Tom Philpott

We're Eating Less Meat—Yet Factory Farms Are Still Growing

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The United States remains one of the globe's most carnivorous nations, but things have changed subtly in recent decades. While our consumption of chicken has skyrocketed, we're eating much less red meat. 

Carolyn Perot

Overall per capita meat consumption has fallen nearly 10 percent since the 2007-'8 financial meltdown; and as we cut back on quantity, we're more likely to pay up for animals raised outside and not dosed with all manner of drugs.

Meanwhile, though, the meat industry lurches on, consolidating operations and stuffing its factory-scale facilities ever tighter with animals, as the organization Food and Water Watch shows in a recently updated map:

See the interactive version of this map here. Food and Water Watch

The charts below show the big picture. Note that the overall number of animals kept on US farms is leveling off, and in the case of beef cattle and meat chickens (broilers), actually dropping a bit. But the number of animals stuffed into each facility remains steadily on the rise for beef and dairy cows, hogs, and egg-laying hens. The number of meat chickens per site has plateaued—at the stunning level of more than 100,000 birds.

Among the many ecological problems you create when you concentrate so many animals in one place is massive loads of manure. How much?

These factory-farmed livestock produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012, about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times.

When humans live together in large numbers, as in cities, we've learned to treat our waste before sending it downstream. The meat industry faces no such requirement, and instead collects manure in large outdoor cesspools (known, picturesquely, as "lagoons") before being spread on surrounding farmland. Some individual counties churn out much more waste than large metropolises. Here's Food and Water Watch on the nation's most dairy- and hog-centric counties:

 

Recycling manure as farm fertilizer is an ecologically sound idea in the abstract—but when animals are concentrated in such numbers, they produce much more waste than surrounding landscapes can healthily absorb. As a result, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus leach into streams and rivers, feeding algae blooms and fouling drinking water. Then there are bacterial nasties. "Six of the 150 pathogens found in animal manure are responsible for 90 percent of human food- and water-borne diseases: Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli 0157:H7, Cryptosporidium and Giardia," Food and Water Watch reports.

Air, too, is a problem, as anyone who's ever gotten close to a teeming cow, pig, or chicken facility can testify. Thousands of people, of course, are forced to live near them or work on them, and it's no picnic. "Overexposure to hydrogen sulfide [a pungent gas emanating from lagoons] can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, respiratory failure, hypoxia and even death," Food and Water Watch states. "[W]orkers in factory farm facilities experience high levels of asthma-like symptoms, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases."

And these counties tended to be bunched together in great manure-churning clusters. Note, for example, how most industrial-scale hog production takes place in the Midwest and in eastern North Carolina:

 

While Big Chicken has chosen to alight largely upon the southeast, the Mississippi Delta, and California's Central Valley:

So why are these large facilities humming even as US eaters cut back? Globally, demand for meat continues to rise, and the dark-red spots on the maps above have emerged as key production nodes in an increasingly globalized meat market. US meat exports have tripled in value since 1997 (USDA numbers), and the industry wants more, as evidenced by its push to support the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asia.

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Stop Romanticizing Your Grandparents' Food

| Wed May 27, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Ever been advised to "eat like your grandmother"—that is, to seek food that's prepared in ways that would be recognized a generation or two ago, untainted by the evils of industrialization? That's nonsense, writes Rachel Laudan in a rollicking essay recently published in Jacobin.

Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which Laudan offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Her polemic is actually a reprint. It originally appeared in Gastronomica way back in 2001—five years before the publication of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, at the dawn of a boom in farmers markets and other ways to "know your farmer" and "eat local." And yet it's just as bracing to read today as it was then.

The backlash against stuff like chicken nuggets and boxed mac 'n' cheese is "based not on history but on a fairy tale," Laudan writes. Food-system reformers tend to evoke a "sunlit past" of wholesome, home-cooked meals, to which she offers a stark riposte: "It never existed."

Thing is, implicated though I may be in Laudan's blistering critique, I largely agree with it—with a caveat.

You wouldn't know it from grazing the virtuous bounty on display at Whole Foods, but securing good food has always been a struggle. Laudan, a historian who has authored a book on food and empire, spices her essay liberally with pungent facts about preindustrial food. "All too often," she writes, "those who worked the land got by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads," because all the good stuff went to their feudal lords and a rising urban merchant class. French peasants "prayed that chestnuts would be sufficient to sustain them from the time when their grain ran out to the harvest still three months away," while their Italian counterparts  "suffered skin eruptions, went mad, and in the worst cases died of pellagra brought on by a diet of maize polenta and water."

And she notes, as I have with great relish, that fast food is hardly the invention of midcentury US burger kings. "Hunters tracking their prey, fishermen at sea, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home," she writes. But the real fast-food action was found in cities, forever packed with people living in tight quarters with few cooking resources:

Before the birth of Christ, Romans were picking up honey cakes and sausages in the Forum. In twelfth-century Hangchow, the Chinese downed noodles, stuffed buns, bowls of soup, and deep-fried confections. In Baghdad of the same period, the townspeople bought ready-cooked meats, salt fish, bread, and a broth of dried chick peas. In the sixteenth cen­tury, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Mexicans had been enjoying tacos from the market for generations. In the eighteenth century, the French purchased cocoa, apple turnovers, and wine in the boulevards of Paris, while the Japanese savored tea, noodles, and stewed fish.

Yum!

In short, Laudan has delivered an evocative corrective to the culinary romanticism that pervades our farmers markets and farm-to-table culinary temples.

Yet her "plea for culinary modernism" contains its own gaping blind spot. If Laudan's "culinary Luddites" feast on tales of an imaginary prelapsarian food past, she herself presents a gauzy and romanticized view of industrialized food.

Starting around 1880, she notes, US and European farmers began spreading more fertilizer and using better farm machinery, sparking the agricultural revolution that's with us today: reliance on hybrid (now genetically modified) seeds, agrichemicals, monocrops. To hear her tell it, it's been nonstop progress ever since.

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate (Mexican corn grinder) five hours a day.

What she misses, of course, are the downsides. She celebrates the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables, but doesn't mention the army of ruthlessly exploited workers (Mexicans in the US West, and in the South, until recently, the descendants of enslaved African Americans) required to plant, tend, and harvest it. Yes, meat, once enjoyed "only on rare occasions" by working people, is now within easy reach of most Americans, but Laudan doesn't pause to ponder what it means for the people who work for poverty wages in factory-scale slaughterhouses. To speak nothing of fast-food, restaurant, and supermarket workers.

Laudan has little to say about how our modern diet is generating new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Nor does she ponder the people cut off from industrialized food's bounty: The nearly 1 billion people, most of them in the Global South, who lack enough to eat—many of whom work on plantation-style farms that provide wealthy consumers with coffee, sugar, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

She also evades the ecological question. Large Midwestern farms provide the grain that feeds our teeming factory meat operations. In doing so, they systemically foul water with agrichemicals and hemorrhage topsoil, essentially a fossil resource. Meat farms, meanwhile, have become overreliant on antibiotics—contributing to an antibiotic-resistance crisis that now claims 700,000 lives worldwide. California's agricultural behemoth, which churns out the bulk of US-grown fruits and vegetables and nearly all US-grown nuts, relies on oversubscribed and rapidly depleting water resources. And so on.

Finally, there's health. Laudan is right that starvation is mostly a thing of the past in the industrialized world, but she has little to say about how our modern diet is contributing to new forms of misery: high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

I share her annoyance at the historical fantasia that often passes for analysis among foodies. The key insight to be drawn from Laudan is that our species has rarely if ever experienced an equitable or sustainable way of feeding itself. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying—or that monocrops and agrichemicals bring us any closer.

Holy Shit! Almonds Require a Ton of Bees

| Mon May 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Growing 80 percent of the globe's almonds in California doesn't just require massive amounts of water. It also takes a whole bunch of honeybees for pollination—roughly two hives' worth for every acre of almonds trees, around 1.7 million hives altogether. That's something like 85 percent of all available commercial hives in the United States, Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper who serves as vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, recently told NPR.

Now, that vast army of bees—made up, all told, of more than 80 billion flying, buzzing soldiers—doesn't stay put in California's almond-happy Central Valley all year. The almond bloom typically lasts for just a few weeks (or less) in February. The modern honeybee operation is an itinerant business—beekeepers move hives throughout the year, in pursuit of paid pollination gigs—from tangerines in Florida to cherries in Washington state—as well as good forage for honey.

As US honeybees' health has flagged, California's almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

But California's almond bloom is the biggest gig of all—the "largest managed pollination event anywhere in the world," Scientific American reports. And as US honeybee populations' health has flagged in recent years—most famously epitomized by the mysterious winter die-offs that began around a decade ago, known as colony collapse disorder—the almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

One question that arises is: Why do the nation's beekeepers uproot themselves and their winged charges to travel to California each year? The state houses about 500,000 beehives, meaning that more then 1 million come in, from as far away as Maine. What's the incentive?

These days, US beekeepers typically make more money from renting out their bees for pollination than they do from producing honey. "Without pollination income, we'd be out of business," Brandi told me. Income from the two sources varies year to year, but pollination income has grown over the years even as honey revenues have fallen, depressed by competition from imported honey. In 2012, for example, US beekeepers brought in $283 million from honey, versus an estimated $656 million from pollination.

And California's almond growers have to shell out big money to draw in their pollinators—between $165 and $200 per hive, vs $45 to $75 a hive a decade ago, according to the Fresno Bee. That's around $309 million, if we assume as average price of $182 per hive, the midpoint of the Bee's range.

What's the impact on overall honeybee health, which has been under heavy pressure over the past decade? There are two potential downsides.

The first is from pesticides—insect growth regulators and fungicides—bees encounter in their travels around almond groves. During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 percent and 25 percent of beehives suffered "severe" damage, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood (the next generation of bees incubating in the hive), the Pollinator Stewardship Council estimated. The die-off caused an uproar, and many beekeepers pointed a finger at pesticides—and they probably had a point, as I showed here.

During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 and 25 percent of hives suffered severe damage.

This year, Brandi told me, some beekeepers reported losses, but they weren't nearly as severe or widespread as the ones in 2014. In the wake of the 2014 troubles, the Almond Board of California released a set of "best management practices" for protecting honeybees during the bloom that, Brandi said, may have influenced growers to avoid particularly harmful pesticide applications. Given that almond growers utterly rely on—and indeed, pay heavily for—honeybees for pollinating their crop, it seems logical that they'll avoid poisoning them when possible. There will also be tension, though, as long as almond trees are planted in geographically concentrated and vast groves. Large monocrops provide an ideal habitat for pests like fungi and insects, and thus a strong incentive to respond with chemicals. There's also the possibility that concentrating such a huge portion of the nation's bees in such a tight geographical area facilitates the spread of viruses and other pathogens.

The second threat to bee health from pollinating California's massive almond bloom comes from long-distance travel. This one lies at the heart of the beekeeping industry's itinerant business model. Does it compromise bee health to pack hundreds of hives onto a flatbed truck for cross-country trips? The stresses go well beyond the occasional truck wreck. Scientific American explains the rigors of apiary highway travel like this:

The migration…continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation. Once a particular bloom is over, the bees have nothing to eat, because there is only that one pollen-depleted crop as far as the eye can see. When on the road, bees cannot forage or defecate. And the sugar syrup and pollen patties beekeepers offer as compensation are not nearly as nutritious as pollen and nectar from wild plants. Scientists have a good understanding of the macronutrients in pollen such as protein, fat and carbohydrate, but know very little about its many micronutrients such as vitamins, metals and minerals—so replicating pollen is difficult.

A 2012 paper, coauthored by USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis, found that long-distance travel may indeed have ill health effects—the researchers found that "bees experiencing transportation have trouble fully developing their food glands and this might affect their ability to nurse the next generation of workers."

Brandi, for his part, dismisses travel as a factor in the overall decline in bee health. "Bees have been traveling back and forth across he country for years," he said—since long before the colony collapse disorder and other health troubles began to emerge a decade ago, he said. He said bee travel has actually gotten less stressful over the years as beekeepers have upgraded to smoother-riding flatbed trucks. He said other factors, including pesticides, declining biodiversity, and mites (a bee pest) are likely more important drivers of declining bee health.

Meanwhile, California almond country's massive appetite for pollination isn't likely to dissipate anytime soon. According to the latest USDA numbers, acreage devoted to almonds expanded by 5 percent in 2014, and growers continue laying in yet more groves this year, Western Farm Press reports. Land devoted to almonds has grown 50 percent since 2005—and every time farmers add another acre of trees, they need access to two additional bee hives for pollination. 

So why don't more beekeepers simply move to California and stay put, to take advantage of the world's biggest—and growing—pollination gig? I put that question to longtime bee expert Eric Mussen of the University of California-Davis. He said the state is already home to 500,000 of the nation's 2.7 million hives. The almond bloom is great for a few weeks, but in terms of year-round foraging, "California is already at or near its carrying capacity for honeybees," he said—the areas with the best-quality forage are already well stocked with bees.So satisfying the world's ever-growing appetite for almonds will continue to require an annual armada of beehive-laden trucks.

