Tom Philpott

40 Percent of Restaurant Workers Live in Near-Poverty

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

It isn't just fast-food empires that rely on a low-paid, disempowered, and quite-often impoverished workforce. As a stomach-turning new report (PDF viewable here) from the Economic Policy Institute shows, the entire restaurant industry hides a dirty little labor secret under the tasteful lighting of the dining room.

Here are some highlights:

• The restaurant industry is a massive and growing source of employment. It accounts for more than 9 percent of US private-sector jobs—up from a little more than 7 percent in 1990. That's nearly a 30 percent gain.

• The industry's wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers' median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn't budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers

• Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that's double the rate of nonrestaurant workers.

• Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is "cashiers and counter attendants" (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry's workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, "chefs and head cooks," offers a median wage of just $12.34.

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, "blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry," while "Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations," the report found.

• Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for nonrestaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of nonchef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don't receive the rights of citizenship.

Thus you can't opt out of supporting deplorable labor conditions for the people who feed you simply by refusing to pass through the Golden Arches or to enter the Burger King's realm.

So what can you do? One thing is to seek out restaurants that explicitly pay their workers a living wage. Two I can think of offhand: Austin's Black Star Co-op, a cooperatively owned gastro-pub that's managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." Another is Chapel Hill's excellent Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe. I'd love to hear about more examples in comments.

But these examples are vanishingly rare. The only real solution to the industry's bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative, the EPI report makes clear. That means reforms like a much higher minimum wage and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. Anyone who wants to learn more about working conditions in our nation's eateries should read Saru Jayaraman's outstanding 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. (Read the Mother Jones review here.)

And just for fun, here's the Mother Jones fast-food wage calculator, which will give you a sense of what some workers are up against:

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Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown (UPDATED)

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

Last week, Gawker uncovered a hapless tie-up between genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto and Condé Nast Media—publisher of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, GQ, Self, Details, and other magazines—to produce "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability."

Marion Nestle was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon.

Since then, I've learned that Condé Nast's Strategic Partnerships division dangled cash before several high-profile food politics writers, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to participate.  

Marion Nestle, author of the classic book Food Politics and a professor at New York University, told me she was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon. Nestle almost accepted, because at first she didn't know Monsanto was involved—the initial email she received only referred to the company in attachments that she didn't open, she said.

"It wasn't until we were at the end of the discussion about how much time I would allow (they wanted a full day) that they mentioned the honorarium," she wrote in an email. "I was so shocked at the amount that I had sense enough to ask who was paying for it. Monsanto. End of discussion."

James McWillams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a pundit on food issues whose work appears in The Atlantic and other publications, got offered even more, in a conversation with a Conde Nast rep on Aug. 6. "They were not evasive or misleading" about Monsanto's involvement, he told me, "just not immediately forthcoming…within a question or two it was clear that this was a PR project."

He wouldn't tell me on the record how much they dangled, but described it as "more money than I've ever been paid to talk" and "considerably north" of Nestle's offer. He declined.

Apparently, the infamous gender gap in pay lives on, even in the market for corporate flackery. I would have thought that snagging Nestle, a longtime industry critic, would be worth much more than bagging McWilliams, who has written favorably about GMOs. Nestle, who is quoted frequently in major media articles on food topics, also arguably has a considerably higher public profile than does McWilliams.

Then there's Anna Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Hot Planet and prominent critic of the agrichemical industry. She forwarded me an August 4 email a representative of her Small Planet Foundation received from someone identified as "Senior Director, Strategic Alliances, the Condé Nast Media Group." The email, printed below, invited Lappé to participate in an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites (i.e: Self, Epicurious, Bon Appetit, GQ & Details) and living on a custom YouTube channel," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability." It didn't mention Monsanto, but added that "[c]ompensation will be provided, along with travel two/from the shoot location." It contained no mention of Monsanto, or specifics on the compensation offer.

Coincidentally, Lappé was already wise to the Monsanto/Condé Nast tie-up. Back in June, she had been forwarded an email about a forthcoming web-based TV show sponsored by Monsanto and produced by Condé Nast, in search of experts to appear as talking heads. Lappé wrote critically about the project in an Al Jazeera America column published August 1, just days before the Condé Nast rep approached her. "I guess they didn't read the column," Lappé says.

