Tom Philpott

Enviro Crusader Turns Pro-GMO, Anti-Organic—And Anti-Logic

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Mark Lynas at Oxford: "I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished."

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a prominent UK environmentalist and author, delivered a blunt attack (text here; video below the fold) on critics of agricultural biotechnology at a farming conference at Oxford University. Reviewing the development of his opinions on GMOs, Lynas reports that back in the '90s, he had an instant emotional reaction against them. He saw the situation like this: "Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us." And so he "helped to start the anti-GM movement," and "spent several years ripping up GM crops." Then, in the process of researching climate change, he "discovered science"; and soon after, he reports, he "discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," which he goes on to list.

Lynas is quite correct that the backlash against GMOs is often clouded by emotion. He points out that even today, certain GMO critics murmur darkly about Monsanto's "terminator" seeds, designed to produce sterile offspring so farmers can't replant saved seeds. Actually, Monsanto itself swore off ever using the terminator trait back in 1999, declaring it shared "many of the concerns of small landholder farmers" who opposed it. The GMO seed industry protects its traits through patents and contracts, not genetics.

But he veers off course by portraying such fringe critics of GMOs as the driving force of an "anti-science movement" to block the novel technology. He dismisses the idea that reasonable people might disagree about the merits of GMOs. "[M]y conclusion here today is very clear," he declares. "The GM debate is over. It is finished."

For Lynas, GM technology now represents the height of rationality applied to agriculture, while organic represents the opposite:

If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.

For me, despite its merits as a corrective to knee-jerk GMO opposition, Lynas' speech reads like a rant: an attempt not to spark conversation and debate, but rather to end it. If you agree with him, you are pro-science and guided by reason; if you disagree, you are anti-science and (as he puts it) "blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past."

"Any scientists working for the Union of Concerned Scientists leave their credentials at the door," charged Lynas.

I found plenty to argue with in Lynas' depiction of organic ag and whether we need GMOs to "feed the world"—here's my take on that—but beyond the novelty of the very public conversion of a former anti-GM campaigner, I didn't find much to chew on in the speech, even though it inspired glowing coverage from the likes of The Economist, the veteran climate reporter Andy Revkin, The New Yorker's Michael Specter, and Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Swaddling himself in the rubric of science, Lynas came off to me in his speech as a curiously unscientific thinker—someone who once spouted dogmatic certainties against GMOs and now spouts them in favor. I have no problem with changes in mind; but lack of nuance and bullheaded self-assuredness are always tedious, no matter what view one is espousing.

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Why the Government Should Pay Farmers to Plant Cover Crops

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Drought-stunted wheat in Texas, 2011.

Globally, 2012 will likely rank as one of the ten hottest in recorded history, The New York Times reports. If it does, "it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed." Here in the US, last year was far and away the hottest ever on record. In other words, climate change is no longer a theory or a model or an abstract worry involving future generations. It's happening, now—and if you want to see its likely effect on farming, look at the breadbasket state of Kansas, where the same prolonged drought that reduced corn and soy yields is now pinching the winter wheat crop, as I wrote a few days ago. On Wednesday, the UDSA declared much of the wheat belt a disaster area because of the drought's effect on the crop.

What would a farming system designed to meet the challenge of climate change look like? US policymakers have bought themselves time to consider that question. Since the Great Depression, US farm policy has been governed by five-year plans known as farm bills, which shape the agricultural landscape through a set of government-funded incentive programs. The previous farm bill expired last year, and Congress failed to come up with a new one, instead patching a one-year, modified extension of the old one to the fiscal cliff deal. That means 2013 will be another farm bill year; another opportunity to come up with climate-ready farm policy.

Ozone From Biofuel Farms Could Cause Thousands of Deaths a Year

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 3:35 PM EST
A eucalyptus plantation in Thailand.

Biofuels have a variety of drawbacks. They jack up the price of food, making life hell for the urban poor in the global south, while also pushing small-scale farmers off of land and into misery, as I wrote yesterday. They may contribute to, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions, because they provide incentives to plow up carbon-trapping old forests.

Turns out they can also make you sick. Certain fast-growing trees used for biofuels in Europe can also "increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, resulting in millions of tonnes in crop losses and an additional 1,385 deaths per year," reports Climate News Network, teasing out the results of a recent study (abstract here) by a UK research team published in Nature Climate Change. The ozone in the upper atmosphere is a good thing—it "filters out dangerous ultra-violet sunlight." But at ground level, ozone is a "toxic irritant" that makes people wheeze and can be life-threatening for vulnerable populations. When it wafts into fields where crops are grown, ground-level ozone also "causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined," the US Department of Agriculture reports

The authors offer a few solutions to mitigate the problems they identify:

The Lancaster team suggest that the unwelcome consequences could be mitigated by the choice of coppice trees genetically engineered to reduce isoprene emissions—one genetically modified poplar has already been tested under laboratory conditions—or by the choice of other biofuel crops such as grasses, or by shifting biofuel production away from densely populated areas and highly productive cereal land.

