Tom Philpott - July 2013

The Mystery of Bee Colony Collapse

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

What's tipping honeybee populations into huge annual die-offs? For years, a growing body of evidence has pointed to a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids, widely used on corn, soy, and other US crops, as a possible cause of what has become known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Rather than kill bees directly like, say, Raid kills cockroaches, these pesticides are suspected of having what scientists call "sub-lethal effects"—that is, they make bees more vulnerable to other stressors, like poor nutrition and pathogens. In response to these concerns, the European Union recently  suspended most use for two years; the US Environmental Protection Agency, by contrast, still allows them pending more study.

But according to a new peer-reviewed paper, neonicotinoids aren't the only pesticides that might be undermining bee health. The study, published in PLOS One and co-authored by a team including US Department of Agriculture bee scientist Jeff Pettis and University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp, found that a pair of widely used fungicides are showing up prominently in bee pollen—and appear to be making bees significantly more likely to succumb to a fungal pathogen, called Nosema ceranae, that has been closely linked to CCD. The finding is notable, the authors state, because fungicides have so far been "typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees."

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Why China Wants US-Grown Pork Chops

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Hmmm, pork chops?

When the Chinese company Shuanghui International bought US pork giant Smithfield in May—a deal that's still on hold pending US government review—I read it as another sign that China's rulers are ready to more or less outsource the nation's food supply as it emerges as the globe's manufacturing powerhouse.

Since then, two more data points have crossed my desk. The most recent involves this blockbuster Bloomberg piece on China's emerging coal/water dilemma. The nation's manufacturing miracle has been largely powered by coal, source of 70 percent of its total energy consumption. And it intends to ramp up its coal-fired electricity massively—by 2020, Bloomberg notes, the Chinese government "plans to boost coal-fired power by twice the total [power] generating capacity of India."

McDonald's to Employees: Get a (Second) Job

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Still lovin' it, Ron?

Since I last knocked heads with The Atlantic's David Freedman over Big Food and its potential to "end obesity"—see his piecemy response, his (odd) response to my response, our joint appearance on a Minnesota Public Radio show, and one more follow-up by me—there has been more fast food news than I can keep up with, most of it involving McDonald's, a company Freedman places at the vanguard of the anti-obesity effort.

The first item involves wages. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Freedman that one way Big Food contributes to our national weight problem is by paying its vast army of workers a pittance. Poverty is heavily associated with obesity and other chronic health conditions. The industry profits by holding costs down, and it does that in part by paying as little as possible. A 2012 analysis by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that 86 percent of the 20 million people who work within the food chain—that's a sixth of the overall US workforce—bring home less than a living wage. Food-system workers are 50 percent more likely to rely on food stamp (SNAP) benefits than the overall working population, the report found. Not surprisingly, the food-system workforce is getting restive—hence recent strikes by Walmart workers, as well as walk-offs by fast-food employees in New York City,  Detroit, Seattle, and St. Louis and fast-food/retail worker strikes in Chicago and Milwaukee. Fast-food workers in seven cities plan to strike next week.

Perhaps in response to such mounting pressures, McDonald's was recently moved to gift its employees with a "Practical Money Skills Budget Journal," "brought to you by Visa Inc. and Wealth Watchers International." Get a load of the "sample monthly budget," which has generated much hilarity across the internet:

Tom's Kitchen: Gazpacho for a Hot Summer

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Everyone chill—I've got this.

Much of the East Coast has been gripped by a brutal heat wave. Here in Austin, we call such weather "summer." It's the time of year when I grope for ways to feed myself while applying as little heat as possible. And one of my go-to hot-weather dishes in gazpacho, the iconic tomato-based raw soup of Spain.

There are nearly as many styles of gazpacho as there are households in Andalucía, the southern province where it was born. There are smooth versions, chunky versions, some thickened with bread, some not. I love them all. This time around, wilting from a stretch of high-90s weather, I wanted a simple, light, even drinkable gazpacho—and a spicy one. I learned many years ago on a searing-hot Mexican beach that eating fiery foods had the paradoxical effect of helping me reconcile with the heat.

But you don't want your gazpacho to end up too spicy—lest (as has happened to me) you be accused of serving your friends and family salsa disguised as soup. You want just enough heat to tickle the back of the throat, whetting the palate for another sip. So add whatever chile you use in small amounts and adjust upward as needed. I used something I can't live without in summertime: sliced red jalepeño chiles I had put up in apple-cider vinegar. Adding a couple of slices at a time to the blender and tasting between whirs, I nailed my desired level of heat.

To further confound the salsa charge, you'll want to enliven it with a couple of herbs that aren't cilantro, which is often found in Mexican salsas. Parsley and chives do the trick.Traditional gazpacho relies on sherry vinegar to add a little zest. This is an excellent choice; but I used a splash or two of the cider vinegar from my jar of chiles.

Serve this gazpacho as an appetizer with toasted bread dipped in olive oil. Provecho!

 

Texas Summer Gazpacho
Makes about four servings.

About 1.5 pounds assorted ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 cucumber, about a half pound, sliced lengthwise, seeds removed with the scrape of a spoon
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 small shallot, peeled and sliced
1 small red-hot chile pepper, sliced; or several slices of pickled chile pepper; or, simply, crushed red chile flakes
1 tablespoon vinegar—sherry or apple cider—and a little more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Several sprigs of parsley, coarsely chopped
Several chives, coarsely chopped

For garnish:
Extra-virgin olive oil
More parsley and/or chives, finely minced

Put about half of the tomatoes into a blender and whir until smooth. (This will make room for the rest.) Now add everything else, holding back some of the chile, and leaving out the the garnishes. Whir until smooth. Taste, and consider whether adding more salt, chile, or vinegar is desirable. Adjust accordingly, and whir again. Place the blender in the fridge for at least an hour to chill, and put some small drinking glasses, one for each serving, into the freezer.

When you're ready to serve, remove the blender of gazpacho from the fridge and give it one last whir. To serve, fill each chilled glass about three-quarters way with gazpacho, and add a dash of olive oil. Stir with a spoon to incorporate, and top with chopped herbs. Encourage everyone to sip it like a beverage.

Store any leftovers in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, in the fridge. It will hold peak flavor for about 24 hours.

The End of Lobster Rolls?

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Put up your dukes: lobsters are one scrappy sea creature.

When European settlers alighted upon what's now known as New England, they gaped at the bounty of the shoreline, reports William Cronon in his classic 1983 book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Cronon lays out contemporary accounts of coastal waters teeming with cod, streams thick with salmon, of oysters "almost a foot long."

Lobster barely registers in Cronon's survey of this almost mythically productive ecosystem, but it existed in abundance, unloved as food but exploited all the same. Native Americans used it as farm fertilizer and fishing bait, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute reports, and it emerged as a kind of trash food for the colonialists, who "served it to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants."

Lobster's rise from culinary afterthought to white tablecloth delicacy has become almost the stuff of cliché. For years, overharvesting led to falling catches and high prices—seeming to ensure lobster's high-falutin' status.

But something odd has been brewing off the coast of Maine for more than a decade. Despite fears of an imminent collapse, lobster landings have skyrocketed. As a Chronicle of Higher Education article put it back in 2001, "Scientists have warned that lobsters are in danger, but nobody bothered to tell the lobsters."

Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Okra With Farro and a Fried Egg

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Recently, I scanned my fridge, looking for what I've neglected to cook from the previous week's farmers market run, hoping to be able to avoid a trip to the food co-op. (I know, how Portlandia of me). I came across a treasure: a bag of okra I had picked up from Austin's wonderful Green Gate Farms and had promptly forgotten about. To my relief, it was still crisp and vibrant.

Coming up with a quick meal with it wasn't hard. In the pantry, there was a bit of pearled farro—an ancient relative of wheat that never stopped being consumed in Italy and has now found a vogue in the US. I also had eggs, an onion, some garlic, and a few small carrots. I decided to roast the okra, and meanwhile boil off the farro—which cooks in just 20 minutes—and toss it with a quick saute of onions and carrots. I'd top the farro salad with the okra and a fried egg. And make enough for leftovers. So that's what I did. And no, the okra wasn't slimy at all!  

Roasted Okra with Farro and a Fried Egg

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Cook Your Berries. Drink Dark-Roast Coffee Instead of Light. Let Your Garlic Sit.

| Sat Jul. 20, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Semper phytonutrient: Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side.

Normally I ignore the latest diet craze. But I can't resist the message of Jo Robinson's new book Eating on the Wild Side. In it, Robinson argues that humanity's 10,000-year-old fixation on agriculture has stripped our most commonly eaten foods of most of their phytonutrients, which are plant-based chemical compounds that keep us healthy. Her recent New York Times op-ed on the topic inspired me to pen a paean to edible weeds. But you don't need to go feral to boost your phytonutrient intake, Robinson shows. She gives tips on how to navigate the supermarket produce shelf and the farmers market to find phytonutrient-dense foods not very far off from what our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on. After a phone conversation recently, I hung up with the urge to crack open a hoppy beer—and not out of stress.

Mother Jones: What exactly is a phytonutrient?

