Tom Philpott

Meet the Weeds That Monsanto Can't Beat

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 7:06 AM EST
"Integrated pest management" in action.

When Monsanto revolutionized agriculture with a line of genetically engineered seeds, the promise was that the technology would lower herbicide use—because farmers would have to spray less. In fact, as Washington State University researcher Chuch Benbrook has shown, just the opposite happened.

Sixteen years on, Roundup (Monsanto's tradename for its glyphosate herbicide) has certainly killed lots of weeds. But the ones it has left standing are about as resistant to herbicide as the company's Roundup Ready crops, which are designed to survive repeated applications of the agribusiness giant's own Roundup herbicide.

For just one example, turn to Mississippi, where cotton, corn, and soy farmers have been using Roundup Ready seeds for years—and are now struggling to contain a new generation of super weeds, including a scourge of Italian ryegrass.

"Fight resistant weeds with fall, spring attack," declares a headline in Delta Farm Press, a farming trade magazine serving the Mississippi River Delta. The article's author, a Mississippi State University employee, lays out the challenge:

In 2005, Italian ryegrass resistant to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate was first identified in the state. Since then, it has been found in 31 Mississippi counties and is widespread throughout the Delta. This glyphosate-resistant weed emerges in the fall and grows throughout winter and early spring.

The solution: "fall residual herbicide treatments followed by spring burn-down applications, where a nonselective herbicide is applied to fields before planting." Translation: to combat the plague of resistant Italian ryegrass, Mississippi's cotton farmers must hit their fields with a "residual" herbicide in the fall—meaning one that hangs around in soil long enough to kill ryegrass for a while—and then come back with yet another herbicide in the spring, to make sure the job has been done.

This multi-poison approach to weed control, apparently, is what passes for "integrated pest management"—purportedly a system of low-pesticide crop protection—these days.

“The integrated pest management program we recommend uses fall residual herbicides to help reduce the overall population and numbers,” [Mississippi State University extension professor Tom] Eubank said. “Fall tillage can also reduce weed numbers, but it is generally not as effective as residual herbicides. Producers should come back in the spring or late winter with an alternative herbicide program that attacks the plant using a different mode of action.”

In lieu of crop rotation and biodiversity, the non-toxic way to control weeds, the MSU extension service promotes what the article calls a "diversified herbicide program." And thus we get a clear look at why, since the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds in the 1990s, herbicide use has spiked.

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Tom's Kitchen: Holiday Biscotti

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 7:01 AM EST
A-ladi-dadi, we like biscotti.

Admit it: You're bored with "Christmas cookies." They're cloyingly sweet, they're bland, and they can be hard on the eyes, with their "festive" shapes and garish colors. What to make in their place?  The holiday season demands a special snack—one that adults can nibble with coffee and kids can inhale as a treat. Biscotti, the famed Italian cookies, aren't an obvious substitute. They've become ubiquitous in US coffee shops; and are too often served stale, oversweet, and not worth the often-two-bucks-a-pop price tag.

Here's the thing. Homemade biscotti, nutty and slightly salty, are terrific—and they're pretty easy to make. And because they get much of their substance from nuts, they're a more wholesome snack than the usual flour-dominated holiday cookies. And they're versatile—while they're best-known in the US as a foil for coffee, the Italians also enjoy them dunked into the famous Tuscan dessert wine vin santo.In her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, from which I learned to make biscotti, the great San Francisco chef-restaurateur Judy Rogers suggests serving them with Champagne. Meaning that you might want to bust out a second batch for New Year's Eve.

Sure, the kids may judge them insufficiently sweet. Humbug! That just means more for you. So put down that Santa-shaped cutter and get busy. You'll be telling me prego when you taste the results.

In the below version, I took Rogers' recipe, which spices the cookies with anise seeds, and amped it up with orange zest, which works well with the licorice flavor of anise and delivers a seasonal edge. And in place of Rogers' anisette, an anise-flavored liqueur,  I tried Cointreau, an orange-flavored one. Feel free to use either—and either can be replaced, in a pinch, with good old vodka. I also used—because it's what I had on hand—a dark, minimally processed, mollasasy cane sugar. I worried that it might taste too heavy and overshadow the orange and anise flavors. In the end, though, I liked it—it gave the cookies caramel edge that complemented the other ingredients. Lighter sugars will work as well.

Rogers writes that biscotti are "best aged a few days before serving"—store them in an airtight container, she advises.

Orange-Anise Biscotti
Inspired by Judy Rogers'
Zuni Cafe Cookbook/makes about 18 biscotti.

¾ cups almonds
4 tablespoons butter, kept out overnight in a cool place
A generous ½ cup of whole, minimally processed, dark cane sugar
1 large egg
Zest of an entire orange, like a Seville
1 ½ teaspoons Cointreau
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons anise seeds

Preheat oven to 325. On a cookie sheet, toast the almonds for about 15 minutes, until they're lightly brown and toasty-smelling.

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl—that is, whip it with an electric beater or a whisk until it's lightly fluffy. Add the egg, the orange zest, and the Cointreau and beat until just incorporated.

In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients—the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the seeds—and mix well with a fork or a whisk. Now fold in the wet mixture into the dry stuff with a wooden spoon, until well incorporated.

Ropes of biscotti dough, ready for the oven.

Divide the dough into two balls and place on a lightly floured surface. Using your hands, roll each ball out into a rope of 1 inch diameter.  Carefully lift the dough ropes onto a cookie sheet. (Most cookbooks, including Rogers', command you to line the cooking sheet with parchment paper. I forgot to this time, and paid no price.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes—"until lightly brown and firm on the surface, but yielding to light pressure," as Rogers advises.

Place the cooked logs on a cutting board. Using a large sharp knife, cut at an angle into ½ inch slices. Carefully move the biscotti back to the warm cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes more so that they lightly brown. Allow them to cool. Enjoy immediately or store them a few days in an airtight container.

Is Factory Farm Poop Giving Fish a Sex Change?

| Mon Dec. 17, 2012 3:57 PM EST
An infographic from a new paper suggesting that synthetic hormones from factory farms are affecting the sexual development of fish in nearby streams.

In his 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry described a major change that came along with the post-World War II rise of factory-scale animal farms.

"Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm—which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer," Berry wrote. "The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems."

On diversified farms, manure is a vital resource that's used to build fertility and organic matter in soil. But when you cram animals together by the thousands, you generate way more manure than can be absorbed by nearby land—and your vital resource suddenly becomes a waste problem. The tendency is to over-apply manure in fields surrounding factory farms—which then runs off into streams, helping fertilize the algae blooms that plague the Midwest's lakes, which I reported on last week.

But it's not just excess phosphorus and nitrogen that's the problem. It's also the hormones and other chemicals fed to confined animals—they, too, end up in their manure and thus into waterways. A quarter century after Berry's observation, we're just now figuring out the implications. A team of scientists from Purdue and the Environmental Protection Agency looked at fish populations in Indiana streams downstream from CAFOs, or confined-animal feedlot operations. Their findings, released this month, are sobering. In CAFO-tainted water, 60 percent of minnows turned out male. In the non-contaminated water, the male ratio was 48 percent. The CAFO-exposed water also showed lower species biodiversity, and the fish in them had reduced fertlity.

The takeaway is that CAFO manure running into streams appears to be affecting the sexual development of fish. Although it's impossible to pinpoint an exact cause, the authors point out that the CAFO water showed heightened levels of synthetic hormones used in livestock farms "during the period of spawning, hatching, and development for resident fishes."

And one of those hormones, trenbolone, has also turned up as a possible culprit in other studies, reports Environmental Health News:

The same synthetic hormone, trenbolone, detected at high levels in the Indiana streams was linked to an all-male population of zebrafish in a 2006 laboratory study by University of Southern Denmark researchers. In addition, a study led by Orlando in 2004 found male minnows in a stream near a confined animal feeding operation had lower than average testosterone and were sexually immature.

Like all individual studies, the current one is suggestive, not definitive. But it raises serious questions about what we're sacrificing to feed our appetite for cheap meat.

Oz Isn't the Only Doctor Who Doesn't Get Pesticides

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 5:55 PM EST

I recently noted that the American Association of Pediatrics has issued a strong statement on the importance of minimizing kids' exposure to pesticides. What about the doctors who look over at the stages when they're most vulnerable, before they've even become kids—obstetricians and gynecologists? They evidently haven't wised up on the issue. Here's Scientific American:

A new nationwide survey of 2,600 obstetricians and gynecologists found that most do not warn their pregnant patients about chemicals in food, consumer products or the environment that could endanger their fetuses. More than half said they don’t warn about mercury, and hardly any of them give advice about lead, pesticides, air pollution or chemicals in plastics or cosmetics.

And here's my prized colleague Kate Sheppard's take on that study.

Mark Bittman's Smart Take on Kids and Pesticides

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 4:55 PM EST

Last week, I took Dr. Oz to task for painting organic foods as a luxury item that distracts working families from the important task of eating healthily and frugally. My riposte: It's the pesticides, stupid. The NYT's Mark Bittman has a column on the ongoing menace of pesticides, and he tags several things I missed in my piece. To wit:

I was impressed by a statement by the American Association of Pediatrics—not exactly a radical organization—warning parents of the dangers of pesticide and recommending that they try to reduce contact with them. The accompanying report calls the evidence “robust” for associations between pesticide exposure and cancer (specifically brain tumors and leukemia) and “adverse” neurodevelopment, including lowered I.Q., autism, and attention disorders and hyperactivity.

In other words, mainstream doctors who care about kids are now expressing concern about exposure through food. The AAP's recent technical report states: "In the general population, the food supply represents the most important source of exposure for organochlorines and OPs [organophosphates]. For pyrethroids, both food residues and household pest control products are important sources." The report adds that eating organic food "may lower pesticide exposure," pointing to a study that showed a "rapid and dramatic drop" of dangerous pesticide metabolites in the urine of kids who switched to an organic diet.

Bittman also pointed the finger at genetically modified crops—now ubiquitous in the Midwest, Southeast, and Delta regions—as a major driver of pesticide use. "In general, fields growing crops using genetically engineered seeds use 24 percent more chemicals than those grown with conventional seeds," Bittman writes.

He paints a convincing picture of a nation quietly, unknowingly awash in a cocktail of pesticides:

Because every human tested is found to have pesticides in his or her body fat. And because pesticides are found in nearly every stream in the United States, over 90 percent of wells, and — in urban and agricultural areas — over half the groundwater. So Department of Agriculture data show that the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, via diet and drinking water.

Bittman might have added that we have precious little research on the synergistic effects of pesticides: the fact that they may affect us differently and more powerfully when we ingest them in combination. That is, the whole coctkail of pesticides we confront daily may be worse than the sum of its parts.

All of which reminds me there's something else I left out of my Oz post: Pesticide Action Network's What's in My Food? tool, an almonds-to-winter-squash database that lets you look up USDA pesticide-trace data on common foods, and also compare pesticide loads of the conventional and organic version of each product. Sample: My beloved kale has a toxic rap sheet as long your arm when grown conventionally, but looks pretty good when grown organically. Here's the comparison for DDE, a nasty chemical found on 27 percent of conventional kale samples:

Pesticide Action Network

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: