Tom Philpott

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

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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:

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:

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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

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.