Tom Philpott - October 2012

Can Farms Bounce Back from Superstorms Like Sandy?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the "imagination of disaster"—the keen sense that there's always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts—all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.

In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a "500-year flood" visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second "500-year flood" in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state's previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August's Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented "superstorm" Sandy.

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What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 7:03 AM EDT

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose "jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea." The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls "blue zones"—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island's demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can't explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people "with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria," but "live no longer than average Greeks." So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians' good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We've learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.

VIDEO: Michael Pollan Talks GMO Labeling

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 6:13 AM EDT

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, is coming down to the wire as the Nov. 6 election approaches. (I've written about Prop. 37 here, here, and here.) As recently as Sept. 27, Pepperdine University's bi-monthly poll found 3-to-1 support among the state's voters for the proposition. Two weeks later, the lead had shrunk to 48 percent for to 40 percent against. Like the presidential race, the fight over Prop. 37 has tightened dramatically.

Pepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly.  Pepperdine UniversityPepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly. Pepperdine UniversityWhat happened? Most likely, it's the recent multimillion-dollar major television ad blitz, funded by agrichemical giants like Monsanto and processed food makers like Kraft, to whip up opposition to GMO labeling. (Dig into the latest contributions to the effort to defeat Prop. 37 here—on Oct. 19 alone, meat giant Smithfield came through with $454,908.15; Kraft ponied up $1,094,851.75; Pepsi chipped in $429,100.00, etc.)

"This is a great example of the power of advertising," pollster Chris Condon of M4 Strategies, which conducted the survey, told The Los Angeles Times. "A lot of money has been poured into the No side, and the effect has been dramatic."

On Wednesday's Democracy Now show, Amy Goodman hosted a no-holds-barred debate between Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, who opposes the measure. In the debate, Zilberman strains to convince viewers that labeling GMOs in California would mean the starvation of thousands in Africa.

Goodman also interviewed Michael Pollan, who recently argued in The New York Times Magazine that Prop. 37 is a key test for "whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system."

In another segment, Pollan holds forth on the food movement's burgeoning political power, agruing that the movement remains in its infancy—he argues that the food movement today is like the environmental movement before the first Earth Day in 1970.

Finally, for one more blast of Prop. 37 commentary as the election hits the stretch run, The New York Times' food guru Mark Bittman recently made the case for it.

Do Bayer's Pesticides Make Worker Bees Lazy?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT
Must. Avoid. Corn.

Corn prices remain quite high, driven up by the summer's prolonged drought. And since the United States is by far the globe's largest corn producer, prices will likely stay high until the next bumper crop in the Midwest replenishes global corn reserves. To take advantage of high prices, US farmers will likely plant a whole lot of corn in spring 2013—at least as much as they did in 2012, which marked a 75-year high in corn acreage. And that could be bad news for bees, commercial honey-producing ones and wild bumblebees alike, both of which have experienced severe declines in recent years.

What does the health of bees have to do with the corn crop? A growing weight of evidence links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on nearly the entire US corn crop, to declining bee health. In March, I looked at three studies that had just been released, two of them published in the prestigious journal Science, making the link. Those papers came on the heels of a damning one from Purdue University researchers (which I discussed here). And now comes yet another, this one (abstract; I have the full study but can't upload it because of copyright issues) published by UK researchers in another prestigious publication, the British journal Nature.

Why Is the FDA Inspecting So Little Imported Seafood?

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

If you eat a lot of fish, likely as not you're eating something that was raised on a farm and hauled in from thousands of miles away. According to NOAA, we import about 86 percent of the seafood we consume, about half of which comes from from aquaculture. And just because you find it in a gleaming supermarket fish case or on a well-presented restaurant plate doesn't mean it's safe to eat.

Over at Bloomberg Businessweek, there's a pretty startling piece on the sanitary conditions on some of those farms. In Vietnam, farmed shrimp bound for the US market are kept fresh with heaps of ice made from tap water that teems with pathogenic bacteria, Businessweek reports. Tilapia in China's fish farms, meanwhile, literally feed on pig manure—even though it contains salmonella and makes the tilapia "more susceptible to disease." Why use hog shit as feed? Simple—it's cheap, and China's tilapia farms operate under intense pressure to slash costs and produce as much cheap tilapia as possible.

Paul Ryan's Brother is a Cargill Exec in China

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 10:49 AM EDT
Stan Ryan

As China consolidates its position as the globe's low-cost manufacturing center, the nation is using some of its wealth to shift to industrial-style agriculture and a Western-style high-meat diet. One company that stands to cash in on these trends is the US agribusiness giant Cargill, one of the globe's largest privately held firms. About 60 percent of the globe's traded soybeans end up in China as feed for the country's fast-growing factory farms, and Cargill is one of the the handful of companies that broker those deals. In August, the company announced it was investing $250 million to build an "integrated chicken broiler facility" designed to raise and process 65 million chickens per year. So Cargill will not only sell China the feed it needs for its burgeoning meat habit, but it will also produce some of the the meat.

At the center of this fast-emerging profit center for Cargill is none other than Paul Ryan's brother, Stan Ryan, who "serves as corporate vice-president of Cargill's agricultural supply-chain businesses" based in Shanghai. According to his bio, Stan Ryan is "focused on growing Cargill's business operations in Asia and its agriculture-based supply-chain businesses globally, in addition to other corporate functional responsibilities."

Below I've pasted a recent interview with Stan Ryan on China's food situation. If there's anything remarkable about it, it's the way Ryan aligns Cargill's interests with those of the Chinese government. He notes approvingly that the government has decided that the country's farms should grow the bulk of the corn, rice, and wheat that the nation uses, while choosing to import soybeans—a smart strategy, he says, because soybeans require plenty of water, something China is running short on. (It probably is a smart strategy, if your goal is to ramp up factory-style meat production.) And he praises the country's latest five-year agricultural plan. In general, from listening to Ryan, you get the idea that Cargill and the Chinese government are working seamlessly together: partners in the industrialization of Chinese agriculture and the Westernization of its diet.

Given that Paul Ryan is an acolyte of Ayn Rand, who thundered against "collectivism" and government control, Ryan family events must get tense when Stan Ryan begins extolling the virtues of Chinese agricultural planning—even if it's very profitable, indeed, for Cargill.

 

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Conservatives Bravely Defend Kids' Right to Junky Lunch

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Call it the tater tot rebellion. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which modestly increased federal expenditures on school lunches and also overhauled the rules that governed them. No longer would federally subsidized school lunch cafeterias act as a kind of unfettered free-enterprise zone for the food industry's "Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets" and frozen pizzas. The new rules put limits on calories per meal and mandated that more fruits and vegetables be served. And now, according to media reports (see here and here), students nationwide are organizing strikes and social-media campaigns to protest the new rules.

When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became law, I was disappointed that it didn't commit more money to improving lunches. Even after the increase included in the 2010 law, school cafeterias get less than a dollar a day per student in federal funding to spend on ingredients (about two-thirds of the maximum $2.94 outlay per lunch goes to overhead and labor). How much decent food can you churn out on such budgets, especially given that so few schools have fully equipped kitchens nowadays? But if the rules could at least reduce empty calories from low-quality, health-killing added sweeteners and fats, that would at least be a positive step…right?

Well, according to the New York Times, kids are rebelling against the new lunchroom regime. Here's the Times on how the new rules make things different:

 

Some GMO Cheerleaders Also Deny Climate Change

| Mon Oct. 15, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

"GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left," declares the headline of a recent piece by Keith Kloor in Slate. The argument goes like this: Just as certain conservative writers flout science by denying the urgency of climate change, there are progressive writers—he named me as a prominent example—who defy an alleged scientific consensus by criticizing the genetically modified crop industry. We're hypocrites, the charge goes, because we thunder against the denial of good science when it comes to climate, but indulge in denialism when it comes to GMOs.

I think Kloor's critique is nonsense. Sure, there are wackos who campaign against GMOs, but not all GMO critique is wacko. In a 2009 roundtable in Seed Magazine, I debunked the idea that there's a scientific consensus around GMOs analogous to the one around climate. I also ruminated on that theme in this 2009 review of Michael Specter's book Denialism. I plan to return to the theme of scientific consensus and GMOs soon, but to make a long story short, I'll quote my Seed piece:

The consensus around climate change developed in spite of a multi-decade campaign by some of the globe’s most powerful and lucrative industries—the petroleum and coal giants—to protect markets worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The consensus around GMOs—or at least the specter of one—arose through the lobbying and support of an industry desperate to protect its own multibillion-dollar investments.

