Tom Philpott - October 2012

Historic Food Market Gets Torched in Syria's Civil War

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A spice stall in Souk Madina.

Thirty thousand people have died in Syria's civil war—and the killing is only intensifying. Obviously, human beings are any war's most appalling casualties, but there are cultural conflagrations that matter, too—vital spaces laid waste, lost forever. Few alive today have experienced the reputed grandeur of old Warsaw, leveled by Nazi bombs in World War II. How would the celebrated Aztec city of Tenochtitlán have weathered the centuries? We'll never know, because the Spanish flattened it in the process of conquest, building over it what we now know as Mexico City.

Unhappily, the violence in Syria has spread to the "ancient city" section of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the famous Souk Madina, a vast market vending everything from meat to spices to fabric since medieval times. On Saturday, reports Reuters, a clash between government and rebel forces sparked a fire that swept through the old market, burning a substantial portion of it. According to Reuters, it's the largest covered market in the world—"a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades" whose winding interior hallways "have a combined length of eight miles."

The extent of the damage remains unclear, but it appears extensive. Reuters reports that local observers say at least 1,500 stalls are ruined, and were, as of Sunday, still burning. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has issued a missive deploring the destruction. "The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria's economic and social life since the city's beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo's importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.," she wrote. I have emails into the UNESCO press office seeking an update on the damage.

Though I've never been to the Middle East, Souk Madina has long occupied a place in my imagination for the storied richness and diversity of its spices, produce, and meat, the maze of hallways and vaulted ceilings that make up its endless stalls, and the sheer grand chaos of a teeming old market. So I contacted a few US food authorities from whose writings I've learned to revere the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to get their perspective on the apparent disaster.

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How GMOs Unleashed a Pesticide Gusher

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

For years, proponents of genetically modified crops have hailed them as a critical tool for weaning farmers from reliance on toxic pesticides. On its website, the GMO-seed-and-agrichemical giant Monsanto makes the green case for its Roundup Ready crops, engineered to withstand the company's own blockbuster herbicide, Roundup:

Roundup agricultural herbicides and other products are used to sustainably an [sic] effectively control weeds on the farm. Their use on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to conserve fuel, reduce tillage and decrease the overall use of herbicides. [Emphasis added.]

But in a just-released paper published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe, Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, shreds that claim. He found that Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology, which dominates corn, soy, and cotton farming, has called forth a veritable monsoon of herbicides, both in terms of higher application rates for Roundup, and, in recent years, growing use of other, more-toxic herbicides.

Forget Baconpocalypse—Fishageddon Will Be Worse

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 3:30 PM EDT

If cats have any rival as objects of internet fixation, it may be bacon. Over the years, the salty, fatty, sweet, crispy stuff has gained iconic status among hardcore foodies and fast food fans alike. Thus we get sites like Bacon Today, which delivers "Daily News on the World of Sweet, Sweet Bacon." Or as a July Wired headline summed up the internet's cured-pork fetish: "Zombies and Bacon: Manufacturing Memes."

And so, when a British pork industry trade group issued a press release last week titled "Europe's pork and bacon supply is contracting fast," bloggers sniffed an easy post in a "bacon shortage" meme. And so the "baconpocalypse" was born, complete with cutesy blog posts about how we'll have to cut back on bacon donuts and candy bars. Or as one business site insisted, "Forget adding on bacon to your cheeseburgers or the 'B' in that BLT."

Of course, all of this is click-groping internet piffle, as Slate's Matt Yglesias showed. The UK pork industry's press release wasn't really about bacon specifically, but rather about pork in general. And while it's true that a catastrophic drought in US corn and soy country means higher hog-feed prices and thus higher pork prices next year, the effect on American consumers will be minimal. Mother Jones' own Asawin Suebsaeng showed that the alleged great bacon shortage will shave just a pound per capita off of US bacon production in 2013—leaving us with an ample 45 pounds of bacon per person to make do with over the year. Overall, US pork prices will rise just 2.5 to 3 percent next year, the USDA projects. Wendy's will likely continue peddling its "Baconator" burger unimpeded.