Tom Philpott - January 2012

Peak Maple: Climate Change Wants to Ruin Your Pancakes

| Sun Jan. 8, 2012 4:00 AM PST

For many of us, climate change is an abstract topic, as tedious as a droning Al Gore lecture complete with wonky charts.

But not if you're a maple farmer in New England. The region has long provided a robust ecological niche for maple trees. But just a few decades of steadily warming weather has changed all that. Once-flourishing trees are shedding leaves too early in the season and producing sub-par sap.

Maple syrup—dark, minerally, its sweetness cut by a caramel edge—surely ranks among the great traditional foods on planet Earth. Climate change means we can no longer take it for granted. If current trends continue, maple syrup production could well be an historical memory by 2100.

In this video, Climate Desk's James West profiles Martha Carlson, a 65-five-year-old maple farmer, retired teacher, and citizen-scientist who is documenting and publicizing the declining state of maple trees in New Hampshire. "We need lots of citizens to observe nature," Carlson says at one point. I bet if we all opened our eyes like Carlson has, we'd find that climate change is affecting our own landscapes, too. And then maybe we'd be able to motivate our political class to actually do something about climate change.

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FDA Takes a Baby Step on Factory Farm Antibiotics

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 4:37 PM PST

For a few months now, President Obama's FDA has been showing zero appetite for standing up to the meat industry on factory-farm livestock use. In two key decisions (here and here), the agency declined to impose real restrictions on farm drug use, promoting a "voluntary" approach instead.

But today, the FDA abruptly canned the lapdog shtick and growled like a real watchdog: It banned certain uses of the cephalosporin family of antibiotics. The FDA declared in a press release:

Cephalosporins are commonly used in humans to treat pneumonia as well as to treat skin and soft tissue infections. In addition, they are used in the treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease, diabetic foot infections, and urinary tract infections. If cephalosporins are not effective in treating these diseases, doctors may have to use drugs that are not as effective or that have greater side effects.  

Citing concern that routine use on factory farms will push pathogens to develop resistance to these antibiotics, the FDA has banned certain uses of them. Now before I show just how limited this move is in the grand scheme, I have to stress its historical significance. For 34 years, the agency has been wringing its hands over the dangers of farm antibiotic abuse, all the while doing precisely nothing about it (save for appointing committees and issuing polite requests for "judicious" use). Now it's actually regulating. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farms, which advocates a ban on routine antibiotic use, praised the move Wednesday as an "important first step" in addressing the problem.

But make no mistake: This is just a first step, and nothing more. It turns out that cephalosporins make up a tiny—and shrinking—percentage of the antibiotics used in factory farms. This 2010 post from Ralph Loglisci Ralph Loglisci, Center for a Liveable FutureGraphic: Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future (h/t Helena Bottemiller) offers the chart to the right listing the amounts of various antibiotic families used on factory farms in 2009.

Note that these operations used 91,113 pounds of cephalosporins—an amount that literally rounds to zero compared to the whopping total of 28.8 million pounds they burn through. By comparison, they consumed more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline, also an extremely important drug for humans.

Now check out the FDA's 2010 numbers (the latest that have been released) on livestock antibiotic use. The following chart compares 2009 and 2010 FDA data.

Note that the industry's already-modest use of cephalosporin plunged 41 percent between 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, overall antibiotic use held steady (rising 1 percent), tetracycline use jumped 21 percent, and consumption of penicillin—another important medicine you may have heard of—soared 43 percent to 1.9 million pounds.

Precisely why the industry is ramping up use of these two particular drugs is something I'll be investigating. At first glance, what I'm getting from these numbers is that the FDA has courageously restricted the use of a drug the industry barely uses and is already phasing out, and it is cravenly looking the other way as the industry increasingly leans on other antibiotics as a crutch to prop up a reckless production system. Indeed, as Wired's excellent Maryn McKenna points out, penicillin and tetracycline are in the very antibiotic families the FDA recently decided not to regulate.

We'll know whether the agency is changing its ways if, in the coming year, it follows Wednesday's ban with ones on drugs the industry is actually abusing. If not, then what we just heard from the FDA isn't much more than the growl of a toothless watchdog.

Taste Test: Pricey Winter Tomatoes From Whole Foods

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 5:00 AM PST
Organic winter tomatoes at Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin.

Responding to this great New York Times article on large-scale organic farming on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I alluded yesterday to the "stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes" now gracing the produce aisles of upscale supermarkets. The Times piece raised some important questions about the ecological impact of large-scale organic tomato production in Baja.

That very same evening, I found myself in what must be one of the most upscale supermarkets on the planet—the flagship Whole Foods in the company's (and my) hometown of Austin. (I'm here for the week visiting family.) And in that cavernous circus of high-end food, I did indeed find a large display featuring several varieties of organic tomatoes from Mexico. But here's the thing: they didn't look very pristine to me. Not unlike the non-organic winter tomatoes found in supermarkets throughout the land, their red hue looked sort of pale. And when I handled them, they didn't seem particularly ripe.

Now, I revere tomatoes. Maverick Farms, the North Carolina operation I help run, grows several varieties, some open-pollinated from old seed lines (i.e., heirloom), some hybrid. Our August-September tomato season is sacred to me, as are the jars of them we put up for the rest of the year. But when they're out of season and not in a jar, tomatoes are dead to me. If I hadn't written about organic winter tomatoes from Mexico that very day, Whole Foods' mediocre-looking display would not have caught my eye at all.

And while Whole Foods' offerings didn't look much different from normal supermarket tomatoes, their price tag did capture my attention. Big beefsteaks and medium-sized greenhouse-grown orbs both went for $4 per pound; "vine-ripened" numbers (with vines still attached) went for an eye-popping $6 per pound.

I decided to take home one of each and subject them to a taste test. Were the tomatoes worth their lofty price? Were they worth the environmental impact they exact on their growing region?

Organic Tomatoes in January: Sucking Mexico Dry

| Mon Jan. 2, 2012 2:18 PM PST

Walk into a fancy grocery store today and you'll see them: stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes. But what does it take to generate a bounty of organic tomatoes in January?

According to a great New York Times story by Elizabeth Rosenthal, the bulk of organic tomatoes now gracing the produce aisles of US supermarkets hail from Mexico's Baja Peninsula—a desert. Rosenthal reports that Baja's production of US-bound organic tomatoes has expanded dramatically in recent years. And growing large monocrops in a desert, organic or not, requires lots and lots of water. Here's Rosenthal:

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops.

That's a pretty brutal tradeoff: A luxury product for export—fresh winter tomatoes—squeezes out people who are trying to feed themselves from their own land. And lest anyone argue that the arrangement is somehow building wealth and pulling people out of poverty in this part of Mexico, Rosenthal notes that the going wage for working in these mercilessly hot fields is $10 per day—twice the local minimum wage, but not enough to pull anyone out of poverty and certainly not sufficient compensation for drawing down the water table and snuffing out other forms of agriculture.