Tom Philpott - June 2011

GMO Salmon's Unlikely Enemy: the GOP

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 11:06 AM EDT
The House just served up a surprise treat for the FDA.

Over on Gilt Taste a while back, the eminent fisheries writer Paul Greenberg gutted and fileted the rationale for a novel type of farmed salmon genetically altered to grow faster. The "improved" fish, created by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies, threatens to "escape and contaminate wild populations of salmon," Greenberg wrote. And the business model AquaBounty has in mind is ecologically insane: "the fish requires much wasteful transport since it would be cloned in Canada, grown in Panama and then flown back to the US for consumption." On top of those obvious drawbacks, the GMO salmon literally offers no benefits to the environment or consumers. "It is completely unnecessary," he concludes. Its only rationale is economic—as defined narrowly by the interests of AquaBounty' shareholders. Greenberg writes:

It seems to me that what the AquaBounty AquAdvantage salmon represents is the privatization of the salmon genome. Should salmon farming come to be dominated by the AquAdvantage fish, farmers could become dependent on a single company for their stock, just as soy, corn and wheat farmers must now rely on large multinationals like Monsanto to provide seed for their fields year in and year out. AquaBounty will literally own salmon farming.

Despite all of this, the FDA is currently deliberating on whether to greenlight AquaBounty's dubious masterpiece—and is widely expected to do just that sometime this year. That is, unless resistance from an unlikely quarter, the Republican-controlled US House, prevails. Associated Press:

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, offered an amendment to a farm spending bill late Wednesday that would prohibit the FDA from spending money to approve AquaBounty's application. The amendment was approved by voice vote.

Now, the good Rep. Brown was not acting on high principle, attempting to protect the environment and consumers from a product that will likely generate much more harm than good. Rather, he was baldly protecting constituents' economic interests. "Young argued that the modified fish would compete with wild salmon in his state," AP reports.

As much as I want to applaud it, the move marks a potentially dangerous precedent. If Congress can block regulatory agencies from approving products on the basis of harming narrow economic interests, it can also block agencies from enforcing regulations that harm those same interests. Do we want to live in a world where Congress intervenes to, say, force the EPA to approve a nasty pesticide just because its maker gives cash to some backbencher? Agencies like the FDA and USDA, riddled as they are by industry influence, would be much better positioned to fight off such challenges if they actually did their jobs and protected the public interest. In this case, that would mean forcing AquaBounty to keep its dodgy fish out of the marketplace—based on the merits of the case.

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Decadant Sushi, Rotten Tomatoes, and Radical Bananas

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

I'm in New York City for a Mother Jones event, so no big blog post till Friday. Meantime, here's a few small bites to tide you over.

New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton reviewed uber-fancy Manhattan sushi temple Masa and came away impressed by the "expertly diced, top-grade fatty bluefin tuna tartare." The ocean-conservancy NGO Oceana rapped his knuckles on Twitter for that line, because bluefin tuna populations stand on the verge of collapse. Until stocks recover, eating it is a bit like tucking into a drumstick of Kentucky-fried eagle. Sifton reacted to Oceana's jab by taking the question to his readers: "Should restaurants continue to serve bluefin? Should diners continue to buy it if they do? Should restaurant critics?" My take is: no, no, and no. If restaurant critics and food writers generally want to live in a world that sustains delicious things like sushi, they have an obligation to educate the public and chefs when things have taken a dire turn. I've taken Sifton to task on similar grounds before, and also gone back and forth with his Times colleague, the generally wonderful Mark Bittman.

• Speaking of the Times, I'm excited by the new cooking column by David Tanis, who spends half the year working as executive chef at Berkeley's iconic Chez Pannise, and the other half writing cookbooks in France. The new column's theme is the important one of how to cook well in a tiny urban kitchen, and the maiden recipe is beyond reproach: cannellini bean salad with shaved spring vegetables.

• And speaking of sushi, here's the teaser to an interesting-looking new documentary: Sushi: the Global Catch.  It asks how it came to be that "beautiful raw pieces of fish and rice now appear from Warsaw and New York to football games in Texas towns"—and whether  "this growth continue without consequence."

• I can't say enough good things about Barry Estabrook's new book Tomatoland. In his gentle, evocative prose, Estabrook tells the brutal story of what industrial agriculture has done to tomatoes and the workers who grow them. Here's an excerpt, published on Gilt Taste, and here's Jane Black's insightful Washington Post review of it.

• Bananas are another golorious fruit that has all but been squashed under the heel of industrial agriculture. Over on Equal Exchange's Small Farmers, Big Changes blog, Phyllis Robinson has a long and detailed post about what smallholder farmers in Latin America have to go through to reach U.S. consumers directly, circumventing the monopoly on banana distribution enjoyed by Dole and Chiquita (formerly the infamous United Fruit).

 

 

Big Ag Won't Feed the World

| Wed Jun. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speaks—too often, on behalf of Big Ag interests.

Back in March, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at an event called the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Fl. Sponsored by agribusiness giants Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta, John Deere, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Syngenta, and Archer Daniels Midland, among others, the event hails itself as the "premier national trade show and convention for corn, soy, wheat and sorghum farmers."

According to an account in the trade journal Agri-Pulse, Vilsack spoke "with sometimes evangelistic fervor." He thundered against critics of corn-based ethanol, reiterated the Obama administration's goal of doubling US farm exports by 2014 by ramming open foreign markets, and praised the assembled farmers and agribusiness flacks for their record of "ensuring affordable food for US families," Agri-Pulse reported. The former governor of Iowa ended his speech on an evem more flattering note: "The farmers in this room have provided the prescription that this nation must follow to get itself back totally on its feet ... You should never ever bet against the American farmer because if you do, it's a losing bet." The audience roared its approval.

The ag secretary was essentially promoting an agribusiness-as-usual vision of farm policy: maximum production of a few commodity crops, mainly to be used to fatten confined animals, create cheap sweeteners and fats, and fill gas tanks. He did so amid much rhetoric about "jobs," the Agri-Pulse account shows. But that's ludicrous. The modern food system lionized by Vilsack has been a massive net destroyer of jobs. And the fixation on doubling US ag exports can't be good news for farmers in the global south, who struggle to compete with their highly capitalized US peers.

Meanwhile, US ag policy as expressed by Vilsack is putting us increasingly at odds with an emerging global consenus on how to structure food production in an era of climate change, resource scarcity, and population growth. As I wrote last week, for years now, development specialists and ag scientists associated with the UN and even the World Bank have been questioning the assumption that only chemical-intensive consumption of a few commodities can "feed the world" going forward. The latest data point: the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has come out with a policy blueprint called "Save and grow: A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production." Its central premise reads like a direct rebuke to Vilsack: "The present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium."

"Dirty Dozen" List: Great, But What About the Farmworkers?

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
EWG: Don't resist the temptation to eat apples—just buy organic when you can.

Every year, Environmental Working Group sifts through USDA testing data and figures out which "dirty dozen" fruits and veggies deliver the largest doses and the widest variety of pesticides. This year's winner, announced Monday: apples. According to EWG, 92 percent of the apples tested by USDA carried two or more pesticide residues. And even as supermarket shelves feature a pretty narrow range of apple varieties—Red Delicious, Granny Smith, etc.—farmers are spraying them with a stunning diversity of poisons. Altogether, USDA picked up no fewer than 56 distinct pesticides on the apples it tested, EWG reports.

Right after EWG shines its bright light on the USDA's pesticide-residue data, the large-scale fruit-and-veg industry typically shrieks the equivalent of "move along—nothing to see here!" This year is no different. In a statement released early Monday, the produce trade group Alliance for Food and Farming declared that EWG's list is "misleading to consumers and should not be used when making purchasing decisions about fruits and vegetables." The Alliance has been hectoring the USDA to emphasize the "safety of products [i.e., poisons] used to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers" when the agency issues its annual residue reports. Indeed, the Alliance for Food and Farming's campaign against the "Dirty Dozen" list was launched with a $180,000 grant from the USDA (administered through the California Department of Food and Agriculture), EWG reports.

The industry wants to assure us that pesticide residues pose no threat. That's specious. Last year on Grist, Tom Laskawy pointed to research suggesting that the danger to children posed by ingesting pesticides from fresh produce has probably been underestimated because of seasonal effects. The amount of residue on a single apple might not be enough to cause harm, the researchers found; but during the fall apple season, kids tend to eat more apples, leading to a spike in exposure. Also, the combination of several pesticide residues on a single piece of fruit—a routine situation, EWG shows—may pose more of a risk than is suggested by the tolerance levels for each individual pesticide. Such a "synergistic" or "cocktail" effect has been documented in the case of amphibians—and little tested-for on humans. As Pesticide Action Network puts it:

U.S. EPA sets limits on the maximum amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, but there’s no limit to the number of different pesticides that can be on your food, or the total amount of contamination. Interacting chemicals can have synergistic effects at very low levels—and little research has been done on the impact of such "Chemical Cocktails" on human health.

The industry also fundamentally distorts EWG's efforts. "There are some organizations with agendas that do want to scare people away from fresh produce,” one produce industry flack recently told The Washington Post. That's absurd. EWG prefaces its list like this:

Eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

 

Some Arsenic With That Supermarket Chicken?

| Sat Jun. 11, 2011 9:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced it would "voluntarily" stop selling a widely used arsenic-laced poultry feed additive, after FDA tests found traces of the poison in chicken meat.

So the system works, right? A federal regulatory agency conducts rigorous tests, detects a problem, and industry reacts by doing the right thing. Except, not so much. A closer look at the arsenic-laced feed saga reveals a tattered, industry-dominated regulatory regime that abuses public health and the environment alike.

The story goes like this. In the '40s, the pharmaceutical industry began marketing a nifty new poultry feed additive bearing the charming name of roxarsone. The chemical helped control parasitic ailment common to chickens called coccidiosis. But that was just part of its appeal. As the poultry-processing industry consolidated into the hands of just a few companies over the post-war decades, poultry farmers had to scale up and fatten their chickens as quickly as possible. Roxarsone helped with that, too—it's a growth enhancer. What's more, it contributes to that rosy-pink hue consumers have come to associated with fresh chicken meat.

Moreover, after poultry production transformed from far-flung, diversified farms to today's vast industrial operations, coccidiosis became ever-harder to control—making roxarsone ever more popular. As Food and Water Watch put it in a recent report (downloadable here):

Chickens experience additional stress in large-scale poultry facilities, known as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where access to natural sunlight is almost nonexistent and having 25,000 to 30,000 birds per chicken house is common. As chicken production industrialized, coccidia have proven to be very adaptable and, thus far, impossible to eradicate. In 2005, Dr. David Chapman, renowned in the field of coccidial research, claimed that “As long as chickens are raised on the ground and therefore in contact with their feces, then coccidiosis will remain a threat to the poultry industry.” Anticoccidials, arsenical growth promoters and antibiotics have thus been used to maintain the health of larger flocks.

Cheap Food: Not What’s for Dinner Anymore?

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 9:00 AM EDT

Remember when gas was a dollar a gallon? The era of the fast-food "dollar menu" may be going the same way.

Cheap food has been with us for a while. After World War II, global grain prices fell steadily for decades. US and European farms scaled up, resorted to synthetic and mined fertilizers and pesticides, invested in massive planting and harvesting machines as well as novel seed varieties. All of this pushed crop yields into the stratosphere—and crop prices into the dirt. The era of cheap food was upon us, giving rise to things like corn-sweetened Big Gulps and the dumping of boatloads of US corn on foreign markets. But now things are changing fast.

From Justin Gillis' big front-pager in last Sunday’s New York Times:

The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.

And here’s the formidable Lester Brown, writing in Foreign Policy:

Unfortunately, today's [crop] price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry.

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It's the McEconomy, Stupid

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 1:40 PM EDT

I alluded to it in my intro post, but this is worth highlighting:

Up to 30,000 of the 54,000 jobs created in May were the result of a hiring spree by the hamburger chain, analysts at Morgan Stanley told Market Watch on Friday.

So hiring at McDonald's accounted for about half of the nation's job growth in May. What lessons can we draw from this? One, obviously, is that the economy is anemic and lurching toward a "double dip"—which isn't some new dessert concoction at McDonald's. While unemployment hovers at 9 percent, job creation has slowed to a trickle—and what jobs are on offer tend to be of the burger-flipping, minimum-wage variety. As CBS Market Watch Washington Bureau Chief Steve Goldstein put it, "There's a case to be made for the benefit of fast-food restaurant employment, but it's obviously not the foundation for sustained economic growth.

The second lesson is that McDonald's itself obviously sees opportunity in this crisis. It made 25,000-30,000 net hires in just one month. That's a pretty big bet that its "dollar menus" and other cheap calorie blasts will remain popular among a cash-strapped populace having to work ever harder to stary in place. That's good news for Mikky D's shareholders—and bad news for public health in a nation besieged by chronic maladies caused by an excess of low-quality calories.
 

 

Introducing Tom Philpott

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 9:15 PM EDT

Hi. My name is Tom Philpott, and I'll be your food blogger today. (Some of you may know me from my previous stint at Grist.) Or, to be precise, your blogger on the politics of eating and farming, both of which I actively engage in. There will even be occasional recipes.

The most surprising thing about the menu I'm offering is that it exists at all. A decade ago, it wouldn't have occurred to a national political publication to hire a full-time food writer. Food wasn't serious—it belonged in glossy food-porn magazines or in the lifestyles pages of newspapers. That's how I used to think of it—from my days as a muckraking student journalist at University of Texas to finance reporter in Mexico City, cooking was my refuge, my way of withdrawing from the messy worlds of politics and writing.

But then, after moving to New York City to work as a financial journalist in the late 1990s, I got involved in a community garden near my Brooklyn neighborhood through my girlfriend Alice Brooke Wilson, who worked for the city's GreenThumb program. In Hollenback Garden on Washington Ave., I learned that growing my own food yielded more than just great tomatoes. It also opened space for a diverse group of people to get to know each other. I saw that in the most hardscrabble neighborhoods, gardens were often the most vibrant, alive, safe spaces. Often, they served as a neighborhood's sole source of fresh produce.

Maverick Spring: Onions and kale take the sun at Maverick Farms, spring 2011. Maverick Spring: Onions and kale take the sun at Maverick Farms, spring 2011. I also saw that then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani reacted to the success of these highly productive spaces by declaring them a form of "Communism" and vowing to pave them over. It was only through committed organizing by the city's gardeners, with a large assist from then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that most of the gardens staved off Giuliani's bulldozers. The experience taught me that food is deeply political—its terrain is characterized by vast inequalities of power and subject to its whims.

By 2004, Alice Brooke and I decided to do something crazy. Along with a couple of friends, we moved down to the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina to take over her family's small vegetable farm. I've been here ever since. We've learned a lot from the experience—enough lost illusions about living off the land to fill a novel. Here's one: Small-scale vegetable farming is one of the few professions that makes blogging look lucrative. Here's another: Cute laying hens sometimes get mangled by demonic predators—and the only thing you can do is drive an ax through the poor bird's neck. If you can. I can never manage to do the dirty deed, and my fellow farmers mock me mercilessly for it.

But the bottom-line lesson I've learned from the Maverick Farms experience is this: a healthy politics needs healthy farms—and vice versa. Creating food systems that make make sense—alternatives to the destructive industrial model—is community work; small-d democratic work. Along the way, I joined the staff of the pioneering environmentalist Web 'zine Grist, which provided a home for my work when few publications saw the need for regular food-politics coverage.

Actionshot--The author helps build a fence for the chicken yard, spring 2011. The author helps build a fence for the chicken yard, spring 2011. I've been thrilled to see the debate over the issue widen and deepen over the last few years. We've started to remember what most people for most of history could ill afford to forget: that food doesn't magically appear from nowhere, neatly shrink-wrapped and ready for the grill. Despite the food industry's multi-decade, multibillion-dollar marketing blitz, people increasingly realize once more that the food on their plates has a history. As Michael Pollan put it at the end of his landmark Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), "we eat by the grace of nature, not of industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world."

Our food system has massive impacts on our fellow humans as well. Every bite we take represents tremendous amounts of labor, most often under brutal conditions. Indeed, a food system designed for maximum production of cheap food fits in perfectly with an economy characterized by decades of stagnant wages. Just last week, a Wall Street analyst reckoned that a recent hiring spree by McDonald's accounted for more than half of the paltry 54,000 jobs created in May.

In this blog, I'll be catering to the growing hunger to know more about the stuff we invite into our bodies daily. I will cover everything from how a shadowy magnate gambles with public health to provide you with dirt-cheap breakfast eggs; to how a devastated post-industrial city is reinventing itself as a sustainable-ag mecca; from industry capture of the regulatory agencies like the FDA and USDA; to people making the industry irrelevant by banding together to create their own alternatives; from the horror of industrial chicken breasts to the genius of a good sandwich. I'll be writing from the perspective of someone who's directly engaged in the movement to transform the food system. But it won't be all about eating your organic oatmeal. Indeed, I'd rather have an organic oatmeal stout.

Let's get to the meat of the matter. ¡Buen Provecho!