Tom Philpott - 2012

Rick Santorum, Puppy Lover—and Scourge of the Meat Industry?

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 4:40 PM EDT
Shock and awwwww: If these make you melt, you may not get Big Ag's support.

Rick Santorum has a thing for puppies. Not a creepy fixation, mind you—apparently, he just doesn't like to see them raised in vast "puppy mills." Santorum also evidently likes horses, and would prefer not to see them slaughtered. And these stances has led him to make common cause with the Humane Society of the US.

Strange then, that a man who deplores the stuffing of puppies into confined spaces and recoils from the slaughter of innocent horses, has no beef with an industry that stuffs cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys into tight spaces with the intention of slaughtering them.  

I know all of this, because of an exposé on Forbes.com posing the question: "Is Rick Santorum a Closet Animal Rights Activist?"; and a piece in the industrial-ag trade weekly Agri-Pulse ($ub only) called "Santorum raises 'aggie' eyebrows over HSUS [Humane Society of the US] ties."

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Bye Bye, Cancer-Causing Strawberry Fumigant

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:50 PM EDT
Soon to be methyl iodide-free.

Methyl iodide, a highly toxic pesticide intended for large-scale plantings of strawberries and other fruit crops, gained approval from the EPA in 2007 and the California Department of Pesticide Registration in 2010. Yet its maker, chemical giant Arysta, abruptly yanked it from the US market Tuesday.

What happened? Methyl iodide's inglorious exit ends a saga that exemplifies corporate capture of the regulatory agencies and the potential for popular organizing to push back against it.

Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:00 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly in all its majesty.

If any insect species can be described as charismatic minifauna, it's the monarch butterfly. The gorgeous creatures flutter about in a migratory range that stretches from the northern part of South America up into Canada. The monarch is the only butterfly species that undertakes such a long-distance migration. And when they alight upon a place en masse, heads turn. No fewer than five states—Texas, Alabama, Idaho, illinois, and Minnesota—claim the monarch as their state insect. 

Unfortunately, the monarch populations appear to be in a state of decline. Why? A new study (abstract; press release) from University of Minnesota and Iowa State University researchers points to an answer: the rapid rise of crops engineered to withstand herbicides.

Walmart's Local Food Push: How Serious?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 9:36 AM EDT

So I've got a piece in the March/April issue of the print Mother Jonescheck it out. I dig into Walmart's big push into local and organic food, comparing reality on the ground to the hype of press releases. My article is a short sidebar to Andy Kroll's long, beautifully reported look at the retail behemoth's larger campaign to "go green," which takes him, inevitably, to China, source of 70 percent of the goods Walmart sells. Happy reading.

Revolving Door: Romney Ag Team Edition

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:55 AM EDT

For the casual observer like me, it's hard to make sense of the GOP presidential primary, what with all the crazy talk and the recurrent Santorum surges. But people who follow these things closely tell me that despite the chaos, Mitt Romney will likely emerge as the nominee.

That means it's time to start contemplating what a hypothetical President Romney might get up to on food and agriculture issues. The embattled Republican front-runner hasn't expressed his views on ag policy. But just last week, Romney telegraphed his food-and-ag agenda by announcing his Agriculture Advisory Committee.  

Surprise, surprise: Big Ag interests rule the roost. Here are some highlights.

Can Your Kid's Cafeteria Now Opt out of "Pink Slime"?

| Sun Mar. 18, 2012 10:00 AM EDT

Responding to a media storm (The Daily, CBS, ABC, me), the USDA has relented on "pink slime," the ammonia-treated hamburger filler that the agency has been ushering into school-cafeteria burgers. "USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef," the agency declared in a Thursday press release, using its preferred term for the product. .

So your kid's school cafeteria can now opt out of the stuff starting now, right? Not so fast.

An excellent post by Nancy Huehnergarth of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA) blog raises some key questions about the USDA's move. First of all, as Huehnergarth points out, the USDA's announcement only applies to the food commodities the USDA itself buys for the National School Lunch Program, which amounts to about 20 percent of the ingredients that end up on kids' plates.

