Tom Philpott

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.

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Congress' Big Gift to Monsanto

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

If you want your crops to bear fruit, you have to feed the soil. Few industries understand that old farming truism better than ag-biotech—the few companies that dominate the market for genetically modified seeds and other novel farming technologies. And they realize that the same wisdom applies to getting what you want in Washington, DC.

According to this 2010 analysis from Food & Water Watch, the ag-biotech industry spent $547.5 million between 1999 and 2009. It employed more than 100 lobbying firms in 2010 alone, FWW reports, in addition to their own in-house lobbying teams.

The gusher continues. The most famous ag-biotech firm of all, Monsanto, spent $1.4 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2012, after shelling out $6.3 million total last year, "more than any other agribusiness firm except the tobacco company Altria," reports the money-in-politics tracker Industry trade groups like the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Croplife America have weighed in with $1.8 million and $524,000, respectively.

What fruits have been borne by such generous fertilizing of the legislative terrain? It's impossible to tie the fate of any bit of legislation directly to an industry's lobbying power, but here are two unambiguous legislative victories won on the Hill this month by Monsanto and its peers.

China's Other Sleeping Giant Is the Other White Meat

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

They're going hog wild in Iowa again. Chart: Des Moines RegisterThey're going hog wild in Iowa again. Chart: Des Moines RegisterSince the dawn of the Great Recession, Americans have been eating less meat, including pork. Meanwhile, prices of corn and soy—the main components of US livestock feed—have been high.

Lower demand, high feed costs: Basic economics tells us that US factory farms should be cutting back, slowing down, producing less. And that would be a good thing, because as I've written so many times before, our style of meat production sucks up huge amounts of resources and creates vast amounts of pollution.

Yet look what's happening in Iowa, by far the nation's leading hog-producing state. There, the Des Moines Register reports, there's been a boom in state-issued permits for new factory-scale hog confinements. As the chart to the right shows, new permits fell off dramatically in 2009, driven down by the low hog prices, but are now charging back up.

The Senate Farm Bill: It Could Have Been Worse

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 4:30 PM EDT
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee

As the 2012 farm bill zipped its way through the Senate—passing Thursday by a vote of 64-35— I kept thinking of something that veteran farm policy watcher Fred Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me back in April.

He said that the Senate version represents the bill's "high-water mark" in terms of progressive policy—that whatever the Senate comes up will be pushed in more Big Ag-friendly, regressive directions during reconciliation with the House.

Well, as expected, the Senate version of the farm bill preserves the broad incentives that have been in place for US agriculture for decades: Grow as much corn, soy, and a few other commodities as possible. It achieves it through insurance schemes described in my April post.

Poll: Americans Don't Want Antibiotics in Their Meat

| Thu Jun. 21, 2012 2:40 PM EDT

For decades, FDA saw its duty to reckon with antibiotic abuse on factory livestock farms like many of us see the dentist: as something to be put off as long as possible. Meanwhile, evidence piled up like manure in a chicken factory that giving animals small, daily antibiotic doses gives rise to antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people.

Finally, earlier this year, the agency proposed new rules that would restrict the meat industry's antibiotic habit. Trouble is, the proposed rules are voluntary and contain a gaping loophole.

But the public may be running out of patience with the FDA's toothless-watchdog approach to regulating the meat industry. A just-released nationwide poll conducted for Consumers Union found that the majority of people are none-too-thrilled with tjhe role of antibiotics in ag. Results:

Chart: Consumers UnionChart: Consumers Union

As someone who writes about this topic a bit, I'm quite heartened by these findings. People are finally starting to care about what the meat industry gets up to in order to profitably churn out cheap burgers, pork chops, and drumsticks.

Consumers also expressed enthusiasm for alternatives to meat raised in a deluge of antibiotics. From the complete report:

More than 60% of respondents stated that they would be willing to pay at least five cents a pound more for meat raised without  antibiotics. Over a third (37%) would pay a  dollar or more extra per pound.

Yet 24 percent of respondents said their supermarkets offered no access to antibiotic-free meat products—and of those, 82 percent said they would buy them if they could.

Consumer Union also sent "secret shoppers" into at least five stores operated by each of the nation's 13 largest grocery chains, to get a snapshot of what consumers have access to. They found the widest variety of antibiotic-free meat products at five chains:  Whole Foods (where all meat offerings come from animals raised without antibiotics), Giant, Hannaford, Shaw's, and Stop & Shop.

At other chains, however, Consumer Union's shoppers found no antibiotic-free products. They are as follows.

Sam’s Club, owned by Wal-Mart (6 stores surveyed); Food Lion, owned by Delhaize (3 stores surveyed);  Save-a-Lot, owned by Supervalu (3 stores surveyed); and Food 4 Less, owned by Kroger (1 store surveyed).

What all of this tells me is that consumers want alternatives to the pharmaceutical-meat complex and the market isn't doing enough to deliver them. It's time for the FDA to step up and act.

Tom's Kitchen: Fried-Egg Quesadilla with Salsa Cruda

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This column focuses on simple, high-flavor cooking—food that can be made in minutes by people with no special culinary skill. My goal to demystify the home kitchen, to show that cooking can be an everyday, enjoyable activity that results in nutritious and fun-to-eat fare.

This edition of Tom's Kitchen focuses on something so simple that I'm flirting with self-parody: the quesadilla, which has emerged in the modern US kitchen as a kind of new-wave grilled-cheese sandwich. Who doesn't know how to make a quesadilla? Simply grate cheese, fold into tortilla, and heat until cheese is melted. Millions of people, some of them under 10, do it daily.

But with good ingredients and a few simple techniques, quesadillas can actually be quite sublime. Over the years at Maverick farms, my coworkers and I practiced the craft of quesadilla-making almost daily, using it as a vehicle to highlight fresh farm eggs and whatever produce was coming off the farm at any particular point in time. The fried-egg quesadilla emerged as the Maverick Farms lunch par excellence (also, sometimes, as "second breakfast," taken mid-morning after hours of harvesting).

I'm away from the farm for a while spending time in Austin, but yearning for the days of fried-egg quesadillas. So I've been making them using produce from local farms—mainly two excellent and highly productive inner-city ones just miles from where I'm living, Boggy Creek and Springdale farms.

Right now, Central Texas farms are harvesting a magnificent tomato crop; arugula is coming in abundant and peppery; and fresh, uncured garlic is everywhere. So I built this batch of quesadilla around them.

Quesadilla gear: I always try to have some on hand.Quesadilla gear: I always try to have some on hand.Fried-Egg Quesadillas with Salsa Cruda
Serves 3
1 big, beautiful purple cherokee tomato
½ of a small red onion
1 clove fresh, uncured garlic
1-2 hot peppers
sea salt

4-6 farm eggs (depending on how many each eater wants)
Salt, pepper, and paprika
3 flour tortillas, as fresh as possible (I use whole wheat ones from Austin's Margarita's Tortilla Factory)
About 4 oz good melting cheese (I use Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar), sliced thin crosswise or grated)
1 good handful spicy arugula or other salad green, chopped or torn into bit-sized pieces

Make the salsa.
I went into this project planning to simply the slice the tomatoes and fold them, along with some thin-sliced red onion, into the tortillas as they toasted—a perfectly good way to go. But when the ingredients were arrayed before me, I couldn't resist making what's known in Mexico as a salsa cruda, which is simply a chopped sauce featuring raw tomatoes, chiles, and garlic.

Salsa crudas are incredibly simple. First chop your tomato into little chunks, then finally chop the red onion. Next, crush the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef's knife, remove the peel, and and sprinkle coarse salt over it. Now coarsely chop your chile pepper or peppers, and lay the pieces over the garlic clove. Sprinkle more coarse salt over the chile pieces. Using a rocking motion and lifting the knife blade occasionally to scrape off chile/garlic mixture, chop the hell out of the chiles and the garlic all together. The coarse salt will help break everything down into a paste. Once the chile/garlic mix is pretty well minced, put it in a little mound, lay the flat side of your knife over it, and push down hard with your hand. Chop a little more and you have a nice paste. Combine all ingredients into a small bowl, stir, and taste for salt and flavor balance. The tomato I used, a purple cherokee from Boggy Creek, had a beautiful combination of sweetness and acidity, and the finished salsa needed nothing. If it seems a bit too sweet, consider adding a bit of cider vinegar or lemon or lime juice. Set aside.

Make the Quesadillas

Twin wheels of steel. Twin wheels of steel. Now put two skillets—the biggest one you have for the quesadillas and another one (size depending on how many eggs you're using) for the eggs—over medium heat. Add a healthy knob of butter to the egg skillet. Place all three tortillas on the hot quesadilla skillet. They won't fit flat—that's okay. Twirl them around to toast them a bit all over then flip them, so that half of each is laying flat, with its other half draped over the edge of the skillet (see photo). Lay a bit of each cheese over each, and let them toast. Turn the heat down a bit.

Now the butter will have melted and be good and hot. Crack the eggs into the skillet. You should have a good sizzle. Turn the heat down a bit, and dust each egg with salt, pepper, and paprika. After a couple of minutes, flip them, and cook them to your desired level of doneness. I prefer a slightly runny yolk.

Now add an egg or two to each tortilla, along with a bit of chopped arugula and a lashing of the salsa cruda, which you should scoop out with a fork so it drains a bit. Fold the odd end of the tortilla over the flat part, and flip. The top side should now be golden-brown. Cook until the bottom side is browned, too, and serve with salsa.

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Which Baby Foods Contain the Most Pesticide Residue?

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Every year, Environmental Working Group crunches pesticide-testing USDA data and comes up with its "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of most- and least-contaminated fruits and vegetables.

This year's model, released Tuesday, crowned the apple as the dirtiest produce, and onions as the cleanest. *The "dirty dozen" list is below; the "clean 15" is here.

I have to add the same lament as I did last year—while I find EWG's "dirty dozen" effort to be extremely valuable for consumers on a budget deciding which produce to buy organic, I wish it would also add a third list tracking pesticide exposure for farm workers. While I do not discount the dangers of consuming small amounts of the cocktail of pesticides found on a typical grocery-store apple, it is the people who tend and harvest farm fields who bear the most risk.

The 5 Most Ridiculous Drive-Thru Snacks

| Fri Jun. 15, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
The Beefy Nacho burrito: "crunchy nacho chips, covered in warm nacho cheese sauce, delicious 100% real seasoned beef, and cool reduced-fat sour cream, all wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla for maximum portability"

Wednesday's post on the American diet focused on what people buy at the supermarket (short story: a vast amount of processed food). What do we eat when we eat out? The Wall Street Journal's Sara Nassaur brings some data points:

"Americans eat more on the go than anywhere else in the world," and the trend is growing, says Wade Thoma, vice president of the menu innovation team for McDonald's U.S.A. Drive-through orders make up around 70% of its sales, he says.

Then there's this:

Seventeen percent of all meals ordered at restaurants in the U.S. are now eaten in cars, according to NPD Group, a consumer research firm.

The Nation's Worst Restaurant Chains to Work For

| Thu Jun. 14, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Last December, a group called Restaurant Opportunities Centers United came out with a new kind of restaurant guide—one that ranks eateries not on the deliciousness of their food, but the way they treat their workers. It was about damned time, because restaurant employees form a vast part of our nation's workforce, and they largely get treated like dirt. We welcomed it here at Mother Jones—Jaeah Lee mashed up its findings with quality rankings from Zagat and Yelp, and I weighed in with anecdotes from my own youthful stint as a line cook.

Now the ROC guide is back, updated, and freshly heralded by Mark Bittman. (Hat tip, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.) For a broader look at conditions face by the workers who feed us—the people who work in restaurants, farms, slaughterhouses, supermarkets, etc—see this post from Mother Jones' Maddie Oatman on an important new study.

The American Diet in 1 Chart

| Wed Jun. 13, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Relic of the past—or shape of things to come?

When I was a kid in the 1970s and early '80s, processed food was everywhere. I remember TV dinners, fish sticks, Tater Tots, Hamburger Helper, canned pear halves in sugar goo, and more. And that was in my house, where my mom used processed food to supplement her habit of cooking from scratch two or three times a weeks.

In at least one friend's house, heat-and-serve fare seemed to have replaced cooking altogether, starting with an unholy (although quite coveted by me at the time) frozen pancake-and-sausage breakfast product made by Jimmy Dean.   

Since then, we've seen the explosion of farmers markets, CSAs, cooking shows, and celebrity chefs. Cooking from scratch is cool, and processed food is on the way out. Right? Turns out, processed food is more popular than ever. Check out this chart, part of a package of fascinating ones from NPR's Planet Money team, generated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, on how we spend our grocery dollars:


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPRSource: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR