Tom Philpott

Vaccines on Chicken Farms Create Supervirus

| Mon Jul. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The problem of routine antibiotic use on factory farms has generated a lot of ink lately—especially after this startling recent report on a possible link between industrial chicken farming and a spate of antibiotic-resistant urinary-tract infections among women.

But what about vaccine use? Concentrated animal feedlot operation (CAFO) operators use antibiotics to help prevent bacterial infections from raging through spaces densely packed with animals (as well as to make the animals grow faster). To address the problem of viral infections, against which antibiotics are ineffective, they turn to vaccines, which get considerably less press.

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How Agribiz Bought the Farm Bill

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

So, how's the farm bill going? Well, the Senate's version of it "could have been worse," I concluded after it passed, straining for positive things to write about it. The House Agriculture Committee's, though, was a full-on disaster, offering harsh cuts to food aid at a time of high unemployment, fat handouts to big ag, and gratuitous gifts to the biotech/pesticide industry.

The bill is now stalled in the House, in danger of being buried by right-wing backbenchers intent on even deeper food-aid cuts. If the House doesn't vote on it before the August recess, the most likely outcome is an extension of the 2008 bill—and the 2013 Congress will have to start the farm bill process from scratch. Let's be blunt: If that scenario plays out, no matter how the November elections go, we're quite likely to see an equally or more dismal bill emerge next year.

This is tragic. The farm bill, a once-in-five-years piece of legislation, lays out federal food and agriculture policy. At a time of accelerating climate change and other ecosystem crisis, including agriculture-related dead zones in two of our most important fisheries (the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay) the time has come to reassess our food system. Meanwhile, a robust sustainable-agriculture has arisen over the past two decades, developing alternative styles of farming that are highly productive, less polluting, and more resilient to climate change. You might think farm policy would be primed to adjust to these developments. Instead, our legislative process is pushing agribusiness as usual.

USDA Prepares to Green-Light Gnarliest GMO Soy Yet

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
A crop duster sprays a soybean field.

In early July, on the sleepy Friday after Independence Day, the USDA quietly signaled its intention to green-light a new genetically engineered soybean seed from Dow AgroSciences. The product is designed to produce soy plants that withstand 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide (and, famously, the less toxic component in the notorious Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange).

Readers may remember that during an even-sleepier period—the week between Christmas and the New Year—the USDA made a similar move on Dow's 2,4-D-ready corn.

If the USDA deregulates the two products—as it has telegraphed its intention to do—Dow will enjoy a massive profit opportunity. Every year, about half of all US farmland is planted in corn and soy. Currently, Dow's rival Monsanto has a tight grip on weed management in corn-and-soy country. Upward of 90 percent of soy and 70 percent of corn is engineered to withstand another herbicide called glyphosate through highly profitable Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines. And after so many years of lashing so much land with the same herbicide, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now vexing farmers and "alarming" weed control experts throughout the Midwest.

Tom's Kitchen: Ratatouille, the Classic Summer Veggie Stew

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Ratatouille, served here over toast and under a fried egg, along side a salad of raw shredded kale.

Ratatouille, a classic dish from southern France, had been confounding me for years. On the one hand, it combines iconic hot-weather produce—squash, eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, and basil—making it an ideal high-summer dish. On the other hand, I first discovered in in the early '90s, before I had heard of farmers markets or seasonal cooking; and the recipe I used for it required long roasting. Back then, I'd make it in winter from supermarket veggies trucked in from God knows where and serve it with something hearty like polenta. It was actually quite satisfying.

And then for years, as my life turned to gardening, farming, and fixation on the farmers market, I never made ratatouille. I wasn't going to buy tomatoes or eggplant in the winter; nor did I have any desire to heat up my kitchen with a long roast in high summer.

Then, in the process of reviewing Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food a few years ago, I stumbled upon her ratatouille recipe, which in place of roasting involves a kind of extended stir fry—still a hot project, but nothing like an oven blazing at 400 degrees. (I've since learned that the Waters' method is the classic method of Provence; no telling where I got the roasting idea).

With peak-of-season produce and good olive oil, ratatouille is a spectacular dish: the brightness of squash, tomatoes, and peppers, the depth of eggplant, and the pungency of onion and garlic, all melted down down into a delicious stew. And it's a wonderful thing to cook on the weekend and have around for the work week. I served it one day as a side dish to grilled chicken breast (cue silly vegan outrage); another day tossed with pasta and chickpeas; and twice for lunch over toast and under a fried egg.

House Ag Committee Takes Aim at Food Stamps, GMO Regulation

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 1:03 PM EDT
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House ag committee, and "valued partner" of the biotech industry.

Surprising no one, the House agriculture committee has passed a boldly regressive farm bill draft—trumping the recently approved Senate version in generosity to Big Ag and austerity for the people who rely on the food-stamp program (now known as SNAP).  

Summing up the bill's main provisions, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it an "anti-reform bill—bad for family farmers, rural communities, and the environment."

But the committee added a dash of spice to this acrid stew of a bill that not even a political cynic like me could have predicted: Buried in the depths of the 557-page draft loom 16 pages of riders (see sec. 10011-10014) that, if passed into law, would gut the USDA's already-weak ability to regulate the politically influential agriculture-biotech industry. (If you want to dive deep into the industry-friendly framework of the USDA's GMO oversight, check out these two posts of mine from last year.)

 

How the NY Times Went Too Far in Slamming Big Organic

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In a much-discussed feature that led the Sunday New York Times business section, Stephanie Strom reignites the long-simmering debate about whether the organic label has been essentially bought out and drained of meaning by gigantic corporations. She paraphrases Michael Potter, founder and CEO of one of the last independently owned organic companies, Eden Foods, like this: "He calls the certified-organic label a fraud and refuses to put it on Eden's products."

A fraud, huh? Strom's story raises many important points that need to be thought through and debated. But it misses a key one: The organic label, for all the untoward influence of Big Food players like dairy giant Dean Foods, still means something. If you buy food labeled organic, you can be reasonably sure it was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without genetically modified seeds, without (in the case of dairy, meat, and eggs) antibiotics and other dodgy pharmaceuticals, and on farms required to have a plan for crop rotation and (quoting straight from federal organic code) to "manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content." (For a primer on why I find the latter bit so impressive, go here.) Even the most processed certified-organic item on the supermarket shelf contains raw plant and/or animal material that was raised in ways fundamentally different than nonorganic fare.

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5 Surprising Ingredients Allowed in Organic Food

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Sunday's New York Times piece on the corporatization of organics (which I commented on here) got me to thinking: What are the weirdest additives the USDA allows in food labeled "organic"? Here are five.

1. Carrageenan
Made from seaweed and used as a thickener and stabilizer for certain dairy products like cottage cheese and yogurt, carrageenan is probably the most controversial organic additive. Joanne K. Tobacman, an associate professor of medicine at University of Illinois-Chicago, claims that carrageenan causes intestinal inflammation, and she petitioned the USDA not to approve it for organic food. The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute notes that according to USDA organic code, nonorganic ingredients like carrageenan can only be introduced into certified-organic food when they are deemed "essential" to the manufacture of a given product. The group argues that carrageenan should not have been deemed essential, because some organic dairy companies don't use it at all, proving it can be done without. For example, Horizon and Whole foods 365 use it in their cottage cheeses, while Organic Valley and Nancy's don't.

2. Synthetic DHA (a fatty acid)
This omega-3 fatty acid supplement, derived from algae in some dairy products, is made by Martek Biosciences Corp., a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM. Its critics (including me) argue it's a dubious addition to organics because it's not essential to producing any product. You don't need it to produce milk; you only need it to produce milk that contains synthetic DHA. According to Cornucopia, Martek's DHA is is derived from a strain of algae generated through "induced mutations with the use of radiation and/or harsh chemicals."

3. Acidified sodium chlorite
This synthetic chemical, used as a disinfecting wash for poultry and other meats, hasn't been connected to any health problems. It's made by chemical giant Dupont.

4. Tetrasodium pyrophosphate
A mixture of phosphoric acid with sodium carbonate, this compound is used is soy-based meat alternatives. "It promotes binding of proteins to water, binding the soy particles together, and is used for the same purpose in chicken nuggets and imitation crab and lobster products," writes Simon Quellen Field, author of Why There's Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: The Chemistry of Household Ingredients. 

5. Ethylene
This fossil fuel derivative is used to speed ripening of tropical fruit and "degreen" citrus. While its use in food doesn't harm people, using fossil fuels sure does.

Food and Extreme Weather: It's the Soil, Stupid

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

As the climate warms up and "extreme" events like heat waves and droughts become more common, what will become of food production? I started to examine that question in my last post, published Wednesday. A front-page article in Thursday's New York Times brought a stark reminder of why the topic is crucial. Reports the Times' Monica Davey:

Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month ago.

The message from the Midwest is clear: Chemical-intensive, industrial-scale farming is vulnerable to spells of hot, dry weather—some of the very conditions we can expect to become common as the climate warms. In my last post, I argued that the solution to this problem favored by US policymakers—to keep industrial agriculture humming along with novel seeds engineered for "drought tolerance"—probably won't work.

What might? I think the answer lies outside of some Monsanto-funded university lab and right beneath our feet: in the dirt. Or, more, accurately, in how farmers manage their dirt.

Climate Change Is Already Shrinking Crop Yields

| Wed Jul. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

For years now, people have wondered how climate change will affect farming. How will humanity feed itself during a time of rising temperatures and recurring drought?

Here in the US, we're starting to get a taste of things to come—and it's bitter. Brutal heat is now roiling the main growing regions for corn, soy, and wheat, the biggest US crops. According to Bloomberg News, 71 percent of the Midwest is experiencing "drier-than-normal conditions," and temperatures are projected to be above 90 degrees in large swaths of key corn/soy-growing states Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana through July 7 if not longer.

As a result, Goldman Sachs projects that this year's corn yields will come in 7.5 percent below the USDA's projection of 166 bushels an acre. (Why is a Wall Street behemoth like Goldman Sachs fussing over corn yields? That's another story, altogether, and an interesting one). Accordingly, crop prices are rising steeply, Bloomberg reports.

Tom's Kitchen: Grilled Pork Tacos With Peach Salsa and Charred-Tomato Gazpacho

| Wed Jul. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In the Austin summer, the phrase "outdoor cooking" sounds as much like a weather report as it does a culinary activity. Last year, temperatures in Austin exceeded 100 degrees no fewer than 90 times—shattering the previous record of 69 days set in 1925. Just last week ago, the temperature hit 109 degrees—an all-time record for June.

But under a big shade tree in the early evening, when the sun has waned and the temperature has dropped to, oh, 95 degrees, firing up the grill remains an appealing option. It gets you out of the house—and frees you from heating up the house with a bunch of cooking.

That's exactly what I did recently, and in classic Tom's Kitchen style, I kept it really simple. I got hold of a few pasture-raised pork loins, plus some tomatoes and peaches, all grown here in central Texas. I looked south to Mexico for inspiration.

Grilled Pork Tacos With Peach Salsa and Spicy Gazpacho
Serves 4

For Pork
2 pounds pasture-raised pork loin (4 loins)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo, from a can
The grated zest of one lime
Herbs such as a bit of fresh or dried oregano and/or thyme (optional—I didn't have any on hand)
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

For Salsa
4 ripe peaches
1 small clove of garlic
1-2 fresh hot chile peppers, such as serranos
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
The lime you zested for the pork marinade

For gazpacho
6 medium, ripe tomatoes
A few thick slices of red onion
1 clove of garlic, crushed and peeled
1-2 serrano peppers
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

To serve
13 corn tortillas
8-10 lime slices

First, make the marinade—at least 2 hours in advance of cooking, and preferably, the night before. Put the garlic, chipotle peppers, lime zest, a generous pinch of salt, and a vigorous grind of black pepper in a food processor or blender. With the machine whirring, add a thin stream of olive oil to the mix, blending until you have a smooth emulsion. You may have to stop and scrape down the sides of the blender or processor, and puree again, to get everything smooth. Taste the marinade. It should be good and salty—the salt will help carry the flavors inside the meat. Adjust accordingly.

Place the pork loins in a sturdy plastic bag large enough to hold them—or if you don't have one big enough, divide them into two smaller ones—and dump the marinade on top, dividing it over the two if necessary. Seal the bag(s), rinse them, wash your hands, and then massage the pork gently through the plastic, distributing the marinade as evenly as possible. Place the bag(s) in a bowl in the fridge until about an hour before you're ready to cook.

Next, on the same day as you're grilling, make the peach salsa. Peel the peaches, remove the flesh from the stone, chop it coarsely, and add it to a serving bowl. Mince the garlic and one off the two serrano chiles very fine, adding a pinch of salt to them as you mince to break them down as much as possible into a paste. Add them to the bowl with the peaches. Add a glug of olive oil and a good squeeze of lime, and then stir to combine. Taste. If you want more of a kick, break down the other chile like you did the first one, and add half of it. Taste. Adjust for seasoning, adding more salt, chile, or lime if necessary, and set aside.

Now prepare your grill. I use a simple Weber model with one of those chimney charcoal starters, stocked with  lump hardwood charcoal. When the coals are white hot, I make a hot side and a cool side by mounding most of the coals on one side of the grill pit and spreading just a few out across the other. When I've placed the grill atop the carefully arranged coals, I wipe it with a clean rag dipped in cooking oil, and give it a few minutes to get hot.

Lay the loins, close together but not touching, on the hot side of the grill. They should sizzle when they hit the surface. Let them sear until they're good and brown on all sides, and then move them to the cool side.

Now the grill the tomatoes and red-onion slices for the gazpacho—add them to the newly empty hot side of the grill. Cover it. The loins will now cook slowly on the cool side and pick up some smoke. Check after a few minutes—flip the tomatoes when they're good and charred, and remove the loins when they're cooked through but still slightly pink in the middle. Remove the loins to a cutting board when they're done. Let them rest for a few minutes.

Move the tomatoes and onion slices to a blender when they're charred all over. (Don't worry about coring them.)

Station one person at the grill, and have him or her grill tortillas on the hot side, flipping them once and lightly toasting them on both sides. As they're done, swaddle them in a clean kitchen towel to keep them warm.

Put someone else in charge of the gazpacho. To the charred tomatoes and onion, add the chile(s), the garlic, a pinch of salt, and a generous grind of pepper, a few ice cubes, and one of those grilled tortillas, torn in half. Blend until everything is smooth. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

To serve, cut the pork into thin slices, at an angle, and place on a serving plate. Divide the gazpacho into four bowls, adding an ice cube to each to chill it down a bit, and garnish each with a drizzle of olive oil. Let everyone assemble his or her own tacos, garnishing with peach salsa. Have someone else make a side dish—my friend made a lovely one of thinly sliced summer squash and zucchini, lightly baked and finished with shaved hard cheese.