Tom Philpott

The Dangerous Chemical Lurking in Your Beer Can

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Almost exactly 80 years since its debut, the beer can remains a wildly popular vessel for America's favorite alcoholic beverage. According to the Beer Institute, cans accounted for (XLS) 53.2 percent of the beer market in 2012 (the latest year for numbers), versus 36.5 percent for bottles and 10 percent for draft. And the can's market share has been inching up—as recently as 2004, just 48 percent of beer came in cans.

Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do craft beer makers.

But here's the thing: Like most other commercially available cans, beer cans are lined with epoxy that contains bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that keeps foods from reacting to aluminum, but that has also become associated with a range of ailments, including cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids. BPA is well established as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it likely causes hormonal damage at extremely low levels. The question is whether we get enough of it in beer (and other canned goods) to cause harm.

For me, this isn't an academic question. Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do my beloved craft beer makers—the small and midsize brewers that have popped up nationwide over the past quarter century to challenge the hegemony of corporate swill. Ever since pulling the ring off my first Dale's Pale Ale—made by the excellent Colorado brewer Oskar Blues—several years ago, I've been enamored of canned beers and their throwback charm.

I'm hardly alone. According to the website Craftcans.com, Oskar Blues launched the canned-craft craze in 2002. Today, nearly 500 craft breweries, a least one in every state, offer canned product. In my current hometown of Austin, several excellent local brewers are retailed only in cans. Colorful canned six-packs dominate the coolers of top local beer emporia. In 2013, Whole Foods reported a 30 percent nationwide increase in canned-beer sales. A decade ago, cans accounted for precisely zero percent of my beer consumption; today, that number hovers above 50 percent, or about the national average for all beers. Is my turn to cans harming me?

The Food and Drug Administration, after a lengthy review process, has opted to give BPA a tentative thumbs-up. In 2012, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, and added containers for infant formula to the list the following year. But last year, citing its most recent safety assessment (PDF), the FDA pronounced BPA "safe at the current levels occurring in foods." The European Food Safety Authority recently ended its own BPA reassessment with the same conclusion, though the French government vehemently disagrees and has instituted a ban.

But the FDA's sort-of embrace of the can industry's favorite liner is highly controversial among a swath of scientists, as my colleague Mariah Blake showed last year. Blake reports that "roughly 1,000 published studies have found that low-level exposure to BPA—a synthetic estrogen that is also used in cash register receipts and the lining of tin cans—can lead to serious health problems, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to obesity and attention-deficit disorder."

One researcher says it is "highly possible" that BPA leaches from can linings into beer.

And both the FDA itself and Consumer Reports have shown that BPA does indeed travel from can linings into the food we eat. Back in 2010, Health Canada, the Canadian version of the FDA, tested (PDF) 16 beer samples—eight from cans and eight from bottles—and found BPA in all of the canned beer and in just one of the bottled. But it called the levels "extremely low," and reiterated its assessment that "current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population."

But BPA researcher Karin Michels, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, told me that she knows of no research that assesses how much BPA actually makes it into our bodies from drinking canned beer. She herself coauthored a 2011 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, finding that a "group of volunteers who consumed a serving of canned soup each day for five days had a more than 1,000 percent increase in urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations compared with when the same individuals consumed fresh soup daily for five days," as the Harvard press release put it.

A similar study by Korean researchers published in Hypertension found that on days when subjects drank canned soy milk, the BPA levels found in their urine surged by 1,600 percent, and their blood pressure rose significantly, compared to days when they took their soy milk from bottles (not the first time that BPA has been associated with cardiovascular dysfunction).

Michels told me that the Hypertension study, which she called "very important" and "pretty well designed," is among the only to test the impact of drinking beverages from BPA-lined cans. She told me that this study, along with her 2011 one on soup, are relevant to beer drinkers and that more research on BPA and beverages is "urgently needed." She added: "In fact, I am submitting an application to NIH [National Institutes of Health] as we speak on exactly this [BPA in canned beverages], but who knows whether it will be funded."

BPA-free can linings are only approved for low-acid foods like beans. For high-acid substances like tomatoes or beer, there's no approved alternative yet.

Yun-Chul Hong, coauthor of the soy milk study and director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Seoul National University, told me that it's impossible to say whether BPA from canned beer makes it into our bodies at significant levels because no one has measured it. But "from my research and [that of] others, I think it is highly possible," he added. Given that Americans quaff beer at the rate of about 21 gallons annually per capita (PDF), more than than half of which is canned, that's not a comforting statement.

