Tom Philpott

Monsanto GM Soy Is Scarier Than You Think

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Soybeans are the second-largest US crop after corn, covering about a quarter of American farmland. We grow more soybeans than any other country except Brazil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of the soybeans churned out on US farms each year are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, nearly all of them involving one called Roundup. Organic production, by contrast, is marginal—it accounts for less than 1 percent of total American acreage devoted to soy. (The remaining 9 percent or so of soybeans are conventionally grown, but not genetically modified.)

Americans don't eat much of these lime-green legumes directly, but that doesn't mean we're not exposed to them. After harvest, the great bulk of soybeans are crushed and divided into two parts: meal, which mainly goes into feed for animals that become our meat, and fat, most of which ends up being used as cooking oil or in food products. According to the US Soy Board, soy accounts for 61 percent of American's vegetable oil consumption.

Given soy's centrality to our food and agriculture systems, the findings of a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry are worth pondering. The authors found that Monsanto's ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans, engineered to withstand its own blockbuster herbicide, contain more herbicide residues than their non-GMO counterparts. The team also found that the GM beans are nutritionally inferior.

In the study, the researchers looked at samples of three kinds of soybeans grown in Iowa: (1) those grown from GM herbicide-tolerant seeds; (2) those grown from non-GM seeds but in a conventional, agrichemical-based farming regime; and (3) organic soybeans, i.e., non-GM and grown without agrichemicals.

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A Single Pot Plant Uses HOW Much Water?!

| Wed Apr. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Dude, where's my stream?

Like college sophomores philosophizing over bong hits late at night, the California North Coast's booming marijuana farms languish in the smoky haze of paradox. On the one hand, they're hyperregulated—that is to say, illegal (with the exception of farms licensed to grow for the medical trade). On the other hand, being illegal, they're essentially not regulated at all, as my colleague Josh Harkinson showed in a recent piece.

A rogue grower tending a plot on a California state park isn't worried about running afoul of state fish-and-wildlife authorities for illegally diverting a stream for irrigation. Instead, he's scrambling to avoid being busted on federal drug charges—and will thus grab any resource necessary to churn out a fast and plentiful pot harvest.

And with California's drought settling in for a long, hot summer, that's bad news for ecosystems that rely on the state's increasingly scarce surface waters—including the once-prolific Northern California salmon run. A recent article in the Mendocino County Press Democrat shows just how dire things have gotten in the state's pot-farm-heavy "Emerald Triangle" (Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties).

A pot plant consumes six gallons of water every day.

The piece looks at a forthcoming study from the California Fish and Wildlife Department on three key Emerald Triangle watersheds. Using satellite imagery, the researchers found that pot cultivation had skyrocketed in the areas since 2009, rising between 75 percent and 100 percent. The three watersheds contain an average of 30,000 pot plants each, they found. (Here's a nifty map). And they're thirsty. According to the Press Democrat, "Researchers estimate each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day. At that rate, the plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water per day in each watershed—all together more than 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants."

Mind you, that's just in the three watersheds the researchers looked at. According to the Press Democrat, there are more than 1 million pot plants in Mendocino alone—not counting legal ones licensed for the medical market.

Already, the region's salmon tributaries are under severe pressure—as many as 24 went dry last year, the Press Democrat reports. And even without the drought, there just isn't enough water available to keep the pot crop humming and the salmon moving along, state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Bauer told the paper.

And water diversions aren't the only vice indulged in by large-scale pot growers. Last year, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board listed a few others, including land-grading and dam-making that leads to stream-clogging erosion; wanton use of pesticides—most egregiously, wildlife-killing rat poison; and "discarding of trash and haphazard management of human waste."

Of course, like any other crop, pot could be grown in ecologically responsible ways. For example, "if growers collected all their water during the rainy season and stored it in permitted tanks or ponds—like many other farmers—marijuana's water consumption would not be such an issue," one environmental watchdog told the Press Democrat. And in dry years like this one, at least some pot fields could be fallowed, leaving more water for wildlife.

