Tom Philpott

Biotech Giants Are Bankrolling a GMO Free-for-All

Monsanto, Dow, and the like use part of their big profits to ensure minimal public oversight of their products.

| Mon Aug. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The so-called "Big Six" agrichemical companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont)—are sitting pretty. Together, they control nearly 70 percent of the global pesticide market, and essentially the entire market for genetically modified seeds. Prices of the crops they focus on—corn, soy, cotton, etc.—are soaring, pushed up by severe drought in key growing regions. Higher crop prices  typically translate to increased pesticide sales as farmers have more money to spend on agrichemicals and more incentive to maximize yield.

The companies operate globally—and have gained a stronghold in that emerging center of industrial agriculture, Brazil—but the biotech-friendly US is their profit center. They've got a big chunk of US agriculture pretty well sewn up—their GMO seeds dominate our corn, soy and cotton crops, which account for more than 53 percent of US farmland, and have won approval for GMO alfalfa (hay), which accounts for another 19 percent. The vast annual US corn crop—which accounts for 40 percent of the globe's corn most years—is a particular bonanza, not just for GMO seeds but also a stunning amount of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

But two things could mess up the Big 6 here in the US: 1) any delay in the regulatory process for a new generation of seeds engineered for resistance to multiple herbicides; and 2) any major move to require labeling of foods containing GMOs, a requirement already in play in many other countries—including the European Union, China, Japan, and South Korea—and one for which the US public has expressed overwhelming support. Unsurprisingly, the Big 6 are investing millions of their vast profits into forestalling both of those menaces.

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CHARTS: Why Your Chicken Is Still Making You Sick

When the FDA cracked down on the beef industry, E. coli poisoning plummeted. But salmonella on poultry? As bad as ever.

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Got a tummy ache? It could well be something you ate. That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest assessment of food-borne illnesses, dropped on its web site with zero fanfare, not even a press release, Friday afternoon. It shows that that infection rates from most common food-related pathogens are either inching up or holding steady—and occurring at levels above the CDC's own targets.

Here's a look at how the rates three of the most common pathogens—campylobacter, salmonella, and shigella—have changed since 1996.

Chart by Azeen GhorayshiChart by Azeen Ghorayshi

And for you disease wonks out there, here's the data from the report, which includes numbers on some of the other common pathogens, as well.  STEC refers to Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli strains—that is, the kinds that make you sick to your stomach—and the numbers are infections per 100,000 people.

Food poisoning: not getting better.  Source: CDCFood poisoning: not getting better Source: CDC

Did Drought Cause India's Power Outage?

And did climate change cause the drought?

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

What caused the vast power grid failure that roiled India this week? Precise causes remain unknown, but one emerging explanation points a finger at the nation's severe drought. Here's the New York Times:

Part of the reason may be that low rainfall totals have restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, which India relies on for much of its power needs. Another cause may be that drought-stricken farmers are using more power than expected to run water pumps to irrigate their crops.

That's a drought-related double whammy: Low rainfall crimps energy supply because of its effect on hydropower, and jacks up demand by forcing farmers to irrigate more.

The FDA Is Spying on Its Own Scientists

The agency has been caught cracking down on scientists favoring public health over corporate interest.

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After I spoke at a pesticide industry confab a few months ago, an executive with the agrichemical/GMO seed giant Syngenta approached to politely challenge my assessment of the US regulatory agencies. I had charged that these federal watchdog groups kowtow to Big Food and Big Ag, regularly approving dodgy products or practices with little regard for how they may affect public health or the environment.

Au contraire, the Syngenta guy assured me. He insisted that the US regulatory system was full of rigorous scientists who vetted the industry's products carefully and would never let something through that might harm the public. We began a tense conversation about Syngenta's highly toxic and widely used atrazine herbicide, green-lighted by the Environmental Protection Agency despite growing evidence of harm to people and wildlife. We decided after a few minutes to agree to disagree.

The fellow's gentle assurances of regulatory rigor have been echoing through my mind as I follow the spectacle of the Food and Drug Administration's unfolding surveillance scandal, triggered by excellent reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post. The subject is off my beat—it involves the FDA's medical-oversight arm, not its food wing. But it reveals just how completely large, powerful industries have gained ownership over their federal watchdogs and taught them to sit, heel, and perform other submissive tricks. And it also reveals that FDA-employed scientists are not always the bland, quiet characters I imagine them to be. A front-page article in Tuesday's Times presents the saga's chief whistleblower as a prickly, aggressive figure with a history of challenging employers with lawsuits.

BP Sends Gulf Chefs to Olympics on a PR Jaunt

While BP cranks up its PR machine, the effects of its spill linger in the Gulf.

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

Two years after the capping of BP's blown Macondo well, effects of the vast spill linger in the Gulf of Mexico. In a study released in April, scientists found heightened levels of heavy metals in the shells, gills, and muscle tissue of Gulf oysters, correlated with the spill. Another study found that BP's errant oil accelerated the loss of marshlands along the Gulf—a devastating blow to coastal ecosystems. Yet a third study found drastic changes in the microbiota that live between grains of sand along beaches, which could entail lasting negative impacts at the base of the Gulf's food chain.

In short, through its bungling and short-sightedness, BP delivered a mammoth and enduring insult to the Gulf of Mexico and the communities and ecosystems clustered along it. Our nation's greatest regional culinary culture is not the least among the spill's victims. Rooted in precisely the body of water BP polluted, Gulf cuisine endures in its glory but can ultimately only be as healthy as the ecosystems that sustain it.

Which is why I find this news item unspeakably sad:

Eight Louisiana and Gulf Coast chefs—including John Folse and Galatoire's executive chef Michael Sichel—are on their way to London. BP will send them to the 2012 Olympic Games host city to fill it with a "dash of spice."

In addition to Folse and Sichel, participating chefs include Chris Poplin (Biloxi's IP Casino Resort Spa), Calvin Coleman (Gulfport's Naomi's Catering), Chris Sherrill (from Orange Beach, Alabama's Eat! and catering company Staycations), and Alec Naman (from Mobile's Naman's Catering).

These chefs may think they're leveraging BP's cash to promote their region on a grand stage. "We wanted to feature the Gulf Coast on an international stage," BP director of Gulf coast media communications Ray Melick told the Montgomery Advertiser. "This was a good opportunity to bring these chefs’ seafood flavors to that stage, reminding everyone that the Gulf Coast is alive and well, and that the seafood is the most-tested and best-tasting anywhere." That last bit describes the real message BP is hiring Gulf chefs to convey: Everything's fine in the post-spill Gulf; the 2010 spill and any ill effects from it are dead and gone.

But as Mississippi's most famous novelist once wrote, "The past isn't dead; it's not even past."

4 of Obama's Worst Food and Ag Wimp-Outs

Agencies refuse to regulate a bee-killing pesticide, drop a proposed CAFO-monitoring rule, and more.

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Right-wing critics like to denounce President Obama's supposed penchant for "job-killing regulations." Just last month, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus complained on the conservative blog Red State that "instead of pursuing policies that would help job creators put Americans back to work, he's burdened them with ObamaCare, regulations, and continued threats of higher taxes."

Meanwhile, back here on Planet Earth, the government keeps making industry-friendly regulatory decisions, at least in the food and ag field that I cover. Here's a list of four recent Obama administration bows to the agrichemical and meat industries.

1. It allowed factory farms to remain on the DL.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its own proposed rules that would have required operators of factory-scale livestock operations to report basic information to the agency, such as the number of animals kept, whether manure from the facility is applied on surrounding land, and, if so, how much land is available for manure application.

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Vaccines on Chicken Farms Create Supervirus

Two viruses from poultry farm vaccines in Australia have combined to make a new virus. Oops.

| Mon Jul. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The problem of routine antibiotic use on factory farms has generated a lot of ink lately—especially after this startling recent report on a possible link between industrial chicken farming and a spate of antibiotic-resistant urinary-tract infections among women.

But what about vaccine use? Concentrated animal feedlot operation (CAFO) operators use antibiotics to help prevent bacterial infections from raging through spaces densely packed with animals (as well as to make the animals grow faster). To address the problem of viral infections, against which antibiotics are ineffective, they turn to vaccines, which get considerably less press.

