Tom Philpott

Brazil's Dietary Guidelines Are So Much Better Than the USDA's

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 1:00 AM EST
Say no to pyramid schemes.

As anyone who has read Marion Nestle's Food Politics or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food knows, the US Department of Agriculture's attempts to issue dietary advice have always been haunted by industry influence and a reductionist vision of nutrition science. The department finally ditched its silly pyramids a few years ago, but its guidelines remain vague and arbitrary (for example, how does dairy merit inclusion as one of five food groups?).

In Brazil, a hotbed of sound progressive nutritional thinking, the Ministry of Health has proven that governmental dietary advice need not be delivered in timid, industry-palatable bureaucratese. Check out its plain-spoken, unimpeachable, and down-right industry-hostile new guidelines (hat tip Marion Nestle):


1.    Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
2.    Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
3.    Limit consumption of processed foods
4.    Avoid consumption of ultra-processed products
5.    Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
6.    Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
7.    Develop, exercise and share culinary skills
8.    Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
9.    Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
10.   Be wary of food advertising and marketing

Meanwhile, over on Civil Eats, the dissident nutritionist Andy Bellatti places Brazil's new approach on a fascinating list of five food-policy ideas the US could learn from Latin American nations.

 

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Is Dianne Feinstein Crafting a Secret Water Deal to Help Big Pistachio? UPDATED

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 7:00 AM EST

UPDATE: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called off her backroom negotiations to push a California water bill through the current, lame-duck Congressional session, The Fresno Bee reported late Thursday afternoon. But she's not finished trying to make a deal with Big Ag-aligned GOP reps. She vowed to "put together a first-day bill for the next Congress, and it can go through the regular order,” the Bee reported. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is negotiating a behind-closed-doors deal with Republican lawmakers to pass a bill that would ostensibly address California's drought—an effort that has uncorked a flood of criticism from environmental circles.

Feinstein's quiet push for a compromise drought bill that's palatable to Big Ag-aligned House Republicans has been in the works for six months, Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. And it has accelerated recently, as the Senator hopes to pass it by year end, during the "lame duck" period of the outgoing Democratic-controlled Senate.

Will This New GMO Potato Take Off? McDonald's Has Spoken

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 4:28 PM EST
Which spud's for you? The Innate, left, is engineered not to turn brown soon after cutting.

Would you be excited to pluck a bag of precut, gleaming-white potato slices from supermarket produce bin—fresh not frozen, and ready to throw in the pan or the FryDaddy?

Your answer may decide the fate of the "Innate" potato, which has been genetically engineered to resist browning and to contain less of the amino acid that turns into acrylamide—a probably human carcinogen—when potatoes are fried at high temperatures. Developed by the agribusiness giant J.R. Simplot, a major player in the $3.7 billion American potato market, the product won approval last week from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The reason you can currently only buy frozen precut potatoes is that they turn brown quickly. The Innate solves this, uh, problem.

To understand why the success of the new potato will hinge on your desire for convenience, a little background is in order: Simplot is one of the three massive companies (alongside ConAgra and McCain Foods) that buy potatoes from farmers, process them into French fries—as well as tater tots, spiral fries, and wedges—freeze them, and distribute them to companies ranging from fast-food giants to supermarket chains.

Obama and the GOP Congress Unite to Push US Meat Overseas

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 7:00 AM EST

The US meat industry has a problem: American consumers have been eating less flesh. The solution is straightforward: find meat-ravenous people overseas. The opening of the China market to US-grown pork and poultry has helped stabilize the industry through a rough decade of waning domestic demand and elevated feed prices.

But now the meat giants want more. As a new report by Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy shows, the industry is licking its chops at the prospect of a massive trade proposal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would dramatically lower trade barriers among a group of nations that includes the US, Canada, Chile, Peru, and Mexico on this side of the Pacific, and Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam on the other. " The TPP would establish a free-trade bloc stretching from Vietnam to Chile and Japan, encompassing about 800 million people and almost 40 percent of the global economy," Reuters reports.

