Tom Philpott

First We Fed Bees High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Now We've Given Them a Killer Virus?

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In the classic board game Clue, murder mysteries have clear solutions: say, Col. Mustard with the candlestick in the dining room. In the stark recent declines of honeybees and other pollinators, however, the situation is murkier.

We've put bees through a lot. They have to deal with nasty parasite, the varroa mite, which didn't make its way to the United States until the late 1980s. They also have to deal with pesticides specifically designed to target those mites (called, yes, miticides). Over the winter, bees in commercial hives often live not on their own honey, as they have evolved to do, but rather a cheap substitute: high-fructose corn syrup. And finally, they are confronted with a range of pathogens.

Over the past month, the dossiers on two of those suspects got a little thicker. In the January issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecotoxicology, UK researchers delivered yet more evidence that a widely used pesticide class called neonicotinoids might play a decisive role in declining bee health. They fed one set of bumblebees pollen and sugar water containing very low levels a neonic called imidacloprid. The team let the dosed bees forage in a field and compared their pollen-gathering performance to those of an un-dosed control group.

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The New Farm Bill: Yet Again, Not Ready for Climate Change

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Corn in a drought-stricken field.

Imagine you're a policy maker in a large country in an era of increasing climate instability—more floods and droughts, driven by steadily increasing average temperatures. And say the policy you make largely dictated the way your country's farmers grow their crops. Wouldn't you push for a robust, climate change-ready agriculture—one that stores carbon in the soil, helping stabilize the climate while also making farms more resilient to weather extremes?

There's no real mystery about how to achieve these goals. I profiled a farmer last year named David Brandt who's doing just that with a few highly imitable techniques (spoiler: crop rotation and cover crops), right in the middle of Big Corn country. This peer-reviewed 2012 Iowa State University study tells a similar tale. The question is, how to turn farmers like Brandt from outliers into to trendsetters—from the exception to the rule. The obvious lever would be the farm bill, that twice-a-decade omnibus legislation that shapes the decisions of millions of farmers nationwide, while also funding our major food-aid program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps.

Well, after more than a year of heated debate, Congress has finally cobbled together a new farm bill, one likely to be signed into law soon by President Obama. Unfortunately, the great bulk of that debate didn't focus how to steer the country's agriculture through the trying times ahead. Instead, it concerned how much to cut food aid for poor people. The Democrats wanted relatively minor cuts; the Republicans, animated by the tea party wing, wanted draconian ones. The (relatively) good news: the new bill will cut SNAP by $9 billion over the next decade, vs. the $40 billion demanded by austerity-obsessed GOP backbenchers. My colleague Erika Eichelberger has more on this sad business of pinching food aid at a time of record poverty.

Monsanto's Take on Whether It's Moving Away from GMOs

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 6:42 PM EST

In a recent piece, I speculated that Monsanto might be moving away from its focus on genetically modified crops. I contacted the Monsanto press office to get the company's perspective, but didn't connect by deadline time. Since then, I've been in touch with Charla Lord, a Monsanto press officer. She confirmed that in its vegetable division, Monsanto relies on conventional breeding and not GMOs, because "breeding helps us bring more products to market faster and is more cost effective."

As for my speculation that Monsanto was moving in a similar direction in its main business—big commodity crops like corn, soy and cotton—she pointed to the company's recently released 2014 Research and Development Pipeline, which lists four "platforms" for delivering new technology to farmers: "breeding, biotechnology, agronomics and new technology platforms." So genetic modification—i.e, "biotechnology"—is just one of the four. She also directed me to a replay of Monsanto's Jan. 8 conference call on its latest quarterly financial report. In it, a Monsanto exec made this remark on the company's new-products pipeline.

Some of the most exciting advances are coming from our new platforms. … We are really entering a new era where we expect farmers will see waves of technology that build on each other in a total system in the seed, in the bag, and in the field.