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Tom's Kitchen: 3 Ways to Home-Falafel Nirvana

| Sat Mar. 17, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
Falafel: the jewel of Mideastern street fare, doable in your own home.

A few days ago, I wrote about how I'm all in favor of of helping people figure out ways to eat less meat, but skeptical that industrial fake-meat products based on soy-protein isolates are the way to do it. I posited that whole-food dishes like falafel—chickpeas ground up with spices and then deep-fried—might be a better beacon toward a less meat-intensive future.  

Writing about falafel gave me a powerful craving for it. And where I live in rural North Carolina, there are no falafel joints. So if I knew that if I wanted to have some, I'd have to do something I've never done before: make falafel at home.

And that give me the opportunity to see whether falafel has a place in a practical-minded, no-time-for-fuss kitchen like mine.

Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.The first thing I needed was a recipe, and I knew what to do: I merely typed "Bittman + falafel" into Google. Mark Bittman—whose provocative column on meat substitutes started me on my falafel journey—is the heavyweight champ of straight-ahead, minimalist cooking. I found this recipe from a 2008 New York Times column of his.

Now, my main reservation about home falafel has always centered on the fact that it's deep-fried. I love deep-fried foods as much as the next person, but I rarely use the technique at home because it requires so much oil and makes the house smell like a grease trap (unless you have a good vent).  

So I decided to give the traditional cooking method a shot under Bittman's tutelage, but also to experiment with two other techniques for cooking bean paste: pan-frying, which is basically sautéing with just enough oil to cover the bottom of a pan; and baking.

Having never made falafel before, I was surprised that you don't pre-cook the chickpeas before they're ground. You simply soak give them a 24-hour soak, drain them (reserving some of the soaking water), and drop them in a food processor with a few other ingredients: onion, garlic, parsley, paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a little lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Then you pulse the mixture, using as little of the reserved water as possible, until it forms a kind of rough paste.

I found that the whole thing came together quickly, with only a splash of water. With very little fuss, I suddenly had a whole bowlful of batter that looked fit for a real falafel joint—minimalist, indeed. Following Bittman's orders, I tasted the batter for seasoning, decided to ramp up the coriander, cumin, paprika, and salt, and gave the batter a few more pulses.

Bittman even delivered a tip that made deep-frying way easier than I had foreseen: Use a small pan. When I think of deep-frying, I think of chicken pieces sizzling in a huge skillet, a process that requires monstrous amounts of oil. But with a small pan, you get away with using much less oil; and falafel balls—which Bittman says should take just a heaping tablespoon of batter—are small enough that you can do several at a time even in a modestly sized vessel.

So I gave my sauce pan about 2.5 inches of oil (a little more than a pint) and brought it to 350 degrees, using a thermometer to measure. I dropped in a few falafel balls and held my breath, half-expecting them to explode into greasy mush. But they stayed whole, and soon transformed into gorgeous, deep-brown falafel orbs. And all for about 10 minutes of active cooking time.

Meanwhile, I improvised pan-fry and baking techniques. For the pan-fried ones, I heated a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and added enough oil to cover the bottom. I used the same amount of batter I had used for the ball, but tamped them down into little patties to maximize contact with the hot pan—an attempt both to speed cooking and encourage browning. For the baked ones, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and spread some parchment paper over a small baking sheet, lightly greasing it with oil. I baked the flattened patties for 10 minutes or so, then flipped them and gave them five or so minutes more.

For me, the deep-fried balls were best: a nice crunch, and then moist deliciousness inside. And they weren't greasy at all. But the pan-fried and bake versions were worthy, too. They had much less crunch than, but delivered all of the flavor of, the fried ones. And my roommate actually preferred them. She found the fried ones too crunchy; and thought the texture inside both the baked and pan-fried ones more to her liking.

Who needs meat?Who needs meat?Of course, making falafel doesn't just entail making falafel—you also need pita bread and garnishes. In many places in the US, you can buy decent pita at a middle eastern shop or good grocery store. Not so much here, so we made ours using a simple recipe calling for a yeast dough, which we rolled out and cooked just before eating.