If such a pro-GMO consensus existed, surely we'd find it in the the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a three-year project, convened by the World Bank and the United Nations and completed in 2008, to assess what forms of agriculture would best meet the world's needs in a time of rapid climate change. Widely compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which definitively established a scientific consensus around climate change on its release in 2007, the IAASTD and its 400 scientists from around the globe ended up taking quite a skeptical view of GMOs—so much so that CropLife International, the trade group for the global GMO seed/pesticide industry, denounced it. "Incredibly enough, the report overlooks the vast potential and highly successful roles of crop protection and plant biotechnology, and misconstrues these products' risks," the group's CEO fumed. Only 3 of the 57 governments that participated refused to sign the IAASTD: the Bush II-led United States, Canada, and Australia.

I will return to this important topic soon, but now I want to point out an amusing irony: Some of the GMO industry's most high-profile defenders double as professional climate skeptics. Note: I am not about to engage in guilt by association. I'm not saying that because some GMO enthusiasts are climate skeptics that all GMO enthusiasts are climate skeptics. I'm just saying there is no monopoly on scientific rigor within the pro-GMO community.

How Not to "Feed the World"

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Military guards protect a palm oil plantation on disputed land in Bajo Aguán, Honduras.

The debate over how to "feed the world" amid population growth and climate change often hinges on crop yields. The theory is that if we can squeeze as much crop as possible per acre of farmland, we'll have abundant food for everyone. This idea dominates the marketing material of giant agrichemical firms like Monsanto. "In order to feed the world's growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined," proclaims the company's website. "We are working to double yields in our core crops by 2030." Such rhetoric is routinely echoed by policymakers like US Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.

But jacking up yields—even if Monsanto and its peers can accomplish that feat, which they haven't so far—won't solve the hunger problem on its own. The globe's farms are already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people—twice the current population and a third again more than the peak of 9 billion expected to be reached in 2050. Yet at least 925 million people lack access to enough to eat. What causes hunger isn't insufficient crop yields but rather people's economic relationships to food: whether they have access to land to grow it, or sufficient income to buy it.

Unfortunately, rising food prices and competition for resources appear to be making the situation worse. Take the trend of rich-country investors buying or leasing huge, highly productive tracts of farmland in low-income countries, and exporting the resulting crops. In a scathing report on these "land grabs," the global anti-hunger group Oxfam reports that an "area of land eight times the size of the UK" has been sold off in the past decade—a combined swath of land that "has the potential to feed a billion people," or more than the 925 million who live in hunger. "[V]ery few if any of these land investments benefit local people or help to fight hunger," Oxfam adds.

Investors in these deals aren't agribiz companies like Monsanto, which just want to sell inputs like seeds and agrichemicals, not take on the risk of farming. Rather, they are US or European hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds from nations like China or Saudi Arabia, or companies like Iowa's AgriSol, owned by GOP stalwart, large-scale hog farmer, Iowa university regent, and all-around charmer Bruce Rastetter, whom I wrote about here.

While some land grabs involve domestic elites taking land in low-income areas of their own countries, the more typical cases involve rich-country investors gobbling land in poor countries. According to an April 2012 analysis by the Land Matrix, cited by Oxfam, the average investor in these deals come from a country with a per capita GDP of $18,918, while the target countries' per capita GDPs average $4,404—a more than five-fold disparity.

Tom's Kitchen: Udon Noodles With Eggplant, Greens, and Beans

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Last weekend's farmers market in Austin had me a bit flummoxed. It was an unseasonably cold morning in Austin—I was shivering in a sweater—but the wonderful farm Johnson's Backyard Garden was offering gorgeous purple-streaked eggplants, and not tiny ones, either. To me, eggplant is the ultimate hot-weather crop. One of the farm's workers let me know that the season's bumper eggplant harvest had reached its end; these would likely be the season's last.

So I had to get a couple. But what do do with them? Normally, I like to pair eggplant with other summery stuff like tomatoes and basil. But at this farmers market, what was looking best was kale: a classic fall-season crop that had clearly been thriving in Central Texas' mild recent weather, judging from the abundance of it on display.

So my mind drifted away from Mediterranean possibilities for eggplant and shifted toward an Asian one: a noodle dish combining eggplant and kale, lashed with ginger, soy sauce, and rice vinegar.