ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

What's the link between bladder infections, CAFOs and Missouri farmers?

I want to highlight a couple of stories we recently produced at the Food & Environment Reporting Network (@FERNnews on Twitter), where I serve as editor in chief. I'm pointing them out because I'm particularly proud of these stories and they took some time to come to fruition. 

The first, which appeared last week in a joint investigation with ABC News was reported by Maryn McKenna, a brilliant science journalist who focuses on nasty microbes (check out her recent book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA). This past spring, she told me she had come across a number of studies that genetically linked the microbes in antibiotic-resistant bladder infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in chicken. I immediately sensed there was a good story here, because bladder infections affect, as the story points out, one-in-seven women.

What was new, Maryn told me, was that the number of antibiotic resistant infections appeared to be rising, at least based on anecdotal medical evidence, since they are not officially tracked. Secondly, there was this curious link to the microbes in chicken, which develop resistance because chicken are fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness. (For a more in-depth look at this issue, read Maryn's story FERN produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.)

Although the researchers had, in effect, genetically fingerprinted the bacteria, the question arose whether chicken causes the infections. The researchers assert that chicken are a likely and important source of these highly resistant infections, although as Maryn points out, establishing that in a scientific experiment would be unethical because it would risk infecting healthy subjects with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The chicken council also issued a press release questioning the link and we quoted these scientists in the Atlantic item mentioned above. 

The second story, "Whose Side Is the Farm Bureau On?", which ran at The Nation, concerned the big agricultural lobby (and insurance firm) known as the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau puts itself forward as the voice of family farmers but reporter Ian Shearn, a Pulitizer Prize winner, focused on a case in Missouri that showed how the bureau actually operates. When giant CAFOs were polluting the waters around small farms, not only did the bureau support the CAFOs, but it pushed for state legislation that would limit civil suits against such operations. Those suits were being filed by small farmers. 

Unlike Maryn's health story, Ian's focused on farmers, but the link between both of them were the practices of concentrated animal operations. While these operations produce plentiful and inexpensive food, they have costs that ripple through society -- whether in being the likely source of recurrent bladder infections commonly suffered by women or in the pollution suffered by Missouri farmers. In short, these stories put a cost on cheap food.

- Samuel Fromartz

Here's the video from the joint investigation between FERN and ABC News.

Is American agriculture really efficient?

Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering.

Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway."

This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it.

Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce a pound of fillet mignon -- a 3% conversion rate of the calories in feed. (He specified that he was talking about muscle meat, not the leftover parts of the animal that are rendered.) What happens to the other 97% of the calories? It is wasted by this grossly inefficient calorie producer --  the cow. Only 15% of the the Midwest's grains are consumed by humans. "We throw away five-sixths of what we grow," he said. This isn't a rap on farmers, for they are doing precisely what the market or government signals them to do and are quite good at it. The question Folely was raising was whether the entire aparatus is the best way to produce calories for growing populations on a finate amount of land.

Now, I have, on occassion, enjoyed a good steak, but if was clear from his presentation that if the world feasted on steak, as growing numbers of people are doing, there would not be much of a world left. (He also noted that this equation would be different for a cow raised on pasture, since forage grasses cannot be directly consumed by humans. The measurements were less dire for dairy, eggs and poultry which are more efficient at converting feed to calories.) 

While farmers and researchers focus on improving yield, the entire equation is actually stacked against the efficient use of land because the process in the end is so wasteful. He noted that 10 percent of the world's cropland is in GMOs and yet even those yields have stagnated. And since these crops grow animal feed (corn and soybeans) and fiber (cotton), "they're not feeding the world's poor," he said.

Water is another wasted resource, with the differences in efficiency between Israel and India differing by 100-fold. Recall that highly efficient modern drip irrigation was developed in Israel because water is such a scarce resource.

Foley also noted that organic farming still represented a minute fraction of agricultural production, and suggested a middle way in which organic methods would be used but augmented by targeted use of chemical inputs, not unlike taking medicine when you're sick. The better path is to stay healthy, only relying on medicine when needed. He likened the modern model of agriculture to a constant IV drip, an apt metaphore considering the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.

