Tom Philpott - November 2011

There's Arsenic in Your Kids' Apple Juice

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 3:08 PM EST

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Burt Lancaster hisses at Tony Curtis in the classic '50s film Sweet Smell of Success. "You're a cookie full of arsenic." The line resonates to this day, because it's jarring to picture something as comforting and innocuous as a cookie being laced with a notorious poison.

And that's precisely what Consumer Reports forces us to do with its just-released story on apple and grape juice—you know, the stuff millions of people feed to their kids every day, sometimes several times a day, in those little boxes. And as with the confection in Lancaster's insult, the poison in question is arsenic.

The FDA currently does not regulate arsenic levels in fruit juices, CR reports. But for bottled and tap water, the agency enforces a standard of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

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Should Fair Trade Certify Giants Like Nestle and Folgers?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:37 PM EST

Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times' William Neuman published an interesting piece on an emerging rift within the US fair-trade community.

Fair Trade USA, the main US fair-trade certifying entity, has announced plans to essentially lower its standards in the new year, Neuman reports. The group announced it would sever ties with Fairtrade International, "which coordinates fair trade marketing activities in close to two dozen countries," Neuman writes. And large coffee plantations will be eligible for certification—before, only small cooperatives could receive the seal—as will "products with as little as 10 percent fair trade ingredients, compared with a minimum of 20 percent required in other countries."

The plans have enraged the people behind Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a stalwart purveyor of fair-trade products. "It's a betrayal," Equal Exchange president Rink Dickinson told Neuman. "They've lost their integrity."

Fair Trade USA, of course, defended the changes. Here's Neuman:

Paul Rice, chief executive of Fair Trade USA, said the fair trade movement was dominated by hard-liners who resisted needed changes. "We're all debating what do we want fair trade to be as it grows up," Mr. Rice said. "Do we want it to be small and pure or do we want it to be fair trade for all?"

He dismissed criticism that his group was seeking to increase revenue for its own sake. "The more we grow volume, the more we can increase the impact" of fair trade, he said.

Who's right? To think it through, it helps to remember why fair trade exists in the first place. The idea behind the movement is pretty simple: International trade in tropical commodities like coffee, chocolate, and bananas may sound like a great deal for workers and small producers in the Global South, but it really isn't.

Study: Common Herbicide Causes Menstrual Trouble

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Yet again, scientists have looked at populations routinely exposed to the widely used herbicide atrazine and found trouble.

The latest: In a study published by Envionmental Research (summarized here), researchers found evidence that atrazine could be causing menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels in women, even when it appears in drinking water at levels far below the EPA's limit of 3 parts per billion.

The study showed that women in ag-intensive areas of Illinois, where atrazine has been shown to leach into drinking water from farm fields, were significantly more likely to experience menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels than women in ag-intensive areas of Vermont, where atrazine use is much lower.

The Vermont/Illinois paper comes on the heels of an analysis of the Agricultural Health Study—an ongoing look at people who regularly apply pesticides and their spouses—that found similar trends among women exposed to atrazine, as well as a 2009 study finding that atrazine levels in drinking water tracked with low-weight birth incidences in Indiana.

LEAKED: Secret Sara Lee Marketing Memo

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 6:30 AM EST

I write a lot about the meat industry from the outside looking in. So I was delighted when an inside look at the industry fell into my hands: a real-life meat industry image makeover plan.

A source who wishes to remain anonymous gave me printouts from an internal presentation delivered by an official from Sara Lee. The company is best known for its sickly-sweet pies and cakes, but it has emerged as a major player in the packaged-meats market, with a brand list that includes Ball Park franks, Jimmy Dean sausages, and Hillshire Farm deli meats. (Well, it's called Hillshire Farm for the time being anyway—as you'll see below, that may subtly change soon.) Sara Lee has announced plans to split into two parts, one of them focused solely on packaged meat company (a "pure play" meat company, in Wall Street jargon). The plan I received highlights marketing ideas for the emerging meat company.

Below are some highlights. Warning: We are about to enter the strange arena of marketing, where fictional worlds are conjured up out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of moving goods.

From what I can tell, the intention expressed here is to brush up the image of Hillshire Farm and roll out two new premium brands: "Smith & Smith Fine Meats" and "Flat Iron Ranch." The campaign is "foundational," the one slide declares, "and demonstrates how the new, purposeful Sara Lee will manifest: Modern. Authentic. Simple."

