Tom Philpott - October 2011

Why Freakonomics Is Wrong About Cantaloupes

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:55 PM EDT

Federal investigators have traced the source of listeria-tainted cantaloupes, which have killed 25 people and sickened 123, to a single farm in Colorado.

Holly, Colorado-based Jensen Farms grows, packs, and ships 480 acres of cantaloupes. This year, it produced 300,000 cases of the fruit, which went out to—and sickened people in—26 states. In addition to cantaloupes, it also grows two subsidized commodity crops, wheat and corn, for which it drew $66,000 in federal direct payments in 2010.

And like many operations trying to hustle loads of product out the door as quickly and cheaply as possible, Jensen appears to have cut corners. FDA investigators (report here) turned up no evidence of listeria in the field, but plenty of it in Jensen's packing house, where they found deplorable conditions: standing water on the ground contaminated with the same strain of listeria that ended up in the offending cantaloupes, as well as filthy packing equipment also contaminated with listeria. Then there's this:

Another potential means for introduction of Listeria monocytogenes contamination into the packing facility was a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation. This truck traveled to and from a cattle operation and was parked adjacent to the packing facility where contamination may have been tracked via personnel or equipment, or through other means into the packing facility.


Advertise on MotherJones.com

'Superweeds' Revive an Old, Highly Toxic Herbicide

| Wed Oct. 19, 2011 4:57 PM EDT

Ecologists call it the "pesticide treadmill": pests like weeds and bugs evolve to resist the poisons designed to destroy them, forcing farmers to apply ever-higher doses or resort to novel poisons.

But Monsanto's empire of Roundup Ready crops—designed to resist lashings of its own herbicide, Roundup—appears on the verge of sending the pesticide treadmill into reverse. As Roundup loses effectiveness, swamped by a galloping plague of resistant superweeds, farmers have already played the card of dramatically boosting Roundup application rates.

Now they're being urged to resort to an herbicide called 2,4-D that first hit farm fields in 1948, and that made up half of the formula for Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant applied to disastrous effect in the Vietnam War. Reports Southeast Farm Press:

2,4-D is coming back. What many might consider a “dinosaur” may be the best solution for growers fighting weed resistance today, said Dean Riechers, University of Illinois associate professor of weed physiology.

To be fair, 2, 4-D made up the less toxic half of the Agent Orange formula, according to this Beyond Pesticides report (PDF) on it. The other half, known as 2,4,5-T, carried most of the dioxin contamination that made Agent Orange such a nightmare for everyone exposed to it in Vietnam.

Is the FDA Overhyping the Safety of Gulf Seafood?

| Wed Oct. 19, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

Is Gulf seafood safe to eat in the wake of BP's massive oil spill last year? Absolutely, insists the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the safety of the food supply.

But a recent study from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) scientists casts serious doubt on that claim. A peer-reviewed article soon to be published in Environmental Health Perspectives (abstract here), concludes that the FDA's methods for gauging safety of Gulf seafood "significantly underestimate risk from seafood contaminants."

To assess risk of eating seafood that has been exposed to oil, the agency establishes a "level of concern"—the threshold above which contaminants pose unacceptable risks for seafood consumers—for a variety of oil-related substances. According to the NRDC team, the FDA is using outdated science to set those levels way too high—and as a result, the agency is promoting the consumption of seafood that in reality poses serious risk to consumers, particularly pregnant women and children.

Four Reasons for Foodies to Occupy Wall Street

| Tue Oct. 18, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

For my regular readers who may have missed it, I had a longer piece on this website's "Environment" channel laying out four main reasons that the Occupy Wall Street protests should focus on Big Food as much as Big Finance. It generated a fair amount of buzz last week, landing on the front pages of both Reddit and MetaFilter. Check it out.

Matt Yglesias Just Doesn't Get the Farm Lobby

| Wed Oct. 12, 2011 7:00 PM EDT

Mulling the Occupy Wall Street protests, political blogger Matt Yglesias poses the question, "Do 'Large' Corporations Have Disproportionate Political Clout?" His answer? Not really:

I actually think it may be an analytic mistake to believe that the political system is disproportionately influenced by large businesses. To be more precise, while clearly a big business is going to have more influence than a small business, my view is that if you look at it systematically, the political system is somewhat biased in favor of small firms as a class. That’s because the U.S. political system is pretty geographically dispersed. So the sectors that have the most power are sectors that are large, but fragmented.

To bolster his case, Yglesias points to farm policy.

Agriculture has a lot of political clout in part because rural states are overrepresented, but also in part because there are farms all over the place. New York and California aren't "farm states" by any means, but they contain plenty of farms and farmers.

I'm not really qualified to assess Yglesias' broader claim, though I would point out that we've seen the highly consolidated health-insurance and pharma lobbies essentially write the healthcare reform law. We've seen the highly consolidated fossil fuel-lobby twist climate legislation into a bad joke (before the legislation ingloriously collapsed). And we've seen a highly consolidated banking industry skulk away from the (ongoing) economic disaster it caused, minting massive profits again. In those instances, at least, size mattered. 

