Tom Philpott

EPA: Those Bee-Killing Pesticides? They're Actually Pretty Useless

| Sat Oct. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Was it all for nought? Note: bumblebees, pictured here, have also been shown to be harmed by neonics.

So, there's this widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, marketed by chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, that have emerged as a prime suspect in honeybee collapse, and may also be harming birds and water-borne critters. But at least they provide benefits to farmers, right?

Well, not soybean farmers, according to a blunt economic assessment released Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF). Conclusion: "There are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans."

Wait, what?

The report goes on: "This analysis provides evidence that US soybean growers derive limited to no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments in most instances."

Hmmm. But at least they're better for farmers than no pesticide at all?

Nope: "Published data indicate that most usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control."


One poll found that 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

The EPA notes that in recent years, US farmers have been planting on average 76 million acres of soybeans each season. Of those acres, an average 31 percent are planted in seeds treated with neonics—that is, farmers buy treated seeds, which suffuse the soybean plants with the chemical as they grow. So that's about 24 million acres of neonic-treated seeds—an area equal in size to the state of Indiana. Why would farmers pay up for a seed treatment that doesn't do them any good, yet may be doing considerable harm to pollinators and birds? The EPA report has insights: "data from researchers and extension experts ... indicate that some growers currently have some difficulty obtaining untreated seed." The report points to one small poll that found 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

Another reason may be marketing. Syngenta, for example, promotes its "CruiserMaxx" seed treatment for soybeans, which combines a neonic insecticide with two different fungicides. The pitch: "Promotes better emergence, faster speed to canopy, improved vigor and higher yield potential.
Protects against damaging chewing and sucking insect pests. ... Increases yield even under low insect pressure."

Only one US crop is planted more abundantly than soybeans: corn, which typically covers around 90 million acres. According to Purdue entomologist Christian Krupke, "virtually all" of it is from neonic-treated seeds. That's a land mass just 10 percent smaller than California. You have to wonder what bang those farmers are getting for their buck. I have a query into the EPA to see whether it has plans to conduct a similar assessment for corn. Meanwhile, this March 2014 Center for Food Safety research report, which was reviewed by Krupke and Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture, found that the bee-killing pesticides offer at best limited benefits to corn farmers, too.

Advertise on

The Feds Just Approved a New GMO Corn. Here's Why I'm Not Rejoicing

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:39 PM EDT
High-tech seeds, old-school herbicides.

In September, the US Department of Agriculture greenlighted new GMO corn and soybean products engineered to resist two kinds of herbicides, Roundup (glyphosate) and an older, more toxic one called 2,4-D (which was one of two ingredients in the powerful defoliant used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange). And on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved of a new 2,4-D formulation called Enlist, which has been designed for use on the novel seeds, in six corn/soy-heavy states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That means starting in spring 2015, farmers in the Midwestern Corn Belt will likely be dousing their crops with 2,4-D as well as Roundup, in an effort to control the plague of weeds that have evolved to resist Roundup.

The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, ""Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012So what's the big deal? In this 2012 post, I laid out research by a team led by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen (paper abstract  here) on how the new products are at best a temporary solution to the problem of "superweeds"—they lead farmers down a path of ever-increasing reliance on agrichemicals. They argue that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new generation of weeds resistant to both herbicides, because when farmers apply 2,4-D to weeds that are already resistant to Roundup, they'll essentially be selecting for weeds that can resist both. Their projection of how such double resistance will affect herbicide use is at the left—a boon for agrichemical sales, but not so great for the environment.

Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Hormel, Bacon, and Amputated Limbs

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Much of the outrage generated by the meat industry involves the rough treatment of animals. But as Ted Genoways shows in his searing new book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Foodwhich grew out of his long-form 2011 Mother Jones piece "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret"—the people employed in its factory-scale slaughterhouses have it pretty rough too. The book hinges on a rare neurological disorder that, in the mid-2000s, began to affect workers in a Spam factory in Austin, Minnesota—particularly ones who worked in the vicinity of the "brain machine," which, as Genoways writes, used compressed air to blast slaughtered pigs' brains "into a pink slurry." As Genoways memorably puts it: "A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket." I recently caught up with him to talk about the world of our dark, satanic meat mills, and the bright spots he sees after immersing himself in it.

