Tom Philpott

Attention, Viagra Users of Columbus: Don't Drink the Water

| Tue Jun. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

One day last August, residents in Toledo, Ohio, received a stark warning from city officials: Don't drink your tap water, don't wash the dishes in it, and don't bathe your kids in it. This year, it's the people of Columbus, 150 miles to the south, who received a jolt of bad news: In a large swath of the city and its suburbs, pregnant women and babies younger than six months of age have been advised to avoid the tap. In a warning well designed to titillate headline writers, another group landed on the don't-drink-the-water list: Viagra users.

Consumption of nitrates has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects as well as cancers of the ovaries and thyroid.

The advisory "will remain in effect until further notice," the City of Columbus website states. The Columbus Dispatch reported that it could "last weeks."

What gives? Toledo and Columbus are surrounded by industrial-scale corn, soybean, and hog farms, and in both cases, runoff from these operations fouled the water supply. In Toledo, the culprit was phosphorus finding its way from farm fields into Lake Erie, from which the city draws its water. Excessively high phosphorus levels fed a massive algae bloom, from which toxins seeped into the municipal water supply.

In Columbus, the problem is nitrate, from nitrogen fertilizer that leaches out of farm fields and into streams and rivers. Nitrates also concentrate in hog manure, which is also applied to farm fields and is prone to leaching. Nitrates in the water emerging from one of the city's main water-treatment facilities, called Dublin Road, have exceeded the federal limit of 10 parts per million.

That's bad, because nitrates are linked to a range of health problems at low exposure levels: They impede the blood's ability to carry oxygen—a characteristic that's particularly threatening to infants. They've also been linked to elevated rates of birth defects as well as cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. As for Viagra users, they should avoid the water because the drug interacts with nitrates in a way that can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure.

On its website, the City of Columbus bluntly states the cause of the nitrate spike: "Elevated nitrate levels are primarily a result of fertilizer and agricultural runoff within the 1,000 square mile Scioto River watershed—80% of which is agricultural."

The water-treatment plant in question currently lacks the ability to filter out nitrates. The city is spending $35 million on an ion-exchange treatment facility that, "when completed in 2017, will allow the plant to more effectively treat nitrate events such as this one," its website states. Nitrate advisories like the current one have been common over the years, reports the Dispatch

Nitrate-laced water is a problem throughout the Corn Belt, those upper Midwest states with high concentrations of ferilizer-intensive corn farming and large-scale hog-production facilities. A 2008 survey found that about half of Iowa's private wells had measurable levels of nitrate, and in 12 percent the chemical turned up above the Environmental Protection Agency's limit. And in Des Moines, the city's water department is suing upstream farm-drainage districts, demanding that they be regulated under the Clean Water Act. To protect its residents from over-the-limit nitrate levels, Des Moines Water Works has had to run its nitrate-removal facility for a record 111 days this year, at a cost of about $7,000 per day. The filtration system dates to 1991, Des Moines Water Works claims, and will soon need to be replaced, which will result in a bill to rate payers as high as $183 million.

Meanwhile, the bulk of nitrates exiting the Corn Belt's farms wind up in the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed a vast annual algae bloom that creates a Connecticut-sized oceanic dead zone.

The cases of Toledo, Columbus, Des Moines, and the Gulf share a theme: They represent major costs and liabilities of industrial-scale agriculture that take place off the books of the benefiting companies and are literally flowing downstream.

Advertise on

Egg Prices Soar 60 Percent as Avian Flu Slams Midwest

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 2:10 PM EDT

Retail egg prices have risen from an average of $1.22 per dozen in mid-May to $1.95 this week, the US Department of Agriculture reports. That's a 60 percent jump in just a month—a reflection of the massive toll being exacted by an avian flu outbreak that has ripped through the Midwest's egg-laying farms.

"Highly pathogenic" to birds, but so far not to people, the strain first turned up in Oregon in last December and has since rapidly moved east to Minnesota and Iowa. It has now killed or triggered the euthanasia of 47 million birds. I go into more detail on the outbreak here and here, and evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace of the Institute of Global Studies at the University of Minnesota gives his take here.

The flu's spread is slowing as the weather warms up (flu viruses don't thrive in the heat), but producers in the south, where the great bulk of US chicken is grown, fear an outbreak there this fall. Last week, North Carolina's agriculture department announced the ban of poultry shows and public live bird sales, effective  Aug. 15 to Jan. 15, "due to the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza."

The California Secretary of Agriculture Couldn't Be More Wrong About the Drought

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 2:42 PM EDT
Newly planted almond trees in the southern Central Valley.

In a recent Los Angeles Times' op-ed, California agriculture secretary Karen Ross took a bold stand on the No. 1 threat menacing her state's beleaguered farmers: bad PR.

I'm being facetious. Water scarcity, obviously, is the specter haunting California agriculture. But Ross didn't go there. Instead, she defended her state's farms against charges by media pundits of irrigation profligacy, asserting that the farms are "worth" the 80 percent of the state's managed water that they require.

Farmers in the Central Valley are locked in a virtual water-drilling arms race.

The piece, co-written with University of California-Davis ag economist Daniel Sumner, surely doesn’t express the entirety of Ross' view of her state's sobering water situation. But its focus on public-image concerns over substance suggests an inability by the state's policymakers to accept that the state's farming-related water issues are so severe that they need a policy response—now.

A couple of days after Ross' piece, the New York Times ran an eye-popping article about farmer-on-farmer water wars brewing in the ag-centered Central Valley. Farmers, the Times explains, are tapping into groundwater at such a rapid rate that some wells are going dry, forcing farmers to dig deeper: a virtual water-drilling arms race. Worse, large swaths of the southern Central Valley are sinking into the void left by extracted water. And as land drops, any infrastructure built onto it—roads, bridges, irrigation canals—is prone to damage.

As the Center for Investigative Reporting's Nathan Halverson showed in a recent article, subsidence, as land sinking is known, is already costing the state's taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the form of roads, bridges, and schools that need fixing. Halverson shows that the California Department of Transportation is spending taxpayer money to fix roads without knowing that agriculture-driven subsidence is causing the problems. Sunken land also does permanent damage to the aquifers themselves, reducing their capacity to hold water in the future.

The new groundwater rules won't go fully into effect until 2040.

Predictably, the situation is leading to disputes among farmers over damaged canals and dry wells, The Times shows. But amid the squabbling, no one has the incentive to stop pumping water—why should farmer A sacrifice income by turning off the well, if she knows that farmers B, C, and D are simply going to keep pumping, driving water tables ever lower.

And as I've written before, the ongoing switch from annual crops like cotton and vegetables to almond and pistachio orchards only makes things more intense. It's one thing to fallow melons and lose just a year's income; almond and pistachio groves are major investments that take several years to begin producing, and then do so for 20 years, so farmers fight hard to keep them watered every year.

With economic incentives in place for a massive water grab, it's time for policymakers to step in. Last year, they did—sort of. The California legislature shook off decades of pushback from farm interests and passed historic legislation that finally regulated groundwater pumping. Until then, groundwater had been governed by Wild West rules: If there's water under your land, you can tap it at will (even though aquifers don't follow land-title boundaries).

The problem, though, is that the legislation doesn't go fully into effect until 2040—and until then will remain under a cloak of confidentiality, meaning it will still be difficult to tell where groundwater is being pumped the fastest. In other words, the legislature punted any actual solution to the problem a couple more decades down the road.

That's inadequate, according to Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he should know: He uses satellite data to assess groundwater withdrawals. In a March LA Times op-ed, he argued that implementation needs to be accelerated. If it's not, he wrote, "it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working…By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain."

And here's where Karen Ross and her bully pulpit could help things. Rather than penning anodyne op-eds defending farmers' water use from public criticism, she should be helping Central Valley farmers pull out of their groundwater death spiral by pushing for emergency measures to rein in groundwater pumping. "Our soils and climate are what have made it possible for us to supply so much of our nation's and the world's food," Ross reminded us in her op-ed. She forgot to mention the rapidly depleting fossil resource that props up the Central Valley ag powerhouse—both literally and figuratively.

We'll All Eat Less Meat Soon—Like It or Not

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The great bulk of American beef comes from cows that have been fattened in confined yards with thousands of of their peers, munching a diet of corn, soybeans, and chemical additives.  Should the feedlot model, innovated in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, continue its global spread—or is it better to raise cows on pasture, eating grass?

The question is critical, because global demand for animal flesh is on the rise, driven by growing appetites for meat in developing countries, where per capita meat consumption stands at about a third of developed-world levels.

In a much-shared interview on the website of the Breakthrough Institute, Washington State University researcher Judith Capper informs us that the US status quo is the way forward. "If we switched to all grass-fed beef in the United States, it would require an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million acres more land, and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions," she said. "We’d have the same amount of beef, but with a huge environmental cost."

Americans consume on average about 209 pounds of meat per year—yet less than 100 pounds is "compatible with good health and high longevity."

I agree with Capper that it would be a disaster to empty the feedlots and put all of the hungry cows out to pasture—that is, at current levels of beef production, finding enough grass to feed every cow that now relies on copious supplies of corn would likely prove impossible.

But there's a deeper question that Capper doesn't look at: Is the feedlot system itself sustainable? That is, can we keep stuffing animals—not just cows but also chickens and pigs—into confinements and feeding them gargantuan amounts of corn and soybeans? And can other countries mimic that path, as China is currently?

The answer, plainly, is no, according to the eminent ecologist Vaclav Smil in a 2014 paper. Smil notes that global meat production has risen from less than 55 million tons in 1950 to more than 300 million tons in 2010—a nearly six-fold increase in 60 years. "But this has been a rather costly achievement because mass-scale meat production is one of the most environmentally burdensome activities," he writes, and then proceeds to list off the problems: it requires a large-scale shift from diversified farmland and rainforests to "monocultures of animal feed," which triggered massive soil erosion, carbon emissions, and coastal "dead zones" fed by fertilizer runoff. Also, concentrating animals tightly together produces "huge volumes of waste," more than can be recycled into nearby farmland, creating noxious air and water pollution. Moreover, it's "inherently inefficient" to feed edible grains to farm animals, when we could just eat the grain, Smil adds.

This ruinous system would have to be scaled up if present trends in global meat demand continue, Smil writes—reaching 412 million tons of meat in 2030, 500 million tons in 2050, and 577 million tons in 2080, according to projections from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Such a carnivorous future is "possible but it is neither rational nor sustainable"—it will ultimately destroy the ecosystems on which it relies.

Instead of corn and soy, farm animals should be fed solely crop residues and food waste, Smil argues.

Smil is no anti-meat crusader. He acknowledges that "human evolution has been closely linked in many fundamental ways to the killing of animals and eating their meat." But the rise of the feedlot has provided much more meat than is necessary nutritionally—Americans consume on average about 209 pounds of meat per year, while a "wealth of evidence confirms" that a bit less than 100 pounds is "compatible with good health and high longevity."

He calculates that such a level could be achieved globally, without the ecosystem destruction built into the status quo meat production model. Rather than gobble up stuff we could eat like corn and soybeans, farm animals should be fed solely crop residues and food waste. And rather than be crammed into concentrated feedlots, they should be kept on pasture in rotation with food crops. Managing meat production that way, he calculates, would generate more than 200 million tons of meat per year—about enough, he calculates, to provide the globe with sufficient meat for optimal health.

Of course, massive challenges stand between Smil's vision and reality. For one, it would require people in industrialized countries like the United States to cut their meat consumption by half or more, even as consumption in Asia and Africa rises to roughly equal levels. Then, of course, there are the massive globe-spanning meat companies like US-owned Tyson, Brazil-owned JBS, and China's Smithfield that have a huge stake in defending the status quo.

But ramping up the current system to provide the entire globe with US levels carnivory is hard to fathom, too. If it happens, "there is no realistic possibility of limiting the combustion of fossil fuels and moderating the rate of global climate change," Smil writes. In other words, like it or not, it's probably time to get used to eating less meat—pushed by the climate crisis, industrialized societies may have little choice but to ramp down meat production along lines suggested by Smil.

Meanwhile, US meat consumption, long among the very highest in the world, is waning, if slowly. The total annual slaughter peaked at 9.5 billion animals in 2009, and has been hovering around 9.1 billion in recent years. Interestingly, Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm-animal protection of the Humane Society of the United States, told me that the decrease reflects meat eaters' cutting back, not any turn to abstention—the percentage of vegetarians and vegans among the population has "remained relatively stable" in recent years, he said. (See my colleague Gabrielle Canon's list of the most common ways in which meat eaters justify their diet here.)

If we can continue this trend, the feedlot, which looks hyper-efficient at mass-producing meat only if you ignore a host of environmental liabilities, may yet prove to be a passing fad.

Study: Organic Farming Is More Profitable Than Conventional

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 11:56 AM EDT

After years of steady growth in demand, organic food now accounts for 5 percent of US food sales. Yet organically managed land makes up just 1 percent of US farmland. Why hasn't the craze for organics moved from the supermarket to the countryside? The problem isn't a lack of profitability, a new paper (abstract; press release) from Washington State University researchers David Crowdera and John Reganold finds.

The researchers found that organic farming is somewhere between 22 percent and 35 percent more profitable for farmers than conventional.

The authors crunched data from 44 studies involving 55 crops grown on five continents over 40 years and found that organic farming is somewhere between 22 percent and 35 percent more profitable for farmers than conventional. The reason: the higher price farmers get when they sell certified-organic crops. This "premium," as it's known, stands at around 30 percent, and stayed roughly equal over the four-decade period, the authors report.

They also found that organic farming would retain its profitability edge even if its price advantage dropped significantly: at a premium as low as 5 percent, they found, the two systems are equally profitable. The costs of doing business are roughly equal for the two systems: Organic farmers save on chemical inputs, but essentially substitute labor for chemicals (think hoeing weeds vs. dousing them with herbicides) and thus have higher labor costs. 

According to the studies they analyzed, organic farming delivers lower yields than conventional, by somewhere between 10 percent and 18 percent (mainly driven by use of synthetic and mined fertilizers). This yield penalty, it should be noted, is not necessarily set in stone. For the purposes of this paper, the authors looked at studies comparing conventional and organic ag as they're practiced in the field in a variety of contexts.

But agrichemical-intensive agriculture has received far more research-and-development over the decades than organic has. And when organic ag is lavished with serious research, it has proven the ability to deliver comparable yields—see, for example, the well-respected test plots at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

And farmers' work isn't just about generating maximum yield in any one growing season; it's also about maintaining healthy soil and limiting pollution. Here, the Washington State authors note, organic ag delivers "greater energy efficiency; enhanced soil carbon and quality; greater floral, faunal, and landscape diversity; and less pesticide and nutrient pollution of ground and surface waters."

These "externalities," as they're known, "likely make up for price premiums awarded to organic products," the authors write. That is, when we spend more for organic food, we're essentially paying farmers a little extra to maintain healthy soil and avoid pesticide runoff.

The question looms: If organic is more profitable, why hasn't it spread far and wide? The authors note that the three-year transition required for certification puts farmers in a bind: Having gone cold turkey from agrichemicals, their yields drop, but they get no price premium for their trouble until year four. I'd add that farmers, like most people, are wary of change. Organic may offer higher profits; but ditching chemicals requires a radically different style of farming. Such leaps aren't made casually.

If we want to move away from reliance on toxic chemicals, the organic premium might not be enough. We may have to think of other ways to factor those "externalities" into the price of the food we eat.

Tom's Kitchen: Steamed Spring Green Beans and New Potatoes with Parsley Sauce and Sardines

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 1:11 PM EDT

My vegetable repertoire has narrowed to the point of tedium: I sauté fast-cooking ones like greens and fresh beans and roast slow-cooking ones like potatoes unto caramelization. Most everything gets plenty of garlic, high-flavor fats like olive oil or lard, and a dash of chile pepper.

But on a recent trip to Austin's urban-ag jewel Boggy Creek Farms, I picked up first-of-the-season green beans and red new potatoes that were so fresh and enticing that such treatments seemed way too aggressive. I wanted the flavor of the vegetables themselves, not my cooking techniques and condiments, to dominate.

So I did something I don't think I've ever done voluntarily: I steamed them. And I'll be damned if they didn't avoid blandness, the fate I've always associated with the technique. Instead, the potatoes were like an impossibly potato-y bite of the earth itself; and the green beans delivered a crunchy jolt of chlorophyllic sweetness.

To bring it all together into a light meal, I needed a low-key dressing. My Boggy Creek expedition also netted a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, which I decided to whiz into a vinaigrette. I also wanted a protein element, and in my cupboard I found one that would provide a sharp contrast to the delicate vegetables: a tin of sardines.

To preserve the original idea—vegetables that tasted of themselves—I decided to compose the plate precisely. Here's what I did:

Steamed Spring Green Beans and New Potatoes with Parsley Sauce and Sardines

(Light meal for two, plus some leftovers)

½ pound smallish, freshly dug ("new") potatoes, quartered

½ pound fresh green beans, stem ends snapped off, snapped in half

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 small clove of garlic, crushed and peeled

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 4.25 oz can of sardines in olive oil (I used this kind)

Add a steamer insert to a pot along with an inch of water. Cover and turn heat to high until the water boils. Turn the heat down halfway, add the potatoes, cover, and steam until they're just tender. Remove to a bowl. Add a bit more water to the pot, and repeat with the green beans, making sure they're left with a little crunch.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by combining the parsley, oil, vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a food processor or blender. Mix until reasonably smooth. (You will likely have leftover dressing—keeps well in the fridge for a few days, and makes everything taste good.)

To compose, start by dotting each plate with splotches of dressing. Now carefully layer on the vegetables, distributing them more or less evenly (leaving aside about a third for seconds or leftovers.) Then add the sardines the same way—use them all, because they don't make for fun leftovers. Finally, add a few more dots of dressing, as well as a conservative dusting of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a bowl of extra dressing at the table for supplementation.

This dish is made to serve with a minerally, ice cold white wine.

Advertise on

We're Eating Less Meat—Yet Factory Farms Are Still Growing

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The United States remains one of the globe's most carnivorous nations, but things have changed subtly in recent decades. While our consumption of chicken has skyrocketed, we're eating much less red meat. 

Carolyn Perot

Overall per capita meat consumption has fallen nearly 10 percent since the 2007-'8 financial meltdown; and as we cut back on quantity, we're more likely to pay up for animals raised outside and not dosed with all manner of drugs.

Meanwhile, though, the meat industry lurches on, consolidating operations and stuffing its factory-scale facilities ever tighter with animals, as the organization Food and Water Watch shows in a recently updated map:

See the interactive version of this map here. Food and Water Watch

The charts below show the big picture. Note that the overall number of animals kept on US farms is leveling off, and in the case of beef cattle and meat chickens (broilers), actually dropping a bit. But the number of animals stuffed into each facility remains steadily on the rise for beef and dairy cows, hogs, and egg-laying hens. The number of meat chickens per site has plateaued—at the stunning level of more than 100,000 birds.

Among the many ecological problems you create when you concentrate so many animals in one place is massive loads of manure. How much?

These factory-farmed livestock produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012, about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times.

When humans live together in large numbers, as in cities, we've learned to treat our waste before sending it downstream. The meat industry faces no such requirement, and instead collects manure in large outdoor cesspools (known, picturesquely, as "lagoons") before being spread on surrounding farmland. Some individual counties churn out much more waste than large metropolises. Here's Food and Water Watch on the nation's most dairy- and hog-centric counties:


Recycling manure as farm fertilizer is an ecologically sound idea in the abstract—but when animals are concentrated in such numbers, they produce much more waste than surrounding landscapes can healthily absorb. As a result, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus leach into streams and rivers, feeding algae blooms and fouling drinking water. Then there are bacterial nasties. "Six of the 150 pathogens found in animal manure are responsible for 90 percent of human food- and water-borne diseases: Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli 0157:H7, Cryptosporidium and Giardia," Food and Water Watch reports.

Air, too, is a problem, as anyone who's ever gotten close to a teeming cow, pig, or chicken facility can testify. Thousands of people, of course, are forced to live near them or work on them, and it's no picnic. "Overexposure to hydrogen sulfide [a pungent gas emanating from lagoons] can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, respiratory failure, hypoxia and even death," Food and Water Watch states. "[W]orkers in factory farm facilities experience high levels of asthma-like symptoms, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases."

And these counties tended to be bunched together in great manure-churning clusters. Note, for example, how most industrial-scale hog production takes place in the Midwest and in eastern North Carolina:


While Big Chicken has chosen to alight largely upon the southeast, the Mississippi Delta, and California's Central Valley:

So why are these large facilities humming even as US eaters cut back? Globally, demand for meat continues to rise, and the dark-red spots on the maps above have emerged as key production nodes in an increasingly globalized meat market. US meat exports have tripled in value since 1997 (USDA numbers), and the industry wants more, as evidenced by its push to support the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asia.

Stop Romanticizing Your Grandparents' Food

| Wed May 27, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Ever been advised to "eat like your grandmother"—that is, to seek food that's prepared in ways that would be recognized a generation or two ago, untainted by the evils of industrialization? That's nonsense, writes Rachel Laudan in a rollicking essay recently published in Jacobin.

Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which Laudan offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Her polemic is actually a reprint. It originally appeared in Gastronomica way back in 2001—five years before the publication of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, at the dawn of a boom in farmers markets and other ways to "know your farmer" and "eat local." And yet it's just as bracing to read today as it was then.

The backlash against stuff like chicken nuggets and boxed mac 'n' cheese is "based not on history but on a fairy tale," Laudan writes. Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which she offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Thing is, implicated though I may be in Laudan's blistering critique, I largely agree with it—with a caveat.

You wouldn't know it from grazing the virtuous bounty on display at Whole Foods, but securing good food has always been a struggle. Laudan, a historian who has authored a book on food and empire, spices her essay liberally with pungent facts about preindustrial food. "All too often," she writes, "those who worked the land got by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads," because all the good stuff went to their feudal lords and a rising urban merchant class. French peasants "prayed that chestnuts would be sufficient to sustain them from the time when their grain ran out to the harvest still three months away," while their Italian counterparts  "suffered skin eruptions, went mad, and in the worst cases died of pellagra brought on by a diet of maize polenta and water."

And she notes, as I have with great relish, that fast food is hardly the invention of midcentury US burger kings. "Hunters tracking their prey, fishermen at sea, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home," she writes. But the real fast-food action was found in cities, forever packed with people living in tight quarters with few cooking resources:

Before the birth of Christ, Romans were picking up honey cakes and sausages in the Forum. In twelfth-century Hangchow, the Chinese downed noodles, stuffed buns, bowls of soup, and deep-fried confections. In Baghdad of the same period, the townspeople bought ready-cooked meats, salt fish, bread, and a broth of dried chick peas. In the sixteenth cen­tury, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Mexicans had been enjoying tacos from the market for generations. In the eighteenth century, the French purchased cocoa, apple turnovers, and wine in the boulevards of Paris, while the Japanese savored tea, noodles, and stewed fish.


In short, Laudan has delivered an evocative corrective to the culinary romanticism that pervades our farmers markets and farm-to-table culinary temples.

Yet her "plea for culinary modernism" contains its own gaping blind spot. If Laudan's "culinary Luddites" feast on tales of an imaginary prelapsarian food past, she herself presents a gauzy and romanticized view of industrialized food.

Starting around 1880, she notes, US and European farmers began spreading more fertilizer and using better farm machinery, sparking the agricultural revolution that's with us today: reliance on hybrid (now genetically modified) seeds, agrichemicals, monocrops. To hear her tell it, it's been nonstop progress ever since.

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate (Mexican corn grinder) five hours a day.

What she misses, of course, are the downsides. She celebrates the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables, but doesn't mention the army of ruthlessly exploited workers (Mexicans in the US West, and in the South, until recently, the descendants of enslaved African Americans) required to plant, tend, and harvest it. Yes, meat, once enjoyed "only on rare occasions" by working people, is now within easy reach of most Americans, but Laudan doesn't pause to ponder what it means for the people who work for poverty wages in factory-scale slaughterhouses. To speak nothing of fast-food, restaurant, and supermarket workers.

Laudan has little to say about how our modern diet is generating new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Nor does she ponder the people cut off from industrialized food's bounty: The nearly 1 billion people, most of them in the Global South, who lack enough to eat—many of whom work on plantation-style farms that provide wealthy consumers with coffee, sugar, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

She also evades the ecological question. Large Midwestern farms provide the grain that feeds our teeming factory meat operations. In doing so, they systemically foul water with agrichemicals and hemorrhage topsoil, essentially a fossil resource. Meat farms, meanwhile, have become overreliant on antibiotics—contributing to an antibiotic-resistance crisis that now claims 700,000 lives worldwide. California's agricultural behemoth, which churns out the bulk of US-grown fruits and vegetables and nearly all US-grown nuts, relies on oversubscribed and rapidly depleting water resources. And so on.

Finally, there's health. Laudan is right that starvation is mostly a thing of the past in the industrialized world, but she has little to say about how our modern diet is contributing to new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

I share her annoyance at the historical fantasia that often passes for analysis among foodies. The key insight to be drawn from Laudan is that our species has rarely if ever experienced an equitable or sustainable way of feeding itself. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying—or that monocrops and agrichemicals bring us any closer.

Holy Shit! Almonds Require a Ton of Bees

| Mon May 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Growing 80 percent of the globe's almonds in California doesn't just require massive amounts of water. It also takes a whole bunch of honeybees for pollination—roughly two hives' worth for every acre of almonds trees, around 1.7 million hives altogether. That's something like 85 percent of all available commercial hives in the United States, Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper who serves as vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, recently told NPR.

Now, that vast army of bees—made up, all told, of more than 80 billion flying, buzzing soldiers—doesn't stay put in California's almond-happy Central Valley all year. The almond bloom typically lasts for just a few weeks (or less) in February. The modern honeybee operation is an itinerant business—beekeepers move hives throughout the year, in pursuit of paid pollination gigs—from tangerines in Florida to cherries in Washington state—as well as good forage for honey.

As US honeybees' health has flagged, California's almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

But California's almond bloom is the biggest gig of all—the "largest managed pollination event anywhere in the world," Scientific American reports. And as US honeybee populations' health has flagged in recent years—most famously epitomized by the mysterious winter die-offs that began around a decade ago, known as colony collapse disorder—the almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

One question that arises is: Why do the nation's beekeepers uproot themselves and their winged charges to travel to California each year? The state houses about 500,000 beehives, meaning that more then 1 million come in, from as far away as Maine. What's the incentive?

These days, US beekeepers typically make more money from renting out their bees for pollination than they do from producing honey. "Without pollination income, we'd be out of business," Brandi told me. Income from the two sources varies year to year, but pollination income has grown over the years even as honey revenues have fallen, depressed by competition from imported honey. In 2012, for example, US beekeepers brought in $283 million from honey, versus an estimated $656 million from pollination.

And California's almond growers have to shell out big money to draw in their pollinators—between $165 and $200 per hive, vs $45 to $75 a hive a decade ago, according to the Fresno Bee. That's around $309 million, if we assume as average price of $182 per hive, the midpoint of the Bee's range.

What's the impact on overall honeybee health, which has been under heavy pressure over the past decade? There are two potential downsides.

The first is from pesticides—insect growth regulators and fungicides—bees encounter in their travels around almond groves. During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 percent and 25 percent of beehives suffered "severe" damage, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood (the next generation of bees incubating in the hive), the Pollinator Stewardship Council estimated. The die-off caused an uproar, and many beekeepers pointed a finger at pesticides—and they probably had a point, as I showed here.

During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 and 25 percent of hives suffered severe damage.

This year, Brandi told me, some beekeepers reported losses, but they weren't nearly as severe or widespread as the ones in 2014. In the wake of the 2014 troubles, the Almond Board of California released a set of "best management practices" for protecting honeybees during the bloom that, Brandi said, may have influenced growers to avoid particularly harmful pesticide applications. Given that almond growers utterly rely on—and indeed, pay heavily for—honeybees for pollinating their crop, it seems logical that they'll avoid poisoning them when possible. There will also be tension, though, as long as almond trees are planted in geographically concentrated and vast groves. Large monocrops provide an ideal habitat for pests like fungi and insects, and thus a strong incentive to respond with chemicals. There's also the possibility that concentrating such a huge portion of the nation's bees in such a tight geographical area facilitates the spread of viruses and other pathogens.

The second threat to bee health from pollinating California's massive almond bloom comes from long-distance travel. This one lies at the heart of the beekeeping industry's itinerant business model. Does it compromise bee health to pack hundreds of hives onto a flatbed truck for cross-country trips? The stresses go well beyond the occasional truck wreck. Scientific American explains the rigors of apiary highway travel like this:

The migration…continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation. Once a particular bloom is over, the bees have nothing to eat, because there is only that one pollen-depleted crop as far as the eye can see. When on the road, bees cannot forage or defecate. And the sugar syrup and pollen patties beekeepers offer as compensation are not nearly as nutritious as pollen and nectar from wild plants. Scientists have a good understanding of the macronutrients in pollen such as protein, fat and carbohydrate, but know very little about its many micronutrients such as vitamins, metals and minerals—so replicating pollen is difficult.

A 2012 paper, coauthored by USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis, found that long-distance travel may indeed have ill health effects—the researchers found that "bees experiencing transportation have trouble fully developing their food glands and this might affect their ability to nurse the next generation of workers."

Brandi, for his part, dismisses travel as a factor in the overall decline in bee health. "Bees have been traveling back and forth across he country for years," he said—since long before the colony collapse disorder and other health troubles began to emerge a decade ago, he said. He said bee travel has actually gotten less stressful over the years as beekeepers have upgraded to smoother-riding flatbed trucks. He said other factors, including pesticides, declining biodiversity, and mites (a bee pest) are likely more important drivers of declining bee health.

Meanwhile, California almond country's massive appetite for pollination isn't likely to dissipate anytime soon. According to the latest USDA numbers, acreage devoted to almonds expanded by 5 percent in 2014, and growers continue laying in yet more groves this year, Western Farm Press reports. Land devoted to almonds has grown 50 percent since 2005—and every time farmers add another acre of trees, they need access to two additional bee hives for pollination. 