Jo Robinson: The technical term for phytonutrients is polyphenols. They are substances produced by plants, a lot of them for self-defense. Twenty-five thousand different ones have been identified. Vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene [are examples]. Many of them are potent antioxidants, while some don't have antioxidant activity but boost our own antioxidant defense system. Others are involved in communication between cells, many affect gene expression, and others have detoxifying functions.

One Weird Brazilian Trick for Losing Belly Fat

| Fri Jul. 19, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Something to protect: a plate featuring feijoada, a classic Brazilian black bean stew.

In the cover story of a recent Atlantic, David Freedman argued that the answer to the obesity problem lies in kinder, gentler convenience food, engineered to be enticing while containing less sugar and fat. I pushed back, skeptical that Big Food could hyperprocess us a healthy diet even if it wanted to. Freedman and I rekindled our conversation in a joint interview on Minnesota Public Radio:

I got to thinking about the dustup when I read an essay, published in the journal PLOS Medicine by Brazil-based nutrition researchers Carlos Monteiro and Geoffrey Cannon, on how that country is dealing with its own emerging obesity crisis. The piece delivers insights into the relationship between Big Food's dominance of a nation's food system and obesity, as well as ways of thinking about the crisis that we might consider here in the United States.

Monsanto. Broccoli. I Love This. Really!

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

This is the rare post about a plant-breeding project involving GMO seed giant Monsanto wherein I come to praise the effort, not bury it in scorn.

First, a bit of background. Broccoli is a fantastic thing to eat—even President Obama thinks so. It delivers compounds that seem to fight cancer and help maintain your immune system, among other benefits. It also tastes really, really good when it's fresh and in season. (Here's my simple recipe for roasted broccoli with garlic and chili pepper.)

And herein lies the rub. Broccoli plants grow well enough in warm weather, but they won't flower, meaning no delicious broccoli heads during a hot summer. And for that reason, most of the broccoli consumed in the United States—94 percent of it, in fact—is grown in the foggy zones of California. For people in the eastern half of the country, that means you can generally find fresh, locally grown broccoli only when the weather has cooled in the fall. The rest of the year, the stuff tends to be a bit worse for the wear when it reaches the table after the long haul from California. You know this stuff: limp, bland, vaguely sulfury, kind of gross. Hence, I think, broccoli's tenacious reputation as a good-for-you vegetable that sort of sucks.

As Michael Moss reports in a recent New York Times piece, a group of plant breeders from land-grant universities—including Cornell, the University of Maine, and the University of Tennessee—are looking to extend broccoli's growing season. Using conventional breeding (i.e., not genetic modification), they've created a breakthrough broccoli strain that can "thrive in hot, steamy summers like those in New York, South Carolina or Iowa," while also delivering heads that are "crisp, subtly sweet and utterly tender when eaten fresh-picked," Moss reports.

The initiative—facilitated by a $3.2 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture and called the Eastern Broccoli Project—strikes me as a proper use of public plant-breeding funds. Its goals seem impeccable: to increase the supply and appeal of a nutrient-dense vegetable in a way that cuts down on cross-country shipping and boosts local food economies. Too often, plant breeding is geared narrowly to the interests of the seed industry's shareholders—such as crops genetically engineered to resist the very herbicides sold by the companies themselves. It's great to see a breeding project geared to actual public interests, one that could transform the way a high-profile vegetable is grown and consumed over a large swath of the country. I can't think of another public seed-breeding project quite like it.

But there's a catch. As Moss reports, two gigantic agribusiness firms, Monsanto and its Swiss rival Syngenta, are partners in the project. They're most known for their GMO corn and soy, as well as pesticides, but Monsanto and Syngenta are also the globe's two biggest vegetable seed purveyors—and, according the the USDA, they and two other firms together control 70 percent of the entire global trade in vegetable seeds.

With giants like these barreling in, I wondered whether this benevolent-sounding broccoli project might turn into the wholly owned property of these firms. My concern would be market domination. There's a budding scene of small, regionally oriented seed companies in the United States, and I'd hate to see them cut off from a promising, publicly developed broccoli strain. I'd also hate to see the financial benefits of a publicly funded breeding program get completely siphoned off by these ginormous, market-dominating firms.

In addition to the partnerships with agribiz, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli on the public domain.

So I called Thomas Bjorkman, the Cornell plant scientist who's spearheading the project, to ask him about just that. Bjorkman explained that in addition to the biotech giants, partners include relatively small players like Maine-based Johnny's Selected Seeds, a purveyor widely used by small- and mid-size farmers across the eastern United States.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny's license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. "Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli," he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny's and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli on the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they'd prefer not to.

I asked him about the specter of genetic modification—would it be a tool his team would consider using as it refines its broccoli strains? He told me "no," for two reasons. The first involves consumer demand. "No one wants transgenic [GMO] broccoli, as far as I can tell," Bjorkman said. The second reason is even more fundamental, related to a little-discussed limitation of GM technology that I've written about before (see my 2012 piece on Monsanto's so-so "drought-tolerant" GMO corn): It ends up being not very good at overhauling complex processes, like how heat affects a plant's ability to flower. There's no one single gene that governs how, say, broccoli behaves under hot conditions, Bjorkman told me. And so GM technology "isn't a promising avenue for what we're doing."

Monsanto Is Losing the Press

| Wed Jul. 10, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Ah, high summer. Time to read stories about the declining effectiveness of GMO-seed giant Monsanto's flagship products: crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides.

Back in 2008, I felt a bit lonely participating in this annual rite—it was mainly just me and reporters in the Big Ag trade press. Over the past couple of years, though, it has gone mainstream. Here's NPR's star agriculture reporter Dan Charles, on corn farmers' agrichemically charged reaction to the rise of an insect that has come to thumb its nose at Monsanto's once-vaunted Bt corn, engineered to contain the bug-killing gene of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis:

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like or that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

And this, from a veteran observer of the GMO-seed industry who—in my view—sometimes errs on the side of being too soft on it.

The Wall Street Journal's Ian Berry got the ball rolling early this year with a May report bearing the evocative headline "Pesticides Make a Comeback: Many Corn Farmers Go Back to Using Chemicals as Mother Nature Outwits Genetically Modified Seeds":

Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, as American farmers plant more corn and a genetic modification designed to protect the crop from pests has started to lose its effectiveness. The sales are a boon for big pesticide makers, such as American Vanguard Co. and Syngenta.

All the attention on superinsects has taken the major-media spotlight off of the "superweeds" that have evolved to shrug off copious doses of Roundup, the herbicide that's supposed to make Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops immune to weed problems. But that doesn't mean these thug weeds have stopped working their magic. They're "gaining ground" in Iowa, heart of the US corn/soy belt, reports the Cedar Rapids-based Gazette. And farmers are responding just as they did in the South, where Roundup-resistant weeds have had been rampant for at least five years: with a chemical deluge. Here's one of several anecdotes in the Gazette piece on that illustrate this familiar theme:

Tracy Franck, who farms 2,400 acres in Buchanan County with his dad and son, said they "are putting on more Roundup every year to kill the same amount of weeds." They, like most other farmers in their area, are also applying a pre-emergent residual herbicide to help control the glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup]-resistant weeds that are just beginning to show up in their fields. "We are starting to see some lambs quarter and giant ragweed that are tough to kill," he said.

(As someone who likes to eat lamb's-quarter, a delicious, nutrient-dense green, I'm sorry to see it emerge as a target of chemical warfare.)

Meanwhile, Food and Water Watch has just come out with a damning report called "Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry." The nutshell: The rise of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton in the mid-1990s has given rise to a boom in use of herbicides. Note how use fell for a while after the introduction Roundup Ready seeds before beginning to spike in 2001, when Roundup resistant weeds began to emerge.

Food and Water Watch

GMO industry defenders point out that relatively benign Roundup at least displaced older, more toxic herbicides as farmers transitioned to Roundup Ready crops. But as FWW shows, that no longer holds. Farmers are turning to one particularly nasty old herbicide, 2,4-D, with a vengeance as Roundup loses effectiveness:

Food and Water Watch

All of which raises the question: If Monsanto's seeds are failing, why are farmers still buying them in such vast numbers? Part of it is surely habit—for farmers, it must seem easier to plant Roundup Ready corn and supplement Roundup with a harsher herbicide than to try a whole new weed-control system.

The answer may also at least partly lie in the GMO seed giants' dominance of the seed market. Last year, the US Department of Justice unceremoniously halted its antitrust investigation of Monsanto and its peers without taking action. As I showed in my post at that time, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow together control 80 percent of the corn seed market and 70 percent of the soy market. In such tightly consolidated markets, you get stuff like this (from my post from last year):

There's also evidence that farmers lack access to lower-priced [non-GM] seeds. In 2010, University of Illinois researcher Michael Gray surveyed farmers in seven agriculture-intensive counties of Illinois. He asked them if they had access to high-quality corn seeds that weren't genetically modified to contain Monsanto's Bt insecticide trait. In all seven counties, at least 32 percent of farmers said "no." In one county, 46.6 percent of farmers reporting having no access to high-quality non-Bt seed. For them, apparently, they had little choice but to pay Monsanto's high prices for Bt seeds, whether they needed them or not.

At any rate, as Food and Water Watch notes, the withering of herbicide-tolerant and Bt-infused crops hasn't hurt these companies at all—indeed, they also sell pesticides, and as NPR and the Wall Street Journal report, pesticide sales are booming.