"You've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station. There's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move."

Mother Jones: When did you first get interested in the meat industry?

Ted Genoways: I'm a fourth-generation Nebraskan, and my grandfather, my dad's dad, during the Depression, worked in the packinghouses in Omaha around the union stockyards there. One Sunday, when they were visiting relatives just outside of Omaha, my grandfather decided to take my dad in to see the packing houses, and into the hog kill room, when he was probably about 10 years old. And my dad said that he was just sort of overwhelmed by the noise and the screeching of the hogs and the terror. My first book was a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, that had one section that dealt with some of that.

MJ: How did you go from poetry to investigating this disturbing brain disorder among meatpacking workers?

TG: Around 2000, I had a job working as a book editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and the first book that I worked on there was a book called Packinghouse Daughter, by Cheri Register, about the packinghouse strike in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1959. Her father was one of the meatpacking workers there. I also read Peter Rachleff's book about the Hormel strike in the '80s in Austin, Minnesota, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.

So it caught my eye in 2007 when there were some AP stories, and eventually the New York Times did a story, about the outbreak of this neurological disorder among the packing house workers at Quality Pork Processors in Austin. The fact that the people affected were almost entirely Hispanic intrigued me.

I started by wanting to tell the story of this medical mystery, but what quickly evolved was a picture of the hiring practices at QPP and how that tied back to the history of the strikes—there was just this whole universe that was contained in that story.

MJ: Rural Minnesota is a pretty white place. What did the strikes have to do with transforming the plant's workforce from majority white to majority Hispanic?

TG: In 1986 the strike ends, and in '87, they [Hormel management] announce that half the plant is a new company, called Quality Pork Producers, and the hundreds of people who worked there would be offered their jobs back, but no longer under the union contract. 

And without union protection, the native work force began to drift away. In no time, you've got a nearly all-Hispanic workforce that's made up hugely of undocumented workers. What surprises me is how quickly the communities turned their anger toward the new arrivals, and not the company itself.

TP: You report that since the launch of QPP, there's been an emphasis on speeding up the kill line. And that ends up being the probable trigger for the neurological disease you dug into.

TG: Right, the line speed becomes the issue that the Mayo Clinic doctors see as the key factor in explaining what was happening—exposure to hogs' aerosolized brain tissue increases as the volume of hogs processed goes up—a messy job got messier. And at the height of the [2007] recession, the demand [for Spam] was so high that they were offering overtime hours, so the hours of the exposure increased.

But beyond this neurological disorder that's tied to the line speed, there's all the repetitive stress injuries, there's obviously the kind of traumatic injuries that occur from cuts and amputations on the line—all of those increase when line speed increases. I talked to a number of people who said, when amputations occurred among the workers, and you've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station, there's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move. Workers told me that at peak times, they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands. And the more I got to looking at it, I started to see how line speed affects all phases of production.

MJ: Talk about some of those effects.

Ted Genoways Photo: Mary Ann Andrei

TG: First, you need more hogs coming in the door. And what that means right away is more CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations, or factory-scale livestock farms]. Ideally for the packers, it means more involvement in the CAFOs, how they're run, what their production schedules are, what the animals are fed in order to produce an animal that has the lean-to-fat ratio that matches your needs for various products.

The other thing is if you're going to increase speed but not increase the workforce, it means more mechanization, which is very often kind of experimental. And sometimes where things break down is in the quality of the meat or just how well it's cut. Sometimes what breaks down is how sanitary it is, or how safe the workers are.

For the machine to work right, and especially for it to work right at high speed, every cut going into it has to be the same size. And as mind-boggling as it is, it's cheaper for the company on that kind of scale to control the size of the hog than to change the size of the cut inside the plant.