So why don't more beekeepers simply move to California and stay put, to take advantage of the world's biggest—and growing—pollination gig? I put that question to longtime bee expert Eric Mussen of the University of California-Davis. He said the state is already home to 500,000 of the nation's 2.7 million hives. The almond bloom is great for a few weeks, but in terms of year-round foraging, "California is already at or near its carrying capacity for honeybees," he said—the areas with the best-quality forage are already well stocked with bees.So satisfying the world's ever-growing appetite for almonds will continue to require an annual armada of beehive-laden trucks.

Bird Flu Is Slamming Factory Farms But Sparing Backyard Flocks. Why?

| Wed May 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The Midwest's ongoing avian flu crisis is wreaking havoc on the region's large-scale egg and turkey farms. Last week alone, the US Department of Agriculture confirmed that the virus had turned up in more than 20 additional facilities in the region, condemning 4 million birds to euthanasia. Altogether, the H5N2 virus—"highly pathogenic" to birds, so far non-threatening to humans—has affected 168 sites and a jaw-dropping 36 million birds, the great bulk of them in Iowa and surrounding states. It's the largest avian flu outbreak in US history—and it has already wiped out 40 percent of the egg-laying flock h Iowa, the number-one egg-producing state in the US, according to The New York Times.

But it's largely leaving backyard flocks unscathed. Why?

You'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," said one virologist.

According to Hon S. Ip, a virologist at the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, it's a genuine mystery. Backyard flocks typically roam outdoors, in ready contact with wild birds, which are thought to be the origin of the virus. Their commercial counterparts live in tight confinement under strict "biosecurity" protocols: birds are shielded from contact with the outdoors; workers change into special boots and coveralls—or even shower—before entering facilities, etc.

Ip said that wild birds could be spreading the virus in one of two ways: directly, by bringing chickens and turkeys into contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through wind-borne particles that, say, blow through vents in a confined facility. "If that's how it's spreading, you'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," he told me. Moreover, it has continued to spread in Iowa, even after the egg industry had ample time to ramp up biosecurity. All of this suggests something else, besides wild birds, might be the cause, Ip added.

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches.

But what? He has no idea, he said. And nor, apparently, does anyone else. In a recent news item [paywalled], the journal Science declared the outbreak "enigmatic." "All the old dogma about high-path influenza transmission has just gone out the window," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy here at the University of Minnesota, told the journal. "We're in totally uncharted territory."

Meanwhile, in an interview with Iowa Public Radio, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches. "We've had circumstances recently where folks have been using pond water, for example, to feed and to water their birds. Well, that's a problem because the pond water could be contaminated," Vilsack said in the interview. "We've had situations where folks are supposed to shower before they go into the facility, but the shower doesn't work, so they go in anyway."

I've seen no reports detailing current conditions on egg farms in Iowa, but it's worth noting that in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration found troubling biosecurity lapses within some of the state's largest egg facilities, after they had been forced to recall 550 million eggs due to potential salmonella contamination. The FDA inspectors' report detailed a variety of problems, including several involving contact between egg-laying hens and wild birds.

While experts scramble to figure out how the disease is spreading, the egg and turkey industries are dealing with one particular immediate consequence: how to safely dispose of millions of potentially flu-ridden bird carcasses. As the Des Moines Register reports, the process is not going smoothly:

Landfills in South Dakota, Nebraska and northwest Iowa, where poultry producers have been the hardest hit, have turned away the dead birds, fearful of the risk of contamination. The problem is so severe that on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stepped in to urge landfills to accept some of the millions of birds killed or destroyed by the H5N2 virus, saying delays could [exacerbate] odors and flies, problems neighbors have already complained about in some parts of the state.

In response to these difficulties, the USDA has "dedicated 266 employees, including 85 in Iowa, and contracted more than 1,000 personnel to work around the clock across the 20 states affected by the outbreak," Vilsack wrote in a statement. In addition, the agency has allotted $130 million "in indemnity payments to help poultry producers who have lost flocks get back on their feet," Vilsack added.

That relatively modest measure of taxpayer support for the poultry industry may just be the beginning. The USGS's Ip said the rate of new infections is "showing signs of slowing down" as warm weather sets in. Flu viruses are "less stable" at higher temperatures, he said, which is why flu tends to be much worse in winter than in summer. But as Reuters reported recently, the USDA warns that it's "highly probable" the strain will return when the weather cools this fall. If it does, and it spreads to the eastern and southern poultry belts—where the great bulk of the chicken we eat is produced—taxpayers could be in for a real hit.