Tom Philpott

A Geneticist's Take on California's Prop 37

| Fri Nov. 2, 2012 6:08 AM EDT

Editor's note: This is a guest post by geneticist and author Belinda Martineau, who was a principal scientist at Calgene Inc., where she helped commercialize the world's first genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr tomato.

Genetically engineered (GE) sweet corn is being sold at a Walmart near you. And because that company has said it sees "no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product," and because US regulations don't require it, it isn't labeled "GE."

Developed by Monsanto, this GE sweet corn is beautiful by fresh corn standards—not a worm hole in sight—since it contains not one, not two, but three insecticides engineered into each cell of every kernel. Having the corn make its own insecticides means that farmers don't have to spray those chemicals out in the environment. The end result is that no earworms or European corn borers will have anything to do with this good-looking GE sweet corn. But, you may be wondering: should I?

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Why I Disagree With Kevin Drum on California's GMO Labeling Proposition

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 1:34 PM EDT
A rally in favor of Proposition 37 at Los Angeles City Hall in October.

In his recent "Guide to California's Ballot Mayhem," my colleague the prominent political blogger Kevin Drum came out against Prop. 37, which would require that all foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients be labeled.

In general, Drum says, he opposes the propositions that appear on his home state's ballots unless he sees a clear case for them. For him, Prop. 37 fails that test. "'l confess to mixed feelings about this," he writes. "But I'm afraid mixed feelings mean a No vote." Kevin is agnostic on the merits of compulsory labeling of GM foods. "I respect the desire to know where your food comes from, regardless of whether you want to know different things than I do, but on a substantive level I'm not convinced that GM foods pose enough of a genuine hazard to rate detailed labeling laws that are etched in stone forever."

It's technical issues push that Kevin to the "no" side. He writes: "as with so many initiatives, [it's] sloppily written; it can't be changed after it's passed; and it imposes expensive state labeling burdens on interstate commerce, something that I'm increasingly leery of."

I've written a lot about the hazards, potential and realized, that GM crops bring to bear: the complete domination of them by a handful of large companies, the accelerating pesticide treadmill on which they've placed farmers, and the still-little-tested potential health risks. For all of these reasons, I avoid GMOs, and would vote to require their labeling if I had a chance.

For now, I'd like to set those aside and respond to Kevin's technical concerns. I agree that California's ballot initiatives tend to be blunt instruments called upon to do delicate work. It seems to me that the state's meta-problem—the reason its public schools are a mess, the reason it keeps hacking away at its glorious public-university system—can be tied to the infamous, 1978 Prop. 13, still limiting property taxes and squeezing civic institutions a quarter century after its passage.

Is the Junk Food Industry Buying the WHO?

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

The US Food and Drug Administration is notorious for bowing to food-industry interests at the expense of public health. Consider the case of trans fats—whose damaging effects the FDA ignored for decades under industry pressure before finally taking action in 2006, a story I told here. Then there's the barrage of added sweeteners that have entered the US diet over the last two decades, while the FDA whistled. This week, Cristin Kearns Couzens and Gary Taubes, who has been writing hard-hitting pieces on the dangers of excess sweetener consumption for a while, have a blockbuster Mother Jones story documenting how the FDA rolled over for the food industry on added sweeteners.

As evidence of harm piles up, the industry is only accelerating its effort to keep government action at bay. Back in April, a Reuters investigative report found that the food industry had "more than doubled" its annual lobbying spending under Obama and had successfully pursued a strategy of "pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation's diet."

But the food industry isn't satisfied with just keeping the US safe for its junk products. As a new Reuters report shows, the industry is also actively seeking influence at the global level by cozying up to the World Health Organization, the public-health arm of the United Nations. The WHO is most known for its efforts to fight communicable diseases like malaria and AIDS. But the UN has recently charged it with focusing on chronic, diet-related ailments like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Can Farms Bounce Back from Superstorms Like Sandy?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the "imagination of disaster"—the keen sense that there's always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts—all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.

In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a "500-year flood" visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second "500-year flood" in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state's previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August's Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented "superstorm" Sandy.

What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 7:03 AM EDT

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose "jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea." The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls "blue zones"—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island's demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can't explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people "with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria," but "live no longer than average Greeks." So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians' good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We've learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.

VIDEO: Michael Pollan Talks GMO Labeling

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 6:13 AM EDT

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, is coming down to the wire as the Nov. 6 election approaches. (I've written about Prop. 37 here, here, and here.) As recently as Sept. 27, Pepperdine University's bi-monthly poll found 3-to-1 support among the state's voters for the proposition. Two weeks later, the lead had shrunk to 48 percent for to 40 percent against. Like the presidential race, the fight over Prop. 37 has tightened dramatically.

Pepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly.  Pepperdine UniversityPepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly. Pepperdine UniversityWhat happened? Most likely, it's the recent multimillion-dollar major television ad blitz, funded by agrichemical giants like Monsanto and processed food makers like Kraft, to whip up opposition to GMO labeling. (Dig into the latest contributions to the effort to defeat Prop. 37 here—on Oct. 19 alone, meat giant Smithfield came through with $454,908.15; Kraft ponied up $1,094,851.75; Pepsi chipped in $429,100.00, etc.)

"This is a great example of the power of advertising," pollster Chris Condon of M4 Strategies, which conducted the survey, told The Los Angeles Times. "A lot of money has been poured into the No side, and the effect has been dramatic."

On Wednesday's Democracy Now show, Amy Goodman hosted a no-holds-barred debate between Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, who opposes the measure. In the debate, Zilberman strains to convince viewers that labeling GMOs in California would mean the starvation of thousands in Africa.

