Tom Philpott

What Did Monsanto Show Bill Nye to Make Him Fall "in Love" With GMOs?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Bill Nye, the bow-tied erstwhile kids' TV host, onetime dancer with the stars, and tireless champion of evolution and climate science, was never a virulent or wild-eyed critic of genetically modified crops. Back in 2005, he did a pretty nuanced episode of his TV show on it, the takeaway of which was hardly fire-breathing denunciation: "Let's farm responsibly, let's require labels on our foods, and let's carefully test these foods case by case."

In his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, published just last November, Nye reiterated these points. His concern about GMOs centered mainly on unintended consequences of growing them over large expanses—he cited the example of crops engineered to resist herbicides, which have been linked pretty decisively to the decline of monarch butterflies, which rely on abundant milkweeds, which in turn have been largely wiped out in the Midwest by GMO-enabled herbicide use. Nye praised certain GMOs, such as corn engineered to repel certain insects, but concluded that "if you're asking me, we should stop introducing genes from one species into another," because "we just can't know what will happen to other species in that modified species' ecosystem."

Now, Nye's doubts have evidently fallen away like milkweeds under a fine mist of herbicide. In a February interview filmed backstage on Bill Maher's HBO show (starting about 3:40 in the below video), Nye volunteered that he was working on a revision of the GMO section of Undeniable. He gave no details, just that he "went to Monsanto and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there." As a result, he added with a grin, "I have revised my outlook, and am very excited about telling the world. When you're in love, you want to tell the world!"

Monsanto's longtime chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, responded to the interview with an approving tweet featuring a photo of Nye at company HQ:

It will be interesting to hear what wonders within Monsanto's R&D labs turned Nye from a nuanced GMO skeptic to a proud champion.

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What's French for Chicken Nugget? The Truth About School Lunches Around the World

| Sat Feb. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST
This depiction of a school lunch in Greece looks delicious, but it's not based in reality.

By now you've probably seen the viral slideshow called "School Lunches Around the World," in which a heavily processed American school lunch is contrasted against an array of fresh, healthy-looking victuals from Italy, France, Greece, etc. It's a compelling argument against the puny resources spent on school lunch in the United States, where, once labor and overhead are accounted for, schools get less than a dollar per daily lunch to spend on ingredients.

But as the great school-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel points out, those sumptuous photos don't depict actual meals being served in actual schools—but, rather, staged shots that oversimplify a complex topic. As it turns out, Sweetgreen, a chain of health-food eateries located mainly on the East Coast, produced the photos, but didn't make that clear on its Tumblr.

In case you haven't seen them, here's a sampling:

Photo: Sweetgreen
 
Photo: Sweetgreen
 
Photo: Sweetgreen
 

So we see images of appetizing lunch from countries around the world contrasted against a relatively grim platter of pale chicken nuggets, potatoes, and peas from here in the good ol' USA. Siegel writes that many of her readers sent her a link to the gallery, "understandably but mistakenly" under the impression that the images depicted real-deal lunches, not a corporate photo shoot. The UK's Daily Mail even took them at face value, blaring in a headline that "Photos reveal just how meager US students' meals are compared to even the most cash-strapped of nations."

Siegel, though, had questions:

Sweetgreen says it based is photos on "some typical school meals around the world," but it doesn't tell us how it obtained the information underlying the photos. Were the meals modeled on public school menus? Private school menus? Are the meals depicted typical of what's served in a given country, or did Sweetgreen cherry-pick the most appealing items? And on what basis were the elements chosen for America's school meal?

Most egregiously, the Greece photo portrays a robust lunch featuring chicken over whole grains with yogurt, pomegranate seeds, a salad, and fresh citrus. Siegel provides a reality check: Debt-plagued Greece doesn't have the resources to provide much of anything to eat for its school kids. She points to a 2013 New York Times piece reporting that Greek schools "do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income." Meanwhile, Siegel points out, even with dire funding for US lunches, more than 20 million economically distressed US kids had access to free or cut-rate lunches in 2013.

She adds that some US school districts do magical things with their minuscule budgets. Besides, even in France, where schools typically have twice as much to spend on ingredients per meal, lunches in some cases can look pretty, well, American.

Here's Sweetgreen's version of the French lunch:

Photo: Sweetgreen

And here's one of an French lunch Siegel found on the What's for School Lunch? blog, where "real people around the world submit their actual photos of school meals." There's no reason to assume all French lunches consist of chicken nuggets and well, French fries—but there's no reason to believe that Sweetgreen's idealized version is representative, either.

Photo: What’s for School Lunch?

After Siegel's posting, Sweetgreen added an appendage to its Tumblr page:

Note: These images are not intended to be exact representations of school lunches, but instead, are meant to portray different types of foods found in cafeterias around the world. To create this series, we evaluated government standards for school lunch programs, and compared this data to photos that real students had taken of their meals and shared online.

Sweetgreen's photo essay was designed to support an effort to raise funds for Food Corps, a "nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy" through cooking and gardening classes. It's an impressive bit of corporate marketing on behalf of a good cause—but not an accurate depiction of school lunch.

Diet Advice From Warren Buffett

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Ren Zhenglai/ZUMA Press

"Is the junk-food era drawing to a close?," I recently wondered aloud, citing declining sales from processed food giants like Kraft and Kellogg's. If so, no one has bothered to inform gazillionaire investment mogul and octogenarian Warren Buffett. "I'm one quarter Coca-Cola,” Buffett recently told Fortune's Patricia Sellers. "If I eat 2,700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it everyday." In addition to being one quarter Coke, Buffett literally owns 9 percent of Coca-Cola, through his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. And the cagey old investor apparently knows what he's doing—even though soft-drink sales have been declining for years, Coke's share price has nearly doubled since 2011, borne up by financial engineering tricks like share buy-backs, Fortune reports.

In addition to regular infusions of the sugary soft drink, Buffett's diet regimen includes breakfasts of Utz Potato strings and chocolate chip ice cream, Sellers reports. If his diet sounds eerily similar to the one you dreamed of pursuing in first grade, that's apparently no accident. Here's Sellers:

Asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet that has somehow enabled him to remain seemingly healthy, Buffett replies: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old.” The octogenarian adds, “It’s the safest course I can take.”

For most of us, loading up on processed junk probably isn't the way forward. But far be it for me to question Buffett's lifestyle choices—he's going strong at 84 and has probably made more bank in the past 15 minutes than I'll make in my entire lifetime. 

USDA Whistleblowers Tell All–and You May Never Eat Bacon Again

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 7:00 AM EST

In 2004, Elsa Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the US Department of Agriculture division that oversees food safety at the nation's slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation's largest slaughterhouses. Murano received $238,000 in compensation for her service on Hormel's board in 2014 alone. 

Read "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret" and "Gagged by Big Ag." Illustration by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic example of the "revolving door" that separates US government regulators from the corporations they regulate. It's hardly the most shocking thing I gleaned from the whistleblower-protection group Government Accountability Project's recent exposé of conditions at three hog slaughter facilities associated with Hormel. But it's interesting to think about in light of GAP's allegations, found in sworn affidavits filed by four USDA inspectors stationed in Hormel-owned plants. Three of the inspectors chose to remain anonymous; the fourth, Joe Ferguson, gave his name.

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

"USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."

What's more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That's when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speedup formula sounds familiar, it's because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did green-light turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: (1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; (2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and (3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of (1) and (2).

The testimony of Inspector 3, affidavit here, is full of choice nuggets, though not of the sort you want to sample before lunch. Here are a few:

  • "Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA's inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general."
  • "Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."
  • "HIMP was initially designed for the kill of young, healthy animals. This hasn't always been the case. A lot of the animals the plant has killed were too old. Some also had different diseases. They didn't even slow down the line for the diseased carcasses."
  • "The company threatens plant employees with terminations if they see them condemning too many carcasses or carcass parts."

For its part, Hormel insists that "food safety is our top priority and we have been a leader in the production of safe, quality food for more than 100 years," as Rick Williamson, Hormel's manager of external communications, wrote in an email. "In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections," he continued. "We've found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues." As for food safety concerns, he added that "our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards." But he didn't respond to my request for data to back that claim up, or for commentary on charges of poor training and intimidation of inspectors. But he did add a plug for the privatized inspection and faster kill lines enjoyed by three Hormel-associated plants: "The HIMP program places more accountability on the company, and we welcome that responsibility."

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that runs the inspection program, is standing behind HIMP too. USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee pointed to a November 2014 FSIS report that, he said, "shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems." The report concluded that there's "no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments." 

Meanwhile, the pilot inspection program will continue running as is, confined to five slaughterhouse and not expanding to include others, Lavallee said. Before expanding, he added, "the agency would first need to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether doing so would have a significant positive public health impact, and then engage in the rulemaking process, which can be lengthy."

However, the USDA's and Hormel's rosy assessment of HIMP presents a stark contrast to a scathing 2013 report from yet another USDA agency, the Office of the Inspector General, which found HIMP plants—which it did not name—made up three of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011. Moreover, by far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was in the program—it drew "nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number." The OIG also concluded that that the Food Safety and Inspection Service "did not provide adequate oversight" of HIMP over its first 15 years, and as a result,  "HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks."

Not all company-employed inspectors "understand and have the ability to execute the proper procedures needed to make sure pathogens don't spread to other carcasses" when "fecal matter or ingesta spills out of one of the animal's organs."

Ted Genoways, who in 2012 wrote a harrowing account in Mother Jones of what accelerated line speeds have meant for workers slaughterhouse workers, rejects Hormel's sunny assessment. Genoways' reporting, later expanded into the superb 2014 book The Chain, focused on the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minnesota, which supplies its meat solely to Hormel and is one of the three Hormel-associated plants among the five in HIMP. He recently told Food Safety News, "Yes, I think the line speeds [at the HIMP plants] are too fast. When you see the workers on the line say the speeds are too fast, the inspectors say the lines are too fast, the suppliers at the farm level say the lines are too fast, there's such a unanimity of opinion that I don't think you can come to any other conclusion."

Well, not quite unanimous. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, of course, continues to defend the pilot program. But then there's its cozy ties to industry—in addition to Murano's leap to Hormel, FSIS's then-chief of staff flew the coop to the National Turkey Federation in 2011, and another high official bolted to work for meat processor OSI Group just this month. Given the tasty meat industry opportunities that evidently await the USDA's food safety administrators, I take FSIS's defense of the HIMP program in the face of these sworn statements with about as much salt as you might find in a slice of Hormel's signature product, Spam.

Is the Junk-Food Era Drawing to a Close?

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Not long ago, the great processed-food companies like Kraft and Kellogg's towered over the US food landscape like the high hat that adorned the head of Chef Boyardee, the iconic canned-spaghetti magnate whose empire is now owned by ConAgra.

But now, Big Food has fallen on hard times. Conagra, which owns Hunts, Reddi Whip, Ro-Tell, Swiss Miss, and Orville Redenbacher, along with Chef Boyardee, recently slashed its 2015 profit projections and sacked its CEO. Kraft—purveyor of Oscar Mayer deli meats, Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee, and Velveeta cheese—also recently shook up top management and reported sluggish sales in 2014. Cereal titan Kellogg's has seen its sales plunge 5.4 percent over the past year, Advertising Age reports.

There's a "mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied on for so long," said Campbell Soup's CEO.

What gives? Part of the problem is currency fluctuations. Having conquered the US market, Big Food for years has looked overseas for growth. Recently, a strong US dollar has cut into foreign profits, because a pricier dollar makes overseas sales worth less when they're converted to the US currency, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

Currencies rise and fall, but the real specter haunting the industry may be something less ephemeral than the dollar's gyrations. Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison—whose company makes V8 juice and Pepperidge Farm baked goods along with soup—recently publicly declared that there's a "mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied…for so long," reports Fortune's Phil Wahba, in an account from a conference at which Morrison spoke. Morrison also cited the "increasingly complex public dialog when it comes to food" as a drag on Campbell Soup's and its competitors' sales, Wahba reports.

In other words, Big Food successfully sold a vision of cooking as a necessary inconvenience, to be dispatched with as painlessly as possible—open a soup can for dinner, unleash a squirt of artificial cream onto a boxed cake for dessert—that's starting to lose its charm.

One reason is surely health. Over the past decade, there has been a bounty of research on the ill effects of highly processed food. And when Yale medical researchers David Katz and Samuel Meller surveyed the scientific dietary literature for a paper in 2013, they found that a "diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention."

Interestingly, Katz and Meller found that as long as you stick to the "minimally processed" bit, it doesn't much matter which diet you follow: low-fat, vegetarian, and Mediterranean have all shown good results. Even the meat-centered "paleo" approach does okay. The authors conclude the "aggregation of evidence" supports meat eating, as long as the "animal foods are themselves the products, directly or ultimately, of pure plant foods—the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as we are." That's likely because cows fed on grass deliver meat and milk with a healthier fat profile than their industrially raised peers.

Meanwhile, as Big Food flounders, sales of fresh food grown by nearby farmers continues to grow at a pace that would make a Big Food exec salivate. A recent US Department of Agriculture report found that there are now 8,268 farmers markets nationwide—a jump of 180 percent since 2006. Then there are regional food hubs, which the USDA describes as "enterprises that aggregate locally sourced food to meet wholesale, retail, institutional, and even individual demand"—the kind of operations that can move fresh food from local farms to, say, grocery stores, so you don't have to show up at the exact right time at the farmers market to get your local collard greens. Food hubs, the USDA reports, have jumped in number by 280 percent since 2007.

Finally, there are schools—a site long dominated by Big Food, where little consumers learn eating habits before they emerge into the world as income-earning adults. According to the USDA, school districts with farm-to-school programs grew by more than 400 percent between 2007 and 2012.

For decades, "American cuisine" was an oxymoron, the punch line to a sad joke. Billions of dollars in profits have been made betting on the US appetite for processed junk. Those days may be drawing to an end.

The Dangerous Chemical Lurking in Your Beer Can

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Almost exactly 80 years since its debut, the beer can remains a wildly popular vessel for America's favorite alcoholic beverage. According to the Beer Institute, cans accounted for (XLS) 53.2 percent of the beer market in 2012 (the latest year for numbers), versus 36.5 percent for bottles and 10 percent for draft. And the can's market share has been inching up—as recently as 2004, just 48 percent of beer came in cans.

Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do craft beer makers.

But here's the thing: Like most other commercially available cans, beer cans are lined with epoxy that contains bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that keeps foods from reacting to aluminum, but that has also become associated with a range of ailments, including cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids. BPA is well established as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it likely causes hormonal damage at extremely low levels. The question is whether we get enough of it in beer (and other canned goods) to cause harm.

For me, this isn't an academic question. Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do my beloved craft beer makers—the small and midsize brewers that have popped up nationwide over the past quarter century to challenge the hegemony of corporate swill. Ever since pulling the ring off my first Dale's Pale Ale—made by the excellent Colorado brewer Oskar Blues—several years ago, I've been enamored of canned beers and their throwback charm.

I'm hardly alone. According to the website Craftcans.com, Oskar Blues launched the canned-craft craze in 2002. Today, nearly 500 craft breweries, a least one in every state, offer canned product. In my current hometown of Austin, several excellent local brewers are retailed only in cans. Colorful canned six-packs dominate the coolers of top local beer emporia. In 2013, Whole Foods reported a 30 percent nationwide increase in canned-beer sales. A decade ago, cans accounted for precisely zero percent of my beer consumption; today, that number hovers above 50 percent, or about the national average for all beers. Is my turn to cans harming me?

The Food and Drug Administration, after a lengthy review process, has opted to give BPA a tentative thumbs-up. In 2012, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, and added containers for infant formula to the list the following year. But last year, citing its most recent safety assessment (PDF), the FDA pronounced BPA "safe at the current levels occurring in foods." The European Food Safety Authority recently ended its own BPA reassessment with the same conclusion, though the French government vehemently disagrees and has instituted a ban.

But the FDA's sort-of embrace of the can industry's favorite liner is highly controversial among a swath of scientists, as my colleague Mariah Blake showed last year. Blake reports that "roughly 1,000 published studies have found that low-level exposure to BPA—a synthetic estrogen that is also used in cash register receipts and the lining of tin cans—can lead to serious health problems, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to obesity and attention-deficit disorder."

One researcher says it is "highly possible" that BPA leaches from can linings into beer.

And both the FDA itself and Consumer Reports have shown that BPA does indeed travel from can linings into the food we eat. Back in 2010, Health Canada, the Canadian version of the FDA, tested (PDF) 16 beer samples—eight from cans and eight from bottles—and found BPA in all of the canned beer and in just one of the bottled. But it called the levels "extremely low," and reiterated its assessment that "current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population."

But BPA researcher Karin Michels, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, told me that she knows of no research that assesses how much BPA actually makes it into our bodies from drinking canned beer. She herself coauthored a 2011 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, finding that a "group of volunteers who consumed a serving of canned soup each day for five days had a more than 1,000 percent increase in urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations compared with when the same individuals consumed fresh soup daily for five days," as the Harvard press release put it.

A similar study by Korean researchers published in Hypertension found that on days when subjects drank canned soy milk, the BPA levels found in their urine surged by 1,600 percent, and their blood pressure rose significantly, compared to days when they took their soy milk from bottles (not the first time that BPA has been associated with cardiovascular dysfunction).