Bird Flu Is Slamming Factory Farms But Sparing Backyard Flocks. Why?

| Wed May 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The Midwest's ongoing avian flu crisis is wreaking havoc on the region's large-scale egg and turkey farms. Last week alone, the US Department of Agriculture confirmed that the virus had turned up in more than 20 additional facilities in the region, condemning 4 million birds to euthanasia. Altogether, the H5N2 virus—"highly pathogenic" to birds, so far non-threatening to humans—has affected 168 sites and a jaw-dropping 36 million birds, the great bulk of them in Iowa and surrounding states. It's the largest avian flu outbreak in US history—and it has already wiped out 40 percent of the egg-laying flock h Iowa, the number-one egg-producing state in the US, according to The New York Times.

But it's largely leaving backyard flocks unscathed. Why?

You'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," said one virologist.

According to Hon S. Ip, a virologist at the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, it's a genuine mystery. Backyard flocks typically roam outdoors, in ready contact with wild birds, which are thought to be the origin of the virus. Their commercial counterparts live in tight confinement under strict "biosecurity" protocols: birds are shielded from contact with the outdoors; workers change into special boots and coveralls—or even shower—before entering facilities, etc.

Ip said that wild birds could be spreading the virus in one of two ways: directly, by bringing chickens and turkeys into contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through wind-borne particles that, say, blow through vents in a confined facility. "If that's how it's spreading, you'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," he told me. Moreover, it has continued to spread in Iowa, even after the egg industry had ample time to ramp up biosecurity. All of this suggests something else, besides wild birds, might be the cause, Ip added.

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches.

But what? He has no idea, he said. And nor, apparently, does anyone else. In a recent news item [paywalled], the journal Science declared the outbreak "enigmatic." "All the old dogma about high-path influenza transmission has just gone out the window," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy here at the University of Minnesota, told the journal. "We're in totally uncharted territory."

Meanwhile, in an interview with Iowa Public Radio, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches. "We've had circumstances recently where folks have been using pond water, for example, to feed and to water their birds. Well, that's a problem because the pond water could be contaminated," Vilsack said in the interview. "We've had situations where folks are supposed to shower before they go into the facility, but the shower doesn't work, so they go in anyway."

I've seen no reports detailing current conditions on egg farms in Iowa, but it's worth noting that in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration found troubling biosecurity lapses within some of the state's largest egg facilities, after they had been forced to recall 550 million eggs due to potential salmonella contamination. The FDA inspectors' report detailed a variety of problems, including several involving contact between egg-laying hens and wild birds.

While experts scramble to figure out how the disease is spreading, the egg and turkey industries are dealing with one particular immediate consequence: how to safely dispose of millions of potentially flu-ridden bird carcasses. As the Des Moines Register reports, the process is not going smoothly:

Landfills in South Dakota, Nebraska and northwest Iowa, where poultry producers have been the hardest hit, have turned away the dead birds, fearful of the risk of contamination. The problem is so severe that on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stepped in to urge landfills to accept some of the millions of birds killed or destroyed by the H5N2 virus, saying delays could [exacerbate] odors and flies, problems neighbors have already complained about in some parts of the state.

In response to these difficulties, the USDA has "dedicated 266 employees, including 85 in Iowa, and contracted more than 1,000 personnel to work around the clock across the 20 states affected by the outbreak," Vilsack wrote in a statement. In addition, the agency has allotted $130 million "in indemnity payments to help poultry producers who have lost flocks get back on their feet," Vilsack added.

That relatively modest measure of taxpayer support for the poultry industry may just be the beginning. The USGS's Ip said the rate of new infections is "showing signs of slowing down" as warm weather sets in. Flu viruses are "less stable" at higher temperatures, he said, which is why flu tends to be much worse in winter than in summer. But as Reuters reported recently, the USDA warns that it's "highly probable" the strain will return when the weather cools this fall. If it does, and it spreads to the eastern and southern poultry belts—where the great bulk of the chicken we eat is produced—taxpayers could be in for a real hit.

Bee Die-Offs Are Worst Where Pesticide Use Is Heaviest

| Thu May 14, 2015 1:34 PM EDT
Dancestrokes/Shutterstock

The nation's honeybee crisis has deepened, with colony die-offs rising sharply over last year's levels, the latest survey from the US Department of Agriculture-funded Bee Informed Partnership shows. A decade or so ago, a mysterious winter-season phenomenon known as colony-collapse disorder emerged, in which bee populations would abandon their hives en masse. These heavy winter-season losses have tapered off somewhat, but now researchers are finding substantial summer-season losses, too. Here are the latest numbers.

Chart: Bee Informed Partnership/University of Maryland/Loretta Kuo

Note that total losses are more than double what beekeepers report as the "acceptable rate"—that is, the normal level of hive attrition. Losses above the acceptable level put beekeepers in a precarious economic position and suggest that something is awry with bee health. "We traditionally thought of winter losses as a more important indicator of health, because surviving the cold winter months is a crucial test for any bee colony,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, University of Maryland entomologist and director for the Bee Informed Partnership said in a press release. But now his team is also seeing massive summer die-offs. "Years ago, this was unheard of," he added.

And here's a map a map depicting where losses are heaviest:

Chart: Bee Informed Partnership/University of Maryland/Loretta Kuo

The survey report doesn't delve into why the nation's bees are under such severe strain, noting only, as USDA entomologist and survey co-coordinator Jeffrey Pettis put it, "the need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses."

A growing weight of science implicated pesticides—particularly a ubiquitous class of insecticides called neonicitinoids, as well as certain fungicides—as likely factors.

Here are US Geological Survey maps of where two major neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, are grown. Note, too, the rapid rise in their use over the past decade.

Chart: USGS

 

 

Chart: USGS

A 2013 paper co-authored by the USDA's Pettis and the University of Maryland's vanEngelsdorp found that lows levels of two particular fungicides, chlorothalonil and pyraclostrobin, "had a pronounced effect" on bees’ ability to withstand a common pathogen. Here are the USGS's maps for them.

 

Chart: USGS

 

 

 

Monsanto Bets $45 Billion on a Pesticide-Soaked Future

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Once an industrial-chemical titan, GMO seed giant Monsanto has rebranded itself as a "sustainable agriculture company." Forget such classic post-war corporate atrocities as PCB and dioxin—the modern Monsanto "uses plant breeding and biotechnology to create seeds that grow into stronger, more resilient crops that require fewer resources," as the company's website has it.

That rhetoric may have to change, though, if Monsanto succeeds in buying its Swiss rival, pesticide giant Syngenta. On Friday, Syngenta's board rejected a $45 billion takeover bid. But that's hardly the end of the story. Tuesday afternoon, Syngenta's share price was holding steady at a level about 20 percent higher than it was before Monsanto's bid—an indication that investors consider an eventual deal quite possible. As The Wall Street Journal's Helen Thomas put it, the Syngenta board's initial rejection of Monsanto's overture may just be a way of saying, "This deal makes sense, but Syngenta can hold out for more."

The logic for the deal is simple: Syngenta is Monsanto's perfect complement. Monsanto ranks as the globe's largest purveyor of seeds (genetically modified and otherwise), alongside a relatively small chemical division (mainly devoted to the herbicide Roundup), which makes up just a third of its $15.8 billion in total sales.

Syngenta, meanwhile, is the globe's largest pesticide purveyor, with a relatively small sideline in GMO seeds that accounts for a fifth of its $15.1 billion in total sales.

Combined, the two companies would form a singular agribusiness behemoth, a company that controls a third of both the globe's seed and pesticides markets. To make the deal fly with US antitrust regulators, Syngenta would likely have to sell off its substantial corn and soybean seed business, as well its relatively small glyphosate holdings, in order to avoid direct overlap with Monsanto's existing market share, the financial website Seeking Alpha reports. So the combined company would have somewhat smaller market share than what's portrayed below:

In trying to swallow Syngenta, Monsanto is putting its money where its mouth isn't—that is, it's contradicting years of rhetoric about how its ultimate goal with biotech is to wean farmers off agrichemicals. The company has two major money-making GM products on the market: crops engineered to carry the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which is toxic to certain insects but not to humans; and crops engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, an herbicide Monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup.

Syngenta is the main US supplier of the herbicide atrazine, which has come under heavy suspicion as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

The company markets both as solutions to farmers' reliance on toxic chemicals. Bt crops "allow farmers to protect their crops while eliminating or significantly decreasing the amount of pesticides sprayed," Monsanto's website declares; and its Roundup Ready products have" allowed farmers to ... decrease the overall use of herbicides."

Both of these claims have withered as Monsanto's products have come to dominate US farm fields. Insects and weeds have evolved to resist them. Farmers have responded by unleashing a gusher of pesticides—both higher doses of Monsanto's Roundup, and other, more-toxic chemicals as Roundup has lost effectiveness.

Monsanto's lunge for Syngenta and its vast pesticide portfolio signals that the company thinks more of the same is in the offing.

One immediate winner would be the Monsanto's formidable PR department. Battle-tested by years of defending the company from attacks against GMOs and also from the World Health Organization's recent finding that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans," the department would also find plenty of opportunity to flex its muscles if Syngenta came on board.

