Tom Philpott

My SXSW Eco Panel: the Future of Organic

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 8:20 PM PDT

For years, organic food has been among the fastest-growing segments in the US food market—which is exactly why mega-corporations like General Mills and Coca-cola have bought their way into it. Yet for all the growth and all the marketing heft brought to the table by these giants, organics still make up just 4 percent of US food sales. And in in the field, organic ag has even less of a toe-hold—of the 922 million acres of US farmland, just around 5 million acres are organic. Italy alone, barely larger than the state of Arizona, has 3 million acres under organic cultivation.

Is organic food bound to be just a niche market to be leveraged by big companies? Or does it organic ag present a big-picture, fundamental critique of the current food system—and can it expand out of its current niche?

I'll be discussing these meaty questions next week with some really smart people at the South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin, in a panel moderated by urban farmer and magazine editor Jason Mark of San Francisco's Alemany Farm and Earth Island Journal. Other panelists are  Erin Flynn of Austin's Green Gate Farm and Don Carr of the Environmental Working Group. The panel, called "Good Food: Turning Popularity into Power," takes place Thursday, Oct. 4 (details here). If you're in town, stop by.

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Does Monsanto Man Mitt Romney Secretly Eat Organic?

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Organic food? Not for you 47 percenters.

Mitt Romney hasn't divulged many details about what kind of agriculture policy he'd pursue as president. (Sound familiar?) But all signs suggest that he'd follow the agribiz party line. As Wayne Barrett showed in a recent Nation piece (my comment here), Romney has ties to agribusiness giant Monsanto that date to the '70s, when GMO seeds were an R&D project, not a business model. According to Barrett, Romney, then a young Bain consultant, helped nudge Monsanto on its path away from disgraced industrial chemical concern toward its current status as world-beating agribiz player. Then there's the agribiz execs and shills the GOP nominee tapped for his campaign's Agriculture Advisory Committee.

But guess what? In the privacy of his campaign jet, the beleaguered presidential contender apparently eats organic, reports the Today show's Peter Alexander:

Does GMO Corn Really Cause Tumors in Rats?

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Mammary tumors that developed in rats fed GMO corn and/or low levels of Roundup. Whether the feeding regimes can be said to have caused the tumors remains a matter of debate.

This week, a French research team published a paper in a peer-reviewed US journal showing that rats exposed to low doses of both genetically modified corn and the widely used herbicide Roundup had negative health effects. The results, already generating plenty of debate, are not as clear-cut as they seem at first glance. But they do shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat—and establish an urgent need for more long-term research.

Before I dig into the study's details, it's worth pondering what we know about the long-term effects of eating genetically modified foods. Surprisingly little, it turns out, given how ubiquitous they are in the US food supply. Genetically engineered seeds first hit commercial farm fields in 1996, and quickly became ubiquitous in the largest and most subsidized of US crops. Today, most non-organic US corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets are GMO—and combined, they provide a vast portion of the sweeteners, fats, and additives used by food manufacturers, and nearly all of the feed used by the meat industry.

Waiter, There's Arsenic in My Rice

| Wed Sep. 19, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
So simple, and yet so complicated

As I've reported before, the US poultry industry has a disturbing habit of feeding arsenic to chickens. Arsenic, it turns out, helps control a common bug that infects chicken meat, and also gives chicken flesh a pink hue, which the industry thinks consumers want. Is all that arsenic making it into our food supply? It appears to be doing so—both in chicken meat and in, of all things, rice. In a just released report, Consumer Reports says it found significant levels of arsenic in a variety of US rice products—including in brown rice and organic rice, and in rice-based kids' products like cereal and even baby formula. Driving the point home, CR's analysis of a major population study found that people who consume a serving of rice get a 44 percent spike in the arsenic level in their urine.

Rice is particularly effective at picking up arsenic from soil, CR reports, "in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains."

Arsenic, CR reports, is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a "group 1" carcinogen—meaning that it's among the globe's most potent cancer inducers. And getting regular exposure to even small amounts of it can be troubling. Here's CR:

 

"Pink Slime": Back, With a $1.2 Billion Lawsuit

| Sat Sep. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Lean, finely textured beef: Don't call it a comeback, it's been here for years.

When I wrote about a certain famous hamburger-meat filler last spring, I compared it to a "horror-film villain" that "takes a pounding but keeps coming back." It turned out that the travails of pink slime—I beg your pardon, I meant to say, "lean, finely textured beef"—were just starting. ABC News would soon discuss it at length in a series of reports. Big institutional customers stopped buying the stuff in droves, forcing one of its main makers, Beef Products International, to shut down three of its four plants. Things got so grim that BPI resorted to hauling out Rick Perry to defend it. That campaign went about as well as the Texas governor's presidential bid.

But now pink slime, or at least the company most associated with it, is back yet again, and with a vengeance. The Twitterverse is atwitter with news that BPI is launching a $1.2 billion defamation suit against ABC News and three whistleblowers—two federal employees and a former BPI worker —who spoke to the news network. ABC News is calling the suit "frivolous,"  AP reports, and that seems right. All ABC and the whistleblowers did was to describe in detail how the stuff is made. You can't convincingly blame the messenger because you don't like how the message went over with the public.

How Mitt Romney Helped Monsanto Take Over the World

| Fri Sep. 14, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Today, Monsanto looms over the global ag landscape like a colossus. It is the globe's largest seed purveyor—and its dominant vendor of genetically modified traits. How dominant? Here's NPR on the company's mastery over the US GMO market: "More than 9 out of 10 soybean seeds carry [Monsanto's] Roundup Ready trait. It's about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn." It also sells nearly $1 billion worth of herbicides every three months.

But for all its clout, Monsanto is a relatively new player in the Big Ag game. While fellow ag giants like ADM, Cargill, Bunge, and BASF have been in the game for a century or more, as recently as the late 1970s Monsanto was known mostly as a chemical company; herbicides were a relatively small sideline, and genetically modified seeds were just the gleam in the eye of a few scientists in the R&D department. And its flagship chemical business had plunged into crisis. In 1976, Congress banned the highly toxic industrial coolant PCB—the US production of which Monsanto had enjoyed what the Washington Post called a "lucrative four-decade monopoly." According to the Post, Monsanto had been actively covering up the dangers of PCB exposure for years before the ban, opening the company to a thicket of lawsuits. To make matters worse, the company had also been heavily invested in the toxic pesticide DDT (banned in 1972) and the infamous Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange—both of which carried their own legal and public-relations liabilities.  

How did Monsanto pivot from teetering, scandal-ridden chemical giant to mighty high-tech (though still quite controversial) agribiz firm? As the veteran investigative reporter (and Mother Jones contributor) Wayne Barrett shows in a new Nation article, a young consultant called Mitt Romney helped push the firm on its highly lucrative new path. Monsanto first tapped the consulting services of the Boston-based consulting firm Bain in 1973, the same year Bain launched. When Romney joined Bain fresh out of Harvard in 1977, he quickly began working with the ailing chemical firm. Here's Barrett:

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The Sugar and Alzheimer's Connection

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 10:10 AM PDT

Egged on by massive food-industry marketing budgets, Americans eat a lot of sugary foods. We know the habit is quite probably wrecking our bodies, triggering high rates of overweight and diabetes. Is it also wrecking our brains?

That's the disturbing conclusion emerging in a body of research linking Alzheimer's disease to insulin resistance—which is in turn linked to excess sweetener consumption. A blockbuster story in the Sept. 3 issue of the UK magazine The New Scientist teases out the connections.

Can Eating Your Veggies Save You From Cancer?

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

The American dietary habit of loading up on processed junk and cheap meat at the expense of fruits and vegetables may be doing more than making us put on too much weight. It also may be making us more susceptible to dying from cancer.

That's the implication of a new study from Washington State University researcher Gary Meadows, published in Cancer and Metastasis Reviews (abstract here). Meadows identified a gap in cancer research: Most studies focus either on preventing cancer altogether or treating the initial cancer tumor, he told WSU News. But cancer turns deadly when it spreads to other organs—that is, when it metastasizes—and little work had been done to understand genes that slow or halt metastasis, so-called metastasis-suppressor genes.

Debating Organics in The New York Times

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 12:47 PM PDT

The New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature is tricky: They give you a tiny amount of space (300 words) to opine on what typically is a huge and knotty problem. In the wake of the recent Stanford study on organics (which I commented on here), the Room for Debate folks invited me to weigh in on the question of whether organics are worth the money. Other participants include Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and veteran food-industry watchdog; Raj Patel author of Stuffed and Starved and a fierce critic of the corporate-dominated global food system; Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish writer who has made a career of, if not denying climate change, than comforting fossil fuel interests by arguing that climate change just isn't that big of a deal; and Christy Wilcox, a grad student in molecular biology and blogger for Scientific American whom I have sparred with before. Read our Room for Debate forum here. Enjoy!

5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Is organic food little more than a trumped-up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? A just-released paper by Stanford University researchers—and the reaction to it by the media—suggests as much. (Abstract here; I have a copy of the full study, but can't upload it for copyright reasons.)

"Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," declared a New York Times headline. "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests," announced CBS News. "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it's key reason consumers buy," the Washington Post grumbled.

In reality, though, the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what's known among academics as a "meta-analysis"—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn't meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.  

In another post I'll get to the question of nutritional benefits—the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks.