Tom Philpott

McDonald's Spams Schools With Infomercial on the Virtues of Fast Food

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 10:53 AM EDT

 

 

Robust health requires nothing more than a little exercise and a daily dose or three of fast food. That's the message of the new 20-minute video 540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference (viewable here, short teaser above), being promoted in high schools and middle schools by McDonald's and uncovered by the superb school-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel.

McDonald's recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum."

The video focuses on the dietary and exercise regimen of John Cisna, who identifies himself as an "Iowa HS [high school] Science Teacher who lost over 50 lbs eating only McDonald's," who "now travel[s] across the country sharing my message about food choice." Cisna gained notoriety when he mimicked the self-experiment of documentarian Morgan Spurlock, the director and subject of the famed Super Size Me (2004), by taking his meals exclusively at McDonald's for six months straight. Unlike Spurlock, who saw his weight rise and his health falter, Cisna claims his weight plunged and his health improved. One key difference: Whereas Spurlock famously assented to any plea by a McDonald's employee to "supersize" his orders, Cisna stuck rigorously to a limit of 2,000 calories per day.

Apparently still haunted by the specter of Super Size Me a decade since its release, McDonald's embraced Cisna, taking him on as a paid "brand ambassador" and now pushing his message to school kids, both through the 540 Meals film and through appearances at schools, documented on Cisna's Twitter feed. Siegel uncovered this McDonald's-produced "teachers discussion guide" to 540 Meals. It recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum," particularly in "plans that incorporate Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me." She also points to this August press release from McDonald's franchisees in the New York tri-state area, flogging 540 Meals to "high school educators looking for information to demonstrate the importance of balanced food choices."

As Siegel shows in this handy list of quotes from the film, it brims with agitprop for the famous burger-and-fries purveyor, including such wisdom as "through careful planning and mindful choices, you can still enjoy your favorite McDonald's items."

So what's wrong with pushing Cisna's message to school kids? Plenty, writes Siegel in her post, which is well worth reading in its entirety. Here's a sample:

First, neither 540 Meals nor the discussion guide ever offer young viewers the critically important disclaimer that "Your calorie needs may be significantly lower than John Cisna's," nor do they even discuss how one might go about calculating one’s daily caloric requirements. Instead, students are left with the vague but reassuring message that "choice and balance," along with a 45-minute walk (which might burn off about 1/5 of a Big Mac) will allow them to eat whatever they want at McDonald’s on a regular basis.

 

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Monsanto's Stock Is Tanking. Is the Company's Own Excitement About GMOs Backfiring?

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 1:08 PM EDT
If only we had more pesticides.

Pity Monsanto, the genetically modified seed and agrichemical giant. Its share price has plunged 25 percent since the spring. Market prices for corn and soybeans are in the dumps, meaning Monsanto's main customers—farmers who specialize in those crops—have less money to spend on its pricey seeds and flagship herbicide (which recently got named a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health organization, spurring lawsuits).

Monsanto's CEO hinted that the company may be too invested in high-tech seeds, and underinvested in old-fashioned pesticides.

Monsanto's long, noisy attempt to buy up rival pesticide giant Syngenta crumbled into dust last month. And Wednesday, Monsanto reported quarterly revenues and profits that sharply underperformed Wall Street expectations. For good measure, it also sharply lowered its profit projections for the year ahead.

In response to these unhappy trends, the company announced it was slashing 2,600 jobs, 12 percent of its workforce, and spending $3 billion to buy back shares. Share buybacks are a form of financial (as opposed to genetic) engineering—they magically boost a company's earnings-per-share ratio (a metric closely watched by investors) simply by removing shares from the market. And buybacks divert money from things like R&D—or keeping a company's workforce whole—and into the pockets of shareholders.

In a conference call with investors (transcript), Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant put a positive spin on the company's prospects. "Our germplasm performance has never been better, our trait technology has continued to leap and our market position and pipeline remains strong," he declared. But later, he hit upon a theme that became obvious when Monsanto was stalking Syngenta: that Monsanto's leadership feels the company is too invested in high-tech seeds, and underinvested in old-fashioned pesticides. (The market for Syngenta owns the globe's leading position.)

In the call, Jeff Zekauskas, an analyst with JP MorganChase, asked Grant whether Monsanto was still interested in boosting its pesticide portfolio by buying a competitor. Grant's answer was essentially yes: "We still believe in the opportunity of integrated solutions," i.e., selling more pesticides along with seeds. He added:

We've got a 400 million acre seed technology footprint. We've seen time and time again that we can increase revenue and improve grower service by bringing chemistry up on that footprint.

Translation: Our patented seeds and traits are sown on 400 million acres worldwide (about four times the size of California), and if we could sell more pesticides (chemistry) to the people who farm those acres, we could make more money. Later, he noted:

We continue to see duplication in R&D in the sector. We continue to see the low effectiveness of R&D with some of our competitors and we continue to think that consolidation in this space is inevitable.

Translation: Research-and-development investments in the ag-biotech/agrichemical sector aren't paying off—not enough blockbuster new products—so the few companies remaining in the field (there are six) are going to start swallowing each other up. 

Massive layoffs, share buybacks, dreams of buying up the pesticide portfolios of competitors—these aren't characteristics of a company confident in the long-term profitability of its core technology: the genetic modification of crops.

California Is About to Stop People From Pumping So Many Drugs Into Meat

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

After decades of ignoring a deadly problem, the Food and Drug Administration finally came out with rules restricting the meat industry's heavy reliance on antibiotics back in 2012. But the new regime had two major flaws: (1) It was voluntary, relying on the benevolence of two industries (pharmaceuticals and meat) with long records of lobbying hard for their own interests, and (2) it contained a loophole that allowed meat producers to maintain their old antibiotic habit if they so desired.

Enter California, with new legislation—expected to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown any day now—that would retract those regulatory gifts from the state's teeming livestock farms. 

California's bill would forbid daily, indiscriminate dosing of antibiotics based on some vague notion of "prevention."

The bill would make California's regulation of animal antibiotic use more stringent than the federal government's simply because it's compulsory and not voluntary, according to Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Avinash Kar. But it also snaps shut the infamous "prevention" loophole in the FDA's policy, he adds.

Antibiotics are used in three ways on factory livestock farms: (1) growth promotion—when animals get small daily doses of the the stuff, they grow faster; (2) disease prevention—animals stuffed together in stressful conditions are prone to infection, they pass diseases among themselves rapidly, and antibiotics provide a kind of pharmaceutical substitute for a natural robust immune system; and (3) disease treatment—an animal comes down with a bug and gets treated with antibiotics.

The FDA's policy phases out growth promotion but leaves prevention intact—even though giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to "prevent" disease is virtually indistinguishable from giving them small daily doses to promote growth. A 2014 Pew analysis found no fewer than 66 antibiotic products that the FDA allows to be used for "disease prevention" at levels that are "fully within the range of growth promotion dosages and with no limit on the duration of treatment." In other words, you change the language you use to describe the practice and continue giving your herd of 4,000 confined pigs the same old daily dose of antibiotics.

The California bill, too, allows antibiotic use as "prophylaxis to address an elevated risk of contraction of a particular disease or infection," but it adds an important qualification, Kar points out: The drugs can't be used "in a regular pattern." In other words, no more daily, indiscriminate dosing based on some vague notion of "prevention." "We think this [the "regular pattern" language] puts serious restraint on the routine use of antibiotics," Kar said.

The California law won't have an immediate  impact on national policy, Kar said, but he pointed out that the bill's passage might embolden several other states with significant livestock production, including Oregon and Maryland, that are considering similar legislation. And California itself is a massive producer of dairy, beef, and chicken.

The Meat Industry Is Licking Its Chops Over Obama's Massive Trade Deal

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

The US meat industry scored a big victory this week when world leaders hammered out an agreement that would reduce trade barriers across the Pacific: from the United Sates, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile on this side to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Singapore on the other.

President Barack Obama has made passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP, the signature goal of his second term. Now it goes to Capitol Hill for approval—which it will likely get, given that back in June, Congress granted the president "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals, meaning that it will be considered in up-down, simple-majority votes in both chambers, with no chance of amendment or filibuster.

So how would the TPP affect Big Meat in the United States? The industry is currently facing stagnant domestic demand for its product as Americans eat less meat. The TPP would open markets in countries that currently protect domestic farmers with tariffs. Japan, for example, agreed to slash its tariff on imported beef from 38 percent to 9 percent over the next 15 years—likely making it much easier for American importers to gain a foothold. Because the pact has been negotiated in secret and few details about it have been released, it's impossible to estimate how big of a boost the TPP will provide to US meat purveyors. But it already has industry groups doing the money dance.  

TPP already has meat industry groups doing the money dance.  

In a press release celebrating the TPP, the National Pork Producers Council declared that the trade pact "could increase US pork exports over time exponentially." The National Chicken Council, meanwhile, crowed that the TPP "represents a significant opportunity to expand US chicken exports and bring increased economic benefits to chicken farmers and companies across the country." The United States Cattleman's Association, facing severely declining US beef demand, hailed it in an emailed statement as "welcome news to a domestic industry in need of expanding international market access and reduction of tariffs in the countries included." 

