Tom Philpott

What Do Iran Trade Sanctions Have to Do With California Pistachios?

| Mon May 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Amid an epochal drought with no end in sight, farmers in California's Central Valley have entered a veritable well-drilling arms race to capture water from fast-depleting aquifers, causing large swaths of land to sink and permanently reducing its ability to hold water. But none of that has reined in the pistachio industry's relentless expansion. Acreage devoted to pistachios grew more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2014; at a conference in March, nut magnate Stewart Resnick, co-owner and president of Wonderful Pistachios, urged growers to plant more, more, more, claiming that the tasty nuts deliver an even tastier $3,519 average per acre profit. (Resnick's team also beseeched growers to invest some of their windfall in lobbying to maintain industry-friendly water rules.)

With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves.

But if California's epic water crunch can't slow down the state's pistachio juggernaut, here's one thing that just might: a possible deal, now being negotiated within the United Nations, to end trade sanctions against Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program.

What does Iran have to do with California pistachios? Pretty much everything, it turns out. Flash back to 1979. Iran, governed for decades by the US-friendly Shah, dominated the global pistachio trade. Pistachios barely registered as a crop in California. Then came the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis; overnight, the nation went from trusted trading partner to pariah—a status it has held, more or less, ever since. With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves. By 1990, the state's pistachio acreage had more than doubled. By 2014, it stood at more than 294,000 acres—nearly ten-fold growth since the Shah's fall. (Numbers here.)

But if the Iran nuke deal goes into effect, trade barriers will tumble and Iranian pistachios will again be available in the United States—exposing California farmers to competition and possibly threatening those windfall profits being brandished by Resnick. "Iran has far more clout in the market for cocktail nibbles than it does in crude trading," Bloomberg notes. "While it ranks only as the world's seventh-largest oil producer, the Middle Eastern country vies with the U.S. to be the biggest pistachio grower."

Then there's Europe, a market worth about $300 million to US growers. Iranian pistachios aren't banned outright there, Bloomberg reports, but are severely constrained by broader sanctions on banking and shipping. A deal on nukes would change all that.  

No one knows precisely how much an open market for Iranian product would affect prices for the profitable nibbles. But Bloomberg speculates the "biggest losers may be Californian farmers who have doubled pistachio acreage over the past ten years despite drought conditions."

Advertise on

Your Winter Vegetables: Brought to You by California's Very Last Drops of Water

| Wed May 6, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

California's drought-plagued Central Valley hogs the headlines, but two-thirds of your winter vegetables come from a different part of the state. Occupying a land mass a mere eighth the size of metro Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter. Major crops include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, and, most famously, lettuce and salad mix.

Two-thirds of winter broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, and salad mix come from the desperately dry Imperial Valley.

And those aren't even the region's biggest moneymakers. Nestled in the state's southeastern corner, the Imperial Valley also produces massive amounts of alfalfa, a cattle feed, and its teeming feedlots finish some 350,000 beef cows per year.

In terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld. At least the Central Valley is bound by mountain ranges to the east that, in good years (not the last several), deliver abundant snowmelt for irrigation. The Imperial sits in the middle of the blazing-hot Sonoran Dessert, with no water-trapping mountains anywhere nearby. It receives a whopping 3 inches of precipitation per year on average; even the more arid half of the Central Valley gets 15 inches.

The sole source of water in the Imperial Valley is the Colorado River, which originates hundreds of miles northeast, in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. As it winds down from its source in the snow-capped peaks of northern Colorado down to Mexico, it delivers a total of 16.5 million acre-feet of water to the farmers and 40 million consumers in seven US states and northern Mexico who rely on it. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to flood an acre of land with 12 inches of water—about 326,000 gallons.)

Of that total, the Imperial Valley's farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California's total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado. It's an amount of water equivalent to more than four times what Los Angeles uses in a year, according to figures from the Pacific Institute.


