Tom Philpott

In Which I Actually Endorse One Use of GMOs

| Wed Aug. 7, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

In a July 27 feature article that set the interwebs aflame, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon told the tale of a bacterial pathogen that's stalking the globe's citrus trees, and a Florida orange juice company's effort to find a solution to the problem through genetic engineering.

An invasive insect called the Asian citrus psyllids carries the bacteria, known as Candidatus Liberibacter, from tree to tree, and it causes oranges and other citrus fruits to turn green and rot. "Citrus greening," as the condition has become known, has emerged as a pest nearly wherever citrus is grown globally. Harmon reported that an "emerging scientific consensus" holds that only genetic engineering can defeat it.

Meanwhile, Michael Pollan, a prominent food industry and agribusiness critic, tweeted this:

The "2 many industry talking pts" bit earned him an outpouring of bile from GMO industry defenders (see here and here, as well as responses to Pollans's tweet). But after digging a bit into the citrus-greening problem, I think Pollan's pithy construction essentially nailed it. Harmon's story does contain some unchallenged industry talking points, yet it is also an important contribution, because citrus greening might just be one of the few areas wherein GM technology might be legitimately useful.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Test-Tube Meat's Secret Ingredient: Unborn Cow Blood

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Score one for the techno-optimists. Dutch researchers, funded by Google gazillionaire Sergey Brin, have managed to move lab meat from the test tube to a taste test—a high-proflle one in London. Two intrepid critics, a food scientist and the author of a book on food's techy future, found it, well, almost meatlike. Here's the Washington Post:

Rützler [the food scientist] gave the chef an appreciative nod. "It's close to meat, but it's not as juicy," she said. "I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy." She added: "I would have said if it was disgusting." Schonwald [the author] said the product tasted like "an animal protein cake."

Okay, that last phrase doesn't exactly pique the appetite, but you have to admit, it's not a bad showing for a product that came not from a cow grazing a lush meadow, but rather from tissue derived from bovine stem cells and grown in "nutrient solution."

News of the successful tasting excited some food system researchers. Responding to enviro writer Andy Revkin, University of Minnesota scholar Emily Cassidy tweeted, "Why is #culturedbeef important? Shifting away from grain-fed beef could feed over 350 million more people." To underline her point about the inefficient nature of grain-fed meat, Cassidy presented this excellent video:

In the video, Cassidy makes the key point that it's generally wasteful to grow grain to feed animals for the purpose of eating the animals—it makes much more sense to directly eat the grain. One reason is that, say, the corn we grow to feed cows isn't converted only into burgers and steaks. It also creates and supports a large, inedible skeleton, blood, and various organs—most of which becomes waste.

Cassidy's tweet suggests that lab-grown meat can largely overcome this problem. But just as cows don't grow out of thin air—they need feed—in vitro meat doesn't appear magically in those lab vats. It, too, needs to be fed something if it's going to grow. And that brings up a serious question that's rarely dealt with in techno-optimist takes on lab meat: What, precisely, is in the "nutrient solution" the stem cells convert into edible flesh? Then there's the question of the energy required to maintain proper conditions for large-scale lab meat growth.

In a Discover piece last year, University of California-Los Angeles synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis looked at these questions head on and found plenty of reason for skepticism. First, the energy problem:

Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology. Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use. In addition, even in those sophisticated vats, the three-dimensional techniques that would be required to grow actual steaks with a mix of muscle and fat have not been invented yet, though not for lack of trying. (This technology would primarily benefit our ability to make artificial organ replacements.) Add on top of that the fact that these three-dimensional wads of meat would have to be exercised regularly with stretching machinery, essentially elaborate meat gyms, and you can begin to understand the incredible challenge of scaling in vitro meat.

Then there's the feed question. "The growth medium that provides nutrients, vitamins, and growth hormones to the cells is currently made with a mixture of sugars and amino acids supplemented with fetal bovine serum—literally the blood of unborn cows," she writes. Fetal bovine serum is a slaughterhouse byproduct (it comes from cows' blood) used mainly by the pharmaceutical industry. Current cost: $250 per liter—which is one major reason the five-ounce burger tested in London set Sergey Brin back $330,000.

Of course, relying on a slaughterhouse byproduct for feed means that currently, lab-grown beef can't exist without a vast conventional beef industry. (And obviously, you'll never market a $330,000 burger anyway.)

The hope, though, is to create cheaper, non-animal-derived feed sources from blue-green algae. But don't hold your breath, says Agapakis. Blue-green algae, too, is ruinously expensive. Scientists have been trying for decades to cheaply scale up algae production, she writes, but those efforts have failed.

Today, algae is used to produce extremely high-value health-food products, like omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids, with the average market price for algae products at around $150 per pound of dry cells produced. Compared to the price of corn, which is about $0.09 per pound, or beef at $1.99 per pound, algae has a long way to go before it can play the role of cheap feedstock for in vitro meat production.

I don't care if tech barons lavish their cash on grand, unlikely techno-fixes. I just hope the effort doesn't distract from the necessary, difficult task of convincing people to eat much less meat—and when we do eat meat, to relying on meat from animals that feed on stuff we can't eat directly, like cows that live and munch on well-managed grasslands.

Tom's Kitchen: The Coolest, Easiest Summer Eggplant Trick

| Sat Aug. 3, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

During the broiling-hot Texas summer, I search for dishes that fall into a sweet and cool spot: seasonal produce prepared with minimal heat. Tomatoes are easy. Eggplant, one of my very vegetables, presents a special challenge. The ways that I love to cook it—searing and roasting—are just too damned hot for August. I sometimes grill it, of course, but standing in 100-degree heat over a fire doesn't always appeal.

After a sweaty recent visit to the farmers market, I found myself the owner of three gorgeous purple eggplants—and feeling no desire to fire up the stove or grill. Then, from the depths of my culinary memory, I recovered a technique I learned from Paula Wolfert's outstanding 1994 book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean: You simply wrap the eggplants in foil, prick them all over with the tines of a fork, and cook them on a gas stovetop over a low flame—so low it barely heats the kitchen. Then you separate the flesh from the skin and puree it with a few other ingredients into baba ghanoush, the classic Levantine eggplant spread. The open flame gives the eggplant a subtle smokiness that really elevates the dish. (Of course, cooking it over a charcoal grill is even better.)

Guided by Wolfert, one of my culinary heroes, that's exactly what I did. The following recipe is adapted from Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which brims with summer-ready ideas. (Note to self: try a chilled version of "Yogurt and Leek Soup with Mint.")

Baba ghanoush gear

Baba Ghanoush
(Makes two cups)
3 medium-sized eggplants
2 small cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
A couple of strips of pickled red onion (optional)
5 tablespoons of tahini
One lemon, sliced in half
3-4 tablespoons of water
Sea salt and freshly gound black pepper, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil

Garnishes
Some kind of ground chile powder—Allepo pepper (as Wolfert suggests), paprika, or, as I used, ground chipotle pepper
1 small ripe tomato, diced
A few sprigs of parsley, chopped

Trim the stems from the eggplants and wrap them with foil. Using a fork, prick them in several places, all over. Set two gas stovetop burners to a low setting, and place two of the eggplants on a grate directly over one, and the third over another (see photo). Let then cook, turning them occasionally with a tongs, until they become quite squishy and are releasing steam. Their collapse should be complete, abject. Wolfert suggests dumping the cooked eggplants into a basin of cold water and peeling them immediately. I simply let them sit for 30 minutes or so in a bowl to cool, then I stripped away the foil, rinsed them in cold water, and then peeled them over a bowl.

Note the low flame.

Add the tahini, the garlic, and the onion (if using) to the basin of a food processor fitted with a blade. Squeeze half of the lemon (over a metal strainer to catch the seeds) into the basin, and add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Process until absolutely smooth, if necessary pushing down the sides of the basin with a rubber spatula in between whirs. Creaming the tahini, lemon, and garlic at this point is Wolfert's brilliant baba—it will give the final product a gorgeous lightness. Now add the eggplant flesh, two tablespoons of water, a glug of olive oil, and puree until absolutely smooth, again pausing to intervene with a spatula if necessary. If you're having trouble achieving absolute smoothness, add another tablespoon of water. Now taste, adding a bit more salt or lemon if it seems necessary.

To serve, spread as much baba ghanoush as you expect to eat in one sitting on a plate. (The rest should be kept tightly covered in the fridge—it will maintain peak flavor for a few days). Give it a few lashings of your best olive oil, a brisk sprinkle of ground chile, some grinds of black pepper, and some diced tomato and chopped parsley. Serve with good crackers. This spread would also be a good excuse to make Alice Waters' fast-and-easy flatbread—but that would mean turning up a stovetop burner all the way to medium.

The Mystery of Bee Colony Collapse

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

What's tipping honeybee populations into huge annual die-offs? For years, a growing body of evidence has pointed to a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids, widely used on corn, soy, and other US crops, as a possible cause of what has become known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Rather than kill bees directly like, say, Raid kills cockroaches, these pesticides are suspected of having what scientists call "sub-lethal effects"—that is, they make bees more vulnerable to other stressors, like poor nutrition and pathogens. In response to these concerns, the European Union recently  suspended most use for two years; the US Environmental Protection Agency, by contrast, still allows them pending more study.

But according to a new peer-reviewed paper, neonicotinoids aren't the only pesticides that might be undermining bee health. The study, published in PLOS One and co-authored by a team including US Department of Agriculture bee scientist Jeff Pettis and University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp, found that a pair of widely used fungicides are showing up prominently in bee pollen—and appear to be making bees significantly more likely to succumb to a fungal pathogen, called Nosema ceranae, that has been closely linked to CCD. The finding is notable, the authors state, because fungicides have so far been "typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees."

Why China Wants US-Grown Pork Chops

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Hmmm, pork chops?

When the Chinese company Shuanghui International bought US pork giant Smithfield in May—a deal that's still on hold pending US government review—I read it as another sign that China's rulers are ready to more or less outsource the nation's food supply as it emerges as the globe's manufacturing powerhouse.

Since then, two more data points have crossed my desk. The most recent involves this blockbuster Bloomberg piece on China's emerging coal/water dilemma. The nation's manufacturing miracle has been largely powered by coal, source of 70 percent of its total energy consumption. And it intends to ramp up its coal-fired electricity massively—by 2020, Bloomberg notes, the Chinese government "plans to boost coal-fired power by twice the total [power] generating capacity of India."

McDonald's to Employees: Get a (Second) Job

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 4:00 AM PDT
Still lovin' it, Ron?

Since I last knocked heads with The Atlantic's David Freedman over Big Food and its potential to "end obesity"—see his piecemy response, his (odd) response to my response, our joint appearance on a Minnesota Public Radio show, and one more follow-up by me—there has been more fast food news than I can keep up with, most of it involving McDonald's, a company Freedman places at the vanguard of the anti-obesity effort.

The first item involves wages. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Freedman that one way Big Food contributes to our national weight problem is by paying its vast army of workers a pittance. Poverty is heavily associated with obesity and other chronic health conditions. The industry profits by holding costs down, and it does that in part by paying as little as possible. A 2012 analysis by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that 86 percent of the 20 million people who work within the food chain—that's a sixth of the overall US workforce—bring home less than a living wage. Food-system workers are 50 percent more likely to rely on food stamp (SNAP) benefits than the overall working population, the report found. Not surprisingly, the food-system workforce is getting restive—hence recent strikes by Walmart workers, as well as walk-offs by fast-food employees in New York City,  Detroit, Seattle, and St. Louis and fast-food/retail worker strikes in Chicago and Milwaukee. Fast-food workers in seven cities plan to strike next week.

Perhaps in response to such mounting pressures, McDonald's was recently moved to gift its employees with a "Practical Money Skills Budget Journal," "brought to you by Visa Inc. and Wealth Watchers International." Get a load of the "sample monthly budget," which has generated much hilarity across the internet:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tom's Kitchen: Gazpacho for a Hot Summer

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Everyone chill—I've got this.

Much of the East Coast has been gripped by a brutal heat wave. Here in Austin, we call such weather "summer." It's the time of year when I grope for ways to feed myself while applying as little heat as possible. And one of my go-to hot-weather dishes in gazpacho, the iconic tomato-based raw soup of Spain.

There are nearly as many styles of gazpacho as there are households in Andalucía, the southern province where it was born. There are smooth versions, chunky versions, some thickened with bread, some not. I love them all. This time around, wilting from a stretch of high-90s weather, I wanted a simple, light, even drinkable gazpacho—and a spicy one. I learned many years ago on a searing-hot Mexican beach that eating fiery foods had the paradoxical effect of helping me reconcile with the heat.

But you don't want your gazpacho to end up too spicy—lest (as has happened to me) you be accused of serving your friends and family salsa disguised as soup. You want just enough heat to tickle the back of the throat, whetting the palate for another sip. So add whatever chile you use in small amounts and adjust upward as needed. I used something I can't live without in summertime: sliced red jalepeño chiles I had put up in apple-cider vinegar. Adding a couple of slices at a time to the blender and tasting between whirs, I nailed my desired level of heat.

To further confound the salsa charge, you'll want to enliven it with a couple of herbs that aren't cilantro, which is often found in Mexican salsas. Parsley and chives do the trick.Traditional gazpacho relies on sherry vinegar to add a little zest. This is an excellent choice; but I used a splash or two of the cider vinegar from my jar of chiles.

Serve this gazpacho as an appetizer with toasted bread dipped in olive oil. Provecho!

 

Texas Summer Gazpacho
Makes about four servings.

About 1.5 pounds assorted ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 cucumber, about a half pound, sliced lengthwise, seeds removed with the scrape of a spoon
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 small shallot, peeled and sliced
1 small red-hot chile pepper, sliced; or several slices of pickled chile pepper; or, simply, crushed red chile flakes
1 tablespoon vinegar—sherry or apple cider—and a little more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Several sprigs of parsley, coarsely chopped
Several chives, coarsely chopped

For garnish:
Extra-virgin olive oil
More parsley and/or chives, finely minced

Put about half of the tomatoes into a blender and whir until smooth. (This will make room for the rest.) Now add everything else, holding back some of the chile, and leaving out the the garnishes. Whir until smooth. Taste, and consider whether adding more salt, chile, or vinegar is desirable. Adjust accordingly, and whir again. Place the blender in the fridge for at least an hour to chill, and put some small drinking glasses, one for each serving, into the freezer.

When you're ready to serve, remove the blender of gazpacho from the fridge and give it one last whir. To serve, fill each chilled glass about three-quarters way with gazpacho, and add a dash of olive oil. Stir with a spoon to incorporate, and top with chopped herbs. Encourage everyone to sip it like a beverage.

Store any leftovers in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, in the fridge. It will hold peak flavor for about 24 hours.

The End of Lobster Rolls?

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Put up your dukes: lobsters are one scrappy sea creature.

When European settlers alighted upon what's now known as New England, they gaped at the bounty of the shoreline, reports William Cronon in his classic 1983 book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Cronon lays out contemporary accounts of coastal waters teeming with cod, streams thick with salmon, of oysters "almost a foot long."

Lobster barely registers in Cronon's survey of this almost mythically productive ecosystem, but it existed in abundance, unloved as food but exploited all the same. Native Americans used it as farm fertilizer and fishing bait, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute reports, and it emerged as a kind of trash food for the colonialists, who "served it to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants."

Lobster's rise from culinary afterthought to white tablecloth delicacy has become almost the stuff of cliché. For years, overharvesting led to falling catches and high prices—seeming to ensure lobster's high-falutin' status.

But something odd has been brewing off the coast of Maine for more than a decade. Despite fears of an imminent collapse, lobster landings have skyrocketed. As a Chronicle of Higher Education article put it back in 2001, "Scientists have warned that lobsters are in danger, but nobody bothered to tell the lobsters."

Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Okra With Farro and a Fried Egg

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Recently, I scanned my fridge, looking for what I've neglected to cook from the previous week's farmers market run, hoping to be able to avoid a trip to the food co-op. (I know, how Portlandia of me). I came across a treasure: a bag of okra I had picked up from Austin's wonderful Green Gate Farms and had promptly forgotten about. To my relief, it was still crisp and vibrant.

Coming up with a quick meal with it wasn't hard. In the pantry, there was a bit of pearled farro—an ancient relative of wheat that never stopped being consumed in Italy and has now found a vogue in the US. I also had eggs, an onion, some garlic, and a few small carrots. I decided to roast the okra, and meanwhile boil off the farro—which cooks in just 20 minutes—and toss it with a quick saute of onions and carrots. I'd top the farro salad with the okra and a fried egg. And make enough for leftovers. So that's what I did. And no, the okra wasn't slimy at all!  

Roasted Okra with Farro and a Fried Egg

Cook Your Berries. Drink Dark-Roast Coffee Instead of Light. Let Your Garlic Sit.

| Sat Jul. 20, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Semper phytonutrient: Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side.

Normally I ignore the latest diet craze. But I can't resist the message of Jo Robinson's new book Eating on the Wild Side. In it, Robinson argues that humanity's 10,000-year-old fixation on agriculture has stripped our most commonly eaten foods of most of their phytonutrients, which are plant-based chemical compounds that keep us healthy. Her recent New York Times op-ed on the topic inspired me to pen a paean to edible weeds. But you don't need to go feral to boost your phytonutrient intake, Robinson shows. She gives tips on how to navigate the supermarket produce shelf and the farmers market to find phytonutrient-dense foods not very far off from what our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on. After a phone conversation recently, I hung up with the urge to crack open a hoppy beer—and not out of stress.

Mother Jones: What exactly is a phytonutrient?

Jo Robinson: The technical term for phytonutrients is polyphenols. They are substances produced by plants, a lot of them for self-defense. Twenty-five thousand different ones have been identified. Vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene [are examples]. Many of them are potent antioxidants, while some don't have antioxidant activity but boost our own antioxidant defense system. Others are involved in communication between cells, many affect gene expression, and others have detoxifying functions.