"Wild-Caught," Eh? 30 Percent of Shrimp Labels Are False

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

Shrimp is America's favorite seafood—we eat more of it than any other kind, by a wide margin. And the tasty crustacean still (more or less) thrives near our ample shores—from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf to the Carolinas. That's why it's deeply weird that 90 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from often-fetid farms in Southeast Asia, which tend to snuff out productive mangrove ecosystems and have a sketchy labor record. But it gets worse. Even when we do try to choose wild-caught US shrimp, we're often fooled. That's the message of a new report by the ocean-conservation group Oceana.

In New York City, 43 percent of the wild shrimp samples proved to be misleadingly labeled.

The researchers sampled 143 shrimp products from 111 grocery stores and restaurants in Portland, Ore., New York City, Washington D.C., and along the Gulf of Mexico, and subjected them to DNA testing. Result: 30 percent of them were misrepresented on labels.

They found the most deception in New York City, where 43 percent of the samples from supermarkets and restaurants proved to be misleadingly labeled. Of those, more than half were "farmed whiteleg shrimp disguised as wild-caught shrimp." Oof. D.C. shrimp eaters have also have cause for doubt about what's being served them: Supermarkets there showed better than in ones in New York, but nearly half of shrimp samples from D.C. restaurants turned up mislabeled.

Even in the Gulf, still the site of a robust shrimp fishery despite the occasional cataclysmic oil spill and vast annual dead zones from agricultural runoff, the researchers found that "over one-third of the products labeled as 'Gulf' shrimp were farmed." On the other hand, "nearly two-thirds of the samples simply labeled as 'shrimp' were actually wild-caught Gulf shrimp," the report states, "possibly a missed marketing opportunity for promoting domestically caught seafood."

Only Portlandia emerged virtually unscathed from Oceana's scrutiny: Just one sample in 20 turned out to be mislabeled—a dish presented as “wild Pacific shrimp” turned out to be farmed.

Beyond rank mislabeling, the report also reveals that consumers indulge their shrimp habit from within a generalized information void. "The majority of restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed/wild or its origin," Oceana found. As for supermarkets, "30 percent of the shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores lacked information on country-of-origin, 29 percent lacked farmed/wild information and one in five did not provide either.

This overriding lack of transparency does more than lull us into accepting an inferior product. As Paul Greenberg argues in his brilliant 2014 book American Catch, it also makes our coastal areas—home to 40 percent of the US population—vulnerable to climate change.

That's because treating treasures like the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery as an afterthought allows us to disregard the ecosystems that make them possible: the region's wetlands, which are vanishing at the rate of one football field-sized chunk per hour, largely under pressure from the oil industry. These coastal landscapes don't just provide nurseries for shrimp and other seafood; they also provide critical buffers against the increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels promised (and already being triggered) by a changing climate. Greenberg argues that a revival of interest in US-caught shrimp could rally support for wetland restoration, "conjoining of the interests of seafood and the interests of humans."

These Maps of California's Water Shortage Are Terrifying

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Just how bad is California's water shortage? Really, really bad, according to these new maps, which represent groundwater withdrawals in California during the first three years of the state's ongoing and epochal drought:

Images by J.T. Reager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, from "The Global Groundwater Crisis," Nature Climate Change, November 2014, by James S. Famiglietti

The maps come from a new paper in Nature Climate Change by NASA water scientist James Famiglietti. "California's Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers of total water per year since 2011," he writes. That's "more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually—over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley."

Famiglietti uses satellite data to measure how much water people are sucking out of the globe's aquifers, and summarized his research in his new paper.

More than 2 billion people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source, Famiglietti writes. Known as groundwater (as opposed to surface water, the stuff that settles in lakes and flows in streams and rivers), it's also the source of at least half the irrigation water we rely on to grow our food. When drought hits, of course, farmers rely on groundwater even more, because less rain and snow means less water flowing above ground.

The lesson Famiglietti draws from satellite data is chilling: "Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned."

The Central Valley boasts some of the globe's fastest-depleting aquifers—but by no means the fastest overall. Indeed, it has a rival here in the United States. The below graphic represents depletion rates at some of the globe's largest aquifers, nearly all of which Famiglietti notes, "underlie the world's great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity."