The Colorado Rivers waters are so in demand that they rarely reach their endpoint in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Map: Shannon/Wikimedia Commons


Because it owns senior water rights based on a 1931 pact, the Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions. Currently, the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the Colorado stands at about 44 percent of its average for this time of year, triggering fears of an impending shortfall—but not for the Imperial. "Nevada, southern Arizona and Mexico will be cut back before the Imperial district loses a drop," The Los Angeles Times recently reported. Whereas Central Valley farmers, reliant on vanishing snowmelt from the Sierras, have seen their irrigation allotments curtailed the last two years, growers in the Imperial Valley haven't lost any water (though the Imperial Valley District did agree to sell as much as 0.2 million acre-feet of water by 2021, of its 3.1 million acre-foot allotment, to fast-growing San Diego in a 2003 deal).

The Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions.

Already, decades of intensive desert farming have had severe ecological effects, epitomized by that beleaguered inland body of water known as the Salton Sea, which sits uneasily at the Imperial's northern edge. Before the big irrigation projects that made the valley bloom, what's now the Salton periodically captured flood waters from the then-mighty Colorado River. Now it's fed solely from Imperial Valley farm runoff, and as Dana Goodyear shows in a superb recent New Yorker piece, it's slowly decaying into a toxic mess—one that could "emit as much as a hundred tons of fine, caustic dust a day, leading to respiratory illness in the healthy and representing an acute hazard for people with compromised immune systems."

Meanwhile, the Colorado's flow has proven inadequate to supply the broader region's needs. In a paper last year (my account of it here), University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers found that farmers, landowners, and municipalities are supplementing their river allocations by drawing water from underground aquifers at a much faster rate than had been known. Between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado Basin lost almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water, an enormous fossil resource siphoned away in less than a decade.

A desert in bloom: the Imperial Valley as seen from space, from a photo taken by NASA astronauts in 2002. Photo: NASA

Consider also that the Southwest's population is on pace to expand by a third by 2030—and that the river's annual average flow is expected to decrease by anywhere from 5 percent to 18 percent by 2050, compared to 20th century averages, according to the National Climate Assessment, throttled by rising temperatures and declining precipitation.

Thus the Imperial's titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California's Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn't rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.

Here's How the Massive New Bird Flu Outbreak Could Affect You

| Fri May 1, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

The US poultry and egg industries are enduring their largest-ever outbreak of a deadly (known as pathogenic) version of avian flu. Earlier this month, the disease careened through Minnesota's industrial-scale turkey farms, affecting at least 3.6 million birds, and is now punishing Iowa's massive egg-producing facilities, claiming 9.8 million—and counting—hens. Here's what you need to know about the outbreak.

Where did this avian flu come from? So far, no one is sure exactly sure how the flu—which has shown no ability to infect humans—is spreading. The strain now circulating is in the US is "highly similar" to a novel variety that first appeared in South Korea in January 2014, before spreading to China and Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, according to a paper by a team led by US Geological Survey wildlife virologist Hon Ip.

How did it spread? The most likely carrier is wild birds, but it's unclear how they deliver the virus into large production facilities, where birds are kept indoors under rigorous biosecurity protocols. On Thursday, the mystery deepened when birds in an Iowa hatchery containing 19,000 chickens tested positive for the virus. "This is thought to be first time the avian influenza virus has affected a broiler breeding farm in this outbreak," Reuters reported. "Such breeding farms are traditionally known for having extremely tight biosecurity systems." John Clifford, the US Department of Agriculture's chief veterinary officer, recently speculated that the virus could be invading poultry confinements through wind carrying infected particles left by wild birds, taken onto the factory-farm floor by vents.

Can humans catch it? So far, no. But public health officials have been warning for decades that massive livestock confinements make an ideal breeding ground for new virus strains. In its authoritative 2009 report on industrial-scale meat production, the Pew Commission warned that the "continual cycling of viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks increases opportunities for the generation of novel flu viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmissions." It added: "agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities."

Is this bird flu affecting the poultry industry's revenue? Yup. The specter of flu is already pinching Big Chicken's bottom line. China and South Korea—which imported a combined $428.5 million in US poultry last year—have imposed bans on US chicken, drawing the ire of USDA chief Tom Vilsack, Reuters reports.

What's the worst-case scenario? If the virus spread to the Southeast, Big Poultry will be in big trouble.  Here's a map showing where chicken production is concentrated (from Food and Water Watch). Already, the strain has turned up in wild birds as far south as Kentucky.

Map: Food and Water Watch


What are we doing to stop the flu from spreading further? All the flu-stricken birds not killed outright by the virus are euthanized—but beyond that, the strategy seems to be: ramp up biosecurity efforts at poultry facilities and cross your fingers. Flu viruses don't thrive in the heat, so "when warm weather comes in consistently across the country I think we will stop seeing new cases," USDA chief veterinarian Clifford recently said on a press call. But USDA officials recently told Reuters it's "highly probable" that the virus will regain force when temperatures cool in the fall—and potentially be carried by wild birds to the southeast.  

Bees Love Nicotine, Even Though It's Killing Them

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

If a ubiquitous class of pesticides called neonicotinoids harms bees and other pollinators—as many scientists think they do—why don't those buzzing insects just avoid pollen and nectar that contains them?

That's the question posed by a new study published in Nature by a team of UK researchers. Champions of these chemicals, the authors note, often argue that bees can simply choose not to forage on neonic-laced plants—an entomological twist, I guess, on the personal-responsibility creed often employed by the food industry to defer blame for the harmful effects of junk food.

Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it.

What the research team found is remarkable: Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it—even though it causes them harm. To test how pollinators react to traces of neonics, the team created controlled environments over 24 hours for both bumblebees and honeybees and gave them two food choices: a straight sugar solution or a sugar solution laced with neonics at levels found in farm-field nectar.

According to the researchers, bees make food choices based on "gustatory neurons in hair-like sensilla" in their mouths. Potential food that's toxic and/or non-nourishing normally triggers spikes in "bitter"-sensing neurons, alerting the bee to stop eating and move on top something else. The neonic-laced sugar water didn't generate that reaction for either the bumblebees or honey bees, and so they consumed it freely—and tended to take in more of it than the neonic-free solution.

Why the preference? Here's how Geraldine Wright, the study's lead author and a professor at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, put it in the press release accompanying the study (ScienceDaily): "Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain that are affected by nicotine in the human brain." In other words, while neonics don't register as toxins, the do give bees the same buzz (so to speak) that people get from a cigarette. Thus the poisons "may act like a drug to make foods containing these substances more rewarding," Wright added. (Neonics are synthetic versions of of nicotine, and thus chemically similar.

And just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff. Cutting calories may sound great for a 21st century American, but it's not good for beehives relying on well-fed foragers.

Just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff.

Because bees evidently seek out neonics, the authors argue, strategies to limit their exposure by planting pesticide-free nectar and pollen sources along roadsides and whatnot—a key element of President Obama's "Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators"—might not by enough. "Instead," they write, "long-term changes to policy that include reducing their use may be the only certain means of halting pollinator population decline."

Another recent Nature study, this one by Swedish researchers, provides yet more reason for concern. The team tracked how wild bee populations and honeybee hives fared in 16 fields planted with rapeseed (canola)—half of which had been sewn with neonic-treated seeds, half of which hadn't. The result: Populations of two kinds of wild bees—bumblebees and the solitary bees—dropped in the treated fields compared to the control ones. They found greatly diminished reproductive success in solitary bees in the treated fields. And bumblebee hives in treated fields showed slower growth and produced fewer queens than their control counterparts—both signs of diminished health.

As for honeybees, the insecticide seed treatment "had no significant influence on honeybee colony strength," the authors report. That finding is consistent with previous studies suggesting that "honeybees are better at detoxifying after neonicotinoid exposure compared to bumblebees," they write. But they note that their research took place over a short time—several weeks in summer when canola plants flower—and the "lack of short-term effects does not preclude the existence of long-term effects" on honeybees. And their conclusion is hardly comforting: Neonics "pose a substantial risk to wild bees in agricultural landscapes, and the contribution of pesticides to the global decline of wild bees may have been underestimated."

Responding to similar research, the European Commission placed a moratorium on most neonic use back in 2013. But here in the United States, the chemicals remain ubiquitous. This spring, US farmers will likely plant 174 million acres of corn and soybeans—a combined swath of land about equal to the state of Texas. The majority of it will likely be with seeds that have been treated with neonics, which are then taken up by the crops and present in plant tissue, nectar, and pollen, ready to poison any creatures that munch (except humans—neonics aren't  considered toxic to us).

As the chart below chart—taken from a recent paper by Penn State entomologists Margaret Douglas and John Tooker—shows, US neonic use has exploded since treated seeds first hit the market in 1994. That may mean lots of pleasant neural sensations for bees, if the UK study has it right; but it should make any species that depends on pollination for sustenance—like us—think twice.


Say What You Will About Almonds, but They Are Wildly Popular

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 1:39 PM EDT
An almond orchard in California.

California's thirsty almond orchards have been generating an impressive amount of debate as the state's drought drags on. But that won't likely stop their expansion. The title of a new report from the Dutch agribusiness-banking giant Rabobank explains why: "California Almonds: Maybe Money Does Grow on Trees."

The report is "exclusive for business clients of Rabobank," but an accompanying blog post offers some good tidbits. "Drought conditions and the stronger US dollar have increased the price of almonds for all buyers," it states. On the US East Coast, wholesale prices for premium almonds have risen 20 percent since last year. "In Europe, the almond is becoming increasingly popular, not only as a nutritious snack but especially as a go-to ingredient for manufacturers," it continues. There, wholesale prices are up 50 percent since last year, while "buyers in India and Hong Kong are paying 25 percent and 20 percent more, respectively."

Those higher prices will evidently more than compensate California farmers for higher watering costs, and inspire them to expand acreage. Rabobank expects California almond production to rise by 2 percent to 3.5 percent per year over the next decade, accoring to Sacramento Bee's Dale Kasler, who got a look at the Rabobank study.

That's impressive growth. If almond output expands by 3 percent per year over the next ten years, then—using this trusty formula—production will grow a whopping 34 percent between now and 2025. That's a lot of growth for a state that already churns out 80 percent of the world's almonds. This scenario doesn't imply a 34 percent expansion in almond acreage—some of the almond trees that will contribute to that growth in output have already been planted and will be coming into production over the next few years (it takes almonds about four years to begin producing after they're planted). But it does imply a robust expansion. Kasler quotes the study:

Higher prices and good profits for California almond growers will continue to encourage more planting of almond orchards.... Nurseries report very little slowing in orders of new trees.


Obama Is Poised to Give GMO and Meat Companies Something They've Always Wanted

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

President Obama and his Senate GOP critics are locked in a long-simmering feud, but there's one topic that has them clasping hands and singing kumbaya: global free-trade deals. The erstwhile foes are joining forces to push two massive ones: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would knock down trade barriers for a group of nations including the United States, Canada, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would do the same between the US and the European Union.

"We're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out legislation, vigorously promoted by the White House, that would give the president broad authority to negotiate and push such trade deals through Congress, a process known as "fast track." Since it facilitates corporate-friendly trade rules, the fast-track bill is expected to enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers. But progressive Democratic senators are lining up to oppose it, setting up a battle royal pitting President Obama and his own congressional caucus—one the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman calls "sure to be one of the toughest fights of Mr. Obama's last 19 months in office."

In a post last year, I laid out why the US meat industry loves the TPP: namely, that it would open the floodgates to lucrative markets in Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, all of which limit imports of US meat to protect domestic farmers

Another massive agribusiness sector, the GMO seed pesticide industry, potentially stands to gain from the TTIP, because the European Union has much more restrictive regulations on rolling out novel crops than does the United States. Some member states, including France, maintain moratoriums on planting certain GM crops. Attempting to drum up support for the fast-track bill on Capitol Hill, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Trade Representative Michael Froman have been been promising to use the proposed treaty has a hammer to force broader acceptance in the EU. 

"Vilsack said the administration would 'continue to negotiate very hard' to prevent individual EU countries from blocking use of approved biotech products," reports Agri-Pulse's Philip Brasher, in an account of a hearing last week held by the Senate Finance Committee. As for Froman, he told the committee that "we're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics."

Vilsack has also rallied the agribusiness industry to lobby Congress in favor of the fast-track bill, calling on "farmers, ranchers, agribusiness owners, and other industry groups to urge Congress to pass trade promotion authority for President Obama and to support the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement," reports the North American Meat Institute.

But what's good for the meat and biotech industries industry isn't necessarily good for the country. As the Intercept's Lee Fang reports, Obama's Office of the United States Trade Representative, which is negotiating the trade deals, is shot through with former biotech-industry flacks. The fast track bill would further curtail public debate on a treaty process that's already been notoriously secretive. I hope Democratic senators defy the president on this one.

Advertise on

There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California.

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
A cotton field in Georgia.

California is by far the dominant US produce-growing state—source of (large PDF) 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 86 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, etc.

But all three of its main veggie growing regions—the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and the Salinas Valley—face serious short- and long-term water challenges. As I recently argued in a New York Times debate, it's time to "de-Californify" the nation's supply of fruits and vegetable supply, to make it more diversified, resilient, and ready for a changing climate.

Here are maps of US fruit and vegetable production:




Now check out this map depicting average annual precipitation. The data are old—1961 to 1990—and weather patterns have changed since then as the climate has warmed over the decades. But the overall trends depicted still hold sway: The West tends to be arid, the East tends to get plenty of rain and snow, and the Midwest lands, well, somewhere in the middle. So the map remains a good proxy for understanding where water tends to fall and where it doesn't, though the precipitation levels depicted for California look downright Londonesque compared to the state's current parched condition.



Not only is California gripped in its worst drought in at least 1,200 years, but climate models and the fossil record suggest that its 21st-century precipitation levels could be significantly lower than the 20th-century norm, when California emerged as a fruit-and-vegetable behemoth.

So here's an idea that could take pressure off California. In my Times piece, I looked to the Corn Belt states of the Midwest as a prime candidate for a veggie revival: Just about a quarter million acres (a veritable rounding error in that region's base of farmland) from corn and soy to veggies could have a huge impact on regional supply, a 2010 Iowa State University study found.

Now my gaze is heading south and east, to acres now occupied by cotton—a crop burdened by a brutal past in the South (slavery, sharecropping) and a troubled present (a plague of herbicide-tolerant weeds):


Let's leave aside all of the cotton growing on the arid side of the map. (The drought is already squeezing out production of the fluffy fiber in California; as for the Texas panhandle, cotton production there relies heavily on water from the fast-depleting Ogallala Aquifer—not a great long-term strategy.)

Small-scale fruit and vegetable farms are "already gearing up down there," said one expert.

What I'm eyeing are those cotton acres on the water-rich right side of the map—the Mississippi Delta states Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana, along with the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia to the east. According to the USDA, mid-Southern and Southeastern states planted more than 4 million acres of cotton in 2014. This is what's left of the old—and let's face it, infamous—Cotton Belt that stocked the globe's textile factories during the 19th-century boom that delivered the Industrial Revolution (a story told in Sven Beckert's fantastic 2014 book Empire of Cotton).

Decades of low prices have already put a squeeze on Southern cotton acres, and the fiber has recently slumped anew in global trading. Why not transition at least some acres into crops with a robust domestic market? I bounced my idea of a Cotton Belt fruit-and-vegetable renaissance off a few experts to see if it was nuts. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it "noncrazy." He pointed out that, as in most other parts of the United States, small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers are "already gearing up down there," and added that the region "seems ripe for entrepreneurial companies to come in, buy land, grow farmers, introduce a whole new vegetable supply chain on a bigger scale, especially with California's woes."

I'm not talking about a fantasy in which everyone eats from within 20 miles (although such locavore networks, which have thrived nationwide over the last two decades, certainly add diversification and resilience to the overall food system). I'm simply pushing a more regionalized, widely distributed scheme for filling our salad and fruit bowls, one less dependent on California and its overtaxed water resources.

Scott Marlow, executive director of North Carolina-based RAFI USA, a farmer advocacy organization, also said the idea make sense—with caveats. One is credit. Marlow says that most farmers who still plant cotton are large enough that they rely on loans to start the growing season—and bankers understand and are used to cotton, but may find vegetables too exotic and risky. For such farmers, "if the banker won't lend for it, [they] are not doing it," he said. Reforms in the latest farm bill made it easier for "specialty crop" (i.e., fruit and vegetable) farmers to get good crop insurance, and that, in turn, made it easier to get loans, he said. But those changes take time to sink in.

He added that the South's high levels of precipitation can actually be a liability compared to California's aridity, because "rain spreads diseases through splash erosion, ruins product, screws up harvest, reduces product quality." California farmers, who meet their watering needs through controlled irrigation, don't have those problems.

But rain troubles can be addressed through low-tech means like high tunnels, which are already being adapted by Southern produce farmers to extend the growing season, but also to protect sensitive crops from rain, Marlow said. Black plastic mulch, another widely adapted practice, also helps keep crops healthy in rainy periods, he added. The South's farmers have demonstrated the ability to innovate, he said, but "there have to be markets, there has to be risk management, and there has to be access to credit."

Converting swaths of Dixie country to vegetables won't be a fast or easy process. But if California's water troubles drag on, as it appears they will, broccoli may yet emerge as the heir apparent to doddering King Cotton.

The FDA Just Released Scary New Data on Antibiotics And Farms

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
A close-up of the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, which is commonly found on supermarket pork.

Back in April 2012, the Food and Drug Administration launched an effort to address a problem that had been festering for decades: the meat industry's habit of feeding livestock daily low does of antibiotics, which keeps animals alive under stressful conditions and may help them grow faster, but also generates bacterial pathogens that can shake off antibiotics, and make people sick.

The FDA approached the task gingerly: It asked the industry to voluntarily wean itself from routine use of "medically important" antibiotics—those that are critical to human medicine, like tetracycline. In addition to the light touch, the agency plan included a massive loophole: that while livestock producers should no longer use antibiotics as a growth promoter, they're welcome to use them to "prevent" disease—which often means using them in the same way (routinely), and at the same rate. How's the FDA's effort to ramp down antibiotic use on farms working? Last week, the FDA delivered an early look, releasing data for 2013, the year after it rolled out its plan. The results are … scary.


Note that use of medically important antibiotics actually grew 3 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year, while the industry's appetite for non-medically import drugs, which it's supposed to be shifting to, shrank 2 percent. A longer view reveals an even more worrisome trend: between 2009 and 2013, use of medically important drugs grew 20 percent.And the FDA data show that these livestock operations are particularly voracious for the same antibiotics doctors prescribe to people. Farms burn through 9.1 million kilograms of medically important antibiotics vs. 5.5 million kilograms of ones not currently used in human medicine. That means about 62 percent of their total antibiotic use could be be helping generate pathogens that resist the drugs we rely on. (According to Natural Resources Defense Council's Avinash Kar, 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the US go to farms.)

The report also delivers a stark view into just how routine antibiotics have become on farms.


Note that 74 percent of the medically important drugs being consumed on farms are delivered through feed, and another 24 percent go out in water. That means fully 95 percent is being fed to animals on a regular basis, not being given to specific animals to treat a particular infection. Just 5 percent (4 percent via injection, 1 percent orally) are administered that way.

Anyone wondering which species—chickens, pigs, turkeys, or cows—get the most antibiotics will have to take it up with the FDA. The agency doesn't require companies to deliver that information, so it doesn’t exist, at least not in publicly available form. The FDA only began releasing any information at all on livestock antibiotic use in very recent years, after having its hand forced by a 2008 act of Congress.

Meanwhile, at least 2 million Americans get sick from antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 of them die, the Centers for Disease Control estimates. And while all of that carnage can’t be blamed on the meat industry's drug habit, it does play a major role, as the CDC makes clear in this handy infographic.




The Real Reason to Worry About GMOs

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

In a recent column, the New York Times' Mark Bittman makes an important point about the controversy around genetically modified foods. "[T]o date there's little credible evidence that any food grown with genetic engineering techniques is dangerous to human health," he writes. Yet the way the technology has been used—mainly, to engineer crops that can withstand herbicides—is deeply problematic, he argues.

Here's why I think Bittman's point is crucial. The below chart, from the pro-biotech International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, gives a snapshot of what types of GMO crops farmers were planting as of 2012. In more recent reports, the ISAAA doesn't break out its data in the same way, but it's a fair assumption that things are roughly similar three years later, given that no GMO blockbusters have entered the market since.

Chart: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications,

If you add up all the herbicide-tolerant crops on the list, you find that about 69 percent of global GM acres are planted with crops engineered to withstand herbicides. But that's an undercount, because the GM products listed as "stacked traits" are engineered to repel insects (the Bt trait) and to withstand herbicides. Adding those acres in, the grand total comes to something like 84 percent of global biotech acres devoted to crops that can flourish when doused with weed killers—chemicals that are sold by the very same companies that sell the GMO seeds.

More than four-fifths of global biotech acres devoted to crops that can flourish when doused with weed killers.

As Bittman points out, almost all of the herbicide-tolerant crops on the market to date have been engineered to resist a single herbicide, glyphosate. And weeds have evolved to resist that herbicide, forcing farmers to apply heavier doses and or added older, more toxic chemicals to the mix.

Rather than reconsider the wisdom of committing tens of millions of acres to crops developed to resist a single herbicide, the industry plans to double down: Monsanto and rival Dow will both be marketing crops next year engineered to withstand both glyphosate and more-toxic herbicides—even though scientists like Penn State University's David Mortensen are convinced that the new products are "likely to increase the severity of resistant weeds" and "facilitate a significant increase in herbicide use."

Meanwhile, unhappily, the World Health Organization has recently decreed glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the Roundup brand name, a "probable carcinogen"—a designation Monsanto is vigorously trying to get rescinded.

So, given that 20 years after GM crops first appeared on farm fields, something like four-fifths of global biotech acres are still devoted to herbicide-tolerant crops, Bittman's unease about how the technology has been deployed seems warranted. It's true that genetically altered apples and potatoes that don't brown as rapidly when they're sliced will soon hit the market. They may prove to be a benign development. But it's doubtful that they'll spread over enough acres to rival herbicide-tolerant crops anytime soon. And humanity has thrived for millennia despite the scourge of fast-browning apples and potatoes. The same isn't true for ever-increasing deluges of toxic herbicides.

The People Who Pick Your Organic Strawberries Have Had It With Rat-Infested Camps

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

When most of us think of Mexican food, we visualize tacos, burritos, and chiles rellenos. But we should probably add cucumbers, squash, melons, and berries to the list—more or less the whole supermarket produce aisle, in fact. The United States imports more than a quarter of the fresh fruit and nearly a third of the vegetables we consume. And a huge portion of that foreign-grown bounty—69 percent of vegetables and 37 percent of fruit—comes from our neighbor to the south.

Mexican farmers whose work supplies US supermarkets and restaurants often endure subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and labor arrangements that approach slavery.

Not surprisingly, as I've shown before, labor conditions on Mexico's large export-oriented farms tend to be dismal: subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and often, labor arrangements that approach slavery. But this week, workers in Baja California, a major ag-producing state just south of California, are standing up. Here's the Los Angeles Times: "Thousands of laborers in the San Quintín Valley 200 miles south of San Diego went on strike Tuesday, leaving the fields and greenhouses full of produce that is now on the verge of rotting."

In addition to the work stoppage, striking workers shut down 55 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway, a key thoroughfare for moving goods from Baja California to points north, the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada (in Spanish) reported after the strike started on March 17.

The blockade has been lifted, at least temporarily. But the "road remains hard to traverse as rogue groups stop and, at times, attack truck drivers," the LA Times reports. And the strike itself continues. The uprising is starting to affect US supply chains. An executive for the organic-produce titan Del Cabo Produce, which grows vegetables south of the San Quintín Valley but needs to traverse it to reach its US customers, told the Times that the clash is "creating a lot of logistical problems…We're having to cut orders." And "Costco reported that organic strawberries are in short supply because about 80% of the production this time of year comes from Baja California," the Times added. The US trade publication Produce News downplayed the strike's impact, calling it "minor."

Meanwhile, the strike's organizers plan to launch a campaign to get US consumers to boycott products grown in the region, mainly tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries, inspired by the successful '70s-era actions of the California-based United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, La Jornada reported Tuesday. And current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has issued a statement of solidarity with the San Quintín strikers.

Such cross-border organizing is critical, because the people who work on Mexico's export-focused farms tend to be from the same places as the people who work on the vast California and Florida operations that supply the bulk of our domestically grown produce: the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. And the final market for the crops they tend and harvest is also the same: US supermarkets and restaurants.

In a stunning four-part series last year, LA Times reporter Richard Marosi documented the harsh conditions that prevail on the Mexican farms that churn out our food. He found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

As for their counterparts to the north, migrant-reliant US farms tend to treat workers harshly as well, as the excellent 2014 documentary Food Chains demonstrates. The trailer, below, is a good crash course on what it's like to be at the bottom of the US food system. In honor of National Farm Worker Awareness Week, the producers are making it available for $0.99 on iTunes. And here's an interview with the film's director, Sanjay Rawal, by Mother Jones' Maddie Oatman.