Tom Philpott

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.

Egg Prices Soar 60 Percent as Avian Flu Slams Midwest

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

Retail egg prices have risen from an average of $1.22 per dozen in mid-May to $1.95 this week, the US Department of Agriculture reports. That's a 60 percent jump in just a month—a reflection of the massive toll being exacted by an avian flu outbreak that has ripped through the Midwest's egg-laying farms.

"Highly pathogenic" to birds, but so far not to people, the strain first turned up in Oregon in last December and has since rapidly moved east to Minnesota and Iowa. It has now killed or triggered the euthanasia of 47 million birds. I go into more detail on the outbreak here and here, and evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace of the Institute of Global Studies at the University of Minnesota gives his take here.

The flu's spread is slowing as the weather warms up (flu viruses don't thrive in the heat), but producers in the south, where the great bulk of US chicken is grown, fear an outbreak there this fall. Last week, North Carolina's agriculture department announced the ban of poultry shows and public live bird sales, effective  Aug. 15 to Jan. 15, "due to the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza."

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The California Secretary of Agriculture Couldn't Be More Wrong About the Drought

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 1:42 PM EDT
Newly planted almond trees in the southern Central Valley.

In a recent Los Angeles Times' op-ed, California agriculture secretary Karen Ross took a bold stand on the No. 1 threat menacing her state's beleaguered farmers: bad PR.

I'm being facetious. Water scarcity, obviously, is the specter haunting California agriculture. But Ross didn't go there. Instead, she defended her state's farms against charges by media pundits of irrigation profligacy, asserting that the farms are "worth" the 80 percent of the state's managed water that they require.

Farmers in the Central Valley are locked in a virtual water-drilling arms race.

The piece, co-written with University of California-Davis ag economist Daniel Sumner, surely doesn’t express the entirety of Ross' view of her state's sobering water situation. But its focus on public-image concerns over substance suggests an inability by the state's policymakers to accept that the state's farming-related water issues are so severe that they need a policy response—now.

A couple of days after Ross' piece, the New York Times ran an eye-popping article about farmer-on-farmer water wars brewing in the ag-centered Central Valley. Farmers, the Times explains, are tapping into groundwater at such a rapid rate that some wells are going dry, forcing farmers to dig deeper: a virtual water-drilling arms race. Worse, large swaths of the southern Central Valley are sinking into the void left by extracted water. And as land drops, any infrastructure built onto it—roads, bridges, irrigation canals—is prone to damage.

As the Center for Investigative Reporting's Nathan Halverson showed in a recent article, subsidence, as land sinking is known, is already costing the state's taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the form of roads, bridges, and schools that need fixing. Halverson shows that the California Department of Transportation is spending taxpayer money to fix roads without knowing that agriculture-driven subsidence is causing the problems. Sunken land also does permanent damage to the aquifers themselves, reducing their capacity to hold water in the future.

The new groundwater rules won't go fully into effect until 2040.

Predictably, the situation is leading to disputes among farmers over damaged canals and dry wells, The Times shows. But amid the squabbling, no one has the incentive to stop pumping water—why should farmer A sacrifice income by turning off the well, if she knows that farmers B, C, and D are simply going to keep pumping, driving water tables ever lower.

And as I've written before, the ongoing switch from annual crops like cotton and vegetables to almond and pistachio orchards only makes things more intense. It's one thing to fallow melons and lose just a year's income; almond and pistachio groves are major investments that take several years to begin producing, and then do so for 20 years, so farmers fight hard to keep them watered every year.

With economic incentives in place for a massive water grab, it's time for policymakers to step in. Last year, they did—sort of. The California legislature shook off decades of pushback from farm interests and passed historic legislation that finally regulated groundwater pumping. Until then, groundwater had been governed by Wild West rules: If there's water under your land, you can tap it at will (even though aquifers don't follow land-title boundaries).

The problem, though, is that the legislation doesn't go fully into effect until 2040—and until then will remain under a cloak of confidentiality, meaning it will still be difficult to tell where groundwater is being pumped the fastest. In other words, the legislature punted any actual solution to the problem a couple more decades down the road.

That's inadequate, according to Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he should know: He uses satellite data to assess groundwater withdrawals. In a March LA Times op-ed, he argued that implementation needs to be accelerated. If it's not, he wrote, "it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working…By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain."

And here's where Karen Ross and her bully pulpit could help things. Rather than penning anodyne op-eds defending farmers' water use from public criticism, she should be helping Central Valley farmers pull out of their groundwater death spiral by pushing for emergency measures to rein in groundwater pumping. "Our soils and climate are what have made it possible for us to supply so much of our nation's and the world's food," Ross reminded us in her op-ed. She forgot to mention the rapidly depleting fossil resource that props up the Central Valley ag powerhouse—both literally and figuratively.

We'll All Eat Less Meat Soon—Like It or Not

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

The great bulk of American beef comes from cows that have been fattened in confined yards with thousands of of their peers, munching a diet of corn, soybeans, and chemical additives.  Should the feedlot model, innovated in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, continue its global spread—or is it better to raise cows on pasture, eating grass?

The question is critical, because global demand for animal flesh is on the rise, driven by growing appetites for meat in developing countries, where per capita meat consumption stands at about a third of developed-world levels.

In a much-shared interview on the website of the Breakthrough Institute, Washington State University researcher Judith Capper informs us that the US status quo is the way forward. "If we switched to all grass-fed beef in the United States, it would require an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million acres more land, and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions," she said. "We’d have the same amount of beef, but with a huge environmental cost."

Americans consume on average about 209 pounds of meat per year—yet less than 100 pounds is "compatible with good health and high longevity."

I agree with Capper that it would be a disaster to empty the feedlots and put all of the hungry cows out to pasture—that is, at current levels of beef production, finding enough grass to feed every cow that now relies on copious supplies of corn would likely prove impossible.

But there's a deeper question that Capper doesn't look at: Is the feedlot system itself sustainable? That is, can we keep stuffing animals—not just cows but also chickens and pigs—into confinements and feeding them gargantuan amounts of corn and soybeans? And can other countries mimic that path, as China is currently?

The answer, plainly, is no, according to the eminent ecologist Vaclav Smil in a 2014 paper. Smil notes that global meat production has risen from less than 55 million tons in 1950 to more than 300 million tons in 2010—a nearly six-fold increase in 60 years. "But this has been a rather costly achievement because mass-scale meat production is one of the most environmentally burdensome activities," he writes, and then proceeds to list off the problems: it requires a large-scale shift from diversified farmland and rainforests to "monocultures of animal feed," which triggered massive soil erosion, carbon emissions, and coastal "dead zones" fed by fertilizer runoff. Also, concentrating animals tightly together produces "huge volumes of waste," more than can be recycled into nearby farmland, creating noxious air and water pollution. Moreover, it's "inherently inefficient" to feed edible grains to farm animals, when we could just eat the grain, Smil adds.

This ruinous system would have to be scaled up if present trends in global meat demand continue, Smil writes—reaching 412 million tons of meat in 2030, 500 million tons in 2050, and 577 million tons in 2080, according to projections from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Such a carnivorous future is "possible but it is neither rational nor sustainable"—it will ultimately destroy the ecosystems on which it relies.

Instead of corn and soy, farm animals should be fed solely crop residues and food waste, Smil argues.

Smil is no anti-meat crusader. He acknowledges that "human evolution has been closely linked in many fundamental ways to the killing of animals and eating their meat." But the rise of the feedlot has provided much more meat than is necessary nutritionally—Americans consume on average about 209 pounds of meat per year, while a "wealth of evidence confirms" that a bit less than 100 pounds is "compatible with good health and high longevity."

He calculates that such a level could be achieved globally, without the ecosystem destruction built into the status quo meat production model. Rather than gobble up stuff we could eat like corn and soybeans, farm animals should be fed solely crop residues and food waste. And rather than be crammed into concentrated feedlots, they should be kept on pasture in rotation with food crops. Managing meat production that way, he calculates, would generate more than 200 million tons of meat per year—about enough, he calculates, to provide the globe with sufficient meat for optimal health.

Of course, massive challenges stand between Smil's vision and reality. For one, it would require people in industrialized countries like the United States to cut their meat consumption by half or more, even as consumption in Asia and Africa rises to roughly equal levels. Then, of course, there are the massive globe-spanning meat companies like US-owned Tyson, Brazil-owned JBS, and China's Smithfield that have a huge stake in defending the status quo.

But ramping up the current system to provide the entire globe with US levels carnivory is hard to fathom, too. If it happens, "there is no realistic possibility of limiting the combustion of fossil fuels and moderating the rate of global climate change," Smil writes. In other words, like it or not, it's probably time to get used to eating less meat—pushed by the climate crisis, industrialized societies may have little choice but to ramp down meat production along lines suggested by Smil.

Meanwhile, US meat consumption, long among the very highest in the world, is waning, if slowly. The total annual slaughter peaked at 9.5 billion animals in 2009, and has been hovering around 9.1 billion in recent years. Interestingly, Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm-animal protection of the Humane Society of the United States, told me that the decrease reflects meat eaters' cutting back, not any turn to abstention—the percentage of vegetarians and vegans among the population has "remained relatively stable" in recent years, he said. (See my colleague Gabrielle Canon's list of the most common ways in which meat eaters justify their diet here.)

If we can continue this trend, the feedlot, which looks hyper-efficient at mass-producing meat only if you ignore a host of environmental liabilities, may yet prove to be a passing fad.

Study: Organic Farming Is More Profitable Than Conventional

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 10:56 AM EDT

After years of steady growth in demand, organic food now accounts for 5 percent of US food sales. Yet organically managed land makes up just 1 percent of US farmland. Why hasn't the craze for organics moved from the supermarket to the countryside? The problem isn't a lack of profitability, a new paper (abstract; press release) from Washington State University researchers David Crowdera and John Reganold finds.

