Tom Philpott - September 2011

California's Fruit-and-Veg Behemoth: Too Productive for Our Own Good

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 4:13 PM EDT
Giant monocropped strawberry fields forever? Maybe not.

In the United States, when people tell you to "eat your veggies," they are essentially urging you to take a bite out of California—or, more to the point, take a a big swig of its increasingly scarce water supply.

How much do we rely on California for fruits and veg? With its rich soils, variety of microclimates, long growing season, and huge geographical footprint, California should be a major ag producer—certainly a regional food-production hub for the western US. But its sheer dominance of US fruit and veg production (numbers from the the California Department of Food and Agriculture (PDF)) is dizzying.

The state produces 99 percent of the artichokes grown in the US, 44 percent of asparagus, a fifth of cabbage, two-thirds of carrots, half of bell peppers, 89 percent of cauliflower, 94 percent of broccoli, and 95 percent of celery. Leafy greens? California's got the market cornered: 90 percent of the leaf lettuce we consume, along with and 83 percent of Romaine lettuce and 83 percent of fresh spinach, come from the big state on the left side of the map. Cali also cranks a third of total fresh tomatoes consumed in the U.S.—and 95 percent of ones destined for cans and other processing purposes.

As for fruit, I get that 86 percent of lemons and a quarter of oranges come from there; its sunny climate makes it perfect for citrus, and lemons store relatively well. Ninety percent of avocados? Fine. But 84 percent of peaches, 88 percent of fresh strawberries, and 97 percent of fresh plums?

Come on. Surely the other 49 states can do better. And they will likely have to do better—California's fruit-and-veg empire rests on a foundation of highly subsidized and increasingly scarce irrigation water. And that situation will only worsen as climate change makes droughts more prevalent in the western US, as this excellent Grist article by Matt Jenkins demonstrates. It makes sense to think of California's bounty as a kind of bubble puffed up by a history of cheap and unsustainable irrigation-water access—a bubble that will sooner or later have to burst.

But as the explosive recent growth in farmers markets nationwide shows, people are increasingly looking for seasonal produce that emerges from their own food-sheds, not from California's teetering industrial-vegetable complex.  

The effort is even getting a boost from urban agriculture, especially in rust-belt cities where abandoned land is plentiful. According to a new study from Ohio State researchers, people in Cleveland are already spending a cool $1.5 million on fruits and vegetables grown within the city. I visited Cleveland in the summer of 2010, and what I saw was a beautiful city teaming with robust community gardens and even commercial farms.

According to the Ohio State study, if Cleveland's citizens and government made a concerted effort to utilize its vast base of abandoned land for growing food, it could dramatically ramp up production—and not just of fruits and vegetables, but also meat, eggs, and honey:

The first scenario utilizes 80 percent of every vacant lot for growing produce and raising chickens, with beehives being kept on 15 percent of those unoccupied lots. This arrangement, the study found, can meet between 22 and 48 percent of Cleveland's fresh produce demand, 25 percent of its poultry and shell egg needs, and 100 percent of the honey consumed in this city of almost 400,000 residents.

And if if just 9 percent of residential lawn property is brought under the roto-tiller, and some commercial-building roofs are devoted to agriculture, Cleveland could become nearly self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables, chicken meat, eggs, and honey, the study concludes. And in doing so, as much as $115 million in food expenditures would remain within Cleveland, building wealth inside the city instead of leaking out to shareholders in large grocery and fast-food chains. Detroit, which I also visited in summer in 2010, has a similar situation with regard to growing its own food.

Meanwhile, reports The New York Times, the depressed economy is inspiring a vegetable-gardening resurgence in rural and urban areas alike:

It is not just eastern Kentucky. Vegetable gardening has been on the rise across the country, according to Bruce Butterfield, research director at the National Gardening Association, driven by rising food prices and a growing contingent of health-conscious consumers. Garden-store retailers have reported increased sales over the past two years, he said, and many community gardens have waiting lists.

