Tom Philpott - 2012

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Tom's Kitchen: Quick and Easy Zucchini Fritters

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

September in Austin is a slightly awkward time at the farmers market. Months of brutal heat has finished off most of the summer harvest, but the fall goods like kale, collards, and winter squash aren't quite ready yet. One thing you can still get in abundance is zucchini, which I love—but at this point, I can't do any more grilled, sauteed or roasted zucchini slices. So when I picked up a few beautiful ones recently, all I could think to do with them was grate them into fritters.

Fritters sometimes strike me as too fussy. But doing it this time reminded me just how quick and easy they are—and delicious, too. Served over a salad—even a kale salad—with a glass of white wine or lager, they're a great late-summer light dinner.

Zucchini Fritters
2 medium zucchini
2 eggs
1 teaspoon sea salt
A fistful of parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced fine
A good lashing of freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of red-hot chile clakes
1/2 cup flour (hippie that I am, I used whole wheat)
Olive oil, for pan frying

Belle of the September market: zephyr zucchini Belle of the September market: zephyr zucchini Using a box grater, grate zucchini into a large bowl. Move the shredded zucchini to one side of the bowl, tilt the bowl, and give the zucchini a squeeze to press out excess water. Discard the water. Put the zucchini back to the bottom of the bowl and spread it to the edges, creating a hollow in the middle. Crack the eggs into the hollow, add the rest of the ingredients except for the flour and cooking oil, and whisk the eggs with a fork, roughly incorporating everything, until the egg is uniformly yellow. With a wooden spoon, gently stir everything together. Spread the flour over the mixture evenly—to a avoid lumps—and gently stir in to combine.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add enough oil to generously cover the bottom. When the oil is very hot, using a table spoon, drop in mounds of the zucchini mixture, pressing gently. Avoid letting them touch. Cook until they're well browned, and flip. When they're browned on both sides, they're done.

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BPA From Cans Messes With Your Ovaries

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Ordinarily, I'd object to the practice of knowingly subjecting fellow primates to a harmful substance, even for the sake of science. And that's exactly what researchers from Washington State University and the University of California-Davis did for a study just released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (abstract; full study): They fed female rhesus monkeys low doses of the industrial chemical Bisphenol A (BPA).

But I'll give these researchers a pass. That's because most of the US public gets its own tiny daily dose of BPA—the stuff is widely used by the food-packaging industry, and traces of it leach out through metal cans and other food and beverage containers. A 2003 survey (summarized here) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of it in 93 percent of urine samples in Americans six years old and older—and these findings are "considered representative of exposures in the United States," the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states.

What is this constant exposure to BPA doing to us? That's the legitimate question the WSU/UC-Davis team was examining when they spiked the diets of gestating female rhesus monkeys—a species with a reproductive system very similar to humans'—with levels of BPA equivalent to what most Americans get through their diets. And what they found is disturbing: "New evidence that the plastic additive BPA can disrupt women's reproductive systems, causing chromosome damage, miscarriages and birth defects," as the WSU web site put it in a summary.

My SXSW Eco Panel: the Future of Organic

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 11:20 PM EDT

For years, organic food has been among the fastest-growing segments in the US food market—which is exactly why mega-corporations like General Mills and Coca-cola have bought their way into it. Yet for all the growth and all the marketing heft brought to the table by these giants, organics still make up just 4 percent of US food sales. And in in the field, organic ag has even less of a toe-hold—of the 922 million acres of US farmland, just around 5 million acres are organic. Italy alone, barely larger than the state of Arizona, has 3 million acres under organic cultivation.

Is organic food bound to be just a niche market to be leveraged by big companies? Or does it organic ag present a big-picture, fundamental critique of the current food system—and can it expand out of its current niche?

I'll be discussing these meaty questions next week with some really smart people at the South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin, in a panel moderated by urban farmer and magazine editor Jason Mark of San Francisco's Alemany Farm and Earth Island Journal. Other panelists are  Erin Flynn of Austin's Green Gate Farm and Don Carr of the Environmental Working Group. The panel, called "Good Food: Turning Popularity into Power," takes place Thursday, Oct. 4 (details here). If you're in town, stop by.

Does Monsanto Man Mitt Romney Secretly Eat Organic?

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Organic food? Not for you 47 percenters.

Mitt Romney hasn't divulged many details about what kind of agriculture policy he'd pursue as president. (Sound familiar?) But all signs suggest that he'd follow the agribiz party line. As Wayne Barrett showed in a recent Nation piece (my comment here), Romney has ties to agribusiness giant Monsanto that date to the '70s, when GMO seeds were an R&D project, not a business model. According to Barrett, Romney, then a young Bain consultant, helped nudge Monsanto on its path away from disgraced industrial chemical concern toward its current status as world-beating agribiz player. Then there's the agribiz execs and shills the GOP nominee tapped for his campaign's Agriculture Advisory Committee.

But guess what? In the privacy of his campaign jet, the beleaguered presidential contender apparently eats organic, reports the Today show's Peter Alexander:

Does GMO Corn Really Cause Tumors in Rats?

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Mammary tumors that developed in rats fed GMO corn and/or low levels of Roundup. Whether the feeding regimes can be said to have caused the tumors remains a matter of debate.

This week, a French research team published a paper in a peer-reviewed US journal showing that rats exposed to low doses of both genetically modified corn and the widely used herbicide Roundup had negative health effects. The results, already generating plenty of debate, are not as clear-cut as they seem at first glance. But they do shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat—and establish an urgent need for more long-term research.

Before I dig into the study's details, it's worth pondering what we know about the long-term effects of eating genetically modified foods. Surprisingly little, it turns out, given how ubiquitous they are in the US food supply. Genetically engineered seeds first hit commercial farm fields in 1996, and quickly became ubiquitous in the largest and most subsidized of US crops. Today, most non-organic US corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets are GMO—and combined, they provide a vast portion of the sweeteners, fats, and additives used by food manufacturers, and nearly all of the feed used by the meat industry.