She replied to the Condé Nast proposition on August 7, complaining that "it was misleading to approach me about participating without divulging the series is being funded by Monsanto." She never heard back.

That same day, Gawker came out with its post, which contained a leaked email from another Condé Nast employee to unnamed charity group, which contains similar language to the one Lappé received. "We are contacting you to see if there might be a person at [charity group] who could speak to one or two of the episode subject," the email states. (The email also names documentary film maker Lori Silverbush as someone Condé Nast hoped would be part of the panel. Silverbush's husband, the famed New York City chef Tom Colicchio, later tweeted, "Lori declined the Monsanto 'opportunity' when it was first offered, for reasons you can imagine.")

The series' host, the email continued, would be Mo Rocca, a famed comedian and correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. Lappé, McWilliams, and Nestle were also informed that Rocca would appear as the show's host. "When I looked up Mo Rocca, he sounded like fun," Nestle told me.

Soon after the Gawker item appeared, Rocca wrote a note to the publication denying his involvement. "Yes, I was pitched that project but before I gave my answer a letter went out suggesting I was signed on," he wrote. "That's not the case. I'm not involved with it."

I've reached out to Condé Nast for comment, and will update this post if the company gets back.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the most high-profile US food-politics writer, was also invited to participate in the project, he informed me Friday. In a July 22 email to Pollan's lecture agent, a Condé Nast rep talked up an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability," but didn't mention Mo Rocca or compensation. Nor did the email mention Monsanto—as with the case of Nestle, the company's name only appeared in an attachment. Pollan's agent "declined before money was mentioned," he said.

Here's the email Lappé's associate got from Condé Nast:

And here's Lappé's response:

 

The Toxic Algae Are Not Done With Toledo. Not By a Long Stretch.

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The algae bloom that swallowed parts of Lake Erie in 2011. Toledo sits near—and draws its water from—the lake's southwest region, where algae tends to accumulate.

Last weekend, Toledo's 400,000 residents were sent scrambling for bottled water because the stuff from the tap had gone toxic—so toxic that city officials warned people against bathing their children or washing their dishes in it. The likely cause: a toxic blue-green algae bloom that floated over the city's municipal water intake in Lake Erie. On Monday morning, the city called off the don't-drink-the-water warning, claiming that levels of the contaminant in the water had fallen back to safe levels. Is their nightmare over?

One expert said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer.

I put the question to Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University and a researcher who monitors Lake Erie's annual algae blooms. He said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer. But it's "pretty unlikely" that toxins will make it into the city's drinking water. That's because after the weekend's fiasco, a whole crew of public agencies, from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the US Environmental Protection Agency to the City of Toledo, have been scrambling to implement new procedures to keep the toxins out. "I think they have a pretty good plan in place," he said. But "you can't guarantee [there won't be a recurrence] because you can't predict "how bad the concentration of the toxins going into the plant [from the lake] is going to be."

Reutter added that he "anticipated" that the new system for protecting Toledo's drinking water would be more expensive than the current one. Back in January, local paper the Blade reported that Toledo "has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, [and] spent $4 million in 2013."

And those hard realities highlight a hard fact about our way of farming: It manages to displace the costs of dealing with its messes onto people who don't directly benefit from it. The ties between Big Ag and Toledo's rough weekend are easy to tease out. "The Maumee River drains more than four million acres of agricultural land and dumps it into Lake Erie at the Port of Toledo," the Wall Street Journal reports. More than 80 percent of the Maumeee River watershed is devoted to agriculture, mainly the corn-soy duopoly that carpets the Midwest. Fertilizer and manure runoff from the region's farms feed blue-green algae blooms in the southwest corner of Lake Erie, from which Toledo draws its water.  

And those blooms don't just tie up oxygen in water and push out aquatic life, creating dead zones. They also often contain the compound that triggered the water scare: microcystin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and even liver damage. Apparently, a particularly noxious chunk of algae floated over Toledo's water intake equipment, causing the microcystin spike.

Back in early July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Michigan delivered their forecast for this year's bloom on the western part of Erie: It would likely be much smaller than it was in 2011, when a record 40,000 metric tons of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) accumulated, but likely much higher than the past decade's average of 14,000 metric tons—the researchers forecast a 2014 bloom weighing in at 22,000 metric tons. The blooms don't peak until September, which is why Reutter is convinced that the condition that created last weekend's troubles will likely re-emerge.

Here's a chart from the report:

Chart: NOAA and University of Michigan researchers

The bottom half of that chart tracks the flow of phosphorus, the component of fertilizer and manure that triggers freshwater algae blooms, into Lake Erie. Of course, farm runoff isn't the only way phosphorus makes its way into the lake. Municipal sewage and industrial waste play a role, too. But reforms imposed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 minimized those sources, pulling Lake Erie from the brink of death.

The below chart, taken from a 2013 Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force report, shows the sources of Lake Erie phosphorus over the past several decades. Under pressure from the Clean Water Act, pollution from "point" sources like wastewater treatment plants and factories have been severely curtailed. But the CWA doesn't regulate "non-point" sources, mainly agriculture. "Harmful algal blooms were common in western Lake Erie between the 1960s and 1980s," NOAA notes. "After a lapse of nearly 20 years, blooms have been steadily increasing over the past decade."

Chart: Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

Climate change plays a role, too—both because longer, warmer summers give algae more time to build up, and because warmer mean temperatures are also likely driving a steep increase of heavy rains in the upper Midwest, which force more phosphorus off farm fields and into waterways. Changes in the way farmers apply fertilizers are also apparently making phosphorus more mobile as this 2012 article by Jessica Marshal for the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows.

Of course, western Ohio isn't the only Corn Belt region encountering toxic algae. "A reported chemical spill on the Des Moines River above Saylorville Lake Wednesday turned out to be a blue-green algae bloom," the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported in late July. More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an advisory against swimming in two beaches of Lake Red Rock, Iowa's largest lake, "in response to the presence of a significant blue-green algae bloom which has the potential to impact the health of humans and their pets."

The website Toxic Algae News tracks blooms nationwide. Here's its latest map. Red pins in a state mean harmful algal blooms recur annually in "many" lakes; orange pins mean they recur in one or two lakes.

And phosphorus isn't the only fertilizer component that feeds algae blooms. Nitrogen does to saltwater what phosphorus does to freshwater—and every year, the Mississippi River carries titanic amounts of nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico, more than half of which comes from corn and soy farms. These flows feed a vast algae bloom that creates an aquatic dead zone that can reach the size of New Jersey—blotting out a wild, abundant source of high-quality seafood, in order to grow crops that mainly go to feed livestock, cars, industrial-cooking fats, and sweeteners. This year's dead zone clocks in at 5,008 square miles—"roughly the size of Connecticut and…three times larger than the 2015 goal established by a task force specifically created to address the problem," the Mississippi River Collaborative announced Monday.

Such sacrifices are what economists call "externalities"—the costs of doing business that don't show up on the bottom lines of farmers, or the companies that buy their goods for animal feed and ethanol, or the firms that sell them the seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers that facilitate mass monocropped plantings.

Residents of places like Toledo are left holding the bag. Many people there are questioning the safety of their water supply and turning to pricey bottled water instead, USA Today reports. And now, the city's taxpayers (or some public entity) will likely be paying more than ever to keep algae toxins out of the tap water.

Tom's Kitchen: ¡Ceviche!

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

I'm reading Paul Greenberg's superb new book American Catch. In it, Greenberg teases out Americans' weird relationship to the sea. "We are a nation of coasts," he writes, in which "nearly half of the population chooses to live less than ten miles from the sea." Yet on average, we eat just 15 pounds of fish and shellfish annually per capita, vs. 100 pounds of red meat. Don't even get me started about how growing loads of Midwestern corn, mainly for livestock feed, takes out huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, the mainland US's greatest fishery. Of the fish we do eat, a startling 91 percent is imported—much of it farmed under dodgy conditions and barely inspected by food safety authorities. Meanwhile, we export nearly a third of our own abundant wild catch.

Contemplating these contradictions made me want to eat some damned fish. So I went to Austin's stellar old-school fish monger Quality Seafood to see what I could get from the seascape nearest me, the Gulf of Mexico. The display included a gorgeous stack of black drum filets, a firm white fish subtly streaked with red—and rated a "good alternative" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which scrutinizes fisheries based on their sustainability. Contemplating the brutal heat outside and my stash of produce at home—tomatoes, a red onion, serrano chiles, limes, etc—inspiration hit me: ceviche, that sublime, no-cook Latin American answer to sushi. Well, it's not exactly like sushi—the acid in the lime juice breaks down the fish, effectively cooking it. Which beats the hell out of firing up the oven on a hot day.

So I snatched a filet of black drum and got busy with the cutting board. Here's what I did. This dish brings together a lot of sharp, bright flavors in a lovely way.

Simple Ceviche
1 pound filet of a firm white fish—preferably from a nearby source—cut into ½ inch chunks
1 red onion, cut into 1/4 inch chucks
Sea salt and black pepper
4 limes, juiced; and at least one extra, in case
1 ripe tomato, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 clove of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced into a fine paste
1 hot chile pepper, such as serrano or jalapeño, minced fine<
A little extra-virgin olive oil
1 avocado, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 small head of cilantro, chopped

Put the fish, the onions, and a good dash of salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the lime juice and toss. There should be enough juice to fully submerge the fish. If not, juice another lime and add it to the bowl. Let the fish/onion/lime juice combo sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or so (here's an excellent Serious Eats guide to how long to let ceviche marinade based on your taste).

To finish, add the tomato, the garlic, the chile, a lashing of olive oil, and the avocado and cilantro (if someone in your crew hates cilantro, parsley and even mint work great). Toss, taste for salt, and serve with chips.

40 Million People Depend on the Colorado River. Now It's Drying Up.

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Science papers don't generate much in the way of headlines, so you'll be forgiven if you haven't heard of one called "Groundwater Depletion During Drought Threatens Future Water Security of the Colorado River Basin," recently published by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers.

But the "water security of the Colorado River basin" is an important concept, if you are one of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, a group that includes residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. Or if you enjoy eating vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach during the winter. Through the many diversions, dams, canals, and reservoirs the river feeds as it snakes its way from the Rockies toward Mexico, the Colorado also provides the irrigation that makes the desert bloom in California's Imperial Valley and Arizona's Yuma County—source of more than two-thirds of US winter vegetable production.

Bud and Miller Are Trying to Hijack Craft Beer—and It’s Totally Backfiring

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

InBev and MillerCoors loom over the US beer landscape like…well, like one of those monstrous inflatable Bud Light bottles that spring up at certain football tailgate parties and outdoor concerts. Together, the two global giants own nearly 80 percent of the US beer market. InBev alone, corporate owner of Budweiser, spends a staggering $449 million on US advertising.

But also like those vast blow-up beer bottles, their presence is not-so-faintly ridiculous and always teetering. The industry's signature light beers are suffering a "slow, watery death," BusinessWeek recently reported, their sales declining steadily.

Meanwhile, independent breweries cranking out distinctive product—known as craft breweries—are undergoing an accelerating renaissance. "Sales of craft beers grew 16 percent in volume over the past year versus a 1.7 percent decline for the biggest U.S. beer brands," Bloomberg reported in January. And new craft breweries are budding like hop flowers in spring. Here are the latest numbers, just out from the Brewer's Association. Note that that the number of US craft brewers has nearly doubled since 2010, and grew 20 percent in the past year alone.

Chart: The Brewers Association

Now, here's an historical look at the situation, a chart that I also included the last time I looked at the craft-beer revival, back in 2011. Note that the number of breweries plunged with the coming of Prohibition, surged with the onset of legalization in the 1930s, and then began a long, slow decline as the beer industry consolidated into the hands of giants like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. By the end of the 1970s, the entire US beer market was being satisfied, if that's the word, by fewer than 100 large brewing facilities.

And then, starting in the early '80s—with the gradual demise of Prohibition-era restrictions like the one that kept breweries from selling beer directly to the public, as well as people's growing distaste for watered-down swill—the craft-brew revival, the one reaching full flower today, emerged.

Chart: Biodesic

For its part, Big Beer has responded to the declining popularity of its goods in two ways. The first is relentless cost cutting. When Belgian mega-brewer InBev bought US corporate beer giant Bud in 2008, it very quickly slashed 1,400 jobs, about 6 percent of its US workforce. And the laser-like focus on slashing costs has continued, as this aptly titled 2012 BusinessWeek piece, "The Plot to Destroy America's Beer," shows.

Ersatz "craft" beers include Shock Top, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift.

The second is to roll out phony craft beers—brands like Shock Top and Blue Moon—and buy up legit craft brewers like Chicago's Goose Island, which InBev did in 2011. Other ersatz "craft" beers include Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift. The strategy has been successful, to a point. Bloomberg reports that InBev has seen its Goose Island and Shock Top sales surge.

But there's a catch: These stealth Big Beer brands aren't "putting the microbrewers who started the movement out of business," Bloomberg reports. Rather, "the new labels are taking sales from already-troubled mass-market brands owned by the industry giants peddling these crafty brews." In other words, consumers aren't dropping Sierra Nevada or Dogfish Head and reaching for the Shock Top. Rather, Shock Top sales are being propped up by refugees from Bud Light and the like.

Meanwhile, the beer world is buzzing about what would be the granddaddy of all mergers: rumors are swirling that InBev is preparing a bid to takeover SABMiller, a move that would give the combined company 30 percent of the globe's beer market. The motivation, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch: "A-B InBev could reap $2 billion in cost-savings through an acquisition of their largest rival, through global procurement and shared services, and eliminating job redundancies."

While Big Beer attempts to solve its problems with crafty marketing and yet more giantism, US craft brewers are trying out innovative business models. Big-name craft brewers Full Sail (Oregon), New Belgium (Colorado), and Harpoon (Boston) are all fully employee-owned. Here in Austin, Black Star Brewery and Pub is cooperatively owned by 3,000 community members and managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." It may sound like it should be a cluster, but the place is always packed, the service is brisk, the food is good, and the beer is excellent. And the employees proudly refuse tips, citing their living wage as the reason. Meanwhile, a forthcoming worker-owned project, 4thTap Brewing Co-op, is creating excitement among Austin beer nerds with its promise to "bring radical brewing to the forefront of the Texas craft beer scene."

For me, all of this ferment underlines an important point about the US food scene: It may be dominated by a few massive, heavily marketed companies at the top, but that doesn't stop viable alternatives from bubbling from below.

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Midwestern Waters Are Full of Bee-Killing Pesticides

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about how the US Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting a slow-motion reassessment of a widely used class of insecticides, even as evidence mounts that it's harming key ecosystem players from pollinating bees to birds. Since then, another federal entity with an interest in the environment, the US Geological Survey, has released a pretty damning study of the pesticide class, known as neonicitinoids.

Neonics showed up in all of the water bodies tested, and proved to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment."

For the paper (press release; abstract) published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution, USGS researchers took 79 water samples in nine rivers and streams over the 2013 growing season in Iowa, a state whose vast acreage of farmland is largely devoted to neonic-treated corn and soybeans. Neonics showed up in all of the sites, and proved to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment."

Levels varied over the course of the season, spiking after spring planting, the authors report. At their peak, the neonic traces in Iowa streams reached levels well above those considered toxic for aquatic organisms. And the chemicals proved to linger—the researchers found them at reduced levels before planting, "which indicates that they can persist from applications in prior years,” USGS scientist Michelle Hladik, the report's lead author, said in the press release. And they showed up "more frequently and in higher concentrations" than the insecticides they replaced, the authors note.

Other studies have shown similar results. Neonics have shown up at significant levels in wetlands near treated farm fields in parts of the High Plains  and in Canada, as wells as in rivers in ag-heavy areas of Georgia and California.

These findings directly contradict industry talking points. Older insecticides were typically sprayed onto crops in the field, while neonics are applied directly to seeds, and then taken up by the stalks, leaves, pollen, and nectar of the resulting plants. "Due to its precise application directly to the seed, which is then planted below the soil surface, seed treatment reduces potential off-target exposure to plants and animals," Croplife America, the pesticide industry's main lobbying outfit, declared in a 2014 report.

Yet the USGS researchers report that older pesticides that once rained down on the corn/soy belt, like chlorpyrifos and carbofuran, turned up at "substantially" lower rates in water—typically, in less than 20 percent of samples, compared to the 100 percent of samples found in the current neonic study. Apparently, pesticides that are taken up by plants through seed treatments don't stay in the plants; and neonics, the USGS authors say, are highly water soluble and break down in water more slowly than the pesticides they've replaced.