Michels told me that the Hypertension study, which she called "very important" and "pretty well designed," is among the only to test the impact of drinking beverages from BPA-lined cans. She told me that this study, along with her 2011 one on soup, are relevant to beer drinkers and that more research on BPA and beverages is "urgently needed." She added: "In fact, I am submitting an application to NIH [National Institutes of Health] as we speak on exactly this [BPA in canned beverages], but who knows whether it will be funded."

BPA-free can linings are only approved for low-acid foods like beans. For high-acid substances like tomatoes or beer, there's no approved alternative yet.

Yun-Chul Hong, coauthor of the soy milk study and director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Seoul National University, told me that it's impossible to say whether BPA from canned beer makes it into our bodies at significant levels because no one has measured it. But "from my research and [that of] others, I think it is highly possible," he added. Given that Americans quaff beer at the rate of about 21 gallons annually per capita (PDF), more than than half of which is canned, that's not a comforting statement.

As for Oskar Blues, the brewer whose work I so admire and that launched the can craze among craft brewers, it continues to offer its product only in cans (with the exception of kegged beer at bars). The company is holding a line that it has maintained for years: It's seeking viable BPA-free cans, but so far hasn't found them. "We are staying on top of this issue, not much has changed in the last few years," marketing director Chad Melis said. He added that a BPA-free can lining does exist, but it's only approved for low-acid foods like beans. "The FDA will not approve BPA-free linings for use with other foods that have a level of acidity (beer, tomatoes, soda, etc.) due to the fact that acidic foods are able to react with the metal through the container's lining if the lining hasn't been hardened with BPA, therefore defeating the purpose of the lining altogether," he wrote in an email. He  directed me to this BPA fact sheet (PDF) from its can supplier, Ball, the globe's largest aluminum can maker, and noted the recent pro-BPA decisions from the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority.

I appreciate that Oskar Blues communicates straightforwardly about BPA. And I acknowledge the ecological advantages of cans (more efficient shipping, storing, recycling, etc.), as well as the pleasure of popping the top on an ice-cold can of beer on a hot day. I can't say for certain that BPA from my canned beer habit is harming me. But until more research emerges, I'm cutting back on cans and turning back to bottles.

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Harvard is Buying Up Vineyards in Drought-Ridden California Wine Country

| Sat Jan. 31, 2015 7:00 AM EST

I recently wrote a piece about growing interest in California farmland by massive investment funds. But almonds and other tree nuts, the main focus of my article, aren't the only commodities drawing interest from the smart-money crowd. From what I can tell, a successful California farmland investment requires these two conditions: 1) a sought-after commodity, preferably one with a booming export market; and 2) access to water for irrigation—increasingly important as California's drought lurches on.

Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county banned new pumping from part of the basin.

Harvard University's famed $36 billion endowment fund, the biggest of any US university, has alighted upon just such a sweet spot in California's coastal Paso Robles wine region, north of Los Angeles. Reuters reports that the Harvard fund "has spent more than $60 million to purchase about 10,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties since 2012, making it one of the top 20 growers in Paso Robles."

The move would seem to meet my two conditions swimmingly. US wine exports (90 percent of which originate in California), are booming, up 16.4 percent in 2013, the most recent year with numbers. And as with almonds, US wine exports to China have been surging for years, as this chart I assembled last year with colleagues Jaeah Lee and Alex Park shows. And wines from grapes grown in Paso Robles should have no trouble finding buyers—Wine Enthusiast deemed Paso Robles the 2013 "Wine Region of the Year," and rival Wine Spectator has declared that it's "emerging as most dynamic [wine region] in California."

As for water, while making its land buys, Harvard's investment company "acquired rights to drill 16 water wells of between 700 and 900 feet deep, two or three times deeper than the average residential well, according to county records," Reuters reports. 'Deeper wells will continue to give them access to water as shallower wells run dry."

Obtaining those permits turned out to be a great move. Reuters reports that the fund acquired rights to drill seven of those wells on August 21, 2013, while "local lawmakers were trying to figure out how to deal with the worsening water shortage" in the region. Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county placed a "ban on new pumping from the hardest-hit part of the basin," Reuters reports.

Reuters adds that "no environmental advocacy group has accused Brodiaea [a Harvard-owned investment firm] of trying to profit from the drought."