"I want organic to be the default farming method if we can pull it off," he said, but he noted that no one has a monopoly on the discussion. Useful solutions will have to come from both conventional and organic methods (which I've seen in the adaptation of organic methods by conventional farmers because they can be cheap and effective). 

The bigger issue, though, is that forests are being razed to grow crops, especially in Brazil and Indonesia. This burning of forests is by far the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that agriculture emits -- and agriculture alone accounts for 30-40% of greenhouse gasses. Transport of food doesn't even come close. If this land is then used to grow soybeans, as it is in Brazil, these dramatic emissions are created in order to feed this inefficient livestock machine, which is another potent contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

So what might be a better use of land?

"Potatoes," said Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and its sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (I highly recommend both books) in another talk. Not only do potatoes produce more food calories per acre than wheat and corn, but unlike most of the corn crop, potatoes are also eaten by humans. That made me wonder whether diets could change enough to alter the current food paradigm. In the following slides, in which Mann laid out the globalization of food trade 400 years ago, it was clear they already had. Potatoes originating in Peru were the direct cause of Europe's early 19th century population boom, the Irish potato famine notwithstanding. The sweet potato even reached China, where it is now widely eaten. Staple diets, in other words, can and do change.

If Foley, though, was implicitly pointing to a more vegetarian diet, he did not explain how we would get there. That he gave us only two decades to fix the current dire state also left me scratching my head about how such rapid change could be achieved. I doubt whether people with the money will forgo a steak for a potato (they tend to want both), unless there is a dramatic reworking of incentives. But it was clear from Foley's talk that those sorts of cultural changes -- rather than simple agricultural science aimed at boosting yield -- will need to be part of the equation. "The choice is between the world we've had and the world that should be," he said. But he left open the question of how we will actually get there.

- Samuel Fromartz


Where yields fall short: in measuring sustainability (a response to @MarcGunther)

When measuring the productivity of farming, yield -- or output per acre of land -- is the metric that is often trotted out. And when this measure is used, organic farming usually falls short since it can’t match the yields of conventional agriculture. From there, it’s a short jump to conclude, as my friend Marc Gunther does, that organic methods will take more land to produce an equivalent amount of food, especially when population is increasing. The upshot, “organic food is not as green as you think.”

The problem with this argument is not that the yield calculations are wrong. The problem is that yield studies are inappropriate by themselves in measuring what’s “sustainable,” in determining what might “feed the world,” and which methods actually end up using more land in a particular situation. That’s because farming does not occur in a vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success.

Consider that the conventional farming methods that achieve higher yield require costly fossil fuel inputs in fertilizers and pesticides (the environmental impacts of which fall outside of yield studies), that they require highly mechanized tools that replace labor, and may rely on intensive irrigation from increasingly scarce water resources. Measured against the methods in most of the world -- 80% of the world’s workers are still farmers -- I have no doubt that the highly intensive model would produce a higher yield. But are those methods available or even appropriate to farmers in areas where food is most scarce and population growth the highest?

In some cases, those methods have proved disastrous, beause the technnology can’t be easily transposed from Iowa to Africa. One person who has looked closely at the issue, and who is also a conventional farmer in Illinois, the philantropist Howard Buffett, writes (pdf):

Commercial investment often focuses on increasing crop yields while governments emphasize expanded trade. The ultimate key to food security, however, is affordability and access to the proper food—neither approach has effectively addressed these issues in developing countries. The current situation mandates looking beyond crop productivity.

A narrow focus has dictated global agricultural policy over the past 30 years—it has failed, leaving millions hungry. Productivity in one part of the world cannot address land tenure, infrastructure, governance, investment protocol, culture, human capacity, research and development, gender disparity and a myriad other regional issues. Decisions and investments specific to individual countries—not the yields of another country half a world away—will always be the primary drivers of food security. (Emphasis added). 

As others have pointed out -- including the authors of the Nature study on which Gunther's post was based -- yield studies ignore two other imporant parameters: farmer livelihood and environmental impact, or the downstream effect of agriculture. If intensive agriculture pushes farmers off the land or leaves them indebted, what does that mean to livelihood? Of course, higher yields may produce more farm income -- except in situations where it does not.

I would add another consideration: that is, how appropriate and accessible are farming methods, especially when considering feeding the world. If the methods that produce the highest yield in Iowa are irrelevant in Zambia, does measuring relative yield even make sense? 