I have another suggestion: Use farmland to grow food, and focus energy policy on techniques that benefit the environment: conservation, efficiency, and green technologies like wind and solar.

What Does Biofuel Have to Do With the Price of Tortillas in Guatemala?

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Corn gushes from the back of a truck into an ethanol plant in Iowa.

I used to write about biofuels a lot. The idea of devoting large swaths of prime farmland and annual gushers of agrichemicals to grow "fuel" crops—not to be eaten but to be set aflame in automobile engines—struck me as so nakedly stupid, so willfully ignorant, that surely pointing it out could help change policy. And so point it out I did, in dozens of blog posts and articles per year starting in 2006. (Here, here, here, here, and here are a few highlights). But the US and EU governments brushed off my verbal assault, maintaining their escalating biofuel mandates. Long about 2011, I realized that some blogger's crusade was never going to affect policy, so I largely stopped writing about the topic out of discouragement and, yes, boredom.

Elisabeth Rosenthal's excellent New York Times article on the effect of US/EU biofuel policy in Guatemala has knocked me out of my torpor. Rosenthal lucidly explains the double pinch the biofuel craze puts on citizens of developing nations. For urban residents, the US biofuel mandates—now sending 40 percent of the US corn crop into ethanol production—are pushing up the price of corn, a staple food in Guatemala. Rosenthal points to an Iowa State University study estimating that US biofuel policy added about 17 percent to global corn prices in 2011—bad news for people who rely on tortillas as a staple. "Just three years ago, one quetzal—about 15 cents—bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four. And eggs have tripled in price because chickens eat corn feed," she writes. The result is dire:

Drought Lingers, Winter Wheat Crop Withers

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Cheerios are not looking so cheery.

Weather is a complex, multi-tiered phenomenon, and no event can be tied to a single cause. But we do know that climate change likely increases the incidence and severity of droughts. Last summer's widespread drought, which took big bites out of the US corn and soy crop, has lingered through the winter in large swaths of the country—and is now stunting winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and is harvested in early summer.  Winter wheat is responsible for 70 percent of the annual US wheat crop.

"About 61 percent of the country is mired in a dry spell that the government says will last at least until March in states growing the most winter wheat," Bloomberg reports. In Kansas, the heartland of US wheat production, the problem is particularly bad—the entire state is in drought. Winter wheat goes dormant during the winter months before resuming growth in the spring, so it's still too early to say what the effect will be on crop yields. But in some places, damage is already severe. Rosie Meier, a grain merchandieser at the Great Bend Co-op in Great Bend, Kansas, told Bloomberg, "About 30 percent of the winter wheat in central Kansas has already failed, with further damage likely unless there is rain."

Wheat prices jumped 19 percent in 2012, pushed up by bad weather globally and competition for acreage from other crops like corn. This year looks like more of the same—hotter-than-normal weather in wheat powerhouse countries Russia and Argentina (which is enduring its "worst dry spell in 85 years") is severely crimping production, Bloomberg reports, citing USDA projections.

Globally, wheat stocks are dropping as consumption rises and production drops. FAO

As a result, a Bloomberg poll of 32 crop analyst estimates that wheat prices will jump as much as 25 percent this year—on top of last year's 19 percent jump. The chart to the right shows why wheat prices are so volatile. It tracks total global wheat stocks—the stuff left over in storage at the end of each year—against total annual consumption ("utilization") and production. Note that as recently as 2003, annual wheat consumption was much less than than the amount stored. Now that situation is reversed, and the world is expected to consume more than it produces.

The resulting high prices won't much affect the cost of your daily loaf—here in the US, wheat makes of a small fraction of the factors driving the retail price of bread. In developing countries, though, commodity price fluctuations can have an immediate and severe impact on food prices. Lest we forget, high wheat prices in 2010 and 2011 largely fueled the Arab spring. "Wheat is the biggest dietary staple in much of the region, providing cheap nutrition in bread, pasta and couscous," The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011.

Of course, the current particular bout of decreased rain fall in wheat-intensive regions could be pure happenstance—it could be driven by other factors besides climate change. But it gives us a taste of what it will be like to grow sufficient food as the world heats up. In two posts last year, I looked at the challenges climate change presents for food production and possible solutions.