But since pot farming is illegal, growers have little incentive to act as land stewards. Indeed, they tend to sneak onto—and trash—state and federal parkland to plant their illicit crop. If pot farms were legal, growers could be held accountable for their environmental footprint. As one activist told Harkinson for his Mother Jones story, "It is not the growers who are a disease. They are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war."

Of course, legal agriculture isn't a paragon of environmental responsibility, and criminal pot farms aren't the only operations wreaking water havoc in California. As I wrote recently, the state's ag-heavy Central Valley is currently in the midst of sucking dry its fossil water resources, driven largely by a boom in tree nut production and a near-complete lack of regulation of groundwater pumping. The situation has gotten so dire that even big farming interests, which have for decades fought back any pumping regulations, are openly considering the possible need for smarter water rules.

But that debate can't even begin among pot growers until they can no longer hide in the shadows cast by the drug war.

Tom's Kitchen: Stir-Fried Beef With Celery, Carrots, and Kohlrabi

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Tossing the beef with the vegetables

This recipe owes its existence to the confluence of three unrelated events:

• At the very end of a busy recent trip to San Francisco, I ate lunch at a restaurant called Mission Chinese, a hipster homage to Americanized Chinese food. I had the "Kung Pao pastrami"—an expertly rendered twist on a venerable strip-mall standard.

• While on the plane home, I read a New York Times style piece on "#normcore," an internet meme/elaborate joke/contrived fashion trend that involves the "less-ironic (but still pretty ironic) embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire": stuff like "dad jeans" and Teva sandals.

• The night after I returned from my trip, my mother invited me over for dinner—a simple stir-fried pork dish familiar from my childhood. She brandished a book I hadn't seen in years: an opulently splattered first edition of Joyce Chen Cookbook, the 1962 opus that taught a generation of Americans (including my mom) how to cook Chinese. Just like in the old days, she served it over white rice—a swerve from her decades-long fixation on brown.

Sitting there, transported by that vintage stir-fry to my '70s childhood of Toughskins and pre-hipster Chuck Taylors, it hit me: old-school, US-inflected Chinese is a culinary embodiment of #normcore. Plus, it's really good! (When made with decent ingredients.)

It wasn't long before I was busy in my own kitchen, contriving my own #normcore stir fry. Since I was having a few friends over, I wanted to find the "less-ironic (but still pretty ironic)" sweet spot—and produce something delicious.

From Joyce Chen's recipe for beef with green peppers—a childhood staple—I settled on a protein: "Flank steak is fairly inexpensive and easy to slice," Chen instructs. And she's as right in 2014 as she was in 1962. I found a beautiful cut of it at Austin's excellent neo-old-school, whole-animal butcher shop Salt and Time. I also borrowed from Chen the method for flavoring the stir fry: you marinate the meat in soy sauce sweetened with a little sugar and thickened with corn starch—giving the finished product a lovely glaze—which I goosed up with ginger, green onions, garlic and chili pepper (Chen treats aromatics like ginger and garlic as potent substances to be used in tiny amounts, and her book is devoid of hot peppers.)

For vegetables, green bell peppers felt too on-the-nose #normcore for me. So from that Kung Pao dish I had at Mission Chinese, I lifted the idea of  celery, which strikes me as both a pretty #normcore vegetable itself, and also quite delicious and underused. Carrots, too, seemed right. But I only had a little of each, so I filled out the dish in decidedly un-normcore fashion: with a gorgeous bulb of kohlrabi leftover from the previous week's farmer's market run. That kohlrabi bulb sported a generous set of leaves—similar to kale, a related vegetable—so I threw those in, too.

A vegetarian was among the guests, so I had to come up with a non-meat alternative protein. Tofu would have been the straight-ahead #normcore move, but all I had in the fridge was a block of tempeh, so I went with it. Here's what I came up. Enjoy with canned beer—Bud Light if you want to go full-on you-know-what, or a new-wave canned craft brew like Dale's Pale Ale if you want a twist.

Stir-Fried Beef With Vegetables

(Serves four, with leftovers.)

