Tom Philpott

A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

As investigators and rescuers move through a destroyed fertilizer factory in West, Texas, it makes me think about just what nitrogen fertilizer is, and why we use so much of it.

Nitrogen is one of the nutrient elements plants need to grow. Every apple or ear of corn plucked represents nutrients pulled from soil, and for land to remain productive, those nutrients must be replenished. Nitrogen is extremely plentiful—it makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. But atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is joined together in an extremely tight bond that makes it unusable by plants. Plant-available nitrogen, known as nitrate, is actually scarce, and for most of agriculture's 10,000-year-old history, the main challenge was figuring out how to cycle usable nitrogen back into the soil. Farmers of yore might not have known the chemistry, but they knew that composting crop waste, animal manure, and even human waste led to better harvests.

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Will Monsanto Ties Influence Nutritionists' Stance on GMOs?

| Sat Apr. 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The GMO seed giant Monsanto recently flexed its muscles in Congress, working with a senator to sneak a friendly rider into an unrelated funding bill. Now it appears to be having its way with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As the New York Times reports, a dietician who'd been working on crafting the group's GMO policy claims she was pushed aside for pointing out her colleagues' links to Monsanto.

The controversy started during last fall's highly contested battle over a ballot initiative that would have required labeling genetically modified food in California. The prestigious dieticians' group was incorrectly listed by the official state voters' guide as one of the scientific organizations that had "concluded biotech foods are safe." Actually, the AND had taken no position on the issue, but it promised to come out with a position paper on it. (The ballot initiative ultimately failed.)

Monsanto Claims to Ditch Herbicide While Selling More of It

| Wed Apr. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Roundup, the usual suspect.

Genetically modified seed giant Monsanto likes to trumpet its "commitment to sustainable agriculture." The story goes like this: by generating novel, high-tech crop varieties, Monsanto will wean farmers off of synthetic chemical poisons. The company even markets its flagship product, seeds genetically engineered to survive its own Roundup weed killer, as a tool they can use to to "decrease the overall use of herbicides."

But as I've shown before, herbicide use has actually dramatically ramped up as the Roundup Ready technology conquers vast swaths of US farmland. That's because weeds quickly developed resistance to it, forcing farmers to apply ever-larger doses and resort to older, more toxic herbicides to combat resistant weeds. And while the company has tried hard to leave behind its past as a purveyor of toxic chemicals and rebrand itself as a technology company, those toxic chemicals remain central to its growth and profitability, as its latest quarterly profit report shows.

The report—press release here—cheered investors, driving Monsanto shares to their highest levels since 2008. Here's the main bit, lifted from the press release (note that by "second quarter," the company means the January to March period):

Monsanto's latest earnings report—all about corn and "ag productivity" (herbicides) Detail from a Monsanto press release.

Note that the company consists of two main segments: what it calls "Seeds and Genomics," which involves sales of seeds, obviously, plus licensing fees on genetically modified traits; and "Agricultural Productivity," which means, essentially, chemicals, mainly Roundup in a variety of forms. Seeds and Genomics is by far the largest of the two in terms of contribution to overall sales, but good old Agricultural Productivity is still really important. Indeed, its sales shot up from $824 million in second-quarter 2012 to $1.12 billion in the same time period of this year—that's an amazing 36 percent jump.

By contrast, Seeds and Genomics sales went from $3.92 billion to $4.35 billion over the same time span—just a 10 percent rise.

Overall, the herbicide contribution to Monsanto's total sales went from 17 percent in second-quarter 2012 to 20 percent in the the same period of 2013.

Fast-Food Workers Protest Poverty McWages

| Sat Apr. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's shareholders, the past five years can be aptly summed up by the slogan "I'm lovin' it." According to Yahoo Finance, shares of the global fast-food giant are up 80 percent since April 2008—more than four times the gain of the S&P 500 over the same period. The company is robustly profitable—its profit margin hovers near 20 percent, and it's got $2.3 billion in cash on the books.

Other fast-food giants are doing well by their shareholders, too. Burger King shares are up 25 percent over the past year, while YUM! Brands—the holding company for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut—are up 10 percent. (Over the same period, the S&P 500 is up just 5 percent.)

For these companies' employees, it's been a much rougher road. The steep recession and glacial recovery have kept unemployment at high levels, meaning fewer opportunities to switch jobs and little leverage in wage negotiations. Even in ultra-expensive New York City—which has by far the nation's highest cost of living—many McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! workers draw the federal minimum wage, $7.25. The federal minimum wage translates to about $15,000 per year. This, in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment tops $3,000.

That's why it's so heartening that in New York City, workers from big-name  fast-food chains are walking off the job and taking to the streets to demand better wages. Here's the New York Times:

Thursday’s strike, sponsored by a labor-community coalition that calls itself Fast Food Forward, seeks to press the city’s fast-food restaurants to pay their employees $15 an hour. Many workers say they can barely get by on the $7.25, $8 or $9 an hour that many receive; $9 an hour translates to around $18,000 a year for a full-time worker. The current minimum wage in New York State is $7.25, though lawmakers agreed last month to raise it to $9 by 2016.        

For an excellent discussion of the situation, including interviews with workers having to support families on fast-food wages—check out this segment from Chris Hayes' new MSNBC show:

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Sen. Roy Blunt: Monsanto's Man in Washington

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, a recent Senate bill came with a nice bonus for the genetically modified seed industry: a rider, wholly unrelated to the underlying bill, that compels the USDA to ignore federal court decisions that block the agency's approvals of new GM crops. I explained in this post why such a provision, which the industry has been pushing for over a year, is so important to Monsanto and its few peers in the GMO seed industry. (You can also hear my talking about it on NPR's The Takeaway, along with the senator who tried to stop it, Montana's Jon Tester, and see me on Al Jazeera's Inside Story.)

Which senator pushed the rider into the bill? At the time, no one stepped forward to claim credit. But since then, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has revealed to Politico's ace reporter David Rogers that he's the responsible party. Blunt even told Rogers that he "worked with" GMO seed giant Monsanto to craft the rider.

The admission shines a light on Blunt's ties to Monsanto, whose office is located in the senator's home state. According to OpenSecrets, Monsanto first started contributing to Blunt back in 2008, when it handed him $10,000. At that point, Blunt was serving in the House of Representatives. In 2010, when Blunt successfully ran for the Senate, Monsanto upped its contribution to $44,250. And in 2012, the GMO seed/pesticide giant enriched Blunt's campaign war chest by $64,250.

Yes, Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs Can Jump from Animals to Humans

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For decades, the meat industry has denied any problem with its reliance on routine, everyday antibiotic use for the nation's chickens, cows, and pigs. But it's a bit like a drunk denying an alcohol problem while leaning on a barstool for support. Antibiotic use on livestock farms has surged in recent years—from 20 million pounds annually in 2003 to nearly 30 million pounds in 2011.

Over the same period, the entire US human population has consumed less than 8 million pounds per year, meaning that livestock farms now suck in around 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. Meanwhile, the industry routinely churns out meat containing an array of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

As former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler recently put it in a New York Times op-ed, "rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another's waste." And feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may "do the most harm," Kessler continued, because it provides a perfect incubation ground for the generation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The meat industry's retort to all of this is, essentially: And the problem is? The websites of the major industry trade groups—the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council—all insist current antibiotic practices are "safe." The main reason they can claim this with a straight face is that while scientists have long suspected that drug-resistant pathogens can jump from antibiotic-treated animals to humans, it's been notoriously difficult to prove. The obstacle is ethics: You wouldn't want to extract, say, antibiotic-resistant salmonella from a turkey and inject it into a person just to see what happens. The risk of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention politely calls "treatment failure," i.e., death, would be too great.

But this decades-old industry fig leaf is fraying fast. The latest: a gene-sequencing study from Denmark that documents two cases of the movement of MRSA, an often-deadly, antibiotic-resistant staph infection, from farm animals to people. The excellent "scary disease" reporter Maryn McKenna recently broke down the science in lucid detail:

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Is Your Workout Gear Ruining Farm Fields?

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In a glittering example of industry setting its sights on solving the great problems of humankind, you can now buy workout clothes spiked with "moisture-wicking" nano silver—microscopically tiny silver particles that kill bacteria and (as one company puts it) "help counter the formation of unpleasant sweaty odours."

But what are the consequences of our allegedly stench-free gym sessions? Before the apparel industry started spiking socks and even underwear with silver bits, you might assume the Environmental Protection Agency had thoroughly vetted the technology for unintended ecological consequences. Turns out, not.

In a new report, the Natural Resources Defense Council looks at the EPA's system for vetting new pesticides, a category that includes nano silver, since it exists to kill pesky bacteria. Result of NRDC's analysis: About 65 percent of the 16,000 pesticides legally in use made their way through the EPA without undergoing rigorous vetting for potential human and environmental harm, as they are required to under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The always-ahead ETC Group first sounded the alarm about nanotechnology a decade ago, in a 2003 report titled "The Big Down."