How Agribiz Bought the Farm Bill

The 2008 farm bill drew $173.5 million worth of lobbying—that's half again more than the healthcare-reform bill.

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

So, how's the farm bill going? Well, the Senate's version of it "could have been worse," I concluded after it passed, straining for positive things to write about it. The House Agriculture Committee's, though, was a full-on disaster, offering harsh cuts to food aid at a time of high unemployment, fat handouts to big ag, and gratuitous gifts to the biotech/pesticide industry.

The bill is now stalled in the House, in danger of being buried by right-wing backbenchers intent on even deeper food-aid cuts. If the House doesn't vote on it before the August recess, the most likely outcome is an extension of the 2008 bill—and the 2013 Congress will have to start the farm bill process from scratch. Let's be blunt: If that scenario plays out, no matter how the November elections go, we're quite likely to see an equally or more dismal bill emerge next year.

This is tragic. The farm bill, a once-in-five-years piece of legislation, lays out federal food and agriculture policy. At a time of accelerating climate change and other ecosystem crisis, including agriculture-related dead zones in two of our most important fisheries (the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay) the time has come to reassess our food system. Meanwhile, a robust sustainable-agriculture has arisen over the past two decades, developing alternative styles of farming that are highly productive, less polluting, and more resilient to climate change. You might think farm policy would be primed to adjust to these developments. Instead, our legislative process is pushing agribusiness as usual.

USDA Prepares to Green-Light Gnarliest GMO Soy Yet

Dow's new herbicide-resistant seed could be an ecological nightmare. So why is the government giving it the go-ahead?

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
A crop duster sprays a soybean field.

In early July, on the sleepy Friday after Independence Day, the USDA quietly signaled its intention to green-light a new genetically engineered soybean seed from Dow AgroSciences. The product is designed to produce soy plants that withstand 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide (and, famously, the less toxic component in the notorious Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange).

Readers may remember that during an even-sleepier period—the week between Christmas and the New Year—the USDA made a similar move on Dow's 2,4-D-ready corn.

If the USDA deregulates the two products—as it has telegraphed its intention to do—Dow will enjoy a massive profit opportunity. Every year, about half of all US farmland is planted in corn and soy. Currently, Dow's rival Monsanto has a tight grip on weed management in corn-and-soy country. Upward of 90 percent of soy and 70 percent of corn is engineered to withstand another herbicide called glyphosate through highly profitable Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines. And after so many years of lashing so much land with the same herbicide, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now vexing farmers and "alarming" weed control experts throughout the Midwest.

Tom's Kitchen: Ratatouille, the Classic Summer Veggie Stew

Ratatouille used to confound me. Now it rocks my world.

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Ratatouille, served here over toast and under a fried egg, along side a salad of raw shredded kale.

Ratatouille, a classic dish from southern France, had been confounding me for years. On the one hand, it combines iconic hot-weather produce—squash, eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, and basil—making it an ideal high-summer dish. On the other hand, I first discovered in in the early '90s, before I had heard of farmers markets or seasonal cooking; and the recipe I used for it required long roasting. Back then, I'd make it in winter from supermarket veggies trucked in from God knows where and serve it with something hearty like polenta. It was actually quite satisfying.

And then for years, as my life turned to gardening, farming, and fixation on the farmers market, I never made ratatouille. I wasn't going to buy tomatoes or eggplant in the winter; nor did I have any desire to heat up my kitchen with a long roast in high summer.

Then, in the process of reviewing Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food a few years ago, I stumbled upon her ratatouille recipe, which in place of roasting involves a kind of extended stir fry—still a hot project, but nothing like an oven blazing at 400 degrees. (I've since learned that the Waters' method is the classic method of Provence; no telling where I got the roasting idea).

With peak-of-season produce and good olive oil, ratatouille is a spectacular dish: the brightness of squash, tomatoes, and peppers, the depth of eggplant, and the pungency of onion and garlic, all melted down down into a delicious stew. And it's a wonderful thing to cook on the weekend and have around for the work week. I served it one day as a side dish to grilled chicken breast (cue silly vegan outrage); another day tossed with pasta and chickpeas; and twice for lunch over toast and under a fried egg.