Syngenta is the main US supplier of the herbicide atrazine, which has come under heavy suspicion as an endocrine-disrupting chemical that messes with frogs' genitalia and seeps into people's drinking water. Syngenta is also one of two dominant purveyors of neonicotinoids—blockbuster insecticides (annual global sales: $2.6 billion) that have been substantially implicated in declining health of honeybees and other pollinators, birds, and water-borne animals. Both atrazine and neonics are currently banned in Europe, and widely, albeit controversially, used in the US.

All of which would make it ironic if, as some observers have speculated, Monsanto hopes to use the deal as an excuse to move its corporate HQ to Syngenta's home base in Europe, in order to avoid paying US taxes.

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What Do Iran Trade Sanctions Have to Do With California Pistachios?

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Amid an epochal drought with no end in sight, farmers in California's Central Valley have entered a veritable well-drilling arms race to capture water from fast-depleting aquifers, causing large swaths of land to sink and permanently reducing its ability to hold water. But none of that has reined in the pistachio industry's relentless expansion. Acreage devoted to pistachios grew more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2014; at a conference in March, nut magnate Stewart Resnick, co-owner and president of Wonderful Pistachios, urged growers to plant more, more, more, claiming that the tasty nuts deliver an even tastier $3,519 average per acre profit. (Resnick's team also beseeched growers to invest some of their windfall in lobbying to maintain industry-friendly water rules.)

With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves.

But if California's epic water crunch can't slow down the state's pistachio juggernaut, here's one thing that just might: a possible deal, now being negotiated within the United Nations, to end trade sanctions against Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program.

What does Iran have to do with California pistachios? Pretty much everything, it turns out. Flash back to 1979. Iran, governed for decades by the US-friendly Shah, dominated the global pistachio trade. Pistachios barely registered as a crop in California. Then came the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis; overnight, the nation went from trusted trading partner to pariah—a status it has held, more or less, ever since. With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves. By 1990, the state's pistachio acreage had more than doubled. By 2014, it stood at more than 294,000 acres—nearly ten-fold growth since the Shah's fall. (Numbers here.)

But if the Iran nuke deal goes into effect, trade barriers will tumble and Iranian pistachios will again be available in the United States—exposing California farmers to competition and possibly threatening those windfall profits being brandished by Resnick. "Iran has far more clout in the market for cocktail nibbles than it does in crude trading," Bloomberg notes. "While it ranks only as the world's seventh-largest oil producer, the Middle Eastern country vies with the U.S. to be the biggest pistachio grower."

Then there's Europe, a market worth about $300 million to US growers. Iranian pistachios aren't banned outright there, Bloomberg reports, but are severely constrained by broader sanctions on banking and shipping. A deal on nukes would change all that.  

No one knows precisely how much an open market for Iranian product would affect prices for the profitable nibbles. But Bloomberg speculates the "biggest losers may be Californian farmers who have doubled pistachio acreage over the past ten years despite drought conditions."

Your Winter Vegetables: Brought to You by California's Very Last Drops of Water

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's drought-plagued Central Valley hogs the headlines, but two-thirds of your winter vegetables come from a different part of the state. Occupying a land mass a mere eighth the size of metro Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter. Major crops include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, and, most famously, lettuce and salad mix.

Two-thirds of winter broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, and salad mix come from the desperately dry Imperial Valley.

And those aren't even the region's biggest moneymakers. Nestled in the state's southeastern corner, the Imperial Valley also produces massive amounts of alfalfa, a cattle feed, and its teeming feedlots finish some 350,000 beef cows per year.

In terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld. At least the Central Valley is bound by mountain ranges to the east that, in good years (not the last several), deliver abundant snowmelt for irrigation. The Imperial sits in the middle of the blazing-hot Sonoran Dessert, with no water-trapping mountains anywhere nearby. It receives a whopping 3 inches of precipitation per year on average; even the more arid half of the Central Valley gets 15 inches.

The sole source of water in the Imperial Valley is the Colorado River, which originates hundreds of miles northeast, in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. As it winds down from its source in the snow-capped peaks of northern Colorado down to Mexico, it delivers a total of 16.5 million acre-feet of water to the farmers and 40 million consumers in seven US states and northern Mexico who rely on it. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to flood an acre of land with 12 inches of water—about 326,000 gallons.)

Of that total, the Imperial Valley's farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California's total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado. It's an amount of water equivalent to more than four times what Los Angeles uses in a year, according to figures from the Pacific Institute.

 

The Colorado Rivers waters are so in demand that they rarely reach their endpoint in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Map: Shannon/Wikimedia Commons

 

Because it owns senior water rights based on a 1931 pact, the Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions. Currently, the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the Colorado stands at about 44 percent of its average for this time of year, triggering fears of an impending shortfall—but not for the Imperial. "Nevada, southern Arizona and Mexico will be cut back before the Imperial district loses a drop," The Los Angeles Times recently reported. Whereas Central Valley farmers, reliant on vanishing snowmelt from the Sierras, have seen their irrigation allotments curtailed the last two years, growers in the Imperial Valley haven't lost any water (though the Imperial Valley District did agree to sell as much as 0.2 million acre-feet of water by 2021, of its 3.1 million acre-foot allotment, to fast-growing San Diego in a 2003 deal).

The Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions.

Already, decades of intensive desert farming have had severe ecological effects, epitomized by that beleaguered inland body of water known as the Salton Sea, which sits uneasily at the Imperial's northern edge. Before the big irrigation projects that made the valley bloom, what's now the Salton periodically captured flood waters from the then-mighty Colorado River. Now it's fed solely from Imperial Valley farm runoff, and as Dana Goodyear shows in a superb recent New Yorker piece, it's slowly decaying into a toxic mess—one that could "emit as much as a hundred tons of fine, caustic dust a day, leading to respiratory illness in the healthy and representing an acute hazard for people with compromised immune systems."

Meanwhile, the Colorado's flow has proven inadequate to supply the broader region's needs. In a paper last year (my account of it here), University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers found that farmers, landowners, and municipalities are supplementing their river allocations by drawing water from underground aquifers at a much faster rate than had been known. Between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado Basin lost almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water, an enormous fossil resource siphoned away in less than a decade.

A desert in bloom: the Imperial Valley as seen from space, from a photo taken by NASA astronauts in 2002. Photo: NASA

Consider also that the Southwest's population is on pace to expand by a third by 2030—and that the river's annual average flow is expected to decrease by anywhere from 5 percent to 18 percent by 2050, compared to 20th century averages, according to the National Climate Assessment, throttled by rising temperatures and declining precipitation.

Thus the Imperial's titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California's Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn't rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.

Here's How the Massive New Bird Flu Outbreak Could Affect You

| Fri May 1, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The US poultry and egg industries are enduring their largest-ever outbreak of a deadly (known as pathogenic) version of avian flu. Earlier this month, the disease careened through Minnesota's industrial-scale turkey farms, affecting at least 3.6 million birds, and is now punishing Iowa's massive egg-producing facilities, claiming 9.8 million—and counting—hens. Here's what you need to know about the outbreak.

Where did this avian flu come from? So far, no one is sure exactly sure how the flu—which has shown no ability to infect humans—is spreading. The strain now circulating is in the US is "highly similar" to a novel variety that first appeared in South Korea in January 2014, before spreading to China and Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, according to a paper by a team led by US Geological Survey wildlife virologist Hon Ip.

How did it spread? The most likely carrier is wild birds, but it's unclear how they deliver the virus into large production facilities, where birds are kept indoors under rigorous biosecurity protocols. On Thursday, the mystery deepened when birds in an Iowa hatchery containing 19,000 chickens tested positive for the virus. "This is thought to be first time the avian influenza virus has affected a broiler breeding farm in this outbreak," Reuters reported. "Such breeding farms are traditionally known for having extremely tight biosecurity systems." John Clifford, the US Department of Agriculture's chief veterinary officer, recently speculated that the virus could be invading poultry confinements through wind carrying infected particles left by wild birds, taken onto the factory-farm floor by vents.

Can humans catch it? So far, no. But public health officials have been warning for decades that massive livestock confinements make an ideal breeding ground for new virus strains. In its authoritative 2009 report on industrial-scale meat production, the Pew Commission warned that the "continual cycling of viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks increases opportunities for the generation of novel flu viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmissions." It added: "agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities."

Is this bird flu affecting the poultry industry's revenue? Yup. The specter of flu is already pinching Big Chicken's bottom line. China and South Korea—which imported a combined $428.5 million in US poultry last year—have imposed bans on US chicken, drawing the ire of USDA chief Tom Vilsack, Reuters reports.

What's the worst-case scenario? If the virus spread to the Southeast, Big Poultry will be in big trouble.  Here's a map showing where chicken production is concentrated (from Food and Water Watch). Already, the strain has turned up in wild birds as far south as Kentucky.