“Our sales have skyrocketed,” said George Ball, chief executive of Burpee, one of the largest vegetable-seed retailers. The jump, he said, began around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, when anxiety about money started to rise.

I mention all of this to make the point that yes, we are way too dependent on California's water-challenged agriculture; but moving away from it need not mean scarcity and poor diets.

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Monsanto Superinsects Eating Your Corn? Diversify!

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 1:50 PM EDT
A corn field in Iowa: excellent habitat for corn rootworms.

Yesterday I showed that Monsanto's formidable Bt corn empire, whose domain extends to about 65 percent of corn grown in the United States, appears to be on the verge of being brought to its knees by a humble insect called the corn rootworm. Make that the Bt-resistant corn rootworm.

What to do about it?

One approach, of course, is to do what Monsanto did about its other festering resistance problem: weeds resistant to its flagship herbicide, Roundup. Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, points out that—similar to Bt-resistant rootworms today—Roundup-resistant "supwerweeds" first appeared in isolated fields in the early 2000s, and Monsanto's first reaction was to deny the problem existed. Yet Roundup resistance soon exploded, and now affects a stunning 11 million acres—and growing—nationwide.

Today, Monsanto deigns to acknowledge the problem—and claims it has the solution: It will engineer crops that can withstand multiple powerful herbicides. This approach could be described as "ignore the problem, let it careen out of control, then dramatically escalate the response with profitable and questionable new technologies."

Something similar seems to be afoot with the superinsect problem. The Wall Street Journal reported that Monsanto is developing a new genetic technology called RNA interference to, "among other things, make crops deadly for insects to eat." In other words, "forget that our current technology is failing—look at this wonderful technology that beckons!"

In a recent blog post, Union of Concern Scientists senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman warns that it will likely be "years, at least" before that novel technology is available to farmers. Moreover, "there is no reason to believe that [RNA interference] would not also face resistance problems." In the meantime, farmers could muddle along by spraying toxic chemicals in their effort to control Bt-resistant rootworms, just as they are now spraying increasingly toxic herbicide cocktails to try to knock down Roundup-resistant weeds. And, it will be difficult to wean farmers from Monsanto's Bt corn any time soon, because the company's market dominance makes it quite difficult to find non-Bt seed. The Center for Food Safety's Freese points to research from University of Illinois crop scientist Michael Gray suggesting that in Illinois corn country, 40 percent of farmers lack access to high-quality non-Bt corn seed.

Gurian-Sherman suggests a more robust and surer path to solving the problem than muddling along with the status quo and waiting for Monsanto to come out with its next blockbuster: crop rotations, and not just between corn and soy, but employing a variety of crops. The corn rootworm menaces industrial agriculture because industrial agriculture is so tightly focused on corn, which covers millions of acres of our farm land, providing a vast habitat for its pests. "The rootworm is not much of a problem if sensible crop rotations are used," Gurian-Sherman writes.

He adds:

And long [i.e., more than just corn and soy] crop rotations reduce more than rootworm damage. They greatly reduce most pests, including other insects, diseases, and weeds, thereby greatly reducing pesticide use as well. Long crop rotations also improve soil fertility, and reduce fertilizer use, cost and pollution. And they can be just as productive as our current corn obsession.

But as Gurian-Sherman points out, moving farmers away from their fixation on corn and soy means transforming federal farm and energy policy. Until that happens, Monsanto, despite its history of failed technologies, evasions, and denials of the obvious, is poised to keep dominating our agriculture and minting profits.

The Agrichemical Industry's Business Model in One Paragraph

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 1:39 PM EDT

I've been writing a lot about how the agrichemical industry leverages its failures to to sell ever more toxic herbicides, insecticides, and genetically modified crops to replace ones that have lost effectiveness, trapping farmers on an ever-accelerating pesticide/technology treadmill. In the latest major media article on the rise of "superweeds" resistant to Monsanto's flagship herbicide, this one from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant makes my point for me:

Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant says competitors’ efforts to develop their own herbicide-tolerant crops isn’t a threat to the company’s flagship business. Seed companies will cross-license each others’ genetics to create crops able to withstand multiple weedkillers, he says, and spraying fields with a mix of herbicides will kill the superweeds and give Roundup Ready crops new life. Monsanto itself is adding resistance to dicamba, an older weedkiller, to Roundup Ready crops for sale by 2015. “The cavalry is coming,” Grant says.

Dicamba, it should be noted, is listed by Pesticide Action Network as a "bad actor"—it's an established developmental/reproductive toxin with the potential to contaminate groundwater. If Dicamba Ready crops become anywhere near as prolific as their Roundup Ready cousins, the result could be disastrous. Farmers are currently applying so much Roundup that US Geological Survey researchers are finding it at "significant" levels in water and air samples in farm states. Roundup enjoys a reputation as a relatively benign herbicide, but new research on its effect on both soil and human health is undermining that assumption.

Monsanto Denies Superinsect Science

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 5:25 PM EDT
Superinsect problem? Show me the evidence!

As the summer growing season draws to a close, 2011 is emerging as the year of the superinsect—the year pests officially developed resistance to Monsanto's genetically engineered (ostensibly) bug-killing corn.

While the revelation has given rise to alarming headlines, neither Monsanto nor the EPA, which regulates pesticides and pesticide-infused crops, can credibly claim surprise. Scientists have been warning that the EPA's rules for planting the crop were too lax to prevent resistance since before the agency approved the crop in 2003. And in 2008, research funded by Monsanto itself showed that resistance was an obvious danger.

And now those unheeded warnings are proving prescient. In late July, as I reported recently, scientists in Iowa documented the existence of corn rootworms (a ravenous pest that attacks the roots of corn plants) that can happily devour corn plants that were genetically tweaked specifically to kill them. Monsanto's corn, engineered to express a toxic gene from a bacterial insecticide called Bt, now accounts for 65 percent of the corn planted in the US.

The superinsect scourge has also arisen in Illinois and Minnesota. "Monsanto Co. (MON)’s insect-killing corn is toppling over in northwestern Illinois fields, a sign that rootworms outside of Iowa may have developed resistance to the genetically modified crop," reports Bloomberg. In southern Minnesota, adds Minnesota Public Radio, an entomologist has found corn rootworms thriving, Bt corn plants drooping, in fields.

Human Rights Watch Author Defends Report on South African Wine

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 1:05 PM EDT

A farm worker collects grapes during harvest time in South Africa's wine country. : Marcus Bleasdale/Human Rights WatchA farm worker collects grapes during harvest time in South Africa's wine country. Marcus Bleasdale/Human Rights WatchYesterday, South Africa-born filmmaker Adam Welz and I had an exchange on my recent post on labor conditions in South Africa's wine country,  which discussed a Human Rights Watch report on the topic. I asked the report's lead researcher and author, human-rights lawyer and writer Kaitlin Y. Cordes, to join the conversation. Her response follows.

In the course of interviewing over 260 people about the human rights situation of farmworkers and farm dwellers in the Western Cape province of South Africa, my colleagues and I uncovered a range of exploitative conditions and rights abuses. The information from these interviews were documented in Human Rights Watch's report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries, which was subsequently discussed in Tom Philpott's article, "South Africa's Wine Woes."

The stories I was told by farmworkers and farm dwellers ranged in severity and composition, but what was perhaps most astonishing to me was that very few of the workers with whom I spoke had no problems of which to tell me. Of course, this does not mean that there are no farms without problems. As the report points out, conditions on farms vary, and some farm owners go beyond full compliance with the law to provide a number of other benefits to workers. Ripe with Abuse enumerates a number of these better practices. Yet the situations I discovered were not simply isolated incidents.

Revolving Door: Still Swinging Between USDA and Meat Industry

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 9:05 AM EDT
Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Old job: chief of staff at the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency charged with overseeing the meat industry's food-safety practices.

New job: vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the the National Turkey Federation, the group charged with promoting the interests of the few companies that dominate US turkey production, including Cargill (which just a month ago sent out 36 million pounds of turkey tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella), Butterball, and Sara Lee.

Job she had before launching her career as meat industry watchdog/flack (random factoid): national director of public relations for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lisa Wallenda Picard, former meat-industry watchdog, current meat-industry flack, and seasoned circus-industry professional. 

 

 

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"South Africa's Wine Woes," Revisited: A Rebuttal

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 11:50 AM EDT
Vines in South Africa's celebrated Stellenbosch wine region.

In an Aug. 31 post called "South Africa's Wine Woes," I discussed a recent report from Human Rights Watch on labor conditions in South Africa's wine industry called Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries (PDF).

Directly below is a rebuttal from Adam Welz, a South African-born filmmaker, writer, Mother Jones contributor, and photographer now living in Brooklyn. My response to Welz follows.

"South Africa's Wine Woes" is a great example of how an incomplete story written far, far away from the action can do more harm than good. The uncritical embedding in the story—and thus apparent endorsement—of a sensationalist and even more incomplete video makes it worse.

I'm a South African filmmaker, writer and researcher who until recently lived near the Cape winelands. Over about five years I spent many months poking around in the back fields of tens of wine farms, speaking to workers and farmers alike about many aspects of the industry. I'm not a wine expert or a foodie, just a curious guy with a background in biology and economics.

Reading "Wine Woes" and watching the accompanying video may well lead the average MoJo reader to believe that in the Cape wine industry it's routine for workers to live in animal sheds with no clean water. It's not.

During my time in the vineyards I encountered a single farm where workers were as badly treated as the poor family featured in the first part of the video. The farm owner, as it turned out, was a violent alcoholic whose wife had left him and was despised by his neighbors—hardly an exemplary member of the agricultural community.

The local government labor inspector and local union rep wasn't interested in his workers' plight because they were "coloured," not "black"—in other words they were Afrikaans-speaking, mixed-race descendants of the original "Khoi" or "Hottentot" inhabitants of the Western Cape. "Coloured" people are less likely to support the ruling African National Congress (ANC) or join their affiliated unions than "black" Xhosa people who have in recent decades migrated to the winelands from the Eastern Cape. The ANC-aligned labor inspector and union were interested in building a power base, not enforcing the law, so they chose to spend their energy elsewhere.

Why do I point this out? Because South African racial politics are far more complex than the 'white vs. black' conflict so often cited by Americans when talking about my home country. Many 'coloured' people would be as offended at being called 'black' as a Navajo would be at being called African-American.

If you don't understand that there is more than one group of workers in this situation and that their interests don't clearly align—there is actually enormous competition for jobs and housing between the 'coloured' workers and the recently-arrived Xhosa which "Wine Woes" lumps together under the category "black"—you won't understand how the situation evolved or how to fix it.

I believe that exposé journalism should provide the reader with actionable information that allows them to improve bad situations, whether by choosing certain products over others, supporting one politician over another, etc.

"Wine Woes" paints the entire Cape wine industry with a particularly dirty brush instead of providing wine drinkers with this actionable information. Readers aren't provided with the names of abusive wineries or those progressive firms striving to improve working conditions, eliminate pesticide use and conserve endangered wild species (of which there are more and more every year.)

Are ethical wine farmers and the thousands they employ expected to burst into joyful song as they fall into bankruptcy because foreigners have quit buying South African wine under a barrage of bad publicity? Last time I checked no worker was lifted out of poverty because their employer went bust.

The movie embedded in the piece is damaging as well as cowardly—by providing just enough information employers to identify the workers in the film but not enough for consumers or law-enforcers to identify the wineries concerned, the filmmakers protect themselves from lawsuits but lay abused workers open to further victimization.

I'm also not sure what this accusatory piece gains by emphasizing that most South African wineries are "white"-owned and that workers are mostly "black." Is it trying to say that 'white' wine farmers are inherently abusive or that only 'white' employers abuse workers? If so, "Wine Woes" should say it clearly instead of hiding behind woolly generalizations. (I find that idea offensive and counter to my own experience; I've seen wine industry players of all races striving to improve things and undo the apartheid legacy of racial stratification common to most industries in South Africa (see, for example, here). I can also take Philpott on an unforgettable tour of some "black"-owned gold mines in South Africa where worker abuse extends to murder and makes the wine industry look like, well, a wine-soaked picnic on a gorgeous Stellenbosch afternoon.)

South Africa is a deeply imperfect work-in-progress with a corrupt government, stubborn racial tensions and massive unemployment. It also has millions of innovative, hard-working of people struggling for a better life who need all the help they can get. It would be good of Philpott and his sources to point fingers precisely and carefully at those who deserve to be called out, not place the whole wine industry, and by extension the country, in the same bucket of ordure. 

Thousands of families have food on the table tonight because South African wine is "increasingly fashionable" in the USA. For many there's no choice between a job on a wine farm or a job somewhere else—there's a choice between a job on a wine farm and no job at all. Let's not forget that.

note: I've used racial descriptors such as 'black' and 'white' in quotes because I'd like not to uncritically perpetuate the use of Apartheid race categories to describe people while at the same time acknowledge that these labels still have descriptive currency when talking about South African society.

Tom Philpott responds:

I salute Adam Welz for offering his from-the-ground perspective—and for broadening my view and that of my readers on this particular topic.

It is true that as a blogger based in the mountains of North Carollina, I rarely get to visit the places I write about and see with my own eyes the conditions on the ground. For this reason, when setting out to write about some faraway place, I choose my sources carefully. For this post, I was citing an in-depth report by Human Right Watch, a widely respected NGO with decades of experience documenting abuses stemming from power inequalities: precisely the situation that too often holds sway in food production, not just in South Africa but (as I took pains to point out) all over the globe, including right here in the United States. (HRW's 2005 report Blood, Sweat, and Fear remains the definitive source on working conditions in US meatpacking plants).

Brazil's Soy Frontier: Next Stop, Africa

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 4:57 PM EDT
A soy field in Brazil's Cerrado region.

A couple weeks ago, the government of Mozambique offered farmers from Brazil 50-year leases on 15 million acres of land: an area equivalent to a bit more than half of the acreage under cultivation in Iowa.

According to Reuters, the price is right: $5.30 per acre, vs. a going rate of as much as $8,800 per acre in Brazil. Understandably, Brazilian farmers are jumping at the offer.

Why the dirt-cheap offer? The Mozambique government is looking for farming expertise. The farmers the governemnt is courting operate in Brazil's Cerrado region, a vast, scrubby savanna with unpromising, acidic soil. They operate on the frontier of industrial agriculture: In just 30 years, they have turned what was once considered an agricultural wasteland into one of the globe's most productive sources of corn, cotton, and, most prominently, soy. The land on offer in Mozambique (like Brazil, a former Portuguese colony) is similar to that of the Cerrado.

So Brazil's industrial-ag frontier has jumped the Atlantic and is about to take root in Africa. To grasp the significance of this development, it's important to understand the place Brazil's Cerrado has come to occupy in the global industrial-agriculture chain.

Methyl Iodide: A Nasty Pesticide Explained

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 3:56 PM EDT
Nasty stuff: methyl iodide applied to a California farm field.

Pesticides usually do their bug killing away from public view. But one such poison, a fumigant called methyl iodide, has been making headlines.

Activists have been staging elaborate protests outside the San Francisco offices of its maker, Arysta Lifescience, Grist reports. And newly released documents reveal, shall we say, irregularities in the process of its recent approval by the state of California, writes Mother Jones' own Jen Quraishi.

What gives? Labor Day is a good time to ponder that question, because methyl iodide poses a clear menace to farmworkers, especially those who tend California's vast strawberry fields.

According to Pesticide Action Network, exposure to the stuff "causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it's used to create cancer cells in laboratories." Since it is applied to soil before plants even go into the ground, it poses little risk to consumers of strawberries. But for the farmworkers who apply it and the people who live near treated fields, it's a different story, because of its "tendency to drift off site through the air," the group warns.