Tom Philpott

2 Surprising Reasons Why Japan Won't Stop Hunting Whales

| Wed Dec. 16, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Japan just started hunting minke whales again, like this adult minke pictured here.

Japan is dead set on hunting whales—international critics be damned. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ordered the country to stop hunting whales. But at the beginning of this month, Japan announced it would send a small whaling fleet into the Antarctic Ocean to kill 333 minke whales under the guise of a scientific program.

As you can imagine, the announcement inspired swift condemnation. "We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called 'scientific research,'" thundered Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt. "Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat resulting from its so-called scientific whaling programme ends up on the plate," the BBC reports.

"Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat resulting from its so-called scientific whaling program ends up on the plate."

And yet Japanese consumers aren't exactly clamoring for whale meat. As Wired's Sarah Zhang recently pointed out, whale meat was only that popular across the island nation during a short period following World War II. Nowadays, consumption stands at 4,000 to 5,000 tons annually. That may sound like a lot—until you consider that the nation consumes about 600 million tons of total seafood each year, meaning meat from the charismatic sea mammals occupy a vanishingly small place on the nation's dinner plate.

What's more, Japan's whaling program is miniscule. According to the American Cetacean Society, the global population of minke whales stands at more than 1 million. The BBC reports that Japan has harvested 3,600 minkes since launching its current "scientific" program in 2005. As rotten as it is to envision 333 more being added to the carnage, Japan's controversial harvest isn't likely to result in a major shift in the minke's fate. Norwegian whalers also hunt minkes, with a quota of roughly 1,000 a year, as do the Icelandic.


So why does the Japanese government insist on scandalizing the globe's whale protection activists by maintaining a whaling habit, albeit a tiny one? As Keiko Hirata, a political scientist at California State University-Northridge, notes in a paper, Japan is typically quite cooperative in global environmental efforts. Indeed, the country was an original signee of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curtail global climate change. The United States, by contrast, upholds impeccable anti-whaling policies, but its refusal to sign the Kyoto pact essentially derailed that effort. Japan also participated in the successful global effort to curb the use of ozone-damaging chemicals.

Hirata attributes Japan's pro-whaling anomaly to two factors. The first is cultural. Unlike Americans, Japanese people don't tend to see whales as charismatic mammals that should be protected from human consumption by a universal taboo. Hirata points out that in Japanese, "the symbol for whale (pronounced kujira) includes within it a component that means fish." Since whales are considered just a really big fish, she writes, "most Japanese lack any special love of whales and disagree with Western animal rights activists who insists on whales' rights." Sanctimony about whales translates as cultural prejudice:

To the Japanese, it is hypocritical that Westerners consider it morally wrong to kill certain mammals such as whales but that they consider it acceptable to kill others such as kangaroos (in Australia) and baby cattle (in the United States).

The second factor is political, she writes. Japan's whaling efforts are overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, which operates under very little domestic political pressure to end Japan's whaling program. Maintaining it in the face of global condemnation, she writes, is about maintaining political turf. "Given intense inter-ministerial rivalries in Japan," she writes, "it is not likely that these bureaucratic actors would voluntarily concede one of their areas of jurisdiction." In short, if the whaling program ended, certain officials would find themselves out of work.

Because of these factors, "Japan is unlikely to change its pro-whaling stance in the near-to-medium term, barring any major unforeseen event," she concludes.

Lamentable as the stance is, at least global accords have hemmed in Japan's whaling ambitions to a small effort targeting the minke, which is not currently endangered. If only that were true of the bluefin tuna—an endangered species for which Japanese eaters maintain a voracious appetite.

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Move Over, Monsanto: The Pesticide and GMO Seed Industry Just Spawned a New Behemoth

| Mon Dec. 14, 2015 7:06 PM EST

US chemical titans Dow and DuPont have agreed to a $130 billion merger. Once combined, DowDuPont (as it will be known) intends to split into three parts, including one devoted solely to agriculture. The announcement likely triggered corner office gasps in Basel, Switzerland, and in St. Louis, Missouri—hometowns of the globe's two-largest pesticide and seed companies, Syngenta and Monsanto. That's because Dow and DuPont are both sprawling conglomerates that contain massive ag divisions. Combining them into a "leading global pure-play Agriculture company" (as the companies' press release puts it) will create a gargantuan new rival for those market-leading agribusiness titans.

To highlight the gravity of the deal, here's a snapshot of the industry's pre-merger position. After waves of mergers and buyouts in the '90s and early '00s—coinciding with the emergence of genetically modified seeds—the global seed landscape shook out like this:

The companies that rose to dominate the space—Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont—also sold pesticides, and lots of them. While these giant chemical companies' rationale for moving into GM seeds was to diversify away from reliance on peddling bug- and weed-killing chemicals, the two business lines always had a certain synergy. That's because the era's blockbuster GM trait was herbicide resistance—the companies engineered corn, soybean, and cotton varieties that could thrive even when they're doused with these companies' own branded herbicides. The rapid adoption of these crops gave rise to a plague of herbicide-resistant weeds, a boom in herbicide use, and a new iteration of crops, including ones from Monsanto and Dow, engineered to resist multiple herbicides.

Earlier this year, Monsanto made a bold, sustained push to buy out its rival Syngenta. The combined company would have been truly enormous, controlling something approaching a third of both the seed and pesticide markets (see charts here). Syngenta's management ultimately fought off the bid in August, but rumors of coming mergers and buyouts in the agribiz sector have swirled ever since. With the Dow-DuPont deal, those prophecies have proven thunderously true. The new firm will mash up DuPont's seed heft with Dow's fat share of the pesticide market. Let's call it DowDuPont Agri. Here's a sketch of its girth, made by crunching numbers in the above charts. Antitrust regulators may shave the final company a bit—DuPont and Dow both sell corn seeds, for example, and there is speculation that Dow's relatively small corn seed business might have to be sold off.

Note that in this scenario, the same three mega firms—Monsanto, Syngenta, and DowDuPont Agri—will control more than half the global seed market and nearly half the pesticide market. The GMO seed industry once vowed to wean industrial agriculture off its reliance on pesticides. But as I wrote in May, when the globe's biggest seed company (Monsanto) was hotly pursuing marriage with the globe's biggest pesticide maker (Syngenta), the industry now appears to be betting big on a pesticide-soaked future.

And the new company will likely—unless antitrust authorities make it sell off overlapping business segments—emerge as a bigger seed and agrichemical player than the two that currently stand atop the market.

But I may soon have to rev up Datawrapper again and redo those charts. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the DuPont-Dow tie-up could "spur agricultural rivals to forge their own partnerships, further shrinking the handful of companies that dominate the global seed and pesticide business." As recently as mid-November, Monsanto execs were publicly contemplating another bid for Syngenta, and some prominent Syngenta shareholders are pushing the company to reconsider its refusal to merge with Monsanto in the wake of the new merger, the Journal reported last week. "The synergies in terms of costs, distribution, and R&D would create huge value for shareholders and establish a dominance that would be difficult for any competitor, including a Dow/DuPont, to rival," one fund manager whose firm owns Syngenta stock told the Journal. But the hottest Syngenta takeover rumor involves not the Swiss company's US competitor, but rather China National Chemical Corp., or ChemChina, a vast state-owned enterprise.

There's also talk of Monsanto making a play for the agrichemicials division of German chemical giant BASF, which owns a juicy 12 percent of the global pesticide market (see chart above). In the wake of the Dow-DuPont merger, I am left to wonder: What new, yet even more massive beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward our corn fields to be born?

We're Eating Less Meat—But Using More Antibiotics on Farms Than Ever

| Fri Dec. 11, 2015 7:00 AM EST

The meat industry's massive appetite for antibiotics just keeps growing. That's the takeaway from the Food and Drug Administration's latest annual assessment of the issue, which found that agricultural use of "medically important" antibiotics—the ones that are prescribed to people when they fall ill—grew a startling 23 percent between 2009 and 2014. Over the same period, the total number of cows and pigs raised on US farms actually fell a bit, and the number of chickens held steady. What that's telling us is that US meat production got dramatically more antibiotic-dependent over that period.

Even more disheartening, medically important antibiotic use crept up 3 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year—despite the FDA's effort to convince the industry to voluntarily ramp down reliance on such crucial medicines. True, the FDA's policy, which was first released in 2012, contained a "three-year time frame for voluntary phase-in." One might have hoped, however, that by 2014, the needle would point downward, not implacably upward.

Note, too, that the last time the FDA saw fit to release numbers on human antibiotic use, in 2011, the total stood at about 3.3 million kilograms. The chart below tells us that farms now use nearly 9.5 million kilograms—nearly three times as much. The news comes in the wake of warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the meat industry's drug habit contributes to a growing crisis in antibiotic-resistant pathogens that kill 23,000 people each year in the United States and 700,000 globally. Then there was the recent news that in China—which has patterned its meat industry on the antibiotic-ravenous US model—a strain of E. coli had evolved on hog farms that can resist a potent antibiotic called colistin, considered a last resort for pathogens that can resist all other drugs.

Here are the numbers:


The King of Beers Wants to Push Craft Brews out of Your Supermarket

| Wed Dec. 9, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Pity Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian-owned behemoth responsible for such beloved US beers as Budweiser, Bud Light, and Michelob Ultra. When InBev bought US beer giant Anheuser-Busch back in 2008, the company accounted for 49 percent of the US beer market, the Wall Street Journal reported. Since then, its US market share has dipped to 45 percent. Since 2005, sales of its big domestic brands like Bud have dropped 5.7 percent, even as craft-beer sales have rocketed up 173.6 percent. What's a transnational, industrial-scale maker of flavor-light, marketing-heavy brews to do?

Distributors whose beer sales are 98 percent InBev brands can get as much as $1.5 million in rebates—as long as they don't also sell some popular craft brews as well.

The answer, according to the Journal: use its still-formidable US market heft to squeeze out those fast-growing craft-beer makers. Understanding AB InBev's maneuver requires a bit of background. After Prohibition, the US government sought to limit the market power of brewers by imposing a three-tiered system on the industry. One set of firms would brew beer; another set would distribute it; and a third would retail it, either in bars or carryout stores. Much of that old regime has broken down—in many states, for example, small brewers can sell directly to the public through brewpubs. But in most states, distributors—the companies that move beer from breweries and stock retail outlets' shelves and bars' taps and bottle offerings—can't be owned directly by brewers. 

To get around that restriction, megabrewers have for decades sought more or less exclusive agreements with nominally independent distributors. Today, the US beer market is dominated by AB InBev and rival MillerCoors, which together own about 80 percent of the market. Independent craft brewers account for 11 percent of the US market—and that's growing rapidly, even though crafts tend to retail for $8 to $10 per six-pack, versus about $6 for conventional beers. Most distributors sell either InBev or MillerCoors brands as their bread and butter, the Journal reports, plus a smattering of independent craft brews. That's why in supermarket beer coolers these days you'll typically find a few national craft brews like Sierra Nevada, along with maybe a few local favorites, after you walk past towering stacks of Bud and Miller six-packs.

So AB InBev has launched what The Wall Street Journal calls a "new plan to reverse declining volumes" in the United States by offering sweet incentives for company-aligned distributors to restrict sales of craft beers and push more Bud Light and whatnot. Get this, from the Journal:

The world's largest brewer last month introduced a new incentive program that could offer some independent distributors in the U.S. annual reimbursements of as much as $1.5 million if 98% of the beers they sell are AB InBev brands, according to two distributors who requested confidentiality because they were asked not to discuss the plan. Distributors whose sales volumes are 95% made up of AB InBev brands would be eligible to have the brewer cover as much as half of their contractual marketing support for those brands, which includes retail promotion and display costs. AB InBev, which introduced the plan at a meeting of distributors in St. Louis, estimates participating distributors would receive an average annual benefit of $200,000 each.

One distributor has already dropped a craft brewer in favor of InBev's incentive program.

The beer giant plans to devote big bucks to the scheme—about $150 million next year, as part of a "three-year plan to restore growth in AB InBev's most profitable market," the United States, the Journal reports. 

And beyond pushing up the percentage of AB InBev products in the mix, the incentive plans place another restriction on the distributors who choose to take advantage of the offers: They can only carry craft brewers that produce less than 15,000 barrels or sell beer only in one state.
 Such a provision would put a hard squeeze on excellent, relatively large craft brewers like San Diego's Stone, Northern California's Sierra Nevada, and Colorado's Oskar Blues. InBev's new program is already having an impact, the Journal reports.

At least one distributor has dropped a craft brewer as a result of the incentive program. Deschutes Brewery President Michael Lalonde said Grey Eagle Distributing of St. Louis last week decided it will drop the Oregon brewery behind Mirror Pond Pale Ale because it "had to make a choice to go with the incentive program or stay with craft."

All of this raises the question: Under US antitrust law, can a giant company legally throw around its weight like that? The answer may well be yes. Ricardo Melo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of sales strategy and wholesaler development, stressed to the Journal that the incentive program is voluntary—that is, distributors are free to decline the extra support and continue stocking as many craft brands as they want. But apparently, the company doesn't think many distributors will turn down such a sweet deal. Currently, the Journal reports, just 38 percent of AB InBev-aligned distributors participate in the company's incentive programs. The company "aims to double participation in three years behind the new rewards plan," the article adds.

This Scientist Uncovered Problems With Pesticides. Then the Government Started to Make His Life Miserable.

| Fri Dec. 4, 2015 7:00 AM EST
USDA researcher Jonathan Lundgren, in his lab

Until fairly recently, Jonathan Lundgren enjoyed a stellar career as a government scientist. An entomologist who studies how agrichemicals affect the ecology of farm fields, he has published nearly 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals since starting at the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2005. By 2012, he had won the ARS's "Outstanding Early Career Research Scientist" award, and directorship of his own lab.

USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren has "gone from golden boy to public enemy No. 1," says the head of the group representing him.