As for Oskar Blues, the brewer whose work I so admire and that launched the can craze among craft brewers, it continues to offer its product only in cans (with the exception of kegged beer at bars). The company is holding a line that it has maintained for years: It's seeking viable BPA-free cans, but so far hasn't found them. "We are staying on top of this issue, not much has changed in the last few years," marketing director Chad Melis said. He added that a BPA-free can lining does exist, but it's only approved for low-acid foods like beans. "The FDA will not approve BPA-free linings for use with other foods that have a level of acidity (beer, tomatoes, soda, etc.) due to the fact that acidic foods are able to react with the metal through the container's lining if the lining hasn't been hardened with BPA, therefore defeating the purpose of the lining altogether," he wrote in an email. He  directed me to this BPA fact sheet (PDF) from its can supplier, Ball, the globe's largest aluminum can maker, and noted the recent pro-BPA decisions from the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority.

I appreciate that Oskar Blues communicates straightforwardly about BPA. And I acknowledge the ecological advantages of cans (more efficient shipping, storing, recycling, etc.), as well as the pleasure of popping the top on an ice-cold can of beer on a hot day. I can't say for certain that BPA from my canned beer habit is harming me. But until more research emerges, I'm cutting back on cans and turning back to bottles.

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Harvard is Buying Up Vineyards in Drought-Ridden California Wine Country

| Sat Jan. 31, 2015 7:00 AM EST

I recently wrote a piece about growing interest in California farmland by massive investment funds. But almonds and other tree nuts, the main focus of my article, aren't the only commodities drawing interest from the smart-money crowd. From what I can tell, a successful California farmland investment requires these two conditions: 1) a sought-after commodity, preferably one with a booming export market; and 2) access to water for irrigation—increasingly important as California's drought lurches on.

Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county banned new pumping from part of the basin.

Harvard University's famed $36 billion endowment fund, the biggest of any US university, has alighted upon just such a sweet spot in California's coastal Paso Robles wine region, north of Los Angeles. Reuters reports that the Harvard fund "has spent more than $60 million to purchase about 10,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties since 2012, making it one of the top 20 growers in Paso Robles."

The move would seem to meet my two conditions swimmingly. US wine exports (90 percent of which originate in California), are booming, up 16.4 percent in 2013, the most recent year with numbers. And as with almonds, US wine exports to China have been surging for years, as this chart I assembled last year with colleagues Jaeah Lee and Alex Park shows. And wines from grapes grown in Paso Robles should have no trouble finding buyers—Wine Enthusiast deemed Paso Robles the 2013 "Wine Region of the Year," and rival Wine Spectator has declared that it's "emerging as most dynamic [wine region] in California."

As for water, while making its land buys, Harvard's investment company "acquired rights to drill 16 water wells of between 700 and 900 feet deep, two or three times deeper than the average residential well, according to county records," Reuters reports. 'Deeper wells will continue to give them access to water as shallower wells run dry."

Obtaining those permits turned out to be a great move. Reuters reports that the fund acquired rights to drill seven of those wells on August 21, 2013, while "local lawmakers were trying to figure out how to deal with the worsening water shortage" in the region. Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county placed a "ban on new pumping from the hardest-hit part of the basin," Reuters reports.

Reuters adds that "no environmental advocacy group has accused Brodiaea [a Harvard-owned investment firm] of trying to profit from the drought."

In an item last year, the veteran analyst Michael Fritz of the Farmland Investor Center noted the timing of Harvard's move:

Some market observers have wondered if Brodiaea was a well-timed water play in light of the region’s worsening groundwater shortage. Last August, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted an “urgency” ordinance that prohibits any new development or new irrigated crop production unless the water it uses is offset by an equal amount of conservation. Water levels in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have fallen sharply in recent years—two to six feet a year in some areas—causing wells to go dry and forcing many vineyards and rural residents to drill deeper wells, according to local accounts. 

Fritz adds that a local investor involved with managing the Harvard wine project told him that "the timing of Brodiaea’s irrigated land purchases in San Luis Obispo County and the subsequent moratorium on new irrigation development was 'pure coincidence.'”

California isn't the only region upon which Harvard is placing farmland investment bets, Fritz reported. The fund also has such investments in New Zealand, Romania, Latvia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Panamá, Fritz notes.

Something Really, Really Terrible Is About to Happen to Our Coral

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Healthy coral reef, posing with happy fish

Coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but provide habitat to 25 percent of sea-dwelling fish species. That's why coral scientist C. Mark Eakin, who coordinates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program, is surprised that the warning he has been sounding since last year (PDF)—that the globe's reefs appear to be on the verge of a mass-scale bleaching event—hasn't drawn more media attention.

During the last mass bleaching event, we lost almost a fifth of the world's coral reefs. Only some have recovered.

