Tom Philpott

Watch What It's Like to Be a Factory-Farmed Chicken (UPDATED)

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 5:00 AM EST

UPDATE: North Carolina farmer Craig Watts heard from the Perdue, the gigantic chicken processor for whom he grows his birds under contract, just hours after the below video early Thursday morning release, reports the veteran agribusiness journalist Chris Leonard. And Perdue isn't pleased—on Thursday, "Perdue employees arrived at Watts’ farm and informed him that he was the subject on an internal animal welfare audit," Leonard writes.  "If he [Watts] fails the audit, the company could cancel his contract and effectively put him out of business." The company confirmed the move, pointing the finger at Watts for the rough conditions of the birds in the video, Leonard reports. He adds: "Farmers like Watts have little freedom in choosing how to raise their chickens, and they have no control over the kind of bird that is delivered to their farm." His whole piece is worth reading.

The US meat industry maintains a strict code of secrecy over what goes on within the vast facilities where animals are fattened for slaughter, as Ted Genoways showed in a Mother Jones feature last year (which he expanded into an excellent full-length book). So the glimpses we get of these fecal-laden dungeons tend to be in the form of grainy videos, shot by undercover animal-welfare activists posing as workers—for example, the very recent, and quite gruesome, footage from inside a Seaboard Farms hog facility that supplies Walmart, captured by Mercy For Animals.

The above video is a different breed. In this one, Leah Garces, US director of Compassion in World Farming, got North Carolina farmer Craig Watts, who raises chickens on contract for poultry giant Perdue, to allow her to walk around freely, with a film crew, while he describes the scene. There's nothing shadowy about it—just a farmer talking openly about the conditions under which he's required by contract to raise chickens, over clear footage. Watts is clearly a dissident cog in the Big Ag machine. Most contract farmers walk the omertà line, for fear that the big meat packers they rely on will cut them off, leaving them holding massive debt they can't pay—a story Chris Leonard laid out in great detail in the recent book The Meat Racket. Watts, though, is speaking freely. He was a major source in a recent Reuters exposé of antibiotic use on poultry farms. It will be interesting to see how Big Meat handles this rare blast of sunshine.

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How Monsanto's Big Data Push Hurts Small Farms

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Ask an agribusiness exec about sustainable agriculture, and you'll likely get an earful about something called "precision agriculture." What is it? According to Yara, the fertilizer giant, it's technology that "enables farmers to add the specific nutrients needed for their crop, in exactly the right amount, at the right time."

That is to say, instead of using intuition and experience to decide how much fertilizer or pesticides to apply, farmers rely on sensors, satellite data, and the Internet of Things to make such choices. In addition to selling farmers agrichemicals, Yara also sells a "knowledge platform, supported by tools for precision farming," including "an online service providing advice on the physical mixing characteristics of Yara's foliar products with agrochemicals."

Yara isn't the only industry titan to move into the information-peddling business. Genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto envisions itself transforming into an information-technology company within a decade, as a company honcho recently told my colleague Tim McDonnell. A year ago, Monsanto dropped nearly $1 billion on Climate Corp., which "turns a wide range of information into valuable insights and recommendations for farmers," as Monsanto put it at the time.

But will Big Ag's turn to Big Data deliver on the environmental promises made in the press releases and executive interviews? McDonnell lays out the environmental case succinctly:

The payoff for growers can be huge: Monsanto estimates that farmers typically make 40 key choices in the course of a growing season—what seed to plant, when to plant it, and so on. For each decision, there's an opportunity to save money on "inputs": water, fuel, seeds, custom chemical treatments, etc. Those savings can come with a parallel environmental benefit (less pollution from fertilizer and insecticides).

These are real gains. No one who has seen fertilizer-fed algae blooms in Lake Erie—or had their municipal tap water declared toxic because of them—can deny that the Midwest's massive corn farms need to use fertilizer more efficiently. Des Moines, Iowa, surrounded by millions of acres of intensively fertilized farmland, routinely has to spend taxpayer cash to filter its municipal drinking water of nitrates from farm runoff. Nitrates are linked with cancer and "blue-baby syndrome," which can suffocate infants.

But as Quentin Hardy suggested in a recent New York Times piece, Big Data on the farm can also steamroll an extremely effective conservation practice: crop diversification, which can slash the need for fertilizer and herbicide, as a landmark 2012 Iowa State University study showed. Big Data, Hardy argued, gives farms incentive to both get bigger and plant fewer varieties of crops.

His argument is twofold. First, the precision ag tools being peddled by the agribusiness giants are quite pricey:

Equipment makers like John Deere and AGCO, for example, have covered their planters, tractors and harvesters with sensors, computers and communications equipment. A combine equipped to harvest a few crops cost perhaps $65,000 in 2000; now it goes for as much as $500,000 because of the added information technology.

When a farmer invests that much in a technology, there's an "incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale," Hardy writes. "Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems," and that would require yet more investment in information technology.

Hardy finds evidence that the shift to information technology is already accelerating a decades-long trend of ever-larger Midwestern farms focusing more and more on churning out just two crops: corn and soy. "It's not that smaller farms are less productive, but the big ones can afford these technology investments," a US Department of Agriculture economist tells him.

One farmer Hardy talked to owns a family farm in Iowa that grew from 700 acres in the 1970s to 20,000 acres today. "We've got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones," the farmer tells Hardy. 

The recent plunge in corn and soy prices might only exacerbate the trend. All that gear and information allows the farm to operate at a high level of efficiency and at a vast scale, making it more likely to eke out a profit than smaller operations in a time of lowball crop prices. As a result, over the next few years of expected low crop prices, the farmer with 20,000 acres in Iowa expects his farm to expand at the expense of "farmers who don’t embrace technology," he tells Hardy.

But economies of scale and efficiency don't automatically translate to less use of toxic chemicals and pollution. Big Data may help monocrop farmers use less fertilizer and pesticides per acre harvested than they had been before, but if they drive out more diversified and less chemical-intensive operations, the result might not be as clear-cut as the agribusiness companies suggest.

Tom's Kitchen: A Chili to Unite Vegans and Purists (in Anger)

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Bowl of red? You could call it that—at your own risk.

During a recent frigid snap, I found myself with a cold chill I couldn't get rid of, a pound of (grass-fed, local) ground chuck thawing in the fridge, and a fierce appetite. The thought of burgers didn't hit the spot, nor did pasta with meat sauce. My mind reached to the depths of my Texas childhood and found a primordial craving I hadn't thought of in years: chili.

Now, chili is as bitterly contested and regionally variegated a dish as cassoulet in France or paella in Spain. Like those dishes, its origin is in dispute. Some partisans insist it must not contain beans (the Texas "bowl of red" school); others demand that it do. Tomatoes are another flashpoint. Serious chili requires chunks of beef, not the ground stuff. Etc.

I usually have patience for such debates. This time, I cast them aside and got busy. I decided to add beans, critics be damned, to stretch the dish out, because I wanted plenty of leftovers. I considered starting with a mirepoix—the French trinity of onions, carrots, and celery—but decided that carrots in chili would be too hippie. (I stuck with celery though, on the theory that it would be barely noticeable).

I knew that to distinguish it from a generic meat sauce, I'd need lots of cumin and paprika, and was relieved to find both in my cupboard. But in another affront to chili tradition, I decided to ignore regular paprika and tap my little jar of that wonderful smoked Spanish version known as Pimenton de la Vera, which added a nice dimension to the mix.

And to complement my main dish, I was happily surprised to find that I had all the ingredients for a simple cornbread—to me, the ultimate accompaniment to chili. (Cornbread is another highly divisive topic, and one for another column.) What follows is a recipe that I predict will unite in fury two disparate groups: vegans and chili partisans. It's also a really good quick dinner. Enjoy!

