Tom Philpott

Debating Organics in The New York Times

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 2:47 PM EDT

The New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature is tricky: They give you a tiny amount of space (300 words) to opine on what typically is a huge and knotty problem. In the wake of the recent Stanford study on organics (which I commented on here), the Room for Debate folks invited me to weigh in on the question of whether organics are worth the money. Other participants include Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and veteran food-industry watchdog; Raj Patel author of Stuffed and Starved and a fierce critic of the corporate-dominated global food system; Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish writer who has made a career of, if not denying climate change, than comforting fossil fuel interests by arguing that climate change just isn't that big of a deal; and Christy Wilcox, a grad student in molecular biology and blogger for Scientific American whom I have sparred with before. Read our Room for Debate forum here. Enjoy!

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5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Is organic food little more than a trumped-up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? A just-released paper by Stanford University researchers—and the reaction to it by the media—suggests as much. (Abstract here; I have a copy of the full study, but can't upload it for copyright reasons.)

"Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," declared a New York Times headline. "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests," announced CBS News. "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it's key reason consumers buy," the Washington Post grumbled.

In reality, though, the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what's known among academics as a "meta-analysis"—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn't meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.  

In another post I'll get to the question of nutritional benefits—the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks.

 

Want to Avoid a Thirsty Future? Eat Less Meat

| Wed Aug. 29, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Every year, Americans eat 200 pounds of meat each—equal to a little more than two McDonald's Quarter Pounders, per person, per day. That's about twice the global average; but now the rest of the globe (led by China) is catching up fast.

Except it's highly unlikely that Americans will be able to maintain anything close to current levels of carnivory by 2050, or that people in China, India, and other developing nations will be able to enjoy current US-style diets. There are a number of ways to reach this conclusion—for example, meat production is a massive generator of climate-changing gases—but here's one that seems pretty fundamental: There just isn't enough water.

In a new report—which makes bracing reading in this season of widespread drought, severe crop losses, and high food prices—the Stockholm International Water Institute does the math (hat tip to Grist's Philip Bump):

Do These Antibiotics Make Me Look Fat?

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Factory-scale meat producers have a voracious appetite for antibiotics. They use them both to keep animals from falling ill in cramped, filthy conditions; and to make them grow as fast as possible. The mechanism behind that second use is obscure—scientists have known since the '50s that regular exposure to low levels of antibiotics makes animals grow faster, but have never been quite sure why.

A team of researchers led by New York University microbiologist Martin Blaser might have solved the mystery. Their results suggest that it's all about how the drugs affect the' "gut biome"—the billions of bacteria that live inside animals' digestive tracts (including those of that beast, Man). Antibiotics, of course, are designed to target the pathogenic microbes—the ones that make us and animals sick. But they also attack the beneficial ones—the ones that keep us healthy. The gut biome, also known as the "microbiome"—until recently a very little-studied part of our bodies—is emerging as a major topic of research on human health and immunity to disease.

Was In-N-Out Burger Serving Up Downer Cows?

| Thu Aug. 23, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

The animal-welfare advocacy group Compassion Over Killing has released a brief segment of video documenting flagrant abuse of cows at a California slaughterhouse house called Central Valley Meat. The facility, located in the heart of the state's vast milk-production industry, specializes in turning "spent"—i.e., no longer able to produce milk—cows into ground beef. The snippet is reportedly part of a much larger compilation of footage, taken by a Compassion for Killing investigator posing as a plant employee, that the group presented to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the safety of the meat supply.

Warning: It depicts some of the most extreme cases of animal cruelty I've seen on tape.

Food Industry Ditches Trans Fats, Kids' Cholesterol Levels Drop

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

"0 grams trans fats." That promise appears prominently on packaging for that classic American junk food, the Lay's Potato Chip. McDonald's iconic French fries? Trans-fat free—as are its Chicken McNuggets.

It wasn't always thus. As recently as 2006, journalist Nina Teicholz could report that consuming a large order of McDonald's fries and McNuggets in one sitting meant taking in nearly 10 grams of trans fats, a "substance considered so unhealthy that the National Academy of Sciences concluded, in 2002, that the only safe amount of trans fats in the diet is zero."

Trans fats are made through a process known as partial hydrogenation—basically, when you add hydrogen to ordinary vegetable oil, it becomes solid at room temperature, making it a cheap substitute for butter.

According to Teicholz, probably the journalist most responsible for exposing the ill effects of the once-ubiquitous, now-scarce substance, "A daily intake of five grams of trans fats increases the risk of contracting heart disease 4 percent to 28 percent."

Apparently, the pushing of trans fats out of the American diet is already paying dividends. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a 28 percent drop in the prevalence of elevated total cholesterol among kids since the 1988-94 period, the heyday of trans fats.

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80 Percent of Public Schools Have Contracts With Coke or Pepsi

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 5:01 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:

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

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 5:00 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 5:00 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 5:00 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.