Tom Philpott

The EPA Dithers While a Popular Pesticide Threatens Ecosystems

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 4:18 PM EDT

Ah, summer—the season when trillions of corn and soybean plants tower horizon-to-horizon in the Midwest. All told, US farmers planted more than 170 million acres in these two crops this year—a combined landmass roughly equal in size to the state of Texas. That's great news for the companies that turn corn and soy into livestock feed, sweeteners, and food additives; but not so great for honeybees, wild pollinating insects like bumblebees, and birds.

That's because these crops—along with other major ones like alfalfa and sunflower—are widely treated with pesticides called neonicotinoids. Made  by European chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, these chemicals generate a staggering $2.6 billion in annual revenue worldwide—and have come under heavy suspicion as a trigger of colony collapse disorder and other, less visible, ecological calamities.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Take almonds and just…wait, why add water?

Almonds are a precious foodstuff: a crunchy jolt of complete protein, healthful fats, vitamins and minerals, and deliciousness. Given their rather intense ecological footprint—see here—we should probably consider them a delicacy, a special treat. That's why I think it's deeply weird to pulverize away their crunch, drown them in water, and send them out to the world in a gazillion little cartons. What's the point of almond milk, exactly?

Evidently, I'm out of step with the times on this one. "Plant-based milk" behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013. In an earnings call with investors in May, reported by FoodNavigator, CEO Greg Engles revealed that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the United States, easily trumping soy milk (30 percent) and rice and coconut milks (most of the rest).

A jug of almond milk containing roughly 39 cents worth of almonds, plus filtered water and additives, retails for $3.99.

Dairy is still king, of course, comprising 90 percent of the "milk" market. But as our consumption of it dwindles—down from 0.9 cups per person per day in 1970 to about 0.6 in 2010, according to the US Department of Agriculture—plant-based alternatives are gaining ground. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that sales of alternative milks hit $1.4 billion in 2013 and are expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016, with almond milk leading that growth.

Now, I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can't digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk. Meanwhile, milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we cling to a generations-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Almond milk and other substitutes offer a way to maintain this practice while rejecting dairy. (Almond milk has been crushing once-ubiquitous soy milk, perhaps partly because of hotly contested fears that it creates hormonal imbalances.)

All that aside, almond milk strikes me as an abuse of a great foodstuff. Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let's compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds—nutrition info here—contains six grams of protein (about an egg's worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana) and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A bottle of Califia delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the mighty jug of this hot-selling beverage.

What this tells you is that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds. Which leads us to the question of price and profit. The almonds in the photo above are organic, and sold in bulk at my local HEB supermarket for $11.99 per pound; this one-ounce serving set me back about 66 cents. I could have bought nonorganic California almonds for $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of Califia, which contains roughly the same number of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99.

        Click here for more comparisons. Mother Jones

The water-intensive nature of almond milk, of course, is no secret. By law, food manufacturers have to name ingredients in order of their prevalence in the product. For Califia and other almond milk brands, it starts like this: "filtered water, almonds." Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California, where 80 percent of the world's almonds are produced, drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.

Califia does make a couple of splashy nutritional claims: "50% more calcium than milk," the bottle declares, and "50% RDI of Vitamin E." Almonds are a great source of these vital nutrients, but not that great. Our ounce of whole almonds contains 74 mg of calcium vs. 290 mg for a cup of whole milk, and 7 mg of vitamin E, about 37 percent of the recommended daily intake.

How does Califia's beverage manage to outdo straight almonds on calcium and vitamin E when it lags so far behind on protein and fat? Again, the answer lies in the ingredients list, which reveals the addition of a "vitamin/mineral blend." All fine and well, but if you're interested in added nutrients, why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Califia almond milk contains an added "vitamin/mineral blend." So why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Moreover, almond milk isn't just a few nuts packaged with lots of water. It often contains additives. For example, in addition to vitamins, the Califia product, like many of its rivals, contains small amounts of carrageenan, a seaweed derivative commonly used as a stabilizer in beverages. Academic scientists in Chicago have raised concerns that it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

I'm not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey. I just want people to know what they're paying for when they shell our for it. As for me, when I want something delicious to moisten my granola or add substance to a smoothie, I go for organic kefir, a fermented milk product that's packed with protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes. Added bonus: According to the label, it's lactose-free—apparently, the kefir microbes transform the lactose during the fermentation process.