For garnishes, we kept it simple. We took Bittman's advice on a sauce: "mix equal amounts of tahini and yogurt, and season to taste with a little salt, pepper, cumin, raw garlic if you like, and lemon juice" (though we subbed cider vinegar for lemon juice, since we had no lemons on hand). And I made a quick salad of a handful of chopped parsley mixed with a bit of chopped red onion, dressed lightly with olive oil and cider vinegar. We also had mixed salad greens from the farm, homemade salsa macha (a diabolically hot puree of dried chile peppers and olive oil), and some chopped-up pickled cucumbers and green beans. 

The result was a fantastic and easy meal. I may have have just taken the first step down a slippery slope that will end with me shutting my laptop and opening a falafel stand. (Just kidding—I think.) I advise all omnivores looking for satisfying ways to cut down on meat to give it a try.

UPDATE: So, Bittman's recipe, which calls for 1 3/4 cups of chickpeas, make a lot of batter. I found its sheer volume overwhelming, at first, because my household right now consists just of two people. But I mixed it on Thursday and it's now Saturday—and it's still cooking up great. I just saved the original oil and reheat it when I want to fry off a few nuggets. My kitchen has become a falafel stand. Dreams come true.

Chemical-Industry Apologist Botches NRDC Satire

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 3:23 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, I dug into the case of Jon Entine, a consultant/writer who specializes in fierce defenses of agrichemicals like atrazine and industrial chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA). He had caught my attention with his attack, published on Forbes.com, of Dashka Slater's profile of Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley professor who found that tiny doses of the widely used herbicide atrazine affects frogs' sexual development.

Entine fascinates me, because I know of few people not on industry payrolls who hold such passionate regard for profitable stuff that likely harms people and wildlife. As the email exchange that I quoted in my post shows, Entine asserts his own intellectual independence as strenuously as he defends the chemical industry. To hear him tell it, he's just disinterestedly fighting the good fight for science against the merchants of what he calls "chemophobia." Even though the homepage of his consultancy, ESG MediaMetrics, claims it "advises corporations and NGOs on Environmental, Social, and Governance issues, and on brand reputation and strategic communications," and touts Monsanto as a client, Entine told me he does no corporate PR work.

Whatever his motivations, Entine's zealous advocacy appears to have cost him his most high-profile gig: writing for the Op/Ed section of Forbes.com. At issue is a post  published on the web site early Monday afternoon and took down several hours later. Here is a screenshot of the original. In it, Entine reprints what the article's headline calls a "leaked memo" from a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) employee regarding Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical widely used in the lining of cans for food.

How NPR Got It Wrong on Monsanto's Superweeds

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Last week, NPR food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles delivered an interesting report on a topic I've been following for a while: "superweeds." As farmers planted millions of acres with crops engineered to withstand Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, Roundup-resistant weeds have cropped up—prompting farmers to apply toxic herbicide cocktails in a desperate, and losing, battle to keep up with weed evolution.  

And Sunday, Charles followed up with a blog item asking just what Monsanto scientists were thinking when they proposed Roundup Ready technology as a blanket solution to industrial agriculture's weed problem.

In its 1993 petition to the USDA to deregulate Roundup Ready soybeans, Charles reports, Monsanto insisted that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is "considered to be a herbicide with low risk for weed resistance." Citing agreement from university scientists, the company declared it "highly unlikely" that widespread use of Roundup Ready technology would lead to resistant weeds.

Fake Meat America Could Love

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I've always recoiled from highly processed and packaged fake meat: you know, turkeyesque tofu logs for the holiday table, or pink, spongy "not-dogs" for the summer grill. But in last Sunday's New York Times, Mark Bittman raised a provocative question:

Isn’t it preferable, at least some of the time, to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat?  Why, in other words, use the poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to produce "meat" that seems like chicken?             

Bittman's point is spot-on. You can't directly eat the kind of corn and soy that dominates US farmland—it isn't readily digestible. Modern livestock farms are really factories for turning those crops into animal flesh that can be transformed into steaks, chops, wings, nuggets, and whatnot. And in doing so, Bittman points out, factory farms rack up enormous collateral damage: horrific suffering for sentient creatures, huge stores of manure that can't be safely recycled into soil, over-reliance on antibiotics, routine abuse of labor in factory-scale slaughterhouses, and more.