Tom Philpott - March 2013

Not Just the Bees: Bayer's Pesticide May Harm Birds, Too

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Geese in a corn field

Once again this spring, farmers will begin planting at least 140 million acres—a land mass roughly equal to the combined footprints of California and Washington state—with seeds (mainly corn and soy) treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Commercial landscapers and home gardeners will get into the act, too—neonics are common in lawn and garden products. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know all of that is probably bad news for honeybees and other pollinators, as a growing body of research shows—including three studies released just ahead of last year's planting season.

But bees aren't the only iconic springtime creature threatened by the ubiquitous pesticide, whose biggest makers are the European giants Bayer and Syngenta. It turns out that birds are too, according to an alarming analysis co-authored by Pierre Mineau, a retired senior research scientist at Environment Canada (Canada's EPA), published by the American Bird Conservancy. And not just birds themselves, but also the water-borne insect species that serve as a major food source for birds, fish, and amphibians.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tom's Kitchen: Raw Root-Veggie Slaw

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In most areas of the country, late March is one of those awkward times to shop at the farmers market. Glamorous spring vegetables like asparagus and artichokes aren't in yet; winter staples like beets, carrots, and radishes are still coming out, but you're starting to get bored of them. That's the exact situation now playing out in Central Texas, with the added annoyance that my favorite veggies of all, leafy greens, are already on the way out, laid low by the fast-warming weather.

Even so, I was able to coax a fresh, fun dish out of what was abundant at the farmers market: beets, kohlrabi (a bulbous relative of broccoli, cabbage, and the rest of the brassica family), carrots, and spring onions. What inspired me was a gadget that has been stuck on a low shelf of my kitchen, unused, for years: a mandoline. I had always thought of mandolines as fancy devices that I would never be able to afford. When my mom gave me this inexpensive, plastic Japanese-brand model as a gift a few years ago, I never got around to trying it out. As an experiment, I decided to subject my market bounty to its razor-sharp blades, and came away impressed: a zippy, crunchy salad that tasted like spring on a salad plate, not winter warmed over.

You can make a very similar, slightly less attractive salad by simply grating the veggies, or slicing them as thinly as possible. Use any combo of winter veggies—except, of course, for ones that really need to be cooked to be enjoyed, like potatoes. The combo I used brought together sweet (carrots), earthiness (beets), and spice (kohlrabi), as well as a great clash of colors. A radish or two would also have been nice. It's also important to brighten the dish with plenty of herbs—parsley and mint work great—as well as a tart dressing.

Hogwash: Big Ag's Ban on Caging Pregnant Pigs Is Just For Show

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Pregnant sows in gestastation crates at a Smithfield facility, 2010, documented by a Humane Society of the United States investigation.

Among all the various dodgy aspects of factory-style meat production, the use of tight cages to confine pregnant female pigs surely ranks among the most awful. The hog industry isn't keen on displaying this practice to the public, but in 2010, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) planted a camera-toting undercover investigator in a hog facility run by Smithfield Foods, the globe's largest hog producer and pork processor. You can read the report here, but you can't beat the video for sheer visceral effect:

In the wake of the exposé, Smithfield saw fit to recommit itself to phasing out the practice in its own hog-production facilities by 2017. (The company had made a similar pledge in 2007 and backed off from it in 2009, claiming that financial losses in its hog-production business made the capital investments necessary for the transition too expensive.) In 2012, its rival Hormel made a similar pledge; and Cargill, another massive pork processor and hog producer, says that it has already phased out gestation stalls in half of its hog facilities. A raft of high-profile companies that use pork in their products—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Oscar Mayer, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Denny's, Jack in the Box, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Sodexo, Sysco, ARAMARK, and Bon Appétit Management—have promised to stop buying from suppliers who treat pigs in this fashion. And no fewer than nine states have banned the practice, HSUS reports.

The states that have banned gestation crates do not include the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs.

So, gestation crates are on the way out, right? Well, maybe not. Consider that the states that have banned the practice do not include Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, or Illinois—the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs*. The ban on gestation crates in Rhode Island is a nice gesture, but not likely to move the industry. Given the power the meat industry wields in these hog-heavy states, it's hard to imagine such a ban in, say, Iowa.

Now check out this column by Rick Berman, a notorious PR hired gun whose past clients include Big Tobacco, in the industry trade journal Pork Network. If the piece is any indication of the pork industry's commitment to banning sow crates, then the practice seems pretty entrenched for the long haul. Berman is a battle-scarred veteran of pork-industry battles. During its nasty and ultimately failed fight to stave off unionization at its vast Tar Heel pork-processing facility, Smithfield hired Berman to roll out TV commercials trashing union leaders, Bloomberg reported last year. And Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom even runs a website dedicated to "Keeping a watchful eye on the Humane Society of the US."

Will the Old Fulton Fish Market Become the Next Pike Place?

| Fri Mar. 22, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
One of two abandoned buildings that remain from the old Fulton Fish Market.

For nearly 200 years in Lower Manhattan, Fulton Fish Market served as a bustling, aromatic, and, late in its tenure, reportedly Mob-connected wholesaler linking the city's restaurants and food retailers to the eastern seaboard's fisheries. Long before its emergence as a covered market in the early 19th century, the site had been a place where people gathered to trade fish and other foodstuffs. The market's vendors moved to the Bronx in 2005, leaving behind two historic remnants, known as the Tin Building and the New Market Building.  

Now there's a battle afoot over what should become of those two abandoned city-owned edifices, which sit on the East River just south of Brooklyn Bridge at the edge of South Street Seaport, a once-vibrant commercial port that was transformed in the 1980s into a dismal mall. On the one side, there's the folks at New Amsterdam Market, who want to transform the two-building site into a grand food market, in the style of Seattle's Pike Place or Philadelphia's Reading Terminal. (New Amsterdam Market hosts weekly markets outside of the old Fulton buildings, with the hope of one day running a permanent, publicly owned indoor market at the site. ) On the other, there's Howard Hughes Corp. (a real estate holding firm spun off from a company originally started by the famous magnate Howard Hughes), which is in negotiations with the city to redevelop it and is already in the process of redeveloping South Street Seaport. The company's plans for the old fish-market sites remain murky, but aren't likely to include a vast, city-owned food emporium.

Yes, even LA has a proper central market. GoTo10/Flickr

Like all land-use issues in New York City, this one is complicated. But I agree with New Amsterdam: The two historic waterfront market buildings are a glittering municipal asset, and the city should move quickly to re-establish them as a place where people assemble to buy and sell food. Municipal food markets might seem like relics from a lost pre-supermarket past, but they're actually quite durable—and they're surging in popularity as Americans are thinking more critically about how and what they eat. Detroit is a city perennially down on its luck, but its Eastern Market, which dates to 1891, still thrives. Same with Cleveland's 100-year-old West Side Market, Seattle's Pike (1907), and Philly's Reading (1893). Even ultra-modern Los Angeles, land of highways and sprawl, has supported its downtown Grand Central Market since 1917 (and it's now getting a makeover).

Then there's Barcelona's La Boqueria, London's Borough Market, and Mexico City's La Merced, all occupying land on which food has been traded for hundreds of years, all now occupying structures built in the 19th century, and all bustling today, drawing locals and tourists alike. Meanwhile, what Zola called the "belly of Paris," Les Halles Market, lives on only in remnants. The 1970s-era decision to obliterate it, making way for a mall, will haunt the city forever.

London's Borough Market, circa 1860—and still going strong today. Wikimedia Commons

In their odd status as both old-fashioned and anything-but-obsolete, city markets resemble trains and the venerable buildings where people alight to catch them. As the late historian Tony Judt put it in a gorgeous 2011 essay, trains "are perennially modern—even if they slip from sight for a while." They already represented "modern life incarnate by the 1840s — hence their appeal to 'modernist' painters," he writes. And yet, "the Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV are the very icons of technological wizardry and high comfort at 190 mph today."

Judt also noted the magnificent durability of old train stations—when they haven't been sacrificed to the wrecking ball like Manhattan's original Penn Station. Mentioning Paris' Gare de l'Est (1852), London’s Paddington Station (1854), Bombay's Victoria Station (1887), and Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof (1893), Judt notes that "they work in ways fundamentally identical to the way they worked when they were first built. This is a testament to the quality of their design and construction, of course; but it also speaks to their perennial contemporaneity. They do not become 'out of date.' "

Judt's description captures both the romance and enduring utility of city markets. As the explosive growth of farmers markets—up more than fourfold since 1994—shows, more and more Americans want to eat food that's an expression of their surrounding landscape, processed, prepared, and vended when possible by people around them. The popularity of farmers markets also suggests that consumers want to buy food in interesting spaces that put them face-to-face with independent vendors. A covered, year-round market, teeming with purveyors and producers of  regionally sourced veggies, cheese, meat, and pickled foods, would fill that role even better than Manhattan's uncovered, four-days-per-week Union Square Greenmarket can.

Barcelona's La Boqueria, thronged as usual. Ulf Liljankoski/Flickr

And such a food market would leverage and showcase the city's food-manufacturing revival, which the New York City Economic Development Corp. calls a "key component of the City’s economy and one of the City’s industrial success stories." As of 2011, New York housed 1,000 food manufacturing businesses, employing 14,000 people and generating $2.9 billion in sales, NYCEDC claims. (In a 2010 post, I wrote about the economic possibilities and limits of the city's budding food-artisan movement.)

On Wednesday, a small breakthrough in the fight over Fulton emerged. Under pressure from supporters of the Fulton market idea, who had swarmed a hearing on the South Street Seaport redevelopment a week before, the New York City Council announced it had reached deal with the Howard Hughes Corp. on the redevelopment of one of the old Fulton market's historic buildings, the Tin Building. According to a Council press release, reprinted here, Howard Hughes agreed that "any proposal for a Mixed Use Project at the Tin Building must include a food market occupying at least 10,000 square feet of floor space that includes locally and regionally sourced food items that are sold by multiple vendors and is open to the public seven days a week."

That's a start, but it's not adequate. Robert LaValva, president of New Amsterdam Market, told me that the two remaining market buildings occupy a combined 50,000 square feet—versus 180,000 square feet for London's Borough Market, he added. Cutting down the remaining Fulton footprint to a fifth of its potential total is a cramped vision for what should be a grand market. LaValva vowed to me that the fight to restore the full market will continue. I hope it does.

Flies, Maggots, Rats, and Lots of Poop: What Big Ag Doesn't Want You To See

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Photo from a Mercy For Animals investigation of Quality Egg of New England, 2009.

What's it like inside a factory farm? If the livestock and meat industries have their way, what little view we have inside the walls of these animal-reviewing facilities may soon be obscured. For the second year in a row, the industry is backing bills in various statehouses that would criminalize undercover investigations of livestock farms. The Humane Society of the US, one of the animal-welfare groups most adept at conducting such hidden-camera operations, counts active "ag gag" bills in no fewer than nine states. Many of them are based on a model conjured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),  a corporate-funded group that generates industry-friendly legislation language for state legislatures, Associated Press reports.

To understand the stakes of this battle, consider this 2010 Food and Drug Administration report on conditions in several vast egg-producing facilities in Iowa owned by a man named Jack Decoster. I teased out some highlights at the time of its release; in short, it involves flies, maggots, rats, wild birds, tainted feed, workers ignoring sanitary rules, and lots and lots of chickenshit. The report portrays the facilities as a kind of fecal nightmare, with manure mounding up in eight-foot piles—providing perches for escaped hens to peck feed from teeming cages—overflowing in pits, and seeping through concrete foundations.

It was, in short, a blunt and damning portrayal, an example of a federal watchdog agency training the public gaze on the misdeeds of a powerful industry. The investigation led the FDA to ban the offending operations from selling fresh eggs for several months.

USDA inspectors repeatedly witnessed dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production.

Trouble is, the FDA's exposé came after those factory-like operations had been forced to recall nearly half a billion eggs potentially tainted with salmonella, and an outbreak that sickened nearly 2,000 people. It later turned out that the company's own tests had detected salmonella in the facilities, including egg-carrying conveyor belts, no fewer than 73 times in the two years before the outbreak; and that inspectors from the US Agriculture Department had repeatedly witnessed unsanitary conditions like dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production, because they were only there to "grade" the size of eggs, not monitor the potential for disease outbreaks (which falls to the FDA).

Given that the egg company itself (which turned out to be part of the nation's largest egg empire at the time) and federal watchdogs both failed to prevent the outbreak despite so many troubling signs, you have to wonder what would have happened if an animal-welfare group like Mercy For Animals or the Humane Society of the US had managed to sneak in cameras and record conditions before those half-billion suspect eggs made it onto supermarket shelves.