And of course this is where you get all of the breeding programs, the antibiotics and growth enhancers that they're fed so that every hog is on the exact same program and is coming to be the same size.

MJ: You dig deeply into the the special US Department of Agriculture program—known as HIMP, in the department's evocative acronym—that allowed Hormel to run its line much faster than the industry standard.

TG: The argument that was made in the early '90s, when this was first pushed, was that the old inspection model was outmoded. They said what we need instead is a modern system that will focus on microbiological testing. And that sounds like common sense. The problem is that the way that they wanted to implement this was to reduce the number of inspectors. That reduced number of inspectors then would be responsible for double-checking the inspection that would be carried out by the companies themselves.

And the companies argued that what this would allow them to do would be to run the line faster—they said, we'll put out more product which will bring the price down for consumers, and we'll have a safer product coming out as well. And it'll reduce government costs. So it sounds like the perfect thing all around. The problem they had is what it essentially did was put the companies in charge of their own inspection.

"Workers told me that at peak times, they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands."

MJ: As I know from covering it myself, and know even better after reading your book, the meat industry is a relentlessly bleak topic. From your reporting, did you find any hope for positive change?

TG: The meat industry operates under the assumption that what people care about in food is low cost. And what foodie movements have done, as they move toward the mainstream, is demonstrate that people will pay a little bit more for food that they feel is safe—the animal has been well treated, the workers have been well treated.

The other thing we're seeing is that Americans' meat consumption has leveled off and even started to drop a little bit in recent years. People have said, "I'll take a smaller portion if it's higher quality, and I'll pay a little bit more for it but I'll worry a little less about what's in it." And if enough people will do that, the industry will respond.

My other concern is that as the American consumer becomes more aware and enlightened about all this, the meat industry is also doing its best to move into all parts of the global market. And there's still lots of parts of the world where just having food is something that is a major issue—so you're back to the lowest-possible-cost idea.

MJ: That makes me think of the fact that our biggest pork producer of all, Smithfield, recently got bought by a Chinese company—so even though we're eating less factory-farmed meat here, production could actually increase, driven by demand in China.

TG: Yes. But still, here in the US, very few people were thinking about [the meat industry] 10 years ago. You talk to people about it now, and everybody is aware of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and the whole wave of people who have come behind who are informing the public about all of this, and I think people are making different choices, now that they have that information.

McDonald's Had to Hire a Fact-Checker to Prove It Serves Real Food

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's, 2014 has been like a Happy Meal that's missing a trinket: a major bummer. Its China operations (along with those other US fast-food firms) got caught up in an expired-meat scandal that pushed down Asian sales. Its US sales are down too, and its share price has fallen about 8 percent over the past three months. Strife among workers over low wages has lingered, and took a nasty turn for the company when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that it's responsible for employment practices at its thousands of franchises, which it had been using as a shield to protect it from allegations of labor abuse. Insult to injury, a Consumer Reports survey named Mickey D's signature burgers the "worst-tasting of all the major US burger chains."

What's a beleaguered, ubiquitous burger giant to do? Apparently, take to Twitter with an ask-me-anything attitude and roll out a bunch of behind-the-scenes videos, hosted by Grant Imahara, a former star of TV's Mythbusters, all under a new program called "Your Questions. Our Food."

In this one, Imahara tours a plant owned by Cargill, a vast agribusiness conglomerate, that supplies McDonald's with preformed burger patties. Spoiler alert: Imahara finds everything hunky dory.

On the burger-factory floor, Imahara confronts the Cargill folks about whether they add "lean finely textured beef," a.k.a., pink slime, to the burgers. Pink slime, you might remember, is a slurry made of scraps of beef that have been pulverized, defatted, and subjected to ammonia steam to kill microbial pathogens. No, they assure him. (They neglect to add that McDonald's burgers did contain pink slime until 2012, when consumer outrage inspired them to stop the practice.)

Over at Time, Naomi Starkman has a rundown of some less-than-appetizing practices the fast-food giant has copped to on the campaign.

On beef hormones: "Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth." On feeding animals GMO feed: "Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops."

And while it says it no longer uses so-called "pink slime" in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also uses azodicarbonamide, a.k.a. "the yoga mat ingredient," in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: "Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk." As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? "Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food."

The company even answered one of my questions, about the precise composition of its McNuggets.

It's way too early to tell whether this corporate glasnost campaign will inspire consumers to stampede back through the Golden Arches. The stock market, though, shrugged Monday. McDonald's shares fell 1.7 percent, part of a broader sell-off.

Meanwhile, given recent controversies over wages, I just asked McDonald's a question it presumably isn't eager to answer. I'll update if I get a response.


You Thought California's Drought Couldn't Get Any Worse? Enter Fracking.

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 2:22 PM EDT
Pumpjacks extract oil from an oilfield in Kern County, in California's ag-heavy Central Valley.

I have a great idea. Let's take one of the globe's most important agricultural regions, one with severe water constraints and a fast-dropping water table. And let's set up shop there with a highly water-intensive form of fossil fuel extraction, one that throws off copious amounts of toxic wastewater. Nothing could possibly go wrong ... right? Well...

Almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation, according to state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity. The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants.

The documents also reveal that Central Valley Water Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitratescontaminants sometimes found in oil industry wastewaterin water-supply wells near these waste-disposal operations.

That's from the Center for Biological Diversity. Hat tip DeSmogBlog.

How Monsanto Crashed SXSW—and Brought the Drama to My Panel [UPDATED]

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

UPDATE: In an emailed statement, SXSW Eco director Scott Wilcox wrote that Monsanto had openly submitted, via Panel Picker, another panel, "Bees: What the Buzz is All About," which the organizers accepted "because we thought it had merit." Monsanto's sponsorship was not noted in the program, but the session did include a panelist, Jerry Hayes, who is identified as a Monsanto employee. As for the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" panel, the organizers "were as surprised as our attendees when the moderator/organizer ... announced at the beginning of the session that Monsanto had paid all the participants' travel expenses to speak on the panel." He added: "Ultimately, it is lack of transparency on the part of Monsanto and the panel's moderator that is the biggest issue for our team. It is essential to our conference that the origins of the viewpoints that will be presented are fully disclosed to maintain the trust that is so valued within our SXSW Eco community."

Let's face it: While panels at conferences can be fun, interesting, even provocative, rarely do they provide drama, intrigue, or surprise. On Wednesday at South by Southwest Eco in Austin, my colleague Kiera Butler and I sat on a panel that counts as a genuine exception. And it had nothing to do with our own oratorical skills or those of our excellent co-panelists, author and agriculture researcher Raj Patel and Texas A&M cotton breeder Jane Dever.

So here's what happened: Our session, titled, "GMOs Real Talk: The Hype, the Hope, the Science," proceeded as you might expect. I thought we had a pretty robust discussion of the potential and pitfalls of biotechnology in contributing to global food security going forward. Then, at the very end of the hour, during the Q&A session, a SXSW Eco staffer took the mic and dropped a bombshell: She alleged that the GMO seed/pesticide giant Monsanto had sponsored several earlier panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers.

Monsanto had sponsored several panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers, alleged a conference staffer.

The standing-room-only crowd—which had greeted our biotech-skeptical discussion warmly—erupted in guffaws and gasps. Soon after, Monsanto online-engagement specialist Janice Person bravely took the mic. The room took on the electric charge of a public confrontation in the mythical Old West: the accused party straining to calm a pitchfork-bearing mob. She assured the highly skeptical room that the company had no intention to mislead the organizers and just wanted to participate in the discussion. And thus our panel ended, in glorious chaos. "Once again, Monsanto gets the last word," Patel quipped. As far as I know, no Monsanto employees were physically harmed in the process. Later, Person expanded her thoughts into this blog post and told me via email that "we regret if there was a misunderstanding," and "it was certainly not something we tried to hide."

