Tom Philpott - May 2013

Rogue Monsanto Wheat Sprouts in Oregon

| Fri May 31, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Amber waves of gain? Not so much, for Monsanto.

One of the four major US crops—corn, soybeans, hay (alfalfa), and wheat—is not like the others.

For one, wheat is mainly consumed directly by people, while the others are mostly used as animal feed. Its status as people food—the stuff of bread, the staff of life—probably explains why wheat is different from the other three in another way: It's also the only one that genetically modified Monsanto seed giant hasn't turned into a cash cow. The company has made massive profits churning out corn, soy, and (most recently) alfalfa seeds genetically altered to withstand doses of its own herbicide, Roundup. But the company has never commercialized a GM wheat variety—and stopped trying back in 2004, largely because of consumer pushback against directly consuming a GM crop. And thank goodness, too, because Roundup Ready technology is now failing, giving rise to a plague of herbicide resistant weeds and a gusher of toxic herbicides.

Wheat's non-GMO status is why the Internet went berserk when the US Department of Agriculture revealed Wednesday that Roundup Ready wheat had sprouted up on a farm in Oregon. According to the USDA, a farmer discovered the plants growing in a place they shouldn't have been and tried unsuccessfully to kill them with Roundup. Oops. USDA testing confirmed that the rogue wheat was the same experimental Roundup Ready variety that Monsanto had last been approved to test in Oregon in 2001.

Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat.

The revelation had immediate trade implications. About half the overall US wheat crop gets exported—and Oregon's wheat farmers export 90 percent of their output. Many countries accept US-grown GM corn and soy for animal feed. But as the USDA noted, no country on Earth has approved the sale of GM wheat. And if Roundup Ready wheat is growing on one farm, our trading partners might legitimately ask, what guarantee is there that it's not growing on others?  Already, Japan has responded by suspending imports of US wheat, Bloomberg reports.

Maximizing exports has always been a main priority of the Obama Administration's ag policy, and, the USDA is scrambling to investigate the extent to which Roundup Ready wheat has entered the food supply, no doubt hoping to stave off a full-on trade crisis. "We are taking this very seriously," a USDA official told Bloomberg. "We have a very active investigation going on in several states in the western US."

Meanwhile, the question of how those GM seeds found their way onto that Oregon farm—more than a decade after the state's last GM wheat trials—looms. Wheat can transfer genes from one field to another pretty easily through cross-pollination. As Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist of Pesticide Action Network of North America, put it in a statement, "once released into the environment, the GE genie does not willingly go back into the bottle." I'll be eagerly awaiting updates as the USDA continues its investigations.

 

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Is the US About to Become One Big Factory Farm for China?

| Wed May 29, 2013 4:29 PM EDT

The small number of companies that dominate global meat production is about to get smaller. The Chinese corporation Shuanghui International, already the majority shareholder of China's largest meat producer, has just bought US giant Smithfield, the globe's largest hog producer and pork packer, in a $4.7 billion cash deal. (It still has to get past Smithfield's shareholders and the US Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment, which reviews takeovers of US companies.)

Now, I hope this merger of titans doesn't provoke a xenophobic reaction. Shuanghui has strong ties to China's central government, but it also counts Goldman Sachs among its major shareholders. And the US meat industry is already quite globalized. Back in 2009, a Brazilian giant called JBS had already barreled into the US market, and now holds huge positions in beef, pork, and chicken processing here. And true, as China has ramped up its food production—and rapidly reshaped hog production on the industrial US model—it has produced more than it share of food safety scandals, including recent ones involving hogs.

But as I have pointed out, the US pork industry is no prize either—it pollutes water as a matter of course, hollows out the rural areas on which it alights, relies heavily on routine antibiotic use, recently inspired a government watchdog group to lament "egregious" violations of food safety and animal welfare code in slaughterhouses, and uh, has an explosive manure foam problem.

So forget about where HQ is for the vast conglomerate that ultimately profits from running Smithfield's factory-scale hog farms and slaughterhouses. The real question is: What does this deal telling us about the global food system and the future of food? Reuters offers a hint:

The thrust of the deal is to send the U.S. made pork to China, a factor that one person familiar with the matter said would help during Shuanghui's CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment] review.

If Reuters is right that deal's purpose is to grease the wheels of trade carrying US hogs to China and its enormous domestic pork market, then we're looking at the further expansion of factory-scale swine farming here in the US: all of the festering troubles I listed above, intensified. For Smithfield itself, the deal is savvy, because Americans are eating less meat. In order to maintain endless profit growth, the company needs to conquer markets where per capita meat consumption is growing fast, and the China market itself represents the globe's biggest prize in that regard.  