Of course, when asked why they're eating less meat, Americans commonly cite a desire to reduce the environmental and social impacts of industrial-scale meat production: everything from animal cruelty to fouled water and air to labor abuses at slaughterhouses and pillaged local economies. An export boom will only intensify those trends.

"We are already seeing the industry posturing in anticipation for the TPP to pass," Kendra Kimbirauskas, an Oregon farmer and CEO of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. In Oregon, she adds, "representatives for the industry have spoken about wanting to triple dairy production in the Pacific Northwest to meet Asian demand for powdered milk."

She points to another concern with the deal: the infamous Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, which would allow corporations within the TPP zone to challenge regulations imposed by member governments in a binding international court. For instance, a company could protest against health and safety regulations if it felt they restricted its business. (Here's a blistering critique of the ISDS clause from Sen. Elizabeth Warren.) Two foreign companies—Brazil's JBS and China's Shuanghui—now control nearly half of US pork production. Neither Brazil nor China is in the TPP, but nothing's stopping either from opening a subsidiary in, say, Australia or Japan, and then filing an Investor-State Dispute Settlement suit to stifle some state regulation on factory-scale livestock farming, says Karen Hansen-Kuhn, director of international strategies for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

"The few tools that impacted communities have remaining to protect themselves from CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operations] pollution could be in jeopardy if those regulations are seen as a barrier to trade with the potential to impact corporate profits," Kimbirauskas adds.

Hansen-Kuhn also notes that the US trade representative's summary of the TPP contains this line: The "TPP Parties have also agreed to increased transparency and cooperation on certain activities related to agricultural biotechnology"—another way of saying genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. That's vague language, and the TPP's full criteria for GMOs has not been spelled out. But it certainly appears to place pressure on TPP countries that have opted not to use them, like Japan and Peru.

"Employees Are Bitter" as Whole Foods Chops Jobs and Wages

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. "Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them," he told my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Finance's the Daily Ticker. "Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of [Fortune's] 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We're not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”

On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder's argument. Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs—about 1.6 percent of its American workforce—"as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure." The focus on cost-cutting isn't surprising—Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.

Supervisors "in all departments were demoted...and told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties."

Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain's South region, "all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately," according to an employee who works there.

I ran that claim past a spokesman at the company's Austin headquarters. "We appreciate you taking the time to reach out and help us to set the record straight," he responded, pointing to the press release quoted above. When I reminded him that my question was about wage cuts, not the announced job cuts, he declined to comment.

Another source, from one of Whole Foods' regional offices, told me the corporate headquarters had ordered all 11 regional offices to reduce expenses. "They've all done it differently," the source said. "In some regions, they've reduced the number of in-store buyers—people who order products for the shelves."

I spoke with a buyer from the South region who learned on Saturday that, after more than 20 years with the company, his position had been eliminated. He and other laid-off colleagues received a letter listing their options: They could reapply for an open position or "leave Whole Foods immediately" with a severance package—which will be sweetened if they agree not to reapply for six months. If laid-off employees manage to snag a new position that pays less than the old one did, they are eligible for a temporary pay bump to match the old wage, but only for a limited time.

Whole Foods has "always been an 80/20 company" in its ratio of full- to part-time workers, but managers are now "incentivized to bring down that ratio."

Those fortunate enough to get rehired at the same pay rate may be signing up for more work and responsibility. At his store, the laid-off buyer told me, ex-workers are now vying for buyer positions that used to be handled by two people—who "can barely get their work done as it is." 

My regional office source told me that the layoffs and downscaling of wages for experienced staffers is part of a deliberate shift toward part-time employees. Whole Foods has "always been an 80/20 company," the source said, referring to it ratio of full- to part-time workers. Recently, a "mandate came down to go 70/30, and there are regions that are below that: 65/35 or 60/40." Store managers are "incentivized to bring down that ratio," the source added.

Employees working more than 20 hours per week are eligible for benefits once they've "successfully completed a probationary period of employment," the Whole Foods website notes. But some key benefits are tied to hours worked. For example, employees get a "personal wellness account" to offset the "cost of deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket health care expenses not covered by insurance," but the amount is based on "service hours."

And part-time employees tend not to stick around. My regional source said that annual turnover rates for part-timers at Whole Foods stores approach 80 percent in some regions. According to an internal document I obtained, the national annualized turnover rate for part-time Whole Foods team members was more than triple that of full-timers—66 percent versus about 18 percent—in the latest quarterly assessment. "Whole Foods has always been a high-touch, high-service model with dedicated, engaged, knowledgeable employees​,"​ the source said. "How do you maintain that, having to [constantly] train a new batch of employees?"

One of Whole Foods' "core values," is to support the "happiness and excellence" of its employees. But that may be hard to reconcile with pleasing Wall Street.

Of course, Whole Foods operates in a hypercompetitive industry. Long a dominant player in natural foods, it now has to vie with Walmart, Trader Joe's, and regional supermarket chains in the organic sector. Lower prices are key to staying competitive, and in order to maintain the same profit margins with lower prices, you have to cut your expenditures. Whole Foods' labor costs, according to my regional source, are equal to about 20 percent of sales—twice the industry standard.

It's not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its "core values," Whole Foods claims to "support team member [employee] happiness and excellence." Yet at a time when the company's share price is floundering and its largest institutional shareholder is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs—which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock—that value may be harder to uphold.

Workers join unions precisely to protect themselves from employers that see slashing labor costs as a way to please Wall Street. "There's a fear of unions coming in, because employees are bitter," the regional-office source said. "People talk about it in hushed tones."  

These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

For a blockbuster recent piece, the New York Times' Eric Lipton got a first look at a massive cache of private emails between prominent public university scientists and GMO industry executives and flacks. The emails came to light through a barrage of controversial Freedom of Information Act requests by U.S. Right to Know, which is funded by the scrappy, anti-corporate Organic Consumers Association.

In addition to the correspondence uncovered by USRTK, Lipton used the FOIA to uncover emails showing close ties between former Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook and organic food companies like farmer-owned dairy company Organic Valley. Lipton paints a fascinating picture of the place occupied by public universities in the PR and lobbying war between the agrichemical/GM seed and organic food industries.

"I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected," a Monsanto rep wrote to professors.

But his piece, excellent as it is, may actually underplay the extent to which Monsanto, other ag-biotech companies, and their trade groups and hired PR guns rely on friendly professors as foot soldiers in the industry's battle against regulators and critics.

Here are some highlights that didn't make it into the Times. Although there is no specific evidence to suggest that Monsanto paid professors for these activities, and many of the professors have said they reached their conclusions independently, the correspondence is nonetheless interesting: 

• In an August 2013 email to nine prominent academics, Monsanto's strategic engagement lead Eric Sachs broached a plan: that the group would pen "short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena," chosen "because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance."

Sachs assured the professors that the project would be handled discreetly. "I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected," he wrote. Two outside entities—an industry-funded group called the American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called CMA—would "manage the process of producing the policy briefs," "coordinate website posting and promotion," and "merchandize" the briefs by helping turn them into "op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc." This third-party management is "an important element," the Monsanto exec added, "because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto."

In December of 2014, the zealously pro-biotech website Genetic Literacy Project ran a package of professor-penned articles that look remarkably like the ones proposed by Sachs, though no involvement with Monsanto is disclosed in any of them. For example, Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, was among the addressees on that August 2013 letter from Monsanto's Sachs. In it, Sachs laid out seven topics and suggested each to one or two of his correspondents. Here's what Sachs had in mind for Juma:

Entitled "Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology," Juma's contribution—which Juma says is based on a book that he wrote in 2011—closely resembles Sachs' request for a robust defense of GMOs as a bulwark against hunger in the developing world. (On Wednesday, The Boston Globe noted Juma's piece, describing it as a "widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms," written "at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection.")

In his email, Sachs recommended that Peter Phillips, a policy professor at Canada's University of Saskatchewan, write about "over burdensome regulation of GMO crops and food." His piece on the Genetic Literacy Project website is called "Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops."

For Mississippi State's Davis Shaw and Tony Shelton of Cornell, Sachs suggested a piece defending crops modified to kill insects and withstand herbicides. Their Genetic Literacy Project article, titled "Green Genes: Sustainability Advantages of Herbicide Tolerant and Insect Resistant Crops," does just that.

"I would appreciate your consideration of submitting a blog on the safety and health of biotech to Web MD, at all possible?" a Monsanto rep asked a professor.

For University of Florida professor Kevin Folta—a main focus of the New York Times article—Sachs envisioned a piece on "holding activists accountable" for their opposition to GMOs. In his GLP piece, Folta thundered against those who "wage aggressive campaigns against existing technologies that have demonstrated to be advantageous to the farmer, the environment, the consumer, and the poor locked in nutritional deficit."

• Another prominent academic who emerges with strong industry ties is Nina Fedoroff, an emeritus professor of biology at Penn State, a professor of biosciences at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, and the former chief science and technology adviser to secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The Times piece noted that University of Illinois professor emeritus Bruce Chassy led a "monthslong effort to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its proposal to tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds."

But it didn't mention that Fedoroff evidently played a key role in the campaign, which, as the Times reported, culminated when Chassy "eventually set up a meeting at the E.P.A., with the help of an industry lobbyist, and the agency ultimately dropped the proposal." Fedoroff, it turns out, attended that meeting, according to an October 17 email. According to Chassy's email, the pivotal confab with the EPA was set up by Stanley Abramson, a prominent industry lobbyist, and Adrianne Massey, who serves as managing director of science and regulatory affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group to which Monsanto and other ag-biotech firms belong.

Fedoroff's role in the campaign to get the EPA to back off on GMO regulation wasn't confined to that one "surprisingly productive" meeting. Chassy reports in an August 19, 2011, email to Massey that he has been "working with Nina," for "a month and many revisions" on an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on August 2011. The piece, bylined solely by Fedoroff, complained that the EPA "wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops" and concluded that the "government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm."

• In a January 10, 2012 email, Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, asked Chassy for advice on how to respond to an article critical of GMOs published in The Atlantic. "For most of us communications folks, the science here is way over our heads, and an appropriate response would have some kind of scientific defense," she wrote. "In other words, BIO just writing a letter saying 'biotech foods are safe' isn't enough of a response here."

"I'm excited to torpedo this stupidity," a professor told a Monsanto PR rep who had asked him to weigh in on a controversy over textbooks critical of GMOs.

She added that a group called IFIC—presumably the industry-funded International Food Information Council Foundation—had "also [sent] out a mass email asking folks to weigh in on the [Atlantic article's] comments page." Batra asked the scientists to "either post a comment yourself on the page or provide us with some top-line scientific points that we could use in a letter to the editor." Chassy responded to Batra's email with detailed talking points on the article. 

• Chassy "engaged on the Huffington Post blog at my request," a 2012 email from Monsanto's Sachs reveals—engaging in a spirited back-and-forth with an anti-GMO commentor, for which he sought input from Monsanto employees.

• At one point, Chassy agreed to Monsanto's request to travel to China to speak at a seminar, without having any idea of the topic or the audience. Here's Chassy on January 24, 2012:

You originally asked if I would go to China and do what I did in Korea. You wanted to know if I was available and said you would explain later. One thing led to another and I am now going but we never did speak about the actual mission on China. Where am I speaking?  To whom? For how long? More importantly, what is the topic and is there an assigned title? What's really going on and what are the between the lines issues? Knowing the ansers [sic] to all of these questions would really help me plan a talk. Can we talk sometime before I start putting a talk together?

Sachs responded:

I apologize for the gaps in information. This opportunity came to my attention late in the process and I was narrowly focused on finding the best 3rd-party [i.e, non-Monsanto] expert that could speak on the topic of safety assessment of products employing RNAi [a topic I discuss here.]

"Monsanto China is working with Chinese Agricultural Biotech Association to host the seminar," Sachs continues. "The goal is to pave the way for import approval for biotech products in China."

Chassy later submitted a draft of his presentation to Monsanto officials ahead of the event. (See the exchange here). "Overall, everyone is pleased with how the presentation turned out," a Monsanto employee responded, adding that there "were some minor changes in text and they are indicated in red," as well as "some comments for you to address." Chassy responded seeking more input:

Thanks to the reviewers. They picked up a number of good points. I have attached a word file which contains responses to the reviewers comments. There are a couple that remain unresolved or for which my new wording may or may not fully address the concern voiced by the reviewer. Please have each of the reviewers take a second look.

• In a January 15, 2015, email to the University of Florida's Kevin Folta, Monsanto's Lisa Drake
 wrote that "over the past six months, we have worked hard through third parties"—ie, people not affiliated with Monsanto—to "insert fresh and current" material on GMOs to WebMD. The pitch: "I would appreciate your consideration of submitting a blog on the safety and health of biotech to Web MD, at all possible?" She added, "Please consider insert [sic] the word 'labeling' somewhere in the content in order to get search algorithms to pick it up." Folta responded, "I'm glad to do this and will bounce something off you soon." (Folta says he never ended up writing the post in question.)

• And on January 28, 2015, an employee of the PR firm Ketchum—writing "on behalf of the Council for Biotech Information," a group funded by Monsanto and other biotech companies—included Folta on a group email pointing to another burning controversy: A publisher had indicated it "will update a sixth-grade science textbook that presents some of the benefits of GM crops." Worse, "additional publishing companies are considering replacing content that could be considered pro-GMO."

She asked anyone interested in responding to the textbook crisis to reply. "I'm excited to torpedo this stupidity," Folta responded, to the delight of his Ketchum correspondent. "This is the best email I've gotten all day. [Smiley-face emoticon.] Thanks! I'll be in touch as we move forward on this."

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No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But…

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
An Indian cotton field, ready for the harvest

Since the mid-1990s, around 300,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves—a rate of about one every 30 minutes, which is 47 percent higher than the national average. The tragedy has become entangled in the rhetorical war around genetically modified seeds.

Some anti-GMO activists, including Indian scientist and organic-farming champion Vandana Shiva, have blamed the high suicide rates directly on biotech seeds—specifically, cotton tweaked by Monsanto to contain the Bt pesticide, now used on more than 90 percent of India's cotton acreage. Shiva has gone so far as to declare them "seeds of suicide," because, she claims, "suicides increased after Bt cotton was introduced."

GMO enthusiasts, by contrast, counter that Monsanto's patented seeds are a boon to India's cotton farmers: They've boosted crop yields, driven down pesticide use, and alleviated rural poverty, a 2010 paper by the pro-industry International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) argued.

India's shift to industrial farming left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and eventually high-tech seeds.

So which is it? According to a recent peer-reviewed paper from a team led by Andrew Gutierrez, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley's department of environmental policy, science, and management, the situation is way too complicated to be aptly described by sound bites in a rhetorical war.

For their analysis, the team looked closely at yields, pesticide use, farmer incomes, and suicide rates in India's cotton regions, both before and after the debut of Bt seeds in 2002.

They found that on large farms with access to irrigation water, genetically modified cotton makes economic sense—paying up for the more expensive seeds helps control a voracious pest called the pink bollworm in a cost-effective way.  

But 65 percent of India's cotton crop comes from farmers who rely on rain, not irrigation pumps. For them, the situation is the opposite—reliance on pesticides and the higher cost of the seeds increase the risk of bankruptcy and thus suicide, the study finds. The smaller and more Bt-reliant the farm in these rain-fed cotton areas, the authors found, the higher the suicide rate. (An analysis that largely jibes with Shiva's, apart from her heated rhetoric.)

Even so, the paper does not present Bt cotton as the trigger for India's farmer-suicide crisis. Rather, it provides crucial background for understanding how India's shift to industrial farming techniques starting in the 1960s left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, and eventually GM seeds, making them vulnerable to bankruptcy when the vagaries of rain and global cotton markets turned against them.  

The authors note that cotton has been cultivated in India for 5,000 years, and until the emergence of the slavery-dependent cotton empire in the southern United States in the early 1800s, "India was the center of world cotton innovation." In the 1970s, Indian cotton farmers turned to hybrid seeds that delivered higher yields as long as they were doused with sufficient fertilizer. Until then, the pink bollworm—the pest now targeted by Bt seeds—"was not a major pest in Indian cotton," they write. But higher-yielding plants draw more insect pests, and so the new hybrid seeds also triggered an increasing reliance on insecticides. Bollworms evolved to resist the chemical onslaught and many of their natural predators (other insects) saw their populations decline, giving the bollworms a niche. Hence when Monsanto's bollworm-targeting Bt seeds hit the market in the early 2000s, they were essentially an industrial-ag solution to a problem that had been caused by industrial agriculture.

As an alternative to Bt seeds, the paper shows, small-scale farmers can successfully plant varieties of cotton that ripen quickly, before bollworm populations emerge. As for the irrigated cotton farms that are now successfully using the Bt trait, the authors note that India's large farms, like many of California's, are tapping underground water that's "unregulated and unpriced," at rates much higher than natural recharge. They're courting a problem that may make the feared bollworm look tame by comparison: "the impending collapse of ground water levels for irrigated cotton."

These Two Genius Tricks to Improve School Food Have Nothing to Do With What’s for Lunch

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Let's move it along there, kids. No dawdling—whatever you haven't eaten when the bell rings in 15 minutes is going into the trash.

As the Congressional battle over funding for school lunches lurches on, there's a lot of debate about what gets served in the cafeteria. Given that the sausage-making process isn't likely to give the National School Lunch Program what it really needs—more money (the federal government pays schools $3.07 for each free meal they serve, the bulk of which goes to overhead expenses)—we might do well to look beyond what's on the trays. A pair of new studies do just that.  

If the program had the same impact nationwide that it had in those Arkansas schools, the obesity-related price tag would drop to $69 billion.

First up: Researchers from the University of Arkansas have identified a low-cost way to improve the diets and health of public school youngsters, by spending just a little extra money to give them free fruits and vegetables—as snacks, not during the lunch hour.

