Tom Philpott

80 Percent of Public Schools Have Contracts With Coke or Pepsi

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 6:01 AM EDT

Is your kid's public school a Coke school or a Pepsi school?

If you don't know what I mean, consider yourself lucky. Starting in the early '90s, cash-strapped public schools began selling exclusive "pouring rights" to one or another Big Soda company, which would then supply all the beverages sold in on-site snack bars, stores, and soda machines as well as at sports events. Along with sugary drinks, of course, the companies also stuffed the schools with plenty of advertisements.

In 2005, according to one survey, nearly half of all public elementary schools and about 80 percent of public high schools operated under pouring rights contracts. It's clear what the schools get for their trouble. It's no wonder that schools turn to selling junky snack food and cutting deals with sugary soda makers to augment stingy school-lunch budgets. As of 2011, we were spending more than twice as much on air conditioning for troops in Afghanistan than we do on feeding public school kids. The soda deals subsidize other aspects of schooling, too. Here's how the Rockford Register Star describes a contract between the Rockford, Illinois school district and Coca-Cola:

Under the existing 10-year contract, Coca-Cola paid the district $4 million upfront and an additional $350,000 a year to sell its beverages in schools. The annual payments have funded field trips, gym uniforms, SMART Boards and other frills that individual school budgets may not otherwise have afforded.

But what are they giving up in return? A just-released study by University of Illinois researchers compares the weight gain of kids in states that limit in-school junk food sales with those of kids in states that don't. The results, summarized by The New York Times:

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Is Team Organic Outspending Team Big Ag in the GMO Labeling Fight?

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In my Tuesday post about California's Prop. 37 ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified food, I wrote about a "gusher" of agribusiness cash entering the state to defeat the proposition, which will be voted on in the November election. In the first comment below the post, frequent commenter Rachael Ludwick writes that "groups in favor of this proposition have so far outspent Big Ag."

And she's right—but the gap is closing quickly. Here's what I mean.

Tom's Kitchen: Raw Kale Salad, With Hat Tips to Brooklyn and Caesar

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A table, hippies and hipsters alike!

Raw kale salad is a perplexing dish.

On the one hand, it's what the French (or, at least, certain Parisians) call “très Brooklyn," a term, according to a notorious recent New York Times trend piece, that "signifies a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality." I was introduced to raw kale salad years ago in the kitchen of an excellent Brooklyn hipster home cook and recently sampled a stellar version at Al di La, the groundbreaking Italian restaurant in Park Slope. Très Brooklyn Manhattan restaurants Back 40 and Northern Spy also feature it to great effect.

On the other hand, it's hippie food straight out of a backwoods '70s commune. I mean it's raw ... kale. Just the words strung together conjure images of nutritional yeast and Bragg's Amino Acids and wheat germ.

Superinsects Are Thriving in This Summer's Drought

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A western corn rootworm hunts for a corn root.

This summer, a severe drought and genetically modified crops are delivering a one-two punch to US crops.

Across the farm country, years of reliance on Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soy seeds—engineered for resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide—have given rise to a veritable plague of Roundup-resistant weeds. Meanwhile, Monsanto's other blockbuster genetically modified trait—the toxic gene of the pesticidal bacteria Bt—is also beginning to lose effectiveness, imperiling crops even as they're already bedeviled by drought. Last year, I reported on Bt-resistant western rootworms munching on Bt-engineered corn in isolated counties in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. 

This summer, resistant rootworms are back like the next installment of a superhero blockbuster movie franchise. In a July 30 post, University of Minnesota extension agents Ken Ostlie and Bruce Potter report they've seen a "major [geographical] expansion" of rootworm damage throughout southern Minnesota, where Monsanto's corn is common. The severe drought, they add, has "masked" the problem, because rainstorms typically make rootworm-damaged corn plants fall over, and rainstorms haven't come this year.

Big Ag Spends Big Bucks to Keep GMOs in Your Food Secret

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

(Yesterday I wrote about a related pet project of agribiz giants: bankrolling the deregulation of genetically modified foods. You can read that post here.)

Remember that California ballot initiative, which will be voted on in November, that would require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients? I first wrote about it here. Since GM corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton (the oil part) are processed into sweeteners, fats, and other additives that suffuse the US food system, the initiative would require the labeling of something like 80 percent of all nonorganic processed food sold in supermarkets. If the California initiative passes, it will likely force food processors to label food nationwide, since it would be costly and cumbersome to have one set of labels for California and another for the other 49 states.

And labels, of course, could prompt consumers to demand more GMO-free foods—and in turn push farmers to demand non-GMO seeds, imperiling sales growth for the Big Six.

Protection money: cash raised to defeat Califronia's labeling proposition.  Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaProtection money: cash raised to defeat California's labeling proposition. Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaCue a gusher of agrichemical cash into the effort to defeat the labeling initiative. This year through June 1, hundreds of thousands in donations had already bolstered the coffers of the astroturf group "Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers," the Secretary of State's Office reports.

In July, industry trade group the Biotechnology Information Organization added $250,000 to the till, DuPont dropped in $310,000, and BASF shelled out $126,000. Big Food companies—which would no doubt prefer to avoid labeling—came up with cash for the effort, too, in July, ranging from Kellogg ($13,080.78) to Nestle ($24,184.46) to Pepsico ($35,494.94).

Paul Towers of Pesticide Action Network, who has crunched the numbers on financing for the anti-labeling group, calculates that, based on the Secretary of State's Office's latest release, the group has raised about $1.98 million, with $1.13 million of it coming from the Big Six and its trade groups and the rest coming from Big Food companies. He told me that he included the $375,000 donated by the Grocery Manufacturers Association under the Big Food category, even though its membership incudes Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, BASF, and Bayer, along with food giants like Kellogg, Nestle, Pepsi, and the like. The president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association recently declared defeating the labeling proposition "the single-highest priority for GMA this year," Michele Simon reports.

Biotech Giants Are Bankrolling a GMO Free-for-All

| Mon Aug. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The so-called "Big Six" agrichemical companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont)—are sitting pretty. Together, they control nearly 70 percent of the global pesticide market, and essentially the entire market for genetically modified seeds. Prices of the crops they focus on—corn, soy, cotton, etc.—are soaring, pushed up by severe drought in key growing regions. Higher crop prices  typically translate to increased pesticide sales as farmers have more money to spend on agrichemicals and more incentive to maximize yield.

The companies operate globally—and have gained a stronghold in that emerging center of industrial agriculture, Brazil—but the biotech-friendly US is their profit center. They've got a big chunk of US agriculture pretty well sewn up—their GMO seeds dominate our corn, soy and cotton crops, which account for more than 53 percent of US farmland, and have won approval for GMO alfalfa (hay), which accounts for another 19 percent. The vast annual US corn crop—which accounts for 40 percent of the globe's corn most years—is a particular bonanza, not just for GMO seeds but also a stunning amount of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

But two things could mess up the Big 6 here in the US: 1) any delay in the regulatory process for a new generation of seeds engineered for resistance to multiple herbicides; and 2) any major move to require labeling of foods containing GMOs, a requirement already in play in many other countries—including the European Union, China, Japan, and South Korea—and one for which the US public has expressed overwhelming support. Unsurprisingly, the Big 6 are investing millions of their vast profits into forestalling both of those menaces.

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CHARTS: Why Your Chicken Is Still Making You Sick

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Got a tummy ache? It could well be something you ate. That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest assessment of food-borne illnesses, dropped on its web site with zero fanfare, not even a press release, Friday afternoon. It shows that that infection rates from most common food-related pathogens are either inching up or holding steady—and occurring at levels above the CDC's own targets.

Here's a look at how the rates three of the most common pathogens—campylobacter, salmonella, and shigella—have changed since 1996.

Chart by Azeen GhorayshiChart by Azeen Ghorayshi

And for you disease wonks out there, here's the data from the report, which includes numbers on some of the other common pathogens, as well.  STEC refers to Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli strains—that is, the kinds that make you sick to your stomach—and the numbers are infections per 100,000 people.

Food poisoning: not getting better.  Source: CDCFood poisoning: not getting better Source: CDC

Did Drought Cause India's Power Outage?

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

What caused the vast power grid failure that roiled India this week? Precise causes remain unknown, but one emerging explanation points a finger at the nation's severe drought. Here's the New York Times:

Part of the reason may be that low rainfall totals have restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, which India relies on for much of its power needs. Another cause may be that drought-stricken farmers are using more power than expected to run water pumps to irrigate their crops.

That's a drought-related double whammy: Low rainfall crimps energy supply because of its effect on hydropower, and jacks up demand by forcing farmers to irrigate more.

The FDA Is Spying on Its Own Scientists

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After I spoke at a pesticide industry confab a few months ago, an executive with the agrichemical/GMO seed giant Syngenta approached to politely challenge my assessment of the US regulatory agencies. I had charged that these federal watchdog groups kowtow to Big Food and Big Ag, regularly approving dodgy products or practices with little regard for how they may affect public health or the environment.

Au contraire, the Syngenta guy assured me. He insisted that the US regulatory system was full of rigorous scientists who vetted the industry's products carefully and would never let something through that might harm the public. We began a tense conversation about Syngenta's highly toxic and widely used atrazine herbicide, green-lighted by the Environmental Protection Agency despite growing evidence of harm to people and wildlife. We decided after a few minutes to agree to disagree.

The fellow's gentle assurances of regulatory rigor have been echoing through my mind as I follow the spectacle of the Food and Drug Administration's unfolding surveillance scandal, triggered by excellent reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post. The subject is off my beat—it involves the FDA's medical-oversight arm, not its food wing. But it reveals just how completely large, powerful industries have gained ownership over their federal watchdogs and taught them to sit, heel, and perform other submissive tricks. And it also reveals that FDA-employed scientists are not always the bland, quiet characters I imagine them to be. A front-page article in Tuesday's Times presents the saga's chief whistleblower as a prickly, aggressive figure with a history of challenging employers with lawsuits.

BP Sends Gulf Chefs to Olympics on a PR Jaunt

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

Two years after the capping of BP's blown Macondo well, effects of the vast spill linger in the Gulf of Mexico. In a study released in April, scientists found heightened levels of heavy metals in the shells, gills, and muscle tissue of Gulf oysters, correlated with the spill. Another study found that BP's errant oil accelerated the loss of marshlands along the Gulf—a devastating blow to coastal ecosystems. Yet a third study found drastic changes in the microbiota that live between grains of sand along beaches, which could entail lasting negative impacts at the base of the Gulf's food chain.

In short, through its bungling and short-sightedness, BP delivered a mammoth and enduring insult to the Gulf of Mexico and the communities and ecosystems clustered along it. Our nation's greatest regional culinary culture is not the least among the spill's victims. Rooted in precisely the body of water BP polluted, Gulf cuisine endures in its glory but can ultimately only be as healthy as the ecosystems that sustain it.

Which is why I find this news item unspeakably sad:

Eight Louisiana and Gulf Coast chefs—including John Folse and Galatoire's executive chef Michael Sichel—are on their way to London. BP will send them to the 2012 Olympic Games host city to fill it with a "dash of spice."

In addition to Folse and Sichel, participating chefs include Chris Poplin (Biloxi's IP Casino Resort Spa), Calvin Coleman (Gulfport's Naomi's Catering), Chris Sherrill (from Orange Beach, Alabama's Eat! and catering company Staycations), and Alec Naman (from Mobile's Naman's Catering).

These chefs may think they're leveraging BP's cash to promote their region on a grand stage. "We wanted to feature the Gulf Coast on an international stage," BP director of Gulf coast media communications Ray Melick told the Montgomery Advertiser. "This was a good opportunity to bring these chefs’ seafood flavors to that stage, reminding everyone that the Gulf Coast is alive and well, and that the seafood is the most-tested and best-tasting anywhere." That last bit describes the real message BP is hiring Gulf chefs to convey: Everything's fine in the post-spill Gulf; the 2010 spill and any ill effects from it are dead and gone.

But as Mississippi's most famous novelist once wrote, "The past isn't dead; it's not even past."