In fact, months before the outbreak, HSUS did get operatives to pose as a worker at several giant egg factories in Iowa, operated by Decoster rivals Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises. Here's some of what they found:

From the report:

• Trapped birds unable to reach food and water: Battery cages can trap hens by their wings, necks, legs, and feet in the wire, causing other birds to trample the weakened animals, usually resulting in a slow, painful death.
• High mortality in layer and pullet sheds: The HSUS investigator pulled dead young hens, some of them mummified (meaning they'd been rotting in the cages for weeks), from cages every day.
Failure to maintain manure pits: According to one worker, the manure pit under a pullet shed had not been cleaned in two years. Rose Acre workers claimed that some hens are blinded because of excessive ammonia levels.
• Abandoned hens: Some hens manage to escape from their cages and fall into the manure pits below.

The exposure prompted Rose Acre Farms to undergo "third-party audit" of the facilities in question, while Rembrandt publicly declared it would investigate its facilities, adding to a farm trade journal that "it would have been beneficial had the Humane Society come directly to us right after the alleged violations occurred." We'll never know if the HSUS investigation caused changes that saved consumers from exposure to salmonella or other pathogens.

Federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker.

And in 2011, a Mercy For Animals employee got inside yet another Iowa egg company called Sparboe Farms and released a video depicting dead birds being left to rot in tight cages also occupied by live birds and flies, among other sordid scenes. In a web posting after the release, the company's president wrote that the video had documented acts are "totally unacceptable and completely at odds with our values as egg farmers," adding that the employees responsible had been fired. Just before the MFA release, FDA came out with the results of its own investigation of the facility, which found several violations—again potentially saving the public from a pathogen outbreak.

Last year, of course, Iowa and its famously agribiz-aligned governor, Terry Branstad, passed the nation's first ag-gag law—meaning that any undercover investigator who exposes such abuses on one of the state's hundreds of factory-scale hog and egg facilities will now be subject to criminal prosecution. The triumph in Iowa marks a significant victory in Big Ag's push to keep its practices behind closed doors, because Iowa is the nation's number-one state in both hog and egg-laying hen production.

In a time of fiscal austerity, federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker. If the meat industry wins these ag-gag battles playing out in farm states nationwide, who will serve as the public's eyes on the factory farm floor? Answer: essentially, no one.

The USDA's Sustainable Food Champion Steps Down

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 2:45 PM EDT
Kathleen Merrigan, outgoing deputy secretary of agriculture.

Back in 2009, when President Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan as second in command at the US Department of Agriculture, celebration erupted in sustainable-food circles. Last Thursday afternoon, the USDA announced the imminent end of Merrigan's run as deputy secretary of ag with a terse note from USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It gave no reason for her departure, which is effective at the end of April. 

For generations, the message from the US Department of Agriculture to the nation's farmers could be summed up in the famous piece of advice offered by Ezra Taft Benson, President Dwight Eisenhower's USDA chief: "get big or get out." That's why Merrigan's tenure is so significant. Under her influence, the USDA suddenly began to urge consumers to "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," and made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems supplied by farms of varying scales: the opposite of the globalized, monolithic system envisioned by Benson and put into place with the consent of his successors.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Sen. Tester: Who Put These Agribiz-Friendly Riders into This Unrelated Bill?

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. Jon Tester, on his Montana farm.

Last summer, the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted an odd provision into a 90-page ag appropriations bill—one that had something to do with money, but nothing to do with the matter at hand, federal appropriations. In what became known as the biotech rider, the provision would have allowed the planting of genetically modified crop varieties even if a federal judge rules that they have been approved by the USDA improperly—as happened, for example, in 2010, when a federal judge issued an injunction against the planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets on the grounds that the USDA had approved them without a substantial environmental review.

In a post last year, I laid out why such protection is so important to the handful of companies that dominate ag biotech: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont). Short story: Their current products are failing, hounded by weed and insect resistance, and they need to get their next-generation products—which are really just intensified versions of their currents ones—to market as quickly as possible. Lawsuits and court rulings on environmental grounds can only gum up the works.

Well, the biotech rider failed last year, but now it's back—showing up this time in another bill that has nothing to do with the regulation of ag biotech, the Senate's Continuing Resolution. This monster piece of legislation is necessary to fund the government once the next (absurd) fiscal deadline hits March 27. The rider in question can be found lurking on page 80 of its 587 pages (it's section 735).

China's Dead-Hog Scandal Is Gross—But So Is the Hog Feces in US Waterways

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Dead hogs outside an Iowa hog confinement.

In a river that flows through Shanghai, Chinese officials have pulled 6,000 dead pigs from the water, CNN reported. The situation is undeniably grotesque: "Sanitation workers, clad in masks and plastic suits, have been fishing the bruised pig bodies surfacing in the Huangpu River. The pink, decomposing blobs have wreaked foul odors and alarmed residents."

According to CNN, the corpses began turning up in the river after a government crackdown on the selling of meat from diseased pigs. In a bind, farmers sought a riparian solution to the problem of disposing them. Gross.

China's pig-dumping scandal must be seen the context of the nation's rapidly industrializing hog-production system—as this 2011 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report shows, national policy is driving a lightning-fast switch from backyard hog production to vast US-style hog factories. (And now poultry production is following suit.)

But as China reshapes its meat production in our image, we have no standing to feel superior when scandals like the current one in Shanghai's hinterland erupt. That's because we don't do a very good job of protecting our waterways from the hog industry, either. Consider Iowa, which houses around 18 million hogs, making it our most hog-intensive state. All of those hogs concentrated into a relatively small space generate unthinkable amounts of toxic manure. How much? Food & Water Watch weighs in:

This Man Wants You to Believe That BPA-Laced Plastic Is Harmless

| Wed Mar. 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an industrial chemical found in everything from food-can linings to cigarette filters to retail receipts. Nationwide testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found it in "nearly all" of its subjects. A growing body of research has established BPA as an endocrine-disrupting chemical that does harm at tiny doses. But is BPA no big deal, after all?

That's the message of a presentation given at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science last month by Justin Teeguarden, a scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a lab that operates under contract with the US Department of Energy. According to a PNNL press release about the presentation, Teeguarden analyzed 150 BPA exposure studies and found that "people's exposure may be many times too low for BPA to effectively mimic estrogen in the human body." The study's funder, the press release adds, was the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Teeguarden's presentation drew wide media attention. The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Agence France-Presse, and the Independent all weighed in with comforting reports about the possibly innocuous nature of BPA. Writing on his Discover Magazine blog, Keith Kloor even chided me for not mentioning Teeguarden's work in my post last week about a recent study on BPA and other harmful chemicals.

Teeguarden's assessment has not been published—in a peer-reviewed journal or anywhere else

But before you dust off that old BPA-laden sippy cup for your kid, it's worth digging a little deeper into the source. First of all, all of those media reports neglected to mention that Teeguarden's assessment has not been published—in a peer-reviewed journal or anywhere else.

Teeguarden declined to speak to me but did answer some questions over email. I asked him if his study had been submitted for publication. "Not published yet," he replied. I pressed him on the question of whether it had been submitted for publication. He didn't respond. When I asked him if he would email me a copy of the Powerpoint presentation he gave at the AAAS conference, he replied, "Happy to share post acceptance," meaning, I assume, that he would turn it over once it had been accepted for publication.

The lack of publication combined with Teeguarden's refusal to release a presentation he has delivered in a public forum make it extremely difficult to assess his project. Laura Vandenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts who has published research finding significant levels of BPA in human blood, told me that it's "highly unusual" for an unpublished work to generate so much attention. When a reporter asks her to comment on a study, she told me, "what I normally do is to ask for a copy of the manuscript," she said. In this case, of course, there is no manuscript available.

Bangladesh Kicks Our Butt on Agriculture

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
A John Deere combine harvests corn.

Every year, nearly 30 percent of US farmland gets planted in corn, and our farmers produce close to 40 percent of the corn produced on Earth each year.

So why do we grow so much of this one crop—and what do we get for the effort? I've been pondering those questions since I began writing about food politics eight years ago. The answers I've come up with (see here and here for examples) have not been popular with the loose alliance of firms that provide seeds and agrichemicals to farmers to grow corn and that buy the harvest and turn it into a variety of products. Back in 2010, a corn-industry PR person once lashed out at my conclusions as the "rantings of an elitist with an anti-corn agenda."

I wonder what my critic, Cathryn Wojcicki, or @CornyCate as she's known on Twitter, will think of this cold-blooded examination of our corn agriculture from Jonathan Foley, Director, a professor of ecology at University of Minnesota. Foley won't be easy for the industry to dismiss. He's the coauthor of a 2012 Nature study finding that yields from industrial-scale farming trump those of organic by 25 percent—an analysis I criticized as narrow and incomplete. So he's not exactly an "anti-corn elitist" by disposition.