The researchers found that organic farming is somewhere between 22 percent and 35 percent more profitable for farmers than conventional.

The authors crunched data from 44 studies involving 55 crops grown on five continents over 40 years and found that organic farming is somewhere between 22 percent and 35 percent more profitable for farmers than conventional. The reason: the higher price farmers get when they sell certified-organic crops. This "premium," as it's known, stands at around 30 percent, and stayed roughly equal over the four-decade period, the authors report.

They also found that organic farming would retain its profitability edge even if its price advantage dropped significantly: at a premium as low as 5 percent, they found, the two systems are equally profitable. The costs of doing business are roughly equal for the two systems: Organic farmers save on chemical inputs, but essentially substitute labor for chemicals (think hoeing weeds vs. dousing them with herbicides) and thus have higher labor costs. 

According to the studies they analyzed, organic farming delivers lower yields than conventional, by somewhere between 10 percent and 18 percent (mainly driven by use of synthetic and mined fertilizers). This yield penalty, it should be noted, is not necessarily set in stone. For the purposes of this paper, the authors looked at studies comparing conventional and organic ag as they're practiced in the field in a variety of contexts.

But agrichemical-intensive agriculture has received far more research-and-development over the decades than organic has. And when organic ag is lavished with serious research, it has proven the ability to deliver comparable yields—see, for example, the well-respected test plots at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

And farmers' work isn't just about generating maximum yield in any one growing season; it's also about maintaining healthy soil and limiting pollution. Here, the Washington State authors note, organic ag delivers "greater energy efficiency; enhanced soil carbon and quality; greater floral, faunal, and landscape diversity; and less pesticide and nutrient pollution of ground and surface waters."

These "externalities," as they're known, "likely make up for price premiums awarded to organic products," the authors write. That is, when we spend more for organic food, we're essentially paying farmers a little extra to maintain healthy soil and avoid pesticide runoff.

The question looms: If organic is more profitable, why hasn't it spread far and wide? The authors note that the three-year transition required for certification puts farmers in a bind: Having gone cold turkey from agrichemicals, their yields drop, but they get no price premium for their trouble until year four. I'd add that farmers, like most people, are wary of change. Organic may offer higher profits; but ditching chemicals requires a radically different style of farming. Such leaps aren't made casually.

If we want to move away from reliance on toxic chemicals, the organic premium might not be enough. We may have to think of other ways to factor those "externalities" into the price of the food we eat.

Tom's Kitchen: Steamed Spring Green Beans and New Potatoes with Parsley Sauce and Sardines

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

My vegetable repertoire has narrowed to the point of tedium: I sauté fast-cooking ones like greens and fresh beans and roast slow-cooking ones like potatoes unto caramelization. Most everything gets plenty of garlic, high-flavor fats like olive oil or lard, and a dash of chile pepper.

But on a recent trip to Austin's urban-ag jewel Boggy Creek Farms, I picked up first-of-the-season green beans and red new potatoes that were so fresh and enticing that such treatments seemed way too aggressive. I wanted the flavor of the vegetables themselves, not my cooking techniques and condiments, to dominate.

So I did something I don't think I've ever done voluntarily: I steamed them. And I'll be damned if they didn't avoid blandness, the fate I've always associated with the technique. Instead, the potatoes were like an impossibly potato-y bite of the earth itself; and the green beans delivered a crunchy jolt of chlorophyllic sweetness.

To bring it all together into a light meal, I needed a low-key dressing. My Boggy Creek expedition also netted a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, which I decided to whiz into a vinaigrette. I also wanted a protein element, and in my cupboard I found one that would provide a sharp contrast to the delicate vegetables: a tin of sardines.

To preserve the original idea—vegetables that tasted of themselves—I decided to compose the plate precisely. Here's what I did:

Steamed Spring Green Beans and New Potatoes with Parsley Sauce and Sardines

(Light meal for two, plus some leftovers)

½ pound smallish, freshly dug ("new") potatoes, quartered

½ pound fresh green beans, stem ends snapped off, snapped in half

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 small clove of garlic, crushed and peeled

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 4.25 oz can of sardines in olive oil (I used this kind)

Add a steamer insert to a pot along with an inch of water. Cover and turn heat to high until the water boils. Turn the heat down halfway, add the potatoes, cover, and steam until they're just tender. Remove to a bowl. Add a bit more water to the pot, and repeat with the green beans, making sure they're left with a little crunch.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by combining the parsley, oil, vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a food processor or blender. Mix until reasonably smooth. (You will likely have leftover dressing—keeps well in the fridge for a few days, and makes everything taste good.)

To compose, start by dotting each plate with splotches of dressing. Now carefully layer on the vegetables, distributing them more or less evenly (leaving aside about a third for seconds or leftovers.) Then add the sardines the same way—use them all, because they don't make for fun leftovers. Finally, add a few more dots of dressing, as well as a conservative dusting of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a bowl of extra dressing at the table for supplementation.

This dish is made to serve with a minerally, ice cold white wine.