Bleaching happens when coral loses contact with zooxanthellae, an algae that essentially feeds them nutrients in symbiotic exchange for a stable habitat. The coral/zooxanthellae relationship thrives within a pretty tight range of ocean temperatures, and when water warms above normal levels, coral tends to expel its algal lifeline. In doing so, coral not only loses the brilliant colors zooxanthellae deliver—hence, "bleaching"—but also its main source of food. A bleached coral reef rapidly begins to decline. Coral can reunite with healthy zooxanthellae and recover, Eakin says, but even then they often become diseased and may die. That's rotten news, because bleaching outbreaks are increasingly common.

Before the 1980s, large-scale coral bleaching had never been observed before, Eakin says. After that, regionally isolated bleaching began to crop up, drawing the attention of marine scientists. Then, in 1998, an unusually strong El Niño warming phase caused ocean temperatures to rise, triggering the first known global bleaching event in Earth's history. It whitened coral off the coasts of 60 countries and island nations, spanning the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. We functionally "lost between 15 percent and 20 percent of the world's coral reefs" in '98, Eakin said. Only some have recovered.

Eakin is concerned about a relapse, because the oceans are relentlessly warming, driven by climate change from ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. As heat builds in the ocean, he says, coral become more vulnerable to bleaching.

Getting hot in here: Coral reefs are sensitive to warming water. Oh-oh. NOAA

As a result, it no longer takes a classic strong El Niño to cause warming and trigger mass bleaching. This current El Niño, after starting strong last year, has essentially collapsed, in what Eakin calls a "highly unusual" pattern. Even so, the northeast Pacific is experiencing "very warm" water, he said. Overall, the oceans' waters have warmed so much in recent years that most coral areas are "right on the verge of having enough heat stress to cause bleaching and it doesn't take nearly as much to start one of these global-scale events," he said. Since 1998, there have been two major beaching events, neither driven by a strong El Niño. In 2005, the Caribbean ocean experienced its worst-ever bleaching event despite a relatively tame El Niño year, and in 2010, the second-ever globe-spanning bleaching event occurred, again during a mild El Niño. It wasn't as severe as the 1998 disaster, but unlike the earlier one, it "didn't have a strong El Niño driving it," Eakin says.

Which brings us to 2015. During our phone conversation, Eakin directed me to this page on NOAA's Coral Reef Watch site. He asked me to consider the below chart, which shows the water-temperature patterns that prevailed in spring  '98—bleaching was most severe where the color is darkest red, signifying the most severe warming.

NOAA

Then he directed me to the latest NOAA analysis, taken this month, that forecasts warming patterns four months into the future.

NOAA

He called the warning currently happening in the Indian Ocean (the one on the left in the above charts) "amazingly similar" to the situation in '98, which foretells a warming pattern that could subject coral to a '98-scale bleaching crisis. "If you look at where we were in 1998 and look at where we are now, you see that the ocean is primed to respond with a sustained high temperature during the warm season in a way that previously took a big El Niño, and now doesn't," he said.

Again, a mass bleaching doesn't translate directly to mass coral die-off, because coral can recover. But the recovery takes decades—large reefs grow about 1 centimeters per year, Eakin says—and the bleaching events are coming faster and faster, each one stalling recovery and causing new damage. The emerging pattern for large-scale events looks like this: 1998, 2005 (confined mainly to the Caribbean), 2010, and now, quite possibly, 2015.

Bleached coral within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA

And another facet of climate change makes recovery even more difficult, Eakins added: acidification, which comes about as the oceans sponge up more and more carbon from the atmosphere. Heightened acidity makes it harder for coral to absorb the calcium carbonate it needs to build and maintain their skeletal structure.

Eakin says it will take major action to reverse climate change to save the globe's coral reefs. Currently, carbon dioxide makes up nearly 400 parts per million of the atmosphere, and for coral to thrive, we'll need to throttle that back to 350 ppm or possibly even 320 ppm, he said. Those are ambitious goals. Making coral resilient enough to survive until we can manage to do that, he added, will require taking action against "local stressors" that also harm them, like overfishing and pollution.

"People say corals are the rainforests of the sea. But coral reefs are more biodiverse than rainforests," he said. "It ought to be the other way around: Rainforests are the coral reefs of the land." And these glorious cradles of oceanic life aren't getting any stronger. "The punch that knocks a boxer out in the ninth round doesn't have to be as hard as the punch that would knock him out in round one," Eakin said.

Dust From Factory Farms Carries Drugs, Poop Bacteria, and Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Far and Wide

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Does what's deposited onto the feedlot floor stay in the feedlot? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Ever approached a feedlot teeming with thousands of cattle? Unlike industrialized hog and chicken farms, where huge enclosed buildings trap at least some of the smell, cattle feedlots are open-air—as anyone who has driven Highway 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco can testify. Turns out, when you inhale the aroma, you're not just getting a blast of ammonia and other noxious fumes. You're also probably breathing in tiny particles of antibiotics, bacteria from cows' "fecal matter and gut flora," and antibiotic-resistant gene sequences. That's the conclusion of a new study from Texas Tech researchers, who analyzed air samples taken just downwind of ten cattle feedlots in Texas and states to the north, each containing between 20,000 and 50,000 cows.

The team placed portable air samplers 10-20 yards upwind and downwind of feedlots in the fall and winter months, when temperatures are mild and wind is moderate, and analyzed the particulate matter. Monenisin, an antibiotic growth promoter widely used on beef and dairy feedlots, turned up in 100 percent of samples, at much higher rates downwind (mean: 1,800 parts per billion) than upwind (below the level of measurement.) Now, monenisin isn't used in human medicine, meaning that it doesn’t directly contribute to antibiotic resistance that affects us. But tetracycline antibiotics—used commonly to treat urinary tract infections and pink eye—showed up in 60 percent of the downwind samples and 30 percent of the upwind samples, again at much lower levels upwind.

Levels of antibiotics in the air outside of feedlots were similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations.

To put these findings in perspective, the authors note they found antibiotics in the air outside of these feedlots at levels similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations—meaning that finding yourself 20 yards from a giant cattle lot is a lot like being inside a hog house.  

They also found bacteria "common to fecal matter and gut flora" at significantly higher levels downwind than upwind, including several that can cause human infections, including including corynebacterium, Leptospira, Clostridia, Bacteroides, and Staphylococcus.

And they picked up gene sequences that confer resistance to tetracycline at rates ranging from 100 to more than 1,000 times higher downwind than upwind. And get this: Those tetracycline-resistant genes appeared at much higher rates than those typically found in the liquid manure lagoons that build up in beef feedlots—meaning that wind may be even more prolific than water at spreading antibiotic-resistant genes from the farm to the surrounding region.

So how is all this nasty stuff moving from the feedlot to the surrounding air? The authors offer a simple explanation: The ground in feedlots "consists primarily of urine and fecal material," the study notes. In the morning, all of that … stuff is relatively stable, held more or less in place by moisture from humidity. But after hours of sunlight, the floor material "becomes dry and brittle, thus becoming source material for fugitive dust."

So what does this all add up to? The study doesn't comment on whether the particles the researchers found are at high enough levels to directly cause human harm. But that's not the main concern—most of us don't spend much time near massive concentrated cattle operations. (Feedlot workers are another story.) The larger issue is those antibiotic genes, traces of antibiotics, and fecal microbes that are being scattered far and wide. The authors note that of the nation's 2,100 large-scale (1000 head or greater) cattle feedlots, more than three-quarters are in the region of area study, the southern Great Plains (a swath stretching from northern Texas through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado)—the very region with the "highest frequency of dust storms in the United States." The region's semi-arid conditions—as well its its propensity for prolonged droughts—provides an ideal environment for the "wind scouring of dry soils," and "aerial transport and deposition" of feedlot particles into "surrounding soil surfaces, water surfaces, vegetation, and other living organisms."

And that's under calm weather conditions. "Fronts and other major weather patterns frequently sweep through this region, and are often associated with exceedingly high wind velocities which themselves transport significant masses of particulates into the atmosphere and across the region and continent," they add. And once in the environment, resistance genes can jump from bacteria that don't pose a threat to humans to ones that do, the authors note.

The study is yet another reminder that the massive amounts of waste generated on factory farms don't stay on factory farms. (Here's a 2011 paper from North Carolina State and Kansas State researchers showing that cockroaches and flies carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria from large hog facilities; and a 2014 one from Johns Hopkins and University of North Carolina researchers finding that resistant bacteria leave the farm in the noses of workers.)

The Oceans Are On the Verge of Mass Extinction. Here's How to Avoid It.

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Who cranked the heat up and added acid?

We land-based creatures live in the midst of a massive extinction crisis, just the sixth one over the past half billion years. What about the oceans? A much-discussed, wide-ranging recent Science study (paywalled) has good news: Sea critters are currently faring much better than their land counterparts, which are going extinct at a rate 36 times higher. (That number is likely exaggerated, the authors note, because scientists have done a much better job of cataloging land critters than sea critters.)

Tackling the over-fishing problem will be no mean feat, given the expected rise of the human population to 9 billion by 2050, but it's probably doable.

But the report also brings horrible news: Between over-fishing and habitat destruction (think acidification, coastal development, warming, coral destruction, dead zones from fertilizer runoff, etc.), the oceans may be on the brink of their own extinction catastrophe. (The New York Times' Carl Zimmer has more details here; Vox's Brad Plumer has a good analysis here.) Today's marine extinction rates look eerily similar to the "moderate" land-based ones just before the Industrial Revolution, the authors warn. "Rates of extinction on land increased dramatically after this period, and we may now be sitting at the precipice of a similar extinction transition in the oceans."

What to do? Tackling the over-fishing problem will be no mean feat, given the expected rise of the human population to 9 billion by 2050, but it's probably doable. One place to start is smarter fish farming. Globally, about half of seafood consumed comes from farms, but much of it actually harms the oceans. Salmon farms, for example, rely on sucking up mass quantities of wild fish for feed—it takes at least three pounds of anchovies, sardines, menhaden, and other "forage fish" to deliver a pound of farmed salmon (not to mention the waste problem created when you confine thousands of big fish loose together).

And Asian shrimp farms—source of nearly 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the US—have been plunked down atop what had been highly productive coastal ecosystems called mangrove forests. According to the United Nations, as much as a third of the globe's mangroves have been destroyed since 1980—and shrimp and other forms of aquaculture account for more than half that loss.

But there are ways to improve fish farming. Filter-feeding species like oysters and clams—which get their nutrients by filtering out plankton and other stuff suspended in the water—require no feed and can enhance coastal ecosystems. And there are farming systems (both ancient and new-fangled) that combine several species and even land-based crops to generate lots of high-quality food with few inputs and little waste. Finally, my colleagues Maddie Oatman and Brent Brownell have documented a successful effort to farm top-quality trout—normally a fish-eating fish—with vegetarian feed made mainly of (non-gross) food waste. Maddie's article here; video below.

 

Then there's that oft-repeated, little-heeded advice to choose seafood low on the trophic scare—that is, fish and other sea critters that eat plants and plankton, not other fish. Oysters, clams, and mussels are all good examples. And instead of choosing farmed salmon, go with the little fish that gets fed to them. To that end, here are two recipes for sardines—trust me, they're delicious.

Now, as tricky as it will be to cut back on overfishing by convincing fish farmers to mend their ways and consumers to change their habits, the even bigger challenge will be to stop trashing the place all of these critters call home. Habitat degradation, according to the Science authors, is the main trigger for the extinction wave we're now seeing on land, and is probably the biggest threat to cause a similar catastrophe at sea. "If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy," Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University and an author of the report, told The Times' Zimmer. "In effect, that's what we’re doing to the oceans." Of course, both warming and acidification are the direct result of our fossil fuel habit—the same force that's generating potentially catastrophic climate change up here on land. There's no saving the oceans without solving that problem.

Why Are the Feds Abusing Research Animals?

| Wed Jan. 21, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Do I look like a catfish to you?

The ace New York Times food/agriculture reporter Michael Moss has an excellent long piece on the US Meat Animal Research Center, a US Department of Agriculture-run institution that, Moss writes, has "one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit." As a result of its laser focus on that task, Moss shows, the center has routinely subjected animals to cruel conditions since its inception in 1964, unchecked by the Animal Welfare Act, which exempts farm animals used in research. The article is littered with images of calves born mangled, newborn lambs abandoned to die in the cold overnight, and piglets crushed by their mothers—all the routine result of federally funded experiments.

What strikes me is the cold, industrial vision of livestock farming embodied by the research center: animals as inert commodities to be manufactured as cheaply as possible, like microchips or screws. Physiology becomes a production process to be hacked for the convenience of producers. Cows only give birth to one calf at a time? Inefficient and unacceptable! Moss draws out the grotesque tale of a project designed to change that, spearheaded by the center's founding director, Keith E. Gregory. Back in 1981, Moss reports, Gregory published a paper comparing the cow's modest reproductive powers with those of the prolific catfish, which churns out "more than 1,000 times its weight in offspring."

Thus launched a long effort to make cows more catfishlike: Engineer them (using conventional breeding techniques) to birth twins, not one-offs. And it succeeded—sort of. By 2000, Moss reports, cows in the experiment were birthing twins 55 percent of the time vs. the normal rate of 3 percent. But…

Some 95 percent of the females born with male siblings had deformed vaginas. Many of the twins died during birth as their eight legs became tangled. Even calves born singly had trouble getting out: The mothers had been bred with such large wombs, to accommodate twins, that the calf could not get enough traction. And the breeding increasingly yielded triplets, with 12 legs to get tangled.

As a result, he writes, "16.5 percent of twins and triplets were dying, a rate more than four times that of single calves."

Still, the center thought it had handed the beef industry a great gift—at a beef conference, center officials "acknowledged the high death rates, yet argued that the math still worked in ranchers' favor," because, "the combined weight of surviving twin cows was nearly 50 percent more, on average, than for conventional cows."

Instead of trying to turn cows into catfishesque baby-making machines, USDA could figure out best practices for diversified livestock ag.

Ironically, the idea of cows tweaked to birth twin calves creeped out Big Beef, an industry not normally known for turning squeamish in pursuit of profit. The idea never caught on among cattle ranchers, and the program petered out in 2013. "The surviving cows were sold, though the center is still trying with little success to sell the bulls' semen," Moss writes. Your tax dollars at work! The piece teases out similarly vexed efforts to jack up pigs' birth output. One initiative that did succeed, according to Moss, was a program to breed pigs to be much leaner—creating flavor-challenged pork and sows that are "so low in fat that one in five females cannot reproduce," Moss writes.

Now, a lot of people will read Moss' exposé and conclude that the US Meat Animal Research Center must be defunded and closed. But publicly financed ag research is vital to maintaining a resilient, plentiful food supply in era of climate chaos and ecological crisis in farm country. Federal ag research funding has been flat in recent years, and a rising tide of agribusiness cash has played an increasingly dominant role in setting the research agenda, especially in the meat field.

But there's no reason that federal livestock research should exist purely to boost the profits of the big meat packers, which rely on highly specialized farms called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that stuff thousands animals tightly together. It has been well established that diversified farms, ones that produce meat as well as crops, are more ecologically sound (PDF) than specialized ones.

But now that diversified farms have largely been driven out of business over the past several decades, few farmers (or the bankers they rely on for financing) are willing to take the risk of, say, periodically rotating beef cows into fields now dominated by corn and soybeans, even though such a system would likely sequester carbon and rebuild depleted soil. And that's where the US Meat Animal Research Center could come in. Instead of spending years and untold resources trying to turn cows into catfishesque baby-making machines, they could do on-the-ground research to figure out best practices for diversified livestock ag. Don't slaughter federal livestock research; nurture it so that it grows into something that benefits the public—while also respecting animal welfare.

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Craft Beer Uses 4 Times As Much Barley As Corporate Brew

| Tue Jan. 20, 2015 7:00 AM EST

For decades, US beer lovers have denounced corporate-made brew as watered-down swill. Just how diluted is the product peddled by the two enormous dinosaurs that dodder over the US beer market, InBev (maker of Bud) and MillerCoors? In a delicious new report, the US Department of Agriculture has numbers.

Most beers, industrial or craft, get their substance—what experts call body, or mouth feel, as well as any sweet and toasty flavors—from malted barley. (Malting is the process of germinating barley grains, which frees up their sugars for fermentation.) The USDA researchers crunched data on the US barley and beer markets, and found that craft brewers on average use four times more barley per barrel of beer than the giants do.

An environmental case for watered-down beer exists, but it's as weak and uninteresting as the resulting beer itself.

Which makes craft beer seem like a bit of a bargain. A six-pack of Miller Lite retails for about $5.50 in Texas, while typical craft beers go for about $10 per six—not even twice the price for four times the barley (and flavor). (Craft beers also tend to contain much more of the other main ingredient in beer, hops). In essence, Big Beer (like Big Almond) has hit upon a profitable strategy for reselling tap water at a high markup.

Now, one way to look at it is: Isn't watery beer easier on the environment? You know: Less barley embedded in each beer means less fertilizer for barley production, less pesticides, etc. That's really a version of an old industry saw—the solution to pollution is dilution. But there's no evidence that people consume fewer resources per beer-drinking session when they consume corporate beer than they do when they drink craft. Let's say Person A knocks back four easy-drinking Miller Lites and Person B is satisfied after two malty, substantial Dale's Pale Ales. The beer snob may have consumed more overall barley, but she has two fewer empties to show for her pleasure. In addition to less energy embedded in fabricating and recycling fewer cans or bottles, that also means less space in trucks, coolers, etc. An environmental case for watered-down beer exists, I guess, but it's as weak and uninteresting as the resulting beer itself.

At any rate, the report confirms a trend I've been writing about for a while (and enjoying even longer): Craft beer is undergoing a boom, even as corporate beer weathers a long, slow decline. Between 1993 and 2013, the researchers find, the amount of beer churned out by craft brewers expanded by a factor of nine, growing by an average rate of nearly 14 percent annually. Corporate swill? Output has dropped by an average of 0.6 percent annually over that period. Craft still accounts for only about 7.8 percent of beer produced the in the US—meaning there's plenty of room for additional growth.

The researchers conclude that the craft beer renaissance could boost domestic barley production—total US harvested barley acres peaked at about 11 million in in the 1980s and have since fallen well below 5 million acres. (For comparison, US farmers typically plant about 90 million acres of corn and 80 million acres of soybeans.) About a quarter of US barley is used as animal feed; the great bulk of the rest gets malted for beer. (Malted barley is also used for Scotch-style whiskey, which is made here only in small amounts—our native brown spirit, bourbon, is based mainly on corn.) Overall US malt demand has fallen since the early 1990s as Big Beer has shifted to lighter styles and seen demand for its products drop. But the craft renaissance has begun to offset and could eventually reverse the trend of falling malt demand, the USDA researchers conclude.

Currently, the malted barley industry is global in scope and dominated by a handful of companies (PDF), including Cargill. But alongside the craft-brew explosion, small, locally oriented malt houses are springing up nationwide, providing a link between brewers and nearby farmers. And that could be a good thing for the environment. If US farmers incorporated a "small grain" like barley into the dominant corn-soy rotation, it would break insect, disease, and weed cycles, drastically reducing reliance on toxic pesticides, a 2012 study conducted at Iowa State University found. I'd drink to that.

Tom's Kitchen: Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

| Sat Jan. 17, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Pasta makes a great showcase for a season's bounty—and not just in spring, despite the famed dish spaghetti primavera. I recently found myself in possession of some excellent butternut squash and collard greens from Austin's Boggy Creek Farm, as well as gorgeous bacon from the throwback butcher shop Salt and Time. So, sweet (squash), pungent (collards), smoky/umami (bacon): elements of a great dish. To round it out, I decided to add white beans to the mix, using a method I recently picked up from the Los Angeles Times' Russ Parsons: Without any soaking, you cook the beans in a covered pot in an oven heated to 350 degrees F. Within two hours, I had perfectly tender, flavorful beans to bolster my pasta. (You can also just open a can, of course.) Grate a little Parmesan cheese and open a bottle of sturdy red wine, and you've got a dinner satisfying enough to overwhelm the winter blues.

Vegetarians can forgo the bacon and cook the collard greens in olive oil along with a rehydrated and chopped-up chipotle pepper, maintaining the smoke while adding a blast of heat.

Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

1 large or two small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces (a tricky task, but easily accomplished with a sharp knife and proper technique, laid out here)
Some extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 or 5 slices of bacon, preferably from pastured hogs, cut into half-inch chunks
3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 large bunch of collard greens, stemmed and chopped
1 pound of pasta (I used Bionaturae whole wheat spaghetti)
1 1/12 cups cooked white beans (Russ Parsons' no-soak method here; you can also substitute 1 can of beans)
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
1 bunch parsley, chopped, and crushed chili flakes, to garnish
A chunk of Parmesan or other hard cheese, for grating.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Dump the squash cubes onto a baking sheet and give them a few glugs of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and a lashing of black pepper. Using your hands, toss them to coat them evenly with oil, and then arrange the cubes in a single layer. Bake them, turning once or twice, until they are tender and beginning to brown, about 40 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, put a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook it, stirring often, until it is brown and crisp. Remove the bacon from the skillet with a slotted soon, setting it aside. With the bacon fat still in the skillet, add the garlic. Cook it for a few seconds, stirring often, and add the chopped collards. Using a spatula or tongs, toss them well, coating them with fat and garlic. Add a pinch of salt and a dash of water. Turn heat low and cover the skillet, and let the collards cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender.

When the squash and collards are both well underway, cook the pasta using the low-water method. Reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid before draining the pasta.

In a large bowl, combine the squash, collard greens, beans, and the cup of pasta cooking liquid. Dump the hot pasta over, and gently combine everything using a tongs or two big spoons. Add the parsley, a pinch of chili flakes, and several grinds of pepper, and taste for salt, correcting if necessary. Pass the Parmesan and a grater at the table.

What Does "Cage-Free" Even Mean?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 7:00 AM EST

What kind of farm do you imagine when you think of organic or cage-free eggs? Images of hens frolicking in lush meadows?

That kind of farming exists, but such conditions aren't mandated by organic code—not explicitly anyway. According to the USDA regulations, animals raised organically must have "year-round access ... to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment." Those rules are open to a wide variety of interpretations.,

Ten times over the course of a year and a half, under cover of night, a group of radical animal-rights activists snuck into the facilities of a large operation called Petaluma Farms, a major west-coast supplier to Whole Foods and Organic Valley, according to The New York Times. The Petaluma egg complex produces both certified-organic and non-organic "cage free" eggs, the main difference between the two standards being that organic eggs must come from hens fed only organic feed.

The video shows birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit.

The group, Direct Action Everywhere, seems to find all animal farming abhorrent—a point driven home in the video's first third, wherein several group members denounce the killing of animals. Later, footage taken from within the Petaluma facilities shows lots of birds wallowing tightly together, often amidst what looks like significant buildup of their own waste. The narrators use words like "stench, " "filth," and "misery" to describe the scene; and show several birds in obvious bad health—birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit—along with birds that appear to be in decent shape. The crew dramatically rescues one pathetically injured bird, handing her over the fence, one activist to another, and whisking her to a vet in Berkeley, who declares her in dismal shape.

In a media statement, Petaluma owners Judy and Steve Mahrt wrote that "The video in no way reflects our practices or the overall health of our flocks." As for outside access, the statement adds the company maintains "sun porches for outdoor access while protecting from predators and disease." All the filming in the video takes place at night, when most domesticated chickens go inside, anyway. So the video doesn't tell us anything about the birds' outdoor access.

Pressed for details, the company referred me to the below video. At about the 2:38 mark, there's a depiction of one such sun porch—it's a raised, triangular space jutting off the side of the building, made of chicken wire. By the company's own admission, then, the birds never touch the ground outside—their "outdoor access" seems to conform to the letter of organic code, if not the spirit of organic farming conjured in the heads of consumers.

This is not Petaluma's first PR problem. Michael Pollan famously used it as an example of industrial-organic farming in Omnivore's Dilemma, observing that its meat-poultry buildings "don't resemble a farm so much as a barracks," and that the birds were conditioned to never make use of their access to outdoors. As for the company's egg operation, Judy's Family Farm, Pollan never got a look: "The company was too concerned about biosecurity to let a visitor get past the office."

Last year, Petaluma settled a lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund over the depiction of the lives of its hens on its packaging. As part of the agreement, in which Petaluma did not admit to wrongdoing, the company agreed to modify its egg cartons "by removing the illustration of hens on a green field and removing the language that Plaintiff alleged could lead consumers to mistakenly believe the eggs come from hens with significant outdoor access." Previously, the inside of the cartons claimed that "these hens are raised in wide-open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play."

A "sun porch" at a Petaluma Farms facility—the "access to outdoors" required by organic code. Screenshot from the video, above, provided by Petaluma Farms

So what's to be taken away from the Direct Action Everywhere video? I see it as an important but problematic look behind the veil of what Pollan has deemed "supermarket pastoral"—the gauze of marketing that cloaks the often-harsh realities of large-scale organic farming.

Yet compared to the vast Iowa facilities that triggered a half-billion-egg salmonella recall in 2010 (the Food and Drug Administration's stomach-turning post-outbreak inspection report can be found here), the Petaluma houses captured on tape by Direct Action Everywhere actually look pretty good. When you confine thousands of birds into a building and manage several buildings, problems like the ones caught on tape by DAE are going to arise. I'd feel better about Petaluma if it represented standard practice for industrial egg production, and not the rarefied status implied by organic certification.

Former Pepsi Lobbyist Will Help Overhaul School Lunch Program

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Some political functionaries creep sheepishly through the revolving door that separates government from the industries it regulates—you know, maybe wait a few years between switches.

Not Joel Leftwich. Since 2010, he's held the following posts, in order: legislative assistant to longtime Senate agriculture committee stalwart and agribusiness-cash magnet Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas); program manager in the federal lobbying department for agrichemical giant DuPont; deputy staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee; and director of lobbying for PepsiCo. Now, after the Republican takeover of the Senate and Robert's ascension to the chair of the Agriculture Committee, Leftwich is switching sides again: He's going to be the ag committee's chief of staff.

Leftwich's most recent former employer, PepsiCo, touts Cheetos as a wholesome snackfood for kids.

And all just in time for the Congress to perform its once-every-five-years overhaul of federal nutrition programs, including school lunches and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food-aid initiative. Back in 2010, President Obama signed a school lunch bill, generated by a Democratic-controlled Congress, that banished junk-food snacks from schools and stipulated more fruits and vegetables in lunches. Leftwich's once-and-current boss, Sen. Roberts, has been a persistent and virulent critic of those reforms.

As for Leftwich's most recent ex-employer, Pepsi—whose junk-food empire spans from its namesake soda to Lays and Doritos snacks—its take on the issue of school food is embodied in this flyer, uncovered by my colleague Alex Park. It touts Cheetos as a wholesome snack for school kids. PepsiCo showers Washington in lobbying cash—note how its expenditures jumped in 2009 and 2010, when the last school lunch reauthorization was being negotiated in Congress.

In other revolving-door news: Mike Johanns of Nebraska recently retired from the Senate, where, from his perch on the ag committee, he joined Sen. Roberts in pushing the agribusiness agenda and sopping up industry campaign donations. Before that, he served as USDA chief for President George W. Bush. Now? Days after his retirement comes news he will serve on the board of directors of agribusiness giant John Deere—a position that pays at least $240,000 per year in compensation and stock, Omaha.Com reports. But don't worry: "Johanns stressed that he won’t be doing any direct lobbying of his former Capitol Hill colleagues or their aides on behalf of the company."