Tom Philpott

Study: Organic Tomatoes Are Better for You

| Sat Feb. 23, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Remember that Stanford research meta-analysis purporting to show that organic food offers no real health advantages? (I poked some holes in it here). Buried in the study (I have a full copy but can't post it for copyright reasons) is the finding that organic foods tend to have higher levels of phenols—compounds, naturally occurring in plants, widely believed to fight cancer and other degenerative diseases.

After the study's release, one of the study's authors, Dena Bravata, downplayed that result in a New York Times report :

While the difference [in total phenol levels between organic and conventional produce] was statistically significant, the size of the difference varied widely from study to study, and the data was based on the testing of small numbers of samples. "I interpret that result with caution," Dr. Bravata said.

A paper published Feb. 20 in PLOS One highlighted the link between organic agriculture and phenols. A team of researchers compared total phenol content in organic and conventional tomatoes grown in nearby plots in Brazil. By cultivating the tomatoes in the same microclimate and in similar soil, the researchers were able to control for environmental factors that might otherwise affect nutrient content.

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9 out of 10 French Wines Contain Pesticides

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 7:01 AM EST
There's a place in France, where the pesticide molecules dance.

Oddly for someone who loves to cook and eat as much as I do, I have a reputation among friends as a bit of an appetite spoiler. When I'm not going on about various grotesque aspects of factory-farmed meat, I'm informing you of arsenic in apple juice and rice, or the knotty paradoxes of quinoa. What beloved foodstuff will I take on next? Well, be assured, this one pains me as much as anyone else: A recent study of French wine found 90 percent of samples contained traces of at least one pesticide, the wine trade journal Decanter reports.

King Corn Mowed Down 2 Million Acres of Grassland in 5 Years Flat

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Corn and soy fields are rapidly swallowing up grassland in the western corn belt.

In a post last year, I argued that to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows. The idea came from a paper by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil—enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent. In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality, grass-fed beef (which has a significantly healthier fat profile than the corn-finished stuff).

Turns out, farmers in the Midwest are doing just the opposite. Inspired by high crop prices driven up by the federal corn-ethanol program—as well as by federally subsidized crop insurance that mitigates their risk—farmers are expanding the vast carpet of corn and soy that covers the Midwest rather than retracting it. That's the message of a new paper (PDF) by South Dakota State University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Do GMO Crops Really Have Higher Yields?

| Wed Feb. 13, 2013 7:06 AM EST

According to the biotech industry, genetically modified (GM) crops are a boon to humanity because they allow farmers to "generate higher crop yields with fewer inputs," as the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) puts it on its web page.

Buoyed by such rhetoric, genetically modified seed giant Monsanto and its peers have managed to flood the corn, soybean, and cotton seed markets with two major traits: herbicide resistance and pesticide expression—giving plants the ability to, respectively, withstand regular lashings of particular herbicides and kill bugs with the toxic trait of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.

Turns out, though, that both assertions in BIO's statement are highly questionable. Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook has demonstrated that the net effect of GMOs in the United States has been an increase in use of toxic chemical inputs. Benbrook found that while the Bt trait has indeed allowed farmers to spray dramatically lower levels of insecticides, that effect has been more than outweighed the gusher of herbicides uncorked by Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology, as weeds have rapidly adapted resistance to regular doses of Monsanto's Rounup herbicide.

And in a new paper (PDF) funded by the US Department of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin researchers have essentially negated the "more food" argument as well. The researchers looked at data from UW test plots that compared crop yields from various varieties of hybrid corn, some genetically modified and some not, between 1990 and 2010. While some GM varieties delivered small yield gains, others did not. Several even showed lower yields than non-GM counterparts. With the exception of one commonly used trait—a Bt type designed to kill the European corn borer—the authors conclude, "we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects." Both the glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) and the Bt trait for corn rootworm caused yields to drop.

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a set of voluntary "guidelines" designed to nudge the meat industry to curb its antibiotics habit. Ever since, the agency has been mulling whether and how to implement the new program. Meanwhile, the meat industry has been merrily gorging away on antibiotics—and churning out meat rife with antibiotic-resistant pathogens—if the latest data from the FDA itself is any indication.

The Pew Charitable Trusts crunched the agency's numbers on antibiotic use on livestock farms and compared them to data on human use of antibiotics to treat illness, and mashed it all into an infographic, which I've excerpted below. Note that that while human antibiotic use has leveled off at below 8 billion pounds annually, livestock farms have been sucking in more and more of the drugs each year—and consumption reached a record nearly 29.9 billion pounds in 2011. To put it another way, the livestock industry is now consuming nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics used in the US, and its appetite for them is growing.

Pew Charitable Trusts.

In an email, a Pew spokesperson added that while  the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in total meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to the previous year, the FDA data show that antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period. That suggests that meat production might be getting more antibiotic-intensive.  

Not surprisingly, when you cram animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, the bacteria that live on and in the animals adapt and develop resistance to those bacteria killers. Pew crunched another new set of data, the FDA's latest release of results from its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, which buys samples of meat products and subjects them to testing for bacterial pathogens. Again, the results are sobering. Here a a few highlights pointed to by Pew in an email:

• Of the Salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures are up compared to 2010. 

• Nearly three-quarters of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic. About 12% of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with Salmonella.

• Resistance to tetracycline [an antibiotic] is up among Campylobacter on retail chicken. About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines. This reflects an increase over last year and 2002.

Takeaway: While the FDA dithers with voluntary approaches to regulation, the meat industry is feasting on antibiotics and sending out product tainted with antibiotic-resistant bugs.

Nearly Half of All US Farms Now Have Superweeds

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Last year's drought took a big bite out of the two most prodigious US crops, corn and soy. But it apparently didn't slow down the spread of weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), used on crops engineered by Monsanto to resist it. More than 70 percent of all the the corn, soy, and cotton grown in the US is now genetically modified to withstand glyphosate.

Back in 2011, such weeds were already spreading fast. "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Gallop Through Midwest," declared the headline of a post I wrote then. What's the word you use when an already-galloping horse speeds up? Because that's what's happening. Let's try this: "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Stampede Through Midwest."

That pretty much describes the situation last year, according to a new report from the agribusiness research consultancy Stratus. Since the 2010 growing season, the group has been polling "thousands of US farmers" across 31 states about herbicide resistance. Here's what they found in the 2012 season:

Superweeds: First they gallop, then they roar. Graph: Stratus

• Nearly half (49 percent) of all US farmers surveyed said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.
• Resistance is still worst in the South. For example, 92 percent of growers in Georgia said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds.
• But the mid-South and Midwest states are catching up. From 2011 to 2012 the acres with resistance almost doubled in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana.
• It's spreading at a faster pace each year: Total resistant acres increased by 25 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012.
• And the problem is getting more complicated. More and more farms have at least two resistant species on their farm. In 2010 that was just 12 percent of farms, but two short years later 27 percent had more than one.

So where do farmers go from here? Well, Monsanto and its peers would like them to try out "next generation" herbicide-resistant seeds—that is, crops engineered to resist not just Roundup, but also other, more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D and Dicamba. Trouble is, such an escalation in the chemical war on weeds will likely only lead to more prolific, and more super, superweeds, along with a sharp increase in herbicide use. That's the message of a peer-reviewed 2011 paper by a team of Penn State University researchers led by David A. Mortensen. (I discussed their paper in a post last year.)

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New Study: Common Pesticides Kill Frogs on Contact

| Sat Feb. 2, 2013 8:02 AM EST
Got insects?

To me, there are few more comforting sights on a farm or in a garden than a frog hopping about amid the crops. Frogs and other amphibians don't just look and sound cool—they also feast upon the insects that feast upon the plants we eat. These bug-scarfing creatures are a free source of what is known as biological pest control.

But modern industrial agriculture doesn't have much use for them. It leans on chemistry, not biology, to control pests—and in doing so, it's probably contributing to the catastrophic global decline of amphibians, a natural ally to farmers for millennia. The irony is stark: In industrial agriculture's zeal to wipe out pests, it is helping to wipe out those pests' natural predators. The latest evidence: a new study showing that exposure to common pesticides at levels used in farm fields can kill frogs rapidly.

For a decade or so, it has become increasingly clear that widely used herbicides like Syngenta's atrazine, in tiny amounts found in streams after running off from farm fields, do crazy things to the sexual development of frogs. Such "endocrine-disrupting chemicals" have what scientists call chronic, not acute, effects on amphibians—that is, they don't kill them outright, but they alter them profoundly—even change their gender. (See Dashka Slater's profile of a scientist who documented atrazine's impact on frogs, earning a backlash from Syngenta.) Monsanto's blockbuster herbicide Roundup also exerts subtle but important harm on amphibians, research suggests.

Again, this research focuses on what happens to amphibians when they encounter agricultural poisons at low levels in ponds and streams. But what happens when they are actually sprayed with chemicals in farm fields? That's where the new study, a recent peer-reviewed paper by a group of German and Swiss scientists, comes in. They write that the phenomenon of frogs experiencing direct contact with pesticides has been little-studied, even though the scenario is quite common on the ground—farmland has become one of the "the largest terrestrial biomes on Earth, occupying more than 40% of the land surface," and thus represents an "essential habitat for amphibians."

DOJ to Big Beer: We're Cutting You Off

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 7:03 PM EST
Cheers to the DOJ.

Like a drunk closing down a bar, beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn't know when to stop. That's the message of the Department of Justice's recent lawsuit to block A-B InBev's $20.1 billion takeover of Mexican beer giant Modelo, maker of the iconic (and, in my opinion, insipid) Corona brand, along with other popular brands like Pacifico, Negro Modelo, and Victoria. According to the DOJ's complaint (PDF), A-B InBev already controls 39 percent of the US beer market, rival MillerCoors owns 26 percent, and Modelo has 7 percent.

By the DOJ's reckoning, allowing A-B InBev and Modelo to combine would bring AB InBev's market share up to 46 percent, leaving two companies—A-B InBev and MillerCoors—with 72 percent of the beer market. That's about three of every four beers consumed in the United States.

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.

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.