The navy-blue line represents the Ogallala aquifer—a magnificent water resource now being sucked dry to grow corn in the US high plains. Note that it has quietly dropped nearly as much as the Central Valley's aquifers (yellow line) over the past decade. The plunging light-blue line represents the falling water table in Punjab, India's breadbasket and the main site of that irrigation-intensive agricultural "miracle" known as the Green Revolution, which industrialized the region's farm fields starting in the 1960s. The light-green line represents China's key growing region, the north plain. Its relatively gentle fall may look comforting, but the water table there has been dropping steadily for years.

All of this is happening with very little forethought or regulation. Unlike underground oil, underground water draws very little research on how much is actually there. We know we're siphoning it away faster than it can be replaced, but we have little idea of how long we can keep doing so, Famiglietti writes. He adds, though, that if current trends hold, "groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades." As for regulation, it's minimal across the globe. In most places, he writes, there's a "veritable groundwater 'free for all': property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater."

And the more we pump, the worse things get. As water tables drop, wells have to go deeper into the earth, increasing pumping costs. What's left tends to be high in salts, which inhibit crop yields and can eventually cause soil to lose productivity altogether. Eventually, "inequity issues arise because only the relatively wealthy can bear the expense of digging deeper wells, paying greater energy costs to pump groundwater from increased depths and treating the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within aquifers," Famiglietti writes—a situation already playing out in California's Central Valley, where some low-income residents have seen their wells go dry. In a reporting trip to the southern part of the Central Valley this past summer, I saw salt-caked groves with wan, suffering almond trees—the result of irrigation with salty water pumped from deep in the aquifer.

All of this is taking place in a scenario of rapid climate change and steady population growth—so we can expect steeper droughts and more demand for water. Famiglietti's piece ends with a set of recommendations for bringing the situation under control: Essentially, let's carefully measure the globe's groundwater and treat it like a precious resource, not a delicious milkshake to casually suck down to the dregs. In the meantime, Famiglietti warns, "further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others."

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The Midwest's Vast Farms Are Losing a Ton of Money This Year

| Wed Oct. 22, 2014 2:57 PM EDT
A bin-busting harvest.

Think you have it tough at work? Consider the plight of the Midwest's corn and soybean farmers. They churn out the basic raw materials of our food system: the stuff that gets turned into animal feed, sweetener, cooking fat, and even a substantial amount of our car fuel. What do they get for their trouble? According to a stunning analysis (PDF) by Iowa State ag economist Chad Hart, crop prices have fallen so low (a bumper crop has driven down corn prices to their lowest level since 2006), and input costs (think seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) have gotten so high, that they're losing $225 per acre of corn and $100 per acre of soybeans.  So if you're an Iowa farmer with a 2,000-acre farm, and you planted it half and half in these two dominant crops, you stand to lose $325,000 on this year's harvest.

If you're an Iowa farmer with a 2,000-acre farm, and you planted it half and half in corn and soy, you stand to lose $325,000 on this year's harvest.

Over on Big Picture Agriculture—the excellent blog that alerted me to Hart's assessment—Kay McDonald wonders: "Is organic corn the way to go next year?" She points out organic corn receives a large premium in the market, and key input costs—seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides—are much lower, making the economics better.

Another possibility is one I've been banging on about for years: why not take some of the Midwest's vast stock of farmland—say, 10 percent?—and devote it to vegetable and fruit production? And take another slice of it and bring it back to perennial grass for pasture-based beef and pork production? Both vegetables and pastured meat deliver much more income pre acre than commodity corn and soybeans, once the systems are up and running and the infrastructure in place. And considering how much of our produce comes from drought-stricken California, that would likely be a wise move from a food security standpoint.

Alas, none of this is likely to happen, at least not anytime soon. That's because crop subsidies, enshrined by the farm bill signed in February, will likely wipe out much of the huge gap between farmers' costs and what the market gives them. According to Bloomberg, taxpayers are set to pay "billions of dollars more to subsidize farmers than anticipated just months ago," before crop prices plunged.

I don't begrudge federal support for farming. As I argued in a post last year, large-scale commodity farming is a vicious business—farmers are caught in a vice between a small handful of buyers (Archers Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge) that are always looking to drive crop prices down, and a small handful of input suppliers (Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, etc) always looking to push the price of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides up. It's no wonder, as Iowa State's Hart has shown, that the "long run profitability" of such farming is "zero."