As for China, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy showed in a blockbuster 2011 report, the central government strived for years for self-sufficiency in pork, even as demand for it exploded, by rapidly industrializing production along the model pioneered by Smithfield. By essentially buying Smithfield, the government may be throwing in the towel—saying, essentially, let's just offshore our hog production, or at least a huge part of it, to the US.

In an ironic twist, China appears to be taking advantage of lax environmental and labor standards in the US to supply its citizens with something it can't get enough of. Industrial pork: the iPhone's culinary mirror image.

How I Got Hooked on Weeds—and Why You Should, Too

| Wed May 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Weed it and reap: a salad of lamb's quarters, purslane, and parsley, all from Austin's Boggy Creek Farm.

When I moved to a small organic farm in 2004, I quickly got hooked on weeds (note plural). First, there would be salads of chickweed—a grassy-tasting plant that popped up just after the ground thawed in spring. Next, from the marshy banks of a creek, tender, peppery watercress would sprout. Soon after, dandelion greens would proliferate, adding a bitter note to those spring weed salads. And then, along an old wood road up the forested mountainside, would come a flush of stinging nettle—we'd harvest the leaves with gloves, boil their sting away, and add them to pastas and pizzas. Finally, by high summer, my favorite weeds of all would emerge from plowed fields: a high-rising, spinach-related green called lamb's quarters, and a low-slung, creeping plant called purslane, with its succulent, lemony leaves.

We never found much of a market for these delicacies (save for the watercress, which chefs loved). But they became staples of the farmhouse kitchen, supplements to the cultivated greens that went mainly to the farmers market and to our CSA shareholders. Now that I spend more of my time off the farm and in a city, one of the things I miss most is easy access to these flavorful wild foods.

Turns out, the void I'm feeling may be more than aesthetic. According to an op-ed by Jo Robinson in the Sunday New York Times, wild edible plants tend to be loaded with phytonutrients, "the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia."

And most cultivated crops—even celebrated healthy foods like spinach and blueberries—are pale copies of their wild progenitors in phytochemical terms, Robinson shows, adding some eye-popping infographics for emphasis. She is not talking about the small but significant decline in nutrient density since the industrialization of agriculture half a century ago, but rather a steep drop in phytonutrients that began when we "stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers." Robinson writes:

Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I've discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.

I would push back against the inverse relationship Robinson posits between palatability and nutrition. I imagine that we've lost a lot of flavor in the ages-old quest to breed for sweetness—and in the last 100 years or so, we've definitely lost still more by breeding for portability and shelf life. I would argue that flavor has declined along with nutrient density. Few people would choose modern supermarket tomatoes bred to last for weeks post-harvest over old varieties selected to taste good when eaten quickly. And weeds play a role in some of the globe's most celebrated cuisines. I wouldn't want to imagine Mexico's street food without tlacoyos con quelites (lamb's quarters) or Italy without ravioli d'ortica (stinging nettles). There's no puritanical trade-off here. (Patience Gray's classic Honey from a Weed demonstrates how vital weeds remain in southern European cooking, and Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson's recent The Longevity Kitchen offers plenty of good recipes for them).

What we can do is start seeking out varieties of fruits and vegetables that haven't been bred to be insipidly sweet.

That caveat aside, what do we do with Robinson's message about the loss of phytonutrients? Obviously, we can't all suddenly become hunter-gatherers, stalking city parks for hidden bounty (though a fellow who calls himself "Wildman" will take you on a foraging tour of Manhattan's Central Park). Nor can we all live on small organic farms surrounded by woodlands.

But what we can do is start seeking out varieties of fruits and vegetables that haven't been bred to be insipidly sweet or high-yielding. Robinson suggests arugula as an example—it was a Mediterranean weed until very recently. Arugula is "very similar to its wild ancestor," she notes, and "rich in cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates and higher in antioxidant activity than many green lettuces." Robinson also points to herbs, which she calls "wild plants incognito." That is, they much more closely resemble their wild antecedents than do, say, modern apples or tomatoes or corn. She adds: "We've long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they've not been given a flavor makeover. Because we've left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact." Robinson's paean to herbs reminded me of my love for parsley, and how I've come to shower it on every meal, and even give it the starring role in a salad.

But here's the thing about arugula and fresh herbs: They're fantastic when you can get them recently picked, but dull when you find them in in little plastic bags shipped cross-country. And if Robinson is right that "many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste," I wonder if phytonutrient content doesn't degrade along with flavor on those long trips.

That got me to thinking that one of the unsung benefits of the explosion of farmers markets and CSAs over the past 20 years is that it's giving more and more people access to vegetables bred for things besides just sweetness, shelf life, and portability. We might not sell much in the way of lamb's quarters at Maverick Farms (the North Carolina farm I'm involved with), but we can never grow enough of our famously spicy arugula to satisfy demand. And like many farms that sell to neighboring communities, we favor tomato varieties that balance sweetness with acidity—and may well deliver an extra jolt of phytonutrients because of it.

And small farms can deliver actual weeds, too. Just last weekend, at the Saturday farmstand of Austin's wonderful Boggy Creek Farm, I found nestled in the back a display featuring just-picked bunches of lamb's quarters and purslane. So I finally got my fix of weeds right here in the city—ever since, I've been making salads combining those two wild edibles with some parsley I also picked up at Boggy.

And the first thing I did after reading Robinson's Sunday Times piece? I emailed it to Maverick Farms' manager, adding that it might be high time to  try marketing our weeds again.

USDA's Watchdog Reveals "Egregious" Hog Slaughter Conditions

| Tue May 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The Internal Revenue Service isn't the only federal bureaucracy to be recently taken to task by its Office of the Inspector General. Amid considerably less fanfare in early May, the US Department of Agriculture's OIG issued a report damning the department's oversight of pork slaughterhouses and trashing a USDA pilot program that allows plants to operate with fewer inspectors on hand.

First a bit of background. Every Cabinet-level department and independent agency in the federal government has an OIG—a kind of in-house watchdog. While some OIGs have been convincingly accused of being toothless, the USDA's internal watchdog has long been pretty blunt and straightforward. I'm still reeling over its 2010 report on the USDA's porous system for halting the "contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals." Then there was this 2012 report about the rather cracked, so to speak, efforts to keep eggs safe.

The new pork report paints a Keystone Kops portrait of hog slaughter inspection, catching plants being cited for the same "egregious" (the OIG's word) food safety and animal welfare violations over and over again, with little fear of reprisal or incentive to improve. "Enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of food safety regulations," the OIG concluded—including "violations as egregious as fecal matter on previously cleaned carcasses."

If that sounds like just an "ooh, gross" concern, it's not. Pigs raised on concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) expel feces loaded with antibiotic residues, antibiotic-resistant microbes, and heavy metals. (Their waste has also been spawning mysterious—and occasionally explosive—foam in the cesspits under the Midwest's teeming hog CAFOs.) This is not stuff you want to pick up at the supermarket along with your pork chop—and the USDA is the federal agency that's supposed to help us avoid it.

All in all, according to the OIG, the USDA's hog inspection service issued 44,128 noncompliance citations to 616 plants facilities between 2008 and 2011—and only 28 of the plants ever got suspended. And not a single one of them ever got the equivalent of the death penalty—withdrawal of USDA inspection, which would mean that meat from the offending plant couldn't be legally sold. And often the citations were for the same offense, over and over again.

The report lays out some specific cases. At one Illinois plant that slaughters about 19,500 hogs per day, for example, the OIG found that USDA inspectors had issued 532 citations between 2008 and 2011—of which 139 were for repeat violations. Of those, 26 were for "fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses," and 43 involved "exposed or possibly adulterated products and the presence of pests on the kill floor." The result of these serial lapses? No suspension or other punishments.

Tom's Kitchen: Chipotle-Rubbed Grilled Whole Chicken

| Sat May 25, 2013 9:23 AM EDT

Because I've lived in two meccas of smoked meat—Central Texas and North Carolina—people often ask me for tips on barbecue at this time of year. Here's the thing: barbecuing is long, smoky cooking over low heat. If you want to get the flavor of how to do it, check out the "Fire" chapter of Michael Pollan's new book Cooked. The chapter ends with Pollan smoking a whole hog overnight in his backyard—a tricky process that takes practice, skill, and lots and lots of time. For me, barbecue is like beer: its making is best left to pros and obsessive amateurs.