The industry, meanwhile, aims to take its lucrative almond milk model on the road. FoodNavigator reports that White Wave is setting up a joint venture to market its plant-based milks in almond-crazy China.

Tom's Kitchen: Now Is the Time of Gazpacho

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Summer in a bowl.

Gazpacho can be a drag: dull and savoring of the refrigerator. That's because its essential ingredients—tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers—are too often mass-produced and hauled in hundreds of miles from God knows where. However, when those hot-weather staples are in season and grown by talented farmers in your region—or better, in a nearby garden—gazpacho can be a revelation: vibrant, zippy, and as fresh as a sun-baked veggie patch.

Here in central Texas, it's gazpacho time. My own tomato plants are towering and healthy, but a diabolical squirrel is helping itself to all the big ones, leaving me with just cherry tomatoes—delicious, but not right for the gazpacho blender. As for sweet peppers, mine aren’t quite ready yet. I did grow some fabulous cukes, though. So I headed over to Austin's glorious Boggy Creek Farm, now in the midst of an epic tomato harvest, to fill out my gazpacho larder.

Now, my gazpacho mojo hit a snag a few years ago when a close friend dismissed a batch I had whipped up with a soul-crushing assessment: "salsa in disguise." I realized my mistake: not enough cucumber and sweet pepper, and too much hot chile pepper. Since then, I've been using one medium-sized cucumber and one sweet pepper each for every five medium-sized tomatoes. As for hot pepper, I usually reserve it for garnish, in the form of  a few chile flakes. These days, my gazpacho tastes like a summer garden in a bowl, not something you want to plunge a chip into. For a slightly spicy and ligher—but still un-salsalike—version, check out the one I came up with last year.

Essential gazpacho gear.

Gazpacho
(Serves two)

5 medium-sized tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 medium cucumber (if it's super-fresh, no need to peel), coarsely chopped
1 medium (or too small) sweet pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 slice of good rustic day-old bread, toasted and torn into pieces
Sherry vinegar, one splash at a time, to taste
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Garnish
Extra virgin olive oil
Something green, like chopped parsley and/or garlic chives
Crushed red chile flakes
A few coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes (optional)
 

Place the chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and garlic into a blender, along with the olive oil, a good dash of vinegar, and a healthy lashing of salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Taste. Add more vinegar and salt if need.

To serve, divide into two bowls (there may be a bit leftover). Give them a drizzle of olive oil and top with remaining garnishes.

 

 

 

Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry

| Mon Jul. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

California farmers will reap a record 2.1 billion pounds of almonds this year, the USDA estimates—about three times as much as they did in 2000. That's great news for the world's growing horde of almond eaters, because the state's groves supply 80 percent of the global harvest. As this chart shows, California has been planting more and more almonds over the past two decades:

And those almonds are miniature cash cows:

But in the long term, the almond boom may prove bad news for everyone who relies on California's farms for sustenance. You might have heard that the state, supplier of half of US-grown produce, is locked in its worst drought on record. Meanwhile, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond, as my colleagues Alex Park and Julia Lurie have shown. You don't have to scramble to figure how many almonds make up 2.1 billion pounds to realize that that's a hell of a lot of water.

Check Out These New Emojis for Foodies

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Can you guess what these images mean? See below.

On a frigid Sunday morning in Manhattan this past March, several dozen people, many of them design students, gathered at the School of Visual Art's building in Chelsea. Their task: to perform a bit of pro-bono marketing for non-corporate food producers—the kind of small and mid-sized farms that grow produce without poisonous chemicals and tend their animals on pasture, not in fetid, polluting feedlots.

The meeting, organized by an innovative Los Angeles-based design firm called the Noun Project (whose founders my colleague Tasneem Raja interviewed here) and an accomplished New York-based sustainable-food advocacy group called the Grace Communications Foundation (the force behind the Meatrix video and Sustainable Table), was modeled on the techie concept of a "hackathon"—a bunch of people getting together to solve some problem. But whereas hackathons typically result in computer code, this "iconathon" would produce images, known as icons, that can wordlessly express concepts like "grass fed" and "heritage breed," free for anyone's use under a creative-commons license.

Are Nanoparticles From Packaging Getting Into Your Food?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about the US regulatory system's strange attitude toward nanotechnology and food.

On the one hand, the Food and Drug Administration is on record stating that nanoparticles—which are microscopically tiny pieces of common materials like silver and clay—pose unique safety concerns. The particles, which measure in at a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, "can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts," the FDA wrote in a 2012 draft proposal for regulating nanoparticles in food. On the other hand, its solution—that the food industry conduct safety testing that is "as rigorous as possible" and geared specifically to nano-materials before releasing nano-containing products onto the market—will be voluntary.

But what about packaging—the wrappers and bags and whatnot that hold food to keep it fresh? Nano-sized silver has powerful antimicrobial properties and can be embedded in plastic to keep food fresh longer; and nanoparticles of clay can help bottles and other packaging block out air and moisture from penetrating, preventing spoilage. Yet research has suggested (see here and here) that nanoparticles can migrate from packaging to food, potentially exposing consumers.

One list of packaging that could contain nanoparticles includes beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

So how widely is nanotech used in the containers that contact our food? Back in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released a "State of the Science Literature Review" on nanosilver (PDF; warning: 221 pages). The report confirms that nano-materials, including silver, are being used in food packaging, but shows why it's hard to get a grip on how just widely. "Current labeling regulations do not require that the nanomaterial be listed as an ingredient," neither in food or in food packaging, the EPA report states. And "manufacture of nanosilver-containing products is shifting to the Far East, especially China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam," making it even harder to track nano-containing products that come in from abroad.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—keeps a running inventory of "nanotechnology-based consumer products introduced on the market." A PEN spokesperson stressed to me that its list isn't comprehensive—it by no means captures every nano-associated item, and some products on the list may no longer contain nanotech. That said, the database includes 20 products in the "food and beverage storage" category, including a couple of beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

Meanwhile, environmental watchdog groups warn that nanotech-imbued packaging will soon become ubiquitous. "Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and nanopackaging," Friends of the Earth stated in a 2014 report. Tom Neltner, a food additives researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me in an email that, "we believe nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

One researcher says that he believes that "nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

When I asked Neltner for specifics, he sent me to Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging and Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability at Michigan State University, and a close watcher of the food-packaging industry. Hotchkiss told me that while nano-materials are quite attractive to the food industry as a way to cheaply prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, they currently "aren't widely used" because "no one knows for sure what kinds of risks from ingesting exquisitely tiny amounts of nano-materials may or not represent." As a result, the food industry is "waiting on the sidelines" until more safety research emerges.

Indeed, the above-noted EPA report reveals significant health concerns around nanoparticles. They "can pass through biological membranes," the report states, including the blood-brain barrier. And they're "small enough to penetrate even very small capillaries throughout the body."

What harm nanoparticles cause when they move about our bodies remains murky, though. "There are very limited well controlled human studies on the potential toxicities of nanosilver," the EPA states; but animal studies have shown potential toxicity for the liver, kidneys, and the immune system.

Back in March, the EPA  moved to block a company called Pathway Investment from marketing plastic food storage containers laced with nano-silver to the public. But what ran the company afoul with the EPA wasn't its use of nano-silver per se; rather, it was the claim that its product would kill microbiota in stored food. "Claims that mold, fungus or bacteria are controlled or destroyed by a particular product must be backed up with testing so that consumers know that the products do what the labels say,” the EPA's press release states.

Meanwhile, no one seems to know for sure how widely nanotech is being used in packaging, or what the health consequences are. And that's potentially a big problem stemming from some very small stuff.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Over Easy: An Egg King Gets Dethroned

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

Remember the salmonella outbreak of 2010, the one that that sickened 2,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs?

A federal investigation has pulled the curtain back on the way the man at the center of the outbreak, Jack DeCoster, ran his massive egg empire. He and his son Peter DeCoster have pleaded guilty to the "distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce," resulting in the 2010 outbreak, the US Department of Justice reports.

And that's not all. One of DeCoster's companies, Quality Egg, also copped to attempting to bribe a USDA inspector, not once but twice in 2010, to allow it to send out eggs that didn't meet the agency's quality standards. The company also admitted to falsifying expiration dates on egg cartons "with the intent to mislead state regulators and retail egg customers regarding the true age of the eggs," between 2006 and 2010. 

Even before these revelations, the episode had revealed gaps in how the US regulatory system handles massive livestock operations. DeCoster's own company-run tests had found salmonella in its facilities before the outbreak, but it continued churning out eggs. Shortly before the outbreak, US Department of Agriculture inspectors had noted  filthy conditions but didn't act to halt them—they were there to inspect egg size, not cleanliness. The Food and Drug Administration, which does regulate food safety in large egg operations, filed a damning report on DeCoster's facilities—but only after those half-billion suspect eggs had been trucked out to supermarkets nationwide.

And though DeCoster ran no corporate empire along the lines of Tyson or Smithfield Foods, his egg fiefdom was quite large. My reporting at the time established that the companies he controlled accounted for more then 10 percent of US laying hens—more than any other egg producer.

DeCoster pere et fils face prison sentences of up to one year; fines of $100,000 each; and a "term of supervised release after any imprisonment for up to one year," the DOJ reports.

Thus, presumably, ends an illustrious career at the heights of industrial-scale agriculture. Previous highlights include:

 • In 2002, one of DeCoster's companies paid a $1.5 million settlement after women at one of his Iowa plants "alleged they were subjected to sexual harassment (including rape), abuse, and retaliation" by supervisory workers.

• In 2000 he got himself declared a "habitual offender" of Iowa's manure management laws by the state's attorney general.

• In 1996, Robert Reich, then the US labor secretary, slapped a $3.6 million fine on DeCoster's Maine egg operation for labor violations. Reich denounced the company as ''an agricultural sweatshop" where the workers are treated like ''animals."

This Video Shows What Happens to Baby Turkeys at the Butterball Plant

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 7:08 PM EDT

There's no particularly egregious act of cruelty in the above video exposé of a Butterball turkey hatchery in North Carolina—no one stomps a screeching bird, or whacks one with a rod as these videos from 2011 and 2012 show. What the latest undercover video investigation by the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals reveals is quite banal: the reduction of newborn turkey chicks to assembly-line widgets, material inputs whose result will fill millions of sandwiches. (Butterball raises a fifth of all US-grown turkeys).

We see just-hatched birds dumped onto conveyor belts and whisked along, occasionally getting a limb stuck in factory machinery. The severely injured ones get tossed unceremoniously into the hole of a machine, where, a voiceover informs us, "they'll be ground up alive." The surviving ones get lifted by workers into machines that cut off their toes and burn off their beaks. Then it's on to a truck and off to a factory farm, the voiceover declares.

The suffering we see can't be blamed on the viciousness of a rogue employee, as often happens after video-captured abuses. (Several Butterball employees were convicted of animal abuse in the wake of earlier Mercy for Animals investigations.) The scandal here lies in the routine practice, not spectacular violence.

It's something that meat eaters have a right to know about before they bite into a turkey sandwich. And it's something that the industry is fighting hard to keep out of sight and mind. Last year, the North Carolina legislature introduced a proposal that would criminalize the act of infiltrating a factory farm and documenting what goes on behind closed doors—a classic "ag-gag" bill of the type documented by Ted Genoways in Mother Jones last year. According to Mercy For Animals, the ag-gag provisions have generated major pushback within the state, but could still pass this year.

Your Vanilla Ice Cream Is About to Get Weirder

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
ice cream monster
Illustration by Sam Island

Synthetic biology—or "synbio" for short—is the stuff of science fiction brought to life. Whereas standard-issue biotechnology involves inserting a gene from one organism into another, synbio entails stuff like inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells: i.e, creating new organisms altogether. And the technology has made a major breakthrough: A company called Evolva has managed to create a compound called vanillin—the one that gives vanilla beans their distinctive and wildly popular flavor—grown not on a vine but rather in a culture of synthetic yeast.