4 spring onions
2 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1 knuckle-sized nob of fresh ginger, peeled with the edge of a spoon
1 tablespoon (organic) corn starch
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon of crushed red chili flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons of good soy sauce (my favorite is the Japanese brand Ohsawa Nama Shoyu)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 pound of flank steak
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots
1 bulb of kohlrabi
A few kohlrabi leaves (optional; kale will do as well).
Peanut oil, for stir frying
More soy sauce, rice vinegar, and black pepper, to taste

First make the beef marinade. Cut the spring onions to separate the white and green parts. Slice the green parts into two-inch sections, set aside.  Coarsely chop the white parts, and place them in the bowl of a mortar-and-pestle (a small food processor will also work here). Chop the ginger and garlic and add it to the mortar. Top with the corn starch, sugar, chili flakes, and a good grind of black pepper. Crush everything vigorously together into a paste.  Add the soy sauce and vinegar, and mix it with the pestle. Dump the marinade into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the steak, against the grain, into quarter-inch strips about two inches long. Add the beef to the marinade, along with the green onion tops, and toss to coat well. Set aside.

Now prep the vegetables. Slice the carrots, kohlrabi, and celery into two-inch match sticks. (Here's a great Jamie Oliver video that explains how to do that better than I ever could in words). Set the carrots and kohlrabi aside in one bowl, and the celery in another. Slice the kohlrabi or kale leaves, if using, into thin strips, and set aside.

Now the stir fry begins. Set a bowl large enough to incorporate all the ingredients by the stovetop. Put your biggest, heaviest skillet—or wok—over high heat and add enough oil to cover the bottom. When the oil shimmers, add the celery sticks and sauté, using two spatulas to keep them constantly moving. Continue until they're just cooked—they should retain a little crunch. Place them in the large bowl.

Put a little more oil in the pan—still over high heat—and add the carrot and kohlrabi sticks. Cook them as you did the celery sticks, and then dump them in the same bowl when they're done. Repeat with the kale leaves, if using.

Again, add a bit of oil to the hot pan. Dump in the meat, onion greens, and the marinade. Spread the meat out across the pan's bottom, so it forms a single layer. Let it sizzle for a minute—this will allow it to caramelize a bit—and then toss with the two spatulas as with the vegetables, until the meat is cooked through. Add the meat to the big bowl, and toss everything together—the glaze that coats the meat will also coat the veggies. Taste, add a bit more soy, pepper, and vinegar to taste. Serve over brown rice—or white.

The tempeh version: #notsonormcore, but still delicious.

If there's a vegetarian coming to dinner: Before you start the vegetables for the main dish—in a medium-sized bowl, mix two tablespoons of olive oil, two of soy sauce, and a dash of maple syrup. Take a block of tempeh and cut it lengthwise into quarter-inch strips. Add the tempeh to the bowl and toss. letting it marinate for at least 5 minutes. (This is a twist on the tempeh technique from Heidi Swanson's great cookbook Super Natural Every Day.) Put a separate skillet over medium heat, add a little peanut or coconut oil. When the oil shimmers, remove the tempeh from its marinade with a slotted spoon and stir fry until it's cooked through. Place it in a bowl. Then, as each round of veggies come off the main skillet, add a portion to the tempeh. When done, toss together, along with a bit of the marinade.

How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

James McWilliams—a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic for his contrarian defenses of the food industry—is back at it. In an item published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard, McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times' Mark Bittman.

Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed 72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.

Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should] just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy."

After a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat, the food industry began to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct. But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the overall findings, Science reported. Another one of the authors told Science that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want," he told Science. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."

Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in eating animal products is long-standing—he's the author of a book called Vegan Before Six and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays" practice.

But McWilliams' real beef (so to speak) ultimately didn't involve the study itself, or the debate over fat's place in our diets. Rather, it centered on Bittman's critique of the food industry, which Bittman blamed for stoking the public's fat phobia, and manipulating it to its own ends. McWilliams chides Bittman for the "disingenuousness of using a study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed food," and laments the "dubious manner in which processed foods are condemned."

But he misses an important point: You can't meaningfully debate the role of fat in our diets without looking hard at the way the food industry has manipulated the evolving scientific consensus around fat. On NPR last week, reporter Allison Aubrey showed how widespread fat phobia among the public gained traction from a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat—which then got interpreted by the food industry as a license to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Simultaneously, as Bittman correctly noted, trans fats—cheap vegetable oils treated with hydrogen so that they remain solid at room temperature—emerged as the food industry's butter substitute of choice for decades, providing the main substance for margarine. Based on relentless food industry marketing, generations of people grew up thinking trans-fat-laden margarine was healthier than butter—even after science definitively showed that it was much, much worse (a sorry tale I laid out here). 

These fat-related marketing triumphs, quite profitable for the food industry, coincided with a surge in diet-related health troubles, including heightened obesity, diabetes, and metabolic-syndrome rates. Bittman is correct to discuss highly processed food in the context of the controversy over fat; and in trying to force it out of the conversation, McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.

In Cargill's Chicken Factories in China, Workers "Live on the Farm" and "Can't Leave"

| Thu Apr. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mornin', neighbors.

In a wide-ranging interview with the India-based Economic Times, Cargill CEO David MacLennan talks about how the globe-spanning agribusiness giant managed to turn the 2008 economic crisis into a "record year of profits"—a remarkable performance, given that that year's food-price spikes pushed 115 million people into hunger, as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimated. And then MacLennan drops this nugget on his company's poultry operations in China:

So we are building a facility in Shuzou, Nanjing, which will have 45 farms and it's a chicken facility that will process 1.2 million chicken every week. That's 60 million chicken a year. We have a hatchery, where we hatch the eggs and one-day old chicks, DOCs, get transported to the farms. The employees live on the farm. They can't leave because then you increase the risk of disease. So you grow the chicken for 44 days. The chicken goes to the plants, get processed, might be for KFC and McDonald's, might be for retail. They can count on us because they know where every one of their chicken came from. It came from us because we're fully integrated as opposed to other companies. [Emphasis added.]

I should note that US meat giant Tyson, too, is rolling out fully integrated and vast chicken facilities in China. But wait, back up: like employees at Foxconn, the company that manufactures Apple products, Cargill's poultry workers will live on-site. But rather than reside amid the production of iPhones and whatnot—apparently, not the most pleasant place to call home—Cargill's workers will live amid the growth and slaughter of 1.2 million chickens per week—and all the blood, guts, and vast stores of chickenshit that implies.

MacLennan doesn't mention whether the live-in requirement the company imposes on its Chinese workers also applies in its poultry operations in other developing countries. But he does boast that the company runs "very big" chicken operations n Nicaragua and Costa Rica, adding that it plans to "develop fully-integrated poultry breeding, hatching, growth and processing" in other countries around the world.

I am reaching out to Cargill to hear more about this innovative chicken factory/worker-housing mashup in China. Kind of gives new meaning to the industry habit of calling its large livestock-raising facilities "confinements."

Update: Cargill's assistant vice president for corporate responsibility has responded: 

We can understand how that might have been confusing. The workers at our chicken plant in China come and go as they please. What our CEO was talking about was a few specialized jobs at the farm where the chickens are raised. In a chicken barn, two or three people go into the barn with the chicks when they’re a day old and stay with them as they grow for 45 days. This is to prevent germs from getting into the barn. The workers have their own quarters, with kitchens and television, etc. When the chicks have grown, the workers leave for about three weeks. -Mark Murphy, Asst. Vice President for Corporate Responsibility, Cargill

Study: Fad Diets Work (But Not Why You Think)

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 1:58 PM EDT

What's the best diet to follow to get healthy—should you go Paleo, low glycemic, low-carb, Mediterranean, or low-fat? For a paper released last month in the Annual Review of Public Health, Yale medical researchers David Katz and Samuel Meller surveyed the scientific evidence and decided ... all of the above. Specifically, they found that all of these fad diets can be consistent with these basic principles:

The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches. [Emphasis added.]

But what about the Paleo diet, which encourages meat eating? The authors conclude the "aggregation of evidence" supports meat eating, as long as the "animal foods are themselves the products, directly or ultimately, of pure plant foods—the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as we are." That's entirely consistent with the Paleo push for meat from pasture-raised animals, and brought to mind a study I wrote about late last year finding that cows fed on grass deliver milk with healthier fat profile than their industrially raised peers.

The Yale paper essentially cuts through the hype of various fad diets and affirms the koan-like advice put forward by author Michael Pollan in his 2008 book In Defense of Food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In fact, the authors reference Pollan directly in the chart that summarizes their findings:

 

 

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California Farmers: Drill, Baby, Drill (for Water, That Is)

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
There will be blood…oranges.

California is locked in an epochal drought—and yet produce aisles nationwide still brim with reasonably prices fruit and vegetables from the Golden State. How does California continue providing half of US-grown vegetables under such parched conditions?

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, one of the world's leading think tanks on water issues, broke it down for me. He says that despite the drought, California farmers will likely idle only about a half million acres this year—less than 10 percent of normal plantings, which are about 8 million acres. And most of the fallowed land will involve "low-value" crops like cotton and alfalfa (used as a feed for the dairy and beef industries)—not the stuff you eat directly, like broccoli, lettuce, and almonds.

In the Central Valley—California's most important growing region, which spans 450 miles along the center of the state—the drought is a massive inconvenience, but it hasn't cut farms off from water. Under ideal conditions, the great bulk of irrigation water flows through an elaborate network of canals and aqueducts that divert water from rivers (largely fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt) to farms.

But lately, because of the drought, those diversions have largely stopped. The main system for getting water to the regions farms, known as the Central Valley Project, "allotted farmers only 20 percent of their share last year—and none this year," the San Jose Mercury News reports.

Known as "surface water," because it's drawn from aboveground sources like rivers and streams, this source of irrigation isn't without controversy. Even in good precipitation years, California agriculture has gotten so ravenous for water that environmentalists charge that farms aren't leaving enough to feed coastal ecosystems. The state's once-prolific salmon run barely persists; the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a critical engine of biodiversity, stands at the edge of biological collapse.

But surface water at least represents the annual ebb and flow of water resources. To make up for it in down years, farmers turn to what is essentially a fossil resource: groundwater. This is the stuff that sits under land in aquifers, which store water that has leaked down from the surface for millennia.

There's a financial metaphor that works here. To live off surface water is to live off your paycheck. When you get a raise, you can spend more. But when your paycheck drops, you have to cut back, economize. To rely on groundwater, though, is to live off of savings. Every draft you take is one that you won't be able to replenish, at least not easily.

And in California, Gleick says, farmers drop wells to draw groundwater from under their land with little or no regulation—some counties have imposed quotas on withdrawals, but there's no statewide policy. So the drought has sparked a veritable water-drilling frenzy in the Central Valley, especially in the southern part, called the San Joaquin Valley. This excellent San Jose Mercury News article show that in some ag-heavy counties in that region like Tulare and Fresno, the number of well permits granted annually doubled between 2011 and 2013.

When one farm drops a well and begins siphoning water, the water table drops, "forcing neighbors to drill ever deeper or risk going dry."

The Mercury News piece shows how drilling begets drilling—a kind of hydrological arms race. When one farm drops a well and begins siphoning water, the water table drops, "forcing neighbors to drill ever deeper or risk going dry." The piece also reiterates a point I made in my recent post on Wall Street's push into buying up farmland: It's not family-scale farms driving the well frenzy. Rather, it's large companies dropping in monocrops of water-thirsty pistachio and almond groves to cash in on surging demand for nuts in Asia. The Mercury News points to a recent land deal by Trinitas Partners, a Silicon Valley-based private equity firm, to plow up 6,500 acres of "rugged eastern Stanislaus County land from grazing to almonds," and a push by Paramount Farms, the globe's largest almond and pistachio producer—owned by the bottled-water (Fiji) and pomegranate (POM Wonderful) magnates Stewart and Lynda Resnick—to convert 15,000 acres in Madera County from row crops to nuts.

Already, ecological damage is piling up. As I reported before, a 1,200-square-mile swath of the Central Valley—a landmass more than twice as large as Los Angeles—has been sinking by an average of 11 inches per year, a 2013 US Geological Survey found. USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed told me that and her team were "really shocked" when they realized the extent and scope of the subsidence, which they discovered by chance while they were working on a different project. And other areas of the Central Valley are likely sinking, too, she says. Such rapid sinking damages roads, railroad tracks, bridges, and pipelines, she adds. Then there the irrigation canals that, in good precipitation years, carry surface water to farms, decreasing the need for groundwater pumping. They're the "most sensitive infrastructure to any elevation changes," Sneed said, because they're gravity-driven, engineered to carry water steadily downward, not traverse random ups and downs. And gnarled-up irrigation canals mean more pressure on farmers to revert to groundwater—causing yet more sinkage. Such damage is already happening on the ground—the Mercury News piece quotes a farmer complaining that sinking land is "damaging the irrigation pipes that deliver water to his farm."

No one knows how long the region can withstand such massive water losses—but they can't go on forever.

No one knows how long the region can withstand such massive water losses before its aquifers finally go dry. But they can't go on forever. Gieick calls unmitigated pumping a "recipe for disaster." Back in 2011, scientists from NASA and the University of California-Irvine, used satellite images to estimate the rate of withdrawal from the region's water table. They were alarmed enough to warn of "potentially dire consequences for the economic and food security of the United States." In February, the team released an update, finding that the withdrawal rate had accelerated dramatically since the previous study—hardly an encouraging sign.

So that's how the Central Valley keeps cranking out food amid drought. The big growing region in the southern end of California, the Imperial Valley, is in a kind of permanent drought—that is to say, it's a desert, Gleick of the Pacific Institute explained to me. It relies on irrigation water diverted from the once-mighty Colorado River, which snakes its way from the Rocky Mountains its namesake state through Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and finally to Mexico. Gleick says that the Imperial Valley, source of 80 percent of the winter vegetables consumed in the United States, got its full allotment of water from the Colorado this year—meaning that the drought had zero impact.

But the river doesn't just make the California desert bloom to provide your winter salad. It also provides drinking water to 30 million people along its path, and also irrigates cropland in Arizona and Mexico. But that demand, along with a 14-year drought in the broader region, has reduced the river's flow to a "murky brown trickle" in some places, the New York Times' Michael Wines reported in January. And climate change models suggest that the river's flow will drop by as much as 45 percent by 2050. Because of a 1922 pact, California and its farms will get first dibs on this critical resource, often dubbed the "lifeblood of the Southwest," as it declines. But even if that arrangement fills your salad bowl for the next few decades, the river's troubles will trickle to the people and ecosystems that rely on it downstream.

None of which means you have to worry about where your next peach or kale bunch comes from, at least not anytime soon. Water doesn't just flow downward; it also flows to powerful interests that have the political heft to command it, as California's farming sector, increasingly moving under the thumb of large and well-heeled companies, certainly does.

Wall Street Investors Take Aim at Farmland

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Where's the money?

In a couple of posts last fall (here and here), I showed that corporations don't do much actual farming in the United States. True, agrichemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta mint fortunes by selling seeds and chemicals to farmers, and grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill reap billions from buying crops cheap and turning them into pricey stuff like livestock feed, sweetener, cooking oil, and ethanol. But the great bulk of US farms—enterprises that generally have razor-thin profit margins—are run by independent operators.

That may be on the verge of changing. A recent report by the Oakland Institute documents a fledgling, little-studied trend: Corporations are starting to buy up US farmland, especially in areas dominated by industrial-scale agriculture, like Iowa and California's Central Valley. But the land-grabbing companies aren't agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill. Instead, they're financial firms: investment arms of insurance companies, banks, pension funds, and the like. In short, Wall Street spies gold in those fields of greens and grains.

