Tom Philpott - May 2012

How California Could Force the Rest of the US to Label GMO Foods

| Thu May 31, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A sign at a pro-labeling rally in San Francisco in February.

In November, California voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would require labeling of all foods containing ingredients from genetically modified crops. The initiative made it to the ballot after almost 1 million Californians signed a petition in favor of it—nearly double the 504,760 signatures needed under the state's proposition rules. The campaign that organized the push to get the measure on the ballot focused on possible health effects of GMO foods.

This news will not likely be applauded by my friends over at Croplife America, the main trade group of the GM seed/agrichemical industry. The big GMO crops—corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton—are processed into sweeteners, fats, and additives used widely by the food industry. Everything from high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Coke to soybean oil-containing Hellman's mayo would have to bear a label reading something like "Contains GMO ingredients."

That would send a shockwave through the food industry—one that could ultimately be felt on the industrial-scale US farms that have been devoting their land to GMO crops for years, and the companies that profit from selling them patented seeds and matching herbicides. The reason isn't just that California represents an imposing chunk of the US food market. It's also that a food-labeling law that starts in California is unlikely to stay in California.

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Can BPA Make You Fat?

| Wed May 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

The food industry likes to portray obesity as a matter of personal responsibility: People who eat too much gain weight, and it's their own fault.

That view willfully neglects the role that industry marketing, particularly to children, plays on shaping people's food habits. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that exposure to certain industrial chemicals in food, often at very low levels, changes the way people metabolize calories and can lead to weight gain. While no one would say that these chemicals, known as obesogens, are the sole cause of rising rates of obesity in the United States, they may well be contributing significantly to it.

On Aid, Obama Sells Out Poor Countries to Big Ag

| Fri May 25, 2012 4:29 AM EDT
Table talk: Obama and other G-8 leaders dine at last week's Camp David summit.

"More than one in four Africans—close to 218 million people—is undernourished," the UN Development Program declared in a recent report. With food prices gyrating upward in recent years, the situation has reached a crisis. What's the answer?

According to President Obama and his fellow heads of state in the G-8 (United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, and Russia), the solution lies in the private sector. At last weekend's G-8 summit at Camp David, the group launched "The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition," described as a "commitment by G-8 nations, African countries and private sector partners to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through inclusive and sustained agricultural growth."

The "private-sector partners" in the alliance have pledged $3 billion in new investments in African ag over the next decade. And what are the companies that President Obama and his G-8 peers have tapped to lift Africa out of hunger? Their number (list here) turns out to include global agribiz giants Cargill, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Yara, and junk-food behemoths Unilever, Kraft, Hershey's, and Mars.

What Do the World's Most Powerful Pesticide Honchos Eat for Dinner?

| Wed May 23, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

I've made a career of sorts writing about the "big six" agrichemical companies—Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, and BASF—that produce the great bulk of the world's pesticides and, increasingly, seeds. But last week, I did something different. Rather than investigate and critique these companies in print, I broke bread with some of their executives. And then, in a public forum live-cast on the internet from DC's Newseum, I told them bluntly what I thought of their industry.

They seemed a bit stunned by the spectacle, rapt in attention but increasingly silent as my critique went on. From my perspective, I was looking into a sea of dark suits, red ties, and wide eyes, with only the stray vigorous shake of the head to register open dissent from my critique.

Obama's Plan to Stick It to Poultry Workers

| Mon May 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Poultry workers already have to work perilously fast—and now the USDA wants them to speed it up.

As I reported a while back, the USDA is pushing a new regime for industrial-scale poultry slaughterhouses: The agency wants to fire its own inspectors and let the poultry companies oversee their own kill lines. And that's not all. The proposed new rules would allow the companies dramatically speed up  those company-inspected kill lines.

In my previous post, I focused on the food-safety implications of the new rules. I pointed to this Food & Water Watch report, which analyzed the USDA's own data on pilot programs testing the new rules, obtained under the Open Record Act. FWW found that in plants that had participated in the pilot program for the new rules, company-paid inspectors had done a less-than-stellar job at picking out feces-contaminated birds whizzing past at rates of up to 200 birds per minute, or 3 per second.

But what's even more egregious is the human cost to the people working with their hands on those kill lines. As Mother Jones co-editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery put it (citing Webster's) in their piece on the economy-wide trend toward workplace acceleration, speedups are all about "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay." But poultry workers stand to get more than just a wage squeeze from this particular government-proposed speedup. Celeste Monforton of the occupational-health blog The Pump Handle points to this "action alert" released by the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group for US Latinos, urging the USDA not to put the new rules in place. As the NCLR appeal shows, line workers are subject to all manner of repetitive-motion injuries at current rates—a situation that would only be worsened by the USDA's plan.

A massive body of research bears that claim out. Monforton points to no fewer than 10 studies—"here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here"—showing that poultry line workers already suffer from conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome at rates significantly higher than those of the general population. Repetitive-motion ailments like carpal tunnel might sound relatively minor, but they can be crippling—and the big poultry processors scramble to avoid responsibility for them. Anyone who doubts this hasn't read the Charlotte Observer's superb, award-winning 2008 series "The Cruelest Cuts."

The journalist Gabriel Thompson, who spent a year working alongside undocumented Latinos for his book Working in the Shadows, recently described his time as a poultry worker in The Nation:

I was soon tearing through more than 7,000 chicken breasts each night (I worked the graveyard shift), while nearby workers sliced up countless birds with knives and scissors. The massive plant was capable of killing and processing nearly 1.5 million birds a week, and the pace was as relentless as such numbers suggest. We often didn't even have time to wipe bits of chicken flesh from our faces, and I took to popping ibuprofen during breaks to quell the swelling in my hands. (Pilgrim's Pride, the poultry giant that owned the plant, was nice enough to line one wall of the break room with dispensers filled with painkillers; it wasn’t nice enough, however, to provide them free of charge.)

If anything, government regulators should be intervening to improve such harsh conditions. Why is the USDA proposing to make them even harsher? The agency laid out its rationale in its Federal Register notice announcing the new proposal back in January: "This proposed rule is a result of the Agency's 2011 regulatory review efforts conducted under Executive Order 13563 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review."

90 Percent of Corn Seeds Are Coated With Bayer's Bee-Decimating Pesticide

| Wed May 16, 2012 7:00 AM EDT

I'm doing something very odd this week: speaking at the annual conference of Croplife America, the main trade group for the US agrichemical industry. Croplife members include Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta, all massive multinational companies I write about regularly and witheringly. I am astonished that Croplife wants to hear what I have to say—what I think of the group's member companies and their products is a matter of public record—and am curious to hear what they have to say to me.

As I prepared for the conference, a few interesting news items on the industry crossed my desk.

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Why Seafood Guides Alone Can't Save the Troubled Seas

| Wed May 16, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A fishmonger's wares in Philadelphia's 9th Street Italian Market

Over on The Daily Beast, the marine biologist Callum Roberts has a good essay (excerpted from his new book) on a topic that doesn't get nearly enough attention: the declining state of the oceans.

According to Roberts, "with an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before." Today, he adds, "in most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet."

Roberts touches on the familiar villain of overfishing and gives the standard (and relevant) advice that consumers should strive to "eat low in the food web, so favor smaller fish like anchovies, herring, and sardines over big predators like Chilean sea bass, swordfish, and large tunas (you will be doing yourself a favor, as these predators also concentrate more toxins)."

But he makes an even more important point that I fear often gets lost amid the fishery labels and the "avoid" and "recommended" lists (as important as those things are): The oceans represent contain highly complex ecosystems that are intimately related to their terrestrial counterparts in ways that transcend fishing trends. Overfishing is "only one small piece in a much larger puzzle of interacting impacts," Roberts writes. To put it in another way, consumer choices about which sea creatures to devour and which to shun, while important, only exert so much influence over the fate of the oceans.

Tom's Kitchen: Halibut With Garlic and Bay Leaves

| Wed May 16, 2012 4:59 AM EDT

Tom's Kitchen has evolved into a kind of rough diary of my culinary life, reflecting what I'm up to and where I am. So when I'm cooking for the Maverick Farms crew in North Carolina, it typically features food that can easily be served up for a crowd. When I'm in Austin helping out my mother, as I am now, fast dishes for two. Currently, I'm reading through the UK chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's excellent new River Cottage Fish Book (written with Nick Fisher) for a review, so I'm playing around with something I don't normally cook much of from my inland perches: fresh fish.

Not that I have anything against fish. In fact, I adore it. It's just that I usually try to stick to what the surrounding foodshed has to offer, and there just isn't much oceanfront in the depths of North Carolina's western mountains or the central Texas scrublands. When I do use fish, I typically turn to canned sardines, which need no refrigeration and can be stacked efficiently, and thus have a tiny carbon footprint compared to fresh fish.

But to dig into a cookbook for a review—especially one as devoted to conscientious eating as all of Fearnley-Whittingstall's are—I'm willing seek out some good fish from far-flung places. In the spirit of Tom's Kitchen—and because I prepared this column ahead of two weeks of travel—I combed River Cottage Fish for the simplest, most straightforward recipe I could find. I settled upon one for mackerel filets sautéed with garlic and bay leaves. Fearnley-Whittingstall is pretty obsessed with mackerel, and I've become fond of it, too, over the years for the same reasons: It's not overfished, it has a wonderful rich flavor, and it has beautiful oily flesh packed with omega-3 fats.

The Whole Foods seafood counter brandished gorgeous whole Spanish mackerels, and Fearnley-Whittingstall would have been the perfect guide to breaking them down into filets, as one of the major themes of the book is working with whole fish. But I was strapped for time and didn't have the crowd of people to cook for that a whole mackerel would have required, so I picked up a couple of Alaskan halibut filets and applied Fearnley-Whittingstall's mackerel recipe to them. (Alaskan halibut draws a "best choice" rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program.)

The recipe is so minimalist that each of its few ingredients shines through. Luckily, in central Texas, the farmers markets are full of fresh, uncured garlic—my favorite time of all for the pungent allium, because now is when it delivers a pure, powerful flavor.

I served it over that Tom's Kitchen staple, sautéed kale. A grain like rice or quinoa would go nice alongside.

Halibut Filets With Garlic and Bay
(Adapted from The River Cottage Fish Book)
Serves two.

Olive oil
2 halibut (or mackerel) filets
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thin
4-5 bay leaves
Sea salt
Black pepper
2 slices of lemon
Optional garnish: My homemade version of salsa macha, a puree of chili peppers and olive oil that I have become addicted to.

Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, and give it a slick of olive oil. Tamp the filets dry with a towel, and season them generously with salt and pepper on the skinless side. When the oil is hot, lay in the garlic slices and bay leaves and give them a couple of stirs with a spatula to flavor the oil. Add the filets to the pan, skin-side down, right over the garlic and bay. Let them cook there for a few minutes, until the flesh near the bottom of the pan begins to turn white. Flip them, letting them cook another minute or two. (There is no need to fuss over the garlic and bay—as it sizzle with the fish, it will impart flavor to it.) When a sharp paring knife easily pierces the flesh, the filets are done.

Lay the filets on serving plates skin-side down (discarding the garlic and bay, which will have begun to burn). Squeeze a slice of lemon over each filet, and spoon a bit of salsa macha (if you are using) over each one as well. Serve.

VIDEO: Syngenta Has an Orwellian Herbicide Ad, Too

| Fri May 11, 2012 2:01 AM EDT

It's all the rage these days for gigantic agrichemical companies to release creepy videos touting the benefits of dodgy products languishing under the regulatory microscope.

Yesterday, I posted Dow Agrosciences' video on the wonders of its new genetically modified corn product, currently under review by the USDA for deregulation, that would have farmers dousing fields with a cocktail of herbicides.

And today, I point you to this even more elaborate and Orwellian one from Syngenta on its lucrative herbicide atrazine, currently under review by the EPA for its presence in drinking water. The video portrays atrazine as the best thing for water since the advent of the rain cloud. Just in case you miss the video's point, Syngenta has made it easy for you with the title: "Saving the Oasis: Atrazine Saves Soil & Water."

VIDEO: Dow's Orwellian New Herbicide Ad

| Thu May 10, 2012 2:25 PM EDT
In Dow's new promotional video, a farmer contemplates the specter of 2,4-D/Roundup cocktails raining down on his corn.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-killing technology, which has conquered corn, soy, and cotton country, stands at the brink of failure, choked by a spreading thicket of Roundup-resistant weeds. But industrial-scale farmers should have no fear, for Dow Agrosciences has hatched a product that will set all of that right. Dow's novel corn product Enlist, engineered to resist not only Roundup but also another herbicide called 2,4-D, will make fast work of those "superweeds" and restore order to the farm belt.

I know that's true, because I just watch this Dow-produced video:

That's the pitch, anyway, for the product, which is currently under review by the USDA for approval. But as I reported a while back, Dow's new technology will likely be much better at selling herbicides and pricey new seeds than it will be at solving the superweed problem. Indeed, it will ultimately probably accelerate the superweed problem. It's based on the premise that the problems caused by genetically modified industrial agriculture can only be solved by an intensifying genetically modified industrial agriculture.

Like many a marketing pitch before it, the one in the video topples under examination like a weed under a mist of 2,4-D—a nasty chemical that once made up the (less toxic) half of the infamous Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

Here's why. Roundup-resistant weeds developed because for years farmers doused millions of acres each year with the same herbicide. Dow proposes that by planting corn that can resist  a second herbicide, and then raining down a cocktail consisting of both herbcides, farmers can kill all their weeds in one go, and never have to worry about resistance. They insist that since the two herbicices have different "modes of action"—that is, they kill plants in radically different ways—it's extremely unlikely that weeds will develop resistance to a mix of the two.