In an item last year, the veteran analyst Michael Fritz of the Farmland Investor Center noted the timing of Harvard's move:

Some market observers have wondered if Brodiaea was a well-timed water play in light of the region’s worsening groundwater shortage. Last August, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted an “urgency” ordinance that prohibits any new development or new irrigated crop production unless the water it uses is offset by an equal amount of conservation. Water levels in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have fallen sharply in recent years—two to six feet a year in some areas—causing wells to go dry and forcing many vineyards and rural residents to drill deeper wells, according to local accounts. 

Fritz adds that a local investor involved with managing the Harvard wine project told him that "the timing of Brodiaea’s irrigated land purchases in San Luis Obispo County and the subsequent moratorium on new irrigation development was 'pure coincidence.'”

California isn't the only region upon which Harvard is placing farmland investment bets, Fritz reported. The fund also has such investments in New Zealand, Romania, Latvia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Panamá, Fritz notes.

Something Really, Really Terrible Is About to Happen to Our Coral

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Healthy coral reef, posing with happy fish

Coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but provide habitat to 25 percent of sea-dwelling fish species. That's why coral scientist C. Mark Eakin, who coordinates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program, is surprised that the warning he has been sounding since last year (PDF)—that the globe's reefs appear to be on the verge of a mass-scale bleaching event—hasn't drawn more media attention.

During the last mass bleaching event, we lost almost a fifth of the world's coral reefs. Only some have recovered.

Bleaching happens when coral loses contact with zooxanthellae, an algae that essentially feeds them nutrients in symbiotic exchange for a stable habitat. The coral/zooxanthellae relationship thrives within a pretty tight range of ocean temperatures, and when water warms above normal levels, coral tends to expel its algal lifeline. In doing so, coral not only loses the brilliant colors zooxanthellae deliver—hence, "bleaching"—but also its main source of food. A bleached coral reef rapidly begins to decline. Coral can reunite with healthy zooxanthellae and recover, Eakin says, but even then they often become diseased and may die. That's rotten news, because bleaching outbreaks are increasingly common.

Before the 1980s, large-scale coral bleaching had never been observed before, Eakin says. After that, regionally isolated bleaching began to crop up, drawing the attention of marine scientists. Then, in 1998, an unusually strong El Niño warming phase caused ocean temperatures to rise, triggering the first known global bleaching event in Earth's history. It whitened coral off the coasts of 60 countries and island nations, spanning the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. We functionally "lost between 15 percent and 20 percent of the world's coral reefs" in '98, Eakin said. Only some have recovered.

Eakin is concerned about a relapse, because the oceans are relentlessly warming, driven by climate change from ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. As heat builds in the ocean, he says, coral become more vulnerable to bleaching.

Getting hot in here: Coral reefs are sensitive to warming water. Oh-oh. NOAA

As a result, it no longer takes a classic strong El Niño to cause warming and trigger mass bleaching. This current El Niño, after starting strong last year, has essentially collapsed, in what Eakin calls a "highly unusual" pattern. Even so, the northeast Pacific is experiencing "very warm" water, he said. Overall, the oceans' waters have warmed so much in recent years that most coral areas are "right on the verge of having enough heat stress to cause bleaching and it doesn't take nearly as much to start one of these global-scale events," he said. Since 1998, there have been two major beaching events, neither driven by a strong El Niño. In 2005, the Caribbean ocean experienced its worst-ever bleaching event despite a relatively tame El Niño year, and in 2010, the second-ever globe-spanning bleaching event occurred, again during a mild El Niño. It wasn't as severe as the 1998 disaster, but unlike the earlier one, it "didn't have a strong El Niño driving it," Eakin says.

Which brings us to 2015. During our phone conversation, Eakin directed me to this page on NOAA's Coral Reef Watch site. He asked me to consider the below chart, which shows the water-temperature patterns that prevailed in spring  '98—bleaching was most severe where the color is darkest red, signifying the most severe warming.

NOAA

Then he directed me to the latest NOAA analysis, taken this month, that forecasts warming patterns four months into the future.

NOAA

He called the warning currently happening in the Indian Ocean (the one on the left in the above charts) "amazingly similar" to the situation in '98, which foretells a warming pattern that could subject coral to a '98-scale bleaching crisis. "If you look at where we were in 1998 and look at where we are now, you see that the ocean is primed to respond with a sustained high temperature during the warm season in a way that previously took a big El Niño, and now doesn't," he said.

Again, a mass bleaching doesn't translate directly to mass coral die-off, because coral can recover. But the recovery takes decades—large reefs grow about 1 centimeters per year, Eakin says—and the bleaching events are coming faster and faster, each one stalling recovery and causing new damage. The emerging pattern for large-scale events looks like this: 1998, 2005 (confined mainly to the Caribbean), 2010, and now, quite possibly, 2015.

Bleached coral within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA

And another facet of climate change makes recovery even more difficult, Eakins added: acidification, which comes about as the oceans sponge up more and more carbon from the atmosphere. Heightened acidity makes it harder for coral to absorb the calcium carbonate it needs to build and maintain their skeletal structure.

Eakin says it will take major action to reverse climate change to save the globe's coral reefs. Currently, carbon dioxide makes up nearly 400 parts per million of the atmosphere, and for coral to thrive, we'll need to throttle that back to 350 ppm or possibly even 320 ppm, he said. Those are ambitious goals. Making coral resilient enough to survive until we can manage to do that, he added, will require taking action against "local stressors" that also harm them, like overfishing and pollution.

"People say corals are the rainforests of the sea. But coral reefs are more biodiverse than rainforests," he said. "It ought to be the other way around: Rainforests are the coral reefs of the land." And these glorious cradles of oceanic life aren't getting any stronger. "The punch that knocks a boxer out in the ninth round doesn't have to be as hard as the punch that would knock him out in round one," Eakin said.

Dust From Factory Farms Carries Drugs, Poop Bacteria, and Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Far and Wide

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Does what's deposited onto the feedlot floor stay in the feedlot? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Ever approached a feedlot teeming with thousands of cattle? Unlike industrialized hog and chicken farms, where huge enclosed buildings trap at least some of the smell, cattle feedlots are open-air—as anyone who has driven Highway 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco can testify. Turns out, when you inhale the aroma, you're not just getting a blast of ammonia and other noxious fumes. You're also probably breathing in tiny particles of antibiotics, bacteria from cows' "fecal matter and gut flora," and antibiotic-resistant gene sequences. That's the conclusion of a new study from Texas Tech researchers, who analyzed air samples taken just downwind of ten cattle feedlots in Texas and states to the north, each containing between 20,000 and 50,000 cows.

The team placed portable air samplers 10-20 yards upwind and downwind of feedlots in the fall and winter months, when temperatures are mild and wind is moderate, and analyzed the particulate matter. Monenisin, an antibiotic growth promoter widely used on beef and dairy feedlots, turned up in 100 percent of samples, at much higher rates downwind (mean: 1,800 parts per billion) than upwind (below the level of measurement.) Now, monenisin isn't used in human medicine, meaning that it doesn’t directly contribute to antibiotic resistance that affects us. But tetracycline antibiotics—used commonly to treat urinary tract infections and pink eye—showed up in 60 percent of the downwind samples and 30 percent of the upwind samples, again at much lower levels upwind.

Levels of antibiotics in the air outside of feedlots were similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations.

To put these findings in perspective, the authors note they found antibiotics in the air outside of these feedlots at levels similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations—meaning that finding yourself 20 yards from a giant cattle lot is a lot like being inside a hog house.  

They also found bacteria "common to fecal matter and gut flora" at significantly higher levels downwind than upwind, including several that can cause human infections, including including corynebacterium, Leptospira, Clostridia, Bacteroides, and Staphylococcus.

And they picked up gene sequences that confer resistance to tetracycline at rates ranging from 100 to more than 1,000 times higher downwind than upwind. And get this: Those tetracycline-resistant genes appeared at much higher rates than those typically found in the liquid manure lagoons that build up in beef feedlots—meaning that wind may be even more prolific than water at spreading antibiotic-resistant genes from the farm to the surrounding region.

So how is all this nasty stuff moving from the feedlot to the surrounding air? The authors offer a simple explanation: The ground in feedlots "consists primarily of urine and fecal material," the study notes. In the morning, all of that … stuff is relatively stable, held more or less in place by moisture from humidity. But after hours of sunlight, the floor material "becomes dry and brittle, thus becoming source material for fugitive dust."

So what does this all add up to? The study doesn't comment on whether the particles the researchers found are at high enough levels to directly cause human harm. But that's not the main concern—most of us don't spend much time near massive concentrated cattle operations. (Feedlot workers are another story.) The larger issue is those antibiotic genes, traces of antibiotics, and fecal microbes that are being scattered far and wide. The authors note that of the nation's 2,100 large-scale (1000 head or greater) cattle feedlots, more than three-quarters are in the region of area study, the southern Great Plains (a swath stretching from northern Texas through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado)—the very region with the "highest frequency of dust storms in the United States." The region's semi-arid conditions—as well its its propensity for prolonged droughts—provides an ideal environment for the "wind scouring of dry soils," and "aerial transport and deposition" of feedlot particles into "surrounding soil surfaces, water surfaces, vegetation, and other living organisms."

And that's under calm weather conditions. "Fronts and other major weather patterns frequently sweep through this region, and are often associated with exceedingly high wind velocities which themselves transport significant masses of particulates into the atmosphere and across the region and continent," they add. And once in the environment, resistance genes can jump from bacteria that don't pose a threat to humans to ones that do, the authors note.

The study is yet another reminder that the massive amounts of waste generated on factory farms don't stay on factory farms. (Here's a 2011 paper from North Carolina State and Kansas State researchers showing that cockroaches and flies carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria from large hog facilities; and a 2014 one from Johns Hopkins and University of North Carolina researchers finding that resistant bacteria leave the farm in the noses of workers.)

The Oceans Are On the Verge of Mass Extinction. Here's How to Avoid It.

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Who cranked the heat up and added acid?

We land-based creatures live in the midst of a massive extinction crisis, just the sixth one over the past half billion years. What about the oceans? A much-discussed, wide-ranging recent Science study (paywalled) has good news: Sea critters are currently faring much better than their land counterparts, which are going extinct at a rate 36 times higher. (That number is likely exaggerated, the authors note, because scientists have done a much better job of cataloging land critters than sea critters.)

Tackling the over-fishing problem will be no mean feat, given the expected rise of the human population to 9 billion by 2050, but it's probably doable.

But the report also brings horrible news: Between over-fishing and habitat destruction (think acidification, coastal development, warming, coral destruction, dead zones from fertilizer runoff, etc.), the oceans may be on the brink of their own extinction catastrophe. (The New York Times' Carl Zimmer has more details here; Vox's Brad Plumer has a good analysis here.) Today's marine extinction rates look eerily similar to the "moderate" land-based ones just before the Industrial Revolution, the authors warn. "Rates of extinction on land increased dramatically after this period, and we may now be sitting at the precipice of a similar extinction transition in the oceans."

What to do? Tackling the over-fishing problem will be no mean feat, given the expected rise of the human population to 9 billion by 2050, but it's probably doable. One place to start is smarter fish farming. Globally, about half of seafood consumed comes from farms, but much of it actually harms the oceans. Salmon farms, for example, rely on sucking up mass quantities of wild fish for feed—it takes at least three pounds of anchovies, sardines, menhaden, and other "forage fish" to deliver a pound of farmed salmon (not to mention the waste problem created when you confine thousands of big fish loose together).

And Asian shrimp farms—source of nearly 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the US—have been plunked down atop what had been highly productive coastal ecosystems called mangrove forests. According to the United Nations, as much as a third of the globe's mangroves have been destroyed since 1980—and shrimp and other forms of aquaculture account for more than half that loss.

But there are ways to improve fish farming. Filter-feeding species like oysters and clams—which get their nutrients by filtering out plankton and other stuff suspended in the water—require no feed and can enhance coastal ecosystems. And there are farming systems (both ancient and new-fangled) that combine several species and even land-based crops to generate lots of high-quality food with few inputs and little waste. Finally, my colleagues Maddie Oatman and Brent Brownell have documented a successful effort to farm top-quality trout—normally a fish-eating fish—with vegetarian feed made mainly of (non-gross) food waste. Maddie's article here; video below.

 

Then there's that oft-repeated, little-heeded advice to choose seafood low on the trophic scare—that is, fish and other sea critters that eat plants and plankton, not other fish. Oysters, clams, and mussels are all good examples. And instead of choosing farmed salmon, go with the little fish that gets fed to them. To that end, here are two recipes for sardines—trust me, they're delicious.

Now, as tricky as it will be to cut back on overfishing by convincing fish farmers to mend their ways and consumers to change their habits, the even bigger challenge will be to stop trashing the place all of these critters call home. Habitat degradation, according to the Science authors, is the main trigger for the extinction wave we're now seeing on land, and is probably the biggest threat to cause a similar catastrophe at sea. "If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy," Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University and an author of the report, told The Times' Zimmer. "In effect, that's what we’re doing to the oceans." Of course, both warming and acidification are the direct result of our fossil fuel habit—the same force that's generating potentially catastrophic climate change up here on land. There's no saving the oceans without solving that problem.