Tom Philpott

Priorities, Priorities: AC in Afghanistan vs. School Lunch at Home

| Sun Jun. 26, 2011 2:23 PM EDT
A Canadian soldier works on an AC system in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

When you station hundreds of thousands of people in hot places to fight wars, it costs something to keep them reasonably cool. How much?

According to NPR, the military spends $20 billion per year on air conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that a lot? Here's NPR:

That's more than NASA's budget. It's more than BP has paid so far for damage during the Gulf oil spill. It's what the G-8 has pledged to help foster new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.

To choose an example from my world, that's more than twice as much as we spend annually on the National School Lunch Program. I would argue, as I have before, that investing significantly more in school lunches is an urgent national priority. School lunches are society's most concrete, tangible way of transmitting foodways to rising generations. Sure, we pass on foodways in home kitchens and in our built infrastructure of restaurants/eateries, and well as through advertising; but those are in the private sphere. The public-school cafeteria is where we create a public vision of what the food system should be like. In short, it's the public contribution to the formation of kids' eating habits. And the eating habits we develop as kids largely determine the food choices we make as adults. If that weren't true, the food industry wouldn't be dropping $1.6 billion every year marketing to kids.

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Tom's Kitchen: Pasta With Snap Peas and Fennel

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Welcome to my occasional cooking column (a continuation of something I started on Grist). The idea of Tom's Kitchen isn't to show off my flashy cooking skills (which are actually quite modest); or rub your face in how amazing it is to cook on a small veggie farm. Rather, what I want to do is contribute to a tradition established by much more accomplished cooks than me—e.g. Deborah Madison, Mark Bittman—of showing that cooking delicious, healthful food really isn't all that hard or time-consuming. 

When I first started cooking seriously 20 years ago, I would grab an "authentic" cookbook centered on some faraway land—say, Paula Wolfert's classic 1973 opus Couscous: And Other Good Food from Moroccochoose some recipes, jot down a vast shopping list brimming with esoteric ingredients, and set off on a day-long adventure (and a long night of dishes). You can learn plenty from that style of cooking—I have—but really, it's a hobbyist's activity. It's not going to put dinner on the table on a Tuesday night after a long day at the office (or of writing and farm work). These days, my cooking is simpler: I see what fresh ingredients are available, check out what's in the pantry, and figure out some quick way to bring it all together in palatable fashion. It's often influenced by techniques and pantry ingredients I picked up over the years from the likes of the great Wolfert, but there's no attempt to be authentic or fancy or do special shopping. There's just no time.

I think this style is a much more user-friendly way of drawing more people into cooking—a critical task, I think, when tens of millions of people have no idea how to cook and outsource their diets to the food industry. 

Weekend Quick Bites

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

Civil Eats' Paula Crossfield breaks down Gannett's absurd decision to lay off the last D.C. beat reporter covering ag policy: Phil Brasher, former mainstay of the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register. This is what you get when newspapers are owned by faceless corporations, not community members. The move is even more absurd given that we're moving into a presidential election and negotiations over the 2012 Farm Bill.

• On Grist, Monica Potts dives deep into something I covered briefly last week: the House's move to keep the USDA from protecting small farmers against the market power of giant meat companies.

• HuffPo's Lucia Graves goes long on the suspicion that Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide, is linked to birth defects. This is an explosive story. Roundup rains down on millions of acres of farmland each year. I'll have more to say next week.

• On Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, Kathleen Schafer delivers the latest on a more definitive herbicide-birth defect link: the one involving Syngenta's atrazine.

• This week, I wrote about how my esteemed representative to the US Congress, Virginia Foxx, had taken a break from bashing gays and immigrants to try to stamp out the progressive wing of Obama's USDA. Turns out, she's even busier than I thought—in debate over the same House bill she managed to use as a club to pummel the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Foxx essentially tried to do away with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), reports belmontmedina of Postbourgie. Classy! Belmontmedina notes that "half of all American infants and about a quarter of kids under 4 have participated in WIC," and that "every dollar spent saves three in health care costs during the first 2 months of a child's life."

There's a Foxx Guarding the Ag-Policy Henhouse

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 2:09 PM EDT
Know your farmer, know your food? Oh no, you don't, says Virginia Foxx.

In my post on the recent House Republicans' assault on progressive ag policy, I mentioned the move to shut down USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. The sponsor of the amendment that did the dirty deed is Rep. Virginia Foxx (R.-N.C.)—who, it turns, out, represents my district in Congress. This is the sort of thing she gets up to when she's not defending children from the scourge of gay marriage, or lashing out at undocumented workers (who, incidentally, form the backbone of our area's Christmas tree and nursery industries.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, Know Your Farmer is essentially a website. it gathers up and spotlights a hodgepodge of existing programs, funded by the 2008 Farm Bill, that direct modest amounts of money to rebuilding local and regional food systems and supporting new farmers.

That's actually a significant service. The USDA's own site is infamously unwieldy and impossible to navigate. Without Know Your Farmer, the few progressive federal ag programs we have—for example, ones that that help make farmers markets accessible to low-income mothers, or help small farmers launch profitable food businesses—would likely wither on the vine.

House Republicans Aim Pitchfork at Food-System Reform

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

I've complained once or twice in the past that US farm policy, even under Obama, favors corporate-led, highly dysfunctional agriculture. That's true on balance, but it doesn't tell the whole story. If you dig into the topic, you'll find that sustainable-food activists have been working for decades to place progressive, community-oriented programs into the ag-policy mix. These hard-fought victories, won during once-every-five-years Farm Bill wars, are vastly outweighed by things like the government's corn-ethanol fetish, or its hyper-aggressive trade policies. 

But the food movement's political gains are real, they're fragile, and they need defending. And they're under withering attack from the GOP-controlled US House, which passed a fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that if signed into law would snuff out US farm policy's green shoots like an herbicide-spewing crop duster snuffs out weeds. The D.C.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the best watchdog/lobbying group we have on ag-policy issues, delivers the grim news on what the House bill would do. Here's a few highlights, summarized by me.

Is the "Clean 15" Just as Toxic as the "Dirty Dozen"?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:35 AM EDT
Fumigants don't generally make it into the fruit you eat, but that hardly makes them "clean."

Recently, Environmental Working Group released its annual "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of produce with the most and least pesticide residues. My reaction was: Well done, but what about farm workers? The EWG lists provide an invaluable tool to help consumers reduce pesticide exposure, but tell us nothing about the folks who grow and harvest the great bulk of food we consume.

Well, over on Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, researcher Karl Tupper shed some light on the murky question of farm worker exposure to toxic pesticides. Tupper stressed that pesticide residues pose a real threat to consumers. However, he adds "It’s the farmers, farm workers, and residents of rural communities who are really most at risk from pesticides, not consumers." Tupper explains:

While these folks are exposed to pesticides from food like the rest of us, they also must contend with pesticide fumes drifting out of fields, exposure from working directly with pesticides, and pesticide-coated dust and dirt tracked into their homes from the fields.

Tupper cross-referenced the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists against USDA numbers for total pesticides applied per acre of each item. He found that from the perspective of farm workers, the Clean Fifteen just aren't much cleaner than the Dirty Dozen.

Overall, the two lists don't look that different from the standpoint of pesticide use. The average pesticide use intensity for the list are quite similar: 26.2 lbs/acre for the Clean Fifteen and 29.8 lbs/acre for the Dirty Dozen.

Disturbingly, two Clean Fifteen items—sweet potatoes and mushrooms—land on top of Tupper's list of most pesticide-intensive crops. And the least pesticide-intensive crop by Tupper's calculations—spinach—took fifth place on EWG's Dirty Dozen. In short, what's clean for consumers is too often dirty for farm workers, and vice-versa. One main reason for the dirty-but-clean nature of so many vegetables that reach consumers' plates: widespread use of highly toxic fumigants. Tupper describes them like this:

They are very drift-prone and very toxic, and they are applied at very high rates compared to non-fumigant pesticides. But because they are applied to soil before crops are planted, and because they are so volatile and so reactive, they don't stick around on growing plants and they don't end up contaminating the food you buy at the market.

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Why the Senate Ethanol Vote Doesn't Matter Much

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 3:29 PM EDT

I have a really bad idea.

Let's push farmers to plant as much as they possibly can of our most ecologically devastating crop. Maybe we'll even get them to plow up some erosion-prone grasslands to do so. Then we'll take a huge portion of the bounty (say, 40 percent) and subject it to a Byzantine, energy-intensive process that will turn it into something (barely) suitable for internal-combustion engines. (Never mind that internal-combustion engines, powering private pods over roads always in need of extravagant maintenance, are a rotten way of converting energy into mass locomotion.)

The production process generates a heaping amount of a byproduct tainted with antibiotics and industrial chemicals. No worries—we'll feed that stuff to livestock on vast factory farms, even though it increases deadly pathogens in beef and does terrible things to pigs. Since the whole idea is so clearly misbegotten, we'll need to deploy serious government support to keep it from stalling. How about decades of lucrative tax breaks, bolstered in recent years by upward-spiraling usage mandates? We'll need a bit of PR, too, to keep the public from squawking. Let's just pretend that the product we're peddling is a green, job-creating machine that will "wean us from foreign oil."

You in?

That, in a nutshell, tells the story of America's corn-based ethanol boondoggle over the past three decades. (For the rollicking tale of how the whole thing got started in the first place, go here). Over the same time span, we've allowed our national rail-transport system to wither into self-parody; watched as cities defunded or neglected mass transit; failed to make necessary investments in clean energy sources like wind and solar while also declining to force fossil energy producers to pay for the massive damage they cause; and, most recently, elected a Democratic president who seems hell-bent on putting Sarah Palin's "drill, baby, drill" energy vision into place. And through it all, our government's blind, deep-pocketed loyalty to corn-based car fuel has endured.

GMO Salmon's Unlikely Enemy: the GOP

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 11:06 AM EDT
The House just served up a surprise treat for the FDA.

Over on Gilt Taste a while back, the eminent fisheries writer Paul Greenberg gutted and fileted the rationale for a novel type of farmed salmon genetically altered to grow faster. The "improved" fish, created by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies, threatens to "escape and contaminate wild populations of salmon," Greenberg wrote. And the business model AquaBounty has in mind is ecologically insane: "the fish requires much wasteful transport since it would be cloned in Canada, grown in Panama and then flown back to the US for consumption." On top of those obvious drawbacks, the GMO salmon literally offers no benefits to the environment or consumers. "It is completely unnecessary," he concludes. Its only rationale is economic—as defined narrowly by the interests of AquaBounty' shareholders. Greenberg writes:

It seems to me that what the AquaBounty AquAdvantage salmon represents is the privatization of the salmon genome. Should salmon farming come to be dominated by the AquAdvantage fish, farmers could become dependent on a single company for their stock, just as soy, corn and wheat farmers must now rely on large multinationals like Monsanto to provide seed for their fields year in and year out. AquaBounty will literally own salmon farming.

Despite all of this, the FDA is currently deliberating on whether to greenlight AquaBounty's dubious masterpiece—and is widely expected to do just that sometime this year. That is, unless resistance from an unlikely quarter, the Republican-controlled US House, prevails. Associated Press:

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, offered an amendment to a farm spending bill late Wednesday that would prohibit the FDA from spending money to approve AquaBounty's application. The amendment was approved by voice vote.

Now, the good Rep. Brown was not acting on high principle, attempting to protect the environment and consumers from a product that will likely generate much more harm than good. Rather, he was baldly protecting constituents' economic interests. "Young argued that the modified fish would compete with wild salmon in his state," AP reports.

As much as I want to applaud it, the move marks a potentially dangerous precedent. If Congress can block regulatory agencies from approving products on the basis of harming narrow economic interests, it can also block agencies from enforcing regulations that harm those same interests. Do we want to live in a world where Congress intervenes to, say, force the EPA to approve a nasty pesticide just because its maker gives cash to some backbencher? Agencies like the FDA and USDA, riddled as they are by industry influence, would be much better positioned to fight off such challenges if they actually did their jobs and protected the public interest. In this case, that would mean forcing AquaBounty to keep its dodgy fish out of the marketplace—based on the merits of the case.

Decadant Sushi, Rotten Tomatoes, and Radical Bananas

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

I'm in New York City for a Mother Jones event, so no big blog post till Friday. Meantime, here's a few small bites to tide you over.

New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton reviewed uber-fancy Manhattan sushi temple Masa and came away impressed by the "expertly diced, top-grade fatty bluefin tuna tartare." The ocean-conservancy NGO Oceana rapped his knuckles on Twitter for that line, because bluefin tuna populations stand on the verge of collapse. Until stocks recover, eating it is a bit like tucking into a drumstick of Kentucky-fried eagle. Sifton reacted to Oceana's jab by taking the question to his readers: "Should restaurants continue to serve bluefin? Should diners continue to buy it if they do? Should restaurant critics?" My take is: no, no, and no. If restaurant critics and food writers generally want to live in a world that sustains delicious things like sushi, they have an obligation to educate the public and chefs when things have taken a dire turn. I've taken Sifton to task on similar grounds before, and also gone back and forth with his Times colleague, the generally wonderful Mark Bittman.

• Speaking of the Times, I'm excited by the new cooking column by David Tanis, who spends half the year working as executive chef at Berkeley's iconic Chez Pannise, and the other half writing cookbooks in France. The new column's theme is the important one of how to cook well in a tiny urban kitchen, and the maiden recipe is beyond reproach: cannellini bean salad with shaved spring vegetables.

• And speaking of sushi, here's the teaser to an interesting-looking new documentary: Sushi: the Global Catch.  It asks how it came to be that "beautiful raw pieces of fish and rice now appear from Warsaw and New York to football games in Texas towns"—and whether  "this growth continue without consequence."

• I can't say enough good things about Barry Estabrook's new book Tomatoland. In his gentle, evocative prose, Estabrook tells the brutal story of what industrial agriculture has done to tomatoes and the workers who grow them. Here's an excerpt, published on Gilt Taste, and here's Jane Black's insightful Washington Post review of it.

• Bananas are another golorious fruit that has all but been squashed under the heel of industrial agriculture. Over on Equal Exchange's Small Farmers, Big Changes blog, Phyllis Robinson has a long and detailed post about what smallholder farmers in Latin America have to go through to reach U.S. consumers directly, circumventing the monopoly on banana distribution enjoyed by Dole and Chiquita (formerly the infamous United Fruit).



Big Ag Won't Feed the World

| Wed Jun. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speaks—too often, on behalf of Big Ag interests.

Back in March, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at an event called the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Fl. Sponsored by agribusiness giants Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta, John Deere, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Syngenta, and Archer Daniels Midland, among others, the event hails itself as the "premier national trade show and convention for corn, soy, wheat and sorghum farmers."

According to an account in the trade journal Agri-Pulse, Vilsack spoke "with sometimes evangelistic fervor." He thundered against critics of corn-based ethanol, reiterated the Obama administration's goal of doubling US farm exports by 2014 by ramming open foreign markets, and praised the assembled farmers and agribusiness flacks for their record of "ensuring affordable food for US families," Agri-Pulse reported. The former governor of Iowa ended his speech on an evem more flattering note: "The farmers in this room have provided the prescription that this nation must follow to get itself back totally on its feet ... You should never ever bet against the American farmer because if you do, it's a losing bet." The audience roared its approval.

The ag secretary was essentially promoting an agribusiness-as-usual vision of farm policy: maximum production of a few commodity crops, mainly to be used to fatten confined animals, create cheap sweeteners and fats, and fill gas tanks. He did so amid much rhetoric about "jobs," the Agri-Pulse account shows. But that's ludicrous. The modern food system lionized by Vilsack has been a massive net destroyer of jobs. And the fixation on doubling US ag exports can't be good news for farmers in the global south, who struggle to compete with their highly capitalized US peers.

Meanwhile, US ag policy as expressed by Vilsack is putting us increasingly at odds with an emerging global consenus on how to structure food production in an era of climate change, resource scarcity, and population growth. As I wrote last week, for years now, development specialists and ag scientists associated with the UN and even the World Bank have been questioning the assumption that only chemical-intensive consumption of a few commodities can "feed the world" going forward. The latest data point: the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has come out with a policy blueprint called "Save and grow: A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production." Its central premise reads like a direct rebuke to Vilsack: "The present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium."