Tom Philpott

What If Nanoparticles Are Sickening American Workers Who Don't Even Know They're Being Exposed?

| Thu May 29, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

On Wednesday, I wrote about how nanotechnology—which involves microscopic particles of common substances—is rapidly pervading the food supply, despite health concerns raised by the Food and Drug Administration. But food is just one of the ways people interact with this ubiquitous and little-discussed technology. Another one is the workplace.

Nanoparticles are known to be used used in more than 1,600 consumer products, from athletic socks and bed sheets to toothpaste. Globally, the nanotech industry is worth about $20 billion per year. That's a lot of superfine particles that have to be manufactured, delivered, and added to the various end products by workers.

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Is Big Dairy Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food?

| Wed May 28, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Update (8/25/2014): The original version of this post claimed several dairy and dairy alternative products* contained nano-particles, based on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)'s inventory of nanotech products. PEN has since removed all of those products from its database, claiming that the 2012 journal article on which their conclusion was based had not conclusively shown that the products contain significant amounts of nano-particles. The researchers found that 36 percent of the particles in food-grade titanium dioxide are nano-sized; and then tested a variety of products for  titanium dioxide and found it in dozens of products, including the ones originally listed in this post. However, the study did not directly establish that the products in question contain nano-sized titanium dioxide. We have removed the brand names from this post to reflect the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies's revised inventory.

The rapid emergence of nanotechnology suggests that size does, indeed, matter. It turns out that if you break common substances like silver and nickel into really, really tiny particles—measured in nanometers, which are billionths of a meter—they behave in radically different ways. For example, regular silver, the stuff of fancy tableware, doesn't have any obvious place in sock production. But nano-size silver particles apparently do. According to boosters, when embedded in the fabric of socks, microscopic silver particles are "strongly antibacterial to a wide range of pathogens, absorb sweat, and by killing bacteria help eliminate unpleasant foot odor." (By most definitions, a particle qualifies as "nano" when it's 100 nanometers wide or less. By contrast, a human hair clocks in at about 80,000 nanometers in diameter.)

According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—there are more than 1,500 nanotechnology-based consumer products on the market today.

Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?

| Tue May 20, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

It's a hard-knock life, scouring the landscape for pollen to sustain a beehive. Alight upon the wrong field, and you might encounter fungicides, increasingly used on corn and soybean crops, and shown to harm honeybees at tiny levels. Get hauled in to pollinate California's vast almond groves, as 60 percent of US honeybees do, and you'll likely make contact with a group of chemicals called adjuvants—allegedly "inert" pesticide additives that have emerged as a prime suspect for a large bee die-off during this year's almond bloom.

Harvard researcher Lu believes that with this study, coming on the heels of a similar one he released in 2012, the colony collapse mystery has been solved.

The hardest-to-avoid menace of all might be the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, widely used not only on big Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans but also on cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes. They're even common in yard and landscaping products. I've written before about the growing weight of science linking these lucrative pesticides, marketed by European agrichemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, to declining bee health, including the annual die-offs known as colony collapse disorder, which began in the winter of 2005-06.

Climate Change Is Turning Your Produce Into Junk Food

| Wed May 14, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Climate skeptics like to point out that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth—suggesting that ever-growing fossil fuel consumption will lead to an era of bin-busting crop yields. But as I noted last week, the best science suggests that other effects of an over-heated planet—heat stress, drought, and floods—will likely overwhelm any bonus from CO2-rich air. Overall, it seems, crop yields will decline.

And here's more bad news: In a paper published in Nature this month, a global team has found that heightened levels of atmospheric carbon make key staple crops wheat, rice, peas, and soybeans less nutritious.

Higher CO2 levels caused a "significant decrease in the concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein" for wheat and rice.

The team, led by Samuel Myers, a research scientist at Harvard's Department of Environmental Health, grew a variety of grains and legumes in plots in the US, Japan, and Australia. They subjected one set to air enriched with CO2 at concentrations ranging from 546 and 586 parts per million—levels expected to be reached in around four decades; the other set got ambient air at today's CO2 level, which recently crossed the 400 parts per million threshold.

The results: a "significant decrease in the concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein" for wheat and rice, a Harvard press release on the study reports. For legumes like soybeans and peas, protein didn’t change much, but zinc and iron levels dropped. For wheat, the treated crops saw zinc, iron, and protein fall by 9.3 percent, 5.1 percent, and 6.3 percent, respectively.

These are potentially grave findings, because a large swath of humanity relies on rice, wheat, and legumes for these very nutrients, the authors note. They report that two billion people already suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies, "causing a loss of 63 million life-years annually." According to the Harvard press release, the "reduction in these nutrients represents the most significant health threat ever shown to be associated with climate change." Symptoms of zinc deficiency include stunted growth, appetite loss, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, impotence, hypogonadism (for males), and eye and skin lesions; while iron deficiency brings on fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headache.

Wheat, rice, soybeans, and peas are all what scientists call C3 crops, characterized by the way they use photosynthesis to trap carbon from the atmosphere. C4 crops, which use a different pathway, include staples like corn and sorghum. Fortunately, C4 crops showed much less sensitivity to higher CO2 levels, the study found.

Roundup "loses its efficacy on weeds grown at CO2 levels projected to occur in the coming decades."

Meanwhile, in my post last week about the big National Climate Assessment and its finding on agriculture, I left out a key point on weeds. The report's agriculture section notes that "several weed species benefit more than crops from higher temperatures and CO2 levels," meaning that climate change will likely intensify weed pressure on farmers. And then it adds a bombshell: glyphosate, the widely used herbicide marketed by Monsanto as Roundup, "loses its efficacy on weeds grown at CO2 levels projected to occur in the coming decades." And that means "higher concentrations of the chemical and more frequent sprayings thus will be needed, increasing economic and environmental costs associated with chemical use."

In short, the era of climate change will hardly be the paradise of carbon-enriched bounty envisioned by fossil fuel enthusiasts. For a look at how farmers probably should adapt to these unhappy developments, see my 2013 profile of Ohio farmer David Brandt.

Our Alarming Food Future, Explained in 7 Charts

| Wed May 7, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Earlier this year, President Obama signed a bill into law that will essentially preserve the status quo of US agriculture for the next half decade. Known as the farm bill, the once-every-five-years legislation (among other things it does) shapes the basic incentive structure for the farmers who specialize in the big commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. This year's model, like the several before it, provides generous subsidies (mostly through cut-rate insurance) for all-out production of these crops (especially corn and soy), while also slashing already-underfunded programs that encourage farmers to protect soil and water.

As I put it in a post at the time, the legislation was simply not ready for climate change. How not ready? A just-released, wide-ranging new federal report called the National Climate Assessment has answers. A collaborative project led by 13 federal agencies and five years in the making, the assessment is available for browsing on a very user-friendly website. Here's what I gleaned on the challenges to agriculture posed by climate change:

Iowa is hemorrhaging soil. A while back, I wrote about Iowa's quiet soil crisis. When heavy rains strike bare corn and soy fields in the spring, huge amounts of topsoil wash away. Known as "gully erosion," this kind of soil loss currently isn't counted in the US Department of Agriculture's rosy erosion numbers, which hold that Iowa's soils are holding steady. But Richard Cruse, an agronomist and the director of Iowa State University's Iowa Water Center, has found Iowa's soils are currently disappearing at a rate as much as 16 times faster than the natural regeneration. According to the National Assessment, days of heavy rain have increased steadily in Iowa over the past two decades, and will continue doing so.

National Climate Assessment

But dry spells are on the rise, too. In spring 2013, Iowa experienced its wettest spring ever, with storms that washed away titanic amounts of topsoil. The previous summer, it underwent its most severe drought in generations. Such gyrations can be expected to continue. This map shows the predicted increase in the maximum number of consecutive dry days, comparing the 1971-2000 period to projections for 2070-90. The worst-hit regions will be in the West—more on that below—but key corn-growing states like Illinois and Indiana take their lumps, too.

National Climate Assessment

Crop yields will decline. All the carbon we've been spewing into the atmosphere over the past century and a half has so far probably helped crop yields—plants need freely available carbon dioxide, after all. But as the climate warms, that effect gets increasingly drowned out by heat stress, drought, and flood. And now, the Midwest is expected to see sharply higher average temperatures as well as days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This chart compares the region's average temps in the 1971-2000 period to those expected between 2041 and 2070.

And higher temperatures correlate to reduced crop yields—as this chart, comparing yields and maximum temperature data in Illinois and Indiana between 1980 and 2007, shows.

National Climate Assessment

California, our vegetable basket, will be strapped for irrigation water. California is locked in a severe drought. I recently noted that farmers in the state's main growing region, the Central Valley, are responding by rapidly drawing down underground water stores to keep their crops irrigated. The main driver: Farmers count on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains to supply the state's vast irrigation networks—and this year, the snows barely came. According to the report, as the weather warms up, they—and other farms in the Southwest—can expect much less snow going forward.

National Climate Assessment

And even if they can get enough water, heat stress and other climate effects will likely knock down yields of some crops. Different crops respond to higher temperatures in different ways. This chart projects yields for Central Valley crops under two scenarios—one in which greenhouse gas emissions continue rising, the other if we manage to reduce emissions. Crucially, these projections are based on the assumption that "adequate water supplies (soil moisture)" will be maintained—a precarious assumption.

National Climate Assessment

Wine grapes, nuts, and other perennial California crops will be hard-hit. In order to thrive, crops like fruit and nuts need a certain number of chilling hours each winter—that is, periods when temperatures range between 32°F and 50°F. Bad news: A warming climate means fewer cold snaps. The maps below show changes in chilling hours in the Central Valley in 1950, 2000, and a prediction for 2050 if current trends hold (the greener, the more chilling hours):

image: central valley images
National Climate Assessment

Overall, the report states, "the number of chilling hours is projected to decline by 30 percent to 60 percent by 2050 and by up to 80 percent by 2100." Worse, the "area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest-quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50 percent by late this century." It's enough to make you want to uncork a bottle, while you still have a chance.

Tom's Kitchen: Fried-Egg Taco With Fried Snap Peas and Radish Flowers

| Wed May 7, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Garden-variety errata-ca: aged snap peas and radish flowers, with radishes.

To garden is to accept chaos. Soil, seeds, weather, fauna—these are just a few factors that interact in complex and unpredictable ways, generating results we can influence but ultimately can't control. Add the frailty of human judgment to the mix, and gardening is a kind of crapshoot. For the kitchen gardener, when the harvest disappoints, you have to react creatively—in short, to turn your errata into something delicious to eat.

This spring here in Austin, we planted snap peas too late. The tendrils gamely snaked their way up their trellises, but by the time the plants flowered, the weather had become too hot for the buds to set much in the way of fruit. Something similar happened with the radishes, planted on the same late date: They grew robust tops, but very few of them had sufficient time to develop full root bulbs before the heat set in. Harvesting them became a low-odds gamble: for every four you picked, just one presented a crunchy, spicy red orb. The other three showed a spindly root, which I would frog-march straight to the compost pile.

Well, not always. For a couple of weeks, the radish tops have been so green and healthy that I've been sautéing them like I do kale or chard. They cook fast and have a pungent flavor, easing the sting of the largely failed root harvest. Then the remaining  radish tops went to seed and sprouted pretty purple flowers. When I snapped off a bud and tasted it (in the garden as in the kitchen, one should Always Be Tasting), I found it peppery, reminiscent of mustard greens (a related plant) and tender. And so, another unexpected harvest—for several days, I'd go out to snip a few to add, chopped, to salads.

Finally this weekend, the time came to pull out the lingering spring garden, to make way for hot-weather crops. (I put in a second round of tomatoes, hot peppers, melons, and cucumbers.) As I uprooted the pea shoots, I noticed a few more remaining snap peas than I expected. I tasted one. It delivered a burst of sweetness and the bright flavor that I can only describe as "green"—the thing that makes sugar snap peas maybe the most beloved spring vegetable. The problem: The pod had become slightly wizened in the hot sun, a bit too fibrous and impossible to chew all the way. Nothing that a bit of cooking won't fix, I noted as I snatched a couple of handfuls worth of delicious-but-tough snap peas out of the foliage.

Then I snipped all the remaining flowers from the radish plants before yanking them, too. Among the roots, I collected more keepers than I had expected. I immediately brought my motley treasure into the kitchen for a quick breakfast. (Note: these ingredients would also work well in a stir fry or a pasta.) Of course, you probably don't have access to aged snap peas or radish flowers; but if you garden, I bet there are some exciting flavors lurking out there in odd places, waiting to be set free.

