Tom Philpott

It Takes HOW Much Water to Grow an Avocado?!

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

We've heard a lot about how the boom in almond and other nut production is straining California's dwindling water supplies amid the state's worst-ever drought. But what about the avocado, another trendy commodity that grows on trees and delivers all-the-rage healthy fats?

US consumers certainly love this unctuous tropical fruit. According to the US Department of Agriculture, avocado production per capita jumped from 1.1 pounds annually in 1999 to 4.5 pounds in 2011.

Avocados don't require nearly as much water per pound as almonds. But they do require significantly more than other kinds of produce, as my colleague Julia Lurie shows in this chart:

(Note that the figures in this chart, and the one later in this post, include only blue water—which comes from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers—and not rainfall or recycled water.)

And as in the case of almonds and so many other crops, California dominates US production, accounting for about 90 percent of the US avocado harvest. Nearly all of it takes place in Southern California, in a five-county region that straddles the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

Like the rest of the state, the southern coastal region is locked in a drought, and largely cut off from the flow of surface water from the state's big irrigation projects. The result has been strife in the avocado groves—sky-high water costs and a reliance on water pumped from underground aquifers.

But overall, California's avocado farms have a relatively light water impact. Unlike almonds and pistachios, whose acreage has expanded dramatically in recent years, land devoted to avocados has actually shrunk, from a high of 76,000 acres in 1987 to fewer than 60,000 acres in 2012 (although production has held steady, because yield increases have offset the loss of acres). Also unlike the state's nut growers, California's avocado farmers aren't taking advantage of a boom in demand from Asia. According to the USDA, US avocado exports are so small they're "negligible."

Also, avocados are a perishable, seasonal product, and the California season peaks from May through August—meaning that for the rest of the year, we rely on Mexico, Chile, and Peru to satisfy our guacamole habit. All told, the USDA reports, about 70 percent of the avocados we consume are imported.

And so most of the water impact from our growing appetite for avocados lands on other places. And as Eilis O'Neill recently reported in Civil Eats, satisfying our demand for off-season avocados is causing trouble in another drought-stricken region, Chile's Central Valley—which, like California's, lies between a snowcapped interior mountain range and a coastal mountain range.

In part because of demand from the United States, avocado farmers in Chile have used so much water that some towns' wells have run dry.

This valley is the epicenter of Chile's fruit-and-veg export behemoth that began in the 1980s. As this US Department of Agriculture report states, Chile's Southern Hemisphere location gives it a "counter-seasonal production schedule with the United States"—that is, Chile's summer starts around the time that ours ends. The rapid rise of Chilean produce into the US market is a big reason US consumers can expect bountiful produce aisles year-round—it "extended the availability of certain fruits in the market without direct competition with domestic production, and gave US consumers fruit choices beyond the traditional domestic winter fruits of citrus, apples, and pears," the USDA notes. Chile now supplies a fifth of US fruit, the USDA adds.

Avocados were part of that boom. As O'Neill notes, land devoted to avocados has expanded rapidly—from about 6,180 hectares (15,270 acres) in 1980 to 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres) in 2006, all the way to 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres) in 2014, according to the USDA.

And just as in California, climate change and drought have meant less surface water flowing from mountain ranges to irrigate crops—and a shift to pumping water from underground aquifers. As a result, producers have "used so much of the region's waters that small farmers with shallow wells—and some nearby towns—are left with no water," O'Neill writes, echoing reports of waterless towns in California's Central Valley.

Like our Golden State, Chile takes a laissez-faire approach to groundwater regulation, O’Neill reports—a legacy of the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, a free-market zealot who came to power in a US-backed coup in 1973 and remained dictator until 1990.

And large, export-minded farm operations have the wherewithal to drill larger and deeper wells, squeezing out small farms and nearby communities, O'Neill reports. Meanwhile, the profits from Chile's farm export boom remains pretty concentrated in the hands of large landowners.

Chile's avocado harvest starts in runs from August to March—making it a prime supplier during the football season guacamole blitz.

O'Neill's piece gives us something to think about as we plunge chips into that delicious dip. "When you eat an avocado that comes from [a large producer in] Chile, think about the fact that the water used to produce it is water that homes in the country's most humble communities now lack," water activist Rodrigo Mundaca tells her.

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Butterball Goes "Humane" for Thanksgiving. Really?

| Sat Sep. 27, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
This year, more humane?

It's becoming a Thanksgiving tradition as hoary as NFL football or the bloviations of your drunken uncle: days before the national feast, an animal-welfare group releases an undercover video documenting vile conditions within industrial-scale turkey facilities (see 2013, 2012, 2008).

This year, the largest turkey producer of all, Butterball—which churns out a billion pounds of turkey meat annually, a fifth of US production—has made a bold move to get ahead of these appetite-snuffing PR debacles. By fall 2014, presumably in time for Thanksgiving, all of its products will bear the American Humane Certified label, the company announced Tuesday.

Is Farm Aid Still Relevant?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Neil Young, center, gets busy at Farm Aid

Farm Aid, the annual, roving concert anchored by Willie Nelson and Neil Young, launched in 1985, amid the steepest US farm crisis since the Great Depression. Twenty-nine years later, is it still relevant? Last week, on a muggy day in Raleigh, NC, I got the chance to investigate.

The event, at the outdoor Walnut Creek Amphitheater, on the outskirts of town, started with the most star-studded press conference I've ever attended. Arrayed in chairs on the stage before us were the headliners: Nelson, wizened face framed by a black baseball cap and those eternal red, frizzy ponytails; Young, somber in bushy sideburns, a black wide-brimmed fedora, and black t-shirt emblazoned with the word "Earth" in ominously faded white lettering; John "Cougar" Mellencamp, appropriately '80s in a white t-shirt under black blazer, graying hair done up in what Vanity Fair once called that "rooster comb of a pompadour"; and Dave Matthews, looking like a concerned dad with his trim beard and blue polo shirt, 100 times more conventional-looking than his much-older peers on stage.

Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Instead of breaking into song, this quartet of platinum-selling crooners delivered earnest pleas against the abuses of corporate-dominated agriculture. Young spoke longest—to the whoops of the crowd, he denounced the Citizens United decision and tied it directly to industrial agriculture, and suggested that corporate power shapes federal farm policy. "The corporations are the villains," Young told the crowd, and painted a picture of family farms writhing under the heel of massive seed and input companies.

And rather than hog the attention of the assembled, they ceded the spotlight to several North Carolina farmers and farm advocates who joined them up there. And these weren't new-wave farmers singing the delights of consuming local, organic food.

Kay Doby, speaking in a Piedmont NC twang as no-nonsense as her t-shirt and jeans, spoke of the debt spiral faced by poultry farmers who work under contract with massive meat processors—companies that provide birds and feed, but require farmers to constantly invest in upgrading their facilities. Poultry giant Pilgrim's Pride revoked her contract during the economic downturn, she says, leaving her with huge, suddenly useless investments in chicken houses. "I think being cut off had a lot to do with [how] I spoke out against the practices that were being used against the growers," she said. But she survived by converting her chicken houses into barns for pasture-raised meat goats. "That kept me on the farm," she said.

Later we heard from Dorothy Barker, who runs Olusanya Farm in Oxford, NC with her husband Phillip Barker. By the 1980s, after decades of being denied fair access to loans both by private banks and the USDA, the Barkers found themselves running one of the state's last two remaining black-owned dairy farms, Barker recounted in forceful, measured, and blunt tones. "It didn't take long for me to realize they were pissing in my face—it wasn't raining," she said. Ever since, the Barker's have been organizing against this ag-based version of racist redlining, as well as developing infrastructure and building markets for black farmers in a region still marked by the historical legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.

After watching these bracing displays of real talk on the state of farming, I spent much of that long day in Raleigh thinking of ways in which Farm Aid is different from most other farming-and-food conferences I have attended over the years. Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Quite a crowd for a farm fundraiser Photo: Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

For one, people come out for superstar musicians. I've been to some of the largest organic-farming confabs in the country—California's EcoFarm, the Northwest's Tilth conferece. I attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008—a spectacular event that drew some 85,000, but dispersed over three days and in venues across the city. That same year, I and 8,000 others attended Terra Madre, the biannual global food-activism event put on in Turin, Italy, by Slow Food International.

But I've never seen attendance like Farm Aid's. By the time the music started in the early afternoon—the lineup included the above-named headliners, plus Jack White, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Gary Clark, Jr. and eight other acts­—the venue was packed. It was a brutally humid day that constantly threatened rain, and the arena's cover only extended to the numbered seats, sheltering a small fraction of its total capacity. Yet that didn't daunt the crowd of 20,000, most of whom sat unsheltered, on blankets on the up-sloping lawn. In the vast crowd, I saw farmers, activists, the requisite hippy-dancing youth, and families.

"Farm Aid is a whirlwind that blows through town, and we all hope to catch some of it in our sails," Chris Rumbley, a 30-something farmer who runs Raleigh City Farms told me. "It was good to see a food organizing platform that emphasizes farmers, giving us the spotlight for a minute."

It also delivers more than just rhetoric. Those 20,000 revelers paid $49 a pop for a place on the lawn, and as much as $175 for a seat near the stage. The musicians forsake a cut, and the bulk of the haul is distributed by Farm Aid to groups across the country that work directly to keep struggling farmers on their land. Since 1985, Farm Aid has delivered more than $42 million to farm advocacy groups.  

And while the most extreme pressures of the 1980s farm crisis have receded, US farmers—especially ones in the middle, too big to sell directly to consumers through channels like farmers markets, but too small to hold their own with large agribusiness—remain under steady pressure. The USDA's latest ag census, released in May, looked at US farm numbers by size, and changes between 2007 and 2012. The only category that saw growth was farms 2,000 acres and bigger, which inched ahead by 2 percent or so over the period. Farms between 100 and 500 acres saw the steepest losses—there were about 5 percent fewer of them in 2012 than there had been five years earlier. This ongoing hemorrhage of mid-sized farms is part of a decades-long hollowing out of rural America—the very problem Farm Aid exists to address.

As I took in Jack White's searing, guitar-driven set, among 20,000 others rapt at the former White Stripes frontman's virtuosity, I became fired up  about all these issues in a way I hadn't been for years.

How Superbugs Hitch a Ride From Hog Farms Into Your Community

| Sat Sep. 13, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
If you walk this line, you might just get MRSA in your nose.

Factory-scale farms don't just house hundreds of genetically similar animals in tight quarters over vast cesspools collecting their waste. They also house a variety of bacteria that live within those unfortunate beasts' guts. And when you dose the animals daily with small amounts of antibiotics—a common practice—the bacteria strains in these vast germ reservoirs quite naturally develop the ability to withstand anti-bacterial treatments.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria leave these facilities in two main ways. The obvious one is meat: As Food and Drug Administration data shows, the pork chops, chicken parts, and ground beef you find on supermarket shelves routinely carry resistant bacteria strains. But there's another, more subtle way: through the people who work on these operations.

The Rich Are Eating Richer, the Poor Are Eating Poorer

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Over the past decade, the number of farmers markets nationwide has approximately doubled, and the community-supported agriculture model of farming, where people buy shares in the harvest of a nearby farms, has probably grown even faster. Has this explosion of local produce consumption improved Americans' diets? A couple of new studies paint a disturbing picture.

Häagen-Dazs Says It Won't Use Fake DNA in Ice Cream

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Vanilla beans, or "natural flavoring solution"?

The Swiss firm Evolva is on the verge of bringing a novel vanilla-flavoring ingredient into the world: one neither grown on a tropical tree nor synthesized from petroleum. Evolva's version of vanillin—the most important of the many compounds that give vanilla beans their famous flavor and aroma—will be grown in yeast engineered through a process know as synthetic biology. (See my recent pieces on synbio here and here).

Will the market embrace this innovation? Is your ice cream, as the headline to one of my pieces recently had it, about to get weirder?

It's still way too early to tell, but one iconic ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs, says it's taking a pass. Contacted by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, both Nestle, which markets Häagen-Dazs in the US, and General Mills, which does so in all other markets, affirmed that the brand "will not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Evolva downplayed the importance of Häagen-Dazs' no-synbio stand:

Regarding this recent press release by Friends of the Earth (FOE) related to vanillin, Evolva would like to reiterate that its vanillin is not intended to replace vanilla that is grown in Madagascar, Mexico or elsewhere. Madagascan vanilla is a great product. And if ice cream makers are currently using this vanilla, by all means they should keep using it. Our focus is the 99% of vanillin (NOT VANILLA) in the world that actually does not come from the orchid in Madagascar, etc., but rather from petrochemical plants or chemically treated paper pulp waste. We want to give people a better alternative to THAT vanillin. Further, as has been stated previously, our vanillin has been reviewed for safety and has been found to be safe for its intended use. FOE is fully aware of our approach because we have shared it with them several times, already.

But Evolva appears to be engaging in a bit of hairsplitting here. In its own press release, it trumpets its product as "natural vanillin for commercial application," produced "through a cost-effective, natural and sustainable route." And in a recent statement to the trade website Food Navigator, Evolva reiterated the "natural" claim: "For most markets, our vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor as part of a natural flavoring solution."

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Think the Southwest’s Drought Is Bad Now? It Could Last a Generation or More

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 4:55 AM EDT
Irrigation pipes on Southern California farmland.

Late-summer 2014 has brought uncomfortable news for residents of the US Southwest—and I'm not talking about 109-degree heat in population centers like Phoenix.

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers looked at the deep historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on a midsummer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decadelong drought are "at least 80 percent." The chances of a "megadrought," one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an "unprecedented 50-year megadrought"—one "worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years"­—checks in at a nontrivial 5 to 10 percent.

To the right there's a map, pulled from the study, showing that the swath of land in question and its risk of a 35-year drought. It extends from Southern California clear to West Texas, encompassing population centers like San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque, along with a large chunk of the troubled US-Mexico border. (Note that in northern Mexico, drought prospects are even higher.)

This (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California's Imperial Valley and Arizona's Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth's mass and found that the region's aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region's farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads drained off in just nine years, a rate the study's lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls "alarming."

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it's probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there's little prospect that they'll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming megadrought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California Legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a statewide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Yet another study, this one released in mid-August by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the US Geological Survey and covered by my colleague Julia Lurie here, found that the drought now gripping most of California has been so severe that it has caused the state's mountain ranges to rise by as much as a half inch since 2013 alone. That's because water, in the form of snow on mountain peaks and flow in streams, weighs down on the tectonic plate upon which the mountains rest. When it's not replaced, as happens during a drought, the plate rises "like an uncoiled spring," as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography put it in a press release. Scripps added, thankfully, that the "uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and therefore does not increase the risk of earthquakes." Whew.

But the "uplift effect" doesn't just happen in mountain areas. The researchers estimate that across the West, loss of surface water has caused the land to rise 0.15 of an inch since 2013. Such a tangible change over so short a time illustrates the "the dire hydrological state of the West," the Scripps press release states.

40 Percent of Restaurant Workers Live in Near-Poverty

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

It isn't just fast-food empires that rely on a low-paid, disempowered, and quite-often impoverished workforce. As a stomach-turning new report (PDF viewable here) from the Economic Policy Institute shows, the entire restaurant industry hides a dirty little labor secret under the tasteful lighting of the dining room.

Here are some highlights:

• The restaurant industry is a massive and growing source of employment. It accounts for more than 9 percent of US private-sector jobs—up from a little more than 7 percent in 1990. That's nearly a 30 percent gain.

• The industry's wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers' median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn't budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers

• Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that's double the rate of nonrestaurant workers.

• Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is "cashiers and counter attendants" (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry's workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, "chefs and head cooks," offers a median wage of just $12.34.

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, "blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry," while "Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations," the report found.

• Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for nonrestaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of nonchef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don't receive the rights of citizenship.

Thus you can't opt out of supporting deplorable labor conditions for the people who feed you simply by refusing to pass through the Golden Arches or to enter the Burger King's realm.

So what can you do? One thing is to seek out restaurants that explicitly pay their workers a living wage. Two I can think of offhand: Austin's Black Star Co-op, a cooperatively owned gastro-pub that's managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." Another is Chapel Hill's excellent Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe. I'd love to hear about more examples in comments.

But these examples are vanishingly rare. The only real solution to the industry's bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative, the EPI report makes clear. That means reforms like a much higher minimum wage and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. Anyone who wants to learn more about working conditions in our nation's eateries should read Saru Jayaraman's outstanding 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. (Read the Mother Jones review here.)

And just for fun, here's the Mother Jones fast-food wage calculator, which will give you a sense of what some workers are up against:

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Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown (UPDATED)

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 7:55 PM EDT

Last week, Gawker uncovered a hapless tie-up between genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto and Condé Nast Media—publisher of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, GQ, Self, Details, and other magazines—to produce "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability."

Marion Nestle was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon.

Since then, I've learned that Condé Nast's Strategic Partnerships division dangled cash before several high-profile food politics writers, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to participate.  

Marion Nestle, author of the classic book Food Politics and a professor at New York University, told me she was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon. Nestle almost accepted, because at first she didn't know Monsanto was involved—the initial email she received only referred to the company in attachments that she didn't open, she said.

"It wasn't until we were at the end of the discussion about how much time I would allow (they wanted a full day) that they mentioned the honorarium," she wrote in an email. "I was so shocked at the amount that I had sense enough to ask who was paying for it. Monsanto. End of discussion."

James McWillams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a pundit on food issues whose work appears in The Atlantic and other publications, got offered even more, in a conversation with a Conde Nast rep on Aug. 6. "They were not evasive or misleading" about Monsanto's involvement, he told me, "just not immediately forthcoming…within a question or two it was clear that this was a PR project."

He wouldn't tell me on the record how much they dangled, but described it as "more money than I've ever been paid to talk" and "considerably north" of Nestle's offer. He declined.

Apparently, the infamous gender gap in pay lives on, even in the market for corporate flackery. I would have thought that snagging Nestle, a longtime industry critic, would be worth much more than bagging McWilliams, who has written favorably about GMOs. Nestle, who is quoted frequently in major media articles on food topics, also arguably has a considerably higher public profile than does McWilliams.

Then there's Anna Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Hot Planet and prominent critic of the agrichemical industry. She forwarded me an August 4 email a representative of her Small Planet Foundation received from someone identified as "Senior Director, Strategic Alliances, the Condé Nast Media Group." The email, printed below, invited Lappé to participate in an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites (i.e: Self, Epicurious, Bon Appetit, GQ & Details) and living on a custom YouTube channel," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability." It didn't mention Monsanto, but added that "[c]ompensation will be provided, along with travel two/from the shoot location." It contained no mention of Monsanto, or specifics on the compensation offer.

Coincidentally, Lappé was already wise to the Monsanto/Condé Nast tie-up. Back in June, she had been forwarded an email about a forthcoming web-based TV show sponsored by Monsanto and produced by Condé Nast, in search of experts to appear as talking heads. Lappé wrote critically about the project in an Al Jazeera America column published August 1, just days before the Condé Nast rep approached her. "I guess they didn't read the column," Lappé says.

She replied to the Condé Nast proposition on August 7, complaining that "it was misleading to approach me about participating without divulging the series is being funded by Monsanto." She never heard back.

That same day, Gawker came out with its post, which contained a leaked email from another Condé Nast employee to unnamed charity group, which contains similar language to the one Lappé received. "We are contacting you to see if there might be a person at [charity group] who could speak to one or two of the episode subject," the email states. (The email also names documentary film maker Lori Silverbush as someone Condé Nast hoped would be part of the panel. Silverbush's husband, the famed New York City chef Tom Colicchio, later tweeted, "Lori declined the Monsanto 'opportunity' when it was first offered, for reasons you can imagine.")

The series' host, the email continued, would be Mo Rocca, a famed comedian and correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. Lappé, McWilliams, and Nestle were also informed that Rocca would appear as the show's host. "When I looked up Mo Rocca, he sounded like fun," Nestle told me.

Soon after the Gawker item appeared, Rocca wrote a note to the publication denying his involvement. "Yes, I was pitched that project but before I gave my answer a letter went out suggesting I was signed on," he wrote. "That's not the case. I'm not involved with it."

I've reached out to Condé Nast for comment, and will update this post if the company gets back.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the most high-profile US food-politics writer, was also invited to participate in the project, he informed me Friday. In a July 22 email to Pollan's lecture agent, a Condé Nast rep talked up an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability," but didn't mention Mo Rocca or compensation. Nor did the email mention Monsanto—as with the case of Nestle, the company's name only appeared in an attachment. Pollan's agent "declined before money was mentioned," he said.

Here's the email Lappé's associate got from Condé Nast:

And here's Lappé's response:

 

The Toxic Algae Are Not Done With Toledo. Not By a Long Stretch.

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
The algae bloom that swallowed parts of Lake Erie in 2011. Toledo sits near—and draws its water from—the lake's southwest region, where algae tends to accumulate.

Last weekend, Toledo's 400,000 residents were sent scrambling for bottled water because the stuff from the tap had gone toxic—so toxic that city officials warned people against bathing their children or washing their dishes in it. The likely cause: a toxic blue-green algae bloom that floated over the city's municipal water intake in Lake Erie. On Monday morning, the city called off the don't-drink-the-water warning, claiming that levels of the contaminant in the water had fallen back to safe levels. Is their nightmare over?

One expert said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer.

I put the question to Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University and a researcher who monitors Lake Erie's annual algae blooms. He said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer. But it's "pretty unlikely" that toxins will make it into the city's drinking water. That's because after the weekend's fiasco, a whole crew of public agencies, from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the US Environmental Protection Agency to the City of Toledo, have been scrambling to implement new procedures to keep the toxins out. "I think they have a pretty good plan in place," he said. But "you can't guarantee [there won't be a recurrence] because you can't predict "how bad the concentration of the toxins going into the plant [from the lake] is going to be."

Reutter added that he "anticipated" that the new system for protecting Toledo's drinking water would be more expensive than the current one. Back in January, local paper the Blade reported that Toledo "has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, [and] spent $4 million in 2013."

And those hard realities highlight a hard fact about our way of farming: It manages to displace the costs of dealing with its messes onto people who don't directly benefit from it. The ties between Big Ag and Toledo's rough weekend are easy to tease out. "The Maumee River drains more than four million acres of agricultural land and dumps it into Lake Erie at the Port of Toledo," the Wall Street Journal reports. More than 80 percent of the Maumeee River watershed is devoted to agriculture, mainly the corn-soy duopoly that carpets the Midwest. Fertilizer and manure runoff from the region's farms feed blue-green algae blooms in the southwest corner of Lake Erie, from which Toledo draws its water.  

And those blooms don't just tie up oxygen in water and push out aquatic life, creating dead zones. They also often contain the compound that triggered the water scare: microcystin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and even liver damage. Apparently, a particularly noxious chunk of algae floated over Toledo's water intake equipment, causing the microcystin spike.

Back in early July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Michigan delivered their forecast for this year's bloom on the western part of Erie: It would likely be much smaller than it was in 2011, when a record 40,000 metric tons of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) accumulated, but likely much higher than the past decade's average of 14,000 metric tons—the researchers forecast a 2014 bloom weighing in at 22,000 metric tons. The blooms don't peak until September, which is why Reutter is convinced that the condition that created last weekend's troubles will likely re-emerge.

Here's a chart from the report:

Chart: NOAA and University of Michigan researchers

The bottom half of that chart tracks the flow of phosphorus, the component of fertilizer and manure that triggers freshwater algae blooms, into Lake Erie. Of course, farm runoff isn't the only way phosphorus makes its way into the lake. Municipal sewage and industrial waste play a role, too. But reforms imposed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 minimized those sources, pulling Lake Erie from the brink of death.

The below chart, taken from a 2013 Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force report, shows the sources of Lake Erie phosphorus over the past several decades. Under pressure from the Clean Water Act, pollution from "point" sources like wastewater treatment plants and factories have been severely curtailed. But the CWA doesn't regulate "non-point" sources, mainly agriculture. "Harmful algal blooms were common in western Lake Erie between the 1960s and 1980s," NOAA notes. "After a lapse of nearly 20 years, blooms have been steadily increasing over the past decade."

Chart: Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

Climate change plays a role, too—both because longer, warmer summers give algae more time to build up, and because warmer mean temperatures are also likely driving a steep increase of heavy rains in the upper Midwest, which force more phosphorus off farm fields and into waterways. Changes in the way farmers apply fertilizers are also apparently making phosphorus more mobile as this 2012 article by Jessica Marshal for the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows.

Of course, western Ohio isn't the only Corn Belt region encountering toxic algae. "A reported chemical spill on the Des Moines River above Saylorville Lake Wednesday turned out to be a blue-green algae bloom," the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported in late July. More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an advisory against swimming in two beaches of Lake Red Rock, Iowa's largest lake, "in response to the presence of a significant blue-green algae bloom which has the potential to impact the health of humans and their pets."

The website Toxic Algae News tracks blooms nationwide. Here's its latest map. Red pins in a state mean harmful algal blooms recur annually in "many" lakes; orange pins mean they recur in one or two lakes.

And phosphorus isn't the only fertilizer component that feeds algae blooms. Nitrogen does to saltwater what phosphorus does to freshwater—and every year, the Mississippi River carries titanic amounts of nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico, more than half of which comes from corn and soy farms. These flows feed a vast algae bloom that creates an aquatic dead zone that can reach the size of New Jersey—blotting out a wild, abundant source of high-quality seafood, in order to grow crops that mainly go to feed livestock, cars, industrial-cooking fats, and sweeteners. This year's dead zone clocks in at 5,008 square miles—"roughly the size of Connecticut and…three times larger than the 2015 goal established by a task force specifically created to address the problem," the Mississippi River Collaborative announced Monday.

Such sacrifices are what economists call "externalities"—the costs of doing business that don't show up on the bottom lines of farmers, or the companies that buy their goods for animal feed and ethanol, or the firms that sell them the seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers that facilitate mass monocropped plantings.

Residents of places like Toledo are left holding the bag. Many people there are questioning the safety of their water supply and turning to pricey bottled water instead, USA Today reports. And now, the city's taxpayers (or some public entity) will likely be paying more than ever to keep algae toxins out of the tap water.