Tom Philpott

Scientists Say Supposedly Miraculous Ingredients in Weed Killers Don't Actually Work

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Before pesticides go from the laboratory to the farm field, they have to first be vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency. But they're commonly mixed—sometimes by the pesticide manufacturers, sometimes by the farmers themselves—with substances called adjuvants that boost their effectiveness (to spread more evenly on a plant's leaf in the case of insecticides, or to penetrate a plant's outer layer, allowing herbicides to effectively kill weeds). Despite their ubiquity, adjuvants aren't vetted by the EPA at all; they're considered "inert" ingredients.

Despite their ubiquity, adjuvants aren't vetted by the EPA at all; they're considered "inert" ingredients.

I first wrote about them last year, when adjuvants mixed with fungicides came under suspicion of triggering a large bee die-off during California's almond bloom. Recently, an eye-popping article by Purdue weed scientists in the trade journal Ag Professional brought them to my attention again. The piece illustrates the unregulated, Wild West nature of these additives.

In the article, the authors note that two companies are hotly promoting adjuvant products as a kind of miracle cure for the ever-increasing scourge of herbicide-resistant weeds. That's a bold claim, given that resistant weeds now plague more than 60 million acres of farmland.

Odder still, both companies attribute their products' effectiveness to nanotechnology, a controversial, lightly regulated engineering tool that leverages the fact that when you break common substances into tiny particles, they behave in radically different ways than they do at normal sizes. Nanoparticles are so tiny, their size is measured in nanometers—a billionth of a meter. (A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick; nanoparticles typically measure in at less than 100 nanometers.)

An adjuvant called ChemXcel, from a Minnesota-based company called C&R Enterprises, claims to "kill herbicide-resistant weeds" when mixed with common herbicides like glyphosate. It works its magic through "patented, proprietary nano-drivers" that "alter the glyphosate chemistry" by "coating the individual DNA gene-sequencing molecules internally," the company claims.

Then there's NanoRevolution 2.0, marketed by a company called Max Systems. When goosed with a bit of NanoRevolution 2.0, the company states, "the herbicide 'piggybacks' onto the nano particles as they penetrate the leaf structure, carrying the herbicide directly to the root system for a faster enhanced plant absorption of herbicides even on hard-to-control weeds."

Taken aback by the claims and the use of nanotech, I contacted the EPA to see what, if anything, the agency had to say. "While we are not familiar with those particular products, EPA has jurisdiction over substances that meet the definition of pesticides, that is, claims are made for them that they kill, repel, prevent, or otherwise control pests," an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson wrote in an email. "As long as pesticide adjuvant products don’t make pesticidal claims, they are not pesticides and the components of adjuvants are therefore not pesticide ingredients (either active or inert)"—and thus not subject to EPA vetting. Manufacturers aren't even required to list ingredients in adjuvants.

Here, for example, is Max Systems describes the ingredients of NanoRevolution 2.0:

Purdue weed scientist Bill Johnson, who co-authored the Ag Professional piece, says he and his team found that neither of these "nano" products work as advertised. "I began getting calls about reports that these things were being pushed in northern Indiana, and I thought, we need to prove or disprove the claims."

Carbon nanotubes  are one of the most controversial nanoparticles—often compared to asbestos for their ability to lodge into the lungs and cause trouble when they're breathed in.

So he and colleagues tested the products on a weed patch known to be glyphosate resistant, mixing them with glyphosate at levels recommended by the manufactures. The results, published in the trade journal Ag Professional, were underwhelming. On its own, Roundup (Monsanto's version of the glyphosate herbicide) killed just 13.8 percent of weeds. Mixed with ChemXcel, it killed 15 percent of weeds, while the called NanoRevolution 2.0/Roundup mix killed 18 percent of weeds.

Johnson explained that herbicides are always mixed with adjuvants—they're typically needed to help the herbicide penetrate a weed's outer layer. But these particular ones perform no better or worse than conventional adjuvants on the market. But they don't come anywhere near to solving the herbicide-resistance problem, as the companies claim to do.

C.J. Mannenga, co owner of C&R Enterprises, pushed back strongly on Johnson's assessment and challenged his results. "We know our product works," he said. "We've shown it in Georgia, we've shown in Ohio, we've shown it in Missouri, we've shown it in Iowa," he said. When we spoke Tuesday afternoon, Mannenga told me that he was in Osborne, Kansas, about to "meet with a major [agrichemical] distributor" who is "extremely interested in the product ... I'm going to do a demonstration to show them indeed it does work."

While the product's information sheet doesn't list its active ingredients, he readily revealed it to me: "it's just carbon nanotubes."

Carbon nanotubes  are one of the most controversial nanoparticles—often compared to asbestos for their ability to lodge into the lungs and cause trouble when they're breathed in. This 2014 assessment by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell is hardly comforting:

Though ecosystem impacts remain understudied across the CNT [carbon nanotube] lifecycle, evidence suggests that some aquatic organisms may be at risk. While there have been significant advances in the regulation of CNTs in recent years, the lack of attention to the potential carcinogenic effects of these nanomaterials means that current efforts may provide a false sense of security.

Meanwhile, no one employed by NanoRevolution 2.0 maker Max Systems returned my request for comment.

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Enjoy Your Romaine—While It Lasts

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

The mighty Central Valley hogs the headlines, but California's Salinas Valley is an agricultural behemoth, too. A rifle-shaped slice of land jutting between two mountain ranges just south of Monterey Bay off the state's central coast, it's home to farms that churn out nearly two-thirds of the salad greens and half of the broccoli grown in the United States. Its leafy-green dominance has earned it the nickname "the salad bowl of the world." And while the Central Valley's farm economy reels under the strain of drought—it's expected to sustain close to $2.7 billion worth of drought-related losses—Salinas farms are operating on all cylinders, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

As the Salinas Valley's freshwater vanishes and dips below sea level, seawater from the coast seeps in to take its place—which isn't good news for crops.

What gives? It all comes down to water sources. In normal years, Central Valley farmers draw more than half of their water from the vast, publicly funded irrigation projects that carry snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with underground aquifers providing the rest. With the Sierra Nevada water essentially gone—snows have been minuscule the past four winters—the region's farmers have been scrambling to tap as much underground water as possible. But they can't make up for the massive shortfall, so they're fallowing large tracts of land (not almonds and pistachios, though—they keep expanding) and laying off thousands of farm workers.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Salinas Valley rely nearly 100 percent on underground aquifers, drought or no. And that means "the drought's a marvelous time to grow stuff, if you have the water under full control, because you can take advantage of predictable weather and strong prices," Richard Howitt, ag economist at UC Davis, tells the Mercury News. (Prices are strong because drought-stricken farms in the Central Valley have cut back on production of non-permanent crops, reducing supply.)

But all isn't well under those fields teeming with ripe vegetables and hustling farm workers. For one thing, decades of heavy nitrogen-fertilizer use has left underground water widely contaminated with high levels of nitrate, which isn't good for the people who rely on it for drinking water, because nitrate can reduce the blood's ability to carry oxygen and has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects and cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. A US Geological Survey spreadsheet (pdf version)—part of a recent USGS study of California's water quality I wrote about here—shows that 20 percent of the region's wells (see row "SCR-Salinas") have over-the-legal–limit nitrate levels.

Worse, the region's aquifers, the lifeblood of its $8.2 billion ag economy and sole source of drinking water, are in a "state of long-term overdraft," a 2014 assessment from the California Water Foundation found. The paper notes that when the California Department of Water Resources released its ranking of the state's aquifers based on those that are under the most stress, all eight of the Salinas Valley's aquifers made the list of most-stressed basins. And the state's number-one most-stressed aquifer of all doesn't lie under some vast, arid pistachio grove in the southern Central Valley; rather, it's the Salinas' East Side Aquifer.

The problem isn't just that the area's farms—which account for 90 percent of its water use—are sucking out billions of gallons more water from aquifers every year than is naturally replenished, as this 2014 report prepared for Monterey County found. It's also that as the freshwater vanishes and dips below sea level, seawater from the coast seeps in to take its place—not good, because crops don't grow well in salty water.

So, while the drought has so far caused few immediate problems for Salinas Valley farmers, they're standing over a ticking time bomb—and so are the consumers who rely on them for salad greens and other fruits and veggies: that is to say, Americans. "The irony is that in the short run, the Central Coast farmers are better off," UC-Davis ag economist Howitt told the Mercury News. "But in the long run they've got to get their [water] credit card under control."

California Drinking Water: Not Just Vanishing, But Also Widely Contaminated

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

In normal years, California residents get about 30 percent of their drinking water from underground aquifers. And in droughts like the current one—with sources like snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains virtually non-existent—groundwater supplies two-thirds of our most populous state's water needs. So it's sobering news that about 20 percent of the groundwater that Californians rely on to keep their taps flowing carries high concentrations of contaminants like arsenic, uranium, and nitrate.

When farms sprouted up, they mobilized the once-stable uranium naturally present in the soil, and the toxic element leached into groundwater.

That's the conclusion of a ten-year US Geological Survey study of 11,000 public-water wells across the state. The researchers tested the wells for a variety of contaminants, looking for levels above thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency and/or the California State Water Resources Board.

Interestingly, naturally occurring trace elements like arsenic, manganese, and uranium turned up at high levels much more commonly than did agriculture-related chemicals like nitrate.

In the ag-heavy San Joaquin Valley (the Central Valley's Southern half), for example, you might expect plenty of nitrate in the water, because of heavy reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. Over the limit of 10 parts per million in water, nitrate can impede the blood's ability to carry oxygen and has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects and cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. But while 4.9 percent of wells in the San Joaquin turned up over legal nitrate thresholds, arsenic (over legal limits in 11.2 percent of wells) and uranium (7.4 percent)—neither of which are used in farming—were more common.

But in the case of uranium—which heightens the risk of kidney trouble and cancer when consumed in water over long periods—agriculture isn't off the hook. Kenneth Belitz, the study's lead author and chief of the USGS's National Water Quality Assessment Program, explains that before irrigation, the arid San Joaquin landscape supported very little vegetation, and the naturally occurring uranium in the landscape was relatively stable. But as farms sprouted up, irrigation water reacted with carbon dioxide from now-abundant plant roots to "mobilize" the uranium, pushing it downward at the rate of 5 to ten feet per year and eventually into the water table.

Conversely, some of the regions with highest nitrate levels are former ag areas that are now suburban, Belitz says: northern California's Livermore Valley and southern California's Santa Ana basin. That's because nitrates, too, move through the soil strata at a rate of five to ten feet per year, and take years to accumulate in underground aquifers.

And that means that today's ag-centric areas, including the San Joaquin Valley, could be slowly building up nitrate levels year by year that could lead to much higher nitrate levels in well water in coming decades, Belitz says.

For California residents and policymakers, the reports adds another distressing data point to the current water crisis. The fossil record and climate models suggest that precipitation levels will likely drop significantly compared to 20th century norms going forward, according to UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram—meaning an ever-growing reliance on groundwater for both farms and residents. Meanwhile, NASA research shows that this increasingly important resource is being drawn down at a much faster pace than it's being replenished. And this latest USGS study suggests that the state's precious, vanishing groundwater supply is widely contaminated. It's enough to make you want to open a bottle of the state's famous wine.

Sorry, Foodies: We're About to Ruin Kale

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
If eating kale is good for me, then eating a whole lot it must be even better. Right?

How hipster is kale? For $28, Urban Outfitters will sell you a kale t-shirt. To prep for a big blizzard in early 2015, residents of a trendy Brooklyn section cleaned out the kale bins of their neighborhood Whole Foods. And what would the juicing craze be without it?

Kale is really good at taking up thallium—a toxic heavy metal—from the soil.

But today's kale-fixated juice-heads may doing themselves a disservice.

That's a possibility raised by an article in Craftsmanship magazine by Todd Oppenheimer. The piece doesn't establish a definitive link between heavy kale consumption and any health problem, but it does raise the question of whether too much of even a highly nutritious food like kale can have unhappy side effects.

The article focuses on an alt-medicine researcher and molecular biologist named Ernie Hubbard, who began to notice an odd trend among some of his clinic's clients in California's Marin County, a place known for its organic farms, health-food stores, and yoga studios. Extremely health-conscious people were coming into to complain of "persistent but elusive problems": "Chronic fatigue. Skin and hair issues. Arrhythmias and other neurological disorders. Foggy thinking. Gluten sensitivity and other digestive troubles. Sometimes even the possibility of Lyme Disease."

Hubbard began to find detectable levels of a toxic heavy metal called thallium in patients' blood samples—at higher-than-normal leves—as well as in kale leaves from the region. Meanwhile, "over and over," he found that patients complaining of symptoms associated with low-level thallium poisoning—fatigue, brain fog, etc.—would also be heavy eaters of kale and related vegetables, like cabbage.

And he found, in the form of this 2006 peer-reviewed paper by Czech researchers, evidence that kale is really good at taking up thallium from soil. The paper concluded that kale's ability to accumulate soil-borne thallium is "very high and can be a serious danger for food chains." And here's a peer-reviewed 2013 paper from Chinese researchers finding similar results with green cabbage; a 2015 Chinese study finding green cabbage is so good at extracting thallium from soil that it can be used for "phytoremediation"—i.e., purifying soil of a toxin—and a 2001 one from a New Zealand team finding formidable thallium-scrounging powers in three other members of the brassica family: watercress, radishes, and turnips.

Now, just because kale and other brassicas can effectively take up thallium from soil doesn't mean that they always contain thallium. The metal has to find its way into soil first. It exists at low levels in the Earth's crust, and the main way it gets concentrated at high enough levels to cause worry is through "nearby cement plants, oil drilling, smelting, and, most of all, in the ash that results from coal burning," Oppenheimer reports. The researcher he profiled, Hubbard, has so far not succeeded in nailing down the source of the thallium that he found in his kale samples.

And there's also the question of quantity. One of Hubbard's patients with heightened thallium levels in her urine and mild symptoms of thallium poisoning ate so much cabbage over the years that  she called herself the "cabbage queen." When she "cut way back" on her favorite vegetable, she tells Oppenheimer, her thallium levels dropped, and her symptoms improved. 

Where does all of this evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, leave us—beyond the need of much more research on US-grown kale? There's nothing here that makes me want to stop eating brassicas, probably my favorite vegetable genus and one undeniably loaded with many valuable nutrients.

But it does make me wary of downing brassicas daily at great quantities over extended periods, the way some people may be doing as part of the juice craze. This recipe for "mean green juice," for example, calls for six to eight kale leaves in a single serving—much more than most of us would consume in a side dish of sautéed kale. In all great things—wine, butter, ice cream, even kale—moderation makes sense.

Bacon Is About to Get More Expensive

| Wed Jul. 8, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

While Americans celebrated Independence Day last weekend, the meat industry was partaking of another time-tested tradition: concentration. That's the economists' term for when one big company buys another, resulting in an industry dominated by just a handful of players. And that's what happened when Brazilian meat giant JBS plunked down $1.45 billion to buy the US pork interests of global agribusiness behemoth Cargill.

Sure, the US pork market was already pretty top-heavy before that deal, which won't be consummated until US antitrust authorities approve it. As things stand now, even before the proposed merger, the big four pork packers (including JBS, through its Swift subsidiary) control a hefty 64 percent of the US pork market.

If the deal goes through, the combined JBS/Cargill operation will push out Tyson for the number two slot, Hormel will slide into fourth place, and the new Big Four will slaughter 71.5 percent of the hogs raised in the US. That's a significant concentration of an already-concentrated market.

Phil Howard, a Michigan State University researcher who studies corporate control of the food system, says the deal is "bad news," because "JBS will have even more power to drive down the prices it pays to farmers, and drive up the prices it charges to consumers." He notes that just two companies, Smithfield and JBS, would together own 45.5 percent of the pork market, "moving closer to the Coke/Pepsi model of domination by just two giant firms."

He also notes that Smithfield and JBS are both foreign-owned—JBS, the globe's largest meat company, is based in Brazil, while Smithfield has been owned by the Chinese meat conglomerate Shuanghui since 2013. So why are outside firms muscling into the US pork market? After all, US demand for "the other white meat" isn't exactly cooking. The opposite, in fact.

So, rather than making a play for the domestic pork market, these foreign players are likely aiming to cash in on a rising trend: exports of US-grown pork.

Now, you may note that exports soared through the 2000s and have leveled off more recently. That's why the National Pork Producers Council, the industry's trade group, has been promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the vast proposed trade pact that President Obama and his GOP congressional allies have been hustling to pass. In a post last year, I laid out why the US meat industry loves the TPP: Namely, it would open the floodgates to lucrative markets in Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, all of which limit imports of US meat to protect domestic farmers. "A good TPP agreement…would result in exponential growth in US pork exports," the Pork Producers Council declared in a June press release. It is perhaps not a coincidence that JBS made its lunge for Cargill's pork operations just two weeks after the TPP process took a major leap forward, when Congress voted to give Obama "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals.

So, why shouldn't US farm country emerge as the globe's pork-export powerhouse? As the Pork Producers Council puts it, the US is "one of the lowest cost producers of pork in the world." Indeed, a 2012 USDA report found that it's cheaper to produce pork here than it is in China. But we should remember what it means to be the low-cost producer of a commodity like pork—as muckraking books like Ted Genoways' The Chain and Barry Estabrook's Pig Tales show, the industry abuses labor, fouls the air and waterways, and hollows out rural towns as a matter of course. "Exponential growth in US exports" would be great for our ever-growing pork behemoths; but it's hard to see what's in it for the rest of us.

Here's How Africa Can Fix Hunger Without "Help" From Monsanto

| Wed Jul. 1, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Imagine if Monsanto announced the debut of a genetically engineered superfood—a vegetable rich in protein and essential vitamins and minerals, perfectly adapted to Africa's soils and changing climate.

The leaves of amaranth, pumpkin, and cowpea (black-eyed pea) plants are packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein.

There'd be howls of protest, no doubt, from anti-GMO activists. But also great adulation—possibly a World Food Prize—along with stern lectures about how anti-science romanticism must not impede heroic corporate efforts to "feed the world."

Thing is, such superfoods exist in Africa. They exist thanks not to the genius and beneficence of a foreign company, but rather through millennia of interactions between Africa's farmers and its landscape. And while their popularity waned in recent decades as urbanization has swept through the continent, they're gaining renewed interest from food-security experts and urban dwellers alike, reports a new article by Rachel Cernansky in Nature

Cernansky focuses on the work of Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticulturalist at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, who has since the 1990s been a kind of Johnny Appleseed for reviving appetites for indigenous vegetables in Africa. Here's Cernansky:

Most of the indigenous vegetables being studied in East Africa are leafy greens, almost all deep green in colour and often fairly bitter. Kenyans especially love African nightshade and amaranth leaves (Amaranthus sp.). Spider plant (Cleome gynandra), one of Abukutsa's favourites for its sour taste, grows wild in East Africa as well as South Asia. Jute mallow has a texture that people love or hate. It turns slimy when cooked — much like okra. … [M]oringa (Moringa oleifera) is not only one of the most healthful of the indigenous vegetables — both nutritionally and medicinally — but it is also common in many countries around the world.

In a 2010 paper, Abukutsa-Onyango demonstrated the nutritional punch packed by these foodstuffs. This chart, pulled from the paper, shows how African vegetables like the leaves of amaranth, pumpkin, and cowpea (black-eyed pea) plants outshine rival western greens that have been introduced into African agriculture over the past century.

From: " African Indigenous Vegetables in Kenya: Strategic Repositioning in the Horticultural Sector."


Then there's the leaves of the moringa tree, native to Africa and parts of Asia, which, according to the anti-hunger nonprofit Trees for Life International, deliver three times more vitamin A than carrots, seven times more vitamin C than oranges, and twice the protein of cow's milk, per 100 grams.

Traditional markets, supermarkets, and restaurant menus in Nairobi now feature indigenous vegetables heavily.

Unlike "exotic" (i.e., non-native to Africa) vegetables like kale and cabbage, these crops are adapted to Africa's soils and growing conditions. "Most of the traditional varieties are ready for harvest much faster than non-native crops, so they could be promising options if the rainy seasons become more erratic—one of the predicted outcomes of global warming," Cernansky writes.

As a result of these advantages, indigenous vegetables are gaining traction throughout East Africa. Traditional markets, supermarkets, and restaurant menus in Nairobi feature them heavily, Cernansky reports. As a result, "Kenyan farmers increased the area planted with such greens by 25 percent between 2011 and 2013." They're also gaining ground in Western Africa.

Of course, spiderplant and cowpea leaves are a long way from solving Africa's nutritional problems. As of 2013, indigenous vegetables accounted for just 6 percent of Kenya's total vegetable market, reports SciDevNet. Despite growing demand, SciDevNet found, production is constrained by the same factors that haunt African food security broadly: poor infrastructure (roads, rail, etc.) for bringing fresh food from farm to market, along with a dearth of investment in research and development.

There are no simple answers, no silver bullets, to the problem of ensuring a robust food supply on a warming planet with a growing population. But it's important to remember that the best, cheapest solutions aren't necessarily the ones that emerge from patent-seeking laboratories.

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Coke and Pepsi Are Trying to Sell You Pretend Craft Soda

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Just add mustache: Pepsi's new Stubborn line of sodas will deliver a "tap-like pouring ritual."

Selling massive volumes of colored, sweetened, fizzed-up tapwater at a fat markup isn't what it used to be. US soda sales declined for the 10th straight year in 2014. For a while, beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo could turn to diet soda for relief. But now, the artificially sweetened stuff is losing popularity even faster than regular soda—diet beverage sales are down nearly 20 percent since their 2009 peak and are expected to plunge an additional 5 percent this year.

PepsiCo "craft" line includes flavors like black cherry with tarragon, orange hibiscus, pineapple cream, and agave vanilla cream.

Enter the new savior: "craft soda." Just as the globe's two dominant beer conglomerates are seeing their own US sales decline while dozens of upstart brewers stage a fast-growing craft-beer renaissance, Big Soda has watched small players like Jones Soda and Reed's grow rapidly, defying the long-term soda slump.

And just like Big Beer, the soda giants are taking the approach of, "If you can't beat 'em, buy' em or imitate 'em." The incentive is clear. Not only are craft sodas growing in popularity while the overall category shrinks, but the price they fetch in the market is much sweeter. As 12-pack of 12-oz Pepsis sells for as little as $5; Reed's gets that much for a four-pack of its ginger ale.

PepsiCo recently announced plans for a line of "craft" sodas called Stubborn, in flavors including black cherry with tarragon, orange hibiscus, pineapple cream, and agave vanilla cream, the Associated Press reports. Sweetened with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, they'll initially be served at soda fountains, through a special machine that delivers what the company has called a "tap-like pouring ritual." (Apparently, convenience-store clerks overseeing these contraptions will have to supply their own hipster mustaches.)

The imminent Stubborn launch (the date hasn't been announced) isn't Pepsi's first dip of the toe into the burgeoning alt-soda market. Earlier this year, it launched Mountain Dewshine, a clear, sugar-sweetened version of the creepy-green, corn syrup- and caffeine-laden beverage. Employing a clumsy backwoods marketing scheme likening the soft drink to illicit moonshine, PepsiCo underlines the "craft" nature of Dewshine by making it available only in glass bottles. Last year, the company rolled out Caleb's Kola, a "blend of sustainable Fair Trade cane sugar, kola nuts from Africa, a special blend of spices from around the world, and a hint of citrus." ("'Caleb' is Caleb Bradham, who in the 1890s developed the recipe for Pepsi," Bloomberg reports.)

A 12-oz serving of Mountain Dewshine delivers 42 grams of sugar—roughly equal to the sugar content of regular Mountain Dew (46 grams).

Rival Coca-Cola has is also testing the crafty waters. In June, the company snapped up the Hansen's and Blue Sky "natural soda" brands—apparently, the first move made by its new Craft Beverages unit, which Coca-Cola formed back in March, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company has yet to launch a homegrown craft line, but given that it saw fit to devote an entire unit to the concept, it's a fair bet that we'll be hearing about a craft Coke project soon.

The question is, will donning the "artisanal" halo be enough to revive Big Soda's flagging fortunes?

I think not. The craft beer industry has grown dramatically in recent years because people grew tired of low-flavor products like Bud and Miller and began seeking out more robust alternatives. With soft drinks, though, people aren't just seeking out more flavorful high-sugar fizzy beverages. They're mainly just cutting back on high-sugar beverages, period, because it's becoming more and more clear that huge jolts of sweetness deliver horrible health consequences, from obesity and diabetes to (possibly) Alzheimer's.

As my colleague Maddie Oatman reported back in March, the World Health Organization recommends that people consume no more than 25 grams (about six teaspoons) of added sugar per day. A 12-oz serving of Mountain Dewshine delivers 42 grams of sugar—roughly equal to the sugar content of regular Mountain Dew (46 grams). The Big Soda business model thrived when people didn't think twice about swilling down several Mountain Dews per day. Consumers who are now shying away from Mountain Dew because of its sugar content aren't likely to revert to their old habit just because Dewshine comes in glass bottles (and is pricier, to boot).

A recent piece in Food Dive summed up the problem:

People like soda. They’re just not drinking soda as much as they used to because it’s not part of their diet anymore," said Jonathan Texeira, co-owner of beverage distributor Refreshments Direct and the Batch Craft Soda brand. "Occasionally, they’re gonna want a root beer, say, once or twice a week, and when they do, they would like to have a really good root beer."

There are two problems for Big Soda in that last sentence. The first is that when people want a "really good root beer," why would they turn to Coke or Pepsi, best known for mass-produced swill, when so many small, regional soda makers are popping up? The second is the "once or twice a week" bit. The entire Big Soda business model—its vast factories, its freight fleets, its distribution deals with retailers like Walmart—is predicated on churning out and selling vast amounts of cheap product to a public that sees soda as a daily staple, not a treat. I predict craft soda will remain a niche market—one not likely to bring the fizz back to Pepsi and Coke sales.

Another Common Herbicide Linked to Cancer

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 5:22 PM EDT

Less than three months after declaring that the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup, is "probably carcinogenic," a working group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization has taken aim at another widely used herbicide, 2,4-D, which the WHO panel has found to be "possibly carcinogenic."

These announcements can hardly be welcome news in the Midwest, whose farm fields are blanketed in corn and soybeans. Since the advent of crops genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate in the 1990s, farmers there have come to rely heavily on the herbicide that many weed varieties have evolved to resist, causing many headaches and a surge in herbicide use.

This past spring, Dow Chemical introduced new genetically modified corn and soybean products designed to solve that problem. They're engineered to resist not just glyphosate, but also, you guessed it, 2,4-D. And Dow is selling farmers a proprietary herbicide known as Enlist Duo, a combo of glyphosate and 2,4-D, that farmers can apply directly to the crops grown from the new genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. As I've shown before, these double-herbicide-resistant crops will likely accelerate, not solve, the resistant-weed problem.

Even so, rather than filling their spray tanks solely with a "probable" carcinogen, corn and soybean farmers can now fill up with a mix of "possible" and "probable" carcinogens before spraying their fields. That may sound like a twisted form of progress, but it should be noted that there's evidence that toxic chemicals do worse things to us when combined than they do solo. That such "synergistic" effects are little studied is hardly comforting.

Humane-Certified Chicken Giant Caught on Video Abusing Chickens

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Foster Farms, the West Coast's largest chicken producer, places the "highest priority on animal welfare," and has for more an 70 years, according to its website. Back in 2013, it even attained the American Humane Association seal. And so, how embarrassing for the poultry giant and its animal-welfare certifier that the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals has come out with the above eye-popping video documenting practices within a Foster Farm  facilities in Fresno, California.

The video shows workers punching and slamming birds as they hang them upside-down into shackles ahead of slaughter.

The video shows workers punching and slamming birds as they hang them upside-down into shackles ahead of slaughter, carelessly dumping bins of newborn chicks onto the ground as if they were stones, and committing other questionable and hard-to-watch acts. Voiced by retired game-show host Bob Barker, the video's voiceover states that the "meat from these animals is sold bearing the American Humane Certified label…don't buy that lie."

For its part, Foster Farms is not casting doubt on the veracity of the footage, which Mercy for Animals attained by sneaking undercover investigators into the facilities disguised as workers. Here's Foster Farms' statement on the matter:

Foster Farms has been made aware of an online video showing company employees in Fresno, California, mishandling birds in their care. We have already begun a comprehensive investigation to determine the source and location, including a fully cooperative effort with all appropriate authorities. The behavior of the individuals in this video is inappropriate and counter to our stringent animal welfare standards, procedures and policies.

As for the American Humane Association, a spokesperson emailed the following statement:

We were made aware yesterday of a video that certainly seems to show inhumane treatment of animals.  As an organization that exists to protect animals, abuse in any form is intolerable and unacceptable. The video was very surprising, as Foster Farms has worked hard to create a culture of humane treatment. In fact, they have never failed an audit in the three years we have been working with them.

He added that the "negative things being said about our program by MFA, which is a group that works to eliminate meat, dairy and eggs from American dinner tables, are false. Everything we do is for the benefit of the animals and we have a very strong and comprehensive program that helps give better lives to more than a billion animals."

Both entities have had their share of bad press in recent years. In March 2013—coincidentally, the same month it won its American Humane Association approval—Foster Farms became embroiled in a 16-month-long antibiotic-resistant salmonella outbreak that sickened 634 people, of whom 38 percent needed to be hospitalized. That's about twice the normal hospitalization rate for such an outbreak, reports the Washington Post, suggesting the salmonella strain was particularly virulent.

In the middle of that fiasco, in January 2014, the US Department of Agriculture's inspection service saw fit to temporarily shut down a Foster Farms plant in Livingston, citing multiple "findings of egregious insanitary conditions related to a cockroach infestation in your facility."

The American Humane Association, meanwhile, does not draw high marks for its welfare standards from Consumer Reports, which issues report cards on food labels. CR rates the American Humane Certified stamp "somewhat meaningful" and found that the label does require producers to follow basic standards: providing adequate food and clean water, and ensuring the animals are "free from pain and unnecessary stress." However, it added, "many of the requirements in the American Humane standards mirror the conventional industry's practices, and livestock producers do not have to meet all of the requirements to be certified."

Meanwhile, the American Humane Association is most famous for certifying humane treatments standard for animals in Hollywood films—the famous "No Animals Were Harmed" statement you see as the credits roll. That program was the subject of a scathing 2013 Hollywood Reporter exposé alleging animal abuse and endangerment in several films and TV shows certified by the association.

Attention, Viagra Users of Columbus: Don't Drink the Water

| Tue Jun. 16, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

One day last August, residents in Toledo, Ohio, received a stark warning from city officials: Don't drink your tap water, don't wash the dishes in it, and don't bathe your kids in it. This year, it's the people of Columbus, 150 miles to the south, who received a jolt of bad news: In a large swath of the city and its suburbs, pregnant women and babies younger than six months of age have been advised to avoid the tap. In a warning well designed to titillate headline writers, another group landed on the don't-drink-the-water list: Viagra users.

Consumption of nitrates has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects as well as cancers of the ovaries and thyroid.

The advisory "will remain in effect until further notice," the City of Columbus website states. The Columbus Dispatch reported that it could "last weeks."

What gives? Toledo and Columbus are surrounded by industrial-scale corn, soybean, and hog farms, and in both cases, runoff from these operations fouled the water supply. In Toledo, the culprit was phosphorus finding its way from farm fields into Lake Erie, from which the city draws its water. Excessively high phosphorus levels fed a massive algae bloom, from which toxins seeped into the municipal water supply.

In Columbus, the problem is nitrate, from nitrogen fertilizer that leaches out of farm fields and into streams and rivers. Nitrates also concentrate in hog manure, which is also applied to farm fields and is prone to leaching. Nitrates in the water emerging from one of the city's main water-treatment facilities, called Dublin Road, have exceeded the federal limit of 10 parts per million.

That's bad, because nitrates are linked to a range of health problems at low exposure levels: They impede the blood's ability to carry oxygen—a characteristic that's particularly threatening to infants. They've also been linked to elevated rates of birth defects as well as cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. As for Viagra users, they should avoid the water because the drug interacts with nitrates in a way that can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure.

On its website, the City of Columbus bluntly states the cause of the nitrate spike: "Elevated nitrate levels are primarily a result of fertilizer and agricultural runoff within the 1,000 square mile Scioto River watershed—80% of which is agricultural."

The water-treatment plant in question currently lacks the ability to filter out nitrates. The city is spending $35 million on an ion-exchange treatment facility that, "when completed in 2017, will allow the plant to more effectively treat nitrate events such as this one," its website states. Nitrate advisories like the current one have been common over the years, reports the Dispatch

Nitrate-laced water is a problem throughout the Corn Belt, those upper Midwest states with high concentrations of ferilizer-intensive corn farming and large-scale hog-production facilities. A 2008 survey found that about half of Iowa's private wells had measurable levels of nitrate, and in 12 percent the chemical turned up above the Environmental Protection Agency's limit. And in Des Moines, the city's water department is suing upstream farm-drainage districts, demanding that they be regulated under the Clean Water Act. To protect its residents from over-the-limit nitrate levels, Des Moines Water Works has had to run its nitrate-removal facility for a record 111 days this year, at a cost of about $7,000 per day. The filtration system dates to 1991, Des Moines Water Works claims, and will soon need to be replaced, which will result in a bill to rate payers as high as $183 million.

Meanwhile, the bulk of nitrates exiting the Corn Belt's farms wind up in the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed a vast annual algae bloom that creates a Connecticut-sized oceanic dead zone.

The cases of Toledo, Columbus, Des Moines, and the Gulf share a theme: They represent major costs and liabilities of industrial-scale agriculture that take place off the books of the benefiting companies and are literally flowing downstream.