Mark Bittman, center.

Last fall, a few months after exiting his longtime perch at the New York Times, the celebrated recipe writer and food-politics pundit Mark Bittman joined vegan meal-kit startup Purple Carrot as its chief innovation officer. News that the veteran scribbler had ditched journalism for internet commerce rocked the food world.

"I'm ready for something new," Bittman said on Tuesday.

The Purple Carrot is one of a growing number of companies that deliver recipes and pre-measured ingredients to customers' doors. Bittman told Eater in November that he was excited about how the entrepreneurial venture would give him a chance to "deal directly with farmers, to deal directly with doing sourcing, to have a direct impact on the way people eat."

But now, less than a year in, Bittman has left Purple Carrot, though he retains an ownership stake in the company. In a phone conversation, he wouldn't say much about his reasons for leaving. "I wish the company nothing but the best," he said. "I did everything I could do to help [with its recent West Coast expansion], and now I'm ready for something new." Bittman told me he's still mulling what his next project will be.

In an emailed statement, Purple Carrot founder and CEO Andy Levitt wrote that "Having helped the company launch successfully, and reflecting Mark's desire to pursue a broad range of activities, Mark and the company have agreed to an ending of his employment relationship with the company." Levitt added that Bittman "remains a friend of and significant equity holder" in Purple Carrot, and a "strong proponent of plant-based meals."

Meanwhile, just as Bittman is exiting the meal-kit space, his former employer, the Times, is diving in. The company recently announced a deal with Chef'd to make the newspaper's recipes available in the form of boxed meal kits.

For a dive into the red-hot meal-kit space—and why I'm skeptical of its long-term prospects—read this story.

This article has been updated.

Inside the Country's Most Controversial Company

From left, Glenn Stone, Tom Philpott, and Robb Fraley at Monsanto’s Global R&D Headquarters Facility in St. Louis, April 2016

I normally cover the agrichemical industry from afar—parsing World Health Organization pesticide assessments, say, or analyzing megamergers. But on a recent afternoon, I found myself plunged into the industry's very bosom: Monsanto's global R&D center in suburban St. Louis.

Alongside Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone—whose undergraduate class on "brave new crops" I was in town to address—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.

What I look like through the heat-sensing camera Monsanto uses to asses heat stress in crops in its research greenhouse.

In his classic 2001 book on the rise of Monsanto as an agribusiness titan, Lords of the Harvest, 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—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."

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.

The company doesn't seem too keen on old-school GMOs anymore. 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 genetically altered crops first hit farm fields in the mid-'90s: the insect-killing gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt.

A researcher from India described his childhood on a two-acre farm applying insecticides with a backpack sprayer—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—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.

"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said.

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&D budget.

"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."

Gene transfer is an expensive technology—"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.

Otherwise, Monsanto prefers to use classical breeding or seed treatments—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 corn that mimics legumes and snatches nitrogen out of the air 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.

But that doesn't mean Monsanto is giving up on cutting-edge techniques. 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 here), 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 here.)

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.

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 not a universally held belief). He also pointed to an RNAi spray in the works that will silence the genes that allow weeds to withstand the glyphosate herbicide—adding new life to a key Monsanto product now losing effectiveness as weeds evolve to resist it.

Soil microbiota supplements are hot! (And they apparently go well with pesticides.) 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.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained. "A plant is no different—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—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.

I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both in our bodies and in the dirt.

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—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both within our bodies and in the dirt.

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.

New products from Monsanto's soil-microbiota team

But for each of the six products, I noticed, the words "Acceleron® 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.

Fine print: "Acceleron Fungicide and Insecticide"

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—earlier in the tour, I had met people from the chemicals division who informed me that the company is also developing new fungicides.)

Later, I looked up the Acceleron 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 wrote about last week, and Imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that's suspected of harming bees, birds, and aquatic creatures.

As for the microbial mix the company mashes up with those potent chemicals: It's made up of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, a common soil bacteria, and trichoderma virens, 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 trichoderma virens fungus.)

Probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package.

Altogether, it was an informative and provocative visit. In addition to what I've chronicled here, I also learned 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—topics I plan to explore in future posts.

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.

For defense against the fungal pathogens that attack crops—think the blight that bedeviled Irish potato fields in the 19th century—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 here and here for more.) But as the use of fungicides has ramped up in recent years, some scientists are starting to wonder: What are these chemicals doing to the ecosystems they touch, and to us?

A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications 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—which are similar in cellular and molecular terms to the the human brain—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.

"What's most disturbing to me is that we've allowed these chemicals to be widely used without  knowing more about their potential effects."

