Tom Philpott

One Weird Brazilian Trick for Losing Belly Fat

| Fri Jul. 19, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Something to protect: a plate featuring feijoada, a classic Brazilian black bean stew.

In the cover story of a recent Atlantic, David Freedman argued that the answer to the obesity problem lies in kinder, gentler convenience food, engineered to be enticing while containing less sugar and fat. I pushed back, skeptical that Big Food could hyperprocess us a healthy diet even if it wanted to. Freedman and I rekindled our conversation in a joint interview on Minnesota Public Radio:

I got to thinking about the dustup when I read an essay, published in the journal PLOS Medicine by Brazil-based nutrition researchers Carlos Monteiro and Geoffrey Cannon, on how that country is dealing with its own emerging obesity crisis. The piece delivers insights into the relationship between Big Food's dominance of a nation's food system and obesity, as well as ways of thinking about the crisis that we might consider here in the United States.

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Monsanto. Broccoli. I Love This. Really!

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This is the rare post about a plant-breeding project involving GMO seed giant Monsanto wherein I come to praise the effort, not bury it in scorn.

First, a bit of background. Broccoli is a fantastic thing to eat—even President Obama thinks so. It delivers compounds that seem to fight cancer and help maintain your immune system, among other benefits. It also tastes really, really good when it's fresh and in season. (Here's my simple recipe for roasted broccoli with garlic and chili pepper.)

And herein lies the rub. Broccoli plants grow well enough in warm weather, but they won't flower, meaning no delicious broccoli heads during a hot summer. And for that reason, most of the broccoli consumed in the United States—94 percent of it, in fact—is grown in the foggy zones of California. For people in the eastern half of the country, that means you can generally find fresh, locally grown broccoli only when the weather has cooled in the fall. The rest of the year, the stuff tends to be a bit worse for the wear when it reaches the table after the long haul from California. You know this stuff: limp, bland, vaguely sulfury, kind of gross. Hence, I think, broccoli's tenacious reputation as a good-for-you vegetable that sort of sucks.

As Michael Moss reports in a recent New York Times piece, a group of plant breeders from land-grant universities—including Cornell, the University of Maine, and the University of Tennessee—are looking to extend broccoli's growing season. Using conventional breeding (i.e., not genetic modification), they've created a breakthrough broccoli strain that can "thrive in hot, steamy summers like those in New York, South Carolina or Iowa," while also delivering heads that are "crisp, subtly sweet and utterly tender when eaten fresh-picked," Moss reports.

The initiative—facilitated by a $3.2 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture and called the Eastern Broccoli Project—strikes me as a proper use of public plant-breeding funds. Its goals seem impeccable: to increase the supply and appeal of a nutrient-dense vegetable in a way that cuts down on cross-country shipping and boosts local food economies. Too often, plant breeding is geared narrowly to the interests of the seed industry's shareholders—such as crops genetically engineered to resist the very herbicides sold by the companies themselves. It's great to see a breeding project geared to actual public interests, one that could transform the way a high-profile vegetable is grown and consumed over a large swath of the country. I can't think of another public seed-breeding project quite like it.

But there's a catch. As Moss reports, two gigantic agribusiness firms, Monsanto and its Swiss rival Syngenta, are partners in the project. They're most known for their GMO corn and soy, as well as pesticides, but Monsanto and Syngenta are also the globe's two biggest vegetable seed purveyors—and, according the the USDA, they and two other firms together control 70 percent of the entire global trade in vegetable seeds.

With giants like these barreling in, I wondered whether this benevolent-sounding broccoli project might turn into the wholly owned property of these firms. My concern would be market domination. There's a budding scene of small, regionally oriented seed companies in the United States, and I'd hate to see them cut off from a promising, publicly developed broccoli strain. I'd also hate to see the financial benefits of a publicly funded breeding program get completely siphoned off by these ginormous, market-dominating firms.

In addition to the partnerships with agribiz, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli on the public domain.

So I called Thomas Bjorkman, the Cornell plant scientist who's spearheading the project, to ask him about just that. Bjorkman explained that in addition to the biotech giants, partners include relatively small players like Maine-based Johnny's Selected Seeds, a purveyor widely used by small- and mid-size farmers across the eastern United States.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny's license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. "Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli," he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny's and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli on the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they'd prefer not to.