As just one small example, deforestation in Africa is a huge issue, since more land is cleared to plant crops. But as soil is depleted, fertilizers are used in ever larger amounts, contributing to even more intensive mining of the soil, loss of fertility and the burning of forests in the race for continued yields. In this situation, the question of which yield is higher, organic or conventional, is not even relevant. The question how can you achieve the highest yield without denuding the soil given methods that are accessible. Organic methods -- such as crop rotations, adding compost to the soil and even non-organic ones, such as judicious use of fertilizer -- might be best. But how does this fit into the what’s-the-highest-yield debate? It doesn’t, which shows the limitations of the question, even when considering the impact of farming on land use.

Indeed, this sole focus on yield takes on an almost religious ferver that drives attention from other issues that might raise yield far higher, such as addressing pre- and post-harvest food waste, which cuts productivity by up to 40%. Crack that nut and you will achieve more gains in efficiency and productivity than any improvement in farming could ever hope to offer -- and with technology that's currently available (think decent grain storage facilities, roads and transport). Yield by iself is too often relied upon as the sole yardstick to determine whether farming is "sustainable," will "feed the world," and is, in fact, green. To base decisions on that metric alone is myopic.  

A summer stop in Connecticut, The Dressing Room

image from Michel Nischan's a well-known guy in food circles, having launched a program through Wholesome Wave Foundation that cuts the price of farmers' markets by 50 percent for people in need.

They found -- surprise! -- that low-income people really want fresh fruits and veggies from local farms but the problem has been affordability and access. The foundation tackles this issue by doubling the value of federal food vouchers, or what used to be known as food stamps. On the back of the success at one farmers' market in Connecticut, they've now expanded the program to more than 30 states and gotten the attention of the White House.  

I had heard Nischan talk about this achievement a couple of times, then met up again at the Kneading Conference in Maine. Why was he there? Nischan says he got a wake-up call about whole grains after his son was diagnosed with diabetes and he began researching and changing the family's diet to include more veggies, fruit and grains. Then he brought that knowledge into restaurants he ran.

Now, in these talks, Nischan always mentions The Dressing Room, the restaurant that he co-founded with the actor Paul Newman in Westport, CT. He usually refers to it in passing, since it's not the subject of his talks. But I was always curious about it and since we were driving right through the area on a summer vacation I figured, hey, gotta try it. 

The place is casual, friendly and inviting -- I was in shorts, we took our young daughter - but don't let that handicap any preconceptions of the food. The menu is driven by what's seasonally available, from local farms and the sea. Nischan used to cook here, but now that he's devoting himself to the foundation executive chef Jon Vaast has stepped up. What I loved was his ability to serve something simple, such as plate of crunchy sauteed green beans at the peak of summer, alongside an earthy buckwheat pasta with lamb ragout. Nischan mentioned that the restaurant grinds the flour (yes, the freshness makes a difference, as I've found in grinding grains for my breadmaking). Vaast's special of the night was a braised pork shoulder which happily married rich tender slow-coooked pork with creamy fennel. This is a go-to dish, if they have it on the menu. I stuck with a spicy lobster and mussel stew that was a riff on Mediterranean soups. Think of the sea with a spicy kick.

Nischan sent out a few plates for us to taste and nothing fell flat. In fact, when the kitchen went deep into its reperatoire, as with the pork shoulder, it shined but the cooks also knew when to hold their punches and keep it simple, as with a tomato salad from Nischan's garden.

Maybe it's that kind of approach which led him to Wholesome Wave. Nischan knew that linking a restaurant with homegrown food would be a success -- just as Wholesome Wave understands that farm fresh produce would be enticing to anyone regardless of income. The only difference? I'd make a reservation for The Dressing Room.

- Samuel Fromartz

Let me just say it, buy this book: "Tomatoland"

image from

Over the past few years, a slew of food books have appeared on everything from oysters to oranges, Twinkies to beans. Heck, I'm even writing one about grains and bread, which explains my relative absence here recently. But in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook takes what might appear to be a narrow subject -- tomatoes, grown in Florida -- and spins it into a much bigger and disturbing tale (or more accurately, indictment).

You might not know, for example, that these tomatoes are grown in nearly sterile sand devoid of anything resembling soil, thus requiring copious amounts of fertilizers and toxic pesticides; or that these pesticides have been doused on workers, causing pregnant farmworkers to give birth to babies without arms or legs and leading to multimillion-dollar lawsuits. Or that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of the industry, has become ground zero for contemporary cases of slavery. 

It might be easy to go overboard and bludgeon this story to death with a heavy handed "J'accuse!" but thankfully Estabrook is too good a writer to fall prey to such tendencies. Instead, he lets the details speak for themselves and they prove devastating. I will not forget the quote he gets out of the US Attorney prosecuting these cases of enslaved tomato pickers, asserting that anyone who has eaten a winter tomato from Florida has eaten fruit picked by a slave. "That's not an assumption," the prosecutor says, "that's a fact."

Estabrook told a version of this tale in the now-shuttered Gourmet magazine, but here he has the room to dig deeper. Some magazine stories when expanded in books look like fabric that has been stretched way too thin, but that's not the case here. There was obviously more digging to do, and amazingly, the stories didn't seem hard to find. They just kept coming because the abuse was so widespread. Estabrook has chosen well, citing, for example, court depositions in which well-meaning tomato company executives, when pressed to explain the pesticide poisoning incidents, tie themselves up in semantic knots.

Thankfully, though, Estabrook doesn't leave us to swear off tomatoes forever and tells how the industry has, with much cajoling, lawsuits, industry pressure, boycotts and highly publicized stories of abuse, finally begun to get its act together. He also spends time with these growers who appear like the eager entrepreneurs they are -- perhaps too eager to be all that concerned about the messy details of their business. 

He also presents alternatives, not only in new tastier tomato breeds the industry has sworn off, but in different methods of tomato farming such as organic. Then there are the social improvements in areas like farmworker housing. Of course, the growers will always claim that anything which raises costs will simply push production overseas, or in this case, to Mexico, where it will take another Estabrook to uncover other abuses. But I would imagine that consumers might actually want a U.S. tomato, even from Florida, especially if it wasn't the product of slavery. It might take a Madison Avenue whiz to craft that into a marketing message, however.

If I have a quibble with the book, it's this: the slavery abuses were largely carried out by contractors, who were also immigrants. The behavior was obviously condoned by the tomato companies -- it was too flagrant not to be -- but it wasn't entirely clear what drove these contractors to act this way. Was it simply their twisted version of the American Dream in a community where laws were ignored? Just getting ahead any way they could? Or were they part of a larger criminal enterprise (it appears they were, loosely). It was just a question that lingered.

Now, you might think this isn't the best book to read on your summer vacation, sitting on the beach or in the country thinking about what you're going to eat in the evening. But I would beg to differ. The book is a great yarn. I devoured it in all of two days. More importantly, it will make you think about all the choices we make in how we produce the food we eat. And you'll never think of a tomato as "just a tomato" again.

- Samuel Fromartz

How to eat seafood

The other day a friend told me she had stopped eating seafood, since it wasn't a "sustainable" choice. I replied by mentioning that many species were actually well managed and the best thing to do was to choose the right ones -- that way you help to shift the market a bit in the right direction.

As Barton Seaver writes in his new cookbook, For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking:

So why eat seafood at all, you might ask? Because if we don't, then we will lose a vital and necessary part of our diet. We would put even more hardworking communities out of work. We would lose control over the fisheries that we do have a chance to manage well. We would lose our chance to encourage the restoration of ecosystms. The compelling narrative of conservation is a story of responsible consumption. 

My only quibble there might be with the word, "necessary." But for those who do choose to eat fish, Seaver is right. There are ample resources, such as Seafood Watch's wallet card and iPhone and Android apps, to help you make the right choices. Valuable books like Seaver's show in great detail just how many wonderful dishes can be made with sustainable fish. 

It's not a hard sell. In Washington, I organized a sustainable seafood buying club for 17 families in which we buy fish direct from fishermen. The only requirement is that the fish must be sustainable. It's a bit of work arranging shipments but I've found the quality unmatched, and the price very competitive. (Next up, oysters, I think from the mid-Atlantic region).

While these choices may be confusing to the average consumer, supermarkets in the US and aboard are offering better choices and removing those species that are overfished or in decline. (Whole Foods even tags their fish as best, good, and avoid, based on the health of the fishery). 

