Now Even Tofurky Has a Lobbyist

A burger made from seitan, or wheat gluten

When the giant companies that dominate US meat, dairy, and egg production want something in Washington, they lean on armies of lobbyists, which are financed by flush trade groups like the North American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Coalition, the National Chicken Council, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. But who speaks up for seitan chops on the Hill?

Until recently, essentially no one, says longtime food industry critic and researcher Michele Simon. And so she has launched the Plant Based Foods Association, which exists to "ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods intended to replace animal products such as meats, dairy, and eggs." The brand-new trade group already has a part-time lobbyist, the longtime vegan- and organic-food advocate Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of former US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Simon, a committed vegan, told me two factors inspired her to organize the group: a recent spate of alt-protein companies coming on the scene, and the struggle they face "just to name their products."

California upstart Hampton Creek, for example, had to fend off challenges from processed-food giant Unilever (the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise), the American Egg Board, and the US Food and Drug Administration to call its eggless mayo product "Just Mayo," she noted. She also cited the case of another California company, Miyoko's Kitchen, which was ordered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to market its products not as nut-based cheese, but rather as "cultured nut product."

"Cultured nut product"—"doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."

"Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue," Simon says. "It's ridiculous."

After years studying Big Meat trade groups and how they operate, she learned how effective they are, not just at shaping public policy to "promote more harmful foods," she says, but also at communicating with consumers, serving as a go-to source for reporters, and nudging retailers on how to market their products. And so the Plant Based Foods Association aims to conduct those services and develop a "collective voice" for companies that offer animal-free meat, dairy, and egg alternatives.

Now, in our age, enormous food companies don't respond to new threats to their market share just with lawsuits and appeals to federal overseers like the FDA, as Unilever did with Hampton Creek. They also respond by imitation and acquisition—they have the deep pockets needed to launch new products or just buy the companies that make them. Indeed, just last month, Unilever rolled out its own eggless mayo-like spread

So what's to stop big-food conglomerates like Unilever from taking over the Plant Based Food Association and using it to their ends? Right now, the PBFA's membership list consists of companies that deal solely in vegetarian products, from nut-milk upstarts Califia and Malk to lesser-known firms like Tofuna Fysh. (Vegan tuna salad, anyone?) Simon said any purveyor of vegetable-based protein products, including Unilever, is welcome to join the trade group, but the bylaws state that a majority of its board of directors will represent pure-play vegetarian companies.

I've long been ambivalent about elaborately processed plant-based meat, dairy, and egg substitutes. I've puzzled over why people looking to eat less animal product just can't just gravitate to deliciously cooked beans and grains, and even called for a falafel revolution as an alternative to soy and pea protein tweaked in a factory to taste a lot like chicken. Why do we need prepackaged vegan tuna salad?

Simon responded that she herself eats mainly whole vegan foods (she mentioned quinoa and kale), and that she'd "love it if everyone just adopted my way of eating." Meanwhile, though, animal products loom large in most Americans' diets, and the "environmental destruction from industrialized animal production" continues piling up, she said. (Here's the eminent ecologist Vaclav Smill on industrial meat's footprint.) "We need every tool in the toolbox," and conveniently packaged, high-protein vegan products play a crucial role in the effort to convince people to eat less meat, she said.

In other words: Quit being such a food snob, Philpott.

Coral bleaching in American Samoa in the South Pacific. The left image was taken in December 2014; the right one was taken in February 2015, after a NOAA coral bleaching alert.

If you have ever been snorkeling in a tropical paradise and gaped at psychedelic colors and a teeming variety of otherworldly sea critters, you were gazing upon something increasingly rare: a healthy coral reef. That site also does a lot more than dazzle vacationers. Coral reefs occupy just 0.1 percent of the oceans' bottom but provide habitat to a quarter of the world's fish species. They also prevent erosion along coastlines and buffer the impact of storms, providing protection, food, and livelihoods for about 500 million people.

A year ago, I warned that something "really, really terrible" was about to happen to the globe's corals. Since then, that thing has come to pass. The world over, from the South Pacific to the Caribbean to coastal western Africa, reefs are expelling zooxanthellae, the symbiotic algae that feed them and give them color. That's because corals can only maintain contact with their algal lifeline under certain water temperatures, and climate change has triggered a decades-long warming of the oceans. Add a particularly powerful El Niño like we're in now—essentially, cranking up the fire under a simmering pot—and you get what's known as a "global bleaching event." We are now experiencing only the third one in recorded history. Here's a timeline, from the XL Catlin Seaview Survey:

XL Catlan Seaview Survey

 

There are two particularly disturbing things about this current bleaching event. The first is its duration: It started in 2014 and "could extend well into 2017," Mark Eakin, who directs Coral Reef Watch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told me. Already, this is the longest coral bleaching on record—the previous ones lasted less than a year, he says. And he expects that this year, bleaching will expand and "hit more reefs" and be "more extreme" than last year.

The second is how little time has passed since the previous global-scale bleaching, which took place in 2010. Once coral lose their zooxanthellae,   they quickly begin to decline in health. But given time, they can recover—and many did between the last two coral bleaching events in 1998 and 2010. But this new one is only four years after the last. The shortened interval between bleachings means less recovery time and more losses, Eakin says.

Warming water isn't the only way climate change damages corals. About a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels ends up in the oceans, where it drives down pH levels. As a result, the oceans are currently 30 percent more acidic than they were at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Heightened acidity impedes the growth of any species in the oceans that develop hard surfaces—everything from oysters and crabs to, yes, corals. A recent Nature study found that coral reefs grew 7 percent faster under pre-Industrial Revolution pH conditions than they do now. Slower growth makes it harder to recover from recurring insults like bleaching, Eakin says.

Since the 1970s, the Caribbean region has lost 80 percent of its corals and the Great Barrier Reef along the Australian coast has declined by half. Eakin says climate models suggest the Caribbean's corals face the biggest threat going forward, and they portend a "fairly dire future" for reefs worldwide. If current greenhouse gas emissions hold, he says, by 2050 we could see global bleaching happen every year—in short, a seascape no longer capable of supporting these vital ecosystems, which are are richer in biodiversity than terrestrial rainforests. 

The only hope for averting such a fate, he says, is a global greenhouse gas emissions deal that holds global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Even then, we'll also have to address what he calls the "local stressors that act in concert to damage corals," including overfishing and industrial and agricultural pollution. There's also a direct effect of all those beach holidays in coral-rich regions. A 2015 study by University of Florida researchers estimated that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion enters the ocean in coral reef areas annually. Most of it contains a chemical that makes corals more prone to bleaching at extremely low water concentrations (more here).

As it moves ahead with its $130 billion merger with fellow chemical giant Dow, DuPont has made quite a hire. To lead the company's "public policy and government affairs strategies," DuPont has tapped Krysta Harden, who just ended a six-plus-year stint at the US Department of Agriculture, where she served as chief of staff to Secretary Tom Vilsack and, most recently, as deputy secretary, the department's No. 2 position.

Krysta Harden DuPont

Harden's move from the USDA to DuPont is not her first whirl through the revolving door separating industries from the government watchdogs that regulate them. According to her USDA bio, she started her career on Capitol Hill, where she worked as staff director for the House subcommittee on peanuts and tobacco and as chief of staff and press secretary for former Rep. Charles Hatcher (D-Ga.), who was defeated in 1992. From there, she moved to Gordley Associates, which handles "legislative initiatives" for the American Soybean Association. The soybean-industry lobbying stint lasted until 2004. After a stretch as CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, Harden moved to the USDA in 2009, where she started as assistant secretary for congressional relations before working up to the No. 2 spot under chief Vilsack.

Harden is joining DuPont before the deal with Dow is fully consummated, but when it is the combined company plans to split into three independent parts, one of which will likely emerge as the globe's biggest agrichemical/seed company, bigger even than rivals Monsanto and Syngenta.

Her role in the combined DowDuPont, as it will be called, remains unclear. A DuPont spokesman told me that the two companies are still operating as independent entities pending completion of the merger, which isn't likely until the second half of this year. The deal is still in the process of being vetted by US antitrust authorities, including the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, he said. If and when it's approved, he added, management will decide what roles current DuPont and Dow execs will play within the merged company. 

Until then, getting the merger approved will surely be a major task for DuPont's new chief government affairs strategist. And her recent experience as a top US agriculture policy official may come in handy. The anticipated DowDuPont agrichemical/seed division would not only own a massive position in the two most lucrative US seed markets—corn (41 percent market share) and soybeans (38 percent); it would also sell 17 percent of the pesticides consumed globally, the Wall Street Journal reports. Citing "less competition in the marketplace and fewer choices for farmers," the National Farmers Union has urged the Department of Justice to block the deal. Because of such pushback, an analyst for the Japanese investment bank, Nomura Securities, wrote in a December 14 note to investors, "We expect regulatory and political challenges will be greatest in ag." 

Going forward, a combined DowDuPont ag division would deal directly with the USDA, which (nominally) vets all new GMO seed products before they can be planted on US farm fields. Both DuPont and Dow boast of robust ag-biotech product pipelines going forward.

You say tomato: Hillary Clinton scores some fresh produce at a New Hampshire farm.

The 2016 presidential election is hurtling into unknown territory, as candidates blessed by party elites fight for their political lives while insurgents suck up all the oxygen. But one time-tested electoral tradition remains in place: Everyone—from the socialist Vermont Jew with the excellent Brooklyn accent to the xenophobic billionaire reality-TV star—is largely ignoring food and farm policy on the stump.

Meanwhile, slow-motion ecological crises haunt the country's main farming regions, and diet-related maladies generate massive burdens on the US health care system. Over the next three frantic weeks—with five debates and more than two dozen primaries—the two major-party candidates may well emerge. If I were a debate moderator or a reporter on the trail, here are some questions I would ask them: 

1. Bolstered by tens of billions of dollars of crop and insurance subsidies over two decades, farms in the US Corn Belt—the former prairies occupying much of the upper Midwest—churn out the feed that drives the country's meat industry. They also produce the feedstock for ethanol, which accounts for about 10 percent of fuel we use in cars. Yet the region is losing the very resource that makes all this bounty possible: Its precious store of topsoil is disappearing much faster than the natural replacement rate—a trend that will likely accelerate as climate change proceeds apace. And all of that runaway dirt carries agrichemicals into waterways along with it, fouling tap water in Des Moines, Columbus, Toledo, and countless other communities and feeding a monstrous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

A growing body of research suggests that diversifying crops—growing other stuff besides just corn and soybeans, including everything from wheat and oats to vegetables—could go a long way to reversing these catastrophes. As president, how would you push farm policy to reward soil- and water-friendly farming practices in the heartland?

2. Meanwhile, in the country's fruit and vegetable belt, a different kind of water crisis unfolds. Drought persists in California—the source of 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 86 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, and nearly all almonds and pistachios, plus a fifth of US milk production. In the state's massive Central Valley, agriculture has gotten so ravenous for irrigation water that its aquifers have been declining steadily for decades. Meanwhile, the Imperial Valley in California's bone-dry southeastern corner provides about two-thirds of US winter vegetables. These crops are irrigated by water diverted from the declining Colorado River, putting the region's farms into increasing competition with the 40 million people who rely on the waterway for drinking water. For decades, federal policy has encouraged California's produce dominance by investing in irrigation infrastructure and through sweetheart water deals with well-connected Central Valley growers. Some observers—okay, me—have called for a "de-Californication" of US fruit and vegetable production in response to these crises. How would your administration respond to California's declining water resources in the context of its central position in our food system?

3. Republican candidates have focused largely on the alleged scourge of undocumented immigrants from points south, while the Democratic debate has hinged on income inequality. The two issues intersect on our plates, through the hidden labor required to feed us. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 70 percent of workers on US crop fields come from Mexico or Central America, and more than 40 percent of them are undocumented. Median hourly wage: $9.17. In restaurants, where the median hourly wage stands at $10, tips included, around one in six workers are immigrants, nearly double the rate outside the restaurant industry. After spasms of union busting in the 1980s, the meatpacking industry, too, relies heavily on immigrants—and pays an average wage of $12.50 per hour. How would you act to improve wages and working conditions for the people who feed us?

70 percent of workers on US fields come from Mexico or Central America, and more than 40 percent of them are undocumented.

4. Under Hillary Clinton, the US State Department conducted a "concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology overseas, compel countries to import biotech crops and foods they do not want, and lobby foreign governments—especially in the developing world—to adopt policies to pave the way to cultivate biotech crops," a 2013 Food & Water Watch analysis of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks found. Meanwhile, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has called for a different approach to agricultural policy: a "rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems." Would your administration continue to promote biotech crops around the world and lobby foreign governments to accept them? Why or why not?

5. For decades, US antitrust authorities have watched idly as huge food companies gobble each other up, grabbing ever larger shares of food and agriculture markets. According to Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, just four companies (not the same ones in each case) slaughter and pack more than 80 percent of US beef cows, 60 percent of the country's pigs, and half of its chickens. After last year's merger of chemical behemoths Dow and Dupont, three companies—DowDuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta—will soon own something like 57 percent of the global seed market and sell 46 percent of pesticides. Since then, state-owned China National Chemical Corp. has bought Syngenta. Early in his administration, President Barack Obama initiated serious investigations of these highly consolidated industries, responding to farmers' complaints of uncompetitive markets. After much buildup, these efforts ended with a thud. How would your Department of Justice look at consolidation in ag markets—and would you consider antitrust action to break them up?

Just four companies slaughter and pack more than 80 percent of US beef cows, 60 percent of the country's pigs, and half of its chickens.

6. According to a 2013 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, annual US medical expenses from treating heart disease and stroke stood at $94 billion in 2010—and were expected to nearly triple by 2030, driven largely by diets dominated by hyperprocessed food. The report concluded that if Americans followed USDA recommendations for daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, 127,000 lives and $17 billion in medical expenses would be saved annually. What's the proper federal role for convincing people to eat healthier—especially people of limited means? (Hat tip to Food Tank, which asks nine other excellent questions.)

WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

Golden rice packs a beta-carotene punch, but can it deliver in the field?

Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality. 