Not Just the Bees: Bayer's Pesticide May Harm Birds, Too

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Geese in a corn field

Once again this spring, farmers will begin planting at least 140 million acres—a land mass roughly equal to the combined footprints of California and Washington state—with seeds (mainly corn and soy) treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Commercial landscapers and home gardeners will get into the act, too—neonics are common in lawn and garden products. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know all of that is probably bad news for honeybees and other pollinators, as a growing body of research shows—including three studies released just ahead of last year's planting season.

But bees aren't the only iconic springtime creature threatened by the ubiquitous pesticide, whose biggest makers are the European giants Bayer and Syngenta. It turns out that birds are too, according to an alarming analysis co-authored by Pierre Mineau, a retired senior research scientist at Environment Canada (Canada's EPA), published by the American Bird Conservancy. And not just birds themselves, but also the water-borne insect species that serve as a major food source for birds, fish, and amphibians.

Tom's Kitchen: Raw Root-Veggie Slaw

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In most areas of the country, late March is one of those awkward times to shop at the farmers market. Glamorous spring vegetables like asparagus and artichokes aren't in yet; winter staples like beets, carrots, and radishes are still coming out, but you're starting to get bored of them. That's the exact situation now playing out in Central Texas, with the added annoyance that my favorite veggies of all, leafy greens, are already on the way out, laid low by the fast-warming weather.

Even so, I was able to coax a fresh, fun dish out of what was abundant at the farmers market: beets, kohlrabi (a bulbous relative of broccoli, cabbage, and the rest of the brassica family), carrots, and spring onions. What inspired me was a gadget that has been stuck on a low shelf of my kitchen, unused, for years: a mandoline. I had always thought of mandolines as fancy devices that I would never be able to afford. When my mom gave me this inexpensive, plastic Japanese-brand model as a gift a few years ago, I never got around to trying it out. As an experiment, I decided to subject my market bounty to its razor-sharp blades, and came away impressed: a zippy, crunchy salad that tasted like spring on a salad plate, not winter warmed over.

You can make a very similar, slightly less attractive salad by simply grating the veggies, or slicing them as thinly as possible. Use any combo of winter veggies—except, of course, for ones that really need to be cooked to be enjoyed, like potatoes. The combo I used brought together sweet (carrots), earthiness (beets), and spice (kohlrabi), as well as a great clash of colors. A radish or two would also have been nice. It's also important to brighten the dish with plenty of herbs—parsley and mint work great—as well as a tart dressing.

Hogwash: Big Ag's Ban on Caging Pregnant Pigs Is Just For Show

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Pregnant sows in gestastation crates at a Smithfield facility, 2010, documented by a Humane Society of the United States investigation.

Among all the various dodgy aspects of factory-style meat production, the use of tight cages to confine pregnant female pigs surely ranks among the most awful. The hog industry isn't keen on displaying this practice to the public, but in 2010, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) planted a camera-toting undercover investigator in a hog facility run by Smithfield Foods, the globe's largest hog producer and pork processor. You can read the report here, but you can't beat the video for sheer visceral effect:

In the wake of the exposé, Smithfield saw fit to recommit itself to phasing out the practice in its own hog-production facilities by 2017. (The company had made a similar pledge in 2007 and backed off from it in 2009, claiming that financial losses in its hog-production business made the capital investments necessary for the transition too expensive.) In 2012, its rival Hormel made a similar pledge; and Cargill, another massive pork processor and hog producer, says that it has already phased out gestation stalls in half of its hog facilities. A raft of high-profile companies that use pork in their products—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Oscar Mayer, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Denny's, Jack in the Box, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Sodexo, Sysco, ARAMARK, and Bon Appétit Management—have promised to stop buying from suppliers who treat pigs in this fashion. And no fewer than nine states have banned the practice, HSUS reports.

The states that have banned gestation crates do not include the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs.

So, gestation crates are on the way out, right? Well, maybe not. Consider that the states that have banned the practice do not include Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, or Illinois—the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs*. The ban on gestation crates in Rhode Island is a nice gesture, but not likely to move the industry. Given the power the meat industry wields in these hog-heavy states, it's hard to imagine such a ban in, say, Iowa.

Now check out this column by Rick Berman, a notorious PR hired gun whose past clients include Big Tobacco, in the industry trade journal Pork Network. If the piece is any indication of the pork industry's commitment to banning sow crates, then the practice seems pretty entrenched for the long haul. Berman is a battle-scarred veteran of pork-industry battles. During its nasty and ultimately failed fight to stave off unionization at its vast Tar Heel pork-processing facility, Smithfield hired Berman to roll out TV commercials trashing union leaders, Bloomberg reported last year. And Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom even runs a website dedicated to "Keeping a watchful eye on the Humane Society of the US."