I asked him about the specter of genetic modification—would it be a tool his team would consider using as it refines its broccoli strains? He told me "no," for two reasons. The first involves consumer demand. "No one wants transgenic [GMO] broccoli, as far as I can tell," Bjorkman said. The second reason is even more fundamental, related to a little-discussed limitation of GM technology that I've written about before (see my 2012 piece on Monsanto's so-so "drought-tolerant" GMO corn): It ends up being not very good at overhauling complex processes, like how heat affects a plant's ability to flower. There's no one single gene that governs how, say, broccoli behaves under hot conditions, Bjorkman told me. And so GM technology "isn't a promising avenue for what we're doing."

Monsanto Is Losing the Press

| Wed Jul. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Ah, high summer. Time to read stories about the declining effectiveness of GMO-seed giant Monsanto's flagship products: crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides.

Back in 2008, I felt a bit lonely participating in this annual rite—it was mainly just me and reporters in the Big Ag trade press. Over the past couple of years, though, it has gone mainstream. Here's NPR's star agriculture reporter Dan Charles, on corn farmers' agrichemically charged reaction to the rise of an insect that has come to thumb its nose at Monsanto's once-vaunted Bt corn, engineered to contain the bug-killing gene of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis:

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like or that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

And this, from a veteran observer of the GMO-seed industry who—in my view—sometimes errs on the side of being too soft on it.

The Wall Street Journal's Ian Berry got the ball rolling early this year with a May report bearing the evocative headline "Pesticides Make a Comeback: Many Corn Farmers Go Back to Using Chemicals as Mother Nature Outwits Genetically Modified Seeds":

Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, as American farmers plant more corn and a genetic modification designed to protect the crop from pests has started to lose its effectiveness. The sales are a boon for big pesticide makers, such as American Vanguard Co. and Syngenta.

All the attention on superinsects has taken the major-media spotlight off of the "superweeds" that have evolved to shrug off copious doses of Roundup, the herbicide that's supposed to make Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops immune to weed problems. But that doesn't mean these thug weeds have stopped working their magic. They're "gaining ground" in Iowa, heart of the US corn/soy belt, reports the Cedar Rapids-based Gazette. And farmers are responding just as they did in the South, where Roundup-resistant weeds have had been rampant for at least five years: with a chemical deluge. Here's one of several anecdotes in the Gazette piece on that illustrate this familiar theme:

Tracy Franck, who farms 2,400 acres in Buchanan County with his dad and son, said they "are putting on more Roundup every year to kill the same amount of weeds." They, like most other farmers in their area, are also applying a pre-emergent residual herbicide to help control the glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup]-resistant weeds that are just beginning to show up in their fields. "We are starting to see some lambs quarter and giant ragweed that are tough to kill," he said.

(As someone who likes to eat lamb's-quarter, a delicious, nutrient-dense green, I'm sorry to see it emerge as a target of chemical warfare.)

Meanwhile, Food and Water Watch has just come out with a damning report called "Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry." The nutshell: The rise of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton in the mid-1990s has given rise to a boom in use of herbicides. Note how use fell for a while after the introduction Roundup Ready seeds before beginning to spike in 2001, when Roundup resistant weeds began to emerge.

Food and Water Watch

GMO industry defenders point out that relatively benign Roundup at least displaced older, more toxic herbicides as farmers transitioned to Roundup Ready crops. But as FWW shows, that no longer holds. Farmers are turning to one particularly nasty old herbicide, 2,4-D, with a vengeance as Roundup loses effectiveness:

Food and Water Watch

All of which raises the question: If Monsanto's seeds are failing, why are farmers still buying them in such vast numbers? Part of it is surely habit—for farmers, it must seem easier to plant Roundup Ready corn and supplement Roundup with a harsher herbicide than to try a whole new weed-control system.

The answer may also at least partly lie in the GMO seed giants' dominance of the seed market. Last year, the US Department of Justice unceremoniously halted its antitrust investigation of Monsanto and its peers without taking action. As I showed in my post at that time, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow together control 80 percent of the corn seed market and 70 percent of the soy market. In such tightly consolidated markets, you get stuff like this (from my post from last year):

There's also evidence that farmers lack access to lower-priced [non-GM] seeds. In 2010, University of Illinois researcher Michael Gray surveyed farmers in seven agriculture-intensive counties of Illinois. He asked them if they had access to high-quality corn seeds that weren't genetically modified to contain Monsanto's Bt insecticide trait. In all seven counties, at least 32 percent of farmers said "no." In one county, 46.6 percent of farmers reporting having no access to high-quality non-Bt seed. For them, apparently, they had little choice but to pay Monsanto's high prices for Bt seeds, whether they needed them or not.

