roughly <a href="" target="_blank">where prices are now</a>. So even with the current price drop, most almond growers are breaking even. But if we get another wet winter this year, water prices could drop by 2017 and almond farmers will be right back to profitability.</p> <p>If the Asian and European appetite for almonds returns to normal growth rates, Doll added, the almond expansion will likely continue unabated, which will in turn limit large upward price swings as supply rises to meet demand. The limiting factor, of course, is water. Back in 2014, California shook off a history of Wild West aquifer stewardship and passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires that by 2025, the state's aquifers can't be drawn down faster than they're recharged&mdash;a dramatic reversal of the status quo. "From my observations, there are many [almond] operations that are not planning for this policy," Doll said, meaning they're not prepared for a future when aquifers can't be tapped at will.</p> <p>But 2025 is nearly a decade away. Enjoy those relatively inexpensive almonds, you <a href="" target="_blank">ignorant hipsters</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 27 Jan 2016 11:00:19 +0000 Tom Philpott 294741 at Can't Sleep? Your Dinner Might Be the Problem <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>If you're nodding off as you read this, don't blame my prose style. You probably didn't sleep enough last night, or maybe you just slept poorly. According to the <a href="" target="_blank">Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>, between 50 million and 70 million US adults have some kind of sleep disorder&mdash;think insomnia, apnea, or narcolepsy. This troubled slumber, in turn, is linked to increased risk of everything from <a href="" target="_blank">car accidents</a> to <a href="" target="_blank">Alzheimer's</a>.</p> <p>It turns out your diet might be to blame for restless nights, a new <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> by Columbia University researchers <a href="" target="_blank">suggests</a>. The team subjected 26 normal-weight adults to a controlled food regimen&mdash;high in dietary fiber and low in saturated fat and added sugars&mdash;for four days. On the fifth day, I'll call this the dietary "free-for-all" day, they let the participants eat whatever they wanted. Each night, they monitored both sleep duration and quality&mdash;the number of times the participants woke up during the night, and the amount of time they spent in <a href="" target="_blank">"slow-wave sleep,"</a> the most restorative sleep stage.</p> <p>The result: While total time spent snoozing didn't change over the course of the experiment, sleep quality declined the more people spent their free-for-all day<strong> </strong>loading up on fiber-light, fat- and sugar-heavy foods. Meals low in fiber and high in saturated fat were associated with significantly less slow-wave sleep, while higher levels of sugar led to more wake-ups. The study subjects also fell asleep faster (an average of 17 minutes versus 29 minutes) on the controlled diet than they did on the self-selected one.</p> <p>That's bad news for the average American, who tends to have a horrible diet&mdash;lacking in <a href="" target="_blank">fruits and vegetables</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">chock-full of ultra-processed crap and excess sugar</a><strong><a href="" target="_blank">. </a></strong></p> <p>The study doesn't speculate about why these dietary choices messed with sleep, but a growing body of science links diet to the health and diversity of the gut biome&mdash;the trillions of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts&mdash;which in turn <a href="" target="_blank">affect brain processes</a>. Dietary fiber essentially feeds these vital organisms, and diets low in it have been shown to <a href="" target="_blank">reduce biome diversity</a>. High-sugar diets, meanwhile, appear to <a href="" target="_blank">alter the gut biome in ways that seem to promote obesity</a>. The relationship between the gut biome and sleep, however, remains little studied.&nbsp;</p> <p>Even so, the Columbia study offers a new twist on the sleep-diet nexus. People who chronically experience poor sleep are more likely to endure diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes, the CDC <a href="" target="_blank">states</a>. Previous research suggests that sleep deprivation i<a href="" target="_blank">nterferes with the hormones that tell us when we're full</a>&mdash;meaning that bad sleep can lead to bad dietary choices. The Columbia study suggests a vicious circle: Bad dietary habits can also muck up sleep.</p> <p>All the more reason to steer clear of the supermarket's chips and cookie aisles. "The finding that diet can influence sleep has tremendous health implications, given the increasing recognition of the role of sleep in the development of chronic disorders such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease," the study's lead author, Columbia's Marie-Pierre St-Onge, said in a <a href="" target="_blank">press release</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 20 Jan 2016 11:00:15 +0000 Tom Philpott 294341 at This Bee-Killing Pesticide Is Terrible at Protecting Crops <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>In 2011, agrichemical giants Monsanto and Bayer CropScience <a href="" target="_blank">joined forces</a> to sell <a href="" target="_blank">soybean seeds</a> coated with (among other things) an insecticide of the neonicotinoid family. Neonics are so-called systematic pesticides&mdash;when the coated seeds sprout and grow, the resulting plants take up the bug-killing chemical, making them poisonous to crop-chomping pests like aphids. Monsanto rivals <a href="" target="_blank">Syngenta</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">DuPont</a> also market neonic-treated soybean seeds.</p> <p>These products&mdash;buoyed by <a href=";fields=article&amp;article=1398" target="_blank">claims</a> that the chemical protects soybean crops from early-season insect pests&mdash;have enjoyed great success in the marketplace. Soybeans are the second-most-planted US crop, covering <a href="" target="_blank">about a quarter of US farmland</a>&mdash;and <a href="" target="_blank">at least a third of US soybean acres</a> are grown with neonic-treated seeds. But two problems haunt this highly lucrative market: 1) The neonic soybean seeds might not do much at all to fight off pests, and 2) they appear to be harming bees and may also hurt other pollinators, <a href="">birds</a>, <a href="">butterflies</a>, and <a href="">water-borne invertebrates. </a></p> <p>Doubts about neonic-treated soybean seeds' effectiveness aren't new. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency <a href="" target="_blank">released</a> a <a href="" target="_blank">blunt preliminary report</a> finding that "neonicotinoid seed treatments likely provide $0 in benefits" to soybean growers. But the agrichemical industry likes to portray the EPA as an <a href="" target="_blank">overzealous regulator</a> that relies on <a href="" target="_blank">questionable data</a>, and it quickly issued a <a href="" target="_blank">report</a> vigorously disagreeing with the EPA's assessment.</p> <p>Now the seed/agrichemical giants will have to open a new front in their battle to convince farmers to continue paying up for neonic-treated soybean seeds. In a <a href="" target="_blank">recent publication</a> directed to farmers, a coalition of the nation's most important Midwestern ag-research universities&mdash;Iowa State, Kansas State, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, South Dakota State, and the University of Wisconsin&mdash;argued plainly that "for typical field situations, independent research demonstrates that neonicotinoid seed treatments [for soybeans] do not provide a consistent return on investment."</p> <p>The reason is that neonic-treated soybeans wield the great bulk of their bug-killing power for the first three weeks after the seeds sprout; the major pest that attacks soybean plants, the aphid, doesn't arrive until much later, when the soybean plants are full-grown. "In other words," the report states, aphid populations "increase to threshold levels weeks <em>after</em> the short window that neonicotinoid seed treatments protect plants."</p> <p>And not only are neonics useless against soybeans' major field pest, aphids; they may actually <em>boost</em> the fortunes of another important one, the slug, which is "emerging as a key pest" in the soybean belt, according to the report. Pointing to a <a href="" target="_blank">2015 study</a> from Penn State researchers, the report notes that slugs aren't affected by neonics, so they can gobble neonic-treated soy sprouts at will, accumulating the chemical. But when insects called the ground beetle&mdash;which has a taste for slugs but not soybean plants&mdash;eat the neonic-containing slugs, they tend to die. So slugs transfer the poison from the crops to their natural predator, the ground beetle, and throw the predator balance out of whack, allowing slugs to proliferate. As a result, the Penn State researchers found, neonic seed treatments actually reduce yields in slug-infested fields.</p> <p>Of course, the most celebrated "non-target" insect potentially affected by neonics is the honeybee. As I <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> last week, the EPA recently released an <a href="" target="_blank">assessment</a> finding that one particular neonic that's widely used on soybean seeds,&nbsp;imidacloprid, likely harms individual bees and whole bee colonies at levels commonly found in farm fields. That's because plants from neonic-treated seeds don't just carry the poison in their leaves and stalks; they also deliver it in bee-attracting nectar and pollen.</p> <p>While cotton is the imidacloprid-treated crop most likely to hit bees hard, soybeans, too, may pose a threat, the EPA found. The agency couldn't say for sure, because data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers.</p> <p>That information gap may be cold comfort for beekeepers, but the agrichemical industry will no doubt seize upon it to argue that its blockbuster chemical is harmless to bees. The rest of us can savor the bitter irony that this widely used pesticide may be more effective at slaying beneficial pollinators than it is at halting crop-chomping pests.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Fri, 15 Jan 2016 21:16:03 +0000 Tom Philpott 294116 at The Oregon Militia Is Picking the Wrong Beef With the Feds <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>On January 2, a band of armed militants&mdash;led by <a href="" target="_blank">Cliven Bundy</a>'s son Ammon&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">stormed</a> Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, seizing the visitor center both to protest the tangled legal plight of two local ranchers convicted of arson on public land, and to defy the federal government's oversight of vast landholdings in the West. (You might remember that Cliven launched his own successful revolt against federal authorities in 2014 to avoid paying grazing fees on public land in Nevada.)</p> <p>For all the slapstick comedy on display at the still-occupied government complex&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">rival militias arriving to "de-escalate" the situation</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">public pleas for donated supplies</a> including "French Vanilla Creamer"&mdash;the armed and angry men behind the fiasco are pointing their rifles at a real problem. In short, the ranchers who supply the United States with beef operate under razor-thin, often negative profit margins.</p> <p>It's not hard to see why grazing rights are an issue. Ranchers' struggle for profitability gives them <a href="" target="_blank">strong incentive to expand their operations to increase overall volume and gain economies of scale</a>. A 2011 <a href="" target="_blank">paper by the US Department of Agriculture</a> found that the average cost per cow for small (20-49 head) operations exceeded $1,600, while for large ranches (500 or more head), the average cost stood at less than $400. Large operations are more efficient at deploying investments in labor and infrastructure (think fencing), the USDA reported.</p> <p>To scale up, ranchers need access to sufficient land. And in the West, land access often means obtaining grazing rights to public land through the Bureau of Land Management. Hence the bitter dispute playing out in Burns, Oregon: The ranchers accuse the federal government of ruining their businesses through overzealous environmental regulation of that public land.</p> <p>Now, it's clear that what the Malheur militiamen appear to be demanding&mdash;essentially laissez-faire land management based on private ownership and overseen by local politicians&mdash;is a recipe for ecological ruin. In a recent <em>New York Times</em> <a href="" target="_blank">op-ed</a>, environmental historian Nancy Langston described what happened last time such a policy regime prevailed in the area: "By the 1930s, after four decades of overgrazing, irrigation withdrawals, grain agriculture, dredging and channelization, followed by several years of drought, Malheur had become a dust bowl."</p> <p>But the real beef that struggling ranchers should take up with the federal government involves not zealous federal regulation, but rather its opposite: the way the feds have watched idly as giant meat-packing companies came to dominate the US beef production chain. Ranchers run what are known as cow-calf operations&mdash;they raise cows up to a certain weight on pasture, sell them to a feedlots to be fattened on corn and soybeans (and <a href="" target="_blank">other</a> <a href="" target="_blank">stuff</a>), and from there the cows are sold to companies known as beef packers that slaughter and prep the meat for consumers. As the University of Missouri rural sociologist Mary Hendrickson <a href="" target="_blank">points out</a>, after a <a href="" target="_blank">decade of mergers and acquisitions</a>, just four companies slaughtered and packed 69 percent of US-grown cows in 1990. By 2011&mdash;after <a href="" target="_blank">another spasm of mergers</a>&mdash;the four-company market share had risen to 82 percent, Hendrickson reports.</p> <p>Such consolidation at the top of the value chain gives farmers less leverage to get a decent price for their cows. A market dominated by a few buyers is a buyer's market. The Colorado rancher and rural advocate <a href="" target="_blank">Mike Callicrate</a> has been making this point tirelessly for years. Callicrate thinks the Bureau of Land Management has been overly burdensome for ranchers in the West, he tells me, but there's a bigger problem that is "rarely mentioned" either by the gun-toting ranchers or the media covering them: "the historically low, below break-even market prices for livestock."</p> <p>As the big beef packers scaled up and consolidated their market share in the 1980s and '90s, giant retailers led by Walmart did the same. The result has been steady downward pressure on the beef supply chain: The retail giants pressured the beef packers to deliver lower prices, and the beef packers in turn pressured ranchers. The result has been a big squeeze.</p> <p>In the chart below that Callicrate created for a <a href="" target="_blank">2013 blog post</a>, drawn from <a href="" target="_blank">USDA data</a>, the trend is clear: Compared with 40 years ago, nearly a third less of every dollar you spend on beef goes into the pocket of the rancher who raised the cow.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Producer-share-of-beef-dollar-chart.jpg"><div class="caption">Chart by Mike Callicrate</div> </div> <p>Under pressure from this squeeze, ranchers have had little choice but to scale up or exit the business altogether&mdash;as tens of thousands have done:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/beef_1.jpg"><div class="caption">Chart: USDA</div> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rather than demanding unfettered access to public land, the Malheur rebels could be agitating for federal antitrust authorities to take on the beef giants. As the New America Foundation's Barry C. Lynn has <a href="" target="_blank">shown</a> repeatedly, since the age of Reagan, US antitrust regulators have focused almost exclusively on whether large companies use their market power to harm consumers by unfairly raising retail prices. Those regulators have looked the other way when companies deploy their girth to harm their suppliers by squeezing them on price. So antitrust authorities okayed merger after merger, even when deals left just a few giant companies towering over particular markets. As a result, writes Lynn, "In sector after sector, control is now more tightly concentrated than at any time in a century." The meat industry is a <a href="" target="_blank">classic example</a>.</p> <p>During the 2008 election, Barack Obama vowed to challenge the big meat packers and defend independent farmers and ranchers from their heft. As Lina Khan showed in a <a href="" target="_blank">2012 <em>Washington Monthly</em> piece</a>, President Obama actually made a valiant effort to do just that&mdash;before surrendering to a harsh counterattack from the industry's friends in Congress.</p> <p>The current presidential election would be an ideal time for beleaguered ranchers to bring corporate domination of meat markets back into the public conversation. Armed occupations of bird refuge visitor centers won't help with that struggle.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 13 Jan 2016 11:00:08 +0000 Tom Philpott 293836 at The EPA Finally Admitted That the World’s Most Popular Pesticide Kills Bees—20 Years Too Late <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Bees are dying in record numbers&mdash;and now the government admits that an extremely common pesticide is at least partially to blame.</p> <p>For <a href="">more than a decade</a>, the Environmental Protection Agency has been under pressure from environmentalists and beekeepers to reconsider its&nbsp;approval of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, based on a <a href="">mounting body of research</a> suggesting they harm bees and other pollinators at tiny doses. In a <a href="" target="_blank">report</a> released Wednesday, the EPA basically conceded the case.</p> <p>Marketed by European chemical giants Syngenta and Bayer, <a href="" target="_blank">neonics are the most widely used insecticides </a>both in the United States and globally. In 2009, the agency commenced a long, slow process of reassessing them&mdash;not as a class, but rather one by one (there are <a href="">five altogether</a>). Meanwhile, tens of millions of acres of farmland are treated with neonics each year, and the health of US honeybee hives continues to be dismal.</p> <p>The EPA's long-awaited assessment focused on how one of the most prominent neonics&mdash;Bayer's imidacloprid&mdash;affects bees. The report card was so dire that the EPA "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of this year, an agency spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.</p> <p>Reviewing dozens of studies from independent and industry-funded researchers, the EPA's risk-assessment team established that when bees encounter&nbsp;imidacloprid at levels above 25 parts per billion&mdash;a common level for neonics in farm fields&mdash;they suffer harm. "These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced," the EPA's <a href="!OpenDocument" target="_blank">press release</a> states.</p> <p>The crops most likely to expose honeybees to harmful levels of imidacloprid are cotton and citrus, while "corn and leafy vegetables either do not produce nectar or have residues below the EPA identified level." Note in the below <a href=";map=IMIDACLOPRID&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Imidacloprid">USGS chart</a>&nbsp; that&nbsp;a substantial amount of imidacloprid goes into the US cotton crop.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/neonic.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>Imidacloprid use has surged in recent years. Uh-oh. </strong><a href=";map=IMIDACLOPRID&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Imidacloprid" target="_blank">US Geological Survey</a></div> </div> <p>Meanwhile, the fact that the EPA says imidacloprid-treated corn likely doesn't harm bees sounds comforting, but as the same&nbsp;<a href=";map=IMIDACLOPRID&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Imidacloprid">USGS chart</a> shows, corn gets little or no imidacloprid. (It gets <a href=";map=CLOTHIANIDIN&amp;hilo=L&amp;disp=Clothianidin">huge amounts of another neonic</a>, clothianidin, whose EPA risk assessment <a href="">hasn't been released yet</a>.)</p> <p>The biggest imidacloprid-treated crop of all is soybeans, and soy remains an information black hole. The EPA assessment notes that soybeans are "attractive to bees via pollen and nectar," meaning they could expose bees to dangerous levels of imidacloprid, but data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers. Oops. Mind you, imidacloprid has been registered for use by the EPA since the 1990s.</p> <p>The agency still has to consider public comments on the bee assessment it just released, and it also has to complete a risk assessment of imidacloprid's&nbsp;effect on other species. In addition to their impact on bees, neonic pesticides may also harm <a href="">birds</a>, <a href="">butterflies</a>, and <a href="">water-borne invertebrates</a>, recent studies suggest. Then there are the assessments of the other four neonic products that need to be done. Meanwhile, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed a <a href="">lawsuit</a> in federal court Wednesday pointing out that the agency has never properly assessed neonics in their most widely used form: as seed coatings, which are then taken up by crops.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Thu, 07 Jan 2016 19:08:41 +0000 Tom Philpott 293456 at As If Slavery Weren’t Enough, 6 Other Reasons to Avoid Shrimp <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Ah, shrimp. Americans can't get enough of it: Per capita consumption has <a href="" target="_blank">doubled since the early '80s</a>, and we now eat on average <a href="" target="_blank">about four pounds per year </a>of the briny crustacean. Not even tuna and salmon (about 2.3 pounds each) outshine the shrimp on the US dinner table.</p> <p>But the all-you-can-eat specials and fish counter fire sales ride on a massive shrimp-farming boom in the developing world, mainly in Asia. According to the <a href="" target="_blank">Food and Agriculture Organization</a>, global farmed shrimp production leapt from 154,00 metric tons in 2000 to 3.3 million metric tons in 2013. Imports now account for <a href="" target="_blank">90 percent of the shrimp we eat</a>.</p> <p>Yet for all its abundance, the diminutive shellfish carries some heavy baggage you might want to consider before consuming your next shrimp cocktail. Since its inception, the farmed-shrimp industry has been plagued by reports of unsavory working conditions and ecological destruction. Last month's <a href="" target="_blank">Associated Press blockbuster</a> on slavery in Thai shrimp-processing factories is only the latest chapter. Here are six more problems with America's favorite seafood:</p> <p><strong>&bull; Awful conditions on Thailand's shrimp farms are nothing new.</strong> Staffed largely by migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, Thailand's shrimp farms, the source of <a href="" target="_blank">11.7 percent of US imported shrimp</a>, have a labor rap sheet as long as the line at an all-you-can-eat buffet.&nbsp;In 2012, the<em> Washington Post</em> <a href="" target="_blank">found</a> that "overseas demand for shrimp products in greater volume has fueled a culture of exploitation in the Thai industry," including teenagers working "16-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than $3 a day." A 2013 <a href="">investigation</a> by international labor groups found a variety of abuses on facilities owned by a major supplier to the US market, including&nbsp;including illegal use of underage workers and illegal wages cuts. And a <a href="" target="_blank">2008 report</a> from the US labor rights group The Solidarity Center found child labor, debt bondage, and wage theft on both Thai and Bangladeshi shrimp farms.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>&bull; Farmed shrimp has a massive carbon footprint. </strong>Mangrove forests are engines of biodiversity along tropical shorelines&mdash;the very site of the shrimp boom. A <a href="" target="_blank">2012 UN report</a> found that one-fifth of the globe's mangroves have been destroyed since 1980, and "many remaining mangrove forests are considered degraded." As much as 38 percent of that loss can be attributed to the spread of shrimp farming, the report found. And since healthy mangrove forests <a href="" target="_blank">sponge up huge amounts of carbon</a>, killing them contributes significantly to climate change. The Oregon State University ecologist and mangrove expert J. Boone Kauffman <a href="" target="_blank">estimates</a> farmed shrimp has 10 times the carbon footprint of beef raised in cleared rainforest land.</p> <p><strong>&bull; Farmed shrimp often has traces of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria&mdash;and the <a href="" target="_blank">FDA barely tests it as it comes in</a>. </strong>Shrimp farms rely on antibiotics to speed up growth and control disease. For a 2015 <a href="" target="_blank">investigation</a>, <em>Consumer Reports</em> bought shrimp from retailers across the country and tested them for chemical and bacterial residues. Of 205 imported raw, farmed shrimp samples, 11 tested positive for one or more antibiotics, and 6 turned up with an antibiotic-resistant staph bug called MRSA. For a <a href="" target="_blank">2012 study,</a> FDA scientists found that roughly 10 percent of samples tested showed resistance to no fewer than <em>eight</em> different antibiotics. The researchers concluded that "imported shrimp is a reservoir for multidrug-resistant Klebsiella," which can trigger urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Yet the FDA's inspection of incoming farmed shrimp is so weak and "ineffectively implemented" that the General Accounting Office gave it <a href="" target="_blank">this harsh assessment</a> in 2011.