"This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," announced a Time magazine cover back in 2000. Orange in color, the rice is genetically modified to contain a jolt of beta-carotene, the stuff that gives carrots their hue and that our bodies transform into vitamin A. Diets deficient in that key micronutrient are the leading cause of blindness of children in the global south, where rice tends to be a staple grain. A decade and a half since the Time article, golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype. "Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?" the great hipster-foodie journal Lucky Peach wondered last fall, adding that "it might save millions from malnutrition."

Golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype.

If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it's intended to grow? The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains. This is made all the more challenging in the face of debates over genetically modified crops and eternal disputes about how they should be regulated.

After seed developers first create a genetically modified strain with the desired trait—in this case, rice with beta-carotene—they start crossing it into varieties that have been shown to perform well in the field. The task is tricky: When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth. The Washington University anthropologist and longtime golden rice observer Glenn Stone describes this process as "bringing a superfood down to earth," and it gets little attention in most media accounts.

The most serious effort to commercialize golden rice is centered at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the globe's most prestigious incubator of high-yielding rice varieties. Launched with grants from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in 1960, the IRRI spearheaded the Asian part of what became known as the Green Revolution—the effort to bring US-style industrial agriculture to the developing world. (My review of Nick Cullather's excellent Green Revolution history, The Hungry World, is here.)

Today, the IRRI coordinates the Golden Rice Network and has been working to develop a viable strain since 2006. And so far, it's having trouble. On its website, the IRRI reports that in the latest field trials, golden rice varieties "showed that beta carotene was produced at consistently high levels in the grain, and that grain quality was comparable to the conventional variety." However, the website continues, "yields of candidate lines were not consistent across locations and seasons." Translation: The golden rice varieties exhibited what's known in agronomy circles as a "yield drag"—they didn't produce as much rice as the non-GM varieties they'd need to compete with in farm fields. So the IRRI researchers are going back to the drawing board.

Via email, I asked the IRRI how that effort is going. "So far, both agronomic and laboratory data look very promising," a spokeswoman replied. But she declined to give a time frame for when the IRRI thinks it will have a variety that's ready for prime time. Washington University's Stone says he visited the IRRI's campus in the Philippines in the summer of 2015 and heard from researchers that such a breakthrough is "at least several more years" off. The IRRI spokeswoman also declined to comment on Stone's time frame report.

That's not a very inspiring assessment, given that researchers first successfully inserted the beta-carotene trait in the rice genome in 2000, and that the technology has been lavished with research support ever since—including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Syngenta Foundation, and others, according to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Of course, among people who think biotechnology has a crucial role to play in solving developing-world malnutrition, the IRRI's agronomic struggles are compounded by anti-GMO zealotry as well as what it sees as overregulation of GMOs in the global south. David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that most developing-world nations, including the Philippines, have adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which stipulates a precautionary approach to introducing new GMO products, including restrictions on how trials are conducted. The Cartagena regime stands in sharp contrast to the much more laissez-faire one that holds sway in the United States, Zilberman says.

If the developing world embraced US-style regulation and treated vitamin A deficiency as a medical emergency solvable by golden rice, "it would have become available in 2000," Zilberman says. Based on that premise, he and German agricultural economist Justus Wesseler co-authored a 2014 paper claiming that golden rice has "been available since early 2000" and opposition to it has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone. Such claims abound in pro-GM circles. At a speech at the University of Texas last year, the Nobel laureate British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts accused golden rice opponents of have having committed a "crime against humanity."

According to some researchers, opposition to golden rice has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone.

To be sure, opposition to golden rice has occasionally gone overboard. In 2013, activists destroyed one of the IRRI's golden rice field trials in the Philippines, for example. "Anti-GMO activism has set back our work, in that we not only concentrate with our research, but we have to also spend time and resources to counter their propaganda," the IRRI spokesperson told me. But the group makes clear that regulation and activism are only two of the challenges facing golden rice—getting it to perform well remains a major task.

Even if and when the IRRI does come up with a high-yielding golden rice variety that passes regulatory muster, it remains unclear whether it can actually make a dent in vitamin A deficiency. As the Washington University's Stone notes, vitamin A deficiency often affects people whose diets are also deficient in other vital nutrients. Vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning it can't be taken up by the body unless it's accompanied by sufficient dietary fat, which isn't delivered in significant quantities by rice, golden or otherwise.

According to Stone, only one feeding study (PDF) has ever showed a powerful uptake of vitamin A by subjects eating golden rice. The paper was much cited by golden rice proponents, but Stone says it had a major flaw: The subjects were "well-nourished individuals" who already took in sufficient fat in their diets. The study "demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it," he writes. (The study has since been retracted on claims that the author failed to obtain proper consent from the parents of the participants).

Meanwhile, as the IRRI scrambles to perfect golden rice, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is declining in the Philippines—according to the IRRI itself— from 40 percent of children aged six months to five years in 2003, to 15.2 percent in 2008. "The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to preventing vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding," the group noted. That drop is part of a long-term trend that involves all of Southeast Asia. According to a 2015 Lancet study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, vitamin A deficiency plagued 39 percent of children in the region in 1991 but only 6 percent in 2013—without the help of golden rice.

But VAD, as the deficiency's known, remains a huge scourge on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, the study found, affecting more than 40 percent of children in both regions. Whether golden rice will ever help mitigate that ongoing tragedy won't likely be known for some time. But the technology's hardly the slam-dunk panacea its advocates insist it is.

Almonds Are Getting Cheaper, But Here's the Catch

Ye almond-loving hipsters, rejoice! The revered—and lately quite expensive—nut is likely to get cheaper soon. The wholesale price for almonds—the one paid by supermarkets to stock their bulk bins, or by processors to make their trail mixes—has fallen from a high of $4.70 last August down to $2.60, reports the Financial Times.

And the reason has nothing to do with a viral screed against almond milk penned by a certain wag in 2014. Rather, it's the same set of forces that triggered California's massive almond boom in the first place: the vagaries of global demand.

The state's growers, who churn out 99 percent of almonds grown in the United States, have rapidly expanded their almond groves over the past decade and a half.

But that expansion didn't happen just to satisfy your trendy almond-milk latte habit. California farmers are almond growers to the world: They supply about 80 percent of the almonds consumed globally, and export demand has risen steadily for most of the past 15 years. About 70 percent of California's almonds are exported. According to the Almond Board of California, the great bulk of this massive outflow goes to Asia, the destination of 44 percent of California's almond exports, and Western Europe, which gets about 40 percent. 

As a result of that booming global demand, the price farmers get for almonds has risen dramatically despite the big acreage expansion.

But in recent months, the global appetite for almonds has plunged. Here's the Financial Times:

Last year's surge in prices depressed demand, and buyers in China, the Middle East and India, who have led consumption over the past three to four years, have disappeared. Trading has ground to a halt as prices continue to decline and the number of rejected containers by buyers refusing to honor contracts has jumped.

"It's a bloodbath," one California-based nut trader told the Financial Times. What happened was that California's multiyear drought took a bite out of crop yields, making almonds more scarce and pushing up their price. And then, in 2014, the US dollar began to rise in value against major Asian currencies and the euro, making US exports, including almonds, even more expensive in those regions.

"It's a bloodbath," one California-based nut trader told the Financial Times.

To make matters worse, the European economy stagnated, and China—the globe's biggest almond importer—saw its economic growth slow and its stock market tumble. Snack makers in Asia and Europe began to balk at pricey almonds, putting fewer in nut mixes and reducing the portion size of almond offerings, the FT reports. In 2015, almond exports to Asia and Western Europe fell 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively, according to the Almond Board of California.

And now, with a historic El Niño triggering a wet and snowy winter in California, the market expects a big harvest in 2016. Econ 101 tells us that abundant supply and weak demand means lower prices going forward. That likely means you'll soon be getting at least a slight break on that bag of salty roasted almonds you keep at your desk. But what does it mean for California's almond boom?

In previous posts, I've questioned whether the state has the water resources—or access to sufficient bee hives for pollination—to continue devoting ever more land to the crunchy treat. Unlike, say, vegetables or cotton, which can be fallowed during dry years, planting an almond grove requires farmers to commit to finding a steady water source for about 20 years, or risk losing a very expensive investment. (According to the Almond Board of California, establishing an almond grove—paying for land, saplings, an irrigation system, etc.—costs about $8,700 per acre, or about $2.6 million for a new 300-acre grove.)

During the drought, water from California's massive irrigation projects, which deliver melted Sierra Nevada snow to the state's farms, was largely cut off. Farmers responded by fallowing a portion of annual crops like cotton and vegetables and irrigating the rest—including their ever-expanding almond groves—with water drawn from finite underground aquifers. While the current El Niño might spell the end of a drought that has haunted California since 2012, California agriculture has gotten so ravenous for water that aquifers in its largest (and most almond-centered) growing region, the Central Valley, have been declining steadily for decades.

For my deep dive into the almond boom last year, I asked David Doll, an orchard adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, how long growers could keep devoting ever more land to almonds despite the long-term water crunch. He told me it would only stop "when the crop stops making money."

If the Asian and European appetite for almonds returns to normal growth rates, the almond boom will likely continue unabated.

I checked back in with him to see what he thought about the current price drop. He said under normal conditions, when water is flowing from the state's irrigation projects, the break-even farmer price for almonds is about $1.45 per pound—at that price, farmers neither lose nor make money. But when water is scarce, farmers face higher irrigation costs, and the break-even price rises to somewhere between $2.60 and $2.85—roughly where prices are now. So even with the current price drop, most almond growers are breaking even. But if we get another wet winter this year, water prices could drop by 2017 and almond farmers will be right back to profitability.

If the Asian and European appetite for almonds returns to normal growth rates, Doll added, the almond expansion will likely continue unabated, which will in turn limit large upward price swings as supply rises to meet demand. The limiting factor, of course, is water. Back in 2014, California shook off a history of Wild West aquifer stewardship and passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires that by 2025, the state's aquifers can't be drawn down faster than they're recharged—a dramatic reversal of the status quo. "From my observations, there are many [almond] operations that are not planning for this policy," Doll said, meaning they're not prepared for a future when aquifers can't be tapped at will.

But 2025 is nearly a decade away. Enjoy those relatively inexpensive almonds, you ignorant hipsters.

Can't Sleep? Your Dinner Might Be the Problem

If you're nodding off as you read this, don't blame my prose style. You probably didn't sleep enough last night, or maybe you just slept poorly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 50 million and 70 million US adults have some kind of sleep disorder—think insomnia, apnea, or narcolepsy. This troubled slumber, in turn, is linked to increased risk of everything from car accidents to Alzheimer's.

It turns out your diet might be to blame for restless nights, a new study by Columbia University researchers suggests. The team subjected 26 normal-weight adults to a controlled food regimen—high in dietary fiber and low in saturated fat and added sugars—for four days. On the fifth day, I'll call this the dietary "free-for-all" day, they let the participants eat whatever they wanted. Each night, they monitored both sleep duration and quality—the number of times the participants woke up during the night, and the amount of time they spent in "slow-wave sleep," the most restorative sleep stage.

Meals low in fiber and high saturated fat were associated with lower quality sleep, while higher levels of sugar led to more wake-ups.

The result: While total time spent snoozing didn't change over the course of the experiment, sleep quality declined the more people spent their free-for-all day loading up on fiber-light, fat- and sugar-heavy foods. Meals low in fiber and high in saturated fat were associated with significantly less slow-wave sleep, while higher levels of sugar led to more wake-ups. The study subjects also fell asleep faster (an average of 17 minutes versus 29 minutes) on the controlled diet than they did on the self-selected one.

That's bad news for the average American, who tends to have a horrible diet—lacking in fruits and vegetables and chock-full of ultra-processed crap and excess sugar.

The study doesn't speculate about why these dietary choices messed with sleep, but a growing body of science links diet to the health and diversity of the gut biome—the trillions of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts—which in turn affect brain processes. Dietary fiber essentially feeds these vital organisms, and diets low in it have been shown to reduce biome diversity. High-sugar diets, meanwhile, appear to alter the gut biome in ways that seem to promote obesity. The relationship between the gut biome and sleep, however, remains little studied. 

Research suggests that sleep deprivation interferes with the hormones that tell us when we're full—meaning that bad sleep can lead to bad dietary choices.

Even so, the Columbia study offers a new twist on the sleep-diet nexus. People who chronically experience poor sleep are more likely to endure diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes, the CDC states. Previous research suggests that sleep deprivation interferes with the hormones that tell us when we're full—meaning that bad sleep can lead to bad dietary choices. The Columbia study suggests a vicious circle: Bad dietary habits can also muck up sleep.

All the more reason to steer clear of the supermarket's chips and cookie aisles. "The finding that diet can influence sleep has tremendous health implications, given the increasing recognition of the role of sleep in the development of chronic disorders such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease," the study's lead author, Columbia's Marie-Pierre St-Onge, said in a press release.

In 2011, agrichemical giants Monsanto and Bayer CropScience joined forces to sell soybean seeds coated with (among other things) an insecticide of the neonicotinoid family. Neonics are so-called systematic pesticides—when the coated seeds sprout and grow, the resulting plants take up the bug-killing chemical, making them poisonous to crop-chomping pests like aphids. Monsanto rivals Syngenta and DuPont also market neonic-treated soybean seeds.

These products—buoyed by claims that the chemical protects soybean crops from early-season insect pests—have enjoyed great success in the marketplace. Soybeans are the second-most-planted US crop, covering about a quarter of US farmland—and at least a third of US soybean acres are grown with neonic-treated seeds. But two problems haunt this highly lucrative market: 1) The neonic soybean seeds might not do much at all to fight off pests, and 2) they appear to be harming bees and may also hurt other pollinators, birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates.

Neonic seed treatments actually reduce yields in slug-infested fields.

Doubts about neonic-treated soybean seeds' effectiveness aren't new. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency released a blunt preliminary report finding that "neonicotinoid seed treatments likely provide $0 in benefits" to soybean growers. But the agrichemical industry likes to portray the EPA as an overzealous regulator that relies on questionable data, and it quickly issued a report vigorously disagreeing with the EPA's assessment.

Now the seed/agrichemical giants will have to open a new front in their battle to convince farmers to continue paying up for neonic-treated soybean seeds. In a recent publication directed to farmers, a coalition of the nation's most important Midwestern ag-research universities—Iowa State, Kansas State, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, South Dakota State, and the University of Wisconsin—argued plainly that "for typical field situations, independent research demonstrates that neonicotinoid seed treatments [for soybeans] do not provide a consistent return on investment."

"Independent research demonstrates that neonicotinoid seed treatments [for soybeans] do not provide a consistent return on investment."

The reason is that neonic-treated soybeans wield the great bulk of their bug-killing power for the first three weeks after the seeds sprout; the major pest that attacks soybean plants, the aphid, doesn't arrive until much later, when the soybean plants are full-grown. "In other words," the report states, aphid populations "increase to threshold levels weeks after the short window that neonicotinoid seed treatments protect plants."

And not only are neonics useless against soybeans' major field pest, aphids; they may actually boost the fortunes of another important one, the slug, which is "emerging as a key pest" in the soybean belt, according to the report. Pointing to a 2015 study from Penn State researchers, the report notes that slugs aren't affected by neonics, so they can gobble neonic-treated soy sprouts at will, accumulating the chemical. But when insects called the ground beetle—which has a taste for slugs but not soybean plants—eat the neonic-containing slugs, they tend to die. So slugs transfer the poison from the crops to their natural predator, the ground beetle, and throw the predator balance out of whack, allowing slugs to proliferate. As a result, the Penn State researchers found, neonic seed treatments actually reduce yields in slug-infested fields.

Of course, the most celebrated "non-target" insect potentially affected by neonics is the honeybee. As I reported last week, the EPA recently released an assessment finding that one particular neonic that's widely used on soybean seeds, imidacloprid, likely harms individual bees and whole bee colonies at levels commonly found in farm fields. That's because plants from neonic-treated seeds don't just carry the poison in their leaves and stalks; they also deliver it in bee-attracting nectar and pollen.

While cotton is the imidacloprid-treated crop most likely to hit bees hard, soybeans, too, may pose a threat, the EPA found. The agency couldn't say for sure, because data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers.

That information gap may be cold comfort for beekeepers, but the agrichemical industry will no doubt seize upon it to argue that its blockbuster chemical is harmless to bees. The rest of us can savor the bitter irony that this widely used pesticide may be more effective at slaying beneficial pollinators than it is at halting crop-chomping pests.

Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum guards the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, near Burns, Oregon.

On January 2, a band of armed militants—led by Cliven Bundy's son Ammon—stormed Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, seizing the visitor center both to protest the tangled legal plight of two local ranchers convicted of arson on public land, and to defy the federal government's oversight of vast landholdings in the West. (You might remember that Cliven launched his own successful revolt against federal authorities in 2014 to avoid paying grazing fees on public land in Nevada.)

For all the slapstick comedy on display at the still-occupied government complex—rival militias arriving to "de-escalate" the situation, public pleas for donated supplies including "French Vanilla Creamer"—the armed and angry men behind the fiasco are pointing their rifles at a real problem. In short, the ranchers who supply the United States with beef operate under razor-thin, often negative profit margins.

The ranchers who supply the United States with beef operate under razor-thin, often negative profit margins.

It's not hard to see why grazing rights are an issue. Ranchers' struggle for profitability gives them strong incentive to expand their operations to increase overall volume and gain economies of scale. A 2011 paper by the US Department of Agriculture found that the average cost per cow for small (20-49 head) operations exceeded $1,600, while for large ranches (500 or more head), the average cost stood at less than $400. Large operations are more efficient at deploying investments in labor and infrastructure (think fencing), the USDA reported.

To scale up, ranchers need access to sufficient land. And in the West, land access often means obtaining grazing rights to public land through the Bureau of Land Management. Hence the bitter dispute playing out in Burns, Oregon: The ranchers accuse the federal government of ruining their businesses through overzealous environmental regulation of that public land.

Now, it's clear that what the Malheur militiamen appear to be demanding—essentially laissez-faire land management based on private ownership and overseen by local politicians—is a recipe for ecological ruin. In a recent New York Times op-ed, environmental historian Nancy Langston described what happened last time such a policy regime prevailed in the area: "By the 1930s, after four decades of overgrazing, irrigation withdrawals, grain agriculture, dredging and channelization, followed by several years of drought, Malheur had become a dust bowl."

But the real beef that struggling ranchers should take up with the federal government involves not zealous federal regulation, but rather its opposite: the way the feds have watched idly as giant meat-packing companies came to dominate the US beef production chain. Ranchers run what are known as cow-calf operations—they raise cows up to a certain weight on pasture, sell them to a feedlots to be fattened on corn and soybeans (and other stuff), and from there the cows are sold to companies known as beef packers that slaughter and prep the meat for consumers. As the University of Missouri rural sociologist Mary Hendrickson points out, after a decade of mergers and acquisitions, just four companies slaughtered and packed 69 percent of US-grown cows in 1990. By 2011—after another spasm of mergers—the four-company market share had risen to 82 percent, Hendrickson reports.

Such consolidation at the top of the value chain gives farmers less leverage to get a decent price for their cows. A market dominated by a few buyers is a buyer's market. The Colorado rancher and rural advocate Mike Callicrate has been making this point tirelessly for years. Callicrate thinks the Bureau of Land Management has been overly burdensome for ranchers in the West, he tells me, but there's a bigger problem that is "rarely mentioned" either by the gun-toting ranchers or the media covering them: "the historically low, below break-even market prices for livestock."

As the big beef packers scaled up and consolidated their market share in the 1980s and '90s, giant retailers led by Walmart did the same. The result has been steady downward pressure on the beef supply chain: The retail giants pressured the beef packers to deliver lower prices, and the beef packers in turn pressured ranchers. The result has been a big squeeze.

Just four companies slaughtered and packed 82 percent of US-grown cows in 2011.

In the chart below that Callicrate created for a 2013 blog post, drawn from USDA data, the trend is clear: Compared with 40 years ago, nearly a third less of every dollar you spend on beef goes into the pocket of the rancher who raised the cow.

Chart by Mike Callicrate

Under pressure from this squeeze, ranchers have had little choice but to scale up or exit the business altogether—as tens of thousands have done:

Chart: USDA

 

Rather than demanding unfettered access to public land, the Malheur rebels could be agitating for federal antitrust authorities to take on the beef giants. As the New America Foundation's Barry C. Lynn has shown repeatedly, since the age of Reagan, US antitrust regulators have focused almost exclusively on whether large companies use their market power to harm consumers by unfairly raising retail prices. Those regulators have looked the other way when companies deploy their girth to harm their suppliers by squeezing them on price. So antitrust authorities okayed merger after merger, even when deals left just a few giant companies towering over particular markets. As a result, writes Lynn, "In sector after sector, control is now more tightly concentrated than at any time in a century." The meat industry is a classic example.

Rather than demanding unfettered access to public land, the Malheur rebels could be agitating for federal antitrust authorities to take on the beef giants.

During the 2008 election, Barack Obama vowed to challenge the big meat packers and defend independent farmers and ranchers from their heft. As Lina Khan showed in a 2012 Washington Monthly piece, President Obama actually made a valiant effort to do just that—before surrendering to a harsh counterattack from the industry's friends in Congress.

The current presidential election would be an ideal time for beleaguered ranchers to bring corporate domination of meat markets back into the public conversation. Armed occupations of bird refuge visitor centers won't help with that struggle.

Bees are dying in record numbers—and now the government admits that an extremely common pesticide is at least partially to blame.

For more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has been under pressure from environmentalists and beekeepers to reconsider its approval of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, based on a mounting body of research suggesting they harm bees and other pollinators at tiny doses. In a report released Wednesday, the EPA basically conceded the case.

The report card was so dire that the EPA "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of this year.

Marketed by European chemical giants Syngenta and Bayer, neonics are the most widely used insecticides both in the United States and globally. In 2009, the agency commenced a long, slow process of reassessing them—not as a class, but rather one by one (there are five altogether). Meanwhile, tens of millions of acres of farmland are treated with neonics each year, and the health of US honeybee hives continues to be dismal.

The EPA's long-awaited assessment focused on how one of the most prominent neonics—Bayer's imidacloprid—affects bees. The report card was so dire that the EPA "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of this year, an agency spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

Reviewing dozens of studies from independent and industry-funded researchers, the EPA's risk-assessment team established that when bees encounter imidacloprid at levels above 25 parts per billion—a common level for neonics in farm fields—they suffer harm. "These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced," the EPA's press release states.

The crops most likely to expose honeybees to harmful levels of imidacloprid are cotton and citrus, while "corn and leafy vegetables either do not produce nectar or have residues below the EPA identified level." Note in the below USGS chart  that a substantial amount of imidacloprid goes into the US cotton crop.

Imidacloprid use has surged in recent years. Uh-oh. US Geological Survey

Meanwhile, the fact that the EPA says imidacloprid-treated corn likely doesn't harm bees sounds comforting, but as the same USGS chart shows, corn gets little or no imidacloprid. (It gets huge amounts of another neonic, clothianidin, whose EPA risk assessment hasn't been released yet.)

Soybeans could expose bees to dangerous levels of imidacloprid, but data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable."

The biggest imidacloprid-treated crop of all is soybeans, and soy remains an information black hole. The EPA assessment notes that soybeans are "attractive to bees via pollen and nectar," meaning they could expose bees to dangerous levels of imidacloprid, but data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers. Oops. Mind you, imidacloprid has been registered for use by the EPA since the 1990s.

The agency still has to consider public comments on the bee assessment it just released, and it also has to complete a risk assessment of imidacloprid's effect on other species. In addition to their impact on bees, neonic pesticides may also harm birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates, recent studies suggest. Then there are the assessments of the other four neonic products that need to be done. Meanwhile, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday pointing out that the agency has never properly assessed neonics in their most widely used form: as seed coatings, which are then taken up by crops.