The pipeline itself paints a compelling picture of where this industry is going. Increasingly, we are moving beyond farmers making due with disconnected input components and we are on the leading edge of giving farmers real, integrated systems in their fields. Think about it. You start with the seed that is capable of delivering more yield than at any other point in the history and then we protect that with cutting-edge traits embedded in the seeds. Wrap around that chemical and microbial seed treatments that fend off disease and increase the health of the plant, and then utilize sophisticated algorithms to plant and position all the inputs meter by meter across the field. We are talking about a prescription agriculture that looks a lot like individually personalized medicine and that is how we are going to drive yield and productivity. You can see all the elements coming together today in waves that build on each other and which drive the opportunity for our farmer customers and our company.

Lord said that all this talk about new platforms shouldn't be read as a move away from GMOs—the other techniques "augment" GMOs in Monsanto's R&D work, but don't represent a "tradeoff," i.e., they don't displace GMOs. Fair enough. But this still sounds to me like a company that's diversifying away from GM technology—or at least one that's trying to.

 

Monarch Butterflies Can Survive the World's Most Amazing Migration—But GMOs Are Wiping Them Out

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EST
A monarch butterfly, with milkweed.

The monarch butterfly is a magnificent and unique beast—the globe's only butterfly species that embarks on an annual round-trip migration spanning thousands of miles, from the northern US and Canada to central Mexico. And monarchs aren't just a gorgeous bug; they're also pollinators, meaning they help keep land-based ecosystems humming. Their populations have been plunging for years, and the number of them hibernating in Mexico last year hit an all-time low, reports University of Minnesota ecologist Karen Oberhauser. Why? Here's Oberhauser:

Tragically, much of their breeding habitat in this region [the US and Canada] has been lost to changing agricultural practices, primarily the exploding adoption of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops in the late 20th and early 21st centuries ... These crops allow post-emergence treatment with herbicides, and have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from agricultural habitats.

In a 2012 post, I teased out how crops engineered for herbicide tolerance wipe out milkweed, the monarch's main source of food, and lead to the charismatic specie's decline. And here's the peer-reviewed paper, co-authored by Oberhauser, that documents the trend.

Is Monsanto Giving Up on GMOs?

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Is genetically modified seed giant Monsanto doing the unthinkable and moving away from genetically modified seeds?

It sounds crazy, but hear me out. Let’s start with Monsanto's vegetable division, Seminis, which boasts it is the "largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds in the world." Monsanto acknowledges Seminis has no new GM vegetables in development. According to a recent Wired piece, Seminis has has reverted instead to "good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same technology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia."

Why? The article points to people's growing avoidance of genetically modified foods. So far, consumers have shown no appetite to gobble up GM vegetables. (But that doesn't mean people aren't eating GMOs: Nearly all GMOs currently on the market are big commodity crops like corn and soy, which, besides being used as livestock feed, are regularly used as ingredients in processed food—think high-fructose corn syrup and soy oil.)

Are Agriculture Exports Killing Us?

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 6:55 AM EST
A large hog farm and its ammonia–spewing "manure lagoon."

Late last year, US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack boasted that US agriculture exports had hit an all-time high in fiscal 2013, and hailed "historic work by the Obama Administration to break down barriers to US products and achieve new agreements to expand exports." Underlying Vilsack's glee is the idea that growing huge amounts of food here and selling a big chunk of it overseas bolsters the US economy and stabilizes rural America.

Agricultural exports cause $36 billion in annual healthcare costs, along with about 5,100 premature deaths.
 

That kind of thinking has driven agriculture policy at least since the days when Richard Nixon's ag secretary Earl Butz exhorted farmers to scale up operations and plant "fencerow to fencerow" in order to supply foreign markets.

But a new paper (PDF) from Harvard suggests massive ag exports might not be the economic boon imagined by USDA secretaries. The researchers looked at a single farm pollutant, ammonia (NH3), which makes its way into the air from fertilizer applied to farm fields and from the manure that accumulates on livestock farms. Once it enters the atmosphere, as Erik Stokstad explained in an excellent (pay-walled) news item in Science, it "reacts with other air pollutants to create tiny particles that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma attacks, bronchitis, and heart attacks."

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The Standard American Diet in 3 Simple Charts

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 6:55 AM EST

US obesity and diabetes rates are among the globe's very highest. Why? On her blog, the NYU nutritionist and food-politics expert Marion Nestle recently pointed (hat-tip, RealFood.org) to this telling chart on how we spend our grocery money, from the USDA's Amber Waves publication:

So, we do a pretty good job eating enough potatoes. But the healthier, more brightly colored vegetables like kale and carrots, no so much. We spend four times the amount on refined grains the USDA thinks is proper, and about a fifth of the target expenditure in whole grains. We spend nearly 14 percent of our at-home food budgets on sugar and candies, and another 8 percent on premade frozen and fridge entrees. Whole fruit barley accounts for less than 5 percent of our grocery bill. And so on—a pretty dismal picture.

That chart deals with at-home expenditures. What about our food choices out in the world? The USDA article has more. This chart shows that we're getting more and more of our sustenance outside of our own kitchens:

And while the article doesn't offer comparable data to the above at-home chart about expenditures outside the home, it does deliver evidence that our eating out habits are pretty dire as well:

Why do we eat such crap food? The USDA throws up its hands: "Despite the benefits to overall diet quality," the report states, "it can be difficult to convince consumers to change food preferences."

But it never pauses top consider the food industry's vast marketing budget. According to Yale's Rudd Center, the US fast-food chains like McDonalds, Wendy's, and Burger King spent $4.6 billion on advertising in 2012. "For context," Rudd reports, "the biggest advertiser, McDonald’s, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined ($367 million)." I can't find numbers for the marketing budgets for the gigantic food companies that stock the middle shelves of supermarkets; but according to Advertising Age, Kraft alone spent $683 million on US advertising in 2012.

By contrast, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the USDA’s sub-agency that “works to improve the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers," had a proposed budget of $8.7 million in 2013.

Farmworkers Win an Extra Penny From the Ultimate Penny Pincher, Walmart

| Sat Jan. 18, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Walmart representatives John Amaya (left), Tom Leech (center) and CIW’s Lucas Benitez and Gerardo Reyes Chavez (far right) sign an historic agreement at a farm outside of Immokalee, Florida.

Before fast-food workers began agitating for a liveable wage, before Walmart employees began holding public demonstrations to demand better pay from the largest US private employer, there was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida's vast tomato fields.

Living in dire conditions, disempowered by their status as undocumented migrants from points south, making sub-poverty wages, subjected to often-violent repression and sometimes outright slavery—all depicted in detail in Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland—the workers rolled out an ambitious and quixotic-seeming strategy to improve their lot in the mid-2000s. Rather than continuing to knock their heads against Florida's entrenched tomato barons directly, CIW instead brought battle to their case to the growers' customers: massive fast-food chains.

Using boycotts and partnering with college-student activists, CIW demanded that the chains pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes, which would then be passed on directly to the workers. A penny per pound would represent the first major pay raise in years for the workers, and a minor dip in profits for massive chains like McDonalds. Yet the chains fought back, sometimes voraciously.

And then, one by one, they fell: first YUM Brands (Taco Bell) signed the penny-a-pound pledge, then McDonalds, then Burger King, and finally, after a long battle, Chipotle Grill. After that, CIW turned its attention to retailers, signing agreements with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

Late Thursday, CIW netted the biggest fish of all: Walmart, by far the largest private food buyer in the US. A company that muscled its way to the top of the US corporate heap by pinching pennies—squeezing suppliers and its own workers relentlessly—has now agreed to shell out an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.

CIW has shown yet again that scrappy workers, sufficiently organized, can win concessions from even the most ruthless companies. Barry Estabrook has more.

 

 

CHARTS: Why Dutch Food Is the Best in The World

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 4:23 PM EST

Over the past few decades, it has become possible to speak of a "global food system"—shorthand for the trade patterns, shaped by multinational companies, that move raw agriculture commodities and processed food across borders. Yet as this fascinating new Oxfam study shows, there are still huge differences in people's experience of food across the globe. Oxfam ranked nations on four criteria: whether food exists in plentiful supply, whether it's broadly affordable, whether it's of good quality, and whether it's causing high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Try playing around with the above interactive tool (note that it functions better in Chrome than in Firefox). Oxfam's visualization tool broadly groups countries on a scale of "good" to "bad," but can be confusing when it comes to ranking countries within the same bunches. To get more precise rankings, go to this Excel file.

The overall rankings, which average the four categories and is the default setting of the above tool, tell us something we already know: that Western Europeans enjoy a pretty great food situation, while people living in most African and (to a lesser extent) Asian countries have it pretty bad. The US comes out pretty well, tied with Japan but behind 19 West European nations (as a look at that Excel file shows). 

Drilling down a bit, the "enough to eat" metric—which compares rates of malnutrition and underweight children—tells us it's way better to live in high-income countries like the usual West European suspects and the US than in extremely low-income ones like Zimbabwe, Angola, and Chad. There are a couple of outliers, though. Mexico, Jordan, and Brazil, for example, have a much lower per-capita GDPs than the Western European nations, the US, and Japan, yet it joins them on the "good" end of the scale (GDP numbers here.) It would be interesting to study the food policies of Mexico, et al, to see how they manage to make food broadly available despite relatively low national incomes.

The "affordability" metric—measuring how pricey food is vs. other goods, as well as price stability—tells a similar tale: It largely tracks income (people who make plenty of money can afford plenty of food). It ha a similar set of outliers, too.

The "obesity and diabetes" metric is a kind of mirror image of the previous two: Higher-income countries tend to have higher rates of these diet-related maladies. Here, the US emerges at the high end of the scale, bunched with petro-states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Again, Mexico and Jordan find themselves out of their income league. But the chart doesn't quite argue that countries that countries that severely limit malnutrition and make food affordable are doomed to super-high rates of obesity and diabetes. Look at low end of the chart, where you find the Netherlands and France. And the middle, which includes Italy, Denmark, Greece, and other West European nations. These examples suggest that you can create robust food systems that are broadly affordable—without making a huge swath of your population sick and fat.
 

 

Wait, We Inject Antibiotics Into Eggs for Organic Chicken?!

| Wed Jan. 15, 2014 6:55 AM EST
Which came first: the organic chicken or the gentamicin injection?

When you've covered a topic long enough, you get the idea you've heard it all. Then along comes a factoid like the one I discovered while preparing my recent piece on the recent blockbuster Consumer Reports study on supermarket chicken and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I learned that at the industrial hatcheries that churn out chicks for the poultry industry, eggs are commonly injected with tiny amounts of an antibiotic called gentamicin, which is used in people to treat a variety of serious bacterial infections.

To sterilize the small hole required to get a vaccine into an egg, the industry commonly shoot in a bit of gentamicin.

That alone dropped my jaw—what, the practice of dosing chickens with antibiotics has to begin literally in the egg? But get this: The practice is allowed in organic production, too. Organic code forbids use of antibiotics in animals, yet in a loophole I'd never heard of, such standards kick in on "the second day of life" for chicks destined for organic poultry farms. (The practice isn't used for the eggs we actually eat—just the ones that hatch chicks to be raised on farms.)

John Glisson, a veterinarian for the US Poultry & Egg Association, told me the practice originated decades ago, when the industry began vaccinating chicken embryos to prevent a common condition called Marek's disease, a deadly herpes virus that attacks chickens. To sterilize the small hole required to get the vaccine into the egg, the industry would shoot in a bit of gentamicin. Glisson added that it remains a common practice, but that it has declined in recent years as (he insisted) the industry has begun to move away from reliance on antibiotics. Neither Glisson nor the FDA could give me precise data on how often it's used these days. The Food and Drug Administration allows such injections only when prescribed by a veterinarian, a spokesperson said.

So what's the problem with giving chickens a little antibiotic boost as they start life? For starters, the practice could promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. A 2007 peer-reviewed study of Maryland and Virginia workers in conventional chicken houses were 32 times more likely to carrying gentamicin-resistant E. coli than their neighbors who don't work in the industry.