Tom Philpott

Monarch Butterflies Can Survive the World's Most Amazing Migration—But GMOs Are Wiping Them Out

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EST
A monarch butterfly, with milkweed.

The monarch butterfly is a magnificent and unique beast—the globe's only butterfly species that embarks on an annual round-trip migration spanning thousands of miles, from the northern US and Canada to central Mexico. And monarchs aren't just a gorgeous bug; they're also pollinators, meaning they help keep land-based ecosystems humming. Their populations have been plunging for years, and the number of them hibernating in Mexico last year hit an all-time low, reports University of Minnesota ecologist Karen Oberhauser. Why? Here's Oberhauser:

Tragically, much of their breeding habitat in this region [the US and Canada] has been lost to changing agricultural practices, primarily the exploding adoption of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops in the late 20th and early 21st centuries ... These crops allow post-emergence treatment with herbicides, and have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from agricultural habitats.

In a 2012 post, I teased out how crops engineered for herbicide tolerance wipe out milkweed, the monarch's main source of food, and lead to the charismatic specie's decline. And here's the peer-reviewed paper, co-authored by Oberhauser, that documents the trend.

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Is Monsanto Giving Up on GMOs?

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Is genetically modified seed giant Monsanto doing the unthinkable and moving away from genetically modified seeds?

It sounds crazy, but hear me out. Let’s start with Monsanto's vegetable division, Seminis, which boasts it is the "largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds in the world." Monsanto acknowledges Seminis has no new GM vegetables in development. According to a recent Wired piece, Seminis has has reverted instead to "good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same technology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia."

Why? The article points to people's growing avoidance of genetically modified foods. So far, consumers have shown no appetite to gobble up GM vegetables. (But that doesn't mean people aren't eating GMOs: Nearly all GMOs currently on the market are big commodity crops like corn and soy, which, besides being used as livestock feed, are regularly used as ingredients in processed food—think high-fructose corn syrup and soy oil.)

Are Agriculture Exports Killing Us?

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 6:55 AM EST
A large hog farm and its ammonia–spewing "manure lagoon."

Late last year, US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack boasted that US agriculture exports had hit an all-time high in fiscal 2013, and hailed "historic work by the Obama Administration to break down barriers to US products and achieve new agreements to expand exports." Underlying Vilsack's glee is the idea that growing huge amounts of food here and selling a big chunk of it overseas bolsters the US economy and stabilizes rural America.

Agricultural exports cause $36 billion in annual healthcare costs, along with about 5,100 premature deaths.
 

That kind of thinking has driven agriculture policy at least since the days when Richard Nixon's ag secretary Earl Butz exhorted farmers to scale up operations and plant "fencerow to fencerow" in order to supply foreign markets.

But a new paper (PDF) from Harvard suggests massive ag exports might not be the economic boon imagined by USDA secretaries. The researchers looked at a single farm pollutant, ammonia (NH3), which makes its way into the air from fertilizer applied to farm fields and from the manure that accumulates on livestock farms. Once it enters the atmosphere, as Erik Stokstad explained in an excellent (pay-walled) news item in Science, it "reacts with other air pollutants to create tiny particles that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma attacks, bronchitis, and heart attacks."

The Standard American Diet in 3 Simple Charts

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 6:55 AM EST

US obesity and diabetes rates are among the globe's very highest. Why? On her blog, the NYU nutritionist and food-politics expert Marion Nestle recently pointed (hat-tip, RealFood.org) to this telling chart on how we spend our grocery money, from the USDA's Amber Waves publication:

So, we do a pretty good job eating enough potatoes. But the healthier, more brightly colored vegetables like kale and carrots, no so much. We spend four times the amount on refined grains the USDA thinks is proper, and about a fifth of the target expenditure in whole grains. We spend nearly 14 percent of our at-home food budgets on sugar and candies, and another 8 percent on premade frozen and fridge entrees. Whole fruit barley accounts for less than 5 percent of our grocery bill. And so on—a pretty dismal picture.

That chart deals with at-home expenditures. What about our food choices out in the world? The USDA article has more. This chart shows that we're getting more and more of our sustenance outside of our own kitchens:

And while the article doesn't offer comparable data to the above at-home chart about expenditures outside the home, it does deliver evidence that our eating out habits are pretty dire as well:

Why do we eat such crap food? The USDA throws up its hands: "Despite the benefits to overall diet quality," the report states, "it can be difficult to convince consumers to change food preferences."

But it never pauses top consider the food industry's vast marketing budget. According to Yale's Rudd Center, the US fast-food chains like McDonalds, Wendy's, and Burger King spent $4.6 billion on advertising in 2012. "For context," Rudd reports, "the biggest advertiser, McDonald’s, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined ($367 million)." I can't find numbers for the marketing budgets for the gigantic food companies that stock the middle shelves of supermarkets; but according to Advertising Age, Kraft alone spent $683 million on US advertising in 2012.

By contrast, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the USDA’s sub-agency that “works to improve the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers," had a proposed budget of $8.7 million in 2013.

Farmworkers Win an Extra Penny From the Ultimate Penny Pincher, Walmart

| Sat Jan. 18, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Walmart representatives John Amaya (left), Tom Leech (center) and CIW’s Lucas Benitez and Gerardo Reyes Chavez (far right) sign an historic agreement at a farm outside of Immokalee, Florida.

Before fast-food workers began agitating for a liveable wage, before Walmart employees began holding public demonstrations to demand better pay from the largest US private employer, there was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida's vast tomato fields.

Living in dire conditions, disempowered by their status as undocumented migrants from points south, making sub-poverty wages, subjected to often-violent repression and sometimes outright slavery—all depicted in detail in Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland—the workers rolled out an ambitious and quixotic-seeming strategy to improve their lot in the mid-2000s. Rather than continuing to knock their heads against Florida's entrenched tomato barons directly, CIW instead brought battle to their case to the growers' customers: massive fast-food chains.

Using boycotts and partnering with college-student activists, CIW demanded that the chains pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes, which would then be passed on directly to the workers. A penny per pound would represent the first major pay raise in years for the workers, and a minor dip in profits for massive chains like McDonalds. Yet the chains fought back, sometimes voraciously.

And then, one by one, they fell: first YUM Brands (Taco Bell) signed the penny-a-pound pledge, then McDonalds, then Burger King, and finally, after a long battle, Chipotle Grill. After that, CIW turned its attention to retailers, signing agreements with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

Late Thursday, CIW netted the biggest fish of all: Walmart, by far the largest private food buyer in the US. A company that muscled its way to the top of the US corporate heap by pinching pennies—squeezing suppliers and its own workers relentlessly—has now agreed to shell out an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.

CIW has shown yet again that scrappy workers, sufficiently organized, can win concessions from even the most ruthless companies. Barry Estabrook has more.

 

 

CHARTS: Why Dutch Food Is the Best in The World

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 4:23 PM EST

Over the past few decades, it has become possible to speak of a "global food system"—shorthand for the trade patterns, shaped by multinational companies, that move raw agriculture commodities and processed food across borders. Yet as this fascinating new Oxfam study shows, there are still huge differences in people's experience of food across the globe. Oxfam ranked nations on four criteria: whether food exists in plentiful supply, whether it's broadly affordable, whether it's of good quality, and whether it's causing high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Try playing around with the above interactive tool (note that it functions better in Chrome than in Firefox). Oxfam's visualization tool broadly groups countries on a scale of "good" to "bad," but can be confusing when it comes to ranking countries within the same bunches. To get more precise rankings, go to this Excel file.

The overall rankings, which average the four categories and is the default setting of the above tool, tell us something we already know: that Western Europeans enjoy a pretty great food situation, while people living in most African and (to a lesser extent) Asian countries have it pretty bad. The US comes out pretty well, tied with Japan but behind 19 West European nations (as a look at that Excel file shows). 

Drilling down a bit, the "enough to eat" metric—which compares rates of malnutrition and underweight children—tells us it's way better to live in high-income countries like the usual West European suspects and the US than in extremely low-income ones like Zimbabwe, Angola, and Chad. There are a couple of outliers, though. Mexico, Jordan, and Brazil, for example, have a much lower per-capita GDPs than the Western European nations, the US, and Japan, yet it joins them on the "good" end of the scale (GDP numbers here.) It would be interesting to study the food policies of Mexico, et al, to see how they manage to make food broadly available despite relatively low national incomes.

The "affordability" metric—measuring how pricey food is vs. other goods, as well as price stability—tells a similar tale: It largely tracks income (people who make plenty of money can afford plenty of food). It ha a similar set of outliers, too.

The "obesity and diabetes" metric is a kind of mirror image of the previous two: Higher-income countries tend to have higher rates of these diet-related maladies. Here, the US emerges at the high end of the scale, bunched with petro-states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Again, Mexico and Jordan find themselves out of their income league. But the chart doesn't quite argue that countries that countries that severely limit malnutrition and make food affordable are doomed to super-high rates of obesity and diabetes. Look at low end of the chart, where you find the Netherlands and France. And the middle, which includes Italy, Denmark, Greece, and other West European nations. These examples suggest that you can create robust food systems that are broadly affordable—without making a huge swath of your population sick and fat.
 

 

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Wait, We Inject Antibiotics Into Eggs for Organic Chicken?!

| Wed Jan. 15, 2014 6:55 AM EST
Which came first: the organic chicken or the gentamicin injection?

When you've covered a topic long enough, you get the idea you've heard it all. Then along comes a factoid like the one I discovered while preparing my recent piece on the recent blockbuster Consumer Reports study on supermarket chicken and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I learned that at the industrial hatcheries that churn out chicks for the poultry industry, eggs are commonly injected with tiny amounts of an antibiotic called gentamicin, which is used in people to treat a variety of serious bacterial infections.

To sterilize the small hole required to get a vaccine into an egg, the industry commonly shoot in a bit of gentamicin.

That alone dropped my jaw—what, the practice of dosing chickens with antibiotics has to begin literally in the egg? But get this: The practice is allowed in organic production, too. Organic code forbids use of antibiotics in animals, yet in a loophole I'd never heard of, such standards kick in on "the second day of life" for chicks destined for organic poultry farms. (The practice isn't used for the eggs we actually eat—just the ones that hatch chicks to be raised on farms.)

John Glisson, a veterinarian for the US Poultry & Egg Association, told me the practice originated decades ago, when the industry began vaccinating chicken embryos to prevent a common condition called Marek's disease, a deadly herpes virus that attacks chickens. To sterilize the small hole required to get the vaccine into the egg, the industry would shoot in a bit of gentamicin. Glisson added that it remains a common practice, but that it has declined in recent years as (he insisted) the industry has begun to move away from reliance on antibiotics. Neither Glisson nor the FDA could give me precise data on how often it's used these days. The Food and Drug Administration allows such injections only when prescribed by a veterinarian, a spokesperson said.

So what's the problem with giving chickens a little antibiotic boost as they start life? For starters, the practice could promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. A 2007 peer-reviewed study of Maryland and Virginia workers in conventional chicken houses were 32 times more likely to carrying gentamicin-resistant E. coli than their neighbors who don't work in the industry.

Will Tyson Finally Ditch Cruel Crates for Pregnant Pigs?

| Fri Jan. 10, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In November, the animal-welfare group Mercy for Animals released a video, captured by an undercover investigator, documenting alarming conditions on a hog farm contracted to meat giant Tyson Foods. Some of the actions caught on tape were truly awful: men kicking sows and pounding them with sheets of wood. But it was just as devastating to watch how those pregnant sows lived day to day: crammed individually into spaces so tight, they can't turn around.

Tyson's rival Smithfield found religion on hog crates after being burned by a particularly grotesque video in 2011.

On Thursday, Tyson announced it had begun "urging" its hog contractors to "improve housing for pregnant sows…urging all future sow barn construction or remodeling to allow for pregnant sows of all sizes to stand, lie down, stretch their legs and turn around." Granted, it's a statement without teeth: It requests, not requires, action, and gives no timeline. But even Mercy for Animals acknowledged in an emailed statement that it "signals an important new era and direction for the company," which had before resisted considerable pressure to take a stand on the practice.

Gestation crates really, really need to be phased out. As Ted Genoways showed so forcefully in his 2013 Mother Jones feature "Gagged by Big Ag," the technique not only essentially tortures the sows, but it also puts the workers who handle them in danger—and leads them in turn to heap yet more abuse on the sows. Get this, from Genoways' account of an interview with a Hormel worker who had been caught on tape in the act:

As we sat recently in the tiny, tumbledown house he grew up in and now shares with his wife and two kids, Lyons acknowledged—as he did to the sheriff's deputy back then—that he had prodded sows with clothespins, hit them with broad, wooden herding boards, and pulled them by their ears, but only in an effort, he said, to get pregnant sows that had spent the last 114 days immobilized in gestation crates up and moving to the farrowing crates where they would give birth. Lyons said he never intended to hurt the hogs, that he was just "scared to death" of the angry sows "who had spent their lives in a little pen"—and this was how he had been trained to deal with them. Lyons had watery blue eyes that seemed always on the verge of tears and spoke in a skittish mutter that would sometimes disappear all the way into silence as he rubbed his thin beard. "You do feel sorry for them, because they don't have much room to move around," he said, but if they get spooked coming out of their crates, "you're in for a fight."

Did the revelations in the latest video inspire Tyson's baby steps toward change? In its statement, Tyson attributed the announcement to its "ongoing animal well-being program," "input we've received from our Animal Well-Being Advisory Panel, customers, farmers and industry experts," and "our continuing efforts to balance the expectations of consumers with the realities of today's hog farming business."

But it's becoming clear that videos like the Mercy for Animals one are increasingly shaping those consumer expectations. Tyson's rival Smithfield found religion on hog crates after being burned by a particularly grotesque video in 2011. Unlike Tyson, which buys the great bulk of the pigs it slaughters from contract farmers, Smithfield is a massive hog producer in its own right, raising about 60 percent of its own sows. In 2010, it vowed to phase out the gestation crates in its company hog-production facilities by 2017. And just this week, Smithfield announced it would pressure its contract farmers, suppliers of the other 40 percent, to phase out crates by 2022.

The lesson from this trend is clear: When people see what goes on in factory farms, they don't like it, and they force change (granted, at a slow and halting pace). And that is why, as Genoways' Mother Jones piece demonstrates, the meat industry is fighting so hard to criminalize the act of secretly documenting conditions within these massive facilities.

Organic Chicken Carries Almost As Many Superbugs As Conventional

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Caution: hazardous material

Correction: In the original version of this post, I reported that a Consumer Reports' study found that chicken labeled organic and no-antibiotic had just as much antibiotic-resistant bacteria as conventional chicken. In fact, Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, has informed me, "We found slightly fewer multidrug-resistant bacteria in the no antibiotics/organic pool compared to conventional. That difference was even greater when we pulled Purdue out of the conventional pool. The issue was really that we didn't see the bigger difference we expected, not that it was exactly the same." I've corrected the text below.

As a student of the meat industry and its practices, I wasn't surprised by the recent Consumer Reports finding that nearly half of all the chicken samples it plucked from supermarket shelves nationwide carried "at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics." Factory-scale poultry facilities have relied on daily antibiotic doses for decades, contributing to a surge of life-threatening pathogens, and the Food and Drug Administration has only recently taken tentative steps to rein in the practice.

What got me was that chicken samples labeled "organic" or "no antibiotics" (list of all brands tested here) were almost as likely to contain these potentially deadly, drug-defying pathogens.* Notably, organic and antibiotic-free chicken both carry substantial premiums over conventional—at my local H-E-B supermarket in Austin, organic boneless chicken breast is fetching $7.97 per pound—vs. $4.99 for no-antibiotic and $1.97 for regular.

Why I'm Still Skeptical of GMOs

| Tue Jan. 7, 2014 3:46 PM EST

Over the weekend, listservs, blogs, and Twitter feeds lit up with reactions to Amy Harmon's New York Times deep dive into the politics behind a partial ban on growing genetically modified crops on Hawaii's main island. The fuss obscured a much more significant development that occurred with little fanfare (and no Times attention) on Friday, when the US Department of Agriculture took a giant step toward approving a controversial new crop promoted by Dow Agrosciences that could significantly ramp up the chemical war on weeds being waged in the Midwest's corn and soybean fields. Since the '90s, the widespread use of corn and soy crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup has led more weeds to resist that chemical. Farmers have responded by using even more chemicals, as this Food and Water Watch chart shows.

Food and Water Watch

Dow's new product promises to fix that problem. The company is peddling corn and soy seeds engineered to withstand not just Roundup, but also an older and much more toxic herbicide called 2,4-D. In a January 3 press release, the company noted that "an astonishing 86 percent of corn, soybean and cotton growers in the South have herbicide-resistant or hard-to-control weeds on their farms," as do more than 61 percent of farms in the Midwest. "Growers need new tools now to address this challenge," Dow insisted.

Use of 2,4-D—the less toxic half of the infamous Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange—had been dwindling for years, but the rise of Roundup-resistant superweeds has revived it.

 

Food and Water Watch

Farmers have been using it to "burn down" superweed-ridden fields before the spring planting of corn and soybeans. But if Dow gets its way, they'll be able to resort to it even after the crops emerge. Dow has downplayed the concern that the new products will lead weeds to develop resistance to 2,4-D. But in a 2011 paper (abstract here), weed experts from Penn State University—hardly a hotbed of anti-GMO activism—concluded that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new plague of super-duper-weeds that resist both Roundup and 2,4-D. (I laid out the details of their argument in this post.) Here's their model for how the new product would affect herbicide application rates on soybeans. Note how they project that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady, but that "other herbicides," mostly 2,4-D, will spike—meaning a windfall for Dow but nothing good for the environment.

From "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," by David A. Mortensen, et all, in Bioscience, January 2012.

The USDA, which oversees the introduction of new GMO crops, appeared set to green-light Dow's new wonderseeds at the end of 2012. But in May of last year, after a firestorm of criticism from environmental groups, the department slowed down the process, announcing in a press release it had decided that release of the novel products "may significantly affect the quality of the human environment," and that a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) was necessary before such a decision could be made.

Then on Friday, the USDA reversed itself—it released the draft of the promised EIS, and in it, the department recommended that Dow's 2,4-D-ready crops be unleashed upon the land. Once the draft is published in the Federal Register on January 10, there will be a 45-day public comment period, after which the USDA will make its final decision. At this point, approval seems imminent—probably in time for the 2015 growing season, as Dow suggested in its press release reacting to the news.

Why did the USDA switch from "may significantly affect the quality of the human environment" to a meek call for deregulation? As the USDA itself admits in its Friday press release, the department ultimately assesses new GMO crops through an extremely narrow lens: whether or not they act as a "pest" to other plants—that is, they'll withhold approval only if the crops themselves, and not the herbicide tsunami and upsurge in resistant weeds they seem set to bring forth, pose a threat to other plants. And Dow's new corn and soy crops don't cross that line, the USDA claims. I explained the tortured history and logic behind the USDA's "plant pest" test in this 2011 post. Long story short: It's an antiquated, fictional standard that doesn't allow for much actual regulation.

US farmers planted about 170 million acres of corn and soy in 2013—a combined land mass roughly equal to the footprint of Texas. Every year, upwards of 80 percent of it is now engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup. It's chilling to imagine that Dow's 2,4-D-ready products might soon enjoy a similar range.

Given the USDA's regulatory impotence in the face of such a specter, perhaps the Hawaiian activists who pushed for that ban aren't quite as daft as the New York Times portrayed them in its recent piece. The big biotech companies don't operate on the island that imposed the partial ban on GMOs. But as another New York Times piece, this one from 2011, shows, they do operate on other islands within the state—using them as a testing ground for novel crops and a place to grow out GMO seeds, taking advantage of the warm climate that allows several crops per year. According to the Times, GMO seeds are now bigger business in Hawaii than tropical staples like coffee, sugarcane, and pineapples—and the GMO/agrichemical giants have "have stepped into the leading, and sometimes domineering role, once played by the islands' sugar barons." As for Dow, it cops to having field-tested its 2,4-D-ready corn there.