Tom Philpott - August 2011

South Africa's Wine Woes

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
A squatter camp sits against backdrop of vineyards and mountains in South Africa's wine country.

I've seen it: People who are extremely fussy about the food they put in their mouths—shopping at farmers markets for veggies and meat and looking for Fair Trade labels on tropical goods—nevertheless choose wine based on whatever has the quirkiest label at the price point they're comfortable with.

But just as much as tomatoes or pork chops, wine is an agricultural product. Grapes are grown on real land and tended by real people—and marketed by corporate flacks who know how to paint a lovely picture.

Here's a passage from one such marketing professional's proposal for pitching the (increasingly fashionable) wines of South Africa to US consumers:

"Think of how people see most of the wine producing regions of the world. California and France are old hat. Australia and New Zealand are boring little colonies. Germany's wine region isn't that interesting from the consumer's perspective either. But Africa has everything: immaculate vineyards, sunshine, a diverse people, jazz, great food and a laid-back lifestyle. The place is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. No other continent triggers the imagination the way Africa does." Indeed, local exporters are now using images of alluring African models, sipping red wine, to sell their product—creating an enviable market profile of ethnic spice overlaid against the nation's claim on 350 years of winemaking.

And here's Human Rights Watch with a rather more sober depiction of South Africa's vineyards, from its new report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries (PDF).

Every year, millions of consumers around the world enjoy South African fruits and the renowned wines that come from its vineyards. Yet the farmworkers who produce these goods for domestic consumption and international export are among the most vulnerable people in South African society: working long hours in harsh weather conditions, often without access to toilets or drinking water, they are exposed to toxic pesticides that are sprayed on crops. For this physically grueling work, they earn among the lowest wages in South Africa, and are often denied benefits to which they are legally entitled. Many farmworkers confront obstacles to union formation, which remains at negligible levels in the Western Cape agricultural sector. Farmworkers and others who live on farms often have insecure land tenure rights, rendering them and their families vulnerable to evictions or displacement—in some cases, from the land on which they were born.

According to Human Rights Watch, the minimum wage for farm workers in South Africa amounts to about $46 per week—less even than the minimum for the other worst-paid workers in the nation, domestic maids. Housing conditions are deplorable—workers and their families are often shunted into temporary structures, abandoned pigsties, even former outhouses—and tenure is uncertain. Union participation is minimal, and vigorously fought by the farm bosses. Pesticides are used widely—and workers are routinely denied sufficient protection from them.

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Attack of the Monsanto Superinsects

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 3:04 AM PDT

Over the past decade and a half, as Monsanto built up its globe-spanning, multi-billion-dollar genetically modified seed empire, it made two major pitches to farmers.

The first involved weeds. Leave the weed management to us, Monsanto insisted. We've engineered plants that can survive our very own herbicide. Just pay up for our patented, premium-priced seeds, spray your fields with our Roundup herbicide whenever the fancy strikes, and—voilà!—no more weeds.

The second involved crop-eating insects. We've isolated the toxic gene of a commonly used bacterial pesticide called Bt, Monsanto announced, and spliced it directly into crops. Along with corn and soy, you will literally be growing the pesticide that protects them. Plant our seeds, and watch your crops thrive while their pests shrivel and die.

Superweeds: This Time, It's Serious

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 10:36 AM PDT

Blogging has been light this week because I've been on vacation. But I can't resist commenting on something that made me choke on my coffee this morning. While reading a news report on superweeds—weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup herbicide, from widespread use of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds—I came across this passage:

McNeill says that in the Midwest and other areas of the country, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, weeds like water hemp, giant ragweed, lamb’s quarter and velvet weed have become Roundup resistant through natural selection, due to a particular genetic mutation that survived the poison and therefore reproduced successfully and wildly.

Wait, ragweed, the scourge of Maverick Farms, the western North Carolina farm where I work? And lamb's quarters, the "wild green" (ok, weed) that we harvest and really enjoy eating all summer? I avoid buying genetically modified foods at the supermarket. Are we unwittingly inviting them into our kitchen through the backdoor?

I've been writing about "superweeds" for years now. It turns out—as any agricultural expert could have predicted—that when you douse millions of acres of farmland with the same weed-killing chemical several times a year for a decade, some of those weeds develop resistance to the chemical (and eventually, to the other poisons farmers deploy in their desperate zeal to control them).

But I've always written about the problem with a certain amount of detachment—I assumed that the Monsantoization of weeds was something that happened somewhere else, to some other kinds of weeds (like Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth, a "nightmare" haunting cotton country in the South), not to the ones we grapple with in the field or (gulp) eat. It's true that not much industrial agriculture takes place in our mountainous area; but plenty takes place to the south and east of us. It's conceivable, I suppose, that our own stock of weeds could have become infected with Monsanto's gene, spread by pollen carried by birds and/or wind.

So, is our despised ragweed now genetically modified? Are our beloved lamb's quarters now Roundup Ready? I'll try to figure it out when I get back from vacation.

Another Beer: Corporate Power, Deregulation, and Why German Brew Is (On Average) Better Than American

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 6:08 AM PDT
The selection of cask-conditioned beers at Brooklyn's glorious Bierkraft.

Last week, I posted on what I think of as the beer paradox: that the industry is dominated by two swill-producing giants, and yet excellent craft beer proliferates.

To me, the beer paradox is about the limits of corporate power and the potential of grassroots organizing. Some readers had a different take on the phenomenon, and let me know on Twitter and in their own blogs. I'd like to respond to a few.

• The first involves corporate power. In progressive circles, there's a tendency to see corporations as all-powerful entities that dominate our lives. "Wow. You can't escape the corporate beer Matrix," one reader commented on Twitter after reading my post. But what I was trying to show is that the corporate "Matrix" is often like Oz's wizard: powerful, yes, but only as omnipotent as we let it be.

Anheuser-Busch owns a grotesque 50 percent of the US beer market, but that hasn't stopped excellent small-scale craft breweries in my area from cropping up. Within 100 miles of me in rural Western N.C., Craggie, Highland, Hoothills. Green Man, Pisgah, and Catawba Valley all churn out good-to-excellent small-batch beer. People in most areas of the United States can make a similar list. Escaping the beer Matrix may take a bit of effort, but it's certainly not impossible.

Tom's Kitchen: Alice Waters' Flatbread With Spicy Split Peas

| Sat Aug. 20, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

When I interviewed Alice Waters recently, she started the interview with a question for me: "Aren't you going to ask me what I had for breakfast?" I think she was probably teasing me. When you're the doyenne of the sustainable food movement and owner/founder of an iconic restaurant like Chez Panisse, I'm sure there's always some journalist wanting to scribble down what you ate for brekkie.

I finally got around to asking her about it, and she gave an alluring answer: Her morning meal had been a whole-wheat flatbread made with just a bit of olive oil, salt, and baking soda. She ate it, she said, with hummus tweaked with Indian spices. "Eating this little breakfast has really made me very happy," she declared.

I wondered if eating something similar might do the same for me, so I asked Alice for the recipe, and she kindly obliged. I whipped some up for the Maverick Farms crew recently, along with Indian-spiced yellow split peas. And guess what? It made us all really happy too. Soon I'll try it for breakfast.

Alice Waters' Whole-Wheat Flatbreads
Makes 10
2 cups organic whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup warm water
3 tablespoons organic olive oil

Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl. Using a fork, slowly stir in half of the water. Add the olive oil and then the rest of the water, stirring continuously to incorporate the wet ingredients. Start to pull the dough into a ball with your hands, adding a little bit more water if necessary, to form a moist dough. Knead the dough for 30 seconds, then cover with a towel and let rest 15 minutes. Form dough into 1 1/4 inch balls. Using a rolling pin, roll balls into a long oval shape. Preheat a 10-inch cast-iron pan on the stove at medium heat. When the pan is warm, cook two flatbreads at a time, turning over when the bubbles start to lightly brown. As you cook the rest of the batch, let the cooked flatbreads rest under a towel. The cooked flatbreads can be kept in the fridge up to one week. Before serving, reheat them individually over an open flame on the stove to toast them. Serve immediately.

Curried Yellow Split Peas
2 tablespoons butter
2 small onions, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly
1/2 teaspoon each black mustard seeds, turmeric, ground cinnamon, and ground cardamom
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped fine (I use four)
1 hot green chili, minced
A knuckle-sized knob of ginger, peeled and chopped fine
1 1/2 cups yellow split peas, rinsed and picked over for rocks, then drained
4 1/2 cups water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A handful of chopped cilantro or parsley

In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot, heat butter over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted and its foam has subsided, add the sliced onion. Turn heat to a gentle medium. Now add the spices. Cook, stirring often, until onions soften. Stir in the garlic, ginger, and chili. Let it cook another minute and add the split peas. Stir to coat with onions. Add the water, bring to a boil over high heat, turn heat to lowest setting and cover. They'll cook in 40-50 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure they're not drying out; if so, add some hot water. When they're done, they should be very soft—a kind of rough paste. Taste, and add a half teaspoon of salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Then taste again. Correct for salt, and serve.

USDA Scientist: Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide Damages Soil

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

August hasn't been a happy month the for the Monsanto public-relations team. No, I'm not referring to my posts on how Gaza and Mexico don't need the company's high-tech seeds—the ones it will supposedly be "feeding the world" with in the not-so-distant future.

Monsanto's real PR headache involves one of its flagship products very much in the here and now: the herbicide Roundup (chemical name: glyphosate), upon which Monsanto has built a highly profitable empire of "Roundup Ready" genetically modified seeds.

The problem goes beyond the "superweed" phenomenon that I've written about recently: the fact that farmers are using so much Roundup, on so much acreage, that weeds are developing resistance to it, forcing farmers to resort to highly toxic "pesticide cocktails."

What Roundup is doing aboveground may be a stroll through the meadow compared to its effect below. According to USDA scientist Robert Kremer, who spoke at a conference last week, Roundup may also be damaging soil—a sobering thought, given that it's applied to hundreds of millions of acres of prime farmland in the United States and South America. Here's a Reuters account of Kremer's presentation:

The heavy use of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide appears to be causing harmful changes in soil and potentially hindering yields of the genetically modified crops that farmers are cultivating, a US government scientist said on Friday. Repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, impacts the root structure of plants, and 15 years of research indicates that the chemical could be causing fungal root disease, said Bob Kremer, a microbiologist with the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

Now, Kremer has been raising these concerns for a couple of years now—and as Tom Laskaway showed in this 2010 Grist article, the USDA has been downplaying them for just as long. Laskaway asked Kremer's boss at the Agricultural Research Service, Michael Shannon, to comment on Kremer's research. According to Laskaway, Shannon "admitted that Kremer’s results are valid, but said that the danger they represent pales in comparison to the superweed threat."

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Mexico Doesn't Need Monsanto's Wonder Seeds, Either

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 4:28 AM PDT
A corn field in Sonora, Mexico

As I wrote a few days ago, Monsanto has been publicly flaunting its effort to develop high-tech patented seeds to "feed the world" amid climate change and resource scarcity. These wonder seeds, designed to grow in hot, dry conditions, are just around the corner, Monsanto says. And without them, millions will starve, the company implies.

Meanwhile, people in Gaza, already facing a hot, water-scarce climate, are turning to organic agriculture to feed themselves. And it seems to be working. "Gaza doesn't need Monsanto's wonder seeds," I concluded in my post.

Well, it turns out that Mexico doesn't either. A study (abstract; I ponied up $10 to rent the full paper for two days—so much for public research) recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) look at small-holder farmer communities in throughout Eastern Mexico, in variety of micro-climates, from highlands to lowlands.

Mexico, of course, was the original site of the green revolution—the effort, starting in the 1940s and funded by US foundations to bring the wonders of "modern" chemical agriculture to the global south. (See my review of Nick Cullather's recent history of the green revolution, The Hungry World). But the green revolution only really took root in the the flatlands of northern Mexico; the parts of the country covered by the study have remained largely in the hands of smallholders practicing traditional agriculture.

Here's how the researchers describe the communities they studied:

The small-scale maize farmers in this study include both indigenous and Mestizo [of mixed European and indigenous  heritage] households. They have diversified livelihoods, producing multiple crops, fruit trees, and domesticated animals both for self-consumption and for the market. Farmers also engage in nonfarm activities. Maize, however, continues to play a key role in their livelihoods, having multiple uses, both for consumption and sale.

While Monsanto and a a few larger companies dominate the seed market for US corn farmers, the company has no traction at all in southern Mexico. The authors describe how the farmers they studied get their seeds:

[Most seeds are] saved from their own farms. Seed obtained from outside the farm  accounts for less than a third of seed in any of the agro-climate environments, and most of this seed is obtained from the farmers’ social network of family, neighbors, and friends. Only a minority of seed sourced off-farm comes from stores, the government, or strangers. The role of the formal seed system, therefore, is minimal, even though there have been government programs to disseminate improved seed.

The researchers hypothesized that such "traditional maize seed systems" would fail under standard models of climate change—that the farmers wouldn't have access to seeds adapted to changing conditions, and would face either chronic crop failure or the prospect of having to go outside of their networks to buy seeds—for example, to Monsanto and its wonder seeds.

Instead, what they found in modeling for climate change was that there is so much genetic diversity among the corn varieties available to these farmers within their own communities that they will likely be able to adapt just fine to climate change without outside help.

To put it another way, while Monsanto spends billions of dollars trying to develop and market climate-ready wonder seeds, these farmers have already developed sufficient genetic diversity within their farming systems that they don't need Monsanto's wonder seeds. The only exception is high-altitude areas, but these regions, too, could get the seeds they need from within national borders, and won't likely need to tap the global seed market. The authors conclude that:

Maize landraces in Mexico show remarkable diversity and climatic adaptability, growing in environments ranging from arid to humid and from temperate to very hot. This diversity raises the possibility that Mexico already has maize germplasm suitable for predicted environments, i.e., that there are current analogs in the country for the ‘"novel" crop climates predicted by 2050.

Now, one might be tempted to discount this conclusion if it came, say,  from some hippie ecologist at UC Santa Cruz. But one of the study's authors hails from the UN's Food and Agriculture; and another works at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). The CIMMYT was founded in Mexico by Norman Borlaug—founder of the green revolution.
 

Beer Charts of the Day

| Wed Aug. 17, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

When an earthling declares—in no matter what language—"Let's grab a beer," there's a good chance that creature will soon be sitting down to a cold one made by either Anheuser-Busch InBev or SABMiller. Together, these two global entities produce about a third of the beer consumed on the planet.

Here in the United States, their dominance is even greater. How great?

As a jaded observer of the US food scene, I'm accustomed to finding evidence of intense corporate control. Consider that just four giant companies process 60 percent of the 9 billion chickens raised for slaughter in the United States each year, and that just three companies slaughter and pack nearly 80 percent of cows raised here. I've written about how these arrangements are robustly profitable for the participating companies—and pretty awful for everyone else.

But even I'm shocked by the corporatization of beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller produce 80 percent of the beer consumed here. That's four of every five brews. And almost all of them suck!

Yet the US beer industry is paradoxical. Even as these giants have lurched their way to market domination, we've seen an explosion of excellent local and regional brewers. And the United States, home of such swill as Bud Light and Coors Extra Gold, has emerged as the global standard-bearer for beer innovation and, yes, quality.

Here are two graphics that depict both sides of our paradox. The first one is from Phil Howard, a Michigan State professor who tracks corporate consolidation. It illustrates the dizzying variety of brands controlled by our beer overlords. (For a more readable interactive version, go here).

Our second chart tracks the number of beer-brewing facilities in the United States since the 1890s.

 

Note that breweries plunged to zero in 1930, in honor of that ignoble experiment, Prohibition, and then recovered for a few years after. But then the number peaks in 1936 and steadily declines to fewer than 50 gigantic breweries by 1980. This is the period when big brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller were taking over the market, shuttering smaller facilities.

But then the curve takes an utterly unexpected turn and begins to move back up. Today we have 1,759 brewing facilities—more than the pre-Prohibition high of 1,751. What happened? People got sick of corporate swill and started brewing their own. Some of them got really good at it and started small breweries. The circle of people who enjoy a good beer widened, drawing more good brewers in. And so on.

Update: The blog Balloon Juice adds a key detail to the narrative (and alerted me to the nifty chart above, which I have dropped in in place of the more basic one in the original version of this post):

When prohibition was lifted, government tightly regulated the market, and small scale producers were essentially shut out of the beer market altogether. Regulations imposed at the time greatly benefited the large beer makers. In 1979, President Carter deregulated the beer industry, opening the market back up to craft brewers.

Well, what Carter actually did was deregulate the home-brew market—he made it legal to sell malt, hops, and yeast to home brewers. That, I believe as a significant move, because the US craft-beer industry was largely started by enthusiastic home brewers who went pro.

At any rate, the explosion in popularity for real beer has been noted been by the giants, which is precisely why they can longer just peddle name brands like Bud and Miller but also have to roll out phony craft beers like Anheuser-Busch's inglorious "Shock Top" line. And as people consume less flagship swill like Bud and Miller, the companies have responded by desperately buying up smaller regional brands in hopes of keeping as many consumers as possible. Hence the rapid consolidation.

And the need to try to satisfy the rising desire for variety and quality is costing them money. The beer market is "stubbornly diverse," leading to a "high degree of localization," an SABMiller exec recently complained to Bloomberg. This factor makes it "hard to drive real scale benefit" across the group's marketing operations, he added.

Translated, the exec is saying it would be more profitable to just churn out lots of Miller, but those annoying drinkers out there demand at least the illusion of choice, so his firm has to maintain a dizzying number of brands.

What all of this is telling me is that corporations control plenty, but they don't control everything. Their dominance of US beer is a mile wide but paper thin. Grassroots energy and desire rescued beer from true corporate domination starting in 1980. The same can happen in other areas of the food system.

Warren Buffett's Son Is Super-Wrong About Africa

| Tue Aug. 16, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Howard Buffett, center, and Dr. Ed Price, right, director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, examine crops in Afghanistan.

My post on the organic-farming surge in Gaza got me thinking about ag-development policy—and how what's happening in occupied Palestine goes against the grain, so to speak, of most efforts to bolster farming is distressed areas.

Responding to immediate needs for food in a place where water is scarce, agrichemicals are hard to come by, and trade is severely limited, aid agencies and local policymakers in Gaza are urging farmers to grow food for themselves and their neighbors to eat using water-efficient, low-input techniques. And what they're growing isn't industrial crops like corn and soy, which need to be subjected to heavy processing before they can be eaten, but rather nutrient-dense, ready-to-consume fruit, vegetables, and fish.

How different is this setup from the norm? An example recently crossed my desk in the form of this Huffington Post item by Howard Buffett, son of gazillionaire Warren. Now, Buffet the younger is not your standard trust fund baby. According to his bio, he owns and operates a 1,240-acre corn-and-soy farm in Illinois and manages another 400-acre farm in Nebraska. His farming efforts have netted him ample federal crop subsidies over the years. In the early 1990s, he worked as an executive and board member for grain-trading and processing giant Archer Daniels Midland. He recently joined the board of directors at Coca-Cola.

Why Gaza Doesn't Need Monsanto's Wonder Seeds

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 3:07 AM PDT
A roof-top vegetable garden in Gaza.

Climatewire recently ran a rather tedious article rehashing Monsanto’s familiar talking points, on the occasion of a media conference put on by the GMO seed/agrichemical giant. Here's a sample:

The company's pipeline is teeming with seeds aimed to protect farmers from losses due to pests, heat, drought and nutrient deficiencies. Nitrogen-efficient corn is expected in the next three to 10 years, as are high-yielding soybeans.

These Wonder Seeds of the Future are vital, the company insists, because (as the Climatewire reporter puts it) "The world will need to double its crop output to satisfy 9 billion people on just a sliver more of available land." According to its marketing pitch, Monsanto will solve that problem by conjuring up seeds that allow farmers to "produce more, conserve more, [and] improve lives."

While contemplating the Cilmatewire piece—which was, to be fair, balanced by withering analysis from Union of Concerned of Scientists' Doug Gurian-Sherman—I got to to thinking about a Guardian article I read a while back on how people are scraping by in the Gaza Strip under the twin hardships of occupation and blockade.

Under siege from Israel, Palestinian farmers in Gaza have limited land, little access to water, and face ruinously high fertilizer costs (when they can get fertilizer at all): In other words, the very conditions Monsanto claims its seeds will save the world from. But these farmers don't have access to the wonder seeds, partly because they don't exist yet (Gurian-Sherman is skeptical that they ever will); and partly because Palestinian farmers don't have the resources to buy pricey patented seeds anyway. (How farmers resource-strapped farmers are ever supposed to afford Monsanto's premium-priced super-seeds—if and when they do come into existence—has never really been explained.)

So what are Palestinian farmers doing? According to The Guardian, they're turning to a technology that has been proven to conserve water, recycle crop nutrients, and generate robust yields: diversified organic agriculture. The newspaper quotes an official from the UN's Gaza emergency food program:

In so many other places, this is terribly trendy and green. But in Gaza the resource scarcity is so bad this is actually becoming a necessity.

Where organic ag has taken root, The Guardian reports, food security has been bolstered and dependence on food aid for survival has decreased. The UN is pushing organic ag as a response to resource scarcity, and last year Hamas government rolled out a a 10-year strategy "aimed at skirting the blockade and developing sustainable agriculture," The Guardian reports.

Already, concrete steps are being made. According to The Guardian, Palestinian farmers are barred by the blockade from buying synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which could be used to make explosives. All they have access from the import market is "fertilisers made from Israeli waste water run-off," which is expensive—$200 per metric ton—and of "uncertain safety." But a local initiative called Palestinian Environmental Friends (PEF) is generating a homegrown fertilizer from manure and crop waste collected from local farms. It costs just $100 per metric ton to make, and profits from it stay within Gaza.

Farms are also solving the fertilizer problem by setting up closed-loop aquaculture/crop systems that recycle nutrients and generate bounties of food:

In a rural area of the central Gaza Strip, Eyad Najjar plucks organic carrots from the sandy soil of his tiny farm. Najjar no longer uses fertilisers or pesticides for his plot, which also grows tomatoes, parsley, rocket, lettuce and spinach. Instead, a fishpond on the field's far edge delivers water rich in nutrients via drip irrigation.

Smiling, Najjar squeezes an almost-ripe fruit hanging from the branch of a lemon tree. "The onions and lemons are bigger and better," he says.

Now, Gaza's push for organic ag as a response to severe resource challenges hardly settles the question of how to "feed the world" going forward. The effort is too new, and the results remain anecdotal. But it's entirely consistent with the emerging consensus among development experts that low-input, locally adapted appropriate technologies, not expensive high-tech solutions from the likes of Monsanto, are key to feeding ourselves amid population grown and resource depletion. And it surely contradicts the old agribusiness claim, recently parroted by The Economist, that organic food is a "luxury of the rich."