Tom Philpott - 2012

Tom's Kitchen: A Spicy-Hot Soup to Crush Your Cold

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 2:37 PM EST

When I come down with a cold, I avoid treating it with pharmaceuticals that mask symptoms. Instead, I try to ramp up my immune system to fight the cold back the hippie way: with herbs and vitamin C and the like.

But there's no doubt that cold symptoms—sore throat, stuffed nose, irritated sinuses, lethargy—really, really suck. For more years than I care to calculate, I've been fighting these vexations with a fiery soup, loosely based on a Mexican specialty called sopa de tortilla. It won't really "crush" your cold, as the headline promises, at least not permanantly, but it will send it packing for the time it takes you to eat a bowl or two and for about 15 minutes after. During that blessed period, your sore throat will vanish, your sinuses will open and allow you to breathe freely, and overall, you'll feel like a million bucks instead of death warmed over. I credit the latter effect to the feel-good endorphins that chile peppers are said to release.

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Supermarket Meat Comes From Sick Animals

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 4:25 PM EST

At Maverick Farms, we keep a flock of chickens for eggs. It seems axiomatic to me that the happier and healthier the birds are, the better the eggs will be. So if a salesperson showed up pitching a product that would, say, boost egg production by 5 percent, while making our birds sick, but just healthy enough to keep laying, I'd send him packing. Who wants to eat eggs from a sick chicken? And why would I intentionally harm the animals who provide my eggs?

The US meat industry has different ideas. Its main goals are to maximize production while minimizing costs. Animal health matters only to the extent that the animals need to be well enough to scuttle down the slaughter line (or produce eggs, in the case of hens). Thus the industry routinely feeds livestock stuff that makes them sick.

Reporting for the newly hatched Food and Environment Reporting Network, the excellent food-safety reporter Helena Bottemiller exposes one major example: the widespread use on factory-scale hog farms of ractopamine, a drug that boosts meat production but makes hogs miserable. The drug—fed to 60 to 80 percent of pigs, Bottemiller reports—"mimics stress hormones, making the heart beat faster and relaxing blood vessels." Its effects are pretty dire:

Since it was introduced [13 years ago], ractopamine had sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market, a review of FDA veterinary records shows. Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now, 218,000 pigs over 13 years is a rounding error for the pork industry, which slaughters upwards of 110 million hogs every year. The industry has clearly calculated that torturing pigs with pharmaceuticals is worth a few losses, so long as overall meat production gets a boost.

Dow and Monsanto Team Up on the Mother of All Herbicide Marketing Plans

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 5:43 PM EST
Expect to see lots of this stuff blanketing the Midwest for a long time if Monsanto and Dow get their way.

During the late December media lull, the USDA didn't satisfy itself with green-lighting Monsanto's useless, PR-centric "drought-tolerant" corn. It also prepped the way for approving a product from Monsanto's rival Dow Agrosciences—one that industrial-scale corn farmers will likely find all too useful.

Dow has engineered a corn strain that withstands lashings of its herbicide, 2,4-D. The company's pitch to farmers is simple: Your fields are becoming choked with weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. As soon as the USDA okays our product, all your problems will be solved.

At risk of sounding overly dramatic, the product seems to me to bring mainstream US agriculture to a crossroads. If Dow's new corn makes it past the USDA and into farm fields, it will mark the beginning of at least another decade of ramped-up chemical-intensive farming of a few chosen crops (corn, soy, cotton), beholden to a handful of large agrichemical firms working in cahoots to sell ever larger quantities of poisons, environment be damned. If it and other new herbicide-tolerant crops can somehow be stopped, farming in the US heartland can be pushed toward a model based on biodiversity over monocropping, farmer skill in place of brute chemicals, and healthy food instead of industrial commodities.

Yet Dow's pitch will likely prove quite compelling. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready crops now account for 94 percent of the soybean crops and upwards of 70 percent for soy and cotton, USDA figures show. The technology cut a huge chunk of work out of farming, allowing farmers to cultivate ever more massive swathes of land with less labor.

When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012But by the time farmers had structured their operations around Roundup Ready and its promise of effortless weed control, the technology had begun to fail. In what was surely one of the most predictable events in the history of agriculture, it turned out than when farmers douse millions of acres of land with a single herbicide year after year, weeds evolve to resist that poison. Last summer, Roundup-resistant superweeds flourished in huge swathes of US farmland, forcing farmers to apply gushers of toxic herbicide cocktails and even resort to hand-weeding—not a fun thing to do on a huge farm. A recent article in the industrial-ag trade journal Delta Farm Press summed up the situation: "Days of Easy Weed Control Are Over."

USDA Greenlights Monsanto's Utterly Useless New GMO Corn

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:15 PM EST

You've got to keep an eye on US regulatory agencies in the second half of December. That's when watchdog journalists like me tend to take time off—and regulators like to sneak gifts to the industries they're supposed to be regulating. This year, I was alert enough to detect this gift from the FDA to the meat industry; but the USDA caught me napping. The agency made two momentous announcements on GMO crops, neither of which got much media scrutiny. It deregulated Monsanto's so-called drought-tolerant corn, and it prepared to deregulate Dow's corn engineered to withstand the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. More on the later this week. 

The drought-tolerant corn decision, which came down on Dec. 21, was momentous occasion, because it marked the first deregulation of a GMO crop with a "complex" trait. What I mean by that is, the other GMOs on the market have simple, one-gene traits: a gene that confers resistance to a particular herbicide, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed or a gene that expresses the toxic-to-bugs properties of the bacteria Bt, as in Monsanto's Bt seed. But a plant's use of water is a complex process involving several genes; there's no single "drought tolerant" gene. Generating such traits in plants that succeed in field conditions has been considerably more tricky for the agrichemical giants than than simple traits.

Paula Deen Hawks a Dubious Diabetes Drug

| Wed Jan. 18, 2012 6:32 PM EST
Detail of an ad campaign for a Novo Nordisk diabetes drug featuring Paula Deen.

I generally don't believe in skewering people, even celebrities, for their health problems and/or how they deal with them. So at first I hesitated to join the chorus lambasting Paula Deen for waiting three years to disclose that she has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But Deen's stubborn insistance on using her Food TV forum to promote unhealthy food, and her long-time role as a paid shill for industrial-meat giant Smithfield, tempted me to comment on her announcement. (Evidence is mounting, by the way, that industrially raised meat contributes to diabetes risk.).

What pushed me over the edge was her debut this week as a spokesperson for pharma giant Novo Nordisk's diabetes treatment Victoza. As Anthony Bourdain tweeted in response to the announcement, "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later." Here, Deen isn't making a private decision on how to treat an ailment; she's turning her ailment into a quite-public revenue stream. And she's broadcasting a clear message to her legion of fans: Eat all the junkie food you want, and don't worry, because the pharmaceutical industry will bail you out.

Is Your Garden Pesticide Killing Bees?

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 12:00 PM EST
"Protects for up to 8 weeks..." That's bad news for bees.

For a while now, I've been writing about the threat to honeybee populations from Bayer's neonicotinoid pesticides, which are synthetic derivatives of nicotine that attack insects' nervous systems. Here's last week's post on new USDA-funded research that indicts Bayer's product.

Up to this point, I've been focusing on neonicotinoids used for big industrial crops like corn. Virtually the entire US corn crop—which covers more than 90 million acres, far more than any other crop—is grown with seed treated with Bayer's chemical. Neonicotinoids are what's known as "systemic," meaning they suffuse and "express" themselves in the whole plant when it germinates, including nectar and pollen. That's precisely what makes them so effective at attacking pests—and, unfortunately, "nontarget" species like honeybees and other beneficial insects too.

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Cocina de Tom: Pork Ribs in Red-Chili Sauce

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 4:00 PM EST
Chili Mecca: a stand in Mexico City's Mercado Lazaro Cardenas.

I grew up in the northern reaches of the original Mexican territory (now known as Texas). This accident of geography exposed me at a tender age to chili peppers. I've never recovered, and my chili obsession only deepened when I lived in Mexico City for two years in the late 1990s.

After years of immersion in other culinary traditions—Italian, French, etc.—I'm now capable of not lashing everything with tear-jerking quantities of chilis. And in fact, in actual Mexican food, people use chilis with great subtlety—there are condiments that are wickedly hot, but in most dishes, chilis offer a low-key, back-of-the-mouth burn, not a punch in the mouth.

I still love chilis, and use them pretty much every chance I get. They are a magical ingredient—bright-flavored and fiery when fresh; deep, rich, and often smoky (while retaining the fire) in dried form. Mexico City's neighborhood markets are each a kind of dried-chili Mecca, featuring several stalls that specialize in a variety of these dark-colored treasures.

Buying celery fro the broth at the market. A vendor sells me celery for the brothOn a recent trip to that wondrous city (hectic, scary, glorious all at once), some friends and I met at Mercado Lazaro Cardenas  in the city's Del Valle neighborhood to shop for dinner and have a coffee at a fantastic small-batch roaster called Café Passmar that randomly resides in the middle of the market. Except for the fancy coffee, Mercado Lazaro Cardenas is really just another neighborhood market in a city that's still teeming with them, despite the advent of corporate supermarkets. That is to say, it's a pretty spectacular place, packed with stalls featuring all manner of fruit and vegetables and meat. We picked up a bunch of chilis, some tortillas—and stuff for way more side dishes than usually go into a Tom's Kitchen column (fresh fava beans, huitlacoche (corn fungus), little red potatoes, wild mushrooms, and chard).

For pork, I confess that I forsook the mercado for one of those supermarkets. I did so because Mexico's pork production has dramaticaly industrialized over the past decade and a half—as chronicled in this excellent Nation article by David Bacon on the topic—and I no longer can be sure that even independent meat purveyors aren't hawking Smithfield dreck. So We took a detour on the way home to a fancy supermarket called City Market—in English, no less—and got pork ribs labeled "natural." Whether that label actually means anything will require more investigation.

Fortified with some terrific mescal, we did the following to the pork. Warning: Cocina de Tom is a bit more involved than Tom's Kitchen; but it's easy!

Is Walmart the Answer to 'Food Deserts"?

| Thu Jan. 12, 2012 8:44 PM EST

Walmart and other mega-retailers hold the key to bringing fresh, healthy food into low-income urban areas where grocery options are severely limited.

At least, that's what some prominent observers argue. At a July 2011 press conference with execs from Walmart, Walgreens, and SuperValu, Michelle Obama heralded a pledge by those retailers to open or expand 1,500 stores in areas defined by the USDA to be "food deserts"—i.e., lacking in access to fresh food. "These stores estimate that they will create tens of thousands of jobs and serve approximately 9.5 million people in these communities throughout the country," a White House press release declared. The First Lady herself, flanked by Walmart execs, added: "The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country."

Will Allen, the pioneering urban farmer and community-food activist, evidently agrees. After his group Growing Power received a $1 million grant from Walmart last fall, the McArthur genius grantee declared:

Wal-mart is the world's largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps.

Such assertions jibe with Walmart's latest growth strategy, which is to expand aggressively into dense urban zones after having already saturated suburban and rural areas with outlets. But do they jibe with reality? Obama and Allen are assuming that the presence of the globe's largest retailer and grocer would automatically increase healthy food access in low-income neighborhoods. I've never seen any research to back that claim up.

Meanwhile, a recent study released by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office throws serious doubt on the idea of Walmart as food/jobs panacea for the urban poor. Stringer's staff put it together the report amid a bitter controversy over Walmart's stated intention of opening a store in New York City, which the New York City Council and several community groups oppose but have limited power to stop.

Are Pesticides Behind Massive Bee Die-Offs?

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 3:05 PM EST

For the German chemical giant Bayer, neonicotinoid pesticides—synthetic derivatives of nicotine that attack insects' nervous systems—are big business. In 2010, the company reeled in 789 million euros (more than $1 billion) in revenue from its flagship neonic products imidacloprid and clothianidin. The company's latest quarterly report shows that its "seed treatment" segment—the one that includes neonics—is booming. In the quarter that ended on September 30, sales for the company's seed treatments jumped 28 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

Such results no doubt bring cheer to Bayer's shareholders. But for honeybees—whose population has come under severe pressure from a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder—the news is decidedly less welcome. A year ago on Grist, I told the story of how this class of pesticides had gained approval from the EPA in a twisted process based on deeply flawed (by the EPA's own account) Bayer-funded science. A little later, I reported that research by the USDA's top bee scientist, Jeff Pettis, suggests that even tiny exposure to neonics can seriously harm honeybees.

Now a study from Purdue University researchers casts further suspicion on Bayer's money-minting concoctions. To understand the new paper—published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One—it's important to know how seed treatments work, which is like this: The pesticides are applied directly to seeds before planting, and then get absorbed by the plant's vascular system. They are "expressed" in the pollen and nectar, where they attack the nervous systems of insects. Bayer targeted its treatments at the most prolific US crop—corn—and since 2003, corn farmers have been blanketing millions of acres of farmland with neonic-treated seeds.

Peak Maple: Climate Change Wants to Ruin Your Pancakes

| Sun Jan. 8, 2012 6:00 AM EST

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.