Map: Food and Water Watch

 

What are we doing to stop the flu from spreading further? All the flu-stricken birds not killed outright by the virus are euthanized—but beyond that, the strategy seems to be: ramp up biosecurity efforts at poultry facilities and cross your fingers. Flu viruses don't thrive in the heat, so "when warm weather comes in consistently across the country I think we will stop seeing new cases," USDA chief veterinarian Clifford recently said on a press call. But USDA officials recently told Reuters it's "highly probable" that the virus will regain force when temperatures cool in the fall—and potentially be carried by wild birds to the southeast.  

Bees Love Nicotine, Even Though It's Killing Them

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

If a ubiquitous class of pesticides called neonicotinoids harms bees and other pollinators—as many scientists think they do—why don't those buzzing insects just avoid pollen and nectar that contains them?

That's the question posed by a new study published in Nature by a team of UK researchers. Champions of these chemicals, the authors note, often argue that bees can simply choose not to forage on neonic-laced plants—an entomological twist, I guess, on the personal-responsibility creed often employed by the food industry to defer blame for the harmful effects of junk food.

Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it.

What the research team found is remarkable: Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it—even though it causes them harm. To test how pollinators react to traces of neonics, the team created controlled environments over 24 hours for both bumblebees and honeybees and gave them two food choices: a straight sugar solution or a sugar solution laced with neonics at levels found in farm-field nectar.

According to the researchers, bees make food choices based on "gustatory neurons in hair-like sensilla" in their mouths. Potential food that's toxic and/or non-nourishing normally triggers spikes in "bitter"-sensing neurons, alerting the bee to stop eating and move on top something else. The neonic-laced sugar water didn't generate that reaction for either the bumblebees or honey bees, and so they consumed it freely—and tended to take in more of it than the neonic-free solution.

Why the preference? Here's how Geraldine Wright, the study's lead author and a professor at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, put it in the press release accompanying the study (ScienceDaily): "Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain that are affected by nicotine in the human brain." In other words, while neonics don't register as toxins, the do give bees the same buzz (so to speak) that people get from a cigarette. Thus the poisons "may act like a drug to make foods containing these substances more rewarding," Wright added. (Neonics are synthetic versions of of nicotine, and thus chemically similar.

And just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff. Cutting calories may sound great for a 21st century American, but it's not good for beehives relying on well-fed foragers.

Just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff.

Because bees evidently seek out neonics, the authors argue, strategies to limit their exposure by planting pesticide-free nectar and pollen sources along roadsides and whatnot—a key element of President Obama's "Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators"—might not by enough. "Instead," they write, "long-term changes to policy that include reducing their use may be the only certain means of halting pollinator population decline."

Another recent Nature study, this one by Swedish researchers, provides yet more reason for concern. The team tracked how wild bee populations and honeybee hives fared in 16 fields planted with rapeseed (canola)—half of which had been sewn with neonic-treated seeds, half of which hadn't. The result: Populations of two kinds of wild bees—bumblebees and the solitary bees—dropped in the treated fields compared to the control ones. They found greatly diminished reproductive success in solitary bees in the treated fields. And bumblebee hives in treated fields showed slower growth and produced fewer queens than their control counterparts—both signs of diminished health.

As for honeybees, the insecticide seed treatment "had no significant influence on honeybee colony strength," the authors report. That finding is consistent with previous studies suggesting that "honeybees are better at detoxifying after neonicotinoid exposure compared to bumblebees," they write. But they note that their research took place over a short time—several weeks in summer when canola plants flower—and the "lack of short-term effects does not preclude the existence of long-term effects" on honeybees. And their conclusion is hardly comforting: Neonics "pose a substantial risk to wild bees in agricultural landscapes, and the contribution of pesticides to the global decline of wild bees may have been underestimated."

Responding to similar research, the European Commission placed a moratorium on most neonic use back in 2013. But here in the United States, the chemicals remain ubiquitous. This spring, US farmers will likely plant 174 million acres of corn and soybeans—a combined swath of land about equal to the state of Texas. The majority of it will likely be with seeds that have been treated with neonics, which are then taken up by the crops and present in plant tissue, nectar, and pollen, ready to poison any creatures that munch (except humans—neonics aren't  considered toxic to us).

As the chart below chart—taken from a recent paper by Penn State entomologists Margaret Douglas and John Tooker—shows, US neonic use has exploded since treated seeds first hit the market in 1994. That may mean lots of pleasant neural sensations for bees, if the UK study has it right; but it should make any species that depends on pollination for sustenance—like us—think twice.