</p> <p><strong>&bull; Eating it doesn't help with overfishing. </strong>Shrimp farms not only harm wild fish stocks by destroying mangroves, which are essentially the oceans' nurseries in tropical areas; they also contribute to overfishing. That's because most shrimp species are carnivorous, and it takes about <a href="" target="_blank">1.3 pounds of wild fish</a>&mdash;in the form of processed fishmeal&mdash;to produce a pound of edible farmed shrimp.</p> <p><strong>&bull; Cheap farmed shrimp is helping kill the wild US shrimp fishery. </strong>"A surge of imported shrimp from Indonesia, Ecuador, and India has sent [US] prices plunging by more than a third in the past year," <em>BloombergBusiness</em> <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> in September. That's good news for shrimp fans, but rotten news for shrimpers in US coastal waters. "If something doesn't change and prices don't rise, fishermen cannot continue to work for these prices," the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association told Bloomberg. Battered not only by cheap foreign competition but also by recent cataclysmic hurricanes and oil spills, the Gulf shrimp industry&mdash;the source of the most US-caught wild shrimp&mdash;is in crisis. The annual harvest is down 35 percent from five years ago, and the "number of permits for shrimping boats is down 24 percent since 2007," Bloomberg reports.</p> <p><strong>&bull; Then there's wild shrimp's bycatch problem&mdash;and also mislabeling. </strong>In 2014, Oceana <a href="" target="_blank">named</a> the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery one of the nine "dirtiest" in the United States in terms of bycatch. Commercial shrimp boats use "nets as wide as a football fields" and inadvertently "catch millions of pounds of sharks and other reef fish such as snappers and groupers" and "injure tens of thousands of sea turtles." And while eating wild shrimp means fewer antibiotic residues and a lower carbon footprint than farmed fish, the stuff marketed as "wild" is <a href="" target="_blank">often falsely labeled farmed product</a>, according to another 2014 <a href="" target="_blank">Oceana study</a>.</p> <p>All of which makes me hungry for <a href="" target="_blank">oysters</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">sardines</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 06 Jan 2016 11:00:12 +0000 Tom Philpott 293356 at The 7 Biggest Food Stories of 2015 <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>The food politics beat was as tumultuous and fascinating as ever in 2015. Here, in no particular order, is my list of the year's biggest stories. Let me know what I missed in the comments section.</p> <p><strong>1) Chipotle loses its halo. </strong>Unlike its rather timid salsas, Chipotle Mexican Grill's stock has typically been red-hot, <a href=",%22allowChartStacking%22:true%7D" target="_blank">rising more than sevenfold between 2009 and the end of 2014</a>. The burrito behemoth <a href="" target="_blank">drove</a> its <a href="" target="_blank">rapid growth</a> by s<a href="" target="_blank">uccessfully marketing itself as a rustic, farm-friendly alternative to faceless, soulless agribusiness</a>. This year, however, the company's halo has plunged into the muck. Chipotle got caught in a seemingly endless chain of foodborne illness disasters: an <a href="" target="_blank">E. coli outbreak</a> that sickened 53 people, including 20 who had to be hospitalized, mostly in the northwest; a <a href="" target="_blank">norovirus eruption</a> in Boston, affecting 80 people, including <a href="" target="_blank">10 members of the Boston College basketball team</a>; and just last week, <a href="" target="_blank">another E. coli imbroglio</a>, this time centered in the Midwest. Adding insult to (gastric) injury, in one of <em>Bloomberg BusinessWeek</em>'<em>s </em>final issues of the year, the <a href="" target="_blank">cover</a> depicts an image of a Chipotle burrito vomiting its contents.</p> <p>As the <em>Washington Post's</em> Roberto Ferdman <a href="" target="_blank">suggested</a>, serving hand-prepared food from fresh ingredients is tough to pull off safely while also opening new stores at a fast enough clip to appease growth-hungry investors. (The company's total number of stores <a href="" target="_blank">leapt</a> from 704 in 2007 to 1,783 in 2014&mdash;150 percent growth in less than a decade.)</p> <p>Meanwhile, the excellent financial writer Helaine Olen <a href="" target="_blank">revealed</a> that Chipotle's much-ballyhooed "Food with Integrity" pledge apparently doesn't extend to employee wages. The company <a href="" target="_blank">got its wrist slapped</a> by the National Labor Relations Board for firing a St. Louis employee for participating in the Fight for $15 campaign. And Chipotle workers make just marginally more in wages than their peers at McDonald's, Olen showed. Chipotle stock <a href="" target="_blank">lost around a quarter of its value over</a> the course of the company's rough 2015.</p> <p><strong>2) The meat industry's antibiotic problem festers.</strong> In order to churn out cheap product, the global meat industry relies heavily on antibiotics&mdash;the very same drugs used by doctors to stave off infections in people&mdash;to spur animals to grow faster and avoid disease in tight conditions. Here in the United States, the meat industry <a href="" target="_blank">burns through about three times the amount of antibiotics used in human medicine</a>, according to the Food and Drug Administration's latest reckoning. And the meat industry's demand for "medically important" antibiotics grew an eye-popping 23 percent between 2009 and 2014, the FDA found. The practice drew a rising crescendo of warnings from public health authorities in 2015. Echoing similar statements from the <a href="" target="_blank">Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a> and the <a href="" target="_blank">World Health Organization</a>, the American Academy of Pediatrics <a href="" target="_blank">warned</a> <a href="" target="_blank">that</a> the meat industry's antibiotic habit "often leaves the drugs ineffective when they are needed to treat infections in people," leaving kids particularly vulnerable.</p> <p>Scarier still: A group of Chinese and UK researchers published a <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> in <em>The Lancet</em> that they had discovered a strain of&nbsp;E. coli in Chinese pig farms that can shake off colistin, a last-resort drug for a variety of pathogens that can resist other antibiotics. And this particularly ferocious superbug isn't likely to stay put on those Chinese hog farms, the researchers warned. Once the E. coli gene that arose to resist colistin "becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era&hellip;At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do," one of <em>The</em> <em>Lancet</em> study's authors <a href="" target="_blank">told</a> the BBC. Uh oh.</p> <p><strong>3)</strong> <strong>The GMO industry doubles down on herbicides... </strong>Since GM crops first hit farm fields in the mid-'90s, the industry has relied heavily on one blockbuster innovation: a gene that confers corn, soybeans, cotton, and a few other crops with the power to shake off an herbicide called glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. The product rapidly conquered US farm fields and minted profits for Monsanto, which made bank from selling the high-priced seeds and the weed-killing chemical, which farmers could spray on their fields at will, leveling weeds and leaving crops unscathed. But the so-called Roundup Ready seeds became too successful for their own good&mdash;weeds developed the ability resist the ubiquitous chemical, leading farmers to uncork a gusher of older, more toxic herbicides onto their fields.</p> <p>After years of development and regulatory hurdles, the GMO/agrichemical industry debuted its new (weed) killer app to solve the problem: genes that confer resistance to those older, more toxic herbicides, to be mashed up with the Roundup-resistant gene. Dow introduced its <a href="" target="_blank">Enlist Duo</a> line of corn and soybeans, engineered to resist a cocktail of glyphosate and&nbsp;a decades-old herbicide called 2,4-D. And Monsanto is hotly anticipating approval of its <a href="" target="_blank">own double-herbicide-resistant product,</a> cleverly deemed Roundup Ready Plus: corn and soybeans tweaked to stave off a mix of gyphpsate and dicamba, another mid-century-era weed killer.</p> <p>But the herbicide cocktail party got crashed by a few skunks in 2015. The World Health Organization declared glyphosate and 2,4-D&mdash;the two ingredients in Dow's new mix&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">"probable"</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">"possible"</a> carcinogens, respectively. And the Environmental Protection Agency temporarily revoked its approval of Dow's herbicide cocktail just before Thanksgiving for reasons <a href="" target="_blank">explained here</a>, though Dow vows the cocktail will be back on the market in time for spring planting (and weed killing).</p> <p><strong>4) ...and eyes dazzling new techniques.</strong> While the industry harbors high hopes for its herbicide-resistant products in the near term, it looks ahead to a future of genetic wizardry that promises to make old-school GMOs look as vintage as an iPod. First, there's RNA interference, or RNAi, an emerging technique that allows engineers to turn off specific genes in living organisms, including crops, weeds, and insects. The industry has already used RNAi to create <a href="" target="_blank">potatoes</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">apples</a> that don't brown quickly after cutting (neither of which has taken off in the marketplace). But the industry's main hopes for big RNAi profits is through generating gene-silencing pesticides and herbicides, as this excellent <a href="" target="_blank"><em>MIT Technology Review</em> article</a> shows. The pitch is that these RNAi sprays will be able to precisely target specific pests, leaving everything else unscathed. Some scientists, including a USDA whistleblower, are unconvinced, as I've explained <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.</p> <p>Even more hype swirls around a powerful new technique called <a href="" target="_blank">CRISPR</a> (explained briefly in <a href="" target="_blank">this video</a>), which allows engineers to edit genomes like you might edit a document in Microsoft Word&mdash;by deleting unwanted genes and inserting new ones. DuPont announced that it's experimenting with CRISPR to create drought-tolerant corn and soybeans, and it has <a href="" target="_blank">vowed</a> to have these crops in the field in as few as five years.</p> <p>Then there's something called "gene drives," in which engineers can transform entire species by ensuring desired genetic alterations are passed on across generations&mdash;which could make crop pests like weeds and insects easier to kill, <a href="" target="_blank">according</a> <a href="" target="_blank">to</a> Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.</p> <p><strong>5) A historic El Ni&ntilde;o eased California's drought&mdash;but won't fix its water troubles. </strong>The Golden State endured its fourth consecutive year of punishing drought, to which farmers responded by drawing ever more deeply from finite underground aquifers. In California's vast Central Valley, one of the planet's most productive farming regions, farmers have withdrawn water so rapidly that the<a href="" target="_blank"> ground is sinking by as much as a foot per year in some parts</a>, permanently reducing the aquifers' water-storage capacity and causing tens of millions of dollars in fouled-up infrastructure, including train tracks, roads, and bridges. Meanwhile, growers continued to <a href="" target="_blank">shift from annual crops to long-lasting ones like almonds and pistachios</a>, putting long-term strain on those same aquifers.</p> <p>A <a href="" target="_blank">historically powerful El Ni&ntilde;o oceanic warming event</a> is currently bringing much-needed rain and snow to the state, sparking hopes of a drought reprieve. But as I showed <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>, the state's farms have gotten so big and productive that their water demands have outstripped the state's water resources, even accounting for wet years.</p> <p><strong>6) Midwest farms can't stop fouling water. </strong>While California was drying up, the nation's other major farming region, the corn- and soybean-dominated Midwest, underwent a different kind of water crisis. Fertilizer from farms, along with manure from massive hog-raising facilities, is leaching into drinking-water supplies, causing dangerous nitrate spikes in <a href="" target="_blank">Des Moines</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">Columbus</a> and feeding toxic algae blooms that <a href="" target="_blank">periodically make Toledo's water supply poisonous.</a></p> <p>After years of paying millions of dollars annually to remove Big Ag's nitrates from its water, Des Moines <a href="" target="_blank">pushed back</a>, launching a lawsuit that would place farmers in its watershed under Clean Water Act regulation.</p> <p><strong>7) Americans are losing their appetite for Big Food (and Beer), which have responded by getting bigger. </strong>The American appetite for processed junk finally showed signs of waning, <a href="" target="_blank">pinching the bottom lines of giant food conglomerates</a> and inspiring them to woo back customers by cutting out artificial dyes and other hoary tricks of the trade. Another way the industry responded was by combining forces in hopes of slashing costs&mdash;see the <a href="" target="_blank">merger of behemoths Heinz and Kraft.</a></p> <p>Americans also continued to lose their thirst for corporate beer&mdash;giants MillerSAB and <a href="" target="_blank">InBev saw sales drop even as craft-brew sales boomed</a>. That trend inspired InBev to lean on its US distributors to sell less craft beer, a tale I laid out <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>. Similar trends played out globally, and that inspired SAB and Inbev to <a href="" target="_blank">embark upon a megamerger</a>. The resulting company will <a href="" target="_blank">churn out nearly one in three beers consumed worldwide</a>&mdash;nearly all of them, according to my palate, undrinkable.</p> <p>Merger mania also extended to agrichemical companies&mdash;Dow and DuPont combined and have promised to create the <a href="" target="_blank">globe's largest GMO seed/pesticide company</a>, bigger even then Monsanto and Syngenta. And those two companies <a href="" target="_blank">nearly merged</a> in 2015, and <a href="" target="_blank">may yet</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 30 Dec 2015 11:00:36 +0000 Tom Philpott 292841 at 2 Surprising Reasons Why Japan Won't Stop Hunting Whales <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Japan is dead set on hunting whales&mdash;international critics be damned. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ordered the country to stop hunting whales. But at the beginning of this month, Japan <a href="">announced</a> it would send a small whaling fleet into the Antarctic Ocean to kill 333 <a href="">minke whales</a> under the guise of a scientific program.</p> <p>As you can imagine, the announcement inspired swift condemnation. "We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called 'scientific research,'" <a href="">thundered Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt</a>. "Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat resulting from its so-called scientific whaling programme ends up on the plate," the BBC <a href="">reports.</a></p> <p>And yet Japanese consumers aren't exactly clamoring for whale meat. As <em>Wired</em>'<em>s </em>Sarah Zhang recently <a href="" target="_blank">pointed out</a>, whale meat was only that popular across the island nation during a short period following World War II. Nowadays, consumption stands at <a href="">4,000 to 5,000 tons annually</a>. That may sound like a lot&mdash;until you consider that the nation consumes about <a href="">600 million tons of total seafood each year</a>, meaning meat from the charismatic sea mammals occupy a vanishingly small place on the nation's dinner plate.</p> <p>What's more, Japan's whaling program is miniscule. According to the <a href="">American Cetacean Society</a>, the global population of minke whales stands at more than 1 million. The BBC reports that Japan has harvested 3,600 minkes since launching its current "scientific" program in 2005. As rotten as it is to envision 333 more being added to the carnage, Japan's controversial harvest isn't likely to result in a major shift in the minke's fate. Norwegian whalers also hunt minkes, with a quota of roughly 1,000 a year, as do the Icelandic.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/minke_AP_0.jpg"><div class="caption">Kyodo/AP</div> </div> <p>So why does the Japanese government insist on scandalizing the globe's whale protection activists by maintaining a whaling habit, albeit a tiny one? As Keiko Hirata, a political scientist at <a href="">California State University-Northridge</a>, notes in a <a href="">paper</a>, Japan is typically quite cooperative in global environmental efforts. Indeed, the country was an original signee of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curtail global climate change. The United States, by contrast, upholds <a href="">impeccable anti-whaling</a> policies, but its refusal to sign the Kyoto pact essentially derailed that effort. Japan also <a href="">participated</a> in the successful global effort to curb the use of ozone-damaging chemicals.</p> <p>Hirata attributes Japan's pro-whaling anomaly to two factors. The first is cultural. Unlike Americans, Japanese people don't tend to see whales as charismatic mammals that should be protected from human consumption by a universal taboo. Hirata points out that in Japanese, "the symbol for whale (pronounced <em>kujira</em>) includes within it a component that means fish." Since whales are considered just a really big fish, she writes, "most Japanese lack any special love of whales and disagree with Western animal rights activists who insists on whales' rights." Sanctimony about whales translates as cultural prejudice:</p> <blockquote> <p>To the Japanese, it is hypocritical that Westerners consider it morally wrong to kill certain mammals such as whales but that they consider it acceptable to kill others such as kangaroos (in Australia) and baby cattle (in the United States).</p> </blockquote> <p>The second factor is political, she writes. Japan's whaling efforts are overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, which operates under very little domestic political pressure to end Japan's whaling program. Maintaining it in the face of global condemnation, she writes, is about maintaining political turf. "Given intense inter-ministerial rivalries in Japan," she writes, "it is not likely that these bureaucratic actors would voluntarily concede one of their areas of jurisdiction." In short, if the whaling program ended, certain officials would find themselves out of work.