Finally, there are notable events such as Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions, held annually, which draws thousands to cooking demos, talks, and an evening sampling of sustainable fish at a gala fundraiser. I highly recommend it.

Not to be outdone, though, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington held a smaller and more intimate affair just last night focusing on The Gulf and its Seafood: One Year Later. Many area chefs were on hand, including Seaver with a salted cod sampler (Atlantic cod was recently upgraded to a "good alternative"), Hank's Oyster Bar, with its superlative lobster roll (yes, lobster is in ample supply and sustainable), and many others with dozens of creative concoctions, including those made with Gulf seafood which has been deemed safe following the Big Spill. It's the stealth seafood event in Washington and is going on my calendar next year as well. My only quibble -- a day-long companion oceans conference would be a fantastic resource for writers and journalists like me, but I only found out about it after the fact.

But here's the main thing. If you like seafood, it is not difficult to make a sustainable choice. It may even be staring right at you in the supermarket: like whole rainbow trout, for example. I like to grill this fish, maybe three minutes a side, over a medium fire. If you have doubts about when it's done, gently poke it open with a knife -- the fish should be starting to flake and turning white. Don't overcook it! Squeeze a bit of lemon on it when it's done. Sprinkle it with salt. You can do a lot of fancier things, but with seafood I find fast and easy is often the best.

- Samuel Fromartz

In China, censored report shows political elite get special access to organic food

Although organic food from China has gotten a bad rap lately, apparently it's not too good for top party officials. A friend sent a link to this dispatch, which shows that top Chinese government officials have access to food from special organic farms, as well as farms tested for water quality and chemical residues. The report, from the paper Southern Weekend, was pulled from its web site by authorities shortly after it appeared and other Chinese media were ordered not to reprint it. 

Here's how the report from the paper Southern Weekend begins:

Surrounded by two-metre high walls and watched over by five security guards, the “customs shed” would be a struggle to find without the help of local people. You would be even less likely to realise that it supplies vegetables for Beijing’s customs authorities. The site – full name Beijing Customs Vegetable Farm and Country Club – covers 200 mu of land (around 130,000 square metres) in the outlying Beijing district of Shunyi.

According to an informed source, the farm has been working with the Beijing customs authority, its sole customer, for 10 years. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, a customs truck comes to the farm to pick up a load of at least several thousand kilograms of produce.

This is just one of many examples of food being produced specifically for government use. Southern Weekend understands that the customs authorities are not the only department to have a farm in Shunyi, and that some provincial level departments also source their food this way.

These foods, grown to government order, are genuinely green, and safety is put first....



Forget the wedding, Prince Charles delivers remarkable talk on food and farming

image from
I've known for a long time that Britain's Prince Charles had an organic farm. What I did not appreciate was the depth and breadth of his understanding of food and agricultural issues which were on full display at Wednesday's Future of Food Conference in DC

In the speech, which I recommend reading in its entirety, he said that "over the past thirty years I have been venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking about the future of food. I have all the scars to prove it. Questioning the conventional world view is a risky business." 

He then laid out his central concerns about the sustainability of food production for an ever growing world and the dependence of the current industrial model on shrinking resources. 

We find ourselves in ... a system heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and other forms of diminishing natural capital – mineral fertilizers and so on. Most forms of industrialized agriculture now have an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources. One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day! And when you consider that in the past decade the cost of artificial nitrogen fertilizers has gone up fourfold and the cost of potash three times, you start to see how uncomfortable the future could become if we do not wean ourselves off our dependency. And that’s not even counting the impact of higher fuel prices on the other costs of production – transport and processing – all of which are passed on to the consumer. It is indeed a vicious circle.

Then add the supply of land into the equation – where do we grow all of the extra plants or graze all that extra stock when urban expansion is such a pressure? Here in the United States I am told that one acre is lost to development every minute of every day – which means that since 1982 an area the size of Indiana has been built over – though that is small fry compared with what is happening in places like India where, somehow, they have to find a way of housing another three hundred million people in the next thirty years. But on top of this is the very real problem of soil erosion.

Again, in the U.S., soil is being washed away ten times faster than the Earth can replenish it, and it is happening forty times faster in China and India. Twenty-two thousand square miles of arable land is turning into desert every year and, all told, it appears a quarter of the world’s farmland, two billion acres, is degraded.

Given these pressures, it seems likely we will have to grow plants in more difficult terrain. But the only sustainable way to do that will be by increasing the long term fertility of the soil, because, as I say, achieving increased production using imported, non-renewable inputs is simply not sustainable.

He went on to talk about the alternative.

So what is a “sustainable food production” system? We should be very clear about it, or else we will end up with the same system that we have now, but dipped in “green wash.” For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity of its local ecosystem and which recognizes that the soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource. Top soil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations. It acts as a buffer against drought and as a carbon sink and it is the primary source of the health of all animals, plants and people. If we degrade it, as we are doing, then Nature’s capital will lose its innate resilience and it won’t be very long, believe you me, before our human economic capital and economic systems also begin to lose their resilience.

It was that last point that was especially striking, because he linked the natural capital inherent in an ecologic system with the extractive economic capital that has driven agribusiness. The former shouldn't be sacrificed for the latter -- and in fact, ecological models should be rewarded.

This all depends upon us deepening our understanding of the relationship between food, energy, water and economic security, and then creating policies which reward producers who base their farming systems on these principles. Simply because, if we do not consider the whole picture and take steps with the health of the whole system in mind, not only will we suffer from rising food prices, we will also see the overall resilience of our economies and, in some instances, our ecological and social systems too, becoming dangerously unstable.

A glimmer of that instability was evident recently, as a result of rising food prices. But the issues are far more wide-reaching than a momentary (one hopes) spike in prices. And on that score, it was refreshing to hear another side of the debate that too often is drowned out by a monoculture of interests favoring the status quo.

Addendum: In the wake of his remarks, Prince Charles was criticized for talking about sustainability while riding around in a motorcade and living the life of, well, a royal. It's rather pathetic when these eighth-grade level arguments are rolled out. It would be like calling Bill Gates a hypocrite for devoting his billions to philanthropy, while living in a mansion. For a more subtle and highly recommended take on these issues click over to Paula Crossfield's piece "Elitism Is Dead" on Civil Eats.

A short video of Prince Charles' remarks are here

Image source: The Daily Mail

- Samuel Fromartz

Food for thought - recent links

Tom Philpott, Grist: A USDA researcher has linked to colony collapse disorder in bees to Bayer's neonicotinoid pesticides, though other factors contribute to it. The pesticides are used extensively on corn, which covers a quarter of the nation's cropland.

Mark Bittman, NYTimes: His columns have become a must read, with this one warning about the effects of carbon emissions on the oceans. At the same time, he points out that the U.S. has made strides in controlling its catch -- something which can't be said globally. 

Greenpeace: Related to Bittman's piece, the Seafood sustainability report (pdf)  from Greenpeace rating supermarkets is worth a look. Safeway took top honors though it opined that Whole Foods would probably rise in the rankings once it eliminates red-listed species, as it plans to do in a phase-out plan.  Overall 15 of 20 retailers had passing grades.

Barry Estabrook: Politics of the Plate takes a look at the recent suit filed by organic groups, seed companies and farmers against Monsanto over genetic drift.

WaPo: In a long, drawn-out Beer Madness tasting of 64 beers, a WaPo panel ends up naming this winning beer: Exit 4 American Trippel from Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, N.J. All I know about Exit 4 is that we pass it on on the Turnpike on the way to NYC. Guess we'll have to stop now.

David Chang's new iPad app Lucky Peach. We saw the buzz in the NY Times and Bon Appetit but where the heck is the thing? An iTunes search comes up empty. The ramen awaits.

- Samuel Fromartz



GMOs and the myth of feeding the world

With food prices hitting record highs, people are rioting and political regimes are crumbling. We can only imagine what it will be like when the global population rises to nine billion in 2050 from just under seven billion now. More riots, more deforestation, more hunger, more revolutions? How are these people going to be fed? The unequivocal answer we so often hear: biotechnology.

Let's ignore for the moment the cause of rising food prices, which has been attributed to everything from bad weather and poor harvests to higher oil prices that push up the cost of fertilizers, the rise of biofuels, even commodity index funds (which are bidding up futures, though I'm skeptical they are leading the parade). The thing I get hung up on is the "nine billion." It makes a great sound bite but what's behind the figure?

