Tom Philpott

Ben Carson Just Dropped This Pretty Insane Immigration Policy on the Nation

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 2:57 PM EST

In a Wednesday press conference at Liberty University, a day after the GOP presidential candidates' most recent debate, co-frontrunner Ben Carson aired his views on one of the race's most contested topics: immigration. The former surgeon echoed Donald Trump on the magical powers of a heavily policed border fence and pushed back against his rival on the desirability of purging 11 million undocumented people, expressing concern for the plight of "farmers with multi-thousand acre farms" and hotel owners, who, he fretted, would have trouble finding workers to harvest crops and clean rooms.

The answer to stemming the (alleged) tide of undocumented workers coming from the south is easy, Carson suggested: US companies simply need to set up shop in Central and South America and teach them how to farm.

Then he dropped a whopper. The answer to stemming the (alleged) tide of undocumented workers coming from the south is easy, he suggested: US companies simply need to set up shop in Central and South America and teach them how to farm. His model, he said, is Cameroon, where US agribusiness firms are "helping to develop millions of acres and incredibly fertile land, growing record crops, [and] getting big profits," which, he added, "is great for them; I like business."

These companies are doing well by doing good, he argued, "building the infrastructure of a nation, creating jobs there, and teaching them the ag business so they carry on themselves, while at the same time creating friends for the United States." And if US firms repeat this feat south of the US border, "people won't feel the necessity to come here."

Whoa. First, Cameroon makes an odd model for foreign-led agriculture development. The nation has seen overall food production rise and malnutrition rates drop, but that's the work of domestic smallholder farmers growing for the local market, not multinationals. Foreign firms have played a large role in converting forest into large palm oil plantations, but those efforts have generated at least as much controversy as "friends for the United States." The Belgian-owned company Socapalm is locked in a "bitter land rights struggle" with villagers over expansion plans, The Guardian reports. And earlier this month, the government sentenced Cameroon environmental activist and NGO leader Nasako Besing to three years in prison for his role in opposing a hotly contested palm expansion/deforestation project by US firm Herakles Farm.

Then there's the vexed history of US interventions in Mexican agriculture. The Green Revolution—the effort, funded by US foundations, to bring industrial-style agriculture to the global south—started in Mexico in the 1940s. As the historian Nick Cullather shows in his fantastic 2010 book The Hungry World (which I reviewed here), the Green Revolution did transform agriculture in Mexico's north. The result: "narrowing of [domestic agriculture's] genetic base, supplanting indigenous, sustainable practices; displacing small and communal farming with commercial agribusiness; and pushing millions of peasants into urban slums or across the border."

There's strong evidence to net Mexico-to-US migration (the number of new arrivals minus the number who leave) is at or near zero.

Thus Mexico's Green Revolution experience triggered what 1950s US policymakers would call the "wetback problem"—1.5 million migrants crossing the border each year in search of gainful work, Cullather shows. And that led directly to President Eisenhower's infamous Operation Wetback, the very round-'em-up-and-purge-them scheme that Carson's opponent Trump repeatedly trumpeted (though not by name) in Tuesday's debate.

Of course, the last big wave of Mexican migration was also directly linked to US agribusiness. Implemented in 1994, NAFTA removed trade barriers and inspired Mexican policymakers to withdraw support for Mexican farmers. The result was a flood of subsidized US corn going south, a plunge in corn prices, and a tide of displaced Mexican smallholders heading north, as the Mexican analyst Ana de Ita and others have shown. US firms like Archer Daniels Midland profited handsomely.

In more recent years, though, immigration from Mexico has slowed dramatically, brought down by a variety of factors, from better corn prices in Mexico to less pull from the sluggish US economy. There's strong evidence that net Mexico-to-US migration (the number of new arrivals minus the number who leave) is at or near zero. You won't hear Carson or Trump talk about that, or the fact that current undocumented immigrants pay billions in annual taxes, both federal and state/local, in exchange for low-wage labor on farms, in restaurants, etc. On the immigration issue, Carson and his main rival to the GOP presidential throne are spewing noxious fumes about nothing in particular.

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Look at This Crap Cheerios Is Trying to Pull

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Protein is the macronutrient of the moment, embraced by Paleos, low-carb enthusiasts, and other dieters. Sugary breakfast cereals, meanwhile, are out—sales are in the midst of a long, slow decline. Might adding the word "protein" to a hoary old cereal brand spark a sales renaissance? That's the experiment General Mills launched last year when it debuted Cheerios Protein. "I think the protein trend is real. I think it started with [the Atkins diet] back in the day, leveled off and now is gaining steam again," a General Mills exec told The Wall Street Journal at the time.

There's no word on how the product is doing at the supermarket checkout. "We do not release individual product sales data," a company spokesman told me. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a hard look at the product's label. In a class-action lawsuit filed in a California federal court, CSPI alleges that "General Mills falsely and misleadingly markets Cheerios Protein to children and adults as a high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios."

In fact, CSPI claims, Cheerios Protein offers just marginally more protein per equivalent serving than the old product—plus, it claims, a startling 17 times more sugar. Insult to injury, General Mills charges a premium for the product: "about 70 cents more per box at stores like Walmart, Giant Foods, and Safeway," CSPI claims in a press release. The lawsuit demands damages for the plaintiffs (aggrieved Cheerios Protein buyers) and an "injunction to stop General Mills’s false and misleading marketing practices with regard to Cheerios Protein."

"We don't normally respond to these publicity-seeking lawsuits from CSPI—but we do reject their comparison," a General Mills spokesman wrote in an email. He added:

Original Cheerios does contain 3 grams of protein per serving—and it’s clearly a great cereal choice. Cheerios Protein contains 7 grams of protein per serving – and it does qualify as a good source of high-quality protein under the FDA standard.

So, who's right? Turns out, General Mills is playing games with serving sizes on its labels.

Here's the regular Cheerios label:

Note that a 28 gram serving delivers 3 grams of protein and 1 gram of sugar.

Now check out the Cheerios Protein label:

Now, we're talking about a much bigger serving size: 55 grams. This new-and-improved Cheerios iteration delivers 7 grams of protein and 17 grams of sugar at this enlarged serving size.

To compare the two, I adjusted the original Cheerios numbers to reflect a 55 gram serving. Just for fun, I added another sought-after ingredient to the mix: dietary fiber. The results are in the chart at the top.

To goose the protein content, General Mills opted to add bite-sized "clusters" made up (see label above) of oats, soy protein, and lentils.

So it's true that the protein-enhanced version delivers marginally more protein—7 grams vs. 5.9 grams per 55 gram serving. That's an 18.6 percent difference. That may sound like a lot, but we're talking about just 1.1 grams. According to Institute of Medicine, adult men need 56 grams of protein per day, and adult women require 46 grams. The extra bit provided by Cheerios Protein doesn't move the needle much.

On the sugar front, the Cheerios Protein delivers about eight times more, my label comparison suggests. That's less than the 17-fold sugar jump alluded to in the CSPI lawsuit, but still a hell of a lot more sugar. For perspective, 17 grams of sugar is equal to about 4 teaspoons—about a third of the Food and Drug Administration's recommended maximum intake. Anyone who drinks a single can of soda (about 10 teaspoons of sugar) after a bowl of Cheerios Protein has instantly leapt above the FDA's threshold.

So how did this happen? How did a major food conglomerate set out to infuse a fading legacy product with one trendy nutrient, and instead lace it with a decidedly non-trendy one like sugar? I imagine it was all about trying to keep the new product palatable despite adding stuff not normally associated with cereal.

To goose the protein content, General Mills opted to add bite-sized "clusters" made up (see label above) of oats, soy protein, and lentils. I'm going to venture a guess that soy protein doesn't taste very good on its own; and its hard to imagine what lentils taste like without salt and savory spices. Perhaps all the added sugar—CSPI notes that Cheerios Protein brings it in no fewer than eight forms, which you can confirm in the label above—is there to overwhelm those legume flavors in this grain-based cereal.

Reporting on a taste test he organized not long after Cheerios Protein's 2014 launch, Huffington Post's Joe Satran wrote that:

Mercifully, our taste testers did not report the cereal tasting like dal. Instead, they found Cheerios Protein to be, broadly, a lot like regular Cheerios. Many noted that the texture was a little more "robust" and firm than traditional Cheerios, but no one reported off flavors. It seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively than normal Cheerios, perhaps to mask the taste of the clusters.

Whatever the thinking behind Cheerios Protein, consumers should know they're getting just a "smidgen more protein"—to quote the CSPI lawsuit—and dramatically more sugar, when they pay up for the new product.

California Could Be the Next Saudi Arabia

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 4:44 PM EST
California's Imperial Valley: a desert in bloom.

In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia embarked upon a bold project: It began to transform large swaths of desert landscape into wheat farms.

Now, "desert agriculture" isn't quite the oxymoron it might sound like. These arid zones offer ample sunlight and cool nights, and harbor few crop-chomping insects, fungal diseases, or weed species. As long as you can strategically add water and fertilizer, you'll generate bin-busting crops. And that's exactly what Saudi Arabia did. As this Bloomberg News piece shows, the oil-producing behemoth grew so much wheat for about two decades that "its exports could feed Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Yemen."

To irrigate its wheat-growing binge, Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers that "haven't been filled since the last Ice Age."

But starting in the mid-2000s, Saudi wheat production began to taper off. Soon after, it plunged. This year and from now on, the country will produce virtually no wheat, and instead rely on global markets for the staple grain. What happened?

In short, to irrigate its wheat-growing binge, the nation tapped aquifers that "haven't been filled since the last Ice Age," Bloomberg reports. And in doing so, it essentially drained them dry in the span of two decades.

In an April 2015 piece, the Center for Investigative Reporting's Nathan Halverson brought more details. He writes that the first sign of Saudi agriculture's water crisis began in the early 2000s,when long-established desert springs—ones that had "bubbled up for thousands of years from a massive aquifer system that lay underneath Saudi Arabia"—began to dry up. It had been "one of the world's largest underground systems, holding as much groundwater as Lake Erie." Here's Halverson:

In the historic town of Tayma, which was built atop a desert oasis mentioned several times in the Old Testament, researchers in 2011 found "most wells exsiccated." That's academic speak for "bone dry." The once-verdant Tayma oasis that had sustained human life for millennia—archaeologists have found stone tablets there dating back 2,500 years—was drained in one generation.

In the meantime, farmers' wells, too, began to go dry, and they had to drill them ever-deeper to keep the water flowing. By 2012, fully four-fifths of the ancient aquifer had vanished; and the Saudi government had begun to reconsider its make-the-desert-bloom ambitions, which have now turned to dust.

It's impossible to know when California's aquifers will go dry, because no one has invested in the research required to gauge just how much water is left.

Here in the United States, we've followed a similar strategy for fruit, vegetable, and nut production, concentrating it in arid regions of California, irrigated by diverting river water over great distances, and, like the Saudis, tapping massive ancient aquifers. But climate change means less snow to feed rivers and thus to water farms—and more reliance on those underwater reserves. In California's vast Central Valley, a major site of US food production, fully half of wells are at or below historic lows, according to the US Geological Survey. It's impossible to know when the region's aquifers will go dry, because no one has invested in the research required to gauge just how much water is left. But the trend is clear. In large swaths of the region, the land is sinking at rates up to 11 inches per year as underground water vanishes, USGS reports. The raiding of the region's water reserve is part of a decades-long trend, USGS makes clear, made worse, but not caused, by the current drought.

Two other California regions are significant suppliers to the national food market: the Salinas Valley, known as the "salad bowl of the world"; and the Imperial Valley, which specializes in fresh winter produce. They, too, face severe long-term water trouble.

Unlike their Saudi peers, US policymakers don't have the luxury of waiting until the water runs out and then simply shifting to a reliance on imports—our population is more than ten times larger. One idea for what to do instead: Enact policies that boost vegetable production in other, more water-rich regions, including the Midwest and South—a process I have dubbed de-Californiacation. To bolster themselves, they may want to ponder what's scribbled on the ruins of a vanished desert kingdom, as imagined by the Romantic poet Shelley: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Prefer Your Meat Drug-Free? You're the "Fringe 1 Percent"

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Elanco chief Jeff Simmons addressses the Atlantic Food Summitt, brandishing a tiny table.

Elanco, the animal-health division of the pharma giant Eli Lilly, makes one of the world's most controversial growth-promoting chemicals for meat production: ractopamine, marketed as Optaflexx for cattle, Paylean for pigs, and Topmax for turkeys.

The campaign insists that organic methods, which forbid growth-boosting chemicals for animals, aren't going to cut it when it comes to fixing hunger.

A member of the class of medicines known as beta-agonists, which are also given to asthmatic people to help relax their airway muscles, ractopamine makes animals rapidly put on lean weight—but it also mimics stress hormones and makes their hearts beat faster. Studies suggest that it makes livestock more vulnerable to heat. Ractopamine is banned in the European Union, China, and more than 100 other countries, and it faces mounting criticism here in the United States.

To clean up his company's image, Elanco's president, Jeff Simmons, has launched a "counteroffensive,"  reports Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Andrew Martin. In addition to his responsibilities operating a $2.3 billion-dollar global animal-drug business, Simmons runs an initiative called ENOUGH Movement, which calls itself a "global community working together to ensure everyone has access to nutritious, affordable food—today and in the coming decades." Combating global hunger is one of ENOUGH'S major themes. Simmons uses a "grainy photo of [himself] carrying a small African child on his back" as his Twitter avatar, Martin reports.

Elanco served as the primary underwriter of The Atlantic magazine's 2015 Food Summit, held last week in Washington, D.C. Simmons delivered a sponsored presentation at the event. In it, he complained that a group he labeled the "fringe 1 percent," agitating for increased regulation on meat producers, is driving the national debate around food. Simmons also regaled the crowd with ENOUGH's core messages: The world needs to produce 60 percent more meat, eggs, and dairy by 2050; doing so will require "innovative farming techniques that increase efficiency;" and organic methods—which forbid growth-boosting chemicals for animalsaren't going to cut it. Instead, ENOUGH insists, "we must leverage the innovations and technological advances that will allow us to produce more food without using more resources."

One can see why an exec operating in the meat industry might be feeling defensive. Industrial-scale meat production has been linked to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human medicine (which claims at least 700,000 lives per year globally); ecological ruin; increased risk of cancer; and the hollowing out of communities where it alights. Insult to injury, US consumers have been cutting back on meat consumption overall, and turning increasingly to drug-free, pasture-raised product.

Pigs treated with ractopamine "suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and death," studies found.

And Simmons has rushed into the fray. In short, Martin shows, Simmons is taking a page from the agrichemical/GMO industry playbook: present your industry as crucial to "feeding the world" as global population grows to 9 billion by 2050, and paint your critics as out-of-touch elitists who are indifferent to hunger and poverty.

"Simmons doesn't directly pitch Elanco products during his speeches on hunger, saying he has a higher purpose: alleviating world hunger and changing a conversation that's been hijacked by a vocal fringe of activists," Businessweek's Martin writes. "If the arguments sound familiar, it's because Monsanto and other proponents of genetically modified foods made similar claims."

One key part of the strategy to avoid discussion of existing products, and point instead to future innovation. Generally speaking, Monsanto execs prefer to talk about still-in-development crops rather than current offerings, which are riddled by weeds and insects that have evolved to resist them. Likewise, Simmons doesn't say much on the stump about the company's best-known product, ractopamine.

A 2014 study from Texas Tech and Kansas State researchers found that it nearly doubled the mortality rate of cows fed on it in the weeks before slaughter. As for pigs, the drug has "triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market," a 2012 investigation by journalist Helena Bottemiller found. "Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request."

Rather than ponder such troubles, Simmons urges us to imagine a future where meat is abundant and the scourge of malnutrition has been defeated, all driven by "innovation" and "science." Whether or not that vision comes to pass, this much seems clear: We're on the verge of a loud campaign by the meat industry, particularly its pharma sector, to portray its critics as a privileged fringe, untroubled by global hunger.

Big-Time Food Writer Mark Bittman Left the New York Times to...Sell Vegan Food Kits?!

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 5:51 PM EST
Mark Bittman.

Back in September, Mark Bittman left his perch as a New York Times op-ed columnist and food writer, declaring he would "take a central role in a year-old food company, to do what I've been writing about these many years: to make it easier for people to eat more plants." Ever since, the fooderatti have wondered precisely what that company would be. Monday, Bittman revealed that he'd signed on as "chief innovation officer" at Purple Carrot, one of the growing number of companies that deliver recipes and pre-measured ingredients to consumers' doors.

Purple Carrot's twist: It's 100 percent vegan. Bittman, author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 pm to Lose Weight & Restore Your Health for Good, has long extolled the health and environmental virtues of shifting to a more plant-based diet.

Known collectively as the "meal kit" industry, Purple Carrot and its non-vegan rivals Blue Apron and HelloFresh are drawing serious venture capital cash. The most established of them, Blue Apron, is valued at $2 billion—making it what is known in venture capital circles as a "unicorn," or a young, privately held company worth in excess of $1 billion based on the terms of venture investments.

Purple Carrot, for its part, has "raised $1 million from angel investors and is currently closing out a $3 million seed round," the company stated in a press release. It launched a year ago in Boston, just expanded to the West Coast (Bittman himself is based in the Bay Area), and now offers its services in "more than 70 percent of the country," the press release states.

Its pricing—$68 to feed two people three times per week, or $74 to feed a family of four twice—aims Purple Carrot's services squarely at a prosperous market. "I think it’s a shame that not everyone will be able to afford it, but I think those who can afford it will find it worthwhile,” Bittman told Civil Eats' Twilight Greenaway.

As a confirmed home cook, I'm mystified by the allure of delivered meal kits, for many of the reasons food writer Corby Kummer lays out here. That doesn't mean they don't hold a broader appeal for those with the means to afford them. The industry consulting firm Technomic projects that meal kits could grow a $3 billion to $5 billion industry within a decade, Inc reports. I plan to look into them more.

Here's a Diet That Actually Works—and Has the Science to Prove It

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 5:00 AM EST
Fat-free fro yo: maybe not the way forward.

Low-fat dietary dogma—and, by extension, the plethora of processed junk the food industry conjured up to indulge it—has passed its sell-by date. But cutting down on sugary foods can trigger rapid health improvements.

Those are the messages of two studies released last week. For the fat one, a team of Harvard researchers scoured databases looking for randomized, controlled trials—the gold standard of dietary research—comparing the weight-loss effects of low-fat diets to other regimens like low-carb. They found 53 studies that met their criteria for rigor.

Lustig is a proponent of the idea that all calories aren't created equal—specifically, that added sugars do more harm than fats, starches, and complex carbohydrates.

The result, published in the British journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology: low-carbohydrate diets "led to significantly greater weight loss" than did low-fat ones. People assigned low-fat diets tended to lose a small amount of weight compared to no-change-in-diet control groups, but cutting carbs delivered better results than reducing dietary fat. "The science does not support low-fat diets as the optimal long-term weight loss strategy," lead author Deirdre Tobias of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School said in a press release.

The study marks the latest indication that your fat-free fro-yo habit is not likely doing you any favors by cutting your fat intake. But its sugary jolt may be doing more harm than you already thought. That's the suggestion of another new study, published in the journal Obesity, by a team led by longtime sugar critic Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist in at the University of California at San Francisco.

Lustig is a proponent of the idea that all calories aren't created equal—specifically, that added sugars (in sodas, processed foods, etc.) do more harm than calorie-equivalent amounts of fats, starches, and complex carbohydrates. To test this theory, Lustig and his colleagues identified 43 kids diagnosed with obesity and metabolic syndrome—defined as a cluster of conditions associated with the risk cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes—and tweaked their diets.

For 10 days, the kids ate catered meals with caloric amounts equivalent to their previous diets but with all foods with added sugars removed, replaced with starches. Their overall sugar intake went from 28 percent to 10 percent (representing naturally sweet foods like fruit). Lustig summarized the results in an op-ed:

Diastolic blood pressure decreased by five points. Blood fat levels dropped precipitously. Fasting glucose decreased by five points, glucose tolerance improved markedly, insulin levels fell by 50%. In other words we reversed their metabolic disease in just 10 days, even while eating processed food, by just removing the added sugar and substituting starch, and without changing calories or weight. Can you imagine how much healthier they would have been if we hadn't given them the starch?

It's important to note that the results are suggestive, not conclusive. Unlike the studies conglomerated in the low-fat paper, Lustig's project did not include a control group.

But both the Harvard study and Lustig's reinforce an emerging consensus that fat is not necessarily a dietary devil, while quaffing sugar at typical US levels might just be.

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7 Things You Need to Know About Meat and Cancer

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

US eaters have eased up on red meat in recent years, but we still rank among the globe's top six consumers per capita of both beef and pork (more than 45 pounds of each per year). So it wasn't very appetizing when the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared red meat to be "probably carcinogenic to humans," and processed meat to be straight-up "carcinogenic to humans."

The news reverberated throughout global media, and gave US editors the opportunity to work the click-grabbing word "bacon" into headlines. So here are a few important things to know about the connection that the group found between meat consumption and cancer.

  1. Processed meat isn't just hot dogs and bologna. The category encompasses meats that that have been "transformed" to preserve shelf life, including everything from Oscar Mayer bologna, hotdogs, and bacon to the famed hams from acorn-fed pigs raised in Serrano, Spain. The pepperoni on your pizza counts as processed, as do the ham and "bacon dippers" in Lunchables" and the cured sliced turkey that fills thousands of sandwiches daily.

  2. Eating a relatively small amount of processed meat can significantly up your cancer risk. Perhaps the IARC's most jarring finding for Americans is that consuming as little as a 0.11 pounds (50 grams) of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Nearly a quarter of the total meat we consume is processed, a 2011 study found. If that holds for the approximately 200 pounds per capita of total meat we now consume, that means the average American eats about 0.12 pounds of processed meat daily—about three thin bacon slices. The IARC report is telling us: that's enough to significantly boost risk of a particularly gruesome cancer.

  3. Still, we're talking about relatively low risks overall. Colorectal cancer is common—the lifetime risk of developing it is about 1 in 20, and about 93,000 Americans contract it each year. But meat eating is just one of its risk factors. In an FAQ, the IARC reports that "about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat." As for red meat, the associations aren't as strong (which is why red meat counts as just a "probable" carcinogen), but if they do pan out, then high-meat diets "could be responsible for 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide." By comparison, IARC notes, smoking causes 1 million cancer deaths annually, alcohol causes 600,000, and air pollution causes 200,000. So your drinking habit and smog-huffing urban existence might be putting you at higher risk than that lunchtime pastrami sandwich or bacon cheeseburger.
     
  4. But that doesn't mean you should buy the meat industry's wholesale rejection of the IARC's conclusion. "It was clear sitting in the IARC meeting that many of the panelists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data," Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group representing the nation's large meat processors, said in a press release. "They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome." That's ludicrous. The IARC convened a highly respected group of 22 scientists from 10 countries who assessed "800 epidemiological studies that investigated the association of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries, from several continents, with diverse ethnicities and diets." Its conclusion on the links between meat and colorectal are quite well accepted.
     
  5. Scientists are urging the US government to make a declaration similar to the IARC's. Earlier this year, a scientific panel convened by the US Department of Agriculture concluded that "diets that are higher in red/processed meats…are associated with a greater colon/rectal cancer risk." Other foodstuffs that inspired the same conclusion included "French fries/potatoes" and "sources of sugars," like sodas, sweets, and dessert foods. Indeed, the USDA's 2010 guidelines acknowledge a "moderate" association between the "increased intake of processed meats (e.g., franks, sausage, and bacon) and increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease," although they don't mention red meat in that context.
     
  6. The meat industry is doing its best to make sure the feds don't warn Americans about the link between meat consumption and cancer. Negotiations over updated USDA guidelines, due to be released this year, are now being subjected to relentless lobbying from the meat industry. The industry's processing and livestock arms spend more than $6 million annually lobbying the federal government, and between $8 million and $10 million financing elections. The vast majority of the industry's campaign spending goes to Republicans, and predictably, US House Republicans have furiously pushed back against efforts to include "eat less meat" advice in USDA guidelines.
     
  7. The science on exactly why meat consumption is linked to cancer remains murky. One unsettling thing about the IARC's assessment is that the group acknowledges that "it is not yet fully understood" why red meat or processed meat consumption seems to boost colorectal cancer rates, though it mentions that both contain potentially carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing or cooking, like nitrite-related compounds in stuff like bacon and hydrocarbons in cooked meat. Susan Gapstur, the vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, told me that these compounds can lead to "oxidative damage in the gut," leaving us vulnerable to cancer.

The IARC's assessment doesn't mean we should eliminate red meat, sausages, ham, etc.—these are valuable foodstuffs, dense with protein and other nutrients like vitamin B-12. But we're currently eating beef and pork at rates of four times the global average and 1.5 times the global average, respectively, and much of it is processed. Gapstur's takeaway from the report—"If you do choose to eat meat, limit your consumption"—seems eminently sensible.

Defying Critics, McDonald's Shares Hit an All-Time High

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 12:31 PM EDT
Don't call it a comeback: Ronald for the win.

In recent years, the big red grin painted onto Ronald McDonald's face has looked increasingly desperate. The company's flagship burgers placed dead last among 20 national fast-food chains in a Consumer Reports poll last year. Its poverty-wage business model has inspired a successful labor movement. In March, McDonald's sacked its CEO after the company had underperformed Wall Street's earnings expectations in every quarter of 2014. Meanwhile, sales at "fast casual" competitors like Chipotle and Shake Shack have boomed. A recent effort to market its wares to school kids earned the company media derision (including from me). And this year, reports The New Yorker's Michael Specter, "for the first time since 1970, McDonald’s will close more locations in the U.S. than it opens."

McDonald's attributes its rising shares to the new Premium Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Deluxe sandwich and its switch from margarine to butter on its Egg McMuffins—but others say it has more to do with international sales.

And yet, after digesting the burger giant's latest quarterly report, investors bid McDonald's shares up to an all-time high this week. What gives?

According to the investment site The Motley Fool, the main driver appears to be renewed success in the company's "emerging markets" segment—China and other fast-growing countries. Overall in emerging markets, sales at McDonald's outlets open at least a year rose 8.9 percent—and in China itself, they leapt 26.8 percent. The China surge is a big deal, because the company saw sales plunge there last year after an American-owned McDonald's supplier in Shanghai was caught selling expired meat.

Overall, international "comps" (sales at those established outlets) grew 4.6 percent, "due to solid growth in Australia, the U.K., and Canada," The Motley Fool reports.

Here in the United States, consumers showed considerably less enthusiasm for McDonald's—comparable-store sales rose just 0.9 percent. But that  miniscule bump, too, cheered investors, because it marked the first time the fast-food titan had delivered positive quarterly comp numbers in its home market in two years, according to Motley Fool.

What's causing this modest uptick in traffic into the Golden Arches here in the land of Chipotle, Shake Shack, and other fast-growing competition? "McDonald's said a new Premium Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Deluxe sandwich and its decision to swap butter for margarine on its Egg McMuffins helped the division break a two-year streak of quarterly sales declines," Reuters reports.

Whether such tweaks in the direction of "real food" can continue to take the edge off of that clown's grin remains to be seen.

China Is Turning Its Fish Breeding Grounds Into Smartphone Factories

| Wed Oct. 21, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
A wetland in China

A sixth of the globe's fish catch comes from waters off China's coasts. Yet the nation's industrial push is imperiling that 15 million-ton annual haul. Fully 60 percent of the China's wetlands have been paved over for development projects—and much of what's left is under threat of more of the same.

Between 2000 and 2013 alone, China's total coastal wetlands shrank by about 23 percent.

That's the conclusion of a jarring new report (hat tip to the New York Times) by the US-based Paulson Institute, the Chinese State Forestry Administration, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Coastal wetlands are the breeding and feeding grounds for fish, migratory birds, and other creatures. They also buffer coastal cities from the sea's caprices by absorbing energy from storm-roiled waves—an increasingly important function as climate change proceeds apace. Over the last half century, the report found, China has developed more than half of the coastal wetlands in its temperate northern regions and nearly three-quarters of the mangrove forests and 80 percent of coral reefs along its southern coast. Losses accelerated between 2003 and 2013—in that time frame alone, China's total coastal wetlands shrank by about 23 percent.

To address the situation, the Chinese government decreed earlier this year that intact wetland acreage should not fall beneath a "red line" of 131.8 million acres, which it established as a minimum for ecological stability in its coastal regions and to maintain wild fisheries. The problem is, the report states that remaining coastal acreage already hovers at just above that level, and there are plans in place to develop another 1.4 million acres by 2020.

The consequences are dire. China's wetlands are "irreplaceable and integral parts of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway" for migratory birds, providing "critical breeding, staging and over-wintering sites" for 246 species, including 22 that are listed as globally threatened, the report found.

Then there are those prodigious fisheries off China's coast. They've been "over-fished for a long time," the report states, and to pave is to remove the breeding and nursery sites that replenish them.

The disappearance of China's wetlands is yet another example of the globe's most populous nation sacrificing food production capacity to maintain its dominance in manufacturing. The process has generated a bounty of goods for US consumers—including the device on which I'm writing this piece and probably the one you're using to read it: indeed, smartphones.

But it has also put severe pressure on the country's ability to feed its population. More than 40 percent of China's arable land has been degraded by some combination of erosion, salinization, or acidification—and nearly 20 percent of it is polluted with heavy metals, whether by industrial effluent, sewage, excessive farm chemicals, or mining runoff. These are chilling numbers, given that China has just 0.2 acres of arable land per capita—less than half of the global average and a quarter of the average for OECD member countries. (The United Sates has 1.2 acres per person.)

Now wetlands destruction is threatening the nation's fisheries. No wonder it's looking elsewhere for food production, investing in farmland in Africa, South America, and Central Asia, and buying up 64 percent of the globe's internationally traded soybeans.  

This Devastating Chart Shows Why Even a Powerful El Niño Won’t Fix the Drought*

| Wed Oct. 14, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

In California, news of a historically powerful El Niño oceanic warming event is stoking hopes that winter rains will ease the state's brutal drought. But for farmers in the Central Valley, one of the globe's most productive agricultural regions, water troubles go much deeper—literally—than the current lack of precipitation.

That's the message of an eye-popping report from researchers at the US Geological Survey. This chart tells the story:

USGS

To understand it, note that in the arid Central Valley, farmers get water to irrigate their crops in two ways. The first is through massive, government-built projects that deliver melted snow from the Sierra Nevada mountains. The second is by digging wells into the ground and pumping water from the region's ancient aquifers. In theory, the aquifer water serves as a buffer—it keeps farming humming when (as has happened the last three years) the winter snows don't come. When the snows return, the theory goes, irrigation water flows anew through canals, and the aquifers are allowed to refill.

But as the chart shows, the Central Valley's underground water reserves are in a state of decline that predates the current drought by decades. The red line shows the change in underground water storage since the early 1960s; the green bars show how much water entered the Central Valley each year through the irrigation projects. Note how both vary during "wet" and "dry" times.

The region could be "whiplashed from deluge back to drought again" in just one year's time

As you'd expect, underground water storage drops during dry years, as farmers resort to the pump to make up for lost irrigation allotments, and it rises during wet years, when the irrigation projects up their contribution. The problem is, aquifer recharge during wet years never fully replaces all that was taken away during dry times—meaning that the the Central Valley has surrendered a total of 100 cubic kilometers, or 81.1 million acre-feet*, of underground water since 1962. That's an average of about 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually extracted from finite underground reserves by the Central Valley's farms and not replaced during wet years. By comparison, all of Los Angeles uses about 600,000 acre-feet of water per year. (An acre-foot is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water).

 

The USGS authors note that the region's farmers have gotten more efficient in their irrigation techniques over the past 20 years—using precisely placed drip tape, for example, instead of old techniques like flooding fields. But that positive step has been more than offset with a factor I've discussed many times: "the planting of permanent crops (vineyards and orchards), replacing non-permanent land uses such as rangeland, field crops, or row crops." This is a reference to the ongoing expansion in acres devoted to almonds and pistachios, highly profitable crops that can't be fallowed during dry times. To keep them churning out product during drought, orchard farmers revert to the pump.

The major takeaway is that the Valley's farms can't maintain business as usual—eventually, the water will run out. No one knows exactly when that point will be, because, as Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, never tires of pointing out, no one has invested in the research required to measure just how much water is left beneath the Central Valley's farms. Of course, averting this race to the bottom of the well is exactly why the California legislature voted last year to end the state's wild-west water-drilling free-for-all and enact legislation requiring stressed watersheds like the Central Valley's to reach "sustainable" levels of extraction by 2040. The downward meandering red line in the above graph, in other words, will have to flatten out pretty soon, and to get there, "dramatic changes will need to be made," the USGS report states.

Meanwhile, one wet El Niño winter won't do much to end the the decades-in-the-making drawdown of the Central Valley's water horde. And people pining for heavy rains should be careful what they wish for—parts of the Central Valley, especially its almond-heavy southern regions, are notoriously vulnerable to disastrous flooding. Then there's the unhappy fact that El Niño periods are often followed by La Niña events—which are associated with dry winters in California. The region could be "whiplashed from deluge back to drought again" in just one year's time, Bill Patzert, a climatologist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently told the Los Angeles Times. "Because remember, La Niña is the diva of drought," he said. The last big El Niño ended in 1998, and as the above chart shows, what followed wasn't pretty. 

Correction: Due to a conversion error, the original version of this post mistakenly stated that the Central Valley had "surrendered ... 811 million acre-feet of underground water since 1962." The actual figure is 81.1 million acre-feet.