Tom Philpott

The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 7:01 AM EST
A farmer spreads synthetic nitrogen fertilizer on a field.

In a recent Nation piece, the wonderful Elizabeth Royte teased out the direct links between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the food supply. In short, extracting natural gas from rock formations by bombarding them with chemical-spiked fluid leaves behind fouled water—and that fouled water can make it into the crops and animals we eat.

But there's another, emerging food/fracking connection that few are aware of. US agriculture is highly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized in a process fueled by natural gas. As more and more of the US natural gas supply comes from fracking, more and more of the nitrogen fertilizer farmers use will come from fracked natural gas. If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.

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Saving the Ocean, One McBite at a Time?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 2:27 PM EST
McDonald's Filet o' Fish, since 2007 sourced from MSC-certified fisheries, will soon be getting a new eco-package.

Last week, the Twitternets were abuzz with news that McDonald's is going to (as @HuffPostFood put it) "serve all sustainable seafood" at its 14,000 US stores. Actually, as Associated Press reports, the fast-food giant has been sourcing exclusively from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) since 2007. What it announced this week was that the packaging on its Filet O' Fish sandwich—and that of a new product, Fish McBites—will soon be adorned with the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ecolabel.

So strip away the hype, and what you've got here is a packaging change and a product launch. Way to get scads of free publicity, McD's marketing team!

So how significant is that McDonald's is using MSC-certified fish? When MSC re-certified the Alaskan pollock fishery in 2010, one of the group's officials declared it, "one of the best managed fisheries in the world"—an assessment that's often bandied about. But Monterey Bay Aquarium's highly respected Seafood Watch program rates the fishery a "good alternative," one level below its highest sustainability accolade, "Best Choice." "Alaska Pollock populations are moderately healthy, but their numbers have been declining," MBA reports. "Alaska Pollock are now at their lowest levels in over 20 years." MBQ also notes that that while the fishing fleets that operate there use trawling gear that's designed not to damage the seafloor, "these midwater nets contact the seafloor an estimated 44% of the time—resulting in severe damage to seafloor habitats of the Bering Sea." MBA also notes possible bycatch concerns involving Chinook salmon.

And the UK-based MSC-based has come under criticism for being overly industry-friendly in the past—such as in 2010, when it certified a Danish company's Antarctic krill harvesting, prompting a Greenpeace campaigner to declare that MSC had given an "unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice." Similar outrage erupted that same year when MSC certified British Columbia's troubled sockeye salmon fishery.

All of that aside, McDonald's could be doing a hell of a lot worse than stuffing its fryers with fish rated a "good alternative" by Monterey Bay Aquarium. And exposing its millions of customers to the MSC label might inspire some of them to learn more about the plight of the oceans. Let's just hope that the Alasksan pollock fishery is robust enough to handle the Fish McBite, should that product take off.

Got the Blues? Eat More Kale

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 1:55 PM EST
Just another mood-altering substance?

Humans have long turned to substances—from beer to Prozac—to improve their outlook on life. But there's another possible remedy to the rigors of existence that doesn't get nearly as much attention: the green stuff that grows in the field, and I don't mean marijuana (though, hey, that might help, too). A new study (abstract) from Harvard researchers found a strong association between adults' levels of optimism and the amount of carotenoid antioxidants in their blood. Carotenoids are found in richly colored green and orange vegetables, including kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, and collard greens. The more servings of carotenoid-containing vegetables you eat, the results suggest, the brighter your outlook.

Of course, the researchers can't be sure that the association means a cause-and-effect relationship: It may just be that optimists are more likely to eat their veggies than pessimists, they emphasize. But unlike, say, Prozac, veggies' side effects are positive—for example, eating them improves life for the millions of beneficial microorganisms that live in our guts and keep us healthy.

If you're able to get your hands on some good product this weekend, here's a recipe for raw kale salad that may or may not brighten your outlook, but will taste really good.

Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 7:11 AM EST

"Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?," thunders the headline of a recent Guardian piece. Hard to say, but reality check: It isn't just vegans who enjoy quinoa. Like many occasional meat eaters I know, I've been eating it for years. Quinoa is also big among gluten-intolerant omnivores. So quinoa's truth—unpalatable or not—isn't just for its vegan fans to bear.

So what is going on with this long-time staple of the Andes and newly emerged favorite of health-minded US eaters?

The FAO has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

First, the good. Quinoa is the grain-like seed of a plant in the goosefoot family (other members include spinach, chard, and the wonderful edible weed lambs quarters), and its appeal is immense. Twenty years ago, NASA researchers sung its praises as potential astronaut chow, mainly for its superior nutrient density. No less an authority than the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization hails it as "the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten." The FAO is almost breathlessly enthusiastic about quinoa—it has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

And quinoa has generally been a success for the people who grow it. Unlike other southern-hemisphere commodities prized in the global north, like coffee and cocoa, quinoa, for the most part, isn't grown on big plantations owned by a powerful elite. A 2003 Rodale article describes its cultural place in the Andean highlands, an area that encompasses parts of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador:

Tom's Kitchen: Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs

| Sat Jan. 19, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Hmmm, ribs.

Braising—cooking something, usually meat, at low temperature in a covered pot with a little liquid—is a fundamental technique. Demanding a little preparation and a lot of patience, braising ever-so-slowly transforms tough, inexpensive cuts of meat into something sublime—and conveniently napped in its own luscious sauce (i.e., the cooking liquid). If you're a meat eater and you haven't braised before, now is the time. It's not something you'll be tempted to do in the summer.

I got the braising bug recently through the confluence of two factors: a cold snap here in Austin and the arrival of an advanced copy of Michael Pollan's new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, due out in April. I'll have more to say about it soon—expect a review around publication date—but let it suffice to say for now that it contains an entire, very evocative chapter on the act of slow cooking meat in a little liquid.

Pollan's prose made me crave the smell of beef, mirepoix vegetables—onions, carrots, and celery—and red wine gurgling gently on the stovetop. That is the essence of a French-style braise—you can also use the flavor palates of other cuisines. (In fact, for a Tom's Kitchen last year, I braised pork ribs in a Mexican-style chile-pepper sauce; and you could certainly do the same for beef ribs.)

To me, the most attractive candidates for the braising pot are tough, bone-in cuts like ribs. Tough cuts are tough because they're full of collagen, and braising works by melting the collagen into gelatin, giving rise to fork-tender meat. And bones are good because they enrich the cooking liquid, essentially turning it into a full-bodied sauce. The result is supposedly really good for you—the radical whole-foods group Weston A. Price Foundation ascribes great nutritional value to bone-enriched stocks:

Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.

Braises tend to taste even better the the day after cooking, but there's another reason to cook beef short ribs a day in advance: if you can let the cooking liquid cool overnight, the fat can be easily skimmed away. Beef ribs are a fatty cut, and too much fat in the final sauce makes the dish overrich. You can also serve them the same day—just carefully skim the cooking liquid of fat before reducing it in the recipe's final step.

Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs
Serves 4, with a little leftover

Olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 pounds beef short ribs from grass-fed cows
1 large onion, diced (here's a great video for a simple, effective onion-dicing technique)
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 bottle inexpensive but drinkable red wine, preferably not aged in oak
1 bay leaf, plus some fresh or dried thyme

Pat the beef ribs dry with a towel, and liberally season them with salt and pepper on all sides. Place a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or a brazier (a shallow version of a Dutch oven) over medium heat, and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. When it's hot, brown the ribs on all sides. Be patient and allow for a nice caramelization—it will add big flavor to the dish.

Remove the ribs to a plate and add the diced veggies to the pot. Saute them, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until they're very soft. As you stir, try to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan into the sizzling veggies. If they the veggies to scorch before they've turned soft, turn the heat down a bit.

Wine + mirepoix veggies = magic

Now add the wine and herbs and turn the heat to high. Again, stir with a wooden spoon, liberating any brown bits that might still be clinging to the bottom. Bring to a boil, and let the wine reduce by about a third. Now turn the heat to the lowest setting on your stovetop, and place the ribs, bone side down, along with any juices that have accumulated under them, into the pot. Cover and let them simmer gently, checking every half an hour or so, until the meat is very tender (a butter knife should easily penetrate it). This will take about three hours.

Remove the cooked ribs to a plate, and pour the cooking liquid into a wide-mouthed jar. Cover both and store in the fridge overnight. Clean the pot. The next day, about an hour before you plan to eat,, skim the hardened fat from the top of the cooking liquid, and then dump the cooking liquid into the cooking pot. (Actually, the "liquid" may retain the shape of the jar—the gelatin from the bones will have given it considerable body.) Turn the heat to medium to melt the liquid. When it is fully melted, turn the heat to high and let it boil until it has reduced by about half. Taste for salt and pepper. Turn heat to low, and return the ribs, bone side down, to the pot. Cover, and let them simmer gently until heated through. Serve the ribs napped in their sauce, with a hearty seasonal vegetable, such as roasted turnips, as well as something green, like sauteed kale.

Coke: Wait, People Thought Vitaminwater Was Good for You?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST

In light of Coca-Cola's much-discussed attempt to place itself at the vanguard in the fight against obesity—see video above—it's worth taking look at its line of "enhanced waters," known as Glacéau vitaminwater. You could be forgiven for thinking the product is a life-giving nectar. The made-up word Glacéau evokes the purity of glaciers. Vitamins are essential nutrients. And water is an unimpeachable ingredient.

Coca-Cola's marketing encourages the healthy image. According vitaminwater's website, the Power -C flavor of vitaminwater delivers "zinc and vitamin C to power your immune system"; while the XXX offers "antioxidant vitamins to help fight free radicals and help support your body." And so on.  

But not everyone's convinced that vitaminwater does a body good. Back in 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola for making "deceptive and unsubstantiated" health claims about the products. In 2010, a US federal district court judge rejected Coca-Cola's motion to dismiss the suit (document here), noting that Coke's lawyers had made a remarkable argument: "At oral argument defendants suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."

In other words, no one actually believes our flashy marketing—it's obviously nonsense. The vitaminwater suit still hasn't been resolved, a CSPI spokesperson informed me. And hilarity over Coca-Cola's cynical defense strategy is ongoing, too. Stephen Colbert spoofed it just this week:

 

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Vitaminwater Advertising Lawsuit
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

 

And I think Coke's obesity campaign should be read in the same light: No consumer should be misled into thinking that the sugary-beverage giant (its heavily marketed array of "diet" products nothwithstanding) has been transformed into an obesity-fighting machine. Or, as New York University dietician Marion Nestle put it on her Food Politcs blog, "Coca-Cola fights obesity? Oh, please."

Just for fun, I checked out the ingredients of "orange-orange"-flavored vitaminwater, which are remarkably similar to the other 11 flavors (also listed in that link). Here they are :

Reverse osmosis water, crystalline fructose, cane sugar, less than 0.5% of: citric acid, magnesiumlactate and calcium lactate and potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), gum acacia, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin E (alpha-tocopheryl acetate), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), glycerol ester of rosin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12, beta-carotene, modified food starch, sorbitol.

So, it contains less than 0.5 percent of a whole list of stuff (none of which has anything to do with this particular flavor's namesake fruit, the orange), and thus at least 99.5 percent water, crystalline fructose, and sugar. Crystalline fructose, it turns out, is an even more processed version of high-fructose corn syrup—it provides a pure jolt of fructose. "Cane sugar" is about half fructose and half glucose. There's a growing body of literature, described ably by Gary Taubes in his 2011 New York Times Magazine piece "Is Sugar Toxic," suggesting that refined sweeteners, and in particular their fructose component, are driving a range of health problems including diabetes. Recently, UCLA researchers have found evidence that "a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning." And then there's the emerging suspicion that diets high in refined sweeteners can trigger Alzheimer's disease. In a 2012 Mother Jones piece, Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens showed how the sugar industry has worked hard over the decades to suppress and downplay such research.

So what Coke is passing off as "enhanced water" is mostly just sugar water; or as CSPI has put it, "vitamins + water + sugar + hype = soda - bubbles." Granted, there's less sugar in vitaminwater (19 grams per 12 oz.) than in, say, Coca-Cola classic (39 grams per 12 oz.). But it's still pretty sugary.

Coke charges about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for Coca-Cola Classic."

What about the other 0.5 percent of vitaminwater—the vitamin part? It includes electrolytes—the stuff found in sports drinks. It turns out that electrolyte-laden drinks are mostly hype. As for all those vitamins, there's little or no evidence that vitamin supplements do much to improve health. "We have an enormous body of data telling us that plant-rich diets are very healthy," Josephine Briggs, head of the National Institute of of Health's  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. "As soon as we take these various antioxidants [and other nutrients] out and put them in a pill, we're not consistently getting a benefit."

In other words, you're much better off getting your vitamins from whole foods than from sugary drinks.

What, then, is vitaminwater good for? Well, it does seem to provide good profit margins for its maker. At Staples, you can pick up an assorted 12-pack of assorted 20-oz. vitaminwaters for $19.99. That's about 8 cents per ounce. Another form of Coca-Cola-produced sugar water, Coca-Cola Classic, fetches $11.99 for a 24-pack of 12-oz. cans at Staples. That's about 4 cents per oz. So Coke gets about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for its flagship product.

Say what you want about Coke's marketing of vitaminwater and its anti-obesity rhetoric, but its business sense is impeccable.

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Enviro Crusader Turns Pro-GMO, Anti-Organic—And Anti-Logic

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Mark Lynas at Oxford: "I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished."

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a prominent UK environmentalist and author, delivered a blunt attack (text here; video below the fold) on critics of agricultural biotechnology at a farming conference at Oxford University. Reviewing the development of his opinions on GMOs, Lynas reports that back in the '90s, he had an instant emotional reaction against them. He saw the situation like this: "Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us." And so he "helped to start the anti-GM movement," and "spent several years ripping up GM crops." Then, in the process of researching climate change, he "discovered science"; and soon after, he reports, he "discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," which he goes on to list.

Lynas is quite correct that the backlash against GMOs is often clouded by emotion. He points out that even today, certain GMO critics murmur darkly about Monsanto's "terminator" seeds, designed to produce sterile offspring so farmers can't replant saved seeds. Actually, Monsanto itself swore off ever using the terminator trait back in 1999, declaring it shared "many of the concerns of small landholder farmers" who opposed it. The GMO seed industry protects its traits through patents and contracts, not genetics.

But he veers off course by portraying such fringe critics of GMOs as the driving force of an "anti-science movement" to block the novel technology. He dismisses the idea that reasonable people might disagree about the merits of GMOs. "[M]y conclusion here today is very clear," he declares. "The GM debate is over. It is finished."

For Lynas, GM technology now represents the height of rationality applied to agriculture, while organic represents the opposite:

If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.

For me, despite its merits as a corrective to knee-jerk GMO opposition, Lynas' speech reads like a rant: an attempt not to spark conversation and debate, but rather to end it. If you agree with him, you are pro-science and guided by reason; if you disagree, you are anti-science and (as he puts it) "blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past."

"Any scientists working for the Union of Concerned Scientists leave their credentials at the door," charged Lynas.

I found plenty to argue with in Lynas' depiction of organic ag and whether we need GMOs to "feed the world"—here's my take on that—but beyond the novelty of the very public conversion of a former anti-GM campaigner, I didn't find much to chew on in the speech, even though it inspired glowing coverage from the likes of The Economist, the veteran climate reporter Andy Revkin, The New Yorker's Michael Specter, and Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Swaddling himself in the rubric of science, Lynas came off to me in his speech as a curiously unscientific thinker—someone who once spouted dogmatic certainties against GMOs and now spouts them in favor. I have no problem with changes in mind; but lack of nuance and bullheaded self-assuredness are always tedious, no matter what view one is espousing.

Why the Government Should Pay Farmers to Plant Cover Crops

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Drought-stunted wheat in Texas, 2011.

Globally, 2012 will likely rank as one of the ten hottest in recorded history, The New York Times reports. If it does, "it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed." Here in the US, last year was far and away the hottest ever on record. In other words, climate change is no longer a theory or a model or an abstract worry involving future generations. It's happening, now—and if you want to see its likely effect on farming, look at the breadbasket state of Kansas, where the same prolonged drought that reduced corn and soy yields is now pinching the winter wheat crop, as I wrote a few days ago. On Wednesday, the UDSA declared much of the wheat belt a disaster area because of the drought's effect on the crop.

What would a farming system designed to meet the challenge of climate change look like? US policymakers have bought themselves time to consider that question. Since the Great Depression, US farm policy has been governed by five-year plans known as farm bills, which shape the agricultural landscape through a set of government-funded incentive programs. The previous farm bill expired last year, and Congress failed to come up with a new one, instead patching a one-year, modified extension of the old one to the fiscal cliff deal. That means 2013 will be another farm bill year; another opportunity to come up with climate-ready farm policy.

Ozone From Biofuel Farms Could Cause Thousands of Deaths a Year

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 4:35 PM EST
A eucalyptus plantation in Thailand.

Biofuels have a variety of drawbacks. They jack up the price of food, making life hell for the urban poor in the global south, while also pushing small-scale farmers off of land and into misery, as I wrote yesterday. They may contribute to, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions, because they provide incentives to plow up carbon-trapping old forests.

Turns out they can also make you sick. Certain fast-growing trees used for biofuels in Europe can also "increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, resulting in millions of tonnes in crop losses and an additional 1,385 deaths per year," reports Climate News Network, teasing out the results of a recent study (abstract here) by a UK research team published in Nature Climate Change. The ozone in the upper atmosphere is a good thing—it "filters out dangerous ultra-violet sunlight." But at ground level, ozone is a "toxic irritant" that makes people wheeze and can be life-threatening for vulnerable populations. When it wafts into fields where crops are grown, ground-level ozone also "causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined," the US Department of Agriculture reports

The authors offer a few solutions to mitigate the problems they identify:

The Lancaster team suggest that the unwelcome consequences could be mitigated by the choice of coppice trees genetically engineered to reduce isoprene emissions—one genetically modified poplar has already been tested under laboratory conditions—or by the choice of other biofuel crops such as grasses, or by shifting biofuel production away from densely populated areas and highly productive cereal land.

I have another suggestion: Use farmland to grow food, and focus energy policy on techniques that benefit the environment: conservation, efficiency, and green technologies like wind and solar.

What Does Biofuel Have to Do With the Price of Tortillas in Guatemala?

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Corn gushes from the back of a truck into an ethanol plant in Iowa.

I used to write about biofuels a lot. The idea of devoting large swaths of prime farmland and annual gushers of agrichemicals to grow "fuel" crops—not to be eaten but to be set aflame in automobile engines—struck me as so nakedly stupid, so willfully ignorant, that surely pointing it out could help change policy. And so point it out I did, in dozens of blog posts and articles per year starting in 2006. (Here, here, here, here, and here are a few highlights). But the US and EU governments brushed off my verbal assault, maintaining their escalating biofuel mandates. Long about 2011, I realized that some blogger's crusade was never going to affect policy, so I largely stopped writing about the topic out of discouragement and, yes, boredom.

Elisabeth Rosenthal's excellent New York Times article on the effect of US/EU biofuel policy in Guatemala has knocked me out of my torpor. Rosenthal lucidly explains the double pinch the biofuel craze puts on citizens of developing nations. For urban residents, the US biofuel mandates—now sending 40 percent of the US corn crop into ethanol production—are pushing up the price of corn, a staple food in Guatemala. Rosenthal points to an Iowa State University study estimating that US biofuel policy added about 17 percent to global corn prices in 2011—bad news for people who rely on tortillas as a staple. "Just three years ago, one quetzal—about 15 cents—bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four. And eggs have tripled in price because chickens eat corn feed," she writes. The result is dire: