Tom Philpott

Could This Baker Solve the Gluten Mystery?

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 7:00 AM EST
The artisan as scientist: baker Jonathan McDowell in the Bread Lab

Washington State University's agriculture research and extension facility in Mount Vernon, about an hour due north along the Puget Sound from Seattle, looks at first glance like any recently built academic edifice: that is to say, boring and austere. On the outside, it's surrounded by test plots of wheat and other grains, as well as greenhouses, shrouded in the Pacific Northwest's classic gray skies and mist. Inside, professors and grad students shuffle through the long halls, passing quiet offices and labs.

Yet one of those labs is not like the others—or any other that I know of, for that matter. When you look down the length of the room from the back wall, you see two distinct chambers, separated by long, adjoining tables: gleaming chunks of impressive-looking machinery to the left; flour sacks, mixing bowls, a large, multileveled oven to the right. And in place of the vaguely chemical smell of most university labs, you get the rich, toasty aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Mounted on the outer edge of the short wall that divides the two tables, there's an image of a human brain, with its two halves. "Aha, that symbolizes the lab," says lab staffer Jonathan McDowell. The left side is the "analytical laboratory, where raw objective data is generated by high-tech machinery," he says, gesturing to a contraption that measures the protein level in flour. The right side, meanwhile, is the "intuitive laboratory of the artisan baker, where hands and palate are the means of validation." Taken together, the Bread Lab is like a "unified mind, where science and art coalescence," he says.

The Bread Lab in action: A grad student takes measurements on the lab's left side, while Jonathan McDowell and visiting baker Dawn Woodward of Toronto's Evelyn's Crackers makes experimental loaves on the right side.

McDowell is a slender, bespectacled, slightly flour-dusted young man in red trousers, black loafers, and V-necked white T-shirt, his face framed by a thick beard and mop of close-cropped dark hair. He looks like he'd fit in better onstage at an indie rock show than at an ag research center in a rural county. Yet he couldn't be more at home. McDowell is the staff baker here at the Bread Lab, the brainchild of Washington State wheat breeder Stephen Jones, who's also the director of the Mount Vernon research outpost. Jones believes fervently that grain breeding—the art and science of creating new varieties—has been hijacked by large seed, milling, and baking interests, giving rise to high-yielding but boring varieties geared to the mass production of crappy, and mostly white, bread.

For the last half-century or so, says Jones, wheat has been bred for industrial mills, where it is ground and separated into its three components: flour, germ, and bran. Usually, the flour gets turned into white bread, while the germ and bran—which contain all of wheat's healthy fats and fiber, and much of the vitamins—go to other uses, including supplements and livestock feed. In most of what we now know as "whole wheat" bread, some—but not all—of the bran and germ are mixed back in.

For Jones, these are inferior products—both in nutrition and taste terms. So he has been working with farmers in the Pacific Northwest to develop wheat varieties that can be milled into flour that's suitable for being baked directly into bread. And it falls to McDowell—who took over the role of the lab's baker from Jones himself last year—to show the world that 100 percent whole-wheat bread isn't just edible, but delicious.

According to Jones and McDowell, low-quality industrial white flours and fast-rising commercial yeasts, along with additives like vital wheat gluten—a wheat product added to give bread structure despite superfast rises—have generated a backlash against bread in the form of the "gluten-free" craze. While people with celiac disease genuinely can't process the gluten in wheat, they argue, most people actually can. The problem is that most industrial bakeries only allow bread to rise for a matter of minutes—not nearly long enough to let the yeast and bacteria digest all the gluten in the flour, let alone the extra dose in the additives. The result can lead to all kinds of problems in our gut.

This is the first loaf I made at home. It came out surprisingly well—I was worried I had rushed the process of waking up the starter.

McDowell gets philosophical when you ask him about the rise (so to speak) of "gluten-free bread." In a quiet corner of the lab, he ruminates on the topic. "What has been the staff of life is now perceived as the spirit of disease," he says. "Symbolically, you can look at bread as a representation of our society through history," he says. "If you look at gluten as what holds bread together, and you look at bread as what holds our society together, what is 'gluten-free bread,' then? Is it not a symbol of our times?" McDowell calls the rush away from bread as it's commonly made now a "wake-up call" and "opportunity" for bakers to reestablish bread as a healthy, delicious staple. And he sounds genuinely undaunted by the project of doing just that.

Moreover, McDowell and Jones say, wheat that has been bred to be made into white flour doesn't make very interesting bread—and can be downright unpalatable when people try to make it into a whole wheat loaf. That's why 100 percent whole-wheat bread has a reputation for being good-for-you but kind of awful—cardboard-flavored and overly chewy. For that reason, even whole-foods enthusiasts like me tend to use at least half white flour when we bake.

The quixotic goals of the Bread Lab, in short, are to rescue bread from gluten-villain status, while simultaneously pushing whole wheat from the hippie margin to the delicious center of the culinary world. (Jones and McDowell aren't alone in this of course—the food writer Mark Bittman has been experimenting with 100 percent whole wheat as well, as have others.)

I tasted McDowell's bread at an event last fall—and again during my January trip to the Bread Lab—so I knew he could make spectacular 100 percent whole-wheat bread from a sourdough starter. My question was: Could I do it, under his tutelage, in my home kitchen? I'm a pretty rudimentary home baker. Before this experiment, I had made exactly one 100 percent whole wheat bread loaf before. It didn't make for very good eating, but could have enjoyed a long career as a garden steppingstone. Nor had I ever successfully baked with sourdough—my one previous effort had failed to rise, and I suspected I had murdered my starter before it ever got a chance to feed on the flour I was offering it.

Here's Loaf Two. Not bad, but I forgot to cut the dough on top, which helps it rise.

Before I ended my visit, McDowell insisted on gifting me a small plastic vial of his own special starter (to satisfy the liquid-suspicious Transportation Security Administration gods, he made it into a nearly solid paste by adding lots of flour). He also handed me a bag of freshly ground whole-wheat flour; and a recipe, that he scribbled out on the spot, on lined, yellow paper. I had told him that my most successful previous foray into bread baking had been with the "no-knead" recipe popularized by New York baker Jim Lahey and immortalized for all time by Bittman.

The Lahey/Bittman loaf calls for a dough leavened with a tiny amount of commercial yeast, which is left to rise overnight and then cooked in a tightly covered pot in a blazing-hot oven. McDowell adapted his recipe along those lines.

Here's Loaf One, showing off nice air pockets, meaning a successful rise. Just add butter or cheese.

I'm happy to report that, under McDowell's direction, I have churned out two fantastic loaves. They had a faint sourness that added a dimension of flavor without being at all shrill or dominant. In the first loaf, I had become paranoid that I had fouled up the process of waking up the sourdough starter. But the bread was delicious—nutty and moist inside with plenty of air pockets, surrounded by a thick, hearty crust—"as good as bread gets," a bread-savvy friend visiting from Chicago declared. The second one, after I had lavishly fed and cared for the starter, was outstanding, too, but seemed a little denser than the first. Go figure. Living creatures—humans and microbiota alike—are capricious. Here's Jonathon's recipe—a perfect thing to try on a rainy or snowy day at home. (It takes six or seven hours, very little of it active, from start to finish, once you get the starter prepped.)

Whole-Wheat Sourdough Bread

Equipment/flour note: This recipe requires a dutch oven—a heavy-duty pot with a tight-fitting lid—because these durable pots capture the steam from the dough to create the thick, blistered crusts you typically only can get from commercial baking ovens. (Dutch ovens can get quite expensive, but for bread-making purposes, my favorite is the relatively affordable cast-iron type.) Also, a cheap digital kitchen scale isn't absolutely necessary for this recipe—McDowell kindly converted gram weights to cups and tablespoons—but will make the work go a lot more smoothly. Also, please be sure to read the whole recipe before you get started; it requires a few days of planning. As for flour, obviously everyone doesn't have access (yet) to fresh-ground wheat that's been carefully bred specifically for whole-grain bread. But mid-sized operations like North Carolina's Lindley Mills and California's Community Grains are working with farmers in their regions to produce top-quality whole wheat bread flour products, and are worth seeking out. McDowell says that some Whole Foods outlets offer Community Grains flour ground at the store—a definite win if you can get your hands on it. If you can't find a regional product, King Arthur's organic 100 percent whole wheat flour is available nationwide and should "give you decent results," McDowell says.

First, make or acquire a starter:

"Most artisan bakers would be happy to give you a piece of their levain to inoculate your own starter with," McDowell says. But he recommends trying to start one from scratch. McDowell says that homemade starters primarily utilize the yeast and bacteria present in the flour itself, but that over time, they acclimate to their particular environment. "Not every location can easily start or sustain one," he warns, but most can. Here's how:

3 tablespoons whole rye or wheat flour

Enough water to make what looks like a "thick pancake batter."

Stir to mix and let it sit out, loosely covered, for 24 hours. Then take 60 grams (1/4 cup) of the starter, discarding the rest, and mix it with 60 grams of water (1/4 cup) and 60 grams (3/8 cup) of flour. Repeat this process every 12 hours for 3 to 5 days. By the time it's obviously alive—slightly bubbly and smelling distinctly acidic—you'll have succeeded in creating a levain. You can jump straight to step (b) in the section below with this the new starter and bake with it; or store in the refrigerator until you're ready to bake.

Next, prepare your culture for baking:

When you're ready to bake, start 24 hours ahead if you're using a refrigerated starter. You'll need to wake it up and get it ready to leaven a loaf.

a) Mix 60 grams flour (3/8 cup), 60 grams warm water (about a quarter cup), 30 grams starter (about 1/8 cup) in a small bowl. Let sit at room temperature (70 degrees F) for 12 to 14 hours.

b) Then, take 10 grams (about a tablespoon) of that starter (you can discard the rest), which will have begun to get lively, and mix it with 60 grams flour (about a half cup) and 60 grams water (about a quarter cup).

Let it sit for 12 to 14 more hours. Now you'll have just enough lively starter for a loaf—a little more than a half cup—plus a bit left over to begin the next batch of starter.

Now, get that next batch going: Scoop out about 10 grams (1/8 cup) of the starter, and add 20 grams of flour (1 1/3 tablespoons) and 20 grams of water (1 1/3 tablespoons). Mix it, and let sit for 3 hours at room temperature, then store in the fridge, covered tightly. Keep it alive by baking every week; or feed it once a week by scooping out 10 grams (1/8 cup) of starter (discarding the rest), and mixing with 20 grams of flour (1 1/3 tablespoons) and 20 grams of water (1 1/3 tablespoons), as above.

Now, finally, make the bread:

Ingredients

580 grams (4 cups) whole wheat flour

506 grams (2¼ cups) water, at room temperature

12 grams (2½ teaspoons) salt

120 grams (½ cup) Starter

Step 1: This is known as the autolyse step. Mix the starter and water together in a large bowl or plastic bread-making tub (see video below—I used a bowl). Add the flour, and mix well. Let sit 20 to 40 minutes.

Step 2: Mix dough by hand, squeezing and folding it to develop gluten. Here's how.

Step 3: Let it rest, covered, for 3 hours, periodically folding as above (3 to 4 times).

Step 4: Shape the dough into a round by gently folding it over on itself, leaving a smooth, round top and a seamed bottom. This is known as a boule. Let it rest, covered, 20 minutes.

Step 5: Very gently place the boule, seam side up, into a floured proofing basket for 1.5 to 2 hours. If you do not have a proofing basket, you can take a linen (or fine mesh cotton, but linen is best) cloth, rub plenty of flour into it and place it in a small mixing bowl. Make sure there is ample flour covering all surfaces that the dough will touch, and also be sure that the bowl is deep enough to really shore up the sides of the boule. (I used a bowl-shaped metal colander as my proofing bowl, lined with a well-floured cloth.) About an hour into the proof, preheat the oven to 500 degrees and put the empty Dutch oven, with cover, into the oven, so that it will become blazing hot.

Step 6: Very carefully, drop the boule into the hot Dutch oven, seam side down.

Step 6: Make a few incisions along the top membrane about ¼ inch into the dough's surface, to help with the loaf expansion. McDowell uses a straight razor. I used a serrated (bread) knife. (I forgot to do this in my second loaf.)

Loaf Two also showed pretty good air pockets.

Step 7: Bake approximately 30 minutes , then remove the lid of the Dutch oven and bake until the boule is a deep brown—10 to 15 minutes more. (You can insert an instant-read thermometer into the loaf—when done, it will be within a few degrees of 212 degrees F).

Step 8: Let cool on a metal rack—at least one hour; 4-6 hours is optimal to let the loaf develop flavor.

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Why the EPA Can't Manage To Block This Gnarly Herbicide

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 2:13 PM EST

In the February 10 issue of the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv has an outstanding piece on Tyrone Hayes, the University of California-Berkeley biologist whose research found that atrazine, a widely used herbicide, caused extreme sexual-development problems in frogs at very low levels. Aviv's article follows a superb Hayes profile by Dashka Slater published in Mother Jones in 2012. Aviv's piece gives some key background on just why it's so hard for the US Environmental Protection Agency to take action on chemicals like atrazine, which in addition to harming frogs, is also suspected of causing thyroid and ovarian cancers in people at low doses. Here's the key bit regarding the EPA and its reliance on cost-benefit analyses to determine what chemicals the public can and cannot be exposed to:

In the U.S., lingering scientific questions justify delays in regulatory decisions. Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment. Industries have a greater role in the American regulatory process—they may sue regulators if there are errors in the scientific record—and cost-benefit analyses are integral to decisions: a monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments, and shortened lives and weighed against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use. Lisa Heinzerling, the senior climate-policy counsel at the E.P.A. in 2009 and the associate administrator of the office of policy in 2009 and 2010, said that cost-benefit models appear “objective and neutral, a way to free ourselves from the chaos of politics.” But the complex algorithms “quietly condone a tremendous amount of risk.” She added that the influence of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees major regulatory decisions, has deepened in recent years. “A rule will go through years of scientific reviews and cost-benefit analyses, and then at the final stage it doesn’t pass,” she said. “It has a terrible, demoralizing effect on the culture at the E.P.A.”

Hat tip: Kathleen Geier.

Iowa Is Getting Sucked Into Scary Vanishing Gullies

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST
See that gash in the land? Until heavy rains hit in May 2013, it was filled with topsoil. It's an "ephemeral gully," and Iowa is full of them after hard rains.

Last year, after a record drought in 2012, Iowa experienced the wettest spring in its recorded history. The rains triggered massive runoff from the state's farms into its creeks, streams, and rivers, tainting water with toxic nitrate from fertilizer. Nitrate levels in the state's waterways reached record levels—so high that they emerged as a "real issue for human health," Bob Hirsch, a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey, told the Associated Press.

We're losing soil at as much as 16 times the natural replacement rate.

The event illustrated two problems facing Iowa and the rest of the nation's topsoil-rich grain belt. The first is the challenge of climate change: how to manage farmland in an era when weather lurches from brutal drought to flooding, as it likely will with increasing frequency. The second, related challenge is the largely invisible crisis of Iowa's topsoil, which appears to be eroding at a much higher rate than US Department of Agriculture numbers indicate—and, more importantly, at up to 16 times the natural soil replacement rate.

I got that disturbing assessment from Richard Cruse, an agronomist and the director of Iowa State University's Iowa Water Center. Cruse's on-the-ground research has shown a particular kind of soil erosion clearly connected to last year's heavy rains. Cruse told me that with current methods, the USDA measures a kind of soil loss called "sheet and rill erosion," wherein water washes soil away in small channels that form at the soil surface during rains. Under that measure, Iowa farmland loses an average 5.2 tons of topsoil per acre every year, according to the USDA's latest numbers, which are from 2007.

The USDA sees five tons per acre as a "magic number," Cruse said, because it's generally accepted to be the rate at which soil renews itself. So the prevailing view has been that "if we can limit erosion to five tons per acre, we can do this forever," Cruse said. But he added that the "best science" (explained here) indicates that the real sustainable erosion rate is closer to a half ton per acre—meaning that even by the USDA's own limited measure, Iowa's soils are eroding much faster than they can be replaced naturally.

The gullies are essentially pipelines, periodically filled by farmers, that move prime soil from fields into streams.

But here's where we get to the scary part. Using stereo-photographic techniques, Cruse and his team have been measuring a different form of erosion that occurs through what are known as "ephemeral gullies"—that is, large gashes in farm fields formed by water during heavy rains, bearing soil rapidly away and dispersing it into streams and rivers. This kind of erosion is not included in conventional soil-loss measures, and as a result, the USDA is "way underestimating" erosion in Iowa, he said.

Cruse's team has not collected data long enough, nor analyzed it thoroughly enough, to say exactly how much soil is being surrendered in this way. But he added that he "could say with a lot of confidence" that ephemeral gullies are carrying away on average an additional 2.5 to 3 tons of soil per acre—bringing the grand erosion total as high as 8 tons per acre, 60 percent higher than the USDA's sustainable threshold of 5 tons and 16 times higher than the 0.5-ton limit that Cruse says is more scientifically valid.

Ephemeral gullies represent not only an alarming disappearance of productive soil; they also mean a concentrated transfer of farm chemicals into waterways, where they feed algae blooms and get into municipal drinking water. That's because when an ephemeral gully appears one growing season, farmers push fresh topsoil into the gullies. That topsoil, heavily treated with fertilizer and herbicides, is just the kind that causes the most water-quality damage when the next ephemeral gully forms, Cruse said. It's a startling image: The gullies are essentially pipelines, periodically filled by farmers, that move prime soil from fields into streams.

And there's a feedback loop operating here, Cruse said—as Iowa's farmland loses soil, it also loses the ability to trap water, because soil acts as a sponge. That makes it more prone to flooding, and more likely to sprout ephemeral gullies.

A tale of two fields: On one side of the road, a gully cuts through an unprotected field (bottom photo). On the other side (top) a grass waterway stops the gully, but is filled with rocks and mud from the other side. EWG

In the wake of last year's heavy rains, the Environmental Working Group filed a great report called "Washout" on the damage done to Iowa's soils, building on its landmark 2011 study on Iowa's erosion problem, "Losing Ground." EWG looked at data from ISU's Iowa Daily Erosion Project, and found that in less than a week, farmland in 50 townships covering 1.2 million acres suffered average erosion of more than 5 tons per acre—and that in 15 of those townships fields suffered average erosion of 7.5 to 13 tons per acre. (The recognized, and probably overstated, "sustainable" rate of erosion, recall, is five tons per year.)

And here's the catch: The Iowa Daily Erosion Project doesn't have the technology to account for ephemeral gullies. In the wake of the May storms, the EWG researchers "drove a random loop" through seven counties around EWG's Midwest office in Ames. They found "gullies scarring field after field," as well as roadside ditches "full of mud and polluted runoff—a very bad sign for Iowa's already polluted streams." (If you don't believe that "field after field" had formed gullies, check out the EWG researchers' slideshow from their trip, which I've plunked down below.) So, erosion from last year's rains was "actually worse—likely far worse—than even the IDEP estimates," EWG concludes.

Erosion from last year's rains was "actually worse—likely far worse—than even the IDEP estimates," EWG concludes.

I asked Cruse, whose team is creating tools that can help document gully erosion, what farming practices could stem the hemorrhaging of Iowa's soils. He pointed to winter-season cover crops, which have the twin virtues of (a) building organic matter in soil, giving it more capacity to sponge up water; and (b) providing a cover, a mat of plant matter that shields soil from being disturbed and dislodged by heavy rains. Both help keep soil in place and prevent gullies. (For a deeper dive into cover crops, see my 2013 piece on the innovative Ohio farmer David Brandt.)

Cruse also mentioned reintegrating grazing animals into Iowa's fields. Maintaining pastures for livestock means an abundance of perennial grasses, which act like cover crops and keep soil in place—granted, of course, that the animals are properly rotated and not allowed to overgraze, which also degrades soil.

I also asked him how long Iowa's farmers could go on pushing their soils for maximum corn and soy production without integrating cover crops and livestock on a much larger scale than is happening now. He said that Iowa's status as an agriculture powerhouse relative to other farming regions worldwide will likely continue for a while, because most of the globe's farmland is experiencing equal or even greater soil degradation. Not the most comforting answer!

He added he can't pinpoint the year "when we cross a 'game over' condition." But he could say with certainty that the "impact of soil erosion is a gradual decline in production potential and, probably even more important, soil resilience—the capacity of soil to supply needed water and nutrients under weather- or climate-stressful conditions."

After talking to Cruse and reading the EWG report, I reread the first chapter of University of Washington ecologist David Montgomery's terrific 2007 book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations "With just a couple feet of soil standing between prosperity and desolation, civilizations that plow through their soil vanish," Montgomery wrote.

For a graphic immersion into what Iowa looked like after last year's storms, check out Environmental Working Group's fantastic slideshow:

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.

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.

 

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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."

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.