In another document, Croplife claims that neonicotinoids "have been used in the United States for many years without significant effects on populations of honey bees." But the paper shows that neonic use didn't start in the heart of corn/soy belt until 2004, and then quickly ramped up. The below graphic, lifted from the paper, shows usage data on the three major neonic chemicals, with the chart on the bottom right depicting total use. According to the USDA, colony collapse disorder started in 2006. Correlation doesn't prove causation, but the industry's "many years without significant effects" claim doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Neonic use in Iowa. Chart: USGS

In leaching from farm fields, neonics follow a pattern established by spray-applied herbicides like atrazine, the authors note, which undergo a similar "spring flush" into waterways. That means that each spring in Iowa, critters like frogs and fish find themselves immersed in a cocktail of damaging chemicals.

Meanwhile, the use of seed treatments is surging—it tripled over the past decade. And not just neonics. Fungicides—chemicals that kill fungal pests—are also being applied to seeds at record rates. According to Croplife, "today’s seed treatment market offers pre-mixture products containing combinations of three, four or more fungicides." It also boasts: "The global fungicide seed treatment market is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.2 percent and is expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2018."

And these chemicals, too, are emerging as a threat to honeybees. They also may be fouling up water. In 2012, the USGS released a research review on fungicides and their effect on waterways. The report noted plenty of "data gaps"—i.e. a dearth of research—but also evidence of "significant sublethal effects of fungicides on fish, aquatic invertebrates, and ecosystems, including zooplankton and fish reproduction, fish immune function, zooplankton community composition, metabolic enzymes, and ecosystem processes, such as leaf decomposition in streams, among other biological effects."

Boy, Hipsters Sure Are Defensive About Their Almond Milk

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 4:27 PM EDT

When I penned my little opus about almond milk last week, I really didn't intend to insult anyone's intelligence, provocative headline aside. What I really wanted to do was encourage people to think about what they're buying when they buy this hot-selling product. My editors chose the title and I went along, because they know more than me about what makes people click. And people clicked! I'm pretty sure that "Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters" is my most-read piece ever at Mother Jones.

It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond. How does an almond's water footprint stack up to other foods'?

Reactions mostly hovered in a range between mild annoyance and blind rage. One guy dropped by the Facebook page of the farm I helped found, Maverick Farms, to inform me that he planned to keep drinking almond milk—and spilling it, even. To drive his point home, he even looked up the farm's phone number and repeated his pledge on the answering machine. Thanks for the update!

The oddest response came from Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who took the opportunity to school me in the art of the "food troll":

This fool is talking about how almond milk is not as good as just eating almonds. False comparison. I eat tons of almonds. Love em. And I drink almond milk too. Love it. I can have both. You love regular almonds so much? Do you eat more almonds than me? Not a chance. I eat more almonds than you. And still drink almond milk. Case closed on that particular argument I guess.

Still not convinced? Nolan adds the coup de grace: "If I puked up almond milk it probably wouldn't even taste that bad relative to other kinds of puke."

On a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein.

Right. Meanwhile, several people thundered that since I dare question the value of almond milk, I must be a tool for Big Dairy. "Were you paid off by the Dairy Farmers of America to write that piece?" one wag wondered on Twitter, adding, helpfully " PS I'm no hipster and I love my Almond Milk!"

Actually, my piece did not purport to judge almond milk against the standards of dairy milk and find it wanting. "I get why people are switching away from dairy milk, I wrote, since "industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business." I did cop to drinking a bit of kefir, a fermented milk product. But my intention wasn't to promote Big Dairy, but just to point out that almond milk is nutritionally pretty vapid compared to other products. An eight-ounce serving of Helios brand organic kefir contains 16 grams of protein, vs. 1 gram per serving in most almond milk brands. That's a remarkable difference. But of course, people consume things for all sorts of good reasons, not just protein content.

Now, I didn’t get into much of an ecological analysis in my piece, but there is an interesting one to make here. Back in May, my colleagues Julia Lurie and Alex Park looked at the literature and found that it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a glass of almond milk and 35 gallons to produce a serving of yogurt. Let's assume that it takes a similar amount of water to make Helios kefir, which is essentially fermented skim milk. On the surface, the almond milk looks a lot easier on the water supply. But if you look at it on a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein—and less than two gallons to produce a gram of kefir protein.