At any rate, as Food and Water Watch notes, the withering of herbicide-tolerant and Bt-infused crops hasn't hurt these companies at all—indeed, they also sell pesticides, and as NPR and the Wall Street Journal report, pesticide sales are booming.

Why The Atlantic's Defense of Junk Food Fails

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
The McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of US adults are overweight or obese. How did this happen? In a long article in the current Atlantic, David H. Freedman offers a mechanistic explanation: People are ingesting too many calories, particularly "energy-intense" fat, sugar, and "other problem carbs." The simple diagnoses leads to an easy solution: The food industry should apply its flavor-engineering wizardry to churn out lower-cal products that people will still scarf up, preserving its own bottom line while solving the obesity crisis. Indeed, he writes, this remedy is already playing out under our noses:

Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further.

Among the examples Freedman cites are McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin, a "lower-calorie, less fatty version of the Egg McMuffin," a "new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains," and Carl's Jr.'s "Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich."

Did a Slave Process the Shrimp in Your Scampi?

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 6:20 AM EDT

Over the past 20 years, the rapid rise of South Asian shrimp farms has transformed our relationship to the tasty crustaceans, shifting it from an occasional luxury to an all-you-can-eat commodity *. Twenty years ago, most of our shrimp came from domestic wild fisheries. Today, we import 90 percent of it, almost all of it farmed. But who works on these foreign farms and processing facilities—and under what conditions? A new briefing paper by the well-respected International Labor Rights Forum and the Warehouse Workers United (WWU) alleges serious labor abuses, including illegal use of underage workers, at the Thai shrimp producer Narong Seafood, at least until recently a major supplier of Walmart and a leading shrimp processor for the US market, according to a recent analysis by the consultancy Accenture for Humanity United.

Narong, for its part, disputes the charges in the report. "We insist that Narong is against child labor or any unfair treatment to our staff or workers," a company official wrote in an emailed statement. 

The Scary Side of Synbio Glowing Plants

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 1:49 PM EDT

If you're like me, the concept of synthetic biology—the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life—is pretty hard to get your head around. I get synthesizing, say, material to make clothes out of. But synthesizing new life forms? Apparently, while I stand slack-jawed, the novel technology is quickly going mainstream. Here's the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term "natural light," a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric street lamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

What could be more innocuous than plants that generate useful light? And moreover, the "glowing plants" project isn't the work of a big, bad multinational like Monsanto or a corporate-funded academic lab, the Times notes, but rather a "small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement."

And they're not financing the project by tapping Wall Street or big banks, but rather the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence, the Kickstarter campaign. The project launched April 23 with a goal to raise $65,000; it has already exceeded $480,000 in pledges, aided by glowing—so to speak—reports in Tech Crunch, Fast Company, and Forbes, as well as the promise that anyone who commits at least $40 will "receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home."

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I don't know much about the science of creating living lamps. But I do think it's important to think out the broader implications of synbio—as the novel technology is known—and ask questions about how its release from the lab into the world is regulated. Which is evidently pretty lightly—this consortium is casually promising to distribute glowing seeds to hundreds of people.

I can't think of a better source for examining the promise and perils of synbio than this much-cited 2007 essay by the eminent physicist—and climate change skeptic—Freeman Dyson. In it, he laid out a rosy vision for what he called the "domestication of biotechnology." Here's Dyson:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.

What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems?

And what about the obvious dangers—what if these God-like "housewives and children" (ugh) turned away from conjuring cuddly creatures and start creating ones designed to bare their fangs, monsters instead of pets? You don't even need to presume malicious intent to find reason for concern: What if some novel beast designed for cuteness escapes, goes rogue, and turns out to have unintended malign powers? Then there are the obvious questions: What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems? Dyson acknowledged the "real and serious dangers" of synbio, and allowed that "rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others." But he waved off that task—not his problem. "I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers," he cheerfully declared.

But regulating novel technologies has proven difficult here in the United States. Genetically modified seeds burst onto US farm fields in the mid-'90s with a notoriously lax regulatory process, as I showed in this post. Still, the process is time-consuming, and it has been known to occasionally at least delay particularly problematic crop varieties, like new ones genetically rigged to withstand not one but two herbicides. Next came nanotechnology, which takes advantage of the fact that common substances like silver behave differently when they're really, really small. Nanotech is now ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from underwear to toothpaste. But as the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider showed in an eye-opening 2010 series, the small stuff poses significant risks, has received little independent testing, and is barely regulated.

The excellent watchdog org ETC Group, which seeks to place novel technologies under democratic oversight, has launched a rival "Kickstopper" campaign to halt such projects until a proper regulatory regime can be put into place.

In the spirit of Professor Dyson, let me offer a prediction for the future. I imagine that synbio's current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over, eventually dominating the research and deployment of Dyson's wondrous toys. Monsanto has already bought its way into the space—in January, it bought an R&D lab from and entered a research collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, a company that uses synthetic microbes to "improve crop productivity."

Unless we have a serious national reckoning on synbio, what we risk leaving our children and grandchildren is the knotty problem of trying to convince an entrenched, little-regulated industry that the power of generating life forms should be used for the broad interests of society, not the narrow ones of shareholders.  

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Why Coffee Is (Still) Good for You, and 4 More Bites of Food News

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 6:56 AM EDT
Here's the beef: the US and its CAFO ways go global.

There's been so much food news this week that I didn't know where to begin. So I decided to try to do as many as possible, digest style.

China's Appetite for US Pork May Extend to Beef

The takeover of US pork giant Smithfield by Chinese meat behemoth Shuanghui International is the latest data point in a long-term trend: The US, with its hyper-consolidated meat production system, is emerging as a CAFO to the world.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that beef could be next. The nation doesn't consume much beef per capita—pork and chicken are much more common—but its popularity is surging. The nation's beef imports are soaring, too, but remain a tiny fraction of its overall consumption. The country doesn't accept US meat—at least legally—but that could soon change:

The United States, the world's fourth-largest beef exporter, hopes a recent downgrade of its mad cow disease risk status by the UN World Organization for Animal Health will boost its chances of gaining a foothold in the growing Chinese market. Significant quantities of U.S. beef are already smuggled into China through Hong Kong, and the industry is pushing for new talks on formal approval when U.S. President Barack Obama meets President Xi Jinping in California later this week. "If China opens its market to U.S. and Indian beef, the growth rate (in imports) will exceed double-digits," said Rabobank analyst Pan Chenjun.

The Reuters piece sheds light on one reason China is suddenly so interested in meat imports: "spreading urban sprawl that is rapidly swallowing up agricultural land and pushing up farmers' costs."

Cargill and McDonalds Team Up for Russian McNuggets

The US meat industry isn't just gearing up to export loads of factory-farmed meat. It's also setting up shop in foreign markets, replicating its model right down to the McNuggets. More from WattAgNet:

Cargill officially opened a chicken processing facility at its complex in Efremov, Russia. This $40 million facility, Cargill's first primary chicken processing operation in Russia, will predominantly supply McDonald's restaurants in Russia with Chicken McNuggets as well as other chicken products.

Diet Soda: More Bad News

As I've written before, diet soda may not be the health-neutral elixir it seems at first glance. Recent headlines about artificially sweetened drinks being as bad for your teeth as a meth addiction seem overblown, but links to type-2 diabetes recently got stronger. In a paper (abstract) published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Japanese researchers tracked a group of around 2000 factory workers over seven years and found that regular diet soda drinkers have significantly higher rates of type 2 diabetes than non-drinkers. Meanwhile, Washington University, St. Louis, researchers have published a paper on the effects of sucralose, a popular no-calorie sweetener marketed as Splenda, on the insulin response of 17 obese patients who don't normally consume diet drinks. The results, from a University of Washington press release quoting one of the researchers:

When study participants drank sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose Insulin levels also rose about 20 percent higher. So the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response.

Huffington Post has a good summary of recent research on diet soda and health.

Coffee: More Good News

My own vice for getting through the day is coffee. I'm not sure what I'd do if it, too, were the subject of a steady stream of bad health reports. Happily, most of the research around coffee finds positive effects—perhaps not surprising given that people have been enjoying it for hundreds of years (whereas artificially sweetened drinks have been widely used for little more than a generation). The New York Times' Gretchen Reynolds reports that a spate of recent studies suggest that "moderate" coffee consumption—"the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks"—delivers a range of benefits, including a "reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate cancer, oral cancer and breast cancer recurrence." And then there are the brain benefits of caffeine:

In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

Other research, Reynolds reports, has found that coffee has more of an anti-dementia effect than isolated caffeine: She points to a 2011 study by University of South Florida researchers finding that "mice genetically bred to develop Alzheimer’s and then given caffeine alone did not fare as well on memory tests as those provided with actual coffee."

Should Wine Ingredients Be Listed on Labels?

Wine—another one of my cherished vices—is just naturally fermented grape juice, right? Not these days, reports the ace wine writer Eric Asimov:

Forget about the often poisonous chemicals used in the vineyards, which can leave residue on the grapes. In the winery alone, before fermentation even begins, enzymes may be added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice, to amplify desirable aromas while eliminating disagreeable ones, to intensify the color of red wines and to clarify the color of whites.

It doesn’t stop there. Other additives can be used to enhance a wine’s texture, to add or subtract tannins or simply to adjust quality. Winemakers can select specific yeasts and special nutrients to keep those yeasts working. They can add oak extracts for flavor and further tannin adjustment, and compounds derived from grape juice to fix color, texture and body. They can add sugar to lengthen the fermentation, increasing the alcohol content; add acid if it’s lacking; add water if the alcohol level is too high. Or they can send the wine through a reverse-osmosis machine or other heavy equipment to diminish the alcohol and eliminate other undesirable traits, like volatile acidity.

As a result of all this manipulation, Asimov writes, wine often turns out to be a "manufactured product, processed to achieve a preconceived notion of how it should feel, smell and taste, and then rolled off the assembly line, year after year, as consistent and denatured as a potato chip or fast-food burger."

Designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background.

Asimov doesn't get into it in this piece, but designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background. A 2008 article from a wine-industry trade magazine tells the story. It focuses on Linda Bisson, a professor of enology at UC Davis, an enormously influential institution in the California wine trade. The article describes Bisson as a "renowned yeast geneticist." Here is her message to winemakers: "You can tailor your product to reach your customer by identifying consumer preferences, the effect that a choice has on a customer, and its genetic composition."

And how can winemakers achieve this customization? It’s easy: "Once we've identified the flavor compounds, we can manipulate the taste. We derive flavors from the yeast, not the grapes." And here's a little-known fact: US winemakers may be using genetically modified yeasts.

Asimov laments that "unlike processed foods, wine is not required to have its ingredients listed on the label." As a result, only a few US winemakers—Bonny Doon Vineyard, Shinn Estate Vineyards and Ridge Vineyards—let you know on the bottle what you're getting along with the grape juice.

China Could Actually Improve US Pork. Here's How.

| Mon Jun. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

China doesn't have the globe's most sterling food safety reputation, and its fast-growing pork industry provides an apt example of why. A few months ago, dead pigs were showing up by the thousands in a Chinese river—the result, apparently, of a scandal involving the slaughter of diseased pigs. In 2011, hundreds of people became ill after eating pork tainted with clenbuterol, a growth-enhancing chemical the Chinese government had banned from hog feed nearly a decade earlier.

All of which makes it odd that the decision of a massive Chinese meat processor called Shuanghui Group—the very company at the center of the clenbuterol fiasco—to buy US hog giant Smithfield might actually clean up one dirty aspect of our domestic pork industry.

Rogue Monsanto Wheat Sprouts in Oregon

| Fri May 31, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Amber waves of gain? Not so much, for Monsanto.

One of the four major US crops—corn, soybeans, hay (alfalfa), and wheat—is not like the others.

For one, wheat is mainly consumed directly by people, while the others are mostly used as animal feed. Its status as people food—the stuff of bread, the staff of life—probably explains why wheat is different from the other three in another way: It's also the only one that genetically modified Monsanto seed giant hasn't turned into a cash cow. The company has made massive profits churning out corn, soy, and (most recently) alfalfa seeds genetically altered to withstand doses of its own herbicide, Roundup. But the company has never commercialized a GM wheat variety—and stopped trying back in 2004, largely because of consumer pushback against directly consuming a GM crop. And thank goodness, too, because Roundup Ready technology is now failing, giving rise to a plague of herbicide resistant weeds and a gusher of toxic herbicides.