You Don't Have to Be a Foul-Mouthed White Guy to Be a World-Class Chef

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Marcus Samuelsson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Floyd Cardoz, and Charlene Johnson-Hadley

What does it take to break the mould in a prestigious, white-male-dominated industry? I tackled that question in a recent piece on how women chefs, who, despite impressive advances in recent years, get short shrift when it comes to big-name awards and invitations to high-minded culinary confabs. But restaurants' diversity problem is bigger than just a gender imbalance. More then two centuries after the invention of the fine-dining restaurant in the wake of the French Revolution, chefly prestige remains largely—but not completely—the domain of not just males, but white males. What gives?

On a frigid evening in Harlem last week, I got the opportunity to put the question directly to four mould-breakers in a public conversation at Ginny's Supper Club, the cozy, red-tinted, speakeasy-like saloon in the cellar of Red Rooster, chef Marcus Samuelsson's neo-soul-food establishment on Lenox just north of 125th Street. The evening started with wine and snacks, which included house-made charcuterie, cheese, and cornbread madeleines—the latter, I thought, a clever mashup of French and US traditions, a Proustian nod to our most memory-drenched and historically fraught region, the South. My own melancholic musings aside, the room buzzed and glowed in the hour or so leading up to the panel—a diverse crowd of 150 or so chatted and circulated, young, old, and in between, culinary students, chefs, writers, and food lovers of all stripes, from the neighborhood and other parts of Manhattan, from Brooklyn, and even, I hear, from Chicago.

Eventually, we took to the stage: to my right Marcus himself; then Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/proprietor of the highly influential East Village spot Prune; then Charlene Johnson-Hadley, a daughter of Brooklyn's West Indian diaspora who worked her way up through Samuelsson's Red Rooster kitchen and is now executive chef at his Lincoln Center outpost American Table Bar and Cafe; and finally Floyd Cardoz, chef at North End Grill in Battery Park City, who brought the cooking of his native India into the glamor of a buzzy Manhattan restaurant with the late and much-lamented Tabla.

Unfortunately, our conversation wasn't recorded. But Eater delivered a "10 Best Quotes" piece, Serious Eats' Jacqueline Raposo has a very thoughtful post on the event, also with several quotes, and the blogger Ronda Lee offered worthy commentary on the event.

My favorite parts of the discussion were:

Two New York icons: Samuelsson and Hamiton

1) Marcus—who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden—talking about coming up as an ambitious young cook in France, where the message he got was "ce n'est pas possible," i.e., it's not possible for a black man to command his own kitchen. His outsider status served as a spur, he said: With the conventional path to chefdom blocked to him, he had to forge his own, which included moving to the melting pot of New York and grabbing the reins of the Swedish restaurant Aquavit.

2) Gabrielle talking about how she found herself in the restaurant world not out of a passion for cooking, but rather out of the need to support herself at a very young age—and about how being a woman in restaurant kitchens, when she came up in the 1980s, meant having to forge an identity, a way to fit in, since there was no preexisting identity to fall into. Here's her money quote, which I'm cribbing from Eater because I didn't take notes:

Yes, there were horrible white men in the kitchens and the hardest part of that is the contortions you'd put yourself through to figure out your place in that kitchen. Should I be a chain-smoking dirt-talking motherfucker who can crank it fucking out? Or should I be kind of a dainty female with lipstick and be like, 'Can you help me with this stock pot because I just can't?' Frankly it's a freaking second job on top of what you're already doing. One of the hardest parts is trying to make a viable self that you can live with and and go home and respect at the end of the day.

"Should I be a chain-smoking dirt-talking motherfucker who can crank it fucking out? Or should I be kind of a dainty female with lipstick and be like 'Can you help me with this stock pot because I just can't?'"

3) Charlene talking about how she was drawn to cooking as a child through her grandmother's Jamaican-inflected kitchen, and how, while in college in the 1990s, she realized she wanted to make a career of cooking, which sent her to culinary school and her current path. It struck me that unlike Marcus and Gabrielle, who came up in the 1980s, Charlene could envision for herself a conventional path to success: go to chef's school, get a job. Here's Charlene's take on being a woman of color in the professional kitchen (quote from Raposo's piece): "I just think you need to get past yourself and not think of yourself as 'the different one.' That shouldn't be your focus. Your focus should be following your ambition, making sure you are doing what it is you want to do, and making yourself an asset to wherever you are."