Quick Chili

Enough high-quality fat, such as olive oil, lard, or bacon grease (I used the latter) to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 pound ground beef, preferably grass-fed
(At least) 1 teaspoon of cumin, freshly ground if possible
1 teaspoon oregano (thyme works to, as does the combination of thyme and oregano)
1-2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of paprika, smoked or otherwise
1 teaspoon of sea salt
½ 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes (reserve other half for another use, like salsa)
1 regular 15-oz can of red beans, such as kidney beans, or a cup of dry beans, cooked
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
A dash of apple cider vinegar, optional
Something green, like chopped green onion tops or chives, to garnish

Place the pan over medium heat and add the fat. When it's hot, add the onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until they're soft. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, paprika, and salt, and let it cook, stirring to prevent the garlic from burning, for another minute or two.

Add the meat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's brown, around 10 minutes. Add the half-can of tomatoes (along with juices) and cook, stirring, and using a wooden spoon to break up the tomato chunks.

Turn the heat to low, and let the tomatoes simmer, gently, for 20 minutes or so. After it's thickened a bit, add the beans along with about half of their liquid, bring to a boil, and let it simmer, again for 20 minutes or so. Give it a veritable cascade of fresh-ground pepper. Taste for seasoning. (I like my chili highly flavorful, but not spicy-hot—just spicy enough to tickle the back of my throat. Then I serve fiery condiments at the table.) After adding a little salt, I found that a dash of apple cider vinegar balanced the flavor.

Classic chili garnishes include chopped green onions (white and green parts) as well as grated cheese. I decided against cheese, on the grounds that the chili seemed rich enough, and I had no green onions on hand. Garlic chives from the garden did the trick.

Serve with cornbread, a green salad, and your favorite hot sauce. I used my beloved home-made salsa macha.

Watch Jon Stewart Skewer Chris Christie's Absurd Endorsement of Cruel Pig Crates

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 2:08 PM EST

Satriale's Pork Store aside, New Jersey isn't exactly a powerhouse of hog production. Iowa's (mostly factory-scale) hog farms hold more than a million breeding sows—pigs that exist to give birth to baby pigs, that in turn get funneled into enormous facilities to be transformed into bacon, ham, and chops. New Jersey? The state houses fewer than 1,000 breeding sows. So why did the state's famously pugnacious governor bother to veto a bill—overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature—that would ban the egregious practice of housing pregnant sows in crates so tight they can't turn around (a topic I've explored here and here). Jon Stewart has answers. Spoiler: Christie's absurd maneuver has to do with presidential ambition and a key early primary held in a certain hog-heavy state. 

The Looming Olive Oil Apocalypse

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 5:02 PM EST

The world's most celebrated olive oil comes from sun-drenched groves of Italy. But Italy is also a hotbed of olive oil subterfuge, counterfeit, and adulteration—and has been since Roman times, as Tom Muellar showed in an eye-opening 2007 New Yorker piece (which grew into a book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.)  Next year, getting real olive oil from Italy is going to be even harder than usual. Here's the LA Times' Russ Parsons:

As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling “The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil,” the olive harvest through much of Italy has been devastated—down 35% from last year. 

The reason is a kind of perfect storm (so to speak) of rotten weather through the nation:

When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground.

Other major olive oil-producing nations suffered similar calamities; Parsons reports that in Spain and Mediterranean neighbors, production is also "forecast to be far below last year's." And California, that big chunk of Mediterranean-like climate on our west coast, where excellent olive oil is produced? Parsons says the epochal drought is pinching production, and he quotes Muellar to the effect that "frankly, I hear about a lot of games being played there too, with labels and quality alike." Sigh.

I find all of this distressing. I came of age as a cook in an era of olive oil hegemony. I treat it like the oil that powers my car, as something to be relied on casually, as if it appeared by magic from nowhere. (Nearly all my Tom's Kitchen columns feature it.)

Once a staple of Mediterranean polyculture—farms and households would feature olive trees in mixed groves along with a multitude of other crops—olive oil production has long since industrialized. Here is The Ecologist from 2008:

Industrial olive farms grow their olive trees, planted at high densities, in massive irrigated orchards on lowland plains. The olives are harvested by machines that clamp around the tree’s trunk and shake it until the olives fall to the ground. Oil is then extracted by industrial-scale centrifuge, often at high temperatures. In contrast, small, traditional farms are often ancient, their trees typically planted on upland terraces. The farmers manage their groves with few or no agrochemicals, less water and less machinery. Olives are picked off the ground by hand and the oil extracted by grinding the olives in a millstone and press. Demand for cheap, mass-produced oil is making it a struggle for the smaller, traditional farms to be economically viable, however.

….

Intensive olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU: widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. In 2001, the European Commission ordered an independent study into the environmental impact of olive farming across the EU. The report concluded: ‘Soil erosion is probably the most serious environmental problem associated with olive farming.

I fear that next year's olive oil crunch is a harbinger of things to come. I am officially in search of alternative cooking fats. One I've come to appreciate: lard from pasture-raised hogs. Lard's rotten nutritional reputation is the result of outdated and discredited science. And it makes food taste really good, too.

Tom's Kitchen: Gratin of Hearty Greens

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:22 AM EST

I'm a greens fanatic: mustards, kale, collards, chard, you name it. I eat them in some form more or less every day, sometimes more than once. At this point, a meal—even (or especially) something as simple as a fried egg for breakfast—just seems naked, incomplete, without them. Their ubiquity in my daily life can make them seem unexciting for a special feast like Thanksgiving. Really, again, greens made like I always do them, sautéed with onion until tender and then finished with a lashing of vinegar? At the same time, there was no way I could imagine Thanksgiving without leafy greens—especially since they reach their peak of flavor in the fall.

So rather than forsake them or serve them the same old way, I decided to dress them up into something richer and more elegant: a gratin. To get ideas on how to pull it off, I dug into James Peterson's excellent 2002 tome Glorious French Food. Along with recipes for the three classic gratins—potatoes, leeks, and squash—it also includes advice on how to improvise one: merely pour cream and cheese over the desired vegetable, and bake in the oven until a "savory crust forms on top." That's when I knew that I not only had a winning side dish for the holiday table, but also something dead simple and yet tasty: perfect fodder for a Tom's Kitchen column.

Peterson advises that in most cases, vegetables should be cooked before the baking stage, "so that the moisture they contain is released during the precooking instead of remaining in the gratin, where it would dilute the surrounding sauce." So I started the dish in the same way I usually cook greens—which gave me the chance to work in onions and garlic—before finishing in the oven with cream and cheese. The result was magical—sweet, creamy, tender greens, mashed up with a snap of caramelized cheese. Note: there's also a vegan variation below.

Gratin of Hearty Greens

Enough extra-virgin olive or butter to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
3 medium onions, halved and sliced thin
3 bunches of hearty greens such as kale or collards (I used two kale, one collards)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
Sea salt
1 pint heavy cream
4 ounces grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I used) or Gruyère
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Place a large heavy-bottom pot over low-medium heat, add the onions, and let them sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft.

Meanwhile, prep the greens. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in one left hand and slicing down each side of the stem with a knife. By the time you're done, you'll have two piles: one of stems and one of leaves. I apply a whole-beast ethos to vegetables, and consider greens stems to be highly flavorful. So bunch the stems in a pile and slice them finely, crosswise. Set aside. Now chop the greens and set them aside, too. The point of separating them is to give the stems a head start cooking, as they take a little longer.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Now the onions should be soft. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a minute or so, until it has released its fragrance. Add the chopped stems and a pinch of salt, stir to mix them with the onions and garlic, and cover the pot. Let them cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add the greens and another pinch of salt, using tongs to carefully mix in with the sautéed veggies in the pan. Add about a half cup of water (or stock) to the pan, and turn heat to high until the water begins to boil. When it does, turn heat down a little bit, and let the greens simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until they're nearly tender but still a little al dente. At that point, remove the lid and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated.

Turn off the heat, taste, and add a little salt if necessary. Arrange the cooked greens in a casserole dish large enough to comfortably fit them all. Pour the cream over. Sprinkle the cheese all over the top. Give it a vigorous lashing of black pepper. Bake until the top is well-browned (30-45  minutes). Serve hot. This dish can be made a day or two in advance and reheated in a 350 F oven just before serving. Better yet, cook the greens until they're tender and then store them in the fridge until the big day, when you bake them off with cream, cheese, etc.

Vegan variation: Replace the cream with coconut milk and replace the cheese with bread crumbs (or slivered almonds) .

 

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Brazil's Dietary Guidelines Are So Much Better Than the USDA's

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 1:00 AM EST
Say no to pyramid schemes.

As anyone who has read Marion Nestle's Food Politics or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food knows, the US Department of Agriculture's attempts to issue dietary advice have always been haunted by industry influence and a reductionist vision of nutrition science. The department finally ditched its silly pyramids a few years ago, but its guidelines remain vague and arbitrary (for example, how does dairy merit inclusion as one of five food groups?).

In Brazil, a hotbed of sound progressive nutritional thinking, the Ministry of Health has proven that governmental dietary advice need not be delivered in timid, industry-palatable bureaucratese. Check out its plain-spoken, unimpeachable, and down-right industry-hostile new guidelines (hat tip Marion Nestle):


1.    Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
2.    Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
3.    Limit consumption of processed foods
4.    Avoid consumption of ultra-processed products
5.    Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
6.    Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
7.    Develop, exercise and share culinary skills
8.    Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
9.    Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
10.   Be wary of food advertising and marketing

Meanwhile, over on Civil Eats, the dissident nutritionist Andy Bellatti places Brazil's new approach on a fascinating list of five food-policy ideas the US could learn from Latin American nations.

 

Is Dianne Feinstein Crafting a Secret Water Deal to Help Big Pistachio? UPDATED

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 7:00 AM EST

UPDATE: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called off her backroom negotiations to push a California water bill through the current, lame-duck Congressional session, The Fresno Bee reported late Thursday afternoon. But she's not finished trying to make a deal with Big Ag-aligned GOP reps. She vowed to "put together a first-day bill for the next Congress, and it can go through the regular order,” the Bee reported. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is negotiating a behind-closed-doors deal with Republican lawmakers to pass a bill that would ostensibly address California's drought—an effort that has uncorked a flood of criticism from environmental circles.

Feinstein's quiet push for a compromise drought bill that's palatable to Big Ag-aligned House Republicans has been in the works for six months, Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. And it has accelerated recently, as the Senator hopes to pass it by year end, during the "lame duck" period of the outgoing Democratic-controlled Senate.

Will This New GMO Potato Take Off? McDonald's Has Spoken

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 4:28 PM EST
Which spud's for you? The Innate, left, is engineered not to turn brown soon after cutting.

Would you be excited to pluck a bag of precut, gleaming-white potato slices from supermarket produce bin—fresh not frozen, and ready to throw in the pan or the FryDaddy?

Your answer may decide the fate of the "Innate" potato, which has been genetically engineered to resist browning and to contain less of the amino acid that turns into acrylamide—a probably human carcinogen—when potatoes are fried at high temperatures. Developed by the agribusiness giant J.R. Simplot, a major player in the $3.7 billion American potato market, the product won approval last week from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The reason you can currently only buy frozen precut potatoes is that they turn brown quickly. The Innate solves this, uh, problem.

To understand why the success of the new potato will hinge on your desire for convenience, a little background is in order: Simplot is one of the three massive companies (alongside ConAgra and McCain Foods) that buy potatoes from farmers, process them into French fries—as well as tater tots, spiral fries, and wedges—freeze them, and distribute them to companies ranging from fast-food giants to supermarket chains.

Obama and the GOP Congress Unite to Push US Meat Overseas

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 7:00 AM EST

The US meat industry has a problem: American consumers have been eating less flesh. The solution is straightforward: find meat-ravenous people overseas. The opening of the China market to US-grown pork and poultry has helped stabilize the industry through a rough decade of waning domestic demand and elevated feed prices.

But now the meat giants want more. As a new report by Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy shows, the industry is licking its chops at the prospect of a massive trade proposal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would dramatically lower trade barriers among a group of nations that includes the US, Canada, Chile, Peru, and Mexico on this side of the Pacific, and Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam on the other. " The TPP would establish a free-trade bloc stretching from Vietnam to Chile and Japan, encompassing about 800 million people and almost 40 percent of the global economy," Reuters reports.