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Here’s what happens when GMO antagonists get together for a friendly chat

Grist / iStockphoto

In the days leading up to a panel discussion on GMOs put on by Climate One, I started getting nervous. I was slated to appear with Rob Fraley, head of technology for Monsanto; organic rice farmer Jessica Lundberg; and Andy Kimbrell, head of the Center for Food Safety. Monsanto has a hard-driving reputation, obviously, and when I’d last heard Kimbrell speak in person he’d been a veritable machine gun of tweet-worthy sound bites condemning industrial agriculture.

This was likely to be trench warfare, I thought, and I’d be in stuck in the middle, crawling through the barbed wire, with live fire rattling overhead.

But that’s not how it turned out. If anything the panelists were cordial to a fault, talking past each other and avoiding points of disagreement. Well, let me avoid false equivalence here: Kimbrell got his licks in (though more delicately than usual), and Lundberg was straightforward and clear (but she didn’t get much time to talk); Monsanto's Fraley stayed on message rather than taking up the debate.


Chicken tender offer

A meat giant gobbles up another meat giant

Tanya Patrice

We live in the era of meat mergers. In recent decades animal-farming companies, gobbling up competitors, became giants. Then those giants merged. Now, a meat titan is coming back for seconds.

The New York Times is reporting that Tyson has been successful in its hostile-takeover bid for Hillshire Brands. Measured in dollars, the $6.1 billion purchase is the largest consolidation in the industry ever -- though other mergers have meant more when measured in terms of impact on farmers and consumers.

Anti-trust experts say the deal won’t create an illegal monopoly, according to Reuters, because the two companies don’t directly compete. Hillshire is in the business of selling meat to us: It owns Jimmy Dean (sausages), Ball Park (hot dogs), Sara Lee, Aidells, and others, controlling 32 percent of the breakfast sausage market, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tyson is in the business of producing meat: It owns slaughterhouses and packing plants -- though it also sells to eaters.


The Milkweed Factor

Blame industrial ag for those monarch butterfly declines

Randy Robertson

I've written before on the connection between modern farming techniques -- especially the widespread use of glyphosate associated with genetically engineered crops -- and the precipitous decline of monarch butterflies.

But we've never known for sure exactly what was driving the butterfly deaths. The top suspects were climate change, logging in Mexico, and the aforementioned advances in ag. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology suggests that the primary culprit is farming. Farmers are doing such a good job of eliminating weeds from their fields that they've wiped out most of the milkweed that monarchs depend upon.


Mmmm! Doughnuts. Not-mmmm: Palm oil

Lisa Bunchofopants

Since June 6 is National Doughnut Day, let’s start with a definition. Doughnut: An ineffectively slow means of killing oneself to end the torture of interminable office meetings.

But it turns out that doughnuts are so much more efficient than I assumed, because they are coated with palm oil. Palm oil is often the second ingredient, after flour. Which means that, in addition to killing you, they also kill orangutans and tigers, while emitting tons of greenhouse gases!

Actually this may have started when doughnut makers were trying to kill you a little less. Doughnuts used to be fried in trans fats, but after the FDA cracked down on those last year, many companies have started using palm oil instead.

That may seem a bit tough on those bakers who just want to fry their dough in something deliciously artery-clogging. Are we setting the maple bar a little too high?


The next front in the GMO war: Synthetic biology

Z33 Art centre

The New York Times recently revealed that some soap companies were replacing the palm oil in their products with a substitute made by yeast algae. The controversial part is that the yeast algae are genetically altered -- they're the product of a new discipline known as synthetic biology.

I got a crash course in synthetic biology recently, and it looks to me as if it will be the next front in the never-ending GMO war. So let’s get up to speed.

Basically, synthetic biology refers to creating genes from scratch. Instead of cutting and pasting DNA from, say, a strawberry into yeast, you type in the DNA that you want, print it out, and splice that into yeast -- or whatever else you like. Here’s a great video explainer:


Alice Waters vs. the techno-chefs: The evolution of wild gourmet

vat meat
Hallie Bateman

When I read Emma Marris' critical but ultimately hopeful essay about gourmet food (in Breakthrough Journal), my interest was piqued. Marris wrote the book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and has generated challenging and influential ideas about nature. Now she's applied some of those same ideas to food.

She argues that a new wave of star chefs can serve as a model for relating more harmoniously to our environment. This means the path to sustainability could be marked by delicious dinners.

I was fascinated by this, but I was also confused. I had always thought of Alice Waters as the foremost example of eating our way to sustainability, yet for Marris, Waters is the counterexample: She criticizes Waters for being impractical and rigid.

I asked Marris about this. Our email conversation, which you can read below, turned into one of those collaborative arguments where -- instead of trying to win -- we ended up challenging each other to clarify and strengthen our points.

This debate has big implications: Can human intervention and technology -- instead of ruining nature -- improve it, even make it more "natural"? Is the future of food a polarized choice between dystopian industrialization and a utopian return to the farm? Or can we imagine our way to an industrialization that creates beauty, delight, flavor, and all the romantic qualities we value in food and farming?

Read more: Food, Living


Organic farming is great, but it’s not Jesus


I have a pretty high baseline level of skepticism, and when I’m exposed to rhetorical bombast, it causes those skepticism levels to spike. Objections overflow; doubts seep from my pores. It's an allergic reaction. So this line, the first sentence in the Rodale Institute’s new white paper on the carbon-capturing potential of organic farming, gave me a light rash:

We are at the most critical moment in the history of our species.

The entire history of our species? Including the first faltering steps? Including the thousands of years about which we know zilch? This extension of rhetoric beyond the scope of human knowledge does not inspire confidence.

The paper’s assertion is that, “Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’”

This, at least, is a slightly less audacious claim than the last, but not by much. Completely switching food production to organic agriculture would be so difficult that I’m not going bother with it. Instead, let’s see what a first step in that direction might look like, and consider the evidence that that step might be worth taking.

Read more: Food


Clear eyes, full stomachs, can't lose

Michelle Obama’s food fight with GOP: Schools just want to have funds

school lunch
Meal Makeover Moms

Right now Republicans, Democrats, and the First Lady are slugging it out over a proposal to weaken the healthy-food requirements for school lunch programs. Conservatives in Congress want to make it easier for schools to ignore the healthy-lunch law, liberals -- and Michelle Obama -- don't want to see the law gutted, and some school lunch administrators are saying they just don't have the money to make the law work.

Here’s why I care about school lunches: They are the perfect microcosm for the green case on food. Get them right, and we’d have a model for success in hand (along with a big part of the solution).

The evidence leads me, over and over again, to the following series of conclusions: the overwhelming imperative for cheaper food has made people, rural economies, and the environment sick. The most obvious remedy is to pay farmers a fair price to produce healthier food in a sustainable manner. But higher prices are unfair to people who are struggling to feed themselves, so any good-food fix also has to provide support for the poor.

That’s the genius of school-lunch reform: Because schools have a mandate to feed low-income students, reformers must work holistically, considering economics alongside nutrition.

Read more: Food, Politics


Go ahead: Ignore the “latest studies” and savor that chocolate


How much did the recent findings about the antioxidants in chocolate affect my personal chocolate consumption? Not a jot.

As I write this, I’m eating chocolate ice cream. Or, to be totally accurate, I’m scraping the bottom of this mug for the last drippings. Update: I have just crammed my muzzle inside the mug in an ardent, but ultimately futile, attempt to lick the bottom. I am well qualified to answer any question regarding chocolate.

Last week a paper came out suggesting that the resveratrol in red wine and chocolate, contrary to conventional wisdom, does nothing to make people healthier. The scientists spent nine years watching a group of 783 seniors in the Chianti region of Italy. They looked for traces of resveratrol (and the compounds you get from breaking it down) in the urine of these Italian seniors, and basically waited for nine years to see who died.

268 of the people in study shuffled off in those nine years, but they weren’t the people with the lowest resveratrol levels, or the highest, either. It was an even spread. After going over the data, the scientists concluded that the amount of resveratrol that you’d get from actual food (as opposed to downing massive supplements) had no effect on the likelihood of heart disease, cancer, or coming down with a little case of (ahem) death.

Read more: Food, Living


Oregon county bans GMO crops

Sugar beets

Voters in Jackson County, Oregon, passed a measure Tuesday prohibiting farmers from growing genetically engineered plants. Farmers had spearheaded the initiative, according to the Associated Press:

The effort to ban GMOs in Jackson County started two years ago when organic farmers learned the Swiss company Syngenta was growing sugar beet seed in local fields that was genetically altered to resist the popular weed killer Roundup. They wanted to protect their crops from being cross-pollinated by genetically modified ones.

Though seed companies spent nearly $1 million campaigning against it, the measure passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

Read more: Food, Politics