Even though kefir costs more than $4 per quart vs. about $2 for almond milk, it starts to look like quite a bargain on a protein basis.

Almond milk's dilute nature lies at the heart of the critique made by Slate's Maria Dolan, the most thoughtful one I've seen of the piece. My basic complaint against almond milk is that it's a watered-down product: you take something that's quite nutrient-dense and deluge it with water, essentially selling people a few almonds and a lot of water.  

I'm thinking about it in the wrong way, counters Dolan. "Is drowning them in water to create almond milk really a bad thing from an environmental perspective?" she asks. "Just as making meat a garnish, not the centerpiece of your meal, thins the environmental impact of eating beef, so consuming almonds sparingly—by diluting them into milk, for instance—reduces their ecological impact."

But I'm not sure that almond milk works to moderate people's almond consumption. California's rapid, and ecologically troubling, expansion of almond production is largely driven by booming exports, mainly to Asia. But US consumption is booming too. According to the Almond Board of California, the US market consumed 394 million pounds of almonds from the 2007-'08 harvest and 605 million pounds in 2012-'13. That's a 50 percent jump in five years. And as I noted in my post, almond milk sales are surging at an even faster clip. It seems to me that the almond milk craze, whatever else it is, reflects a clever food industry strategy to sell yet more almonds, not a way for consumers to reduce their environmental impact.

The Almond Board also reports that California now provides 84 percent of the globe's almonds. Given the state's severe water constraints, and that current levels of production already require 60 percent of managed US honeybees for pollination, often to disastrous effect, we may all have to ease up—not just on the almond milk, but also on almonds themselves. Hell, even ignorant hipsters like me love almonds.

That Antioxidant You're Taking Is Snake Oil

| Wed Jul. 23, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Plants can't move. They're sitting targets for every insect, two- and four-legged creature, and air-borne fungus and bacteria that swirls around them. But they're not defenseless, we've learned. Under pressure from millions of years of attacks, they've evolved to produce compounds that repel these predators. Known as phyotochemicals, these substances can be quite toxic to humans. You probably wouldn't enjoy the jolt of urushiol you'd get from a salad of toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy) leaves.

Pills loaded with vitamin E and beta-carotene are at best useless and at worst harmful—that is, they may trigger lung cancer in some people.

But other phytochemicals have emerged as crucial elements of a healthful human diet. Indeed, they're the source of several essential vitamins, including A, C, and E. But according to an eye-opening Nautilus article by the excellent science journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff (author of a recent Mother Jones piece on the gut microbiome), our view of how these defensive compounds benefit us might be wildly wrong.

The accepted dietary dogma goes like this: The phytochemicals we ingest from plants act as antioxidants—that is, they protect us from the oxidative molecules, known as "free radicals," that our own cells produce as a waste product, and that have become associated with a range of degenerative diseases including cancer and heart trouble.

It's true that many phytochemicals and the vitamins they carry have been proven in lab settings to have antioxidant properties—that is, they prevent oxidization. And so, Velasquez-Manoff shows, the idea gained currency that fruits and vegetables are good for us because their high antioxidant load protects us from free radicals. And from there, it was easy to leap to the conclusion that you could slow aging and stave off disease by isolating certain phytochemicals and ingesting them in pill form—everything from multivitamins to trendy antioxidants like resveratrol. "A supplement industry now worth $23 billion yearly in the U.S. took root," he notes.

Taking antioxidant supplements before exercise actually negates some of the well-documented benefits of physical exertion.

And yet, antioxidant pills have proven to be a bust. In February, a group of independent US medical researchers assessed 10 years of supplement research and found that pills loaded with vitamin E and beta-carotene (the stuff that gives color to carrots and other orange vegetables) pills are at best useless and at worst harmful—that is, they may trigger lung cancer in some people. Just this month, a meta-analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that antioxidant supplements "do not prevent cancer and may accelerate it."

And a 2009 study found that taking antioxidant supplements before exercise actually negates most of the well-documented benefits of physical exertion: That is, taking an antioxidant pill before a run is little better than doing neither and just sitting on the couch.