But as it's structured now, the subsidy system keeps farmers chugging along on the corn-soy treadmill. Meanwhile, transitioning to organic ag and diversifying crops to include vegetables and pastured meat would also require much more hands-on labor and a new set of skills for Midwestern farmers, who have been operating in a corn-soy-chemical system for decades. It would also require the rebuilding of infrastructure—small-scale slaughterhouses, canneries, cold storage, etc.—that were dismantled as corn and soy came to dominance. Supporting such a transition, and not propping up an unhealthy food system suffused with cheap corn and soy, seems like a good use of the billions of federal dollars that are about to be spent.

Why Did Top Scientific Journals Reject This Dr. Bronner's Ad?

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, presides over a company with famously wacky product labels. Sample sentence, from the 18-in-1 Hemp PEPPERMINT soap bottle: "Each swallow works hard to be perfect pilot-provider-teacher-lover-mate, no half-true hate!" But Bronner himself, grandson of the founder (the one with the elaborate prose style), has emerged as a serious, though fun-loving, activist, particularly around pesticides and genetically modified crops, as Josh Harkinson's recent Mother Jones profile shows.

But apparently, Bronner's writing on GMOs is too hot for the advertising pages of the English-speaking world's two most renowned science journals, Science and Nature—even though a slew of magazines, including Scientific American, The New Yorker, Harper's, The Nation, Harvard, and, yes, Mother Jones, accepted the Bronner ad. It consists of a short essay, known in publishing as an advertorial, that's nothing like the wild-eyed rants on his company's soap bottles. Bronner's ad (PDF) focuses on how GMO crops have led to a net increase in pesticide use in the United States, citing an analysis by Ramon Seidler, a retired senior staff scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bronner wrote his essay in response to Michael Specter's recent New Yorker takedown of anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva. He first published his critique on Huffington Post, and then decided to publish it as an ad in a variety of high-profile magazines, because he felt that The New Yorker is highly influential among liberal elites, and he wanted to get his dissenting view out, he told me.

"We're concerned about backlash from our members and potentially getting into a battle with the GMO industry," wrote an ad sales manager for Science in an email.

Science was close to accepting it, emails shared with me by Bronner show—an ad sales manager for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which published the magazine, emailed on September 15 that she would send over paper work "in a bit," adding that "[a]fter you sign it, I can take your credit card info by phone and submit to accounting." The price: $9,911.00. But hours later, she wrote back, squashing the deal:

Sorry to say there has [been] a reversal opinion. This has gone up the ladder quite far and our CEO along with the board have come back saying that we cannot accept the ad. We're concerned about backlash from our members and potentially getting into a battle with the GMO industry.

Something quite similar happened at Nature, a UK-based publication with ad sales operations in the United States. On September 16, an ad sales rep told the Bronner team via email that "I will have an IO [insert order—the contract for an advertisement] for you once I get the thumbs up from Editorial (usually takes them a day or two)." Once that's signed, he added, "I can call and get your credit card information over the phone, [and] then we are all good."

But a few days later, instead of closing the deal, the rep asked if Bronner would consider placing the ad in a smaller, related journal called Nature Biotechnology. Bronner declined, and asked again to place it in Nature. The ad rep replied, "We have to do a detailed process for all ad approvals, especially if the ad is not within specs (our terms and conditions). We have passed on the ad for Nature, that's why the emails about seeking out other options [i.e., Nature Biotechnology] for you." End of discussion—the sales rep offered no explanation, and soon stopped returning calls or emails. Nor did he return my email and call seeking comment.

As for Science, I talked to Laurie Faraday, the journal's East regional ad-sales manager, who worked with Bronner's team on the failed ad deal. She explained that the editorial side weighs in on decisions over advertorial-style ads. Science's management found it "a little bit controversial," and worried that "if we allowed that kind of a piece to be printed in Science, then maybe we'd be subject to the GMO world coming after us." She added: "Ironically, it's not that anyone in the organization disagreed with what it [the ad] said. It's just that we had to consider that the opposite side of the coin might want to start a war in our magazine."

I asked if the magazine had rejected advertorials on similar grounds in the past. She replied that a couple of years ago, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ran ads in Science alleging cruelty to animals in labs. "It kind of got past us at first," Faraday said, "but after the campaign ran, I was told by the publisher we would not accept them any further."

Stan Schmidt, an ad rep for Scientific American, which accepted the ad, told me that his magazine has a broader policy on advertorials—it accepts them unless they contain offensive or "wild-eyed" material, and the Bronner ad easily passed the test, he said.

"I'm concerned how lame and weak the leading scientific publications in the world are being here, although I appreciate Science's upfront explanation," Bronner said. "Science and Nature magazines, like the scientific enterprise in general, are not above the fray."

EPA: Those Bee-Killing Pesticides? They're Actually Pretty Useless

| Sat Oct. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Was it all for nought? Note: bumblebees, pictured here, have also been shown to be harmed by neonics.

So, there's this widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, marketed by chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, that have emerged as a prime suspect in honeybee collapse, and may also be harming birds and water-borne critters. But at least they provide benefits to farmers, right?

Well, not soybean farmers, according to a blunt economic assessment released Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF). Conclusion: "There are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans."

Wait, what?

The report goes on: "This analysis provides evidence that US soybean growers derive limited to no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments in most instances."

Hmmm. But at least they're better for farmers than no pesticide at all?

Nope: "Published data indicate that most usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control."

Ouch.

One poll found that 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

The EPA notes that in recent years, US farmers have been planting on average 76 million acres of soybeans each season. Of those acres, an average 31 percent are planted in seeds treated with neonics—that is, farmers buy treated seeds, which suffuse the soybean plants with the chemical as they grow. So that's about 24 million acres of neonic-treated seeds—an area equal in size to the state of Indiana. Why would farmers pay up for a seed treatment that doesn't do them any good, yet may be doing considerable harm to pollinators and birds? The EPA report has insights: "data from researchers and extension experts ... indicate that some growers currently have some difficulty obtaining untreated seed." The report points to one small poll that found 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

Another reason may be marketing. Syngenta, for example, promotes its "CruiserMaxx" seed treatment for soybeans, which combines a neonic insecticide with two different fungicides. The pitch: "Promotes better emergence, faster speed to canopy, improved vigor and higher yield potential.
Protects against damaging chewing and sucking insect pests. ... Increases yield even under low insect pressure."

Only one US crop is planted more abundantly than soybeans: corn, which typically covers around 90 million acres. According to Purdue entomologist Christian Krupke, "virtually all" of it is from neonic-treated seeds. That's a land mass just 10 percent smaller than California. You have to wonder what bang those farmers are getting for their buck. I have a query into the EPA to see whether it has plans to conduct a similar assessment for corn. Meanwhile, this March 2014 Center for Food Safety research report, which was reviewed by Krupke and Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture, found that the bee-killing pesticides offer at best limited benefits to corn farmers, too.

The Feds Just Approved a New GMO Corn. Here's Why I'm Not Rejoicing

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:39 PM EDT
High-tech seeds, old-school herbicides.

In September, the US Department of Agriculture greenlighted new GMO corn and soybean products engineered to resist two kinds of herbicides, Roundup (glyphosate) and an older, more toxic one called 2,4-D (which was one of two ingredients in the powerful defoliant used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange). And on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved of a new 2,4-D formulation called Enlist, which has been designed for use on the novel seeds, in six corn/soy-heavy states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That means starting in spring 2015, farmers in the Midwestern Corn Belt will likely be dousing their crops with 2,4-D as well as Roundup, in an effort to control the plague of weeds that have evolved to resist Roundup.

The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, ""Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012So what's the big deal? In this 2012 post, I laid out research by a team led by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen (paper abstract  here) on how the new products are at best a temporary solution to the problem of "superweeds"—they lead farmers down a path of ever-increasing reliance on agrichemicals. They argue that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new generation of weeds resistant to both herbicides, because when farmers apply 2,4-D to weeds that are already resistant to Roundup, they'll essentially be selecting for weeds that can resist both. Their projection of how such double resistance will affect herbicide use is at the left—a boon for agrichemical sales, but not so great for the environment.