Tom Philpott’s take on the recent NYT GMO article by Amy Harmon

Tom Philpott has been a solid source of cogent writing about a range of food and agriculture issues, and yesterday, on Facebook, he shared his comments on Amy Harmon’s piece in the New York Times that’s been attracting a lot of attention, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops“. (The focus of Harmon’s article is Hawaii’s ban on genetically engineered crops.)

I’m grateful for Tom’s permission to share his comments, which I’ve copied below. Tom wrote:

Here’s my fast-and-dirty comment on that Amy Harmon piece (below) on GMOs lots of people are talking about.

I agree that the food-safety issue is likely overblown. But I think Harmon is looking at this question from a pretty skewed frame. Recently she did a big piece on a possible GM solution to an awful pathogen attacking citrus production globally. This one is on a ban on GMOs on a Hawaiian island that grows one GM crop—papayas engineered to resist a virus—and that one crop is exempted from the ban. Meanwhile, well more than 90 percent of actually existing GMOs concern two traits—herbicide resistance and insect resistance—and a handful of crops (maize, soy, cotton, and lately sugar beets and alfalfa). I don’t jave time to dig up the USDA’s pipeline of GMO products under review for deregulation, but I can assure you that they are almost all herbicide/insecticide related.

Both of those traits are breaking down in the field, under the weight of monocropping and simple evolution. It turns out that when you lash millions of contiguous acres of crops with a single herbicide—Monsanto’s Roundup—some weeds survive and pass their genes on. Then you get an accelerating pesticide treadmill—higher doses, and more and ever more poisonous varieties, of herbicides requited to control weeds—and weeds that evolve to resist multiple hebicides The same is happening with Monsanto’s Bt corn—engineered to express the pest-killing trait of the bacteria Bt. A certain corn pest has evolved resistance to those seeds, and farmers are responding by dramatically increasing their pesticide applications. It’s stating a fact, and not conspiracy mongering, to note that the same companies that own these seed markets also dominate the pesticide market.

On Friday, the USDA signaled its intention to approve a new GM seed, this one from Dow (in cahoots with Monsanto), that would withstand not only Roundup, but also a highly toxic herbicide called 2,4-D. A 2011 study from Penn State researchers predicted that new products would lead weeds to develop resistance to both herbicides (some already have–farmers have upped 2,4-d use in recent years) and lead to another upswing in herbicide use. Friday’s announcement generated far less discussion than Harmon’s piece, but it will have many times the real-world impact of that ban in Hawaii. Within a few years, it’s conceivable that a land mass around the size of California could be blanketed in 2,4-d corn and soy. Not great news if you live in the midwest and like to drink tap water.

But what about so-called complex traits—say, the ability to use nitrogen or water more efficiently? As climate change proceeds apace, it will be extremely important to use less water and nitrogen in food production. But not for lack of trying, GM seeds containing these traits have not emerged in any real way, and likely won’t: There’s no one gene that triggers those traits. Plants use nitrogen and water in complex ways, in biological systems that have evolved over millions of years.

Happily, there are ways to use water and fertilizer more wisely, but they involve farmer knowledge, or appropriate technology, much more than patented technology. See this piece:

The real question to ask isn’t: are GMOs safe? It’s: What kind of ag do we need as we head into climate change and another 50 percent rise in population—and what place to GMOs have? Examined thoroughly and not distracted by corporate talking points, the answer that emerges is, I think, not zero, but pretty marginal. Here’s the Union of Concerned Scientists’ top two ag people on just that question:

Side note: The reason that GMOs are so controversial in Hawaii has little to do with papayas. It’s that the seed companies own huge tracts of land and develop their seed strains there, because the climate allows for three growing seasons per year. And those crops include the herbicide-sucking ones discussed above. Here’s the NYT, 2011

“Over the past decade, the five major companies that dominate the world seed industry have starkly increased their operations in Hawaii, where they have long tested experimental biotech crops. Rushing into a void created by the collapse of the islands’ sugar cane and pineapple plantations, the firms are buying and leasing prime farmland to, in large part, grow corn seed.

“Growing on limited acres, the seed farms are now Hawaii’s largest agricultural sector, valued at $223 million last year — worth more than sugar cane, coffee or pineapple. The companies have hired the plantations’ former workforce and begun currying favor with state agriculture officials. In many ways, they have stepped into the leading, and sometimes domineering role, once played by the islands’ sugar barons.

“‘They’ve become as strong a force as what sugar cane once was,’ said Carol Okada, manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch. ‘They’ve replaced essentially sugar cane and pineapple.'”

Anyone looking for the broad historical context of this debate should read Nick Cullather’s book on the Green Revolution, The Hungry World. I reviewed it here: and David Reiff, here:

Yale 2013 Chubb Lecture with Wendell Berry

The Yale Sustainable Food Project has shared the video of the 2013 Chubb Lecture by Wendell Berry, recorded in New Haven on 6 December 2013. One could do far worse than listen to or read Wendell Berry once a week; his clear writing is both therapeutic and provocative.

“There are only so many changes you can make as a consumer. Then you have to become a citizen.”

The Edible Education class at UCal Berkeley with Eric Schlosser, Greg Asbed, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was pointed, provocative, and inspiring. But my takeaway point came from Schlosser who said: “There are only so many changes you can make as a consumer. Then you have to become a citizen.”

So I was pleased to see this piece on the SFGate (though its appearance on Christmas Day seems designed to make it read by as few people as possible). Quoting Schlosser:

…the food movement can get sidetracked into wealthy, upper-middle-class people caring about food as status, caring about food as pleasure. I’m a huge supporter of animal welfare, but the compassion for the abuse of animals is so much more excessive, I think, than for low-wage workers in this country.

This isn’t a question of either/or, but both: How to grow, sell, prepare, and share food in ways that are based in respect. It’s about respect for the environment, for the people who work all along the food spectrum, and for the people who consume the food.

RIP, Charlie Trotter

“I did a mathematical calculation,” [Trotter] said. “If I live to the average life expectancy of the American male — 78.9 — and I consume one bottle of wine every day, I should consume the last bottle on my last day on this planet.”

Sadly, that calculation, made in early 2012, was off by too many years.

I had the pleasure of dining at Charlie Trotter’s late in 1996. One of my dearest friends and frequent dining partners arranged our reservation as my farewell dinner, days before I moved from Chicago to San Francisco. In some respects the entire evening was dizzying: the food, the wine, the service, the ambience, and the bittersweet feelings…it was a dinner I’ll never forget for many reasons. And now one more.

Charlie Trotter, famed Chicago chef, found dead in home (Chicago Tribune)

Do you really want to eat a food substitute named “Soylent”?

TechCrunch reports on a food substitute—Soylent—that’s just raised $1.5 million in seed funding.

[Rhinehart] gave it the self-deprecating name Soylent — after the dystopian movie Soylent Green where Charlton Heston discovers that society has been living off rations made of humans.

First thought: Has TechCrunch been taken over by The Onion?

To be clear, Rhinehart’s version of Soylent is not made of humans.

Well, whew.

It contains a mix of carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins and dozens of other vitamins that are deemed medically necessary by the Institute of Medicine for a person to live. They will release a full nutrient list in December, but you can see working versions of it on Rhinehart’s blog.

Rhinehart’s vision is to create an inexpensive, fully nutritious and ubiquitous food source that any regular person can find anywhere — even in grocery and convenience stores around the world. It would be something that would compete against the cheap snack, junk and fast foods that are everywhere around us.

Seems like a reasonable idea, but then there’s this:

There are 50 or so beta testers that have been mostly living off Soylent for the last several months. While there haven’t been any major health issues with the beta testers so far, no one fully understands the long-term implications of switching their diet mostly or exclusively to Soylent.

Even putting aside those potential long-term implications I’m trying to find the pleasure in this. The conviviality of a shared meal. The anticipation from preparation. (Just typing this I’m thinking about the wonderful aromas of the braises I’m looking forward to making as the weather gets cooler.)

On the versatility of children’s tastes

From the New York Times’ Motherlode column, stories about children of American parents who have no difficulty adapting to—and preferring—the cuisines of the countries where they eat when young:

A typical day of dining in our home goes something like this: I put out a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast but my son devours my housekeeper’s sticky rice and fried chicken instead. He goes to preschool with his Thai friends and noshes on eggs in brown soup with pork and rice. When I pick him up, the teacher tells me he had two helpings … again.

This doesn’t mean that one has to move abroad to give a child a more varied taste education. Children are often more curious and broad-minded than we give them credit for, whether at home or away.

Water-quality issues and fish farming

Keeping up with the demands for fish and shellfish (especially shrimp) means corners get cut. Via Bloomberg, these details:

About 27 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from China—and the shipments that the FDA checks are frequently contaminated, the FDA has found. The agency inspects only about 2.7 percent of imported food. Of that, FDA inspectors have rejected 1,380 loads of seafood from Vietnam since 2007 for filth and salmonella, including 81 from Ngoc Sinh, agency records show. The FDA has rejected 820 Chinese seafood shipments since 2007, including 187 that contained tilapia.

How Oreos Work Like Cocaine

We examined the nucleus accumbens,” Schroeder explained to me, “which is the brain’s pleasure center. We measured the expression of a protein there [c-Fos]. So it basically tells whether that brain center is being turned on or not in response to a behavior. And we found that there was a greater number of neurons that were activated in the brain’s pleasure center in animals that were conditioned to Oreos compared to animals that were conditioned to cocaine [or morphine].

Given the addictive power of opiates, this is impressive, but I had to laugh: Given the level of Oreo consumption in our home at certain points in my youth, I suspect my father could have come to this conclusion without the lab rat study.

Don’t expect pumpkin in your pumpkin spiced latte

One ingredient that is conspicuously absent from the list is pumpkin. Nope, there’s not a drop.

I don’t understand the attraction to these seasonal beverages, unless its the desire to drink your dessert while pretending you’re not. But even so…if I’m going to have a pumpkin spiced anything at this time of the year, I’d like there to be pumpkin, and spices, in it.

And then there’s this:

Most people could never guess just how much sugar it contains: 12 teaspoons of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar in an entire day and for men it’s nine. Those 12 teaspoons are more sugar than the average person should consume in a two-day period. …

And that’s great for McDonald’s, because after downing its 340 liquid calories, you’re likely to be hungry. If you opted for a “healthier” choice at McDonald’s and ate the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal, you’d be consuming another 32 grams of sugar. That means, in one meal, you have taken in the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar, or the equivalent amount of sugar found in three entire Snicker’s bars.

Think McDonald’s is committed to healthier offerings? Think again.

“Anyone who averts his eyes from the hopeless lives many of our fellow citizens lead and tells himself and others that these men and women only have themselves to blame, is either a fool or a soulless bastard.”

Blunt talk from Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books:

…one can start with what happened to food stamps in Congress, the so-called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that goes to 47 million Americans every month, almost half of them children and teenagers. Some of those benefits, approved in 2009, will be terminated on October 31. With fuel prices expected to increase this winter, this means, for many families in cold states, choosing between staying warm and having enough to eat.

Food law and policy effect everyone: Those of us fortunate to eat three square meals a day, and those who aren’t sure whether there will be one meal tomorrow, let alone three.

Should you eat chicken?

Mark Bittman considers this question, which has just become even more reasonable in light of the way the salmonella outbreak from Foster Farms-processed chickens has been handled by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

For those who haven’t been following this story in food safety channels, the contamination has been identified as salmonella Heidelberg, which, as Bittman notes, is “virulent, nasty, and resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.”

The CDC reports 317 cases, and 42% of those have required hospitalization.

In the midst of one of the most productive ag regions, widespread hunger

California’s Central Valley is a major source of produce for the country, yet the number of hungry residents, and the poor food choices available to them, make it a leader in all the wrong ways (hunger, diabetes, obesity). Also important is the information about the challenges facing regional food banks.

“So you think you don’t like anchovies?”

If you’re in this category, Nancy Silverton sets out to change your mind and offers several basic recipes. And if you’re already a fan, these are still recipes worth noting.

The chef-ingredient (and sometimes chef-technique) pieces from the Los Angeles Times Master Class series are really quite good, and worth looking for (or searching for, if you have a subscription and aren’t limited in the number of website pages you can view per month).

the last tomato of the season

lasttomatoAfter it seemed all the fruit was finished and the leaves were turning brown and crinkly a little tomato appeared. It ripened after most of the season’s cleanup was complete. And it will be eaten tonight, possibly with “Hang on Little Tomato” by Pink Martini playing in the background. Another tomato season comes to a close.

Keep Food Legal demands information

Keep Food Legal has announced its filing of lawsuits demanding disclosure of information related to an array of New York City municipal laws and regulations:

The information we have sought under FOIL but have been so far unable to obtain—since our first filings, made on June 27, 2012—consists of materials related to the development of New York City’s most restrictive food laws and regulations, including the city’s trans fat ban; mandatory menu labeling law; restaurant letter grade system; ban on providing food meant for the homeless and less fortunate; restrictions on urban gardens and farmers markets; and currently enjoined soda ban. Keep Food Legal also requested information pertaining to proposals in the city—reported in the popular press and elsewhere—to limit salt or sodium in foods; restrict tavern licenses and happy hours; adopt so-called “Meatless Mondays;” and crack down on food trucks.

and they’re doing this to

… force the Bloomberg administration to disclose to us information about the basis of many of its food policies—and the people and groups that have influenced that policymaking. Keep Food Legal hopes to review and publicize that information in order to raise public awareness about how New York City makes food policy and which people and groups have influenced that policymaking.

This will be interesting.

Copies of their filings are available online: v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and v. Office of the Mayor of the City of New York.