So what gives? Velasquez-Manoff points to emerging science suggesting that phytochemicals' antioxidant properties may have thrown us off the trail of what really makes them good for us. He offers two key clues. The first is that plants produce them in response to stress—e.g., pathogenic bacteria, hungry insects. The second is that exercise itself is a form of self-imposed stress: You punish your body by exerting it, and it responds by getting stronger.  Leaning on the work of Mark Mattson, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, and other researchers, Velasquez-Manoff proposes that phytochemicals help us not by repelling oxidant stresses, but by triggering them.

Consider that exercise actually generates free radicals in our muscles—the very thing, according to current dogma, that makes us vulnerable to cancer and aging. But a while after a bout at the gym or on the running trail, these free radicals disappear, replaced by what Velasquez-Manoff calls "native antioxidants." That's because, he writes, "post-exercise, the muscle cells respond to the oxidative stress by boosting production of native antioxidants." And these home-grown chemicals, "amped up to protect against the oxidant threat of yesterday’s exercise, now also protect against other ambient oxidant dangers" like ones from air pollution and other environmental stressors, he writes. In the exercise study, the supplements may have interrupted the process, the study's main author, Swiss researcher Michael Ristow, tells Velasquez-Manoff—they prevent the body from producing its antioxidants, but what they deliver doesn't offset the loss.

Yet phytochemicals found in whole foods—"the hot flavors in spices, the mouth-puckering tannins in wines, or the stink of Brussels sprouts"—may work on our bodies much as exercise does. Velasquez-Manoff writes: "Our bodies recognize them as slightly toxic, and we respond with an ancient detoxification process aimed at breaking them down and flushing them out."

To bolster his case, Velasquez-Manoff cites the example of sulforaphane, the compound that gives broccoli and other members of the brassica family of vegetables—such as Brussels sprouts—their sulfurous smell when they cook. It's what's known as an "antifeedant"—i.e., it's pungency discourages grazing (and makes many people hate Brussels sprouts, etc). Unlike many phytochemicals, sulforaphane isn't an antioxidant at all, but rather a mild oxidant—that is, it mimics free radicals and thus under the old dietary dogma, we should avoid it. And yet...

When sulforaphane enters your blood stream, it triggers release in your cells of a protein called Nrf2. This protein, called by some the “master regulator” of aging, then activates over 200 genes. They include genes that produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression, among other important health-promoting functions. In theory, after encountering this humble antifeedant in your dinner, your body ends up better prepared for encounters with toxins, pro-oxidants from both outside and within your body, immune insults, and other challenges that might otherwise cause harm.

In this theory, what causes cancer and general aging isn't oxidative stress itself, but rather a poor response to oxidative stress—"a creeping inability to produce native antioxidants when needed, and a lack of cellular conditioning generally." And that's where the modern Western lifestyle, marked by highly processed food and a lack of physical exertion, comes in.

[The National Institute on Aging's] Mattson calls this the "couch potato" problem. Absent regular hormetic stresses, including exercise and stimulation by plant antifeedants, “cells become complacent,” he says. “Their intrinsic defenses are down-regulated.” Metabolism works less efficiently. Insulin resistance sets in. We become less able to manage pro-oxidant threats. Nothing works as well as it could. And this mounting dysfunction increases the risk for a degenerative disease.

While this emerging view of phytochemcials is compelling, Velasquez-Manoff acknowledges that it isn't fully settled. For one thing, it's unclear why isolated phytochemicals in pills don't seem to work the same magic as they do in the form of whole foods. Here's Velasquez-Manoff:

Proper dosage may be one problem, and interaction between the isolates used and particular gene variants in test subjects another. Interventions usually test one molecule, but fresh fruits and vegetables present numerous compounds at once. We may benefit most from these simultaneous exposures. The science on the intestinal microbiota promises to further complicate the picture; our native microbes ferment phytonutrients, perhaps supplying some of the benefit of their consumption. All of which highlights the truism that Nature is hard to get in a pill.

But human nutrition is a deeply interesting topic precisely because it resists being settled. As Michael Pollan showed in his 2008 book In Defense of Food, humans have adapted to a wide variety of diets—from the Mediterranean and Mesoamerican ones based mostly on plants, to the Inuit ones focusing heavily on fish. The one diet that hasn't worked very well is the most calibrated, supplemented, and "fortified" of all: the Western one.

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.