Meanwhile, Tom's Kitchen is devoted to simple home cooking, so you won't see me devoting a column to proper barbecue anytime soon. But that doesn't mean I don't like to have a bit of fun with fire and smoke. What people usually have in mind when they ask me about barbecuing is really what should be called grilling—essentially, roasting over charcoal. (I've been told grilling also happens over gas flame, though that concept is foreign to me.) What follows is a dead-simple way to turn a whole chicken into a cookout through the magic of butterflying—cutting out the backbone with a sturdy pair of kitchen shears. Don't be intimidated. It only takes about 15 seconds and it gets you a moist, evenly cooked bird with a crisp skin.

You can take your butterflied chicken party in many different directions. You could slather it in a barbecue-style sauce before crisping off the skin and serve it with slaw and other traditional 'cue sides; you could go Mediterranean and marinade it in lemon zest and chopped rosemary and serve with a fresh salsa verde (essentially a parsley pesto); or do as the recipe below suggests, which is to look south to Mexico for inspiration. I hacked the meat up for tacos, and served with tortillas, guacamole, and a charred-tomato sauce.

Grilled Whole Chicken with Charred Tomato Sauce

Prep and marinade bird

2 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
½ teaspoon powdered hot chile pepper (could be paprika, smoked paprika, or ground chipotle pepper—I used the latter)
½ teaspoon of cumin, ground
A bit of fresh oregano if you have some on hand
½ teaspoon sea salt
Several generous grinds of coarse black pepper
I tablespoon of olive oil
1 4-pound chicken, preferably raised on pasture

Place the first five ingredients, garlic first, into a mortar and pestle. Pound the garlic into a rough paste. Add the oil, and pound a bit more.

Using kitchen shears, carefully cut the backbone out of the chicken (see this Melissa Clark video for an excellent demo), and using your hands, open the chicken outwards and press down vigorously, flattening it. Now turn it skin-side up and rub the paste all over the skin. Let it sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and optimally overnight.

Prep the grill

Get some good hardwood charcoal going by whatever method you prefer—I use a chimney. When the coals are white-hot, collect them on one half of the grill basin. The goal is to create a hot side and a cool side. Put the grated grill top, which should be clean, in its place and let it heat up for a minute or two.

Prep the salsa

6 medium-sized, ripe tomatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 to 2 fresh jalapenos or serrano chiles, roughly chopped
Sea salt to taste

Put the garlic, half of the chopped chiles, and a pinch of salt in a food processor and set aside—you'll run the blade after adding roasted tomatoes.

Grill time

Place the butterflied chicken, skin side up, on the cool side of the grill, and the tomatoes on the hot side. Cover with the grill lid. Let the tomatoes cook, turning and recovering the grill as needed, until nicely charred all over. Add them to the food processor and whiz until you have a smooth salsa. Check for seasoning—add and process more chile pepper and salt if needed.

Meanwhile, leave the chicken cooking on the cool side, covered, until a meat thermometer plunged into the deepest part of a thigh reads 105 degrees. When it reaches that temperature, you're ready to crisp off the skin. Simply flip the bird over, skin-side down, onto the hot part of the grill and let it cook there until the skin is crisp and caramelized and the thigh temperature reads 180 degrees.

Let it rest off the grill for 20 minutes before cutting the meat off the bones into taco-ready chunks. Serve with the salsa and plenty of hot tortillas.

Eliminating Hunger, One 3-D-Printed Meal at a Time?

| Fri May 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
And you thought frozen pizza tasted like cardboard…

Hunger remains a massive problem here on planet Earth. Globally, nearly 870 million people—1 in 8 of us—live with "chronic undernourishment." Meanwhile, obesity stalks us, too—about 1.4 billion people worldwide count as overweight, 500 million of whom are full-on obese.

The scourge of lingering hunger amid rising obesity is notoriously complex and difficult to solve. It raises knotty questions about our shockingly unequal global economic system, about European and US farm policy, about the rise of global agrichemical/GMO firms, about global commodity markets and land grabs.

But what if we could just ignore all of that unpleasantness and hack our way to answers with novel technologies?

For example, what if we could deliver food to the globe's hungry millions through 3-D printing? Here's Chris Mims, writing about an engineer whose company "just got a six month, $125,000 grant from NASA to create a prototype of his universal food synthesizer":

He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth's 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store.

While global population is expected to top off at 9 billion, not 12 billion, I guess the idea here is to reduce humanity's dizzying variety of foodstuffs to a set of "powder and oils," to be combined at home by a gadget. By stripping raw ingredients of their uniqueness—"a powder is a powder," as Mims puts it—food can be really, really cheap, and within reach of even the poorest people. This is an intensified version of the the promise of today's industrial agriculture—produce lots and lots of a few commodities like corn and soy, which can then be processed into a variety of cheap products, from burgers to breakfast cereal. This "universal food synthesizer" represents the apotheosis of the industrial food dream. 