Even though you'll likely soon be ingesting its products, synbio—like nanotechnology, which I looked at in two posts last week—is virtually unregulated and can show up in consumer products without any labeling requirements. But unlike nanotech, whose tiny particles already pervade more than 1600 consumer products (including 96 food ones), the industry around synthetic biology is only beginning its push its inventions into things we encounter daily.

Tom's Kitchen: Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble

| Sat May 31, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In the years I spent working on a small organic farm in North Carolina, we'd often spend the wee hours of the morning harvesting a variety of vegetables. One of my favorite crops to pick was potatoes, which required a kind of subterranean treasure hunt. One of us would plunge a pitchfork into the earth and upturn a potato plant, and another, on hands and knees, would quickly snatch the dirt-caked orbs dangling from the roots and place them in a bucket.

Occasionally, a potato would get "speared"—unintentionally stabbed by the fork—making it unmarketable. We'd separate them out, and march them into the kitchen for a post-harvest "second breakfast" of potatoes, just-laid eggs, and any other vegetables on hand. Early-morning harvests generated a fierce hunger, and nothing satisfied it quite like these just-dug treasures roasted in a hot oven—sweet, creamy, and sumptuous, justifying their name in French: pomme de terre, or apple of the earth.

Now when I go the the farmers market, I can never resist "new" potatoes, which are just potatoes that haven't been stored long. Recently, at the stand of an excellent Austin farm called Green Gate, I spied some purple potatoes—which are not only rich in health-giving phytochemicals, but also deliver an extra dose of earthy flavor.  I grabbed a couple handfuls, came home, and tried to recapture that farmhouse magic.

Note: You can omit the eggs and just use the below recipe as a guide for roasting potatoes.

Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble
Serves two

Ingredients
About .75 pounds new potatoes, preferably blue or purple, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Olive oil
Sea salt
1-2 shallots, minced
3-4 eggs from pastured chickens
A few slices of decent cheese—I used Organic Valley "Grassmilk" raw cheddar
Some coarsely chopped herbs, for garnish. (I used cilantro, but parsley, chives, and even arugula would all work great.)

Adjust your oven's top rack to between 6-8 inches below the broiler (you'll be finishing the potatoes under the broiler). Turn the oven to 400 degrees F and insert a large cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed, over-proof skillet. Your going to want to cover it, so find an oven-proof cover that will work with the pan before proceeding.

Dab the chopped potatoes dry with a towel. When the oven comes to temperature, remove the skillet. Proceed with caution: It will be blisteringly hot. Add enough oil to cover the bottom, and drop in the potatoes along with a good pinch of salt. Using a spatula, toss the potatoes around in the pan until they are well-coated in oil. Cover the skillet and return it to the oven. The cover will help the potatoes cook faster by essentially steaming them in their own moisture.

While the potatoes are cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl, along with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, and whisk them together with a fork until the yolks and whites are just combined.

Check the potatoes every ten minutes or so by plunging a fork into one of the larger pieces. When the fork penetrates easily, it's time to remove the skillet's cover, turn off the oven's bake function, and turn the broiler on to its highest setting. Place the skillet under the broiler and cooking, checking often, until they're brown and crisp on one side. Flip them with a spatula, and brown/crisp them on the other.  Remove the skillet, placing it on the stove top. Turn off the broiler and shut the oven door.

Add the chopped shallots to the pan along with a small glug of oil, tossing it all with a spatula. The pan will still be sizzling hot, and will cook the shallots. When the sizzling has calmed down, turn the heat to low and carefully pour the mixed eggs over the potatoes, covering the skillet bottom with the eggs. When the edges have set, flip the eggs with a spatula. Lay the cheese slices onto the eggs, and return the skillet to the still-hot oven until the cheese has just melted—a couple of minutes.

Serve with a green salad, toast, and white wine for dinner, or tortillas and coffee for breakfast.