Fiscal Cliff Drama Produces an Awful Farm Bill Extension

| Fri Jan. 4, 2013 6:02 AM EST

Remember the farm bill, that once-in-five-years legislation that sets the nation's agriculture and hunger policy? Due for reauthorization in 2012, it lurched through both the Senate and the House ag committee. But then it floundered on the floor of the House—whose GOP leadership refused to bring it to a vote, in an attempt to avoid conflict with tea party stalwarts seeking draconian cuts in anti-hunger programs.

But everything changed on New Year's Day, when the fiscal-cliff deal between Congress and the White House included a fast-and-dirty, stop-gap farm bill compromise that will be in place only until September—meaning that Congress will have to start from scratch on a new five-year bill this year.

Thus like the fiscal-cliff deal itself, the farm bill extension amounts to a feeble kick of the can down the road. And as you might expect from something hastily slapped together behind closed doors, it's a policy hodgepodge, and mostly a dismal one. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the main progressive ag lobbying group, minced no words in its assessment: "a disaster for farmers and the American people."

I got Ferd Hoefner, NSAC's policy director and a longtime farm bill observer, to explain what's in the deal. Here are the main points:

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My Four Favorite Cookbooks of 2012

| Sat Dec. 29, 2012 11:31 AM EST

We are in a golden age of cookbooks, and I didn't even come close to keeping up in 2012. Spending more time with my nose between covers already tops my list of resolutions for '13.  But I did get to dive into some, and here are my favorites.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook
By Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

When is a cookbook not just a cookbook? When it's co-written by an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian, and it involves the cuisines of one of the most bitterly contested pieces of land on Earth. The authors met in London, where they now run the celebrated Ottolenghi chain of delis, but both hail from Jerusalem, that ancient, divided capital and cultural mixing bowl. In the book's superb introduction, the two write that they still "think of Jerusalem as our home… the flavors and smells of the city are our mother tongue." What follows is a series of recipes so appealing and so rooted in the splendor of Mediterranean traditions and ingredients that you wonder if maybe, just maybe Jerusalem's diverse food culture could redeem and unite a deeply dysfunctional and hate-ridden region. As with Ottolenghi's previous effort, Plenty, this one is gorgeously adorned with the food photography of Jonathan Lovekin. (For this Ottolenghi and Tamimi's fascinating backstory, see Jane Kramer's recent New Yorker profile of Ottolenghi.)


The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes
By James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, and Tara Duggan

You know those bearded dudes and stylish ladies who frown and fuss over flashy chunks of Italian metal in certain cafes, as if their lives depended on crafting a perfect steamed-milk rosette in each cup? They represent US coffee culture's so-called "third wave": obsession over the beverage's every aspect, from the sourcing of raw beans to the cookies served alongside a finished cup. And now they have their Bible: James and Caitlan Freeman's The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (written with Tara Duggan). Launched on a career as a musician, James followed his nose for coffee first to home roasting, then to micro-scale commercial roasting, then to a kiosk in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza market, and finally to the Blue Bottle micro-empire in San Francisco and New York. In the book, he delivers that story along with lucid descriptions of coffee's journey from bean to cup, including everything you'd ever want to know about brewing an impeccable cup at home. Then Caitlan, an accomplished baker who James met selling her wares at Ferry Plaza and then married him, delivers the secrets of the Blue Bottle's equally stunning pastries (try the granola, and the biscotti!). As you'd expect from a couple so focused on every aesthetic detail, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee is gorgeously put together, pretty to look at, and a pleasure to hold.

Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book
Jake Godby, Sean Vahey, and Frankie Frankeny

Yes, I know: Food is a serious topic. It involves massive economic machinations, vast ecological disruption, major inequality and injustice. But I need for it to have a frivolous side, too: I need to live in a world that has ice cream. And if I were to construct, from whole cloth, my ideal ice cream parlor, it might just be Humphry Slocombe, a tiny, shabby shopfront in San Francisco's Mission district. I mean, these guys get that ice cream is silly stuff. In the introduction to this charming volume, author/proprietors Godby, Vahey, and Frankeny describe the germ of the idea that became Humphry Slocombe, originally conceived as an ice cream truck: "Jake's first instinct was for a little rock 'n roll ice cream truck that would make appearances at farmers markets and parks. He envisioned a graffiti-covered, run-down ice cream truck with punk music bellowing out of it. Hell, it would basically be CBGBs on wheels, sans needles." The punk-rock aesthetic extends to some of the ice cream combinations, like the celebrated one featuring bourbon and corn flakes. In short, this book is almost as fun as the Mission ice cream shop, and it's a solid primer on how to make good 'scream.

River Cottage Fish Book
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher

Last year, UK chef Fearnley-Whittingstall made my "favorite cookbooks" list with his manual for everyday cooking, which I declared, the "most charming and irresistible cookbook I've come across in ages." He's back this year with a more ambitious and serious tome—and again, he's hit a homerun. The idea here is simple, teased out in a lucid and highly informative introduction: seafood is precious, vital to humanity's evolution and its future, and yet under attack on a variety of fronts, from overfishing to climate change-induced ocean acidification. That means we have to be extremely careful about what we harvest from the sea, and then cook it into a way that wastes as little as possible while delivering maximum flavor. So Fearnley-Whittingstall focuses on plentiful species and advocates buying whole fish and then breaking them down at home. And he proceeds to teach us how to do that, step by step. As always with Hugh, the recipes are straightforward and brilliant. If you love the sea and want to be able to eat from it, too, this is your book.

Tom's Bar: a Cocktail Worthy of New Year's Eve

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 6:01 AM EST

Everyone knows what to drink when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve: sparkling wine—and ideally, the stuff made in Champagne, France. Like millions of others, I adore Champagne, especially when it's made on-farm by small producers, as opposed to the heavily marketed prestige brands. Here's the wonderful wine writer Eric Asimov on these so-called "grower Champagnes," which, he writes, "suggest soil on the boots and dirt under the fingernails"—distinctive, pronounced flavors over the tarted-up glitz and glamor of, say, Veuve Clicquot. Grower Champagnes also tend to be much cheaper than the prestige brands, but still quite expensive: $40 a bottle on up. To me, they're a very rare treat.

But what to drink before the midnight hour? I have an idea, and I'm not sure if it's a good one or a bad one. The case for the Seelbach cocktail—named for the Memphis Louisville, Kentucky, hotel where it was invented in the early 20th century—is that it's really, really good. You get a citrus bounce from the orange liqueur Cointreau, round sweetness and alcoholic force from bourbon, and festive fizz from sparkly wine, all knit together with a blast of bitters. Yum.

The case against the Seelbach is also that it's really, really good—and like so many cocktails, very easy drinking. You've got to pace yourself on New Years Eve. Too many Seelbachs before midnight bubbly is a great way to turn Champagne into real pain. So enter the world of the Seelbach with moderation—at your own risk.

Note: Classic Seelbach recipes—see here and here—call for proper Champagne as the sparkling wine in the mix. I find the idea of mixing Champagne too decadent to consider, so I use a sturdy, inexpensive Cava or Prosecco. And most recipes call for Peychaud’s bitters along with the more common Angostura type. This may be critical to the authentic flavor of a Seelbach; but both times I've made them, I only had Angostura bitters on hand, and I loved the result.

My Version of the Seelbach

Makes four

Carefully slice the four ribbons of zest off the peel of an orange. Prepare four Champagne flutes by rubbing a ribbon, bottom side down, around the rim, and then fold the ribbon over the rim as a garnish.

In a large pitcher, combine: 6 oz. good, but not great bourbon, like Maker's Mark or Bulleit; 2 oz. Cointreau; 16 dashes of Angostura bitters (or a little less Angostura, supplemented by some Peychaud's, if you have it.) Add a good amount of ice, stir well, then strain evenly into the four prepped glasses. Top with sparkling wine.

Meet the Weeds That Monsanto Can't Beat

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 6:06 AM EST
"Integrated pest management" in action.

When Monsanto revolutionized agriculture with a line of genetically engineered seeds, the promise was that the technology would lower herbicide use—because farmers would have to spray less. In fact, as Washington State University researcher Chuch Benbrook has shown, just the opposite happened.

Sixteen years on, Roundup (Monsanto's tradename for its glyphosate herbicide) has certainly killed lots of weeds. But the ones it has left standing are about as resistant to herbicide as the company's Roundup Ready crops, which are designed to survive repeated applications of the agribusiness giant's own Roundup herbicide.

For just one example, turn to Mississippi, where cotton, corn, and soy farmers have been using Roundup Ready seeds for years—and are now struggling to contain a new generation of super weeds, including a scourge of Italian ryegrass.

"Fight resistant weeds with fall, spring attack," declares a headline in Delta Farm Press, a farming trade magazine serving the Mississippi River Delta. The article's author, a Mississippi State University employee, lays out the challenge:

In 2005, Italian ryegrass resistant to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate was first identified in the state. Since then, it has been found in 31 Mississippi counties and is widespread throughout the Delta. This glyphosate-resistant weed emerges in the fall and grows throughout winter and early spring.

The solution: "fall residual herbicide treatments followed by spring burn-down applications, where a nonselective herbicide is applied to fields before planting." Translation: to combat the plague of resistant Italian ryegrass, Mississippi's cotton farmers must hit their fields with a "residual" herbicide in the fall—meaning one that hangs around in soil long enough to kill ryegrass for a while—and then come back with yet another herbicide in the spring, to make sure the job has been done.

This multi-poison approach to weed control, apparently, is what passes for "integrated pest management"—purportedly a system of low-pesticide crop protection—these days.

“The integrated pest management program we recommend uses fall residual herbicides to help reduce the overall population and numbers,” [Mississippi State University extension professor Tom] Eubank said. “Fall tillage can also reduce weed numbers, but it is generally not as effective as residual herbicides. Producers should come back in the spring or late winter with an alternative herbicide program that attacks the plant using a different mode of action.”

In lieu of crop rotation and biodiversity, the non-toxic way to control weeds, the MSU extension service promotes what the article calls a "diversified herbicide program." And thus we get a clear look at why, since the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds in the 1990s, herbicide use has spiked.

Tom's Kitchen: Holiday Biscotti

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 6:01 AM EST
A-ladi-dadi, we like biscotti.

Admit it: You're bored with "Christmas cookies." They're cloyingly sweet, they're bland, and they can be hard on the eyes, with their "festive" shapes and garish colors. What to make in their place?  The holiday season demands a special snack—one that adults can nibble with coffee and kids can inhale as a treat. Biscotti, the famed Italian cookies, aren't an obvious substitute. They've become ubiquitous in US coffee shops; and are too often served stale, oversweet, and not worth the often-two-bucks-a-pop price tag.

Here's the thing. Homemade biscotti, nutty and slightly salty, are terrific—and they're pretty easy to make. And because they get much of their substance from nuts, they're a more wholesome snack than the usual flour-dominated holiday cookies. And they're versatile—while they're best-known in the US as a foil for coffee, the Italians also enjoy them dunked into the famous Tuscan dessert wine vin santo.In her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, from which I learned to make biscotti, the great San Francisco chef-restaurateur Judy Rogers suggests serving them with Champagne. Meaning that you might want to bust out a second batch for New Year's Eve.

Sure, the kids may judge them insufficiently sweet. Humbug! That just means more for you. So put down that Santa-shaped cutter and get busy. You'll be telling me prego when you taste the results.

In the below version, I took Rogers' recipe, which spices the cookies with anise seeds, and amped it up with orange zest, which works well with the licorice flavor of anise and delivers a seasonal edge. And in place of Rogers' anisette, an anise-flavored liqueur,  I tried Cointreau, an orange-flavored one. Feel free to use either—and either can be replaced, in a pinch, with good old vodka. I also used—because it's what I had on hand—a dark, minimally processed, mollasasy cane sugar. I worried that it might taste too heavy and overshadow the orange and anise flavors. In the end, though, I liked it—it gave the cookies caramel edge that complemented the other ingredients. Lighter sugars will work as well.

Rogers writes that biscotti are "best aged a few days before serving"—store them in an airtight container, she advises.

Orange-Anise Biscotti
Inspired by Judy Rogers'
Zuni Cafe Cookbook/makes about 18 biscotti.

¾ cups almonds
4 tablespoons butter, kept out overnight in a cool place
A generous ½ cup of whole, minimally processed, dark cane sugar
1 large egg
Zest of an entire orange, like a Seville
1 ½ teaspoons Cointreau
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons anise seeds

Preheat oven to 325. On a cookie sheet, toast the almonds for about 15 minutes, until they're lightly brown and toasty-smelling.

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl—that is, whip it with an electric beater or a whisk until it's lightly fluffy. Add the egg, the orange zest, and the Cointreau and beat until just incorporated.

In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients—the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the seeds—and mix well with a fork or a whisk. Now fold in the wet mixture into the dry stuff with a wooden spoon, until well incorporated.

Ropes of biscotti dough, ready for the oven.

Divide the dough into two balls and place on a lightly floured surface. Using your hands, roll each ball out into a rope of 1 inch diameter.  Carefully lift the dough ropes onto a cookie sheet. (Most cookbooks, including Rogers', command you to line the cooking sheet with parchment paper. I forgot to this time, and paid no price.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes—"until lightly brown and firm on the surface, but yielding to light pressure," as Rogers advises.

Place the cooked logs on a cutting board. Using a large sharp knife, cut at an angle into ½ inch slices. Carefully move the biscotti back to the warm cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes more so that they lightly brown. Allow them to cool. Enjoy immediately or store them a few days in an airtight container.