Is China Rethinking its Embrace of US-Style Agriculture?

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 2:00 PM EDT
Factory-style hog farms in a Chinese valley.

Given China's vast and growing population and increasing appetite for meat, it's no surprise the nation's leaders have been scrambling for years to intensify food production along the US model.

Lately, however, the Chinese government appears to be questioning two key tenants of US industrial-ag dogma: 1) that daily low-level doses of antibiotics are necessary and desirable for livestock production, and 2) that genetically modified crops are safe to eat.

The first bit, from a brief recent report in the US ag trade journal WattAg.net has been generating lots of buzz in the sustainable-ag blog/listservosphere over the past couple of days:

China's Ministry of Agriculture has announced a forthcoming ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed.

The ban is supported by the academic community, which believes that without antibiotics in animal feed, the health of animals will be better promoted, microbes' resistance to antibiotics will be lowered and food will become safer to eat.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Meet The Child Workers Who Pick Your Food

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 3:21 PM EDT
Know your farmworker, know your food: Zulema Lopez, 12, left, with her her mother and sister.

Agriculture tends to cling to certain practices long after the rest of society has discarded them as morally repugnant.

You might think slavery ended after the Civil War, yet it exists to this day in Florida's tomato fields, as Barry Estabrook demonstrates in his brilliant book Tomatoland. Likewise, the practice of subjecting children to hard, hazardous, and low-paid labor seems like a discarded relic of Dickens' London or Gilded Age New York. But here in the United States, hundreds of thousands of kids are doing one of our most dangerous jobs: farm work. They toil under conditions so rough that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has seen fit two issue two damning reports (here and here) on the topic over the past decade.

In the second report, from May 2010, the group concluded: "Shockingly, we found that conditions for child farmworkers in the United States remain virtually as they were a decade ago." Which is to say, appalling. The kids who pick our crops are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides, their fatality rate is four times that of other working youth, and they are four times more likely to drop out than the average American kid—overall, HRW reports, just a third of farmworker kids finish high school.

Oddly, there's nothing illegal about their plight—most federal laws governing child labor don't apply to farms, according to HRW; the US government spends $26 million fighting abusive child labor in other countries, but has failed to bring the fight to America's fields.

The Harvest/La Cosecha, a new documentary directed by the veteran photographer and human rights advocate U. Roberto Romano, shines a bright light on this murky corner of the agribusiness universe. The film traces the lives of three teenagers and their families as they move across the US following the harvest, from Texas onion fields to Michigan apple groves and places in between.

Obama's Broken Promise on GMO Food Labeling

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Back in 2007, a presidential candidate named Barack Obama declared that foods that include ingredients from genetically modified crops should be labeled. As president, he vowed, he would strive to "let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying." (Check out the video from Food Democracy Now below.)

The ambitious senator from Illinois was no doubt sensing a popular cause. According to a 2010 poll (PDF) conducted by Reuters Thompson, more than 90 percent of Americans thought GMO-containing foods should be labeled.

As president, Obama has been silent on the issue, as has his FDA, which oversees food labeling. Meanwhile, Obama's USDA—which oversees farming practices—has been greenlighting GMO crops left and right, even while acknowledging that they generate herbicide-resistant weeds and other troubles.

But a vigorous grassroots pro-labeling movement has been gaining steam for a while, and this week, a coalition of sustainable-food NGOs and organic businesses has launched a campaign to "flood the FDA with comments so they know that the public wants labeling of GE [genetically engineered] foods."

Along with the public campaign, the group has also submitted a formal petition (PDF) to the FDA, which in the course of demanding labeling also lays out a blistering critique of the way agency regulates GMOs—which is to say, hardly at all.

Is Cooking Really Cheaper Than Fast Food?

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

You can walk into any McDonald's in America and buy a bounty of ready-to-eat calories for just a few bucks.  

But can you cook much better food for yourself for even cheaper? That's the message of Slow Food USA's ongoing $5 Challenge, and of a recent column by New York Times recipe wizard/food politics columnist Mark Bittman. Bittman's piece links to a handy infographic showing that the typical burgers-and-fries dinner for a family of four at McDonald's costs about $28, while a home-cooked chicken-and-potatoes meal for four would run you just $14.

I agree with the message that Slow Food and Bittman are sending here: that from-scratch cooking is absolutely the most powerful tool we have for improving our diets and resisting the food industry's most awful offerings. But I sense a significant accounting error: They omit the cost of labor for the home-cooked meal and include it in the fast-food alternative, which comes begging to be inhaled immediately, no postprandial dish-doing necessary.

The Times calculated the cost of its $14 chicken dinner by summing the price of the individual ingredients: a $6 raw whole chicken, $3 worth of potatoes, a nickel for salt and pepper, etc. But what about the time it takes to plan the dinner, shop for the ingredients, transform them into a meal, and then clean up the resulting mess?