A cattle feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colo.

Meatpacking giant Tyson recently grabbed headlines when it announced it would no longer buy and slaughter cows treated with a growth-enhancing drug called Zilmax, made by pharma behemoth Merck. Tyson made the move based on "animal well-being" concerns, it told its cattle suppliers in a letter, adding that "there have been recent instances of cattle delivered for processing that have difficulty walking or are unable to move." According to the Wall Street journal, Zilmax (active ingredient: zilpaterol hydrochloride) and similar growth promotors are banned in the European Union, China, and Russia.

The news sent shock waves through the beef industry. Merck denied any problems with its drug but announced it would temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada pending a "scientific audit" of the product, which generated $159 million in US and Canadian sales in 2012, Merck added. Soon after, Tyson rivals JBS, Cargill, and National Beefpacking announced that they, too, would stop accepting Zilmax-treated cattle for slaughter, pending Merck's review.

Together, Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National slaughter and pack more than 80 percent of the beef cows raised in the United States, according to University of Missouri researcher Mary Hendrickson (PDF). If they stick to their refusal to buy cows treated with the drug, it's hard to see how Zilmax has a future on America's teeming cattle feedlots. Is the US beef industry turning away from the practice of turning to drugs to fatten its cattle?

Not so fast. Rather than wean themselves from growth promoters, the companies that produce cows to supply the likes of Tyson and JBS are instead shifting rapidly to a rival beta-agonist, this one from pharma giant Eli Lilly, called Optaflexx. The suspension of Zilmax sales has caused such a "surge in demand" for rival Optaflexx that "Lilly is telling some new customers it cannot immediately supply them," Reuters reported.

Ever since May, when a Chinese company agreed to buy US pork giant Smithfield, reportedly with an eye toward ramping up US pork imports to China, I've been looking into the simultaneously impressive and vexed state of China's food production system. In short, I've found that in the process of emerging as the globe's manufacturing center—the place that provides us with everything from the simplest of brooms to the smartest of phones—China has severely damaged its land and water resources, compromising its ability to increase food production even as its economy thunders along (though it's been a bit less thunderous lately), its population grows (albeit slowly), and its people gain wealth, move up the food chain, and demand ever-more meat.

Now, none of that should detract from the food miracle that China has enacted since it began its transformation into an industrial powerhouse in the late 1970s. This 2013 report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brims with data on this feat. The nation slashed its hunger rate—from 20 percent of its population in 1990 to 12 percent today —by quietly turbocharging its farms. China's total farm output, a broad measure of food churned out, has tripled since 1978. The ramp-up in livestock production in particular is even more dizzying—it rose by a factor of five. Overall, China's food system represents a magnificent achievement: It feeds nearly a quarter of the globe's people on just 7 percent of its arable land.

Tyrone Hayes

Darnell lives deep in the basement of a life sciences building at the University of California-Berkeley, in a plastic tub on a row of stainless steel shelves. He is an African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, sometimes called the lab rat of amphibians. Like most of his species, he's hardy and long-lived, an adept swimmer, a poor crawler, and a voracious eater. He's a good breeder, too, having produced both children and grandchildren. There is, however, one unusual thing about Darnell.

He's female.

Thus began Dashka Slater's feature in the Jan./Feb. 2012 Mother Jones on Tyrone Hayes, the University of California/Berkeley biologist who has done groundbreaking research suggesting that atrazine, a widely used herbicide, can literally change frogs' gender, even at at tiny exposure levels—a finding atrazine's maker, Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, vigorously denies. This week, Darnell and other frogs under Hayes' care have suffered another indignity, according to Hayes: he reportedly told The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall-protected) that the university has cut off funding for his Berkeley lab. "We're dead in the water," Hayes told the Chronicle. He is now without funds "needed to pay for basic functional operations, such as the care of test animals," the magazine reports. The university denies it has taken any action to defund Hayes—a spokesperson "suggested the possibility that he simply ran out of money," the Chronicle reports.

Dead Sea scrolls: In the red part, "habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts," NOAA says.

First, the good news: The annual "dead zone" that smothers much of the northern Gulf of Mexico—caused by an oxygen-sucking algae bloom mostly fed by Midwestern farm runoff—is smaller this year than scientists had expected. In the wake of heavy spring rains, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been projecting 2013's fish-free region of the Gulf to be at least 7,286 square miles and as large as 8,561 square miles—somewhere between the size of New Jersey on the low end to New Hampshire on the high end. Instead, NOAA announced, it has clocked in at 5,840 square miles—a bit bigger than Connecticut. It's depicted in the above graphic.

Now, for the bad news: This year's "biological desert" (NOAA's phrase) is much bigger than last year's, below, which was relatively tiny because Midwestern droughts limited the amount of runoff that made it into the Gulf. At about 2,900 square miles, the 2012 edition measured up to be about a third as large as Delaware.

 NOAA. Data source: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)

Smaller than expected though it may be, this year's model is still more than twice as large as NOAA's targeted limit of less than 2,000 square miles. Here's how recent dead zones stack up—note that the NOAA target has been met only once since 1990. Low years, like 2012 and 2009, tend to marked by high levels of drought, and high years, like 2008, by heavy rains and flooding.

Dead zones over time NOAA

Why such massive annual dead zones? It's a matter of geography and concentration and intensification of fertilizer-dependent agriculture. Note that an enormous swath of the US landmass—41 percent of it—drains into the Mississippi River basin, as shown below. It's true that even under natural conditions, a river that captures as much drainage as the Mississippi is going to deliver some level of nutrients to the sea, which in turn will generate at least some algae. But when US Geological Survey researchers looked at the fossil record in 2006, they found that major hypoxia events (the technical name for dead zones) were relatively rare until around 1950—and have been increasingly common ever since. The mid-20th century is also when farmers turned to large-scale use of synthetic fertilizers. Now as much a part of Mississippi Delta life as crawfish boils, the Gulf dead zone wasn't even documented as a phenomenon until 1972, according to NOAA.

Source: LUMCON


The very same land mass that drains into the Gulf is also the site of an enormous amount of agriculture. The vast majority of US corn production—which uses titanic amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, the two main nutrients behind the dead zone—occurs there.

US Department of Agriculture

The region is also where we shunt much of our factory-scale meat farms. This Food and Water Watch map depicts concentration of beef cow, dairy, hog, chicken, and egg farms—the redder, the more concentrated.

Big Ag interests like to deflect blame for the annual dead zone, claiming that other factors, like runoff from lawns and municipal sewage, drive it. But the US Geological Service has traced flows of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Gulf, and there's no denying the link to farming. "In total, agricultural sources contribute more than 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf, versus only 9 to 12% from urban sources," the USGS reports.

The Gulf of Mexico isn't the only water body that bears the brunt of our concentrated ag production. Much of the eastern edge of the Midwest drains into the Great Lakes, not the Gulf. And they, too, are experiencing fertilizer-fed algae blooms—particularly Lake Erie. The below satellite image depicts the record-setting, oxygen-depleting bloom that smothered much of Lake Erie in 2011, which peaked at 2,000 square miles (about Delaware-size). "That's more than three times larger than any previously observed Lake Erie algae bloom, including blooms that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the lake was famously declared dead," a University of Michigan report found. The culprit: severe storms in the spring, plus "agricultural practices that provide the key nutrients that fuel large-scale blooms."

University of Michigan

Then there's the Chesapeake Bay region, site of a stunning concentration of factory-scale chicken facilities (Food and Water Watch map)…

Food and Water Watch


…and a massive annual dead zone. "Livestock manure and poultry litter account for about half of the nutrients entering the Chesapeake Bay," the Chesapeake Bay Program reports:

Source: NOAA


All of which raises the question: Are dead zones inevitable, a sacrifice necessary to feeding a nation of 300 million people? Turns out, not so much. A 2012 Iowa State University study found that by simply adding one or two crops to the Midwest's typical corn-soy crop rotation, farmers would reduce their synthetic nitrogen fertilizer needs by 80 percent, while staying just as productive. And instead of leaving fields bare over winter, they could plant them with cover crops—a practice that, according to the US Department of Agriculture, "greatly reduces soil erosion and runoff" (among many other ecological benefits)—meaning cleaner streams, rivers, and ultimately, lakes, bays, and gulfs. Moreover, when animals are rotated briskly through pastures—and not crammed into factorylike structures where their manure accumulates into a dramatic waste problem—they, too, can contribute to healthy soil that traps nutrients, protecting waterways from runoff.

Farro gear

I fell in love with farro, an ancient relative of wheat, more than 10 years ago at the venerable Brooklyn restaurant Al di La. The puffed little kernels formed the basis of a chilled salad, tossed with arugula and tomatoes. The farro was light yet nutty, substantial yet melt-in-your-mouth tender, and it merged beautifully with the other ingredients, like some kind of Platonic ideal of pasta. Then I encountered it in similar form several times in a trip across Italy working on organic farms, mostly in the northern states of Umbria and Tuscany.

I returned to the United States in the throes of a full-blown farro obsession, determined to make it part of my repertoire. By then I had moved out of New York City and was living on a small farm in rural North Carolina, far from any fancy-food emporia. Online research seemed to suggest that what we call spelt in the United States is identical to Italy's farro. So I embraced spelt berries, which I could find at the local health food store. Results were more or less dismal. Even after long soaking and hours of cooking, something almost always seemed off: The kernels would be either way too chewy, deplorably mushy, or, paradoxically, both. In time, I learned that true farro (also called emmer) and spelt are indeed distinct, but by then I had ceased to care. I had moved on to other obsessions. (Somewhat childishly, I exacted my revenge against spelt in this 2011 April Fool's piece. I should note that spelt flour is an excellent thing, especially for nonyeasted baked goods like biscuits and cookies).

Mmmmm, chicken

Remember that proposed US Department of Agriculture plan to speed up kill lines at factory-scale poultry slaughterhouses, and cut way back on the number of USDA inspectors to oversee them?

Part of the proposed plan involves allowing the poultry companies to ramp up the antimicrobial sprays they aim at bird carcasses as they zoom along the kill line—a chemical fix to the problem of the various pathogens, often antibiotic-resistant, that are commonly found on chicken, including salmonella and campylobacter. A recent Washington Post story by Kimberly Kindy delivers an ominous taste of what this chemical deluge could mean for both the safety of the chicken you eat and that of the workers who prep it for you.

In a July 27 feature article that set the interwebs aflame, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon told the tale of a bacterial pathogen that's stalking the globe's citrus trees, and a Florida orange juice company's effort to find a solution to the problem through genetic engineering.

An invasive insect called the Asian citrus psyllids carries the bacteria, known as Candidatus Liberibacter, from tree to tree, and it causes oranges and other citrus fruits to turn green and rot. "Citrus greening," as the condition has become known, has emerged as a pest nearly wherever citrus is grown globally. Harmon reported that an "emerging scientific consensus" holds that only genetic engineering can defeat it.

Meanwhile, Michael Pollan, a prominent food industry and agribusiness critic, tweeted this:

The "2 many industry talking pts" bit earned him an outpouring of bile from GMO industry defenders (see here and here, as well as responses to Pollans's tweet). But after digging a bit into the citrus-greening problem, I think Pollan's pithy construction essentially nailed it. Harmon's story does contain some unchallenged industry talking points, yet it is also an important contribution, because citrus greening might just be one of the few areas wherein GM technology might be legitimately useful.

Score one for the techno-optimists. Dutch researchers, funded by Google gazillionaire Sergey Brin, have managed to move lab meat from the test tube to a taste test—a high-proflle one in London. Two intrepid critics, a food scientist and the author of a book on food's techy future, found it, well, almost meatlike. Here's the Washington Post:

Rützler [the food scientist] gave the chef an appreciative nod. "It's close to meat, but it's not as juicy," she said. "I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy." She added: "I would have said if it was disgusting." Schonwald [the author] said the product tasted like "an animal protein cake."

Okay, that last phrase doesn't exactly pique the appetite, but you have to admit, it's not a bad showing for a product that came not from a cow grazing a lush meadow, but rather from tissue derived from bovine stem cells and grown in "nutrient solution."

News of the successful tasting excited some food system researchers. Responding to enviro writer Andy Revkin, University of Minnesota scholar Emily Cassidy tweeted, "Why is #culturedbeef important? Shifting away from grain-fed beef could feed over 350 million more people." To underline her point about the inefficient nature of grain-fed meat, Cassidy presented this excellent video:

In the video, Cassidy makes the key point that it's generally wasteful to grow grain to feed animals for the purpose of eating the animals—it makes much more sense to directly eat the grain. One reason is that, say, the corn we grow to feed cows isn't converted only into burgers and steaks. It also creates and supports a large, inedible skeleton, blood, and various organs—most of which becomes waste.

Cassidy's tweet suggests that lab-grown meat can largely overcome this problem. But just as cows don't grow out of thin air—they need feed—in vitro meat doesn't appear magically in those lab vats. It, too, needs to be fed something if it's going to grow. And that brings up a serious question that's rarely dealt with in techno-optimist takes on lab meat: What, precisely, is in the "nutrient solution" the stem cells convert into edible flesh? Then there's the question of the energy required to maintain proper conditions for large-scale lab meat growth.

In a Discover piece last year, University of California-Los Angeles synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis looked at these questions head on and found plenty of reason for skepticism. First, the energy problem:

Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology. Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use. In addition, even in those sophisticated vats, the three-dimensional techniques that would be required to grow actual steaks with a mix of muscle and fat have not been invented yet, though not for lack of trying. (This technology would primarily benefit our ability to make artificial organ replacements.) Add on top of that the fact that these three-dimensional wads of meat would have to be exercised regularly with stretching machinery, essentially elaborate meat gyms, and you can begin to understand the incredible challenge of scaling in vitro meat.

Then there's the feed question. "The growth medium that provides nutrients, vitamins, and growth hormones to the cells is currently made with a mixture of sugars and amino acids supplemented with fetal bovine serum—literally the blood of unborn cows," she writes. Fetal bovine serum is a slaughterhouse byproduct (it comes from cows' blood) used mainly by the pharmaceutical industry. Current cost: $250 per liter—which is one major reason the five-ounce burger tested in London set Sergey Brin back $330,000.

Of course, relying on a slaughterhouse byproduct for feed means that currently, lab-grown beef can't exist without a vast conventional beef industry. (And obviously, you'll never market a $330,000 burger anyway.)

The hope, though, is to create cheaper, non-animal-derived feed sources from blue-green algae. But don't hold your breath, says Agapakis. Blue-green algae, too, is ruinously expensive. Scientists have been trying for decades to cheaply scale up algae production, she writes, but those efforts have failed.

Today, algae is used to produce extremely high-value health-food products, like omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids, with the average market price for algae products at around $150 per pound of dry cells produced. Compared to the price of corn, which is about $0.09 per pound, or beef at $1.99 per pound, algae has a long way to go before it can play the role of cheap feedstock for in vitro meat production.

I don't care if tech barons lavish their cash on grand, unlikely techno-fixes. I just hope the effort doesn't distract from the necessary, difficult task of convincing people to eat much less meat—and when we do eat meat, to relying on meat from animals that feed on stuff we can't eat directly, like cows that live and munch on well-managed grasslands.

During the broiling-hot Texas summer, I search for dishes that fall into a sweet and cool spot: seasonal produce prepared with minimal heat. Tomatoes are easy. Eggplant, one of my very vegetables, presents a special challenge. The ways that I love to cook it—searing and roasting—are just too damned hot for August. I sometimes grill it, of course, but standing in 100-degree heat over a fire doesn't always appeal.

After a sweaty recent visit to the farmers market, I found myself the owner of three gorgeous purple eggplants—and feeling no desire to fire up the stove or grill. Then, from the depths of my culinary memory, I recovered a technique I learned from Paula Wolfert's outstanding 1994 book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean: You simply wrap the eggplants in foil, prick them all over with the tines of a fork, and cook them on a gas stovetop over a low flame—so low it barely heats the kitchen. Then you separate the flesh from the skin and puree it with a few other ingredients into baba ghanoush, the classic Levantine eggplant spread. The open flame gives the eggplant a subtle smokiness that really elevates the dish. (Of course, cooking it over a charcoal grill is even better.)

Guided by Wolfert, one of my culinary heroes, that's exactly what I did. The following recipe is adapted from Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which brims with summer-ready ideas. (Note to self: try a chilled version of "Yogurt and Leek Soup with Mint.")

Baba ghanoush gear

Baba Ghanoush
(Makes two cups)
3 medium-sized eggplants
2 small cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
A couple of strips of pickled red onion (optional)
5 tablespoons of tahini
One lemon, sliced in half
3-4 tablespoons of water
Sea salt and freshly gound black pepper, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil

Some kind of ground chile powder—Allepo pepper (as Wolfert suggests), paprika, or, as I used, ground chipotle pepper
1 small ripe tomato, diced
A few sprigs of parsley, chopped

Trim the stems from the eggplants and wrap them with foil. Using a fork, prick them in several places, all over. Set two gas stovetop burners to a low setting, and place two of the eggplants on a grate directly over one, and the third over another (see photo). Let then cook, turning them occasionally with a tongs, until they become quite squishy and are releasing steam. Their collapse should be complete, abject. Wolfert suggests dumping the cooked eggplants into a basin of cold water and peeling them immediately. I simply let them sit for 30 minutes or so in a bowl to cool, then I stripped away the foil, rinsed them in cold water, and then peeled them over a bowl.

Note the low flame.

Add the tahini, the garlic, and the onion (if using) to the basin of a food processor fitted with a blade. Squeeze half of the lemon (over a metal strainer to catch the seeds) into the basin, and add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Process until absolutely smooth, if necessary pushing down the sides of the basin with a rubber spatula in between whirs. Creaming the tahini, lemon, and garlic at this point is Wolfert's brilliant baba—it will give the final product a gorgeous lightness. Now add the eggplant flesh, two tablespoons of water, a glug of olive oil, and puree until absolutely smooth, again pausing to intervene with a spatula if necessary. If you're having trouble achieving absolute smoothness, add another tablespoon of water. Now taste, adding a bit more salt or lemon if it seems necessary.

To serve, spread as much baba ghanoush as you expect to eat in one sitting on a plate. (The rest should be kept tightly covered in the fridge—it will maintain peak flavor for a few days). Give it a few lashings of your best olive oil, a brisk sprinkle of ground chile, some grinds of black pepper, and some diced tomato and chopped parsley. Serve with good crackers. This spread would also be a good excuse to make Alice Waters' fast-and-easy flatbread—but that would mean turning up a stovetop burner all the way to medium.