Tom Philpott - September 2011

Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe To Eat?

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 1:55 PM EDT

We know that eating food derived from genetically modified crops won't make you keel over and die. How do we know that? According to the USDA, about three-quarters of US corn and upwards of percent of soy are from genetically modified seeds—a rapid ascent since their roll-out in the early '90s.

Those two crops suffuse our food system: they provide the sweetener for soft drinks, the cooking oil for French fries, feed for the animals we eat, and countless ingredients used by food processors. By 2003, the Grocery Manufacturers of America was already reckoning that 75 percent of processed food in supermarets contained GMO ingredients. So if eating a bowl of cereal made from GMO corn, or a Pop Tart sweetened with high-fructose GMO corn syrup, posed an immediate threat, or a we'd know it by now. Millions of people do it every day. So for what public-health people call acute effects, GMOs have more or less been proven safe.

But what about chronic effects—slow-moving, unspectacular conditions that could take years to detect, much less to diagnose? Here we're on murkier ground. GMOs have been on the market for less than a generation: not a large span of time for gauging long-term effects on a population.

And to be sure, the US is riddled with chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disese. The CDC reports that one in two Americans now have such conditions, and that seven of every 10 deaths in the US can be attributed to them. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (summarized here), the rate of chronic conditions among US children jumped from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006, with asthma, obesity, and behavior/learning disorders leading the way.

Clearly, such trends are highly complex and can't be explained by any one factor. And the US diet, with its reliance on calorie-dense, additive-laden processed food, went downhill long before the introduction of GMOs in the '90s. But did the introduction GMOs make the whole witches brew of US processed food even worse, and add subtly to its already-bad health effects? To me, it's plausible.

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Dan Rather Explores the Bee Collapse/Pesticide Connection

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

Is a pesticide marketed by Bayer—used on millions of acres of US corn—the factor that's pushing honey bees into steep annual die-offs that have become known as Colony Collapse Disorder?

A ragtag group of commercial beekeepers has gathered an impressive cache of evidence supporting that claim. In series of articles starting December 2010 on Grist, I dug into the evidence and told the story, which features discredited studies used by Bayer to push the pesticide through EPA registration, an alarming study from a USDA scientist, and more.

I fully expected my work to spark stories in larger, more influential mainstream media, which might in turn inspire progressive Congresspeople to get involved, or force the EPA to reconsider.  I mean, we're talking about a pesticide whose range extends to nearly the entire US corn crop, and a species critical to producing about a third of the food we eat. Instead, though, silence. In the 2011 growing season, corn farmers once again planted seed treated with Bayer's suspect bug killers, with nary a peep from Congress or The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.

Well, now, a mainstream-media legend has taken note and filed an excellent report on the topic. Trouble is, Dan Rather isn't of the mainstream media anymore; he now plies his trade on the upstart network HDnet (still winning Emmy's though!). As the below segment will show, Rather's reportorial chops remain intact. I hope other journalists take note—the bee collapse/pesticide story is one that needs to be heard and debated. The bee section of Rather's show ends at about the 27-minute mark. (Hat tip to the ever-excellent Pesticide Action Network.)

Bee Aware from Greg Stanley on Vimeo.

 

Even Organic Strawberries Are Grown With Toxic Fumigants

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Conventionally grown strawberries are hard orbs, bred to endure long-haul travel and leisurely stints on supermarket shelves, not to taste good.

Aesthetics aside, their real scandal is chemical. It takes a lot of pesticides to keep them healthy and growing in vast monocrops, including some of the very most toxic ones available in the US: fumigants that sterilize the soil and imperil farm workers.

For years, I've been urging consumers to denounce the use of such poisons by buying only organic strawberries. But it turns out, in California at least, most organic strawberries have a dirty secret: they come from plants that spend time on nurseries that use "millions of pounds of toxic chemicals," including methyl bromide, before being transplanted to organically managed fields, The New York Times reports.

To be clear, dramatically fewer toxic chemicals are used in the production of organic strawberries, because such poisons are banned in the fields where the fruit is actually grown. But to me and no doubt to many others, the fact that they're used at all is jarring news.

The Times points to a letter signed by three California organic farmers and the Pesticide Action Network urging the USDA's National Organic Program to clarify rules around organic seed and plant stock. Organic code stipulates that farmers must use organically produced seeds and plants whenever they are "commercially available," meaning they can resort to non-organic ones otherwise. Consumers have shown they want an alternative to fumigant-grown strawberries. It's time for the USDA to step up.

According to the Times, the state doesn't have a single organic berry nursery—hence the the practice of relying on plants that grew on fumigant-using nurseries.

But here's the kicker: From 2005 to 2009, the Times reports, the state did have a commercial-scale organic nursery, run by farmer James Rickert of Prather Ranch, one of the letter's signees. But Rickert's plant-starting operation languished and went out of business because farmers were wary of paying a premium for organically grown plants that they feared they might carry disease, Rickert told the Times:

"The reality is that a lot of the organic growers want nothing to do with organic plants" because it scares them, said Mr. Rickert, who has since gone back to herding organically fed cattle at his ranch in Butte Valley. Indeed, for many organic strawberry growers, using organic stock amounts to taking a big financial risk with little chance of reward.

But the problem evidently wasn't the quality of Rickert's products or some inherent difficulty in raising strawberry plants organically. Indeed, pioneering California organic strawberry grower Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm (briefly profiled on Mother Jones here), who also signed the letter, used  Rickerts' plants extensively and found them "always of excellent quality," he told the Times.

The problem was that lax enforcement of the "commercially available" rule, combined with the risk-averse nature of most farmers, allowed most organic farmers to avoid trying Rickert's products. As the whistle-blowing farmers' letter to the USDA puts it, "Without clear enforcement we fail to create the marketplace for new technologies, especially alternatives to chemical fumigation."

If the USDA had enforced the rule in the first place, Rickert's business would likely have succeeded—and drawn more organic nurseries into the market. And Rickert himself told Pesticide Action Network that he would "jump-start" his nursery business as soon as the USDA shows it's serious about enforcement.  

Some Sea Lice With That Farmed Salmon?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 6:03 AM EDT
Sea lice devour a a farmed salmon in New Brunswick, Canada.

I've written a lot about "superbugs" from factory-farmed meat, as well as "superweeds" and "superinsencts" from genetically modified crops. Turns out, industrial agriculture is wreaking similar havoc in the sea. What do I mean? Consider the salmon, that noble family of fish, which has evolved over the millennia alongside an ignoble parasite: the sea louse.

Often less than a centimeter long, the sea louse operates like the land louse that bedevil humans: by attaching itself to the skin of the host and then chomping down and sipping its blood. Happily, wild salmon and sea lice populations achieved a rough balance over their time on the planet—wild salmon developed resistance to the point that sea lice can do their thing without causing significant harm.

That was the state of things, anyway, until the emergence of industrial-scale salmon farming in Norway in the 1970s. In industrial salmon production, the fish are stuffed together by the hundreds of thousands in pens open to the coastal sea. These conditions provide a veritable banquet for sea lice—rather than having to scour the sea for their hosts, the parasites find their targets wriggling around en masse in one place. Left to their own devices, the industry discovered, the age-old parasite-host balance is upset, and farm salmon populations succumb to sea lice.

Meat Industry Still Denying Antibiotic Resistance

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Can you can stuff farm animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, without creating resistant pathogens that affect humans?

Yes, of course you can, insists the meat industry. "Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the US pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study,” the National Pork Producers Council declared in a statement last week.

According to the Pork Producers, a recent report from the Government Accounting Office confirms their view. But as Helena Bottemiller in Food Safety News and Tom Laskway on Grist show, what the GAO is really saying is that regulators like the USDA meat-inspection service have done a lousy job of collecting data on factory-farm antibiotic use. The report states the case bluntly, right in the opening paragraph:

HHS [Health and Human Services] and USDA have collected some data on antibiotic use in food animals and on resistant bacteria in animals and retail meat. However, these data lack crucial details necessary to examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance. … Without detailed use data and representative resistance data, agencies cannot examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance.

So the GAO is chastising the oversight agencies for failing to collect good data; and the industry is pretending that the lack of good data implies the lack of an underlying problem. It would be funny if real people weren't dying from what the FDA calls "treatment failure" after being infected with pathogens that antibiotics would normally wipe out.

Meanwhile, the GAO makes clear that factory farm antibiotic abuse does pose a threat to public health. The report states it in plain English:

Unsanitary conditions at slaughter plants and unsafe food handling practices could allow these bacteria to survive on meat products and reach a consumer. Resistant bacteria may also spread to fruits, vegetables, and fish products through soil, well water, and water runoff contaminated by fecal matter from animals harboring these bacteria. If the bacteria are disease-causing, the consumer may develop an infection that is resistant to antibiotics.

While US regulators dither and the meat industry treats their incompetence as vindication, a team of Danish, Australian, and Canadian researchers have brought forth damning evidence on the link between factory farming and resistance. For a study just published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, the team isolated strains of antibiotic-resistant E. coli found in humans and compared them with resistant strains found in pigs, poultry, and cattle.

The result:

Resistance in E. coli isolates from food animals (especially poultry and pigs) was highly correlated with resistance in isolates from humans. This supports the hypothesis that a large proportion of resistant E. coli isolates causing blood stream infections in people may be derived from food sources.

Of course, as I've written before, none of this is a secret. All the relevant US regulatory and disease-tracking agencies—USDA, FDA, CDC—have acknowledged that factory farms are brewing up pathogens that antibiotics are increasingly unable to treat.

The challenge is getting them to act on it. The real hold-up isn't the industry's talent for issuing reality-defying press releases. It's the industry's talent for exerting influence on regulators.

Walmart Drops $1 Million on Urban-Ag Pioneer Growing Power

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Eighteen years ago, a former professional basketball player named Will Allen made an unlikely career move: He decided to launch a farm in a low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee. His farmhands would be underemployed or unemployed neighborhood teens.

At the time, brutal economic conditions were pushing the nation's few remaining African American farmers into bankruptcy, and the concept of "urban farming" seemed more like an oxymoron than an answer to the inner city's economic and public health problems.

Since that time, Allen's organization, Growing Power, has established itself as a model for how urban resources can be used to grow healthy, affordable food and revitalize neighborhoods at the same time. Growing Power's model was so successful in Milwaukee that Allen's daughter Erika has established an offshoot in Chicago.

Meanwhile, while the Allens were honing their community empowerment model of food industry, an Arkansas-based company called Walmart was putting a wholly different vision into practice. Using low-wage labor and its vast market leverage as tools, Walmart emerged as the globe's largest retailer, grocery merchant, and private employer by draining economic power from communities.

Recently, the two divergent entities intersected in a dramatic announcement: Walmart will donate $1 million to Growing Power. The grant will bolster Growing Power's efforts to expand its activities from its current bases in Milwaukee and Chicago, to "strengthen 20 community food centers in more than 15 states."

Naturally, the announcement sent shock waves through the sustainable food movement. Allen—whose long list of accolades includes a MacArthur "genius" grant—took to the Growing Power blog to defend the grant.

Wal-mart is the world's largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps. We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we're trying to help. Keeping groups that have the money and the power to be a significant part of the solution away from the Good Food Revolution will not serve us. At the same time, by accepting grants like these we retain the power for how corporate money is spent, and the grassroots movement stays grassroots.

On Civil Eats, Andy Fisher, cofounder of the Community Food Security Coalition, responded that Walmart's activities do more to harm low-income communities than can be offset by a $1 million grant. Questioning Allen's claim that Walmart, which has aggressively sought to move into urban areas and has met fierce opposition, can help solve urban food deserts, Fisher wrote:

The spectre of Walmart moving into urban areas has other supermarket chains running scared, leading them to demand cutbacks in wages and benefits of their unionized workers across America.

And blogger Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, charged that by giving to Growing Power, Walmart is trying to buy support from community empowerment advocates for its effort to move into urban areas: "By partnering with a group that could otherwise be one of its staunchest critics, Walmart is taking a page right out of the Big Tobacco playbook: Buying silence."

I find myself deeply divided on this issue. The need to build wealth and access to high-quality food and jobs in low-income areas is urgent, and it lacks resources. The federal government, trapped in a spasm of budget cutting, isn't going to increase such funding anytime soon. Growing Power has always been resourceful and pragmatic, and it has demonstrated it can put large amounts of grant money to good use.

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The Global Economy in One Neat Chart

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 3:46 PM EDT

From The Economist, an interesting snapshot of the global economy. The globe's two largest employers are military operations; the next two are, respectively, a "hypermarket" (supermarket plus department store) and an eatery chain, both renowned for their ability to profitably sell cheap food, in part by low-balling their vast, un-unionized workforces and squeezing their suppliers. Big guns and cheap eats: they make the world hum.

The EconomistThe Economist

 

How Wall Street Fuels Global Hunger

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Women plant sweet potatoes between cassava in Tanzania.

Wall Street loves food—and I'm not talking about expense-account dinners at Manhattan's culinary temples.

When the the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, investment cash began to trickle into an area that had for decades seemed stodgy and boring: food commodities like corn, soy, and rice. And after the housing market started to unravel in 2006-'07, that trickle turned into a gusher.

According to the UN FAO's most recent report, global food prices are hovering at all-time highs, and have risen dramatically over the past year. The FAO's Cereal Price Index is up 36 percent from last year; overall food prices are up 26 percent. The most recent spike is part of a multi-year trend, FAO reports. Inflation-adjusted food prices have tripled since 2004 (see chart below).

To hear Wall Street tell it, the bull market for food reflects the fundamentals of supply and demand. Global population is rising, emerging middle classes in India and China are demanding more grain-intensive meat, and government-backed biofuel schemes in the US and Europe divert ever-larger amounts of food crops in into car fuel. While demand rises quickly, supply—the amount of food grown by farmers—is stagnant: hence, a rapid rise in prices.

That's the story, anyway, and Wall Street is sticking to it. Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James, reiterated it it in a note to investors on Monday. Making the case for investments in agriculture, Staut declared:

With per capita incomes rising rapidly in emerging countries, the burgeoning food demand has left global grain consumption exceeding production; and over the next few decades the situation is likely to get worse because food production needs to expand by some 50% just to meet the estimated demand.

It turns out, though, that Wall Street's food pitch, like its previous ones about tech stocks and residential real estate, is so much hot air puffing up a bubble (along with the profits of a few big banks and hedge funds). While the housing bubble caused plenty of misery—hundreds of thousands of foreclosures, the worst recession since the Great Depression—the current bubble is even more catastrophic: millions of people globally priced out of food markets.  

USDA Finally Bares Fangs to Meat Industry on E. Coli

| Tue Sep. 13, 2011 6:00 PM EDT

Yesterday, I pointed to Cargill's latest salmonella-tainted turkey problem and wondered whether the USDA and other regulatory watchdogs would ever bare their fangs against the meat industry's power and recklessness with public health.

As if in response, the agency let loose a formidable growl. It announced it had ramped up oversight of the industry and its habit of sending out ground beef tainted with various strains of E. coli.

In the past, the USDA had classified only one strain of E. coli, known as 0157, as an "adulterant," making it illegal to sell. The deadly E. coli strain earned its outlaw status after the infamous Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993, which sickened 700 people and killed four.

For Cargill, It's Tainted Turkey Time Again

| Tue Sep. 13, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

On August 3, agribusiness giant Cargill recalled a stunning 36 million pounds of ground turkey in response to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that had sickened more than 100 people and killed another.

The suspect meat had emerged from a single massive slaughterhouse in Arkansas. The fiasco inspired the company—one of the globe's largest agribusiness firms—to shut down that plant to disinfect it and upgrade safety procedures there. According to the trade journal ThePoultrySite.com, Cargill took the following steps during the plant's hiatus:

[Safety enhancements] include two additional antibacterial washes, intensifying an existing antibacterial system, disassembling and steam cleaning equipment before resuming ground turkey production, and requiring suppliers of turkey meat to add a new antibacterial wash. The company has also implemented the most aggressive Salmonella monitoring and testing programme in the poultry industry.  

Officials from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approved the upgrades, Cargill officials told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and by mid-August, the plant was cranking out vast amounts of ground turkey again.