Tom Philpott

Monsanto Is Losing the Press

Reporters are finding it harder and harder to find any good news in biotech seeds.

| Wed Jul. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Ah, high summer. Time to read stories about the declining effectiveness of GMO-seed giant Monsanto's flagship products: crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides.

Back in 2008, I felt a bit lonely participating in this annual rite—it was mainly just me and reporters in the Big Ag trade press. Over the past couple of years, though, it has gone mainstream. Here's NPR's star agriculture reporter Dan Charles, on corn farmers' agrichemically charged reaction to the rise of an insect that has come to thumb its nose at Monsanto's once-vaunted Bt corn, engineered to contain the bug-killing gene of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis:

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like or that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

And this, from a veteran observer of the GMO-seed industry who—in my view—sometimes errs on the side of being too soft on it.

The Wall Street Journal's Ian Berry got the ball rolling early this year with a May report bearing the evocative headline "Pesticides Make a Comeback: Many Corn Farmers Go Back to Using Chemicals as Mother Nature Outwits Genetically Modified Seeds":

Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, as American farmers plant more corn and a genetic modification designed to protect the crop from pests has started to lose its effectiveness. The sales are a boon for big pesticide makers, such as American Vanguard Co. and Syngenta.

All the attention on superinsects has taken the major-media spotlight off of the "superweeds" that have evolved to shrug off copious doses of Roundup, the herbicide that's supposed to make Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops immune to weed problems. But that doesn't mean these thug weeds have stopped working their magic. They're "gaining ground" in Iowa, heart of the US corn/soy belt, reports the Cedar Rapids-based Gazette. And farmers are responding just as they did in the South, where Roundup-resistant weeds have had been rampant for at least five years: with a chemical deluge. Here's one of several anecdotes in the Gazette piece on that illustrate this familiar theme:

Tracy Franck, who farms 2,400 acres in Buchanan County with his dad and son, said they "are putting on more Roundup every year to kill the same amount of weeds." They, like most other farmers in their area, are also applying a pre-emergent residual herbicide to help control the glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup]-resistant weeds that are just beginning to show up in their fields. "We are starting to see some lambs quarter and giant ragweed that are tough to kill," he said.

(As someone who likes to eat lamb's-quarter, a delicious, nutrient-dense green, I'm sorry to see it emerge as a target of chemical warfare.)

Meanwhile, Food and Water Watch has just come out with a damning report called "Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry." The nutshell: The rise of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton in the mid-1990s has given rise to a boom in use of herbicides. Note how use fell for a while after the introduction Roundup Ready seeds before beginning to spike in 2001, when Roundup resistant weeds began to emerge.

Food and Water Watch

GMO industry defenders point out that relatively benign Roundup at least displaced older, more toxic herbicides as farmers transitioned to Roundup Ready crops. But as FWW shows, that no longer holds. Farmers are turning to one particularly nasty old herbicide, 2,4-D, with a vengeance as Roundup loses effectiveness:

Food and Water Watch

All of which raises the question: If Monsanto's seeds are failing, why are farmers still buying them in such vast numbers? Part of it is surely habit—for farmers, it must seem easier to plant Roundup Ready corn and supplement Roundup with a harsher herbicide than to try a whole new weed-control system.

The answer may also at least partly lie in the GMO seed giants' dominance of the seed market. Last year, the US Department of Justice unceremoniously halted its antitrust investigation of Monsanto and its peers without taking action. As I showed in my post at that time, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow together control 80 percent of the corn seed market and 70 percent of the soy market. In such tightly consolidated markets, you get stuff like this (from my post from last year):

There's also evidence that farmers lack access to lower-priced [non-GM] seeds. In 2010, University of Illinois researcher Michael Gray surveyed farmers in seven agriculture-intensive counties of Illinois. He asked them if they had access to high-quality corn seeds that weren't genetically modified to contain Monsanto's Bt insecticide trait. In all seven counties, at least 32 percent of farmers said "no." In one county, 46.6 percent of farmers reporting having no access to high-quality non-Bt seed. For them, apparently, they had little choice but to pay Monsanto's high prices for Bt seeds, whether they needed them or not.

At any rate, as Food and Water Watch notes, the withering of herbicide-tolerant and Bt-infused crops hasn't hurt these companies at all—indeed, they also sell pesticides, and as NPR and the Wall Street Journal report, pesticide sales are booming.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Why The Atlantic's Defense of Junk Food Fails

Think the solution to the obesity crisis is healthier junk food? Fat chance.

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
The McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of US adults are overweight or obese. How did this happen? In a long article in the current Atlantic, David H. Freedman offers a mechanistic explanation: People are ingesting too many calories, particularly "energy-intense" fat, sugar, and "other problem carbs." The simple diagnoses leads to an easy solution: The food industry should apply its flavor-engineering wizardry to churn out lower-cal products that people will still scarf up, preserving its own bottom line while solving the obesity crisis. Indeed, he writes, this remedy is already playing out under our noses:

Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further.

Among the examples Freedman cites are McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin, a "lower-calorie, less fatty version of the Egg McMuffin," a "new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains," and Carl's Jr.'s "Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich."

Did a Slave Process the Shrimp in Your Scampi?

A new report finds debt bondage, nonexistent bathrooms, and children working for a pittance at a "model" shrimp operation in Thailand.

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 6:20 AM EDT

Over the past 20 years, the rapid rise of South Asian shrimp farms has transformed our relationship to the tasty crustaceans, shifting it from an occasional luxury to an all-you-can-eat commodity *. Twenty years ago, most of our shrimp came from domestic wild fisheries. Today, we import 90 percent of it, almost all of it farmed. But who works on these foreign farms and processing facilities—and under what conditions? A new briefing paper by the well-respected International Labor Rights Forum and the Warehouse Workers United (WWU) alleges serious labor abuses, including illegal use of underage workers, at the Thai shrimp producer Narong Seafood, at least until recently a major supplier of Walmart and a leading shrimp processor for the US market, according to a recent analysis by the consultancy Accenture for Humanity United.

Narong, for its part, disputes the charges in the report. "We insist that Narong is against child labor or any unfair treatment to our staff or workers," a company official wrote in an emailed statement. 

The Scary Side of Synbio Glowing Plants

Some scientists are crowdfunding the release of an unregulated synthetic biology project. Here's what could possibly go wrong.

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 1:49 PM EDT

If you're like me, the concept of synthetic biology—the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life—is pretty hard to get your head around. I get synthesizing, say, material to make clothes out of. But synthesizing new life forms? Apparently, while I stand slack-jawed, the novel technology is quickly going mainstream. Here's the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term "natural light," a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric street lamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

What could be more innocuous than plants that generate useful light? And moreover, the "glowing plants" project isn't the work of a big, bad multinational like Monsanto or a corporate-funded academic lab, the Times notes, but rather a "small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement."

And they're not financing the project by tapping Wall Street or big banks, but rather the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence, the Kickstarter campaign. The project launched April 23 with a goal to raise $65,000; it has already exceeded $480,000 in pledges, aided by glowing—so to speak—reports in Tech Crunch, Fast Company, and Forbes, as well as the promise that anyone who commits at least $40 will "receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home."

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I don't know much about the science of creating living lamps. But I do think it's important to think out the broader implications of synbio—as the novel technology is known—and ask questions about how its release from the lab into the world is regulated. Which is evidently pretty lightly—this consortium is casually promising to distribute glowing seeds to hundreds of people.

I can't think of a better source for examining the promise and perils of synbio than this much-cited 2007 essay by the eminent physicist—and climate change skeptic—Freeman Dyson. In it, he laid out a rosy vision for what he called the "domestication of biotechnology." Here's Dyson:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.

What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems?

And what about the obvious dangers—what if these God-like "housewives and children" (ugh) turned away from conjuring cuddly creatures and start creating ones designed to bare their fangs, monsters instead of pets? You don't even need to presume malicious intent to find reason for concern: What if some novel beast designed for cuteness escapes, goes rogue, and turns out to have unintended malign powers? Then there are the obvious questions: What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems? Dyson acknowledged the "real and serious dangers" of synbio, and allowed that "rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others." But he waved off that task—not his problem. "I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers," he cheerfully declared.

But regulating novel technologies has proven difficult here in the United States. Genetically modified seeds burst onto US farm fields in the mid-'90s with a notoriously lax regulatory process, as I showed in this post. Still, the process is time-consuming, and it has been known to occasionally at least delay particularly problematic crop varieties, like new ones genetically rigged to withstand not one but two herbicides. Next came nanotechnology, which takes advantage of the fact that common substances like silver behave differently when they're really, really small. Nanotech is now ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from underwear to toothpaste. But as the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider showed in an eye-opening 2010 series, the small stuff poses significant risks, has received little independent testing, and is barely regulated.

The excellent watchdog org ETC Group, which seeks to place novel technologies under democratic oversight, has launched a rival "Kickstopper" campaign to halt such projects until a proper regulatory regime can be put into place.

In the spirit of Professor Dyson, let me offer a prediction for the future. I imagine that synbio's current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over, eventually dominating the research and deployment of Dyson's wondrous toys. Monsanto has already bought its way into the space—in January, it bought an R&D lab from and entered a research collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, a company that uses synthetic microbes to "improve crop productivity."

Unless we have a serious national reckoning on synbio, what we risk leaving our children and grandchildren is the knotty problem of trying to convince an entrenched, little-regulated industry that the power of generating life forms should be used for the broad interests of society, not the narrow ones of shareholders.  

Why Coffee Is (Still) Good for You, and 4 More Bites of Food News

Good news for coffee lovers, bad news for diet soda fans, and other tidbits to digest.

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 6:56 AM EDT
Here's the beef: the US and its CAFO ways go global.

There's been so much food news this week that I didn't know where to begin. So I decided to try to do as many as possible, digest style.

China's Appetite for US Pork May Extend to Beef

The takeover of US pork giant Smithfield by Chinese meat behemoth Shuanghui International is the latest data point in a long-term trend: The US, with its hyper-consolidated meat production system, is emerging as a CAFO to the world.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that beef could be next. The nation doesn't consume much beef per capita—pork and chicken are much more common—but its popularity is surging. The nation's beef imports are soaring, too, but remain a tiny fraction of its overall consumption. The country doesn't accept US meat—at least legally—but that could soon change:

The United States, the world's fourth-largest beef exporter, hopes a recent downgrade of its mad cow disease risk status by the UN World Organization for Animal Health will boost its chances of gaining a foothold in the growing Chinese market. Significant quantities of U.S. beef are already smuggled into China through Hong Kong, and the industry is pushing for new talks on formal approval when U.S. President Barack Obama meets President Xi Jinping in California later this week. "If China opens its market to U.S. and Indian beef, the growth rate (in imports) will exceed double-digits," said Rabobank analyst Pan Chenjun.

The Reuters piece sheds light on one reason China is suddenly so interested in meat imports: "spreading urban sprawl that is rapidly swallowing up agricultural land and pushing up farmers' costs."

Cargill and McDonalds Team Up for Russian McNuggets

The US meat industry isn't just gearing up to export loads of factory-farmed meat. It's also setting up shop in foreign markets, replicating its model right down to the McNuggets. More from WattAgNet:

Cargill officially opened a chicken processing facility at its complex in Efremov, Russia. This $40 million facility, Cargill's first primary chicken processing operation in Russia, will predominantly supply McDonald's restaurants in Russia with Chicken McNuggets as well as other chicken products.

Diet Soda: More Bad News

As I've written before, diet soda may not be the health-neutral elixir it seems at first glance. Recent headlines about artificially sweetened drinks being as bad for your teeth as a meth addiction seem overblown, but links to type-2 diabetes recently got stronger. In a paper (abstract) published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Japanese researchers tracked a group of around 2000 factory workers over seven years and found that regular diet soda drinkers have significantly higher rates of type 2 diabetes than non-drinkers. Meanwhile, Washington University, St. Louis, researchers have published a paper on the effects of sucralose, a popular no-calorie sweetener marketed as Splenda, on the insulin response of 17 obese patients who don't normally consume diet drinks. The results, from a University of Washington press release quoting one of the researchers:

When study participants drank sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose Insulin levels also rose about 20 percent higher. So the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response.

Huffington Post has a good summary of recent research on diet soda and health.

Coffee: More Good News

My own vice for getting through the day is coffee. I'm not sure what I'd do if it, too, were the subject of a steady stream of bad health reports. Happily, most of the research around coffee finds positive effects—perhaps not surprising given that people have been enjoying it for hundreds of years (whereas artificially sweetened drinks have been widely used for little more than a generation). The New York Times' Gretchen Reynolds reports that a spate of recent studies suggest that "moderate" coffee consumption—"the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks"—delivers a range of benefits, including a "reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate cancer, oral cancer and breast cancer recurrence." And then there are the brain benefits of caffeine:

In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

Other research, Reynolds reports, has found that coffee has more of an anti-dementia effect than isolated caffeine: She points to a 2011 study by University of South Florida researchers finding that "mice genetically bred to develop Alzheimer’s and then given caffeine alone did not fare as well on memory tests as those provided with actual coffee."

Should Wine Ingredients Be Listed on Labels?

Wine—another one of my cherished vices—is just naturally fermented grape juice, right? Not these days, reports the ace wine writer Eric Asimov:

Forget about the often poisonous chemicals used in the vineyards, which can leave residue on the grapes. In the winery alone, before fermentation even begins, enzymes may be added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice, to amplify desirable aromas while eliminating disagreeable ones, to intensify the color of red wines and to clarify the color of whites.

It doesn’t stop there. Other additives can be used to enhance a wine’s texture, to add or subtract tannins or simply to adjust quality. Winemakers can select specific yeasts and special nutrients to keep those yeasts working. They can add oak extracts for flavor and further tannin adjustment, and compounds derived from grape juice to fix color, texture and body. They can add sugar to lengthen the fermentation, increasing the alcohol content; add acid if it’s lacking; add water if the alcohol level is too high. Or they can send the wine through a reverse-osmosis machine or other heavy equipment to diminish the alcohol and eliminate other undesirable traits, like volatile acidity.

As a result of all this manipulation, Asimov writes, wine often turns out to be a "manufactured product, processed to achieve a preconceived notion of how it should feel, smell and taste, and then rolled off the assembly line, year after year, as consistent and denatured as a potato chip or fast-food burger."

Designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background.

Asimov doesn't get into it in this piece, but designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background. A 2008 article from a wine-industry trade magazine tells the story. It focuses on Linda Bisson, a professor of enology at UC Davis, an enormously influential institution in the California wine trade. The article describes Bisson as a "renowned yeast geneticist." Here is her message to winemakers: "You can tailor your product to reach your customer by identifying consumer preferences, the effect that a choice has on a customer, and its genetic composition."

And how can winemakers achieve this customization? It’s easy: "Once we've identified the flavor compounds, we can manipulate the taste. We derive flavors from the yeast, not the grapes." And here's a little-known fact: US winemakers may be using genetically modified yeasts.

Asimov laments that "unlike processed foods, wine is not required to have its ingredients listed on the label." As a result, only a few US winemakers—Bonny Doon Vineyard, Shinn Estate Vineyards and Ridge Vineyards—let you know on the bottle what you're getting along with the grape juice.

China Could Actually Improve US Pork. Here's How.

If the Chinese purchase of American pork giant Smithfield goes through, producers will have to ramp down use of at least one dodgy feed additive.

| Mon Jun. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

China doesn't have the globe's most sterling food safety reputation, and its fast-growing pork industry provides an apt example of why. A few months ago, dead pigs were showing up by the thousands in a Chinese river—the result, apparently, of a scandal involving the slaughter of diseased pigs. In 2011, hundreds of people became ill after eating pork tainted with clenbuterol, a growth-enhancing chemical the Chinese government had banned from hog feed nearly a decade earlier.

All of which makes it odd that the decision of a massive Chinese meat processor called Shuanghui Group—the very company at the center of the clenbuterol fiasco—to buy US hog giant Smithfield might actually clean up one dirty aspect of our domestic pork industry.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Rogue Monsanto Wheat Sprouts in Oregon

Wheat is the only major US crop to fall under Monsanto's control.

| Fri May 31, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Amber waves of gain? Not so much, for Monsanto.

One of the four major US crops—corn, soybeans, hay (alfalfa), and wheat—is not like the others.

For one, wheat is mainly consumed directly by people, while the others are mostly used as animal feed. Its status as people food—the stuff of bread, the staff of life—probably explains why wheat is different from the other three in another way: It's also the only one that genetically modified Monsanto seed giant hasn't turned into a cash cow. The company has made massive profits churning out corn, soy, and (most recently) alfalfa seeds genetically altered to withstand doses of its own herbicide, Roundup. But the company has never commercialized a GM wheat variety—and stopped trying back in 2004, largely because of consumer pushback against directly consuming a GM crop. And thank goodness, too, because Roundup Ready technology is now failing, giving rise to a plague of herbicide resistant weeds and a gusher of toxic herbicides.

Wheat's non-GMO status is why the Internet went berserk when the US Department of Agriculture revealed Wednesday that Roundup Ready wheat had sprouted up on a farm in Oregon. According to the USDA, a farmer discovered the plants growing in a place they shouldn't have been and tried unsuccessfully to kill them with Roundup. Oops. USDA testing confirmed that the rogue wheat was the same experimental Roundup Ready variety that Monsanto had last been approved to test in Oregon in 2001.

Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat.

The revelation had immediate trade implications. About half the overall US wheat crop gets exported—and Oregon's wheat farmers export 90 percent of their output. Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But as the USDA noted, no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat. And if Roundup Ready wheat is growing on one farm, our trading partners might legitimately ask, what guarantee is there that it's not growing on others?  Already, Japan has responded by suspending imports of US wheat, Bloomberg reports.

Maximizing exports has always been a main priority of the Obama Administration's ag policy, and, the USDA is scrambling to investigate the extent to which Roundup Ready wheat has entered the food supply, no doubt hoping to stave off a full-on trade crisis. "We are taking this very seriously," a USDA official told Bloomberg. "We have a very active investigation going on in several states in the western US."

Meanwhile, the question of how those GM seeds found their way onto that Oregon farm—more than a decade after the state's last GM wheat trials—looms. Wheat can transfer genes from one field to another pretty easily through cross-pollination. As Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist of Pesticide Action Network of North America, put it in a statement, "once released into the environment, the GE genie does not willingly go back into the bottle." I'll be eagerly awaiting updates as the USDA continues its investigations.

 

Is the US About to Become One Big Factory Farm for China?

A Chinese company has just bought American pork giant Smithfield. Here's what that means.

| Wed May 29, 2013 4:29 PM EDT

The small number of companies that dominate global meat production is about to get smaller. The Chinese corporation Shuanghui International, already the majority shareholder of China's largest meat producer, has just bought US giant Smithfield, the globe's largest hog producer and pork packer, in a $4.7 billion cash deal. (It still has to get past Smithfield's shareholders and the US Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment, which reviews takeovers of US companies.)

Now, I hope this merger of titans doesn't provoke a xenophobic reaction. Shuanghui has strong ties to China's central government, but it also counts Goldman Sachs among its major shareholders. And the US meat industry is already quite globalized. Back in 2009, a Brazilian giant called JBS had already barreled into the US market, and now holds huge positions in beef, pork, and chicken processing here. And true, as China has ramped up its food production—and rapidly reshaped hog production on the industrial US model—it has produced more than it share of food safety scandals, including recent ones involving hogs.

But as I have pointed out, the US pork industry is no prize either—it pollutes water as a matter of course, hollows out the rural areas on which it alights, relies heavily on routine antibiotic use, recently inspired a government watchdog group to lament "egregious" violations of food safety and animal welfare code in slaughterhouses, and uh, has an explosive manure foam problem.

So forget about where HQ is for the vast conglomerate that ultimately profits from running Smithfield's factory-scale hog farms and slaughterhouses. The real question is: What does this deal telling us about the global food system and the future of food? Reuters offers a hint:

The thrust of the deal is to send the U.S. made pork to China, a factor that one person familiar with the matter said would help during Shuanghui's CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment] review.

If Reuters is right that deal's purpose is to grease the wheels of trade carrying US hogs to China and its enormous domestic pork market, then we're looking at the further expansion of factory-scale swine farming here in the US: all of the festering troubles I listed above, intensified. For Smithfield itself, the deal is savvy, because Americans are eating less meat. In order to maintain endless profit growth, the company needs to conquer markets where per capita meat consumption is growing fast, and the China market itself represents the globe's biggest prize in that regard.  

As for China, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy showed in a blockbuster 2011 report, the central government strived for years for self-sufficiency in pork, even as demand for it exploded, by rapidly industrializing production along the model pioneered by Smithfield. By essentially buying Smithfield, the government may be throwing in the towel—saying, essentially, let's just offshore our hog production, or at least a huge part of it, to the US.

In an ironic twist, China appears to be taking advantage of lax environmental and labor standards in the US to supply its citizens with something it can't get enough of. Industrial pork: the iPhone's culinary mirror image.

How I Got Hooked on Weeds—and Why You Should, Too

Wild plants might be more nutritious than cultivated crops, new research suggests.

| Wed May 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Weed it and reap: a salad of lamb's quarters, purslane, and parsley, all from Austin's Boggy Creek Farm.

When I moved to a small organic farm in 2004, I quickly got hooked on weeds (note plural). First, there would be salads of chickweed—a grassy-tasting plant that popped up just after the ground thawed in spring. Next, from the marshy banks of a creek, tender, peppery watercress would sprout. Soon after, dandelion greens would proliferate, adding a bitter note to those spring weed salads. And then, along an old wood road up the forested mountainside, would come a flush of stinging nettle—we'd harvest the leaves with gloves, boil their sting away, and add them to pastas and pizzas. Finally, by high summer, my favorite weeds of all would emerge from plowed fields: a high-rising, spinach-related green called lamb's quarters, and a low-slung, creeping plant called purslane, with its succulent, lemony leaves.

We never found much of a market for these delicacies (save for the watercress, which chefs loved). But they became staples of the farmhouse kitchen, supplements to the cultivated greens that went mainly to the farmers market and to our CSA shareholders. Now that I spend more of my time off the farm and in a city, one of the things I miss most is easy access to these flavorful wild foods.

Turns out, the void I'm feeling may be more than aesthetic. According to an op-ed by Jo Robinson in the Sunday New York Times, wild edible plants tend to be loaded with phytonutrients, "the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia."

And most cultivated crops—even celebrated healthy foods like spinach and blueberries—are pale copies of their wild progenitors in phytochemical terms, Robinson shows, adding some eye-popping infographics for emphasis. She is not talking about the small but significant decline in nutrient density since the industrialization of agriculture half a century ago, but rather a steep drop in phytonutrients that began when we "stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers." Robinson writes:

Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I've discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.

I would push back against the inverse relationship Robinson posits between palatability and nutrition. I imagine that we've lost a lot of flavor in the ages-old quest to breed for sweetness—and in the last 100 years or so, we've definitely lost still more by breeding for portability and shelf life. I would argue that flavor has declined along with nutrient density. Few people would choose modern supermarket tomatoes bred to last for weeks post-harvest over old varieties selected to taste good when eaten quickly. And weeds play a role in some of the globe's most celebrated cuisines. I wouldn't want to imagine Mexico's street food without tlacoyos con quelites (lamb's quarters) or Italy without ravioli d'ortica (stinging nettles). There's no puritanical trade-off here. (Patience Gray's classic Honey from a Weed demonstrates how vital weeds remain in southern European cooking, and Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson's recent The Longevity Kitchen offers plenty of good recipes for them).

What we can do is start seeking out varieties of fruits and vegetables that haven't been bred to be insipidly sweet.

That caveat aside, what do we do with Robinson's message about the loss of phytonutrients? Obviously, we can't all suddenly become hunter-gatherers, stalking city parks for hidden bounty (though a fellow who calls himself "Wildman" will take you on a foraging tour of Manhattan's Central Park). Nor can we all live on small organic farms surrounded by woodlands.

But what we can do is start seeking out varieties of fruits and vegetables that haven't been bred to be insipidly sweet or high-yielding. Robinson suggests arugula as an example—it was a Mediterranean weed until very recently. Arugula is "very similar to its wild ancestor," she notes, and "rich in cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates and higher in antioxidant activity than many green lettuces." Robinson also points to herbs, which she calls "wild plants incognito." That is, they much more closely resemble their wild antecedents than do, say, modern apples or tomatoes or corn. She adds: "We've long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they've not been given a flavor makeover. Because we've left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact." Robinson's paean to herbs reminded me of my love for parsley, and how I've come to shower it on every meal, and even give it the starring role in a salad.

But here's the thing about arugula and fresh herbs: They're fantastic when you can get them recently picked, but dull when you find them in in little plastic bags shipped cross-country. And if Robinson is right that "many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste," I wonder if phytonutrient content doesn't degrade along with flavor on those long trips.

That got me to thinking that one of the unsung benefits of the explosion of farmers markets and CSAs over the past 20 years is that it's giving more and more people access to vegetables bred for things besides just sweetness, shelf life, and portability. We might not sell much in the way of lamb's quarters at Maverick Farms (the North Carolina farm I'm involved with), but we can never grow enough of our famously spicy arugula to satisfy demand. And like many farms that sell to neighboring communities, we favor tomato varieties that balance sweetness with acidity—and may well deliver an extra jolt of phytonutrients because of it.

And small farms can deliver actual weeds, too. Just last weekend, at the Saturday farmstand of Austin's wonderful Boggy Creek Farm, I found nestled in the back a display featuring just-picked bunches of lamb's quarters and purslane. So I finally got my fix of weeds right here in the city—ever since, I've been making salads combining those two wild edibles with some parsley I also picked up at Boggy.

And the first thing I did after reading Robinson's Sunday Times piece? I emailed it to Maverick Farms' manager, adding that it might be high time to  try marketing our weeds again.

USDA's Watchdog Reveals "Egregious" Hog Slaughter Conditions

What did the Department of Agriculture's inspector general find in America's pork factories? Inhumane killing, fecal mater on chops, and impotent fines.

| Tue May 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The Internal Revenue Service isn't the only federal bureaucracy to be recently taken to task by its Office of the Inspector General. Amid considerably less fanfare in early May, the US Department of Agriculture's OIG issued a report damning the department's oversight of pork slaughterhouses and trashing a USDA pilot program that allows plants to operate with fewer inspectors on hand.

First a bit of background. Every Cabinet-level department and independent agency in the federal government has an OIG—a kind of in-house watchdog. While some OIGs have been convincingly accused of being toothless, the USDA's internal watchdog has long been pretty blunt and straightforward. I'm still reeling over its 2010 report on the USDA's porous system for halting the "contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals." Then there was this 2012 report about the rather cracked, so to speak, efforts to keep eggs safe.

The new pork report paints a Keystone Kops portrait of hog slaughter inspection, catching plants being cited for the same "egregious" (the OIG's word) food safety and animal welfare violations over and over again, with little fear of reprisal or incentive to improve. "Enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of food safety regulations," the OIG concluded—including "violations as egregious as fecal matter on previously cleaned carcasses."

If that sounds like just an "ooh, gross" concern, it's not. Pigs raised on concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) expel feces loaded with antibiotic residues, antibiotic-resistant microbes, and heavy metals. (Their waste has also been spawning mysterious—and occasionally explosive—foam in the cesspits under the Midwest's teeming hog CAFOs.) This is not stuff you want to pick up at the supermarket along with your pork chop—and the USDA is the federal agency that's supposed to help us avoid it.

All in all, according to the OIG, the USDA's hog inspection service issued 44,128 noncompliance citations to 616 plants facilities between 2008 and 2011—and only 28 of the plants ever got suspended. And not a single one of them ever got the equivalent of the death penalty—withdrawal of USDA inspection, which would mean that meat from the offending plant couldn't be legally sold. And often the citations were for the same offense, over and over again.

The report lays out some specific cases. At one Illinois plant that slaughters about 19,500 hogs per day, for example, the OIG found that USDA inspectors had issued 532 citations between 2008 and 2011—of which 139 were for repeat violations. Of those, 26 were for "fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses," and 43 involved "exposed or possibly adulterated products and the presence of pests on the kill floor." The result of these serial lapses? No suspension or other punishments.