In their recent paper, they looked at a federal initiative called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), which is currently available only for schools where at least half of students receive free and reduced-price lunches. The program gives the schools an extra $50 to $75 per kid each year to buy fruits and vegetables, which they distribute as they decide fit throughout the day, but not during meal times.

That's pretty modest spending, but in the low-income schools where the Arkansas researchers studied it, it had a major impact. Comparing schools utilizing the program with socioeconomically similar schools that don't, the team calculated that the FFVP shaved 3 percentage points off schoolwide obesity rates, moving them from 20 percent to 17 percent.

In a recent blog post, Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that other school initiatives designed to curb obesity rates cost between $280 to $339 per student every year for just a 1 percent reduction in obesity rates. The total cost of making FFVP universal would be about $1.2 billion annually, or $6.1 billion over a kid's five years of elementary school, she calculates. That's a rounding error in the federal budget.

And by cutting the obesity rate significantly, the program would more than pay for itself. About 18 percent of the nation's 24.7 million elementary school-aged children are obese, she notes, adding that the lifetime obesity-related medical cost for each obese child is $19,000, or $83 billion in "obesity-related healthcare costs over the lifetime for our current generation of children." If the program had the same impact nationwide that it had in those Arkansas schools, the obesity-related price tag would drop to $69 billion—meaning that "spending $6 billion to implement the program would save $14 billion in healthcare costs over the current elementary school generation's lifetime," she argues.

Meanwhile, another recent study focuses not on food per se, but on the amount of time administrators allow for meal times. A few years ago, I wrote about the incredible shrinking school lunch period—how, nationwide, harried public school administrators—under ever-increasing pressure to prep kids for standardized tests—were chopping down the time allotted for eating.

There are no federal regulations for how long the part of the day formerly known as the "lunch hour" should be, and there's little national data on how much time the average school devotes to lunch. Anecdotally, we know things are pretty bad—here, for example, is a 2012 op-ed by Minnesota sixth graders complaining that "realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes" for the mid-day meal.

Students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat.

But now we do have some hard data on what it means to hustle school kids through the chow line as if they were stoners eager to wolf down a late-night snack from Taco Bell.

In a new study, researchers from the  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at the menu choices and food consumption of three sets of public elementary and middle school kids from a low-income urban district in Massachusetts: One group got less than 20 minutes to eat, while another had at least 25 minutes, and a third had between 20 and 25 minutes.

The results won't shock anyone. From the press release:

The researchers found that students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. While there were no notable differences between the groups in terms of entrée, milk, or vegetable selections, those with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44 percent versus 57 percent). 

Of course, by consuming less of their meals, the kids in the wolf-it-down-fast group were also depositing more food in the waste bin.  

The takeaway is that the trend of speeding up the lunch line is forcing kids to eat less fruit and vegetables—at a time when 60 percent of kids don't meet the US Department of Agriculture's recommendations for fruit consumption and more than 90 percent of them don't consume enough vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Extending the lunch period to at least 25 minutes seems a simple and cheap way to fairly dramatically improve school lunches.

Of course, kids with enough resources can escape the rigors of the public school cafeteria, whether by opting for a private school or packing a lunch. But for kids from low-income families, school represents a vital source of a day's food. This pair of tweaks—giving kids a decent amount of time to eat, and enriching their day with a few extra fruits and vegetables—seem well worth making.

A Peek Inside an Industrial Chicken Slaughterhouse

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Most undercover videos shot behind the meat industry's closed doors depict conditions in the enclosed barns where animals are birthed and raised. The latest one, taken by an Animal Legal Defense Fund investigator posing as a worker for meat giant Tyson Foods, delivers a glimpse of what it's like at the other end of the meat-production chain: the slaughterhouse, specifically, Tyson's chicken plant in Carthage, Texas. Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.

One worker's protective eyewear "failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides," ALDF claims.

Granted, the business of systematically killing and processing thousands and thousands of birds in a factory setting is bound to look ugly on film. But this investigator shines a light on something that's rarely portrayed in these videos: what workers go through. Starting about the 0:35 mark, we get a look at her station: the "live hang department," where workers snatch live birds and hang them upside down by their feet. Employees are required to hang 35 birds per minute, she reports. In a letter to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the ALDF claims that the investigator "wore protective eyewear provided to her by Tyson, but the eyewear failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides." Within weeks, she "developed an infection, and puss discharged from her eyes." 

The investigator claims to have been thrust into the fray without much preparation. "After a two-day orientation covering company policies and health and safety topics, the investigator began hanging chickens," the ALDF claims in a complaint letter to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees slaughterhouses. "She was given no training, but was instructed to follow fellow live hang employees."

Tyson, for its part, disputes that claim. "We don't believe this claim is true," a Tyson spokesman wrote in an email to me. "We can tell you employees who work with live animals in the plant must complete chicken animal welfare training and must sign a form acknowledging they have been trained and that they can face possible dismissal if they don't follow proper animal handling procedures." As for her claim that she was immediately tasked with a 35-birds-per-minute quota, the Tyson spokesperson claimed that new workers are  "allowed to work at their own pace until they become familiar with the job."

The investigator also raised animal-cruelty and food safety issues based on her experience. She "observed employees mis-hanging birds in their struggle to keep up with the extreme speed of the line, along with employees roughly slamming birds onto shackles on a regular basis," the ALDF claims in its letter to the USDA. Birds that arrive to the slaughterhouse dead aren't supposed to enter the food supply, but the investigator "observed dead, dying, and injured birds being hung on slaughter line, suggesting either [the USDA's] failure to conduct adequate ante-mortem inspection, the plant's failure to separate live from dead-on-arrival (DOA) birds, or both," the ALDF's letter to the USDA states.

Tyson's reaction: "We're still reviewing the video, but can tell you we’re absolutely committed to proper animal handling and workplace safety." The  spokesman added, "The safety of our Team Members is very important to us. We continuously monitor our facilities to make sure they're safe."

Federal Court to EPA: No, You Can’t Approve This Pesticide That Kills Bees

| Fri Sep. 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

On Thursday, a federal appeals court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of a pesticide called sulfoxaflor. Marketed by agrichemical giant Dow AgroSciences, sulfoxaflor belongs to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have been implicated by a growing weight of evidence in the global crisis in bee health. In a blunt opinion, the court cited the "precariousness of bee populations" and "flawed and limited data" submitted by Dow on the pesticide's effects on beleaguered pollinating insects.

"I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate," said a circuit judge.

Before winning approval for sulfoxaflor back in 2013, the company hyped the product to investors, declaring that it "addresses [a] $2 billion market need currently unmet by biotech solutions," particularly for cotton and rice.

US beekeepers were less enthusiastic—a group of national beekeeping organizations, along with the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, quickly sued the EPA to withdraw its registration of sulfoxaflor, claiming that the EPA itself had found sulfoxaflor to be "highly toxic to honey bees, and other insect pollinators."

Thursday's ruling, a response to that suit, took their side. It applies only to sulfoxaflor, which Dow markets as a foliar spray on a variety of crops, including cotton, soybean, citrus, stone fruit, nuts, grapes, potatoes, vegetables, and strawberries. It has no bearing on the EPA's equally controversial approval of other neonics like clothianidin  and imidacloprid, which are widely used as seed treatments on the two most prominent US crops: corn and soybeans.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney for EarthJustice who argued the case for the beekeeper's coalition, told me that the decision has broad significance because the ruling "makes clear" that when the EPA is assessing new pesticides, it must assess robust data on the health impacts on the entire hive, not just on individual adult bees.

In its opinion, the court rebuked the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor despite "inconclusive or insufficient data on the effects…on brood development and long-term colony health." That's a problem, the court added, because pesticides can cause subtle harm to bees that don't kill them but that "ripple through the hive," which is an "interdependent 'superorganism.'" Indeed, many independent studies have demonstrated just such effects—that low-level exposure to neonics is "sub-lethal" to individual bees but compromises long-term hive health.

"The EPA doesn't have that [hive-level] information on very many insecticides, if any," Loarie said.

And in the case of sulfoxaflor, the agency didn't try very hard to get that information. In January 2013, because of major gaps in research on the new chemical's effect on bees, the EPA decided to grant sulfoxaflor "conditional registration" and ordered Dow to provide more research. And then a few months later, the agency granted sulfoxaflor unconditional  registration—even though "the record reveals that Dow never completed the requested additional studies," the court opinion states.

In an even more scathing addendum to the court's main opinion, Circuit Judge N.R. Smith added, "I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate." The judge added, "Such action seems capricious."

Sulfoxaflor's twisted path through the EPA's approval process isn't the first time the agency has green-lighted a neonicotinoid pesticide under dodgy circumstances, as I showed in this 2010 piece on clothianidin, a widely marketed pesticide marketed by Dow's European rival, Bayer.

In 2013—the same year the EPA approved sulfoxaflor—the European Union placed a two-year moratorium on clothianidin and two other major neonics, citing pollinator health concerns. For a study released last year, the US Geological Survey found neonic traces in all the Midwestern rivers and streams it tested, declaring them to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment." In addition to harming bees, neonics may also harm birds and fish, Canadian researchers have found.