</p> <p>Because of these factors, "Japan is unlikely to change its pro-whaling stance in the near-to-medium term, barring any major unforeseen event," she concludes.</p> <p>Lamentable as the stance is, at least global accords have hemmed in Japan's whaling ambitions to a small effort targeting the minke, which is not currently endangered. If only that were true of the bluefin tuna&mdash;an e<a href="">ndangered species</a> for which Japanese eaters <a href="">maintain a voracious appetite</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 16 Dec 2015 11:00:16 +0000 Tom Philpott 291566 at Move Over, Monsanto: The Pesticide and GMO Seed Industry Just Spawned a New Behemoth <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>US chemical titans Dow and DuPont have <a href="" target="_blank">agreed</a> to a $130 billion merger. Once combined, DowDuPont (as it will be known) intends to split into three parts, including one devoted solely to agriculture. The announcement likely triggered corner office gasps in Basel, Switzerland, and in St. Louis, Missouri&mdash;hometowns of the globe's two-largest pesticide and seed companies, Syngenta and Monsanto. That's because Dow and DuPont are both sprawling conglomerates that contain massive ag divisions. Combining them into a "leading global pure-play Agriculture company" (as the companies' <a href="" target="_blank">press release</a> puts it) will create a gargantuan new rival for those market-leading agribusiness titans.</p> <p>To highlight the gravity of the deal, here's a snapshot of the industry's pre-merger position. After waves of mergers and buyouts in the '90s and early '00s&mdash;coinciding with the emergence of genetically modified seeds&mdash;the global seed landscape shook out like this:</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="600"></iframe></p> <p>The companies that rose to dominate the space&mdash;Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont&mdash;also sold pesticides, and lots of them. While these giant chemical companies' rationale for moving into GM seeds was to diversify away from reliance on peddling bug- and weed-killing chemicals, the two business lines always had a certain synergy. That's because the era's blockbuster GM trait was herbicide resistance&mdash;the companies engineered corn, soybean, and cotton varieties that could thrive even when they're doused with these companies' own branded herbicides. The rapid adoption of these crops gave rise to a <a href="" target="_blank">plague of herbicide-resistant weeds</a>, a <a href="" target="_blank">boom in herbicide use,</a> and a <a href="" target="_blank">new iteration of crops</a>, including ones from <a href="" target="_blank">Monsanto</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">Dow</a>, engineered to resist multiple herbicides.</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="600"></iframe></p> <p>Earlier this year, Monsanto made a <a href="" target="_blank">bold, sustained push to buy out its rival Syngenta</a>. The combined company would have been truly enormous, controlling something approaching a third of both the seed and pesticide markets (see charts <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>). Syngenta's management <a href="" target="_blank">ultimately fought off the bid in August</a>, but rumors of coming mergers and buyouts in the agribiz sector have swirled ever since. With the Dow-DuPont deal, those prophecies have proven thunderously true. The new firm will mash up DuPont's seed heft with Dow's fat share of the pesticide market. Let's call it DowDuPont Agri. Here's a sketch of its girth, made by crunching numbers in the above charts. Antitrust regulators may shave the final company a bit&mdash;DuPont and Dow both sell corn seeds, for example, and there is <a href="" target="_blank">speculation</a> that Dow's relatively small corn seed business might have to be sold off.</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="600"></iframe></p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="600"></iframe></p> <p>Note that in this scenario, the same three mega firms&mdash;Monsanto, Syngenta, and DowDuPont Agri&mdash;will control more than half the global seed market and nearly half the pesticide market. The GMO seed industry once vowed to wean industrial agriculture off its reliance on pesticides. But as I <a href="" target="_blank">wrote</a> in May, when the globe's biggest seed company (Monsanto) was hotly pursuing marriage with the globe's biggest pesticide maker (Syngenta), the industry now appears to be betting big on a pesticide-soaked future.</p> <p>And the new company will likely&mdash;unless antitrust authorities make it sell off overlapping business segments&mdash;emerge as a bigger seed and agrichemical player than the two that currently stand atop the market.</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>But I may soon have to rev up <a href="" target="_blank">Datawrapper</a> again and redo those charts. The<em> Wall Street Journal </em>recently <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> that the DuPont-Dow tie-up could "spur agricultural rivals to forge their own partnerships, further shrinking the handful of companies that dominate the global seed and pesticide business." As recently as mid-November, Monsanto execs were <a href="" target="_blank">publicly contemplating another bid</a> for Syngenta, and some prominent Syngenta shareholders are pushing the company to reconsider its refusal to merge with Monsanto in the wake of the new merger, the <em>Journal</em> reported last week. "The synergies in terms of costs, distribution, and R&amp;D would create huge value for shareholders and establish a dominance that would be difficult for any competitor, including a Dow/DuPont, to rival," one fund manager whose firm owns Syngenta stock told the <em>Journal</em>. But the <a href="" target="_blank">hottest </a>Syngenta <a href="" target="_blank">takeover</a> rumor involves not the Swiss company's US competitor, but rather China National Chemical Corp., or ChemChina, a vast state-owned enterprise.</p> <p>There's also <a href="" target="_blank">talk</a> of Monsanto making a play for the agrichemicials division of German chemical giant BASF, which owns a juicy 12 percent of the global pesticide market (see chart above). In the wake of the Dow-DuPont merger, I am left to wonder: What new, yet even more massive beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward our corn fields to be born?</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Mon, 14 Dec 2015 23:06:02 +0000 Tom Philpott 291946 at