4) Floyd on aspiring to cook professionally while growing up middle class in India—and the culture shock it gave his parents, who hoped he would be a doctor. Until pretty recently, the professional kitchen was a place middle class people aspired to flee. Now, with the rise of the celebrity chef, it has emerged as a site of aspiration. Hamilton touched on that topic, too, when she mentioned that suddenly, "40-year-old white males" are applying to work in her kitchen. She went on (quote from Raposo):

Now we have the whole new problem of, "I used to be an architect" and "I have a trust fund" and "I have so much more money and power than you're ever going to have in this world." And you have to go up to that guy and say, "You know, your sauce is a little salty."

As Ronda Lee put it in her blog post, "gender and race [in the professional kitchen] is a lot to cover in a two-hour discussion." And our panel in Harlem last week barely scratched the surface. I learned again what I learned when writing my piece on gender: This is a fascinating and complex conversation, one that people working to make the restaurant world more inclusive are eager to have. There's so much we didn't get to—for example, what about the role of Mexican immigrants, who are the lifeblood of kitchen lines from Los Angeles to New York? We at Mother Jones plan to continue exploring it. Stay tuned.

See Chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Gabrielle Hamilton Talk Kitchen Diversity

| Wed Feb. 19, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Last fall, I had the good fortune to attend the most dazzling culinary confab of my life.

Set at the dramatically beautiful Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture outside of New York City, the event included some of the globe's most-decorated chefs: Spaniards Ferran Adrià and Joan Roca, France's Michel Bras, Enrique Olvera of Mexico, Peru's Gastón Acurio, and Brazil's Alex Atala, along with US luminaries including Dan Barber, Daniel Patterson, and David Kinch. It also featured a mind-blowing discussion of plant breeding that has opened new vistas of reporting for me, the first stirrings of which are here and here.

But amid the glittering names, the provocative ideas, and the gorgeous food, an uncomfortable thought crossed my mind: Where were the women chefs? There were a handful, including New York City's great April Bloomfield. And a good number of the plant breeders in attendance were women. But in terms of chefs, it was a bro-fest on the Hudson. Yet I could think of myriad women—Anita Lo, Alice Waters, Suzanne Goin, Traci Des Jardins, Gabrielle Hamilton, Amanda Cohen, Dominique Crenn, and more—who could have contributed significantly to the conversation. What was up?

"How come I've never been invited to one of these things? Is it that I have nothing to offer? ... I want to be invited, and I want to have the opportunity to f-ing turn it down." -Chef Gabrielle Hamilton

So I dug into the topic, and found that—like other high-prestige fields including investment banking and science—men, and particularly white men, continue to dominate the chef trade. (Story here.) But I also found that things are changing—women and people of color are claiming a place for themselves at the exclusive table of culinary prestige.

So my Mother Jones overlords and I are extremely excited to be hosting a panel discussion in New York City on March 3, where we'll be assembling a few of the pioneers who are pushing this long-overdue change. The panel will convene at Ginny's Supper Club, upstairs from Marcus Samuelsson's instant-classic Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. It will include Marcus himself, a much-decorated chef and author of the highly praised memoir Yes, Chef; Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/proprietor of the East Village gem Prune and author of her own celebrated memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter; Floyd Cardoz, chef at North End Grill in Battery Park City, former chef at the late and beloved new-Indian restaurant Tabla, and author of One Spice, Two Spice; and Charlene Johnson-Hadley, who worked her way up through Samuelsson's Red Rooster kitchen and is now executive chef at his Lincoln Center outpost American Table Bar and Cafe.

I can promise a great conversation. Marcus rocked the previous NYC panel we staged back in 2012. As for Hamilton, despite her expert knife skills, she's not one to mince words onstage. At a recent panel, she had this to say about big culinary confabs and their tendency to exclude women: "How come I've never been invited to one of these things? Is it that I have nothing to offer? ... I want to be invited, and I want to have the opportunity to f-ing turn it down."

Unlike most panels, ours will include only one white dude: me. And I hope to see you there. Space at this event is limited, and tickets are on sale now—details here.