But recently, things have changed. His work has "triggered an official campaign of harassment, hindrance, and retaliation" from his superiors, Lundgren alleged in an official complaint filed with USDA scientific integrity authorities last year. Lundgren made the battle with his USDA superiors public in October, two months after the agency imposed a 14-day without-pay suspension on him. The charges—laid out in a August 3 letter to Lundgren by John McMurtry, associate director of the ARS's Plains Area—centered on infractions regarding a trip to the East Coast to present research, and a failure to get proper clearance from his superiors before submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal.

Lundgren, who is currently not authorized to speak to the media, has released a detailed rebuttal of those charges in a document put together by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is representing him in the dispute.

But there's no doubting his knack for conducting research that raises troubling questions about some of the agrichemical industry's most lucrative existing products and promising future ones. "He's gone from golden boy to public enemy No. 1," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.

Before digging into the details of Lundgren's alleged infractions and punishment, it's worth having a look at Lundgren's recent research, which, Ruch says, led him "off the reservation" and into a world of "disciplinary disco."

In his August 3 letter announcing Lundgren's two-week suspension, the ARS's McMurtry declared two topics of Lundgren's research to be "sensitive"—meaning, he writes, subjects that agency scientists can't publish or speak to media about without "prior approval at the Area and National Program levels."

It's abundantly clear that many of Lundgren's findings don't jibe with industry interests.

Now, it's unclear exactly what makes a topic "sensitive." Weeks ago, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service's press office told me that he would look up the agency's formal criteria for sensitivity and divulge it to me. Since then, he has repeatedly declined to answer the question. But it's abundantly clear that many of Lundgren's findings don't jibe with industry interests.

Take neonicotinoids, the globe's most widely used class of insecticides with annual sales of about $2.6 billion. In a peer-reviewed 2015 paper co-authored with a South Dakota State University professor—the one the ARS accuses him of submitting for publication without proper internal approval—Lundgren found that one common neonic, clothianidin, marketed by Bayer, harms monarch butterflies at levels commonly found in Midwestern milkweed plants, the endangered insect's habitat and food source. In a 2011 study, Lundgren and his team found that another one, Syngenta's thiamethoxam, didn't do much at all to protect soybeans from its target, crop-eating aphids, but did significantly reduce populations of insects that eat aphids.

Then there's Lundgren's work on RNA interference, an emerging insecticidal technology that promises to kill targeted insects and weeds by silencing genes crucial to their survival, leaving everything else unaffected. GM seed/agrichemical giant Monsanto has placed great hope in RNAi, as this novel genetic technology is known. In a 2013 paper, Lundgren and USDA colleague Jian Duan noted that the great bulk of the research done on RNAi involves using the technology for human medicine, not to kill specific insects. They also challenged the claim that the technology can target particular pests and leave everything else in the ecosystem alone, and concluded that it's "largely unknown" how long the RNAi pesticide material would persist in the environment. In 2014, Lundgren served on a panel of independent scientists convened by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the technology's risks. The scientists' report echoed the assessment of Lundgren's paper.

As Monsanto's new technology makes its way through the regulatory system, the questions raised by Lundgren are slowing it down. In late October, the USDA quietly greenlighted Monsanto's RNAi-engineered corn strain designed to kill an insect called the corn rootworm—the first RNAi pesticide product the agency has approved. Because of the odd system the United States uses to regulate new GM crops (explained here and here), the USDA review process doesn't directly assess the possible impacts that novel pesticides might have on ecosystems, the topic of Lundgren's research.

That task falls to the Environmental Protection Agency—and the EPA appears to be taking the questions raised by Lundgren quite seriously. Days after the USDA gave Monsanto's new corn the thumbs-up, the EPA granted it only "limited registration," which does not allow commercial sale and distribution of the novel corn or its seed. The EPA would not comment on why it declined to fully register the product.

Meanwhile, the USDA declined my request to interview Lundgren on RNAi pesticides in the context of the recent regulatory decisions regarding Monsanto's corn. "I'm sorry, but Dr. Lundgren is not available for media opportunities at this time," an ARS spokeswoman told me, after stringing me along for three days.

All of which brings us back to the substance of Lundgren's dispute with his USDA superiors over violations of travel and publication protocol. According to PEER's Ruch, both incidents involve the USDA enforcing rules in an extraordinarily exacting standard.

The travel controversy involved a two-stop East Coast trip that Lundgren took in March, to appear on a panel at a National Academy of Sciences conference in Washington, DC, on the role of genetic engineering in pest management, and to address the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance in Philadelphia.

Lundgren's trip to present his research to prestigious groups cost him roughly thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket travel expenses and lost wages.

According to Ruch, ARS scientists routinely assume they have de facto permission to present at such prestigious fora. The typical procedure is to file paperwork requesting travel, assume it will be granted, and embark on the trip. In his whistleblower's narrative, Lundgren acknowledges that he filed his paperwork at the last minute, but adds that such situations are not uncommon—he notes three other colleagues who traveled under similar conditions within six weeks of this trip.

But when Lundgren landed in Washington, he learned that permission for the trip had been denied—and that because of the denial he was officially absent without leave (AWOL) from his post in Brookings. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences and Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance had paid for and booked his travel—a routine situation, says PEER's Ruch. But since permission for the trip had been denied, Lundberg was in violation of ARS rules for accepting travel expenses without prior approval and obliged to pay them back to the conference organizers out of his own pocket. In all, Ruch says, Lundgren's trip to present his research to the NAS and Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance cost him roughly $3,000 in out-of-pocket travel expenses and lost wages.

Lundgren's bosses never provided any reason for not okaying the trip, Ruch says. The ARS declined to comment on Lundgren's claim that his last-minute paperwork filing was not unusual among the service's scientists, or that denying permission for a trip to present research was unusual.

Lundgren's other major infraction, publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal without approval from his superiors, follows a similar arc. According to Lundgren, on January 5 of this year, he emailed the paper—on the effect of neonic pesticides on monarch butterflies—to his superior and interpreted her response (which is included in Lundgren's whistleblower's narrative) as permission to submit it for publication, based on routines he had followed in his decade at ARS and his prior experience submitting papers to nearly 100 peer-reviewed papers. His superior later said she had never given permission to publish the paper, giving no other reason than it was a "sensitive" topic. The paper, meanwhile, passed peer review and was published in April 2015 issue of the Science of Nature.

Another time, the ARS forced Lundgren to remove his name from a study on which he collaborated, according to South Dakota State University economist Scott Fausti. Under his sole byline, Fausti published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Policy in October, teasing out the ecological and economic consequences of the great boom in US corn production that occurred after the government ramped up ethanol mandates in the mid-2000s. Fausti appended this extraordinary footnote to it:

I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren's contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, the ARS has required Dr. Lundgren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.

So who's right, the USDA or Lundgren? There's always a "he said, she said" aspect to employment disputes. But until the agency articulates what precisely makes a topic "sensitive"—and why a blockbuster pesticide (neonics) and a potential blockbuster pesticide (RNAi) have been so deemed—this looks an awful lot like the case of a public scientist being arbitrarily silenced on matters of intense public interest.

This Is the Scariest Superbug Yet

| Thu Dec. 3, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Antibiotic resistance: It puts the "eek" in E. coli.

In mid-November, a group of Chinese and UK researchers published a paper in The Lancet delivering some sobering news: They had found a strain of E. coli in Chinese pigs that had evolved to withstand colistin, a potent antibiotic widely considered to be a last resort against a variety of pathogens that can resist antibiotics. Worse, the gene that allowed the E. coli to shrug off colistin easily jumps among bacterial species, and is thus "likely to spread rapidly into key human pathogens"—think fun stuff like salmonella and Klebsiella. The cherry on top: The authors warn that these colistin-defying nasties are "likely" to go global. What's it all mean? Here's a quick guide:

• How did E. coli in pigs evolve to resist a drug that's so important in human medicine? When China began to ramp up pork production to satisfy the demands of its growing middle class decades ago, it emulated the US model: moving away from small-scale, widely dispersed farms and packing pigs by the thousands into giant facilities, and feeding them regular low doses of antibiotics to make them grow faster.

Around 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock farms, and of that, 60 percent are considered crucial to human medicine.

Here in the United States, farm animals aren't given colistin, but they do get plenty of antibacterial drugs that people use, too. Around 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock farms, and of that huge gusher of drugs, 60 percent are considered crucial to human medicine. (Examples include tetracycline and penicillin).

In China, though, hog producers use, well, tons of colistin, The Lancet paper shows. Driven largely by China, the authors write, global farm-related colistin demand is expected to rise 23 percent by 2021—and the market for it is already worth $229.5 million. And it's not just used to fatten hogs—"it has also been used in farmed fish diets where it has been shown to improve health and promote growth."

• How important to human medicine in colistin? Pretty. Colistin is an old antibiotic (introduced in 1959) that fell into disuse because of harsh side effects: It can cause liver damage as well as "dizziness, weakness, facial and peripheral paresthesia, vertigo, visual disturbances, confusion, ataxia, and neuromuscular blockade," according to a 2005 paper by Greek researchers. Despite those unpleasant qualities, it reemerged as a crucial tool for doctors fighting common infections as other, less harsh antibiotics began to lose effectiveness. A 2012 Bloomberg article reported that "in the US, a pneumonia-causing variant of the bowel-dwelling microbe Klebsiella pneumoniae, dubbed KPC, has been reported in 37 states, and associated with mortality rates as high as 40 percent." Because of a "silent dissemination" of KPC, "especially in residents of long-term care facilities," the Bloomberg reporters found, "there is a major increase in the use of colistin."

For the first time, the colistin-resistant gene has turned up in a particularly portable form of DNA found in bacterial cells—meaning it can easily jump to other pathogens.

• How would colistin-resistant E. coli genes jump to other bacteria? Other bacterial strains have evolved to resist colistin—in a paper published in 2012, researchers reported finding resistant E. coli and salmonella strains in Brazilian pigs. What make The Lancet finding so troubling is that, for the first time, the resistant gene the researchers identified turned up in plasmid, a particularly portable form of DNA found in bacterial cells. "Bacteria can…transfer plasmids to one another through a process called conjugation," according to a Nature explainer. They're so good at moving genes among bacteria that "scientists have taken advantage of plasmids to use them as tools to clone, transfer, and manipulate genes," Nature reports.

• Why doesn't Big Pharma just roll out new antibiotics? Despite the massive and rising toll of antibiotic resistance—it now kills 700,000 people per year globally, on pace to expand to 10 million by 2050—large pharmaceutical companies with fat R&D budgets aren't keen to invest in discovering new antibiotics. "Antibiotics…have a poor return on investment because they are taken for a short period of time and cure their target disease," the World Health Organization stated in a 2011 report. "In contrast, drugs that treat chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, are taken daily for the rest of a patient’s life."

Things haven't changed much since 2011, the International Business Times' Amy Nordrum reported in March. "The handful of biotech firms that are making them [new antibiotics] today have focused on the narrow slices of the infectious disease spectrum that seem most likely to generate profits," she found. "Therefore, only a fraction of the medicines that are needed are being produced." She added, though, that earlier this year, President Barack Obama "committed $1.2 billion in his annual budget proposal—an unprecedented amount— to the fight against life-threatening infections caused by resistant bacteria."

• So are we screwed? Is the "post-antibiotics era" dawning? That would indeed be awful. As Maryn McKenna put it in a great 2013 essay:

Before antibiotics, five women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of nine people who got a skin infection died, even from something as simple as a scrape or an insect bite. Three out of ten people who contracted pneumonia died from it. Ear infections caused deafness; sore throats were followed by heart failure. In a post-antibiotic era, would you mess around with power tools? Let your kid climb a tree? Have another child?

The Lancet study's authors are certainly sounding the alarm. Timothy Walsh, a professor at the University of Cardiff and a co-author, told the BBC that "all the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality." He added that if the E. coli gene that arose to resist colistin "becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era…At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do." In addition to a UN effort to curtail climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, about to get underway in Paris, it sounds like the globe's nations need to reach an agreement to keep antibiotics necessary for human medicine the hell away from farms—and fast.

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Diabetes Rates Are Finally Starting to Fall

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 5:08 PM EST

Americans have been slowly improving their diets, moving away from sugary drinks and highly processed food. And they're starting to reap the fruits, so to speak, of this shift.

The latest evidence: After a quarter century of steady rise, the rate at which people contract diabetes declined by a fifth between 2008 and 2014, reports The New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise, pointing to a new release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tavernise puts the trend into context:

There is growing evidence that eating habits, after decades of deterioration, have finally begun to improve. The amount of soda Americans drink has declined by about a quarter since the late 1990s, and the average number of daily calories children and adults consume also has fallen. Physical activity has started to rise, and once-surging rates of obesity, a major driver of Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, have flattened.

The situation is hardly rosy, she makes clear: New diabetes cases still accumulate at double the rate they did in the early '90s, and most of the declines have accrued to college graduates, while the "rates for the less educated have flattened but not declined." And large racial disparities remain:


But the trends point downward. That's something to celebrate.

The Government Buried Some Really Important Herbicide News Right Before Thanksgiving

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 5:54 PM EST

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Environmental Protection Agency revoked its controversial approval of a novel herbicide mix, sending shares of its maker, chemical giant Dow, down nearly 3 percent in Wednesday trading.

The product, Enlist Duo, is the signature weed-killing cocktail of Dow AgroScience, Dow's ag subsidiary. It's composed of two endocrine-disrupting chemicals, 2-4-D and glypohosate, that have landed on the World Health Organization's lists of "possible" and "probable" carcinogens, respectively. Dow markets it for use alongside corn and soybean varieties that have been genetically engineered to withstand the combined herbicides, to counter the rapid rise of weeds that have evolved to resist glyphosate alone. Approved by the EPA last year, Enlist Duo is the company's "crown jewel," a Wall Street analyst recently told The Wall Street Journal. The US Department of Agriculture thinks farmers will embrace it rapidly—it will boost 2,4-D use by as much as 600 percent by 2020, the agency projects.

Dow was claiming that its proposed cocktail was really nothing new—while simultaneously telling the patent office that Enlist indeed brought new and different properties to the farm field.

How inconvenient for Dow's shareholders, then, that the EPA has changed its mind. Last Tuesday, the agency petitioned the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals to revoke its approval of Enlist Duo, temporarily barring farmers from using it.

The reason for the reversal is fascinating. The decision hinges on the so-called "synergistic" effects of combined pesticides. When you combine two or more herbicides, do you merely get the weed-slaying properties of each—or do you also get something new and greater than the sum of the parts? There's not a lot of data on that. Generally, pesticides are tested for safety in isolation, even though farmers tend to use several at once in the field. Yet studies have repeatedly shown—see here and here—that chemical combinations can be much more toxic than you'd expect from analyzing each of their components.

When the EPA reviewed safety data supplied by Dow, it found "no indication of synergism between [the two Enlist Duo ingredients] for mammals, freshwater fish, and freshwater invertebrates," its court petition states, and thus it concluded that the "mixture [of the two ingredients] does not show a greater toxicity compared to either parent compound alone.”

But later, agency officials looked at Dow's application to the US Patent Office for Enlist Duo, originally filed in 2013, and found something quite different: "claims of 'synergistic herbicidal weed control.'" The EPA was not amused. "Specifically, Dow did not submit to EPA during the registration process the extensive information relating to potential synergism it cited to the Patent Office," the agency complained to the court. "EPA only learned of the existence of that information after the registrations were issued and only recently obtained the information."

In others words, Dow was assuring the EPA that its proposed cocktail was really nothing new—just the combination of two already-approved agrichemicals—while simultaneously telling the patent office that Enlist did indeed bring new and different weed-leveling properties to the farm field. In short, two different messages for two different audiences—the EPA sees potentially heightened toxicity from synergistic effects, while the investors who pore over patents might see a potential blockbuster in an herbicide mix that's more than just the sum of its two components.

Dow has now handed that "extensive information" on Enlist Duo's synergistic effects to the EPA. In a press release, Dow AgroSciences President and CEO Tim Hassinger vowed to resolve the EPA's issues "in the next few months, in time for the 2016 crop use season.” Given that the EPA relies on company-supplied data to make these decisions, he's probably right—the EPA's action last week will amount to a speed bump on the road to Enlist Duo's conquering of the nation's vast corn/soybean belt. But considering the confusion so far, now might be the time for the EPA to demand independent testing of this powerful and potentially soon-to-be ubiquitous mix.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday's action marks the second time in November the EPA has seen fit to revoke registration of a would-be blockbuster Dow pesticide. Just a week before, the agency nixed its approval of the insecticide sulfoxaflor, months after a federal appeals court found that Dow had delivered the agency "flawed and limited data" about the chemical's impact on honeybees.

Use This Trick to Avoid a Boring Thanksgiving Spread

| Tue Nov. 24, 2015 2:20 PM EST
Leafy radicchio: so tantalizingly bitter.

Turkey. Gravy. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Green-bean casserole. The great Thanksgiving war horses all deliver gentle flavor and soft texture (save, all too often, for the turkey). To avoid unwittingly serving a vast baby-food smorgasbord, what you need is a dish with a little crunch and a blast of bitterness—yes, bitterness, the most neglected and misunderstood of the five basic tastes. What you need, in short, is a member of the chicory family, those underutilized, cool-weather vegetables like radicchio, frisée, endive, and escarole.

To avoid unwittingly serving a vast baby-food smorgasbord, what you need is a dish with a little crunch and a blast of bitterness.

In her excellent 2014 cookbook, Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, Jennifer McLagan writes that "cooking is about balancing tastes, and bitter often plays a vital role in a dish's harmony; it is crucial to the composition of a meal or a menu." Without bitterness, she adds, "we lose a way to balance sweetness. Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity." Also, bitter is "both an appetite stimulant and a digestive—that is, it has the power to make you hungry as well as helping you digest your meal." In other words, bitterness is a necessary component to a successful feast.

Some sound advice from Boggy Creek Farm

Since the weather cooled a couple of months ago, Austin's Boggy Creek Farm has been churning out gorgeous, richly red-veined heads of leafy radicchio. I sometimes chop it up raw, toss it in a lemony dressing with plenty of chopped parsley, and serve it garnished with toasted walnuts and grated Parmesan. Such a salad would make a fine addition to the holiday table, but it might be too bold for the bitter-averse.

To draw them in, you might try the other way I've been treating the season's radicchio bounty: braised, mixed with another earthy fall staple, kale, emboldened with garlic and a little chile pepper, and mellowed with sautéed onions. If you really want to draw in the uninitiated, take the finished product (minus the lashing of vinegar at the end), and turn it into a rich gratin, a technique I highlighted last Thanksgiving.

While you're cooking, listen to this excellent episode of the BBC Food Programme focused on bitterness—why we recoil from it, why we always come back to it, and why we need more of it. Also check out this great recent New Scientist article on the nefarious plot to reduce bitterness—and vital nutrients—from our food.

Braised Radicchio and Kale
(Makes a side dish for 3-4—multiply accordingly.)

1 onion, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
Enough extra-virgin olive oil to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
A pinch of chile flakes
1 bunch of kale, preferably Russian red or lacinato
1 head radicchio
Sea salt
Some grated hard cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, to garnish (optional)
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
A little vinegar, such as balsamic or apple cider (fresh lemon juice would be a great substitute)

Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over low-medium heat, add the onions and a pinch of salt, and let them sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft. Don't rush this step, and make sure there is sufficient oil—you'll want the onions to cook until they're fully translucent (but not caramelized), to tease out their sweetness.

While the onion is cooking, prep the kale and radicchio. Remove the stems that run down the center of the kale leaves (holding a leaf in one hand, slice down each side of the stem with a knife). By the time you're done, you'll have two piles: one of stems and one of leaves. I apply a nose-to-tale ethos to vegetables, and consider greens' stems to be highly flavorful. So bunch the stems in a pile and slice them finely, crosswise. Set aside. Now chop the greens coarsely and set them aside, too. (The point of separating out the stems is to give the stems a head start cooking, as they take a little longer.) Coarsely chop the radicchio, and add it to the chopped kale leaves.

Now the onions should be soft. Add the chopped garlic and a pinch of chile flakes to the pot and stir for a minute or so, until it has released its fragrance. Add the chopped stems and another pinch of salt, stir to mix in with the onions and garlic, and cover the pot. Let them cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add the chopped kale and radicchio leaves, and add a good dash of water (or stock). Stir, combining the leaves with the other stuff, and turn the heat up until the liquid begins to boil. Stir again, cover, and turn the heat to low.

Allow the mixture to braise slowly until the leaves have begun to turn tender but retain a little crunch. Take the lid off and turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until any remaining liquid has evaporated. Add a dash of vinegar (or lemon juice), a big grind of pepper, and taste, adding salt, vinegar, or pepper to taste. Serve, garnished with a bit of grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. This dish makes a fine side to roast meats (including turkey), and you can also toss it with pasta, along with more olive oil and cheese, some toasted walnuts, and chopped parsley. Happy feasting.

The First GMO Animal Was Just Approved. But You Probably Won’t be Eating It Anytime Soon.

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 2:52 PM EST

Since the mid-1990s, a US company called AquaBounty Technologies—now partially owned by the synthetic biology company Intrexon—has been trying to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a salmon variety genetically engineered to put on weight faster. On Thursday, the FDA finally did so. Theoretically, at least, US retailers can now stock the fast-growing fish, and they don't have to label it.

The only GM salmon that makes it onto US store shelves will come from eggs produced in Prince Edward Island, which will be shipped and raised in Panama, only to be shipped back to North America as filets.

But don't expect it to take over the seafood counter of your local supermarket anytime soon. We import about two-thirds of the salmon we eat, the great bulk of it grown on large farms in Chile, Canada, and Norway. But the FDA is hyper-specific about where AquaBounty's engineered salmon can be grown:

The AquAdvantage Salmon may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. The approval does not allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be bred or raised in the United States. In fact, under this approval, no other facilities or locations, in the United States or elsewhere, are authorized for breeding or raising AquAdvantage Salmon that are intended for marketing as food to U.S. consumers.

Why the caution? Standard salmon farming takes place directly in the ocean in net cages. Escapes are inevitable. In areas like the North American west coast from California to Alaska—home to some of the globe's last remaining wild salmon runs—escaped fast-growing salmon could out-compete and displace their wild peers. A highly detailed 2013 risk assessment from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that, without strict containment, the AquaAdvantage super-salmon presents a "high" risk to wild populations. 

So for now, until the FDA approves other facilities, the only GM salmon that makes it onto US store shelves will come from eggs produced in one approved facility on Canada's Prince Edward Island, which will be shipped and raised into fish at another approved facility in Panama, only to be shipped back to North America as filets. That one facility in Panama is not likely to pose much competition to, say, Norway's vast salmon farms.

Meanwhile, the biotech-watchdog group the Center for Food Safety has vowed to sue the FDA to reverse the decision, claiming that "the review process by FDA was inadequate, failed to fully examine the likely impacts of the salmon’s introduction, and lacked a comprehensive analysis."

Add limited supply and a legal challenge to the fact that several regional grocery powerhouses—including Kroger, Safeway, and HEB—have pledged not to sell GM salmon, and it seems unlikely that many consumers will be savoring AquaBounty's bounty anytime soon.