Eight chemicals fit the bill, the researchers found. Of them, the two most widely used are from a relatively new class of fungicides called "quinone outside inhibitors," which have surged in use since being introduced in US farm fields in the early 2000s: pyraclostrobin and trifloxystrobin.

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—say, farm workers—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. 

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.

How widely are they used? The paper points to US Geological Survey data for pyraclostrobin, 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 Headline, 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.

Use of pyraclostrobin in the United States has spiked since 2002.

 

Then there's trifloxystrobin, which also made the UNC team's list. Marketed by another German chemical giant, Bayer, trifloxystrobin, too, boasts an impressive USGS chart, reproduced below.

US Trifloxystrobin use has boomed since 1999. USGS

 

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."

As Zylka's team points out, both of these chemicals turn up on food samples in the US Department of Agriculture's routine testing program. Pyraclostrobin residues, according to USDA data compiled by Pesticide Action Network, have been found on spinach, kale, and grapes, among other foods, in recent years, while trifloxystrobin 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.

Meanwhile, a disturbing picture of the ecosystem impacts is emerging. These same chemicals also leave the farm via water. A 2012 US Geological Survey study found pyraclostrobin in 40 percent of streams in three farming-intensive areas. In another 2012 USGS study, 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.

Pyraclostrobin turned up in 40 percent of streams in three farming-intensive areas.

Studies suggest that as the fungicides leach out into the larger environment, they're harmful to more than just fungi. Oklahoma State researchers found BASF's pyraclostrobin-based fungicide Headline deadly to tadpoles at levels frequently encountered in ponds. And a 2013 study by German and Swiss researchers found that frogs sprayed with Headline at the rate recommended on the label die within an hour—a stunning result for a chemical meant to kill funguses, not frogs. I wrote about 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."

Then there are honeybees. In a 2013 study, a team of USDA researchers found pyraclostrobin and several other fungicides and insecticides in the pollen of beehives placed near farm fields—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 here).

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 states. "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 supposed benefits aside, I wish we knew more about the environmental and public-health costs of these increasingly ubiquitous chemicals.

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 New York Times piece, 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."

 

Here's the value proposition (to employ VC-speak): You fork over $700 for a shiny new juicer; order some pre-cut fruits and veggies at $4 to $7 a pop, bundled in "next-level packaging" and delivered via Fedex; stick the pack into the juicer, which then checks (via wifi) if the veggies are still fresh; and then, violá, you get an 8 ounce glass of "cold-pressed" juice, with no cleanup other than discarding the fancy packaging (reportedly soon to be compostable).

Goop declared Juicero the "coolest invention of 2016."

Nutrition gurus Gwyneth Paltrow and Dr. Oz are reportedly impressed. Paltrow's Goop even declared Juicero the "coolest invention of 2016." But it's not hard to poke holes in the model. Washington Post reporters Roberto Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham point out 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 33 cents per ounce.

The eye-popping prices aren't the only potential trouble for Juicero. As the Times noted, the juice craze may have already peaked: Retail juice sales dropped 2 percent last year, while home-juicer sales dropped 6 percent.

Retail juice sales dropped 2 percent last year, while home-juicer sales dropped 6 percent.

And I predict the same health nuts who drove the juice boom in the first place will continue abandoning it, especially if more of them realize that even cold-pressed juicing removes the insoluble fiber from vegetables and fruits. Among its many benefits, insoluble fiber may play a key role in slowing the liver's absorption of sugar, or so says sugar expert Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California–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—so it never reaches your stomach.

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 "Sweet Greens" packet includes apple and pineapple and delivers 17 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. The "Sweet Roots" also brings 17 grams of sugar, while "Carrot/Beet" contains 15 grams. That's not so much different from the sugar content of the same amount of Coke (26 grams), and as with Coke, there's no insoluble fiber to protect the liver from an instant sugar jolt.

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?

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—one that does the tossing and dressing for you, with ingredients shipped to your door.

Over the past few weeks, an impending law in tiny Vermont has re-ignited an old fight about whether food containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled. The debate typically hinges on safety. Are GM foods safe to eat? If so—and most existing ones probably are—then there's no compelling reason to label them, critics argue.

The spread of GM crops has caused a dramatic uptick in herbicide use on America's farmland.

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. Recent announcements from two of the main government agencies that oversee GMOs demonstrate just how fragmented and ineffective the regulatory process is. 

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 approved 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.

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—a kind of internal watchdog. On Friday, the EPA's Office of the Inspector General announced it had opened an investigation to "assess the EPA's management and oversight of resistance issues related to herbicide tolerant genetically engineered crops."

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 here. The seed-agrichemical industry, in turn, has responded by rolling out new crops that can withstand both glyphosate and those same older herbicides.

Today, upward of 80 percent of US corn, soybean, and cotton acres are planted with crops engineered to withstand herbicides, the USDA reports; and as herbicide use has risen, 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, from 32.6 million acres to 61.2 million acres, according to the agribusiness consultancy Stratus. (For comparison's sake, California occupies about 100 million acres of land.)

"Glyphosate was frequently detected in surface waters, rain, and air in areas where it is heavily used," stated the USGS.

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 reported 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.

Meanwhile, last year, the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a "probable carcinogen," and 2,4-D—one of those old herbicides now being widely used as glyphosate loses effectiveness—a "possible carcinogen." And a 2012 paper from Penn State researchers found that the industry's strategy of just adding new herbicides to the mix—engineering crops to withstand not only glyphosate but also 2,4-d, for example—will likely speed up the resistance problem and trigger yet more herbicide use.

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 in this 2012 piece, 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. 

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:

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?

It would have been great to have had answers before herbicide-tolerant crops conquered a huge swath of farmland—but better late than never. Meanwhile, if present trends continue, it looks like consumers will soon have a way to know which of their food purchases prop up the GMO-herbicide treadmill.

Cuba's Organic Revolution: Coming to Your Fridge?

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visits a farmers market in Havana during a four-day official visit to Cuba to try to boost agricultural trade last November.

When President Barack Obama earlier this week became the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since the revolution, he brought along a veritable army of representatives of US business interests—including agribusiness lobbyists. Among the most prominent was Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who now chairs the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.

The Coalition launched 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 globe's largest grain trader and the biggest privately owned US company), 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, they love the agribusiness interests that dominate their states.

Before the revolution, the United States and Cuba maintained a robust trade in foodstuffs.

It's easy to see why US agribusiness has set its sights 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—mostly meat and rice—according to a 2015 US Department of Agriculture report. 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 thwarted CIA-led coup and attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, culminating in an embargo banning US trade with Cuba.

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—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.

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. 

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?

"Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again," wrote Bill McKibben.

As readers might remember, necessity forced Cuba to embark on a remarkable experiment in essentially organic, local food production in the mid-1990s—a story explored in-depth by the climate writer Bill McKibben in this 2005 Harper's piece and by scholar-activist Peter Rosset here. 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.

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:

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—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—they've gotten that meal back.

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.

Of course, most of what Cargill and its US peers want to export into Cuba doesn't compete directly with these products—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, Canada, and the European Union, not market gardeners in Havana.

Cuba's small farmers are "not actively involved in the conversations about the transitions" in the country.

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–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—say, pineapples or mangoes—it wouldn't necessarily affect the smallholder movement, he said, because only about 70 percent of Cuba's arable rural land is currently in production. 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.

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—"they could go to Raul and say, 'Hey, man, don't forget about us—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.

With the right policies in place, Cuba's highly productive small farms could both feed Cuba and 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.

Meanwhile, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who accompanied Obama on his Cuba foray, has articulated a post-embargo vision of Cuba as a major supplier of organic vegetables to the US market. In an interview with Modern Farmer after he led a trade delegation on a trip to the island 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.

Are There GMOs in Cheerios? Soon You’ll Know.

Is Big Food ready to surrender to it critics and begin to label genetically modified ingredients? In the past week, grocery-aisle titans Kellogg, Mars, and General Mills, have all announced plans to label their products. In doing so, they join soup giant Campbell's, which announced its own labeling plan in January.

The spur, as I reported recently, 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 population of 626,000) for labeling, these firms have decided it's easier to just label everything.

In a blog post on the company website last week, a General Mills exec laid out the rationale: "We can’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."

The moves represent quite a departure for large food manufacturers. Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association—a trade group made up of processors like the above-named companies as well as genetically modified seed/pesticide purveyors like Monsanto and DuPont—the food and agrichemical industries have fought labeling efforts mightily, pumping tens of millions of dollars to defeat initiatives in California and Washington state.

The GMA has also enthusiastically promoted a series of bills before Congress that would nullify any state labeling requirements. The latest one died in the Senate last week. I asked the GMA whether it still hoped to reverse Vermont's law with federal legislation.

"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,” a GMA spokesman replied.

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.

 

 

We Don’t Mean to Ruin Smoothies, But…

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 "super-healthy smoothie recipes." Nationwide, shops that peddle these frothy concoctions draw $860 million in annual sales, according to market researcher IBIS World. 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.

Have I been doing myself a disservice? I began to rethink my smoothie habit about a year ago, when I heard a segment on the Good Food 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 sugar consumption drives high rates of obesity, type II diabetes, and other diet-related conditions. He was a major source for a 2012 Mother Jones exposé of the sugar industry's lobbying might.

In sugar terms, smoothies behave in our bodies a lot like soda.

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 two kinds of fiber: 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.

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.

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.

With the insoluble fiber gone, the liver gets "pelted" by the sugar delivered by the blended apple.

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.

When I asked for more research on the topic, Lustig sent me to this 2009 paper 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, 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 here).

People who snacked on whole apples ended up consuming, on average, 15 percent fewer calories than the control group; the people who ate applesauce—essentially, blended apples—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—essentially liquefied apples with insoluble fiber filtered out—actually took in 3 percent more 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.

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. 

So I reached out to David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for another perspective.

Maintaining a regular smoothie habit is "not nearly as good" as eating the same amount of fruit in its native state.

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.

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 glycemic load, which is a measure of how much a particular amount of food affects blood sugar and insulin levels. Indeed, a whole apple has a glycemic load of 6, while a serving of apple juice clocks in at 30—higher even than Coca-Cola, at 16.

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.

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.

Update (3/16/16): With 49 nays and 48 yeas, the US Senate has nixed Sen. Pat Roberts' bill, which would have nullified all state labeling efforts, including Vermont's. The San Francisco Chronicle's Tara Duggan reports that a last-minute amendment to the bill would have forced manufacturers to "provide toll-free numbers, web sites, QR codes or even social media symbols on labels as a way for consumers to learn whether genetically engineered ingredients are present in the product." That means the bill's supporters unsuccessfully attempted to enact the Vilsack compromise described below.

Political forces unleashed in a tiny state like Vermont (pop. 626,000) sometimes reverberate on the national stage, and Bernie Sanders isn't the only recent example. A food-labeling requirement in Green Mountain State is now roiling the US Senate and the Department of Agriculture, and also has the Grocery Manufacturers Association—a deep-pocketed trade group representing major food processors as well as agrichemical/GMO titans like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow—in quite a tizzy.

It all started back in 2014, when the Vermont legislature passed a law decreeing that foods containing genetically engineered organisms sold in the state be labeled as such. The law takes effect on July 1 this year. At that point, Big Food will have to figure out how to label only those products destined to be sold in a state with a quarter the population of Brooklyn—or just decide it's easier to inform consumers across the nation which products contain GM ingredients.

Big Food will have to figure out how to label only products destined to be sold in a state with a quarter the population of Brooklyn.

Unless, that is, those outcomes can be averted by simply crushing the Vermont rule. The industry and its political friends are pursuing a two-pronged strategy, one legal and one political. As the clock winds down and July 1 approaches, both are looking shaky. 

On the legal front, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with the Snack and Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, sued Vermont in federal court to halt the new law, claiming the legislation "imposes burdensome new speech requirements" and violates the Constitution by "regulating nationwide distribution and labeling practices that facilitate interstate commerce." The court dismissed an injunction to block the implementation of the GMO labeling law in 2015, and the GMA quickly filed an appeal, which is still pending.

Politically, GMA had a strategy in place before Vermont even passed its law. By 2013, the group had spearheaded expensive efforts to beat back labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state. More state battles were clearly on the way. In an internal document uncovered that year by researcher Michele Simon—who has since launched a plant-based foods trade group—GMA signaled it would pursue a federal law that would preempt any state labeling requirement. And the group was lining up cash—what it called "a long-range funding mechanism"—for the effort. (See more here.)

In the years since, the GMA has hotly promoted the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, known by critics as the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" (DARK) Act, which would nullify all state GMO labeling laws. The House passed such a bill in July 2015, and supporters tried and ultimately failed to push a similar provision into an omnibus spending bill at year-end.

Rather than mandatory GMO labeling, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is pushing mandatory "disclosure."

It has yet to make it through the Senate, but now the chair of the legislative body's agriculture committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), is making a major push. In hopes of averting what he called the "wrecking ball" of Vermont's labeling statute, Roberts—a major recipient of agribusiness campaign fundspushed a bill through the Senate ag committee on March 1 that forbids state GMO labeling requirements. GMA vigorously supports Roberts' bill, but it remains in limbo. To force a vote on the Senate floor, he'll need 60 votes, and so far he doesn't have them.

Meanwhile, a group of Democrats led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are pushing a rival bill that would require GMO labeling everywhere—essentially, taking the Vermont law nationwide. Food giant Campbell's, which has broken ranks with the broader industry on this topic and favors GMO labeling, supports the Merkley bill. Yet it, too, currently lacks the votes to win passage.

This week, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stepped into the stalemate, pushing a compromise in a speech before the National Farmers union: Rather than mandatory labeling, he's pushing mandatory "disclosure," wherein food companies are required to disclose GMO ingredients to interested consumers, but not on the label. In Vilsack's vision, mandatory disclosure could take the form of an 800 number on the label that consumers can call for info on GMO ingredients, or a QR code that can be read by smartphones. "Vilsack has said that President Barack Obama would sign such a bill," reports the trade journal Hoosier Ag Today.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, which supports GMO labeling, says such a requirement would fall far short of actual labeling: She thinks most consumers would likely decline to take the extra step of making a phone call or engaging a smartphone app to get more info.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for its part, declined to take a public position on Vilsack's compromise. A GMA spokesman added that "time is of the essence with Vermont’s July 1 deadline fast approaching, so…will continue to work with senators to achieve a national solution that protects consumers, farmers, and small businesses."

Whatever you think of GMO labeling—my thoughts are here—you have to admit: That's an awful lot of fuss generated by a tiny, mostly rural state.

Now Even Tofurky Has a Lobbyist

A burger made from seitan, or wheat gluten

When the giant companies that dominate US meat, dairy, and egg production want something in Washington, they lean on armies of lobbyists, which are financed by flush trade groups like the North American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Coalition, the National Chicken Council, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. But who speaks up for seitan chops on the Hill?

Until recently, essentially no one, says longtime food industry critic and researcher Michele Simon. And so she has launched the Plant Based Foods Association, which exists to "ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods intended to replace animal products such as meats, dairy, and eggs." The brand-new trade group already has a part-time lobbyist, the longtime vegan- and organic-food advocate Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of former US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Simon, a committed vegan, told me two factors inspired her to organize the group: a recent spate of alt-protein companies coming on the scene, and the struggle they face "just to name their products."

California upstart Hampton Creek, for example, had to fend off challenges from processed-food giant Unilever (the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise), the American Egg Board, and the US Food and Drug Administration to call its eggless mayo product "Just Mayo," she noted. She also cited the case of another California company, Miyoko's Kitchen, which was ordered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to market its products not as nut-based cheese, but rather as "cultured nut product."

"Cultured nut product"—"doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."

"Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue," Simon says. "It's ridiculous."

After years studying Big Meat trade groups and how they operate, she learned how effective they are, not just at shaping public policy to "promote more harmful foods," she says, but also at communicating with consumers, serving as a go-to source for reporters, and nudging retailers on how to market their products. And so the Plant Based Foods Association aims to conduct those services and develop a "collective voice" for companies that offer animal-free meat, dairy, and egg alternatives.

Now, in our age, enormous food companies don't respond to new threats to their market share just with lawsuits and appeals to federal overseers like the FDA, as Unilever did with Hampton Creek. They also respond by imitation and acquisition—they have the deep pockets needed to launch new products or just buy the companies that make them. Indeed, just last month, Unilever rolled out its own eggless mayo-like spread

So what's to stop big-food conglomerates like Unilever from taking over the Plant Based Food Association and using it to their ends? Right now, the PBFA's membership list consists of companies that deal solely in vegetarian products, from nut-milk upstarts Califia and Malk to lesser-known firms like Tofuna Fysh. (Vegan tuna salad, anyone?) Simon said any purveyor of vegetable-based protein products, including Unilever, is welcome to join the trade group, but the bylaws state that a majority of its board of directors will represent pure-play vegetarian companies.

I've long been ambivalent about elaborately processed plant-based meat, dairy, and egg substitutes. I've puzzled over why people looking to eat less animal product just can't just gravitate to deliciously cooked beans and grains, and even called for a falafel revolution as an alternative to soy and pea protein tweaked in a factory to taste a lot like chicken. Why do we need prepackaged vegan tuna salad?

Simon responded that she herself eats mainly whole vegan foods (she mentioned quinoa and kale), and that she'd "love it if everyone just adopted my way of eating." Meanwhile, though, animal products loom large in most Americans' diets, and the "environmental destruction from industrialized animal production" continues piling up, she said. (Here's the eminent ecologist Vaclav Smill on industrial meat's footprint.) "We need every tool in the toolbox," and conveniently packaged, high-protein vegan products play a crucial role in the effort to convince people to eat less meat, she said.

In other words: Quit being such a food snob, Philpott.