Fried-Egg Taco With Fried Snap Peas and Radish Flowers

Makes 1 taco

1 radish, chopped (garnish)

1 clove of garlic, crushed, peeled, and chopped fine
A good handful of slightly tough sugar snap peas, stem ends removed, and chopped coarsely
A good handful of radish (or other brassica) flowers, chopped coarsely
Olive oil
Sea salt
A pinch of crushed chili pepper
Black pepper
Red chili pepper

1 quarter-inch slice of butter (cut from a stick of it)
1 egg
Sea salt
Black pepper
A pinch of crushed chili pepper

1 tortilla (I use whole-what ones from Margarita's Tortilla Factory of Austin)

Heat a cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium flame. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom and stir in the garlic, the chili pepper, a pinch of salt, and a grind of pepper. Stir for a minute, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Add the snap peas and toss, cooking them for a minute or two. Add the radish flowers. Cook, tossing and stirring, until the snap peas are tender (they should retain a decent crunch). Marvel at the interplay between the sweet peas and the mustardy radish flowers.

Meanwhile, place a small skillet over medium heat and add the butter. When it has melted, swirl the pan to coat. Let the pan get good and hot. Crack an egg and add it to the pan. Give it a dusting of salt, black pepper, and chile pepper. Turn heat to low and cook until whites are fully set. Flip the egg and cook to desired doneness (I like the yolk to be a little runny.

Meanwhile, heat the tortilla in yet another small skillet or comal (or over the open flame of a gas burner) over medium heat, flipping it to brown on both sides.

Assemble the taco: Slip the fried egg into the folded tortilla and enough of the radish-flower/snap pea mixture to fill it. Serve the remainder on the side. Garnish with the chopped radish.

P.S.: Happy 40th Anniversary to my beloved Watauga County Farmers' Market on the opening of the new market season. I'm delighted the two young landless farmers who have joined Maverick Farms' FIG Program were able to sell edible brassica flowers at their very first market—here’s hoping for a great 2014 season to all the High Country farmers, and welcome aboard Kathleen Petermann with Waxwing Farm and Caroline Hampton with Octopus Gardens!

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6 Charts That Show How We Became China's Grocery Store and Wine Cellar

| Mon May 5, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Jaeah Lee

We hear a lot about the perils of consuming food from China—and very little about the food we send to China. Yet we export five times more chow to China than we import from it (see chart above).

No doubt, China has undergone a full-on food-production miracle over the past generation, but there's zero chance that its farms will emerge as a global exporting powerhouse, as its vaunted electronics factories have done. As this 2013 UN report notes, China's total farm output has tripled since 1978. But it has to feed nearly a fifth of the globe's people on just 8 percent of its arable land. Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of China's farmland has been polluted by runoff from industrial waste and/or excessive agrichemicals, its government recently acknowledged. On top of that, the country's water resources are extremely limited.

Nevertheless, China is a major supplier of some high-profile items in our grocery stores and restaurants. Which ones?

Alex Park

Overall, though, China is a relatively minor source of food for the US—we import much more from both Mexico and Canada. The much bigger story is rocketing exports. China overtook Mexico as the country that sucks in the most US food in 2012. We export more than $25 billion worth of food per year to China, as the chart at the top shows—an amount nearly equal to total annual food expenditures in the state of Ohio.

Jaeah Lee, Julia Lurie, Katie Rose Quandt

The main driver: China's rapid switch to a US-style meat-rich diet. China taps US farms to feed its fast-growing meat habit in two ways. First, it directly imports it. Pork exports to China have surged over the past decade. China is also a large importer of beef on the global market (mainly from Australia), but it has banned US product since 2003, over a mad-cow disease scare. With its beef demand soaring, though, it recently signaled it might lift the beef ban as early as July. As for chicken, China imports a huge amount from the US; and it has also invited US agribusiness giants Tyson and Cargill to plunk down chicken farms on domestic soil. These factory-scale facilities need a steady supply of feed to keep humming—and that's where we get to the second way China looks to the US for its meat supply: by importing lots and lots of livestock feed, namely, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa (fed as hay to cows). Chinese consumers are also demonstrating a surging appetite for another protein-rich US product: nuts, almost all of which are grown in California. And, perhaps to help wash down all of that meat, there's a growing thirst for another California-centric luxury product, wine.

