Tom Philpott

Historic Food Market Gets Torched in Syria's Civil War

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A spice stall in Souk Madina.

Thirty thousand people have died in Syria's civil war—and the killing is only intensifying. Obviously, human beings are any war's most appalling casualties, but there are cultural conflagrations that matter, too—vital spaces laid waste, lost forever. Few alive today have experienced the reputed grandeur of old Warsaw, leveled by Nazi bombs in World War II. How would the celebrated Aztec city of Tenochtitlán have weathered the centuries? We'll never know, because the Spanish flattened it in the process of conquest, building over it what we now know as Mexico City.

Unhappily, the violence in Syria has spread to the "ancient city" section of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the famous Souk Madina, a vast market vending everything from meat to spices to fabric since medieval times. On Saturday, reports Reuters, a clash between government and rebel forces sparked a fire that swept through the old market, burning a substantial portion of it. According to Reuters, it's the largest covered market in the world—"a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades" whose winding interior hallways "have a combined length of eight miles."

The extent of the damage remains unclear, but it appears extensive. Reuters reports that local observers say at least 1,500 stalls are ruined, and were, as of Sunday, still burning. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has issued a missive deploring the destruction. "The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria's economic and social life since the city's beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo's importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.," she wrote. I have emails into the UNESCO press office seeking an update on the damage.

Though I've never been to the Middle East, Souk Madina has long occupied a place in my imagination for the storied richness and diversity of its spices, produce, and meat, the maze of hallways and vaulted ceilings that make up its endless stalls, and the sheer grand chaos of a teeming old market. So I contacted a few US food authorities from whose writings I've learned to revere the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to get their perspective on the apparent disaster.

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How GMOs Unleashed a Pesticide Gusher

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

For years, proponents of genetically modified crops have hailed them as a critical tool for weaning farmers from reliance on toxic pesticides. On its website, the GMO-seed-and-agrichemical giant Monsanto makes the green case for its Roundup Ready crops, engineered to withstand the company's own blockbuster herbicide, Roundup:

Roundup agricultural herbicides and other products are used to sustainably an [sic] effectively control weeds on the farm. Their use on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to conserve fuel, reduce tillage and decrease the overall use of herbicides. [Emphasis added.]

But in a just-released paper published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe, Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, shreds that claim. He found that Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology, which dominates corn, soy, and cotton farming, has called forth a veritable monsoon of herbicides, both in terms of higher application rates for Roundup, and, in recent years, growing use of other, more-toxic herbicides.

Forget Baconpocalypse—Fishageddon Will Be Worse

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 2:30 PM EDT

If cats have any rival as objects of internet fixation, it may be bacon. Over the years, the salty, fatty, sweet, crispy stuff has gained iconic status among hardcore foodies and fast food fans alike. Thus we get sites like Bacon Today, which delivers "Daily News on the World of Sweet, Sweet Bacon." Or as a July Wired headline summed up the internet's cured-pork fetish: "Zombies and Bacon: Manufacturing Memes."

And so, when a British pork industry trade group issued a press release last week titled "Europe's pork and bacon supply is contracting fast," bloggers sniffed an easy post in a "bacon shortage" meme. And so the "baconpocalypse" was born, complete with cutesy blog posts about how we'll have to cut back on bacon donuts and candy bars. Or as one business site insisted, "Forget adding on bacon to your cheeseburgers or the 'B' in that BLT."

Of course, all of this is click-groping internet piffle, as Slate's Matt Yglesias showed. The UK pork industry's press release wasn't really about bacon specifically, but rather about pork in general. And while it's true that a catastrophic drought in US corn and soy country means higher hog-feed prices and thus higher pork prices next year, the effect on American consumers will be minimal. Mother Jones' own Asawin Suebsaeng showed that the alleged great bacon shortage will shave just a pound per capita off of US bacon production in 2013—leaving us with an ample 45 pounds of bacon per person to make do with over the year. Overall, US pork prices will rise just 2.5 to 3 percent next year, the USDA projects. Wendy's will likely continue peddling its "Baconator" burger unimpeded.

Tom's Kitchen: Quick and Easy Zucchini Fritters

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

September in Austin is a slightly awkward time at the farmers market. Months of brutal heat has finished off most of the summer harvest, but the fall goods like kale, collards, and winter squash aren't quite ready yet. One thing you can still get in abundance is zucchini, which I love—but at this point, I can't do any more grilled, sauteed or roasted zucchini slices. So when I picked up a few beautiful ones recently, all I could think to do with them was grate them into fritters.

Fritters sometimes strike me as too fussy. But doing it this time reminded me just how quick and easy they are—and delicious, too. Served over a salad—even a kale salad—with a glass of white wine or lager, they're a great late-summer light dinner.

Zucchini Fritters
2 medium zucchini
2 eggs
1 teaspoon sea salt
A fistful of parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced fine
A good lashing of freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of red-hot chile clakes
1/2 cup flour (hippie that I am, I used whole wheat)
Olive oil, for pan frying

Belle of the September market: zephyr zucchini Belle of the September market: zephyr zucchini Using a box grater, grate zucchini into a large bowl. Move the shredded zucchini to one side of the bowl, tilt the bowl, and give the zucchini a squeeze to press out excess water. Discard the water. Put the zucchini back to the bottom of the bowl and spread it to the edges, creating a hollow in the middle. Crack the eggs into the hollow, add the rest of the ingredients except for the flour and cooking oil, and whisk the eggs with a fork, roughly incorporating everything, until the egg is uniformly yellow. With a wooden spoon, gently stir everything together. Spread the flour over the mixture evenly—to a avoid lumps—and gently stir in to combine.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add enough oil to generously cover the bottom. When the oil is very hot, using a table spoon, drop in mounds of the zucchini mixture, pressing gently. Avoid letting them touch. Cook until they're well browned, and flip. When they're browned on both sides, they're done.

BPA From Cans Messes With Your Ovaries

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Ordinarily, I'd object to the practice of knowingly subjecting fellow primates to a harmful substance, even for the sake of science. And that's exactly what researchers from Washington State University and the University of California-Davis did for a study just released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (abstract; full study): They fed female rhesus monkeys low doses of the industrial chemical Bisphenol A (BPA).

But I'll give these researchers a pass. That's because most of the US public gets its own tiny daily dose of BPA—the stuff is widely used by the food-packaging industry, and traces of it leach out through metal cans and other food and beverage containers. A 2003 survey (summarized here) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of it in 93 percent of urine samples in Americans six years old and older—and these findings are "considered representative of exposures in the United States," the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states.

What is this constant exposure to BPA doing to us? That's the legitimate question the WSU/UC-Davis team was examining when they spiked the diets of gestating female rhesus monkeys—a species with a reproductive system very similar to humans'—with levels of BPA equivalent to what most Americans get through their diets. And what they found is disturbing: "New evidence that the plastic additive BPA can disrupt women's reproductive systems, causing chromosome damage, miscarriages and birth defects," as the WSU web site put it in a summary.

My SXSW Eco Panel: the Future of Organic

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 10:20 PM EDT

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 5:00 AM EDT
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 5:00 AM EDT
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 5:00 AM EDT
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 5:00 AM EDT
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.