From there, we get the new plan for Hillshire Farm(s):

 

So, this "small network of farms" isn't so much about actually supplying the company, but more about projecting "aspirations." Then we get a slide featuring the logo:

 

 

Note those dangling peppercorns ripening on the vine. Those will be a key aspect of the new Hillshire Farms brand—particularly, the roast-turkey product.

 

 

 

And in that image, we find my favorite line in the whole presentation: "Give it up for pepper!" Black pepper isn't the only non-meat ingredient to take a star turn in this plan. Check out what gets highlighted in the ham product:

 

 

Good job indeed, bees! Though I have to wonder if our friends in Sara Lee's marketing department have been reading about all the dodgy Chinese honey that's been gushing into the United States as our own bee populations decline. Generally, I find it interesting that the plan isn't to herald any claims about the meat or where it comes from, but rather to focus meaninglessly on flavoring agents like honey and pepper.

 

From there, after a boring slide on the roast beef product—"sprinkled with salt, pepper, and herbs and roasted oh-so-slowly"—the presentation moves on to a summary of the Hillshire Farms strategy:

 

 

So Hillshire Farms is the everyday brand. The presentation then pivots to the upstart high-end brands, Smith & Smith Fine Meats and Flat Iron Ranch:

 

 

 

I should note that I did reach out to the Sara Lee press office to give the company a chance to comment on the document. Officials there confirmed that the presentation was a draft of a marketing plan for the meat division's 2012 launch as a stand-alone company. They emphasized that the effort was a "work in progress," and that what I had gotten hold of was already "way out of date." That wouldn't tell me anything else, except that all questions about the meat arm of Sara Lee would be answered at the company's March 2012 launch presentation for Wall Street analysts—to which they graciously invited me. And maybe I'll even take them up on it.

Draft or not, what we're seeing here is marketing professionals straining to put lipstick, so to speak, on a pig: to swath an industry built on abuse in the gauzy platitudes of sustainability, rarefied taste, and agrarianism.

A recently released, agribusiness-funded marketing study (PDF) put the challenge like this:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by more effectively demonstrating our commitment to the values and priorities of consumers.

 

A Peek Inside Our Farm

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 9:00 PM EST

My boss: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonBoss lady: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonAs some of you may know, when I'm not scribbling away for Mother Jones, I help run a small farm and grassroots project in Valle Crucis, a small community in the Appalachian mountains just outside of Boone, North Carolina.

You may be wondering what precisely the hell is Maverick Farms and what my role is there. Mainly, these days, I'm sort of the farm mule. I tend to our flock of 40 laying hens—let them out of their house in the morning, keep them fed and watered, etc. I do heavy lifting jobs, like moving vast piles of compost from one end of the field to the other in a wheel barrow. I help set up irrigation pipes when the rains don't come; things like that.

I also earn my keep in the kitchen, cooking most lunches and dinners during the growing season for a farm crew ranging in size from three to seven or eight, depending on what's going on—a task which provides the fodder for my Tom's Kitchen column.

But now that I'm so busy writing, I'm no longer involved full-time in farm operations. Like so much of the broader sustainable food movement, Maverick is pushed forward these days by a young woman: Hillary Wilson, 27, the daughter of the couple who started the farm in the early '70s and the younger sister of my girlfriend, Alice Brooke Wilson. The three of us took over the farm in 2004, along with our friends Sara Safransky and Leo Gaev, and the project has evolved considerably over that time.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.

Hillary grew up here and started working on the farm with her father Bill when she was 17—and from the start, she was the most experienced farmer among us, despite being the youngest by a decade. Hillary now oversees not only a 3-acre vegetable farm, but also the crazy projects I'll get to below. I'm kind of her consigliere these days; she's the boss.

When we first launched, we knew we never wanted to be a niche operation selling to the high-end country club and resort restaurants that dot the area, which is a magnet for vacation homes for people who live in the hotter regions to the south and east. The idea of growing for a small elite while most people who live here year-round rely on fast-food chains and multinational grocery giants for food never appealed to us. We wanted to work on the ground to build an alternative food system that works for everyone.

So from day one, we saw the farm as a laboratory for finding solutions to what I see is the main riddle facing the sustainable food movement: how to expand access to healthy food in a way that works for farmers. The laboratory has had its share of spectacular near misses, like the major effort our first several years to transform the farmhouse into a restaurant one weekend each month. It was fun to play chef and come up with elaborate menus, but we realized that unless we were willing to charge exclusive prices, the dinners took up too much time to justify the money they brought in.

Alice Brooke Wilson and I, hoeing the corn. Alice Brooke Wilson and me, in the early-season corn patch. Over the years, we've concluded that the task of creating an accessible alternative food system is really about community building—about working with other farmers and with the broader community to create new economic models. In 2009, after four years of running a small CSA on our own, we launched High Country CSA, a multi-farm year-round CSA project designed to help stabilize the market for locally produced food and take advantage of our region's particular mountainous geography.

In the three counties that surround us, elevations range from 1000 feet to 3500 feet above sea level (we're at about 2800 feet). As a result, the area has a stunning diversity of microclimates, long winters, and mostly small farms (in the 1-3 acre range). The multi-farm CSA model gives our community a robust institution that delivers a variety of high-quality food even under challenging growing conditions.

And it's not just for people who can afford a big upfront payment for the season's produce. We invite people to pay for their shares in installments throughout the season, and in 2010, after a slog through the USDA's byzantine bureaucracy, we became one of the few multi-farm CSAs in the nation that can accept SNAP/EBT payments (ie, food stamps). As far as we have been able to find out, we are the only rural multi-farm CSA that takes EBT—although we would love to find out otherwise.

With the multi-farm CSA up and running, we're embarking on our next project: a farm incubator program, in collaboration with Appalachian State University, which has vacated a 13-acre educational farm a couple miles away. In our community, as in most of the nation, the only way we're going to create a food system that makes sense is to get more smart young people on the land. Hence, what we're calling FIG—the Farm Incubator and Grower Program.

The new incubator will create an "agricultural commons" to give landless farmers access to land and equipment to start new farm businesses, and will help link them to affordable land once they're ready. Hillary is a natural to lead the incubator—she's been teaching novices how to farm since I showed up here nearly eight years ago, when my entire growing experience involved a rather weedy eight-square-foot community-garden bed in Brooklyn. She's also worked closely with the dozens of young interns who have moved through Maverick over the years, eager to get experience working the land.

Kaitlin Melven, 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. Kaitlin Melvin, the other 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. 

So that's pretty much what we're up to here at Maverick Farms—that and eating well. For Thanksgiving, one of our star former interns, Hana Crouch, is coming over to cook a turkey that she raised and slaughtered (and that I have requested that she dry-brine). I'll be making those side dishes I wrote about a few days ago, along with a classic apple pie. We'll have some friends and family over, and we'll cook and laugh and drink and enjoy this most unlikely holidays in our fast-food nation: a day to celebrate food, the land it came from, and the people who grew it.

Did BP Oil Make Shrimp Lose Their Eyes?

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 4:51 PM EST

Little more than a year after BP oil disaster, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is "as safe to eat as it was before the oil spill," the FDA insists on its website.

But along the Gulf itself, questions linger within the very fishing communities that rely on the Gulf's bounty both for sustenance and a living, as this CNN report shows (video below). For one thing, shrimp populations have plunged. The New York Times reported last month that Gulf fisherperople were complaining of the worst white-shrimp season in 50 years, with yields 80 percent lower than normal.

Several fisherman and processors make similar complaints in the CNN piece, and admit that they feel less safe eating shrimp now than they did before the spill. One makes an even more startling claim (see 2:47 mark of the video): "fisherman are bringing in shrimp without any eyes … they evidently have lost their eyes and they're still alive."

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Your Tax Dollars Help Cargill Export Factory Meat

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 8:03 AM EST
Pigs stuffed together in a factory farm—or agribiz giants lined up at the government trough?

The US Meat Export Federation has a straightforward mission: to open foreign markets to the output of our vast factory animal farms. The group represents all major players in the US industrial meat machine: the dominant meatpackers (Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS); the big farm interests that grow their feed (American Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association); and the agrichemical giants that supply corn farmers with inputs (Monsanto and Dupont).  

Now, I deplore the US meat industry for all of its many abuses, but I'm not shocked that it has formed an interest group to push its suspect products on overseas markets. But this? It's nuts. Under a USDA initiative called the Market Access Program, US taxpayers will be cutting a check to the US Meat Export Federation for $19.7 million in fiscal 2012.

Tom's Kitchen: 2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Thanksgiving is upon us; that means it's time to spend hours in the kitchen grinding through really, really elaborate recipes.

Or not. Our national feast day is a time to enjoy food with a large table of friends and family. And for me, enjoying cooking for a crowd means keeping everything simple and low-key—leaving plenty of time to relax, hang out, and enjoy adult beverages. (Or, if you want to go dysfunctional-family-traditional, plenty of time to plunge into a snarling family meltdown … and enjoy adult beverages.)

But staying simple doesn't mean sacrificing flavor. What I advise is to focus on getting the best ingredients you can find—and farmers markets will be brimming with great stuff this time of year—and let them speak for themselves, with just a little tweak to push them over the edge.

Freakonomics Blog: Still Wrong on Local Food

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 5:27 PM EST
Greens grow in a heavily irrigated California field.

When we last checked in with him, Freakonomics blogger Steven Sexton was ludicrously blaming the "local food movement" for a listeria outbreak that sickened people over a swath of the nation stretching from New York to Alabama to Oregon.

Now Sexton is back with an even broader indictment of local food. This one starts off on shaky ground, and then plunges into an abyss of self-assured and deeply flawed analysis. Honestly, I would not spend time engaging with it if I didn't know that serious people, some of whom wield real political power, automatically regard the Freakonomics brand with credulity. So here goes.

Yet Again, Organic Ag Proves Just as Productive as Chemical Ag

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Back in 2000, an interviewer asked Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution" of industrial farming that swept through Asia in the 1970s, what he thought of the idea that organic agriculture could feed the world. The Nobel laureate became apoplectic:

That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

The great man's derision has clung to chemical-free farming ever since in elite policy circles.  USDA chief Tom Vilsack occasionally pays lip service to organic farmers, but when he addresses the hard question of how to "feed the world," he reliably toes the Borlaug line.

And yet, Borlaug was evidently wrong. It turns out, when you actually compare chemical-intensive and organic farming in the field, organic proves just as productive in terms of gross yield—and brings many other advantages to the table as well. The Rodale Institute's test plots in Pennsylvania have been demonstrating this point for years.

And now comes evidence from the very heart of Big Ag: rural Iowa, where Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture runs the Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR), which began in 1998, which has just released its latest results.

At the LTAR fields in Adair County, the (LTAR) runs four fields: one managed with the Midwest-standard two-year corn-soy rotation featuring the full range of agrochemicals; and the other ones organically managed with three different crop-rotation systems. The chart below records the yield averages of all the systems, comparing them to the average yields achieved by actual conventional growers in Adair County:


Chaets: Leopold CenterCharts: Leopold Center

So, in yield terms, both of the organic rotations featuring corn beat the Adair County average and came close to the conventional patch. Two of the three organic rotations featuring soybeans beat both the county average and the conventional patch; and both of the organic rotations featuring oats trounced the county average. In short, Borlaug's claim of huge yield advantages for the chemical-intensive agriculture he championed just don't pan out in the field.

And in terms of economic returns to farmers—market price for crops minus costs—the contest isn't even close. Organic crops draw a higher price in the market and don't require expenditures for pricy inputs like synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.

Moreover, organic management improved soil's ability to retain nutrients. "Total nitrogen increased by 33 percent in the organic system," Leopold reports, and "researchers measured higher concentrations of carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium in the organic soils.

So if organic farming offers equivalent yields, a dramatically higher economic return, and better long-term soil health, why aren't more farmers switching over?

The last line of the Leopold Center's report offers a clue: "Skilled management is an adequate replacement for synthetic chemicals." Look at it like this: In the Corn Belt, technology and monocropping have reduced farming to a relatively simple endeavor. You douse your fields in synthetic and mined fertilizers and plant them in in corn one year, soy the next. When the inevitable plague of pests arrives—weeds and bugs love monocrops—you attack them with an arsenal of poisons. Then, you harvest and sell to vast multinational companies—Cargill and ADM—with the built infrastructure on the ground to make the transaction easy.

Farmers are understandably reluctant to switch away from that paint-by-the-numbers style. To make organic farming work, you have to stay ahead of the weeds and bugs by rotating in more crops than just corn and soy. And weed management requires other strategies just driving a chemical tank through the field or hiring a crop-duster: planting cover crops, tilling at just the right time, mulching.  And selling, say, oats or alfalfa is trickier, because the infrastructure for marketing them has largely been dismantled over the past 50 years.

But that doesn't mean that organic farming is impractical, as Borlaug insisted. It just means that we need to move public policy away from blind support for industrial agriculture (no easy trick), and learn to support the hordes of young people seeking careers in high-skilled, eco-minded farming.