But I, too, was surprised. While we were preparing our SXSW Eco panel, we had a participant drop out late in the process. I wanted to find a replacement who would cogently defend the industry—I like to be on panels with the frisson of controversy, the energy of open debate. If I had known the Eco conference would be chockfull of Monsanto people, I would have tried to snag one to join us on stage. But when I glanced over the program, the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" certainly didn't catch my eye. Moderated by Tim McDonald, former director of community at Huffington Post, it featured three farmers, none of whom listed any Monsanto affiliation.

In a later email, McDonald described for me how the panel came to be: "A friend of mine...who works for Monsanto asked me if I would be interested" in pitching an SXSW Eco panel, he wrote. "I told her if they would cover my travel and work on getting the panelists, I would be happy to organize and moderate the panel."

As it happens, I attended that panel, which took place Monday. At the start, the moderator, McDonald, announced that Monsanto had paid for his and the other panelists travel expenses, but promised an open dialogue all the same. I somehow missed his saying that, but I did note on Twitter that several Monsanto-affiliated folks were enthusiastically live-tweeting the discussion, which I frankly found rather vague and diffuse. Apparently, McDonald's disclosure from the stage was the first indication of Monsanto's involvement that the conference's organizers got. And judging from the SXSW Eco staffer's announcement at our panel, they were none too pleased with the lack of transparency. (I've reached out to SXSW Eco for comment; I'll update when I hear back.)

In the end, Monsanto's SXSW Eco kerfuffle takes its place in the annals of awkward corporate PR maneuvers, alongside the company's ill-starred attempt to pay experts to participate in an "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability" as part of sponsored content for the publisher Condé Nast.

Advertise on

Are Your Chicken Nuggets Ruining Your Antibiotic Ointment?

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Last week, the FDA released a report on the gross amount of antibiotics purchased by the livestock industry in 2012. The results are a bit startling. Between 2009 and 2012—a period of increasing awareness about the perils of antibiotic use in livestock facilities—the FDA found purchases of the drugs rose 16 percent. Over the same period, annual production of beef, chicken, and pork barely budged, suggesting that the industry was becoming more antibiotic-intensive each year. Worse still, the FDA deemed 61 percent of the antibiotics sold to the meat industry in 2012 as "medically important"—meaning that they're commonly used in human medicine, and thus in danger of losing their effectiveness through resistance.

Late last year, after decades of foot shuffling, the FDA made its most decisive attempt ever to tamp down the meat industry's habit of dosing livestock with antibiotics to make them grow faster—although being a rather timid watchdog, the FDA chose to make the rules voluntary.

"If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or prevent disease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick."

The new report shows just how dire things had become: 70 percent of the "medically important" antimicrobials sold to meat producers in 2012 were destined to be administered through feed, and another 24 percent through water. Just 6 percent were meant to be used topically or through injection—the way small-scale farmers use antibiotics to treat sick animals. "If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or prevent disease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick," Keeve Nachman, who directs the Food Production and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Liveable Future, told me. Also, 97 percent of the drugs were sold without a prescription from a veterinarian—a practice that the 2013 rules intend to stop.

Even worse, as Keeve Nachman pointed out, sales of cephalosporins, a drug used to treat respiratory-tract infections, skin infections, and urinary-tract infections in people, rose about 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, even though the FDA had moved to scale back their use on January 4, 2012. That doesn't exactly boost confidence.

Before I could fully digest this data, another email arrived in my inbox, this one from the meat-industry trade paper WATT Agribusiness, to which I subscribe. It contained an article sponsored by the ag-pharmaceutical giant Zoetis, titled "How do antibiotics promote growth?"

The piece suggests that Zoetis is still marketing antibiotics as a way to make animals grow faster, while staying within the bounds of the FDA's voluntary restrictions on using  "medically important" drugs for that purpose. The piece cites an antibiotic called bacitracin, which the FDA considers "not currently medically important," as something farmers should consider for growth-promotion purposes.

Bacteria strains that develop resistance to one antibiotic can quickly become resistant to others.

According to Steven Roach, a senior analyst at the group Keep Antibiotics Working, there are two problems with this approach. First, "not everyone agrees that bacitracin is not medically important," he said.  While the FDA doesn't currently list it as important, it hasn't reevaluated its "medically important" list since 2003, he said. Meanwhile, bacitracin is used in human medicine, most commonly as an ointment to prevent infection in minor cuts, scrapes, and burns. And the World Health Organization lists it as an "important antimicrobial for human medicine."

Widespread use in livestock facilities could make it ineffective for current uses—and eliminate the prospects for future treatments that could be developed from it.

The second problem, he said, is that the heavy use of antibiotics that are really not used in human medicine can cause harm through cross-resistance—that is, bacteria strains that develop resistance to one antibiotic can quickly become resistant to others.

Cross-resistance is a well-established phenomenon. Johns Hopkins' Nachman explained cross-resistance like this: Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to survive contact with a chemical intended to kill them. And "in teaching bacteria to survive in the presence of a [non-medically important] drug, we may also be teaching them how to survive in the presence of a drug we do rely on," he said.

Nachman says a shift to non-"medically important" drugs is certainly preferable to the status quo, but won't likely fully solve that our factory farms are now incubating resistant bacteria strains that threaten people.

It Takes HOW Much Water to Grow an Avocado?!

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

We've heard a lot about how the boom in almond and other nut production is straining California's dwindling water supplies amid the state's worst-ever drought. But what about the avocado, another trendy commodity that grows on trees and delivers all-the-rage healthy fats?

US consumers certainly love this unctuous tropical fruit. According to the US Department of Agriculture, avocado production per capita jumped from 1.1 pounds annually in 1999 to 4.5 pounds in 2011.

Avocados don't require nearly as much water per pound as almonds. But they do require significantly more than other kinds of produce, as my colleague Julia Lurie shows in this chart:

(Note that the figures in this chart, and the one later in this post, include only blue water—which comes from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers—and not rainfall or recycled water.)

And as in the case of almonds and so many other crops, California dominates US production, accounting for about 90 percent of the US avocado harvest. Nearly all of it takes place in Southern California, in a five-county region that straddles the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

Like the rest of the state, the southern coastal region is locked in a drought, and largely cut off from the flow of surface water from the state's big irrigation projects. The result has been strife in the avocado groves—sky-high water costs and a reliance on water pumped from underground aquifers.

But overall, California's avocado farms have a relatively light water impact. Unlike almonds and pistachios, whose acreage has expanded dramatically in recent years, land devoted to avocados has actually shrunk, from a high of 76,000 acres in 1987 to fewer than 60,000 acres in 2012 (although production has held steady, because yield increases have offset the loss of acres). Also unlike the state's nut growers, California's avocado farmers aren't taking advantage of a boom in demand from Asia. According to the USDA, US avocado exports are so small they're "negligible."

Also, avocados are a perishable, seasonal product, and the California season peaks from May through August—meaning that for the rest of the year, we rely on Mexico, Chile, and Peru to satisfy our guacamole habit. All told, the USDA reports, about 70 percent of the avocados we consume are imported.

And so most of the water impact from our growing appetite for avocados lands on other places. And as Eilis O'Neill recently reported in Civil Eats, satisfying our demand for off-season avocados is causing trouble in another drought-stricken region, Chile's Central Valley—which, like California's, lies between a snowcapped interior mountain range and a coastal mountain range.

In part because of demand from the United States, avocado farmers in Chile have used so much water that some towns' wells have run dry.

This valley is the epicenter of Chile's fruit-and-veg export behemoth that began in the 1980s. As this US Department of Agriculture report states, Chile's Southern Hemisphere location gives it a "counter-seasonal production schedule with the United States"—that is, Chile's summer starts around the time that ours ends. The rapid rise of Chilean produce into the US market is a big reason US consumers can expect bountiful produce aisles year-round—it "extended the availability of certain fruits in the market without direct competition with domestic production, and gave US consumers fruit choices beyond the traditional domestic winter fruits of citrus, apples, and pears," the USDA notes. Chile now supplies a fifth of US fruit, the USDA adds.

Avocados were part of that boom. As O'Neill notes, land devoted to avocados has expanded rapidly—from about 6,180 hectares (15,270 acres) in 1980 to 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres) in 2006, all the way to 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres) in 2014, according to the USDA.

And just as in California, climate change and drought have meant less surface water flowing from mountain ranges to irrigate crops—and a shift to pumping water from underground aquifers. As a result, producers have "used so much of the region's waters that small farmers with shallow wells—and some nearby towns—are left with no water," O'Neill writes, echoing reports of waterless towns in California's Central Valley.

Like our Golden State, Chile takes a laissez-faire approach to groundwater regulation, O’Neill reports—a legacy of the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, a free-market zealot who came to power in a US-backed coup in 1973 and remained dictator until 1990.

And large, export-minded farm operations have the wherewithal to drill larger and deeper wells, squeezing out small farms and nearby communities, O'Neill reports. Meanwhile, the profits from Chile's farm export boom remains pretty concentrated in the hands of large landowners.

Chile's avocado harvest starts in runs from August to March—making it a prime supplier during the football season guacamole blitz.

O'Neill's piece gives us something to think about as we plunge chips into that delicious dip. "When you eat an avocado that comes from [a large producer in] Chile, think about the fact that the water used to produce it is water that homes in the country's most humble communities now lack," water activist Rodrigo Mundaca tells her.

Butterball Goes "Humane" for Thanksgiving. Really?

| Sat Sep. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
This year, more humane?

It's becoming a Thanksgiving tradition as hoary as NFL football or the bloviations of your drunken uncle: days before the national feast, an animal-welfare group releases an undercover video documenting vile conditions within industrial-scale turkey facilities (see 2013, 2012, 2008).

This year, the largest turkey producer of all, Butterball—which churns out a billion pounds of turkey meat annually, a fifth of US production—has made a bold move to get ahead of these appetite-snuffing PR debacles. By fall 2014, presumably in time for Thanksgiving, all of its products will bear the American Humane Certified label, the company announced Tuesday.

Is Farm Aid Still Relevant?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Neil Young, center, gets busy at Farm Aid

Farm Aid, the annual, roving concert anchored by Willie Nelson and Neil Young, launched in 1985, amid the steepest US farm crisis since the Great Depression. Twenty-nine years later, is it still relevant? Last week, on a muggy day in Raleigh, NC, I got the chance to investigate.

The event, at the outdoor Walnut Creek Amphitheater, on the outskirts of town, started with the most star-studded press conference I've ever attended. Arrayed in chairs on the stage before us were the headliners: Nelson, wizened face framed by a black baseball cap and those eternal red, frizzy ponytails; Young, somber in bushy sideburns, a black wide-brimmed fedora, and black t-shirt emblazoned with the word "Earth" in ominously faded white lettering; John "Cougar" Mellencamp, appropriately '80s in a white t-shirt under black blazer, graying hair done up in what Vanity Fair once called that "rooster comb of a pompadour"; and Dave Matthews, looking like a concerned dad with his trim beard and blue polo shirt, 100 times more conventional-looking than his much-older peers on stage.

Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Instead of breaking into song, this quartet of platinum-selling crooners delivered earnest pleas against the abuses of corporate-dominated agriculture. Young spoke longest—to the whoops of the crowd, he denounced the Citizens United decision and tied it directly to industrial agriculture, and suggested that corporate power shapes federal farm policy. "The corporations are the villains," Young told the crowd, and painted a picture of family farms writhing under the heel of massive seed and input companies.

And rather than hog the attention of the assembled, they ceded the spotlight to several North Carolina farmers and farm advocates who joined them up there. And these weren't new-wave farmers singing the delights of consuming local, organic food.

Kay Doby, speaking in a Piedmont NC twang as no-nonsense as her t-shirt and jeans, spoke of the debt spiral faced by poultry farmers who work under contract with massive meat processors—companies that provide birds and feed, but require farmers to constantly invest in upgrading their facilities. Poultry giant Pilgrim's Pride revoked her contract during the economic downturn, she says, leaving her with huge, suddenly useless investments in chicken houses. "I think being cut off had a lot to do with [how] I spoke out against the practices that were being used against the growers," she said. But she survived by converting her chicken houses into barns for pasture-raised meat goats. "That kept me on the farm," she said.

Later we heard from Dorothy Barker, who runs Olusanya Farm in Oxford, NC with her husband Phillip Barker. By the 1980s, after decades of being denied fair access to loans both by private banks and the USDA, the Barkers found themselves running one of the state's last two remaining black-owned dairy farms, Barker recounted in forceful, measured, and blunt tones. "It didn't take long for me to realize they were pissing in my face—it wasn't raining," she said. Ever since, the Barker's have been organizing against this ag-based version of racist redlining, as well as developing infrastructure and building markets for black farmers in a region still marked by the historical legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.

After watching these bracing displays of real talk on the state of farming, I spent much of that long day in Raleigh thinking of ways in which Farm Aid is different from most other farming-and-food conferences I have attended over the years. Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Quite a crowd for a farm fundraiser Photo: Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

For one, people come out for superstar musicians. I've been to some of the largest organic-farming confabs in the country—California's EcoFarm, the Northwest's Tilth conferece. I attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008—a spectacular event that drew some 85,000, but dispersed over three days and in venues across the city. That same year, I and 8,000 others attended Terra Madre, the biannual global food-activism event put on in Turin, Italy, by Slow Food International.

But I've never seen attendance like Farm Aid's. By the time the music started in the early afternoon—the lineup included the above-named headliners, plus Jack White, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Gary Clark, Jr. and eight other acts­—the venue was packed. It was a brutally humid day that constantly threatened rain, and the arena's cover only extended to the numbered seats, sheltering a small fraction of its total capacity. Yet that didn't daunt the crowd of 20,000, most of whom sat unsheltered, on blankets on the up-sloping lawn. In the vast crowd, I saw farmers, activists, the requisite hippy-dancing youth, and families.

"Farm Aid is a whirlwind that blows through town, and we all hope to catch some of it in our sails," Chris Rumbley, a 30-something farmer who runs Raleigh City Farms told me. "It was good to see a food organizing platform that emphasizes farmers, giving us the spotlight for a minute."

It also delivers more than just rhetoric. Those 20,000 revelers paid $49 a pop for a place on the lawn, and as much as $175 for a seat near the stage. The musicians forsake a cut, and the bulk of the haul is distributed by Farm Aid to groups across the country that work directly to keep struggling farmers on their land. Since 1985, Farm Aid has delivered more than $42 million to farm advocacy groups.  

And while the most extreme pressures of the 1980s farm crisis have receded, US farmers—especially ones in the middle, too big to sell directly to consumers through channels like farmers markets, but too small to hold their own with large agribusiness—remain under steady pressure. The USDA's latest ag census, released in May, looked at US farm numbers by size, and changes between 2007 and 2012. The only category that saw growth was farms 2,000 acres and bigger, which inched ahead by 2 percent or so over the period. Farms between 100 and 500 acres saw the steepest losses—there were about 5 percent fewer of them in 2012 than there had been five years earlier. This ongoing hemorrhage of mid-sized farms is part of a decades-long hollowing out of rural America—the very problem Farm Aid exists to address.

As I took in Jack White's searing, guitar-driven set, among 20,000 others rapt at the former White Stripes frontman's virtuosity, I became fired up  about all these issues in a way I hadn't been for years.