Wheat's non-GMO status is why the Internet went berserk when the US Department of Agriculture revealed Wednesday that Roundup Ready wheat had sprouted up on a farm in Oregon. According to the USDA, a farmer discovered the plants growing in a place they shouldn't have been and tried unsuccessfully to kill them with Roundup. Oops. USDA testing confirmed that the rogue wheat was the same experimental Roundup Ready variety that Monsanto had last been approved to test in Oregon in 2001.

Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat.

The revelation had immediate trade implications. About half the overall US wheat crop gets exported—and Oregon's wheat farmers export 90 percent of their output. Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But as the USDA noted, no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat. And if Roundup Ready wheat is growing on one farm, our trading partners might legitimately ask, what guarantee is there that it's not growing on others?  Already, Japan has responded by suspending imports of US wheat, Bloomberg reports.

Maximizing exports has always been a main priority of the Obama Administration's ag policy, and, the USDA is scrambling to investigate the extent to which Roundup Ready wheat has entered the food supply, no doubt hoping to stave off a full-on trade crisis. "We are taking this very seriously," a USDA official told Bloomberg. "We have a very active investigation going on in several states in the western US."

Meanwhile, the question of how those GM seeds found their way onto that Oregon farm—more than a decade after the state's last GM wheat trials—looms. Wheat can transfer genes from one field to another pretty easily through cross-pollination. As Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist of Pesticide Action Network of North America, put it in a statement, "once released into the environment, the GE genie does not willingly go back into the bottle." I'll be eagerly awaiting updates as the USDA continues its investigations.

 

Is the US About to Become One Big Factory Farm for China?

| Wed May 29, 2013 4:29 PM EDT

The small number of companies that dominate global meat production is about to get smaller. The Chinese corporation Shuanghui International, already the majority shareholder of China's largest meat producer, has just bought US giant Smithfield, the globe's largest hog producer and pork packer, in a $4.7 billion cash deal. (It still has to get past Smithfield's shareholders and the US Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment, which reviews takeovers of US companies.)

Now, I hope this merger of titans doesn't provoke a xenophobic reaction. Shuanghui has strong ties to China's central government, but it also counts Goldman Sachs among its major shareholders. And the US meat industry is already quite globalized. Back in 2009, a Brazilian giant called JBS had already barreled into the US market, and now holds huge positions in beef, pork, and chicken processing here. And true, as China has ramped up its food production—and rapidly reshaped hog production on the industrial US model—it has produced more than it share of food safety scandals, including recent ones involving hogs.

But as I have pointed out, the US pork industry is no prize either—it pollutes water as a matter of course, hollows out the rural areas on which it alights, relies heavily on routine antibiotic use, recently inspired a government watchdog group to lament "egregious" violations of food safety and animal welfare code in slaughterhouses, and uh, has an explosive manure foam problem.

So forget about where HQ is for the vast conglomerate that ultimately profits from running Smithfield's factory-scale hog farms and slaughterhouses. The real question is: What does this deal telling us about the global food system and the future of food? Reuters offers a hint:

The thrust of the deal is to send the U.S. made pork to China, a factor that one person familiar with the matter said would help during Shuanghui's CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment] review.

If Reuters is right that deal's purpose is to grease the wheels of trade carrying US hogs to China and its enormous domestic pork market, then we're looking at the further expansion of factory-scale swine farming here in the US: all of the festering troubles I listed above, intensified. For Smithfield itself, the deal is savvy, because Americans are eating less meat. In order to maintain endless profit growth, the company needs to conquer markets where per capita meat consumption is growing fast, and the China market itself represents the globe's biggest prize in that regard.  

As for China, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy showed in a blockbuster 2011 report, the central government strived for years for self-sufficiency in pork, even as demand for it exploded, by rapidly industrializing production along the model pioneered by Smithfield. By essentially buying Smithfield, the government may be throwing in the towel—saying, essentially, let's just offshore our hog production, or at least a huge part of it, to the US.

In an ironic twist, China appears to be taking advantage of lax environmental and labor standards in the US to supply its citizens with something it can't get enough of. Industrial pork: the iPhone's culinary mirror image.