Jaeah Lee and Alex Park

These final charts, drawn from recent USDA projections, suggest that China's love affair with meat will continue. Meanwhile, its appetite for nuts shows no sign of abating. For the US, these trends no doubt mean a windfall for the agribusiness companies that dominate meat, grain, and nut production. They also mean yet more pressure on our two most important food-growing regions: California's Central Valley and the Midwest's corn belt. As I've pointed out before, the Central Valley, source not only of nuts but also of alfalfa, is already rapidly drawing down fossil water resources to irrigate its drought-parched farms; and the corn belt is quietly undergoing a potentially devastating loss of topsoil, under the strain of maximum production and chaotic weather.

Jaeah Lee

Chicken Nuggets, With a Side of Respiratory Distress

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Think you have it tough at work? Imagine taking a post at a factory-scale poultry slaughterhouse. Chicken carcasses whiz by at the rate of 140 per minute, requiring repetitive hand motions with sharp knives. Then there's the caustic odor of chemical sprays and washes—practices the industry has resorted to in recent years as a way to control bacterial pathogens like salmonella.

The US Department of Agriculture, which inspects the kill line at these plants, has been brandishing a proposal since 2012 that would remove some inspectors from the kill line while allowing the industry to speed them up to a rate of 175 birds per minute—a 25 percent acceleration. The speedup would likely increase reliance on those antimicrobial sprays to manage pathogens: In the USDA's proposal, "visibly contaminated poultry carcasses" would be allowed to remain on-line for treatment with germ-killing chemicals, instead of being taken offline for cleaning, as is the current practice. For companies that opt to keep their "visibly contaminated" birds on the kill line, "all carcasses" on the line would be doused with antimicrobial chemicals, the proposal states, "whether they are contaminated or not."

Are Your Delicious, Healthy Almonds Killing Bees?

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Honeybees and almond blooms: mutual dependence

California dominates almond production like Saudi Arabia wishes it dominated oil. More than 80 percent of the almonds consumed on Planet Earth hail from there. Boosted by surging demand from China—overall, 70 percent of the state's output is exported—California's almond groves are expanding. The delicious nut's acreage grew 25 percent between 2006 and 2013. In a previous post, I noted how the almond boom is helping fuel a potentially disastrous water-pumping frenzy in a drought-stricken state.

Now comes more unsettling news: California's almond groves are being blamed for a large recent honeybee die-off.

What do almond trees have to do with honeybees? It turns out that when you grow almond trees in vast monocrops, pollination from wild insects doesn't do the trick. Each spring, it takes 1.6 million honeybee hives to pollinate the crop—about a million of which must be trucked in from out of state. Altogether, the crop requires the presence of a jaw-dropping 60 percent of the managed honeybees in the entire country, the US Department of Agriculture reports.

Vermont to Require GMO Labeling

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 7:27 AM EDT

When Maine and Connecticut passed laws last year requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, there was a catch: They withheld implementation "until other states pass similar legislation with the hope of sharing the expense of any litigation," reports the ag trade paper Brownfield. This week, they appear to have gotten their wish. On Wednesday afternoon, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin took to Facebook to announce his intention to sign a bill that had been recently passed his own state's legislature—one with a concrete plan for implementation, by July 1, 2016. "The legislature has spoken loud and clear," he declared. "Vermonters deserve to know what is in their food."

As for the litigation fears expressed by its fellow New England states, Vermont has an answer, Brownfield reports: "The bill also sets up an $8 million fund to implement the rules and defend them if necessary." No doubt, law firms are already jostling for pieces of that action. The agrichemical and food-processing industries, which spent $46 million to defeat a labeling ballot initiative in California in 2012 and another $21 million to beat a Washington State labeling campaign last year, will almost certainly attempt to block the Vermont law in court.

An article published last month in the Vermont paper VTDigger.com portrays the intense lobbying the industry brought to bear as the legislature debated the bill, and lays out the likely legal arguments it will make in court to crush it:

A potential lawsuit would hinge on several legal arguments: First Amendment rights and protections against compelled speech, “equal protection” laws, rules prohibiting conflict between state and federal laws, and the so-called “dormant commerce” clause saying states can’t make laws that will have adverse impact on interstate commerce.

Of course, taking to the courts to defeat a popular initiative won't do much to improve the GMO seed/agrichemical industry's public image. I laid out the reason I support GMO labeling in this post on California's failed ballot initiative.