Goodman also interviewed Michael Pollan, who recently argued in The New York Times Magazine that Prop. 37 is a key test for "whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system."

In another segment, Pollan holds forth on the food movement's burgeoning political power, agruing that the movement remains in its infancy—he argues that the food movement today is like the environmental movement before the first Earth Day in 1970.

Finally, for one more blast of Prop. 37 commentary as the election hits the stretch run, The New York Times' food guru Mark Bittman recently made the case for it.

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Do Bayer's Pesticides Make Worker Bees Lazy?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:03 AM EDT
Must. Avoid. Corn.

Corn prices remain quite high, driven up by the summer's prolonged drought. And since the United States is by far the globe's largest corn producer, prices will likely stay high until the next bumper crop in the Midwest replenishes global corn reserves. To take advantage of high prices, US farmers will likely plant a whole lot of corn in spring 2013—at least as much as they did in 2012, which marked a 75-year high in corn acreage. And that could be bad news for bees, commercial honey-producing ones and wild bumblebees alike, both of which have experienced severe declines in recent years.

What does the health of bees have to do with the corn crop? A growing weight of evidence links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on nearly the entire US corn crop, to declining bee health. In March, I looked at three studies that had just been released, two of them published in the prestigious journal Science, making the link. Those papers came on the heels of a damning one from Purdue University researchers (which I discussed here). And now comes yet another, this one (abstract; I have the full study but can't upload it because of copyright issues) published by UK researchers in another prestigious publication, the British journal Nature.

Why Is the FDA Inspecting So Little Imported Seafood?

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

If you eat a lot of fish, likely as not you're eating something that was raised on a farm and hauled in from thousands of miles away. According to NOAA, we import about 86 percent of the seafood we consume, about half of which comes from from aquaculture. And just because you find it in a gleaming supermarket fish case or on a well-presented restaurant plate doesn't mean it's safe to eat.

Over at Bloomberg Businessweek, there's a pretty startling piece on the sanitary conditions on some of those farms. In Vietnam, farmed shrimp bound for the US market are kept fresh with heaps of ice made from tap water that teems with pathogenic bacteria, Businessweek reports. Tilapia in China's fish farms, meanwhile, literally feed on pig manure—even though it contains salmonella and makes the tilapia "more susceptible to disease." Why use hog shit as feed? Simple—it's cheap, and China's tilapia farms operate under intense pressure to slash costs and produce as much cheap tilapia as possible.

Paul Ryan's Brother is a Cargill Exec in China

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 10:49 AM EDT
Stan Ryan

As China consolidates its position as the globe's low-cost manufacturing center, the nation is using some of its wealth to shift to industrial-style agriculture and a Western-style high-meat diet. One company that stands to cash in on these trends is the US agribusiness giant Cargill, one of the globe's largest privately held firms. About 60 percent of the globe's traded soybeans end up in China as feed for the country's fast-growing factory farms, and Cargill is one of the the handful of companies that broker those deals. In August, the company announced it was investing $250 million to build an "integrated chicken broiler facility" designed to raise and process 65 million chickens per year. So Cargill will not only sell China the feed it needs for its burgeoning meat habit, but it will also produce some of the the meat.

At the center of this fast-emerging profit center for Cargill is none other than Paul Ryan's brother, Stan Ryan, who "serves as corporate vice-president of Cargill's agricultural supply-chain businesses" based in Shanghai. According to his bio, Stan Ryan is "focused on growing Cargill's business operations in Asia and its agriculture-based supply-chain businesses globally, in addition to other corporate functional responsibilities."

Below I've pasted a recent interview with Stan Ryan on China's food situation. If there's anything remarkable about it, it's the way Ryan aligns Cargill's interests with those of the Chinese government. He notes approvingly that the government has decided that the country's farms should grow the bulk of the corn, rice, and wheat that the nation uses, while choosing to import soybeans—a smart strategy, he says, because soybeans require plenty of water, something China is running short on. (It probably is a smart strategy, if your goal is to ramp up factory-style meat production.) And he praises the country's latest five-year agricultural plan. In general, from listening to Ryan, you get the idea that Cargill and the Chinese government are working seamlessly together: partners in the industrialization of Chinese agriculture and the Westernization of its diet.

Given that Paul Ryan is an acolyte of Ayn Rand, who thundered against "collectivism" and government control, Ryan family events must get tense when Stan Ryan begins extolling the virtues of Chinese agricultural planning—even if it's very profitable, indeed, for Cargill.

 

Conservatives Bravely Defend Kids' Right to Junky Lunch

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Call it the tater tot rebellion. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which modestly increased federal expenditures on school lunches and also overhauled the rules that governed them. No longer would federally subsidized school lunch cafeterias act as a kind of unfettered free-enterprise zone for the food industry's "Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets" and frozen pizzas. The new rules put limits on calories per meal and mandated that more fruits and vegetables be served. And now, according to media reports (see here and here), students nationwide are organizing strikes and social-media campaigns to protest the new rules.

When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became law, I was disappointed that it didn't commit more money to improving lunches. Even after the increase included in the 2010 law, school cafeterias get less than a dollar a day per student in federal funding to spend on ingredients (about two-thirds of the maximum $2.94 outlay per lunch goes to overhead and labor). How much decent food can you churn out on such budgets, especially given that so few schools have fully equipped kitchens nowadays? But if the rules could at least reduce empty calories from low-quality, health-killing added sweeteners and fats, that would at least be a positive step…right?

Well, according to the New York Times, kids are rebelling against the new lunchroom regime. Here's the Times on how the new rules make things different: