Tom Philpott

Side Order of Toxic Blue Algae With Your Burger?

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 7:03 AM EST

In a recent piece, I fretted about one problem with our reliance on industrially produced fertilizers: They come from scarce and nonrenewable sources, meaning we'll eventually run out of them. But there's another, much more immediate downside to the synthetic nitrogen and mined phosphorus that drives industrial agriculture: They tend to leach out of soil and foul up water, both for drinking and recreation.

Environmental Working Group has just released an excellent report (available here) on the impact of that pollution on water quality in Iowa, ground zero of US industrial agriculture. The condition of that state's water is, in short, dismal. EWG looked at data kept by Iowa's Department of Natural Resources on 72 free-flowing streams across the state, comparing the 1999-2002 period and the 2008-11 period. In the chart, right, note that the majority of streams are rated either "poor" or "very poor"—and that the situation has improved little if at all over time. The main culprits are nitrogen and phosphorus. Here's EWG:

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Only Obama Can Revive the Tattered FDA

| Sat Dec. 8, 2012 7:03 AM EST

President Obama is enjoying a pleasant end to 2012—a successful election and a winning hand in his fiscal cliff fight with the Republicans. But his Food and Drug Administration is having a rough slog.

In On Earth Magazine—and reprinted in Mother Jones—Barry Estabrook has a searing article establishing the FDA as woefully underfunded and reluctant to stand up to Big Food to protect the public from food poisoning.

And remember the voluntary new rules FDA proposed in April to curtail antibiotic use on factory farms—you know, the practice that drives the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant illnesses? The FDA insisted that voluntary rules would end massive overuse of antibiotics. "The new strategy will ensure farmers and veterinarians can care for animals while ensuring the medicines people need remain safe and effective," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg declared in a press release. But in October, the agency had to cough up a trove of internal documents on the matter after a successful lawsuit by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The documents showed that top agency officials found serious "limitations" in the voluntary approach and expressed concern it might be "unlawful" for certain antibiotics.

How Dr. Oz Got It Wrong on Organics

| Wed Dec. 5, 2012 7:03 AM EST
Mehmet Oz: Be democratic, forget organic.

"There's nothing like a block of frozen spinach to make you feel bad about your family dinner," observes heart surgeon, TV personality, and health pundit Dr. Mehmet Oz in the latest Time. The advice in Oz's piece is mostly on point—foodie trends shouldn't keep people from eating unglamorous, wholesome foods like frozen veggies or canned beans, especially if that's all they can afford.

But I think the good doctor misdiagnoses the case when he paints organic food as a frivolous luxury:

Organic food is great, it's just not very democratic. As a food lover, I enjoy truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes as much as the next person. But as a doctor, I know that patients don't always have the time, energy or budget to shop for artisanal ingredients and whip them into a meal.

DOJ Mysteriously Quits Monsanto Antitrust Investigation

| Sat Dec. 1, 2012 7:03 AM EST
Just a handful of companies control the US seed market.

There's an age-old tradition in Washington of making unpopular announcements when no one's listening—like, you know, the days leading up to Thanksgiving. That's when the Obama administration sneaked a tasty dish to the genetically modified seed/pesticide industry.

This treat involves the unceremonious end of the Department of Justice's antitrust investigation into possible anticompetitive practices in the US seed market, which it had begun in January 2010. It's not hard to see why DOJ would take a look. For the the crops that cover the bulk of US farmland like corn, soy, and cotton, the seed trade is essentially dominated by five companies: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, and Dow. And a single company, Monsanto, supplies nearly all genetically modified traits now so commonly used in those crops, which it licenses to its rivals for sale in their own seeds.

What's harder to figure out is why the DOJ ended the investigation without taking any action—and did so with a near-complete lack of public information. The DOJ didn't even see fit to mark the investigation's end with a press release. News of it emerged from a brief item Monsanto itself issued the Friday before Thanksgiving, declaring it had "received written notification" from the DOJ antitrust division that it had ended its investigation "without taking any enforcement action."

Are We Heading Toward Peak Fertilizer?

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 7:03 AM EST

You've heard of peak oil—the idea that the globe's easy-to-get-to petroleum reserves are largely cashed, and most of what's left is the hard stuff, buried in deep-sea deposits or tar sands. But what about peak phosphorus and potassium? These elements form two-thirds of the holy agricultural triumvirate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (also known as NPK, from their respective markers in the periodic table). These nutrients, which are essential for plants to grow, are extracted from soil every time we harvest crops, and have to be replaced if farmland is to remain productive.

For most of agricultural history, successful farming has been about figuring out how to recycle these elements (although no one had identified them until the 19th century). That meant returning food waste, animal waste, and in some cases, human waste to the soil. Early in the 20th century, we learned to mass produce N, P, and K—giving rise to the modern concept of fertilizer, and what's now known as industrial agriculture.

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy. (I examined the dilemmas of synthetic N in a 2011 series at Grist.) But phosphorus and potassium cannot be synthesized—they're found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we're starting to burn through them. In a column in the November 14 Nature, the legendary investor Jeremy Grantham lays out why that's a problem:

Thoughts on Our National Feast Day, With 6 Recipes

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 7:13 AM EST

In his 1996 book Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, the great food anthropologist Sidney Mintz concluded that the United States had no cuisine. Interestingly, Mintz's definition of cuisine came down to conversation. For Mintz, Americans just didn't engage in passionate talk about food. Unlike the Spanish and their paella or the French and their cassoulet, most Americans don't fixate on and quarrel about what comprises, say, an authentic cheeseburger or a proper TV dinner.

But things have changed in the 16 years since Mintz cast his judgement. People are talking about food now—and have become all too obsessed with it, according to some. "Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture," the literary critic William Deresiewicz recently complained in the New York Times.

Thanksgiving has evolved along with food's cultural status. I remember when it meant a shriveled up, industrially produced turkey surrounded by side dishes flavored mainly by canned cream of mushroom soup, garnished with cranberry "sauce" that retained the shape of the can from whence it emerged. Now it is greatly fussed over—people are spending more time and money chasing down excellent ingredients, and subjecting them to ever more elaborate preparations.

All of that is great, and a major step forward. But I hope our emerging food fixation also inspires us to think about what Thanksgiving is and why it matters. First of all, of course, we can't think about it without acknowledging the atrocities of the European settlement of North America—fairy tales about how the holiday emerged from cooperation between settlers and Native Americans aside.

Despite its problematic origins, this holiday long has long seemed like a kind of miracle: a celebration of the harvest and to convivial feasting right here in the nation that invented indiustrial farming, styrofoam-encased fast food, and car dining. If Thanksgiving had been drained of all meaning by the recourse to instant mashed potatoes, I hope it's not now evolving into a "vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression," as Deresiewicz described what he called our emerging "foodism."

In other words, I hope we can all relax a bit about precisely what we're buying for the table—whether it's heirloom enough or rarefied enough—and spend more time pondering why it matters where our food comes from. "[W]e eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world," Michael Pollan famously observed in The Omnivore's Dilemma. That's something to remember on Thanksgiving—and there's also something that Pollan forgot: human labor.

Calm down, and remember that Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasts are fun.

Just as every apple in your pie and every squash in your soup represents nutrients extracted from soil and petroleum burned in the process of production and distribution, they also represent the effort and skill of farmers and workers. Unfortunately, in the United States as in most of the world, food system workers, from farm fields to meatpacking plants to big-box grocery sections, are among the lowest-paid and most-vulnerable people in the workforce. Spare them a thought, too—and support their efforts to win better pay and treatment.

And also, calm down, and remember that Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasts are fun. Don't kill yourself in the kitchen. If there's one thing I've hoped to accomplish in my Tom's Kitchen column, it's that great-tasting food doesn't have to mean a high degree of difficulty. Simple techniques can lead to delicious food—and more time to enjoy that food, as well as the company of friends and family in a spirit of gratitude.

To that end, I offer thanks to have found an engaged and smart group of readers with whom to share my investigations of our food system, in all of its awfulness and emerging promise for change. And here are a few Thanksgiving-worthy recipes from the Tom's Kitchen vault: simple, and, I hope, delicious.

Roasted Broccoli With Garlic and Chili Pepper

2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

Raw Kale Salad, With Hat Tips to Brooklyn and Caesar

Making a Hash of Breakfast (for Thanksgiving morning)

Ice Cream to Melt the Blues

Butternut squash soup with sautéed greens

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Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Broccoli with Garlic and Chili Pepper

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 4:23 PM EST

When you're cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner, you want at least one super-easy side dish to create time for wrestling with the turkey and making complicated desserts. I've got one for you: It's simple, quick, involves a vegetable that's in season across much of the the country, and really delicious (so I think). I'm referring to roasted broccoli.

Broccoli is a somewhat loathed vegetable, probably because it's often steamed to the mush phase and spiced with little more than a squeeze of lemon. This is a dish to convert the broccoli-skeptical. In this technique, you roast the humble crucifer until it still retains some crunch, but it is lightly browned in spots. The caramelization concentrates the sugars, bringing out broccoli's hidden sweetness. You balance that sweetness with plenty of garlic, hot pepper, olive oil, and a dash of something acidic, either lemon juice or vinegar.

And while it works well as a side, you can also turn it into dinner by tossing it with pasta, parsley, toasted walnuts, and grated hard cheese.

Roasted Broccoli with Garlic and Chili Pepper
Serves four as a side

2 big heads of broccoli
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves of garlic
1 fresh red-hot chili pepper; or a good pinch of crushed chili flakes
A lemon for squeezing; or red wine vinegar

The whole beast, vegge style: don't toss the stems—they're really good. The whole beast, veggie style: don't toss the stems—they're really good. Preheat oven to 375. Cut the broccoli florets into more-or-less bite-sized pieces, and add to a bowl large enough to comfortably accommodate them. You'll have plenty of stem left over—and the stem has good flavor. So thinly slice a bit of the stem, starting from the floret side (see picture), and add it to the bowl with the florets. About an inch's worth of sliced stem from each broccoli head will do.

Add a couple of glugs of olive oil to the bowl, and then a good pinch of sea salt and several grinds of black pepper. Using your hands, toss the broccoli pieces well, making sure they're evenly coated with the olive oil and seasonings.

Add the seasoned broccoli to a roasting pan or oven-proof skillet large enough to accommodate them in a single layer. Place it in the preheated oven and roast for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, finely mince the garlic and (if using) the fresh chili pepper. When the florets have just begun to brown, remove the pan from the oven and add add the minced garlic and chili pepper (or dried chili flakes). Toss well with a spatula, and return pan to the oven for another couple of minutes. The broccoli pieces are done when the florets are browned in spots but still slightly crunchy. Finish with a few dashes of vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, and taste for salt. This dish can be made ahead several hours and is just fine served room temperature.

The Coming Threat to Your Craft Brew

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 1:44 PM EST
These are a few of my favorite things—and I like to be able to find them on the retail shelf.

Over at Washington Monthly, Tim Heffernan has an in-depth piece on a topic dear to my heart: the stunning consolidation of the US beer industry. He points out, as I have before, that two vast, globe-spanning companies, SABMliler and Anheuser-Busch InBev, control 80 percent of the US beer market. Heffernan argues that the two companies have essentially hit a wall in getting much bigger here—consolidation is already so extreme that there just isn't much more consolidating to do without provoking the ire of antitrust authorities. To increase their profits, he shows, the companies are moving toward a vertical-integration strategy: gunning for control of the distribution and wholesaling. That way, they can grow by extracting more revenue and profit out of each dollar Americans spend on beer.

Heffernan takes an odd angle to set up his story. Hyperconsolidation of the kind seen in the beer industry drives down consumer prices, he writes, and low prices for alcohol lead to excessive drunkenness. More on that below—I think Heffernan might be off here. But what caught my eye was his discussion of the way the beer giants are squeezing suppliers and wholesalers to take control of the retail shelf—and potentially squeezing out independent craft brewers, whose wares (which I adore) have taken off in the past 20 years even as the giants consolidated.

The 5 Unfinished Items That Will Shape Obama's Food and Ag Legacy

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 7:03 AM EST

President Barack Obama enters his second term with a complex record on food and farm policy. Eight months into the first term, I assessed the administration's record like this:

Like a tractor driven by a drunk, the Obama administration keeps zigzagging on food/ag policy–sometimes veering in the direction of progressive change, other times whipping back toward the agrichemical status quo.

That assessment held up pretty well—the "whiplash" I was getting from the early policy zigzags has settled into a permanent state. And that's reflected in the impressive list of unfinished food and ag policy business the administration carries into its second term. On all of these issues, the administration could go either way, and there's no telling now which.

But one thing is pretty clear: The time frame for resolving them in progressive ways is limited. "The window for getting things done is about 18 months,"  said Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs for the progressive Environmental Working Group. After that, the political class will be engulfed in the 2014 midterm elections—and the administration will likely turn cautious, reluctant to offend interests that might fund the opposition.

Here they are:

1. The farm bill: The basic outlines of food and farm policy are set out in the once-every-five-years farm bill. Congress and the president were due to hammer one out in the 2011-12 session. The White House gave Congress very few signals of what it was looking for in the farm bill, and Congress responded with proposals that enshrined agribusiness as usual (with the tweak of replacing direct payments to corn, soy, and other commodity-crop farmers with new crop-insurance subsidies), adding a bracing dose of austerity for people who rely on government aid for food.

The Senate ended up with a farm bill version that I judged could have been worse (but was actually pretty bad); the House ag committee responded with one that preserved the worst parts of the Senate plan (sellouts to agribiz interests in the form of crop-insurance subsidies) and added deep cuts to the critical food-aid program SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. But then the bill died in the House before the election, buried in a war among GOP factions over just how deeply SNAP could be cut and whether insurance subsidies favored by Big Ag interests could be tolerated in an age of fiscal austerity.

Now the farm bill has entered a chaotic phase. The lame-duck Congress could still get it together to pass one, but Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me it's "a long shot" that the Senate and House versions will be reconciled before the clock runs down on 2012. If a deal hasn't been worked out by the holiday recess, then the farm bill process starts from scratch along with the new Congress in 2013.

If that happens, will the administration use the political capital it won in the election to push a progressive new farm bill? That's "theoretically possible," Hoefner told me; but it's "probably unlikely, given that they basically just sat and watched the process" in 2012. In other words, in the coming year, expect Obama to sign something that very much resembles what the House and Senate came up with last year.

Charts: How Big Pork Screws Small Towns

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

I've argued often that the food system functions like an economic sieve, draining away wealth. Imagine, say, a suburb served by a handful of fast-food chains plus a supermarket or Walmart or two. Profits from residents' food dollars go to distant shareholders; what's left behind are essentially low-skill, low-wage clerical jobs and mountains of generally low-quality, health-ruining food.

But the food system's secret scandal is that it's economically extractive in farming communities areas, too—and especially in the places where industrial agriculture is most established and intensive. I first learned about this surprising fact from the Minnesota-based community economics expert Ken Meter, specifially this 2001 study on a farm-heavy region of Minnesota. And now Food and Water Watch, working with the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, has come out with an excellent new report documenting the food industry's effect on several ag-intense regions, with the main spotlight on the hog-centric counties of Iowa, the nation's leading hog-producing state.

The structure of Iowa's hog farming went through a dramatic change starting in the early 1980s. As this FWW chart show, first, the number of hog farms in the state declined.

All charts by Food and Water Watch. All charts by Food and Water Watch. At the same time, the total number of hogs raised in the state nearly doubled.

Accordingly, the remaining hog farms scaled up dramatically, growing by a factor of nearly 11 between 1982 and 2007:

What caused this epochal change? According FWW's analysis, it was driven by the increasing consolidation of hog packing. Packers are the companies that buy hogs from farmers, slaughter them, and cut them into chops, bacon, and the like. In the 1980s, the meatpacking industry began what economists call a consolidation wave—big companies buying smaller companies and consolidating operations into bigger and bigger processing facilities. As the pork packers got bigger and bigger, they were able to use their market weight to force down the per-pound price they paid farmers for their hogs.

To assess the level of an industry's concentration, economists use a measure they call "CR4"—the percentage of a market controlled by the four biggest companies. "In most sectors of the US economy, the four largest firms control between 40 and 45 percent of the market," FWW writes. At CR4 levels above 40 or so, the reports continues, markets start to lose competitiveness—the big firms have power to dictate terms to their suppliers, in this case, farmers. Look at how CR4 has grown nationally since 1982:

In Iowa, the situation is even more stark. CR4 levels have edged down slightly in recent years, but remain near 90 percent. That means that many hog farmers must either sell to one of the Big Four—Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, and Cargill—or exit the business altogether. As noted above, 80 percent of the farms selling hogs in Iowa in 1982 took the latter route. Most of the rest of them scaled up—and saw the prices paid them by the Big Four plunge. As the next chart shows, the real (inflation-adjusted) price farmers get for each hog fell by more than half between 1982 and 2007.

Now here's the kicker. When you look at the state as a whole, Iowa's hog farmers were bringing in more money, in inflation-adjusted terms, in 1982, when they raised 23.8 million hogs, than they did in 2007, when they raised 47.3 million hogs.

This is a great deal for the Big Four packers—they're getting nearly twice the pork, for less total money. For the farmers, it's a different story.

People who live within smelling distance of large hog farms have higher incidences of high blood pressure.

Now, Iowa's hog farming used to be widely distributed across the state—most farms raised some hogs along with corn, soy, and other crops. As farms either exited hog production altogether or scaled up dramatically, hog farming got more and more concentrated into a handful of counties. You might think that people who live in these hog-centric counties got some economic benefit from the vast scaling up of hog production. At least you'd hope so—as I learned on a 2007 trip through one of those counties, Hardin (report here), it's no fun to live in industrial-hog country. Such areas are marked by clusters of bleak hog houses, each containing as many as 2,400 animals—as well as fetid, foul-smelling manure cesspools (known as "lagoons") and horrific periodic spraying of nearby fields with liquid shit rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A recent study from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researcher Steve Wing showed that people who live within smelling distance of industrial-scale hog farms have higher incidences of high blood pressure.

Well, Food and Water Watch found that hog-heavy Iowa counties don't do better economically than other counties—the opposite, in fact. The next chart compares real median annual household incomes in hog-heavy counties (based on the total number of hogs sold each year) with the statewide average.

Note that in '82, hog-heavy counties had slightly higher-than-average median incomes. After 25 years of scaling up, that reversed itself. Overall, the state's average median income rose by 14.5 percent over the time period, while median incomes in the state's hog-intense counties grew by just 10 percent.

Food and Water Watch also finds evidence of growing inequality in the hog counties—while real median incomes grew by 10 percent between '82 and '07, average incomes jumped by about a third. "The rise in real per capita income alongside a less robust increase in median household income suggests that earnings are being captured by a smaller portion of more well-off people in counties with high hog sales," FWW writes.

Why the dismal economic performance in the counties that house Iowa's booming pork industry? It costs money to run a big farm, and the larger the farm, the less of those farm expenditures go to local business, FWW found. Large farms buy about a third less per hog worth of goods from local businesses than small farms, the report shows. And that's a third less money circulating through local economies, building wealth and creating jobs. The study found that for the average Iowa county, the average number of nonfarm local businesses grew by about 30 percent between 1982 and 2007. For the hog-heavy counties, though, the average number of such establishments fell by more than 10 percent.

Not surprisingly, while the average Iowa county saw robust growth in total jobs over that period, for hog-heavy counties, total jobs dropped.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the economic story for meatpacking and processing workers—the people who slaughter, cut, and package Iowa's vast annual hog crop. As Ted Genoways' blockbuster 2011 Mother Jones piece shows in graphic detail, conditions have grown quite grim on the slaughterhouse floor. The following chart looks at real annual earnings for packers (workers who slaughter live animals) and processing workers (people who turn carcasses into sellable products). This is a story of full-on immiseration—what were once middle-class jobs now pay poverty-level wages.

Here's how FWW sums the situation up:

Counties with more hog sales and larger farms tend to have lower total incomes, slower income growth, fewer Main Street businesses and less retail activity. General employment levels have suffered, wages in meatpacking have declined and farm job opportunities are more difficult to find. In spite of what Big Pork boosters have said, there is little evidence that the trends in Iowa hog production have been good for Iowa’s rural economies.

Now, in their defense, the meatpacking giants often counter that the changes described here are necessary for the provision of cheap food. To deliver you a bountiful supply of pork chops, farmers and workers must be squeezed. But here, too, FWW brings a cold slap of reality. The report finds that when hog prices rise, the pork packers tend to pass on the increase to consumers "completely and immediately"; but when they fall, as they have for much of the past 25 years, the companies tend to pocket much of the difference as profit, passing only some on to consumers.

So, in addition to all the environmental damage associated with factory-scale hog farming, it's an economic disaster, too—unless you happen to be a shareholder in one of the Big Four pork packers.