And what about obesity? An enterprising engineer is hard at work on that, too—this time Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. From PopSci:

A valve gets surgically implanted in the user's stomach, and the gadget sends a tube through it into their belly. About 20 minutes after eating, the gadget sucks out some food, and when the user squeezes a bag filled with water, the liquid gets sent back into the stomach instead. Rinse and repeat until up to 30 percent of your meal is gone.

Wait, what? PopSci digs into the Kamen's website for details on how it works:

The aspiration process is performed about 20 minutes after the entire meal is consumed and takes 5 to 10 minutes to complete. The process is performed in the privacy of the restroom, and the food is drained directly into the toilet. Because aspiration only removes a third of the food, the body still receives the calories it needs to function. For optimal weight loss, patients should aspirate after each major meal (about 3 times per day) initially. Over time, as patients learn to eat more healthfully, they can reduce the frequency of aspirations. [Emphasis mine.]

Got that? You eat as much as you want, and then deposit a third of it directly into the toilet, undigested.

Better yet, why not combine these two innovations—3-D-printing optimum amounts of those powders and oils directly into the stomach, using Kamen's contraption hacked to work in reverse? By the time we're dining on home-synthesized combos of industrial goo, it's hard to imagine overeating being a problem, anyway.

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Taxpayer Dollars Are Helping Monsanto Sell Seeds Abroad

| Sat May 18, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Kenya, 2009

Nearly two decades after their mid-'90s debut in US farm fields, GMO seeds are looking less and less promising. Do the industry's products ramp up crop yields? The Union of Concerned Scientists looked at that question in detail for a 2009 study. Short answer: marginally, if at all. Do they lead to reduced pesticide use? No; in fact, the opposite.

And why would they, when the handful of companies that dominate GMO seeds—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow—are also among the globe's largest pesticide makers? Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds have given rise to an upsurge of herbicide-resistant superweeds and a torrent of herbicides, while insects are showing resistance to its pesticide-containing Bt crops and causing farmers to boost insecticide use. What about wonder crops that would be genetically engineered to withstand drought or require less nitrogen fertilizer? So far, they haven't panned out—and there's little evidence they ever will.

Yet despite all of these problems, the US State Department has been essentially acting as a de facto global-marketing arm of the ag-biotech industry, complete with figures as high-ranking as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mouthing industry talking points as if they were gospel, a new Food & Water Watch analysis of internal documents finds.

The FWW report is based on an analysis of diplomatic cables, written between 2005 and 2009 and released in the big Wikileaks document dump of 2010. FWW sums it up: "a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology overseas, compel countries to import biotech crops and foods that they do not want, and lobby foreign governments—especially in the developing world—to adopt policies to pave the way to cultivate biotech crops."

The report brims with examples of the US government promoting the biotech industry abroad. Here are a few:

The State Department encouraged embassies to bring visitors—especially reporters—to the United States, which has "proven to be effective ways of dispelling concerns about biotech [crops]." The State Department organized or sponsored 28 junkets from 17 countries between 2005 and 2009. In 2008, when the US embassy was trying to prevent Poland from adopting a ban on biotech livestock feed, the State Department brought a delegation of high-level Polish government agriculture officials to meet with the USDA in Washington, tour Michigan State University and visit the Chicago Board of Trade. The USDA sponsored a trip for El Salvador's Minister of Agriculture and Livestock to visit Pioneer Hi-Bred's Iowa facilities and to meet with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that was expected to "pay rich dividends by helping [the Minister] clearly advocate policy positions in our mutual bilateral interests."

The State Department hotly pushed GMOs in low-income African nations—in the face of popular opposition.

Another example: This 2009 cable, referenced in the FWW report, shows a State Department functionary casually requesting US taxpayer funds to combat a popular effort to require labeling of GMO foods in Hong Kong—and boasting about successfully having done so in the past. Why focus on the GMO policy of a quasi-independent city? Hong Kong's rejection of a mandatory labeling policy "could have influential spillover effects in the region, including Taiwan, mainland China and Southeast Asia," the functionary writes, adding that her consulate had "intentionally designed [anti-labeling] programs other embassies and consulates" could use.

The report also shows how the State Department hotly pushed GMOs in low-income African nations—in the face of popular opposition. In a 2009 cable, FWW shows, the US embassy in Nigeria bragged that "U.S. government support in drafting [pro-biotech] legislation as well as sensitizing key stakeholders through a public outreach program" helped pass an industry-friendly law. Working with USAID—an independent US government agency that operates under the State Department's authority—the State Department pushed similar efforts in Kenya and Ghana, FWW shows.

Yet, as FWW points out, in so aggressively pushing biotech solutions abroad, the State Department is bucking against the global consensus of ag development experts as expressed by the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a three-year project convened by the World Bank and the United Nations and completed in 2008 to assess what forms of agriculture would best meet the world's needs in a time of rapid climate change. The IAASTD took such a skeptical view of deregulated biotech as a panacea for the globe's food challenges that Croplife America, the industry's main industry lobbying group, saw fit to denounce it. The US government backed up the biotech lobby on this one—just 3 of the 61 governments that participated refused to sign the IAASTD: the Bush II-led United States, Canada, and Australia.

So why are our corps of diplomats behaving as if they answered to Monsanto's shareholders with regard to ag policy? My guess is GMO seed technology, dominated by Monsanto, as well as our towering corn and soy crops (which are at this point almost completely from GM seeds) are two of the few areas of global trade wherein the US still generates a trade surplus. The website of the State Department's Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy Division puts it like this:  

In 2013, the United States is forecasted to export $145 billion in agricultural products, which is $9.2 billion above fiscal 2012 exports, and have a trade surplus of $30 billion in our agricultural sector.

I guess US presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, are bent on preserving and expanding that surplus. President Obama altered much about US foreign policy when he took over for President Bush in 2009, but he doesn't seem to have changed a thing when it comes to pushing biotech on the global stage. And the impulse is not confined to the State Department. Back in 2009, when Obama needed to appoint someone to lead agriculture negotiations at the US Trade Office, he went straight to the ag-biotech industry, tapping the vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, Islam A. Siddiqui, who still holds that post today.

Meanwhile, the State Department operates an Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs, which exists in part to "maintain open markets for US products derived from modern biotechnology" and "promote acceptance of this promising technology." The office's biotechnology page is larded with language that reads like boilerplate from Monsanto promo material: "Agricultural biotechnology helps farmers increase yields, enabling them to produce more food per acre while reducing the need for chemicals, pesticides, water, and tilling. This provides benefits to the environment as well as to the health and livelihood of farmers."

 

Mysterious Poop Foam Causes Explosions on Hog Farms

| Wed May 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
A sample of the manure foam that caused an explosion that lifted a hog barn two feet off the ground and blew a man 20 feet away from where he had been standing (see video below).

When you hear about foam in the context of food, you might think of the culinary innovations of the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who's famous for dishes like apple caviar with banana foam.

But this post is about a much less appetizing kind of foam. You see, starting in about 2009, in the pits that capture manure under factory-scale hog farms, a gray, bubbly substance began appearing at the surface of the fecal soup. The problem is menacing: As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had "caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved."

And the foam grows to a thickness of up to four feet—check out these images, from a University of Minnesota document published by the Iowa Pork Producers, showing a vile-looking substance seeping up from between the slats that form the floor of a hog barn. Those slats are designed to allow hog waste to drop down into the below-ground pits; it is alarming to see it bubbling back up in the form of a substance the consistency of beaten egg whites.

And here's the catch: Scientists can't explain the phenomenon.

Check out this amazing 2011 video presentation on the matter by University of Minnesota researcher David Schmidt. He opens by describing a 2009 explosion that lifted a hog barn a "couple of feet off the ground" and blew the farm operator himself 20 feet from the building. (Thankfully, he wasn't injured, and there were no animals in it.) And check out the footage, starting about 3:19 in, of the foam itself, which must be seen to be believed. At one point , a shovel dips into the mire and scoops up as sample—which jiggles and pulsates, alive, apparently, with microbial activity. Schmidt also does a great job of explaining just how manure foam can cause explosions.

David Schmidt: Foaming Manure Pits from Iowa State University Extension on Vimeo

I wrote about the phenomenon about a year ago. But these days, there's not much in the agriculture trade press about it. Which led me to wonder: Has the mysterious foam subsided—or congealed into yet another fact of factory farming that isn't even notable anymore, like, you know, raising hundreds of pigs over pits that concentrate their waste, or dosing them them daily with low levels of antibiotics, leading to rampant antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

I decided to do a bit of digging for an update. Via email, Angela Kent, an associate professor in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, informed me that "manure foaming" is "still a very serious problem among pork producers in the Midwest." Scientists have still not been able to finger the cause of it, but "we are in the midst of a large multi-institution investigation focused on finding the cause of this very serious problem."

So: still happening, and still no explanation.

Surveys show that around 25 percent of operations in the hog-intensive regions of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa are experiencing foam—and "the number may be higher, because some operators might not know that they have it."

I then got Larry Jacobson, a professor and extension engineer at the University of Minnesota who has been working on the issue, on the phone. He confirmed that the problem persists—just about a month ago, he said, workers were welding metal fixtures in an empty hog facility and a fire broke out, likely because a spark managed to penetrate foam enough to free trapped methane and ignite it. (No one was injured.)

Jacobson said that surveys show that around 25 percent of operations in the hog-intensive regions of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa are experiencing foam—and "the number may be higher, because some operators might not know that they have it."

He added that the practice of feeding hogs distillers grains, the mush leftover from the corn ethanol process, might be one of the triggers. Distillers grains entered hog rations in a major way around the same time that the foam started emerging, and manure from hogs fed distillers grains contains heightened levels of undigested fiber and volatile fatty acids—both of which are emerging as preconditions of foam formation, he said. But he added that distillers grains aren't likely the sole cause, because on some operations, the foam will emerge in some buildings but not others, even when all the hogs are getting the same feed mix.

But if the causes of manure foam remain a mystery, a solution seems to be emerging, Jacobson told me: Dump a bit of monensin, an antibiotic widely used to make cows grow faster, directly into the foam-ridden pit. At rather low levels—Jacobson told me that about 25 pounds of the stuff will treat a typical 500,000 gallon pit—the stuff effectively breaks up the foam, likely by altering the mix of microbes present. No other treatment has been shown to work consistently, he said.

Thankfully, monensin isn't used in human medicine. Still, it's striking to consider that the meat industry's ravenous appetite for antibiotics has now extended to having to treat hog shit with them.

How Michael Pollan Romanticizes Dinner

| Tue May 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

"Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?" wonders the title of a recent Salon piece by Emily Matchar, which is an excerpt of her just-released book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. The Salon headline turns out to be mainly a lunge for clicks—the excerpted passage only glancingly concerns Pollan, and it has nothing to say about his new book Cooked, which clearly hadn't come out when Matchar was writing hers.

But both Matchar in her essay and Pollan in his new book raise important questions about gender, cooking, and what we might as well follow Matchar in calling the "new domesticity"—issues I didn't get to in my own recent review of Cooked.

Matchar—quite accurately, I think—places women at the center of the the budding movement to challenge industrial food. Women, she writes, are "disproportionately represented in the unique-to-the-twenty-first-century worlds of artisan food businesses, urban homesteading, food activism, and food blogging."

Most of her piece amounts to a nuanced, sympathetic critique of the new domesticity. Pollan emerges as her foil when she defends feminism against the charge that it drove women out of the kitchen and led to the decline in cooking. Pollan came perilously close to making that argument in a 2009 New York Times Magazine essay, the seed that germinated into Cooked.

In that piece, Pollan declared Betty Friedan's 1963 opus The Feminine Mystique the "book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression." That's an overreach—a little like calling James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, also published in 1963, the book that taught African Americans that racism sucks. These works illuminated and helped articulate the  rebellions against the racial and gender status quos of the era, but they didn't generate them.

And of course, cooking does become drudgery when you're forced to do it whether you want to or not—and it was the power relations around the act of cooking, not cooking itself, that drove Friedan's ire.

Even Julia Child, born in 1912, grew up with servants in the kitchen and scant memories of her mother whipping up dinner.

To be fair to Pollan, he offers a revised reading of Friedan's impact on cooking in Cooked. He does write that "second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan depicted all housework as a form of oppression"—still conflating a critique of the power relations that surround housework with a critique of housework itself. But he continues: "[T]he food industry—along with falling wages of American families, which is what drove most women into the workforce beginning in the 1970s—probably had more to do with the decline of cooking than feminist rhetoric."

At another point, he adds: "For the necessary and challenging questions about who should be in the kitchen, posed so sharply by Betty Friedan in the Feminist Mystique, ultimately got answered by the food industry: No one! Let us do it all!" That's well said.

Yet Matchar does level a charge against Pollan that sticks: that he bases much of his analysis of the US cooking scene on history tinged with nostalgia. Throughout the book, Pollan acts as if everyone was cooking until a generation or two ago. "Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen," he writes. At another point, he wants to know why food-centered TV shows became so popular "at the precise historical moment [i.e., the present] when Americans were abandoning the kitchen." Matchar delivers a history lesson:

In Colonial America, kitchen work was viewed as a lowly chore, often farmed out to servants (who, needless to say, did not spend a lot of time exulting in the visceral pleasures of pea shucking). In the 1800s, middle-class women supervised immigrant kitchen maids (or slaves), while pioneer women and rural housewives sweated over wood fires and heavy iron pots.

In other words, as Hanna Raskin makes clear in her well-researched Seattle Weekly review of Cooked, class power has long exempted a large swath of the population from having to get their hands dirty in the kitchen—and not just men, but women, too. Here's Raskin:

Although 1870 represented the pinnacle of the domestic-service industry, as measured by the percentage of working women employed by it, the national reliance on hired help hadn’t faded decades later. In Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945, Phyllis Palmer cites a 1937 Fortune survey showing "70 percent of the rich, 42 percent of the upper middle class, 14 percent of the lower middle class, and 6 percent of the poor reported" hiring help.

While reading Raskin, I remembered I had made similar points about Pollan's nostalgic view of the history of cooking back in 2009, in response to his Times Magazine piece (see here and here). I had just happened upon a great 1989 Terry Gross interview with Julia Child, whom Pollan lionizes as a paragon of a golden age when cooking mattered and Americans practiced it regularly. From my second 2009 post:

In the interview, we find out that Child herself didn’t grow up cooking. She says: "I grew up in the teens and '20s, when most people had—middle class people—had maids or someone to help." She reveals that her mother cooked seldom, and then only two dishes: Welsh rabbit (a kind of cheese sandwich) and baking-soda biscuits. As for herself, "I didn't do any cooking then at all."

So even Julia Child, born in 1912, grew up with servants in the kitchen and scant memories of her mother whipping up dinner—although, to the 1960s-era audience of her television show, live-in cooks were likely much less common than they were during Child's 1920s childhood, because the cost of labor had risen over the decades. But the point stands: People with sufficient means have long been able to opt out of cooking. What I wrote back in 2009 still sums up my thoughts today:

Pollan was right: people do need to revalue the craft of cooking, to embrace it as a quotidian pleasure, not a mere chore. But if we manage convince them of that, we'll have achieved something new, not returned to a lost past.

While I think Matchar is right that it's women who are driving the new push to liberate the kitchen from the food industry's grip, men, too, are participating heavily in the new domesticity. And Pollan's brilliant, flawed book—as I wrote in my review, it's a fantastic read—will likely attract yet more men into the realm of domestic production. And if it does, a so-called "sexist pig" will have helped create a broad-based, nonsexist cooking culture here in the Fast Food Nation.

USDA Sticks It to Monsanto and Dow—at Least Temporarily

| Sat May 11, 2013 1:51 PM EDT

Back in early 2012, the US Department of Agriculture seemed on the verge of approving new genetically modified crops from agrichemical giants Monsanto and Dow. The two companies were pushing new corn and soy varieties that would respond to the ever-expanding problem of herbicide-tolerant superweeds by bringing more-toxic herbicides into the mix—and likely ramping up the resistance problem, as I explained at length in a post at the time.

Even some mainstream ag scientists were alarmed at the coming escalation in the war against weeds. Scientists at Penn State University—not exactly a hotbed of alternative ag thinking—delivered a damning analysis of the novel crops, which would be engineered to withstand not only Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, but also the highly toxic old ones 2,4-D (Dow's version) and Dicamba (Monsanto's).

Yet in August, the USDA again signaled that approval would be imminent—and by the end of 2012, people who follow ag regulatory issues were telling me that the USDA would almost certainly approve the crops over Christmas break, timing the decision in an effort to minimize the inevitable uproar.

But then Christmas came and went with no announcement—leading Dow to issue a January press statement about how the unexpected delay meant it could not sell its new product to farmers for the 2013 growing season. Yet the company remained confident about the prospects for approval in time for planting in 2014—it told the trade journal Delta Farm Press it "expects all approvals will be in place for sale in late 2013," in time for its novel seeds to be used over a "broad geography" in 2014.

But on Friday, the USDA essentially trampled on those expectations—it announced it was delaying approval of the crops until it could generate full environmental impact statements (known as EIS's) on them. The move effectively means that the crops won't be planted in fields next year, either, a Dow spokesperson told Bloomberg News.