So far the vast resources of commercial biotechnology have gone to commodity crops such as corn and soybeans (and soon alfalfa). The majority ends up as animal feed, and thus meat, which is the least efficient way to produce calories. Meat also happens to be available to the richest people, not the poorest. So, we haven't really used GMOs to "feed the world." Instead we've used them bring down the cost of industrial meat production and incentivize a transition to a meat-centric diet. The loss of calories that result from feeding grains to animals instead of humans represents the annual calorie needs of more than 3.5 billion people, according to the UN Environmental Program. In short, GMOs arguably are making matters worse by fueling the production of more animal feed and food-competing biofuels. 

Be that as it may, we're still stuck with the nine billion problem. Population is like compounding interest, with small changes producing big results down the road. So the growth rate is hugely important and it doesn't always do what's expected. National Geographic had an interesting take on this, showing that the argument popular in the 1960s about a "population bomb" largely turned out to be a fiction. By the early 1970s, fertility rates around the world had begun dropping faster than anyone had anticipated. Since then, the population growth rate has fallen by more than 40 percent.

In industrialized countries it took generations for fertility to fall to the replacement level or below. As that same transition takes place in the rest of the world, what has astonished demographers is how much faster it is happening there. ...

“The problem has become a bit passé,” Hervé Le Bras (a French demographer) says. Demographers are generally confident that by the second half of this century we will be ending one unique era in history—the population explosion—and entering another, in which population will level out or even fall.

This is why numbers are important. On that score, Andrew Revkin had an interesting exchange on the dot earth blog at the Times that showed a range of opinion on what it would take to "feed the world." Revkin's post noted that Douglas Southgate, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, "argues that a low growth scenario for population, leading to just under 8 billion people by 2050, could see a 26-percent drop in food prices even with substantial rise in consumption." This is considered the low-range for 2050, but considering how off the mark Malthusians were in the past, it shouldn't be entirely discounted.

But, let's say, we do get to nine billion. The impact on resources, it turns out, depends a lot on what we eat. Vaclav Smil, a University of Manitoba analyst, pointed out to Revkin "a menu of possible food lifestyles," which for a world of nine billion meant either bountiful supplies or scarcity.  Here's the spectrum: 

1) eating enough to survive with reduced lifespans (Ethiopia),

2) eating enough to have some sensible though limited choices and to live near-full lifespans when considering other (hygienic, health care) circumstances (as in the better parts of India today),

3) having more than enough of overall food energy but still a limited choice of plant foods and only a healthy minimum of animal foods and live close to or just past 70 (China of the late 1980s and 1990s),

4) not wanting more carbohydrates and shifting more crop production and imports to [livestock] feed, not food, to eat more animals products, having overall some 3,000 kcal/capita a day and living full spans (China now),

5) having gross surpluses of everything, total supply at 3,500-3,700 kcal/day, eating too much animal protein, wasting 35-40% of all food, living record life spans, getting sick (U.S. and E.U. today).

Obviously, we want to avoid option one and two, as much as possible. Option three and four would mean one billion people who lack enough food today would be better off. But Smil says, "The world eating between levels 3-4 would not know what to do with today’s food." In other words, we have enough already.  But, he also adds, "the world at 5 is impossible." Nor is it desirable, considering the obesity crisis and health risks.

So really, the question isn't how will we feed nine billion by 2050? The question is how many people will we really have and what will they be eating? 

Poverty of course plays a big role in both these issues because, as Juergen Voegele, director, agriculture and rural development, the World Bank, pointed out to Revkin: "We already have close to one billion people who go hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it." 

Raising incomes, or course, is a difficult nut -- one that doesn't succumb to a solution hatched in a lab. But more income means better-educated families, and even declining population growth. The flip side, though, is that rising incomes are also associated with higher meat consumption, which can get us closer to option five on Smil's lifestyle if we are not careful. So the best case: to raise incomes and to incentivize less resource-intensive food consumption. 

But we don't need to become vegans to save the world (which would doom us even if we did because so few would go along). In many developing countries, such an approach would amount to culinary imperialism, given the importance of meat for both income generation, the result of having a cow or goat or two, and as a source of much-needed calories for children from milk and scant meat. Never mind the use of manure to grow crops. We're not talking about factory farms here, but animals that play a central role in cultures and livelihoods.

As the Nat Geo article concluded:

... it will be a hard thing for the planet if ... people are eating meat and driving gasoline-powered cars at the same rate as Americans now do. It’s too late to keep the new middle class of 2030 from being born; it’s not too late to change how they and the rest of us will produce and consume food and energy.

- Samuel Fromartz

Worldwatch report highlights the lopsided discussion on Africa and food

image from

Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia for a project for Worldwatch. State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, released Wednesday, focuses on many projects that were highly effective in both feeding people and raising incomes in Africa. Much of this work was chronicled on Nourishing the Planet blog, as researcher Danielle Nierenberg logged thousands of miles criss-crossing the continent meeting with farmers, researchers, NGOs and government officials. 

It was a refreshing perspective because so much of the discussion about agriculture in Africa focuses on production. Plant more. Increase yield. Improve seed technology. But there is really no silver bullet when it comes to food production and access and the relentless focus on technology ends up being lopsided and incomplete -- as I saw in Zambia.

image from nation  produces more than enough food, much of it by small-scale farmers without tractors, irrigation or any form of transportation. But this excess food ends up rotting in warehouses and causes price crashes when it hits the market -- good for buyers but dismal for small-scale farmers who depend on these sales for their meagre income. Even so, some areas of the country still suffer from malnutrition and shortages. Why? There are many reasons, inadequate roads and supply networks among them, since it isn't always easy to get the food from areas where it is surplus to areas where it is in short supply. In this reality, hi-tech seeds are the least of the nation's problems. And yet, on op-ed pages, that often seems to be the focus of discussion.

How come we hardly see op-eds on what paved roads, improved sanitation, more efficient distribution networks, soil conservation and a reduction in food waste might do for world hunger? Fifteen percent of the grain harvest is wasted in poorer countries, according to a researcher quoted in this report.  Even cutting that in half would amount to an enormous yield gain. The Worldwatch report attempts to jump-start this discussion by addressing these issues. I sought to do the same in my chapter:

The Missing Links: Going Beyond Production

When people talk about African agriculture, food surpluses are not usually the focus of discussion. Invariably, the more familiar topics are famine, starvation, deforestation, and the vast inability of a continent to feed itself, which is brought home by the latest food crisis.

That’s why the headlines in Lusaka, Zambia, in May 2010, were so surprising, announcing a stunning bumper crop of maize. On the back of fertilizer subsidies and propitious rains, production by the nation’s 800,000 maize farmers had rocketed 48 percent to the highest level in 22 years. This boom came after a 31-percent rise the previous year. Now speculation was mounting about a crash in maize prices, especially during the dry June-August period. “A tidal wave of maize will be hitting the market,” predicted Rob Munro, a senior market development advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Lusaka.

In the cities, the focus was on the price of mealie meal, the porridge-like staple made from ground maize, and whether millers would pass on savings or fatten their profit margins. The government was fretting about what to do with all this food. Zambia had a 600,000-ton surplus from the 2009 harvest, some of which was still sitting in warehouses. And now on top of that, it would reap a 1.1 million–ton surplus for 2010. Exports were uncertain, because of sporadic trade restrictions. Plus, the crop was uncompetitive with South African maize, the low-cost producer in the region.

Zambia was growing so much food that the food itself had become an issue. Yet, it was also an unequivocal success. Zambian farmers had produced more than enough maize and done so without genetically modified crops or even, for the most part, irrigation and mechanized farm equipment. But further development raised a number of questions: If farmers actually modernized and improved their yields, would the surplus be even greater, dwarfing any political ability to deal with this bounty? And why were people still facing chronic hunger and childhood stunting in a country where the food was in oversupply?

The rest of the chapter addresses this issue, but it was clear from even my short stay in Zambia that a lack of agro-technology was not the most pressing issue faced by the nation's farmers. From those I talked with, it hardly seemed on the radar screen in terms of what needed to be addressed. Ignoring technology can be disastrous, but focusing on it out of context, and without regard to a host of related concerns, can be just as perilous since it suggests that food insecurity can be solved with a silver bullet. Only problem is silver bullets can't be eaten. 

- Samuel Fromartz