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Bunsen burner bummer: Lab rules favor industry over indie research


Last week, when I wrote about the scientist Tyrone Hayes and the controversy over the herbicide atrazine, I suggested that “the industry has defined the rules of the game so narrowly that only it can play.”

But I didn’t understand exactly how this worked. The short answer: It’s too expensive for scientists to do the experiments that regulators want.

Jason Rohr, a scientist at the University of South Florida, has bumped into this issue. One of the problems, Rohr said, is that regulators pay more attention to studies conducted with what’s known as Good Laboratory Practice.

“Good Laboratory Practice is basically a bunch of hoops to jump through: properly calibrating your pipettes, stuff like that,” Rohr said.

Rohr is all for doing that stuff. But documenting that you’ve jumped through those hoops is so expensive that it’s almost impossible for any academic lab. It’s only the contract labs -- commissioned by industry to do government-required testing -- that spend the money to prove that they are doing everything right.


The secret ingredient to slow food: Slow cash


This is part of a series in which we're asking what pragmatic steps we can take to make regional food systems more sustainable. We previously spoke with organic farmer Tom Willey, and the people at Veritable Vegetable.

When I spoke with Tim Crosby, director of Slow Money Northwest, he was working on a deal at the Finn River Cidery.

“I’m in my outside office,” he said. “I’m standing here looking out over this: It’s just idyllic, there’s hoop houses, there’s chickens. They make apple cider, there’s an orchard, and a field, and there's trumpeter swans on the field.”

I’d wanted talk to Crosby because he’s interested in growing regional food systems. In this series, I’m looking for pragmatic steps that can make regional agriculture more sustainable. Crosby does much the same thing: He searches for farmers who could grow or improve their businesses if they just had the financing; then he connects them with foundations, banks, or investors.

Q. I wrote recently about a project to improve rangeland with compost, which seems to help, both environmentally and financially. But it costs a lot of money initially to bring the compost in. Do you find that there are farmers who could be better stewards of the land if they were able to invest with an eye to the next 100 years, rather than just scraping by for the next year?

A. The embedded notion is that farmers are not good stewards of the land. I would say that farmers are the closest to the stewards of the land we have -- they just can’t make money doing it in our economic system. But if they lose their soil, they lose their livelihood, and they know that better than anyone.

Our market-driven, capitalistic structure insures that the lowest price wins. When the market says you have to lower the price per unit -- as happened in the 1970s, the terminology was “get big or get out” -- guess what, you’re going to have to grow. You’re going to have problems if you try to internalize the environmental costs and take care of the soil. It’s going to be more expensive, and you can’t sell your products as easily.

But it’s the right thing to do, and farmers will do it. It’s becoming more attractive as the cost of fossil fuels goes up. And farmers are coming to me saying, we need to try something else. Now they see a chance to make money doing the right thing, where they couldn’t before. And they would like to be able to do that. The question is, in the end, can they pay their bills?


How a pesticide company went after a frog-loving scientist

Wikipedia Commons

Tyrone Hayes doesn’t sound like a swashbuckling agitator as he walks slowly across the broad stage of a UC Berkeley lecture hall. There’s no outrage in his voice. In fact, he’s cracking jokes, often at his own expense. His movements are contained, measured.

“I often like to describe myself as a little boy that likes frogs,” he says.

And that’s really what he sounds like: some delighted, preternaturally intelligent kid who insists on using the Latin name for every slimy thing in your backyard.

This is notable because Hayes, who was recently the subject of a profile in the New Yorker, has been portrayed as a tendentious and unhinged brawler. We now know that these portrayals were part of a campaign to -- as a Syngenta communications manager wrote -- “discredit Hayes,” and thereby protect the continued use of atrazine, the herbicide he studies.

But even so, I was a bit surprised when I saw him in person. I was expecting at least a little self-righteous demagoguery; instead I got self-mocking modesty.


Food desert mirage: Better groceries may not bring better health

MIT Libraries

The food movement's success so far has come, in large part, from its ability to link rural and urban interests. It brought together people who wanted to help farmers and the environment with those who wanted to fight hunger and provide healthier food.

That powerful partnership persuaded governments (notably the federal government) and nonprofits to put some of its ideas to the test. We’ve now reached a critical moment where we can see the results of those tests -- and decide what’s working.

The effort to create a market to support alternative agriculture is really working: Organic sales have grown 25 times over since 1990. But the attempts to bring good food to the poor have had mixed results.

Journalist Heather Gilligan recently took a steely-eyed look at these results and determined that the idea that we could improve health by bringing food into poor neighborhoods has failed.

Read more: Cities, Food


There will be dollars: Obama signs a new farm bill into law

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama signed the farm bill today, bringing to a close a legislative odyssey. The president made it official at Michigan State University, apparently as a nod to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who midwifed the law into existence. Michigan State is also one of the institutions that will be doing basic ag research funded by the bill.

Grist started covering the voyage of the "2012 Farm Bill" (ha!) back in 2011. Early on, there were rumors that Congress would pass a quick farm bill in a couple of weeks. Instead it took a couple of years: The legislation still had to languish among the lotus eaters and sneak past the cyclops.

Now that it has become a law, many of its programs will run for five years, setting a stage for a new law in 2019 ... ish.

Read more: Food, Politics


The brutal cost of a cheap chicken

Photo by Shutterstock.

For much of its history, the meat company Tyson defined itself as a family farm. Doing so allowed the company to pay workers less than minimum wage, dodge lawsuits, and get creative in its accounting. Farmers were allowed to do cash-basis accounting, which gave Tyson the leeway to claim to the IRS it was losing money year after year. But the company also kept another set of books, for investors, which showed profits. By claiming to be a primitive farming outfit, without the sophistication to keep proper records, it was able to keep $26.5 million out of the government's hands before 1985, when the company was struggling for dominance.

Farming is actually the one thing that Tyson doesn’t do -- as a new book-length investigation details. The company owns chicken breeders, hatcheries, feed companies, veterinary services, and slaughterhouses. The only part of poultry production that Tyson doesn’t own is the farms.

In the 1960s, Tyson tried running its own farms, but that experiment failed. The land was expensive and so were the chicken houses, which rapidly lost value as equipment wore out. And then there was the problem of labor: It was almost impossible to motivate workers to get up in the middle of the night to tinker with broken fans or wade through the stench of shit to pick up dead birds.

The-Meat-Racket-The-Secret-Takeover-of-America-s-Food-Business-Hardcover-P9781451645811Contract farmers provided the solution to this labor problem. These farmers were highly motivated because they were nominally independent. Often, the farmers had bet their entire family’s savings on the chicken houses. They didn’t mind getting up throughout the night, or laboring 14-hour days, because they were working for themselves.

Or so they assumed. Christopher Leonard, the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, makes a strong case that contract farmers are more securely in Tyson’s thrall than paid employees.


Food hubs: Sustainable agriculture’s missing link

Bu Nygrens, director of purchasing for Veritable Vegetable
David Mattheson Photography
Bu Nygrens, director of purchasing for Veritable Vegetable.

This is part of a series in which we're asking what pragmatic steps we can take to make regional food systems more sustainable. Last time we spoke with organic farmer Tom Willey.

A few years ago, I bought a little share in a dairy farm so I could receive my own portion of creamy Jersey milk. Each week I’d fish a heavy Mason jar out from under a blanket of tinkling ice cubes. It was delicious, and when it went off it only got better: mixed with scalloped potatoes, salt, and onions, the fermenting milk transformed in the oven into cheesy ambrosia.

But there was a big problem with this milk: It waited for me on the other side of town. It took me a little over an hour to fetch it by car. I know because I didn’t have a car at the time, and so I’d rent a Zipcar and try to run the errand in under an hour. Then the farm started asking for members to drive out regularly to do chores. That was too much for me. I bailed out and went back to buying milk at Safeway.

The experience taught me to appreciate the middleman -- someone who, for a reasonable fee, handles the logistics and transportation. Middlemen get a lot of grief. There are thousands of ads that exhort you to “cut out the middleman!” From the outside, the middleman just looks like a barrier between the consumer and low wholesale prices. But for small food producers, having a middleman can dramatically expand the number of eaters who can buy their stuff.

Middlemen might also help farmers fill the missing middle of our food system. Right now we have big farms that move their food to market with industrial efficiency, and we have little farms that rely on dedicated eaters to drive out over the potholes, but we don’t have much in between. In part, that’s because those companies that efficiently move trainloads of grain to market think making a trip to pick up a dozen pounds of salad greens is, ahem, just radicchio.


Farm bill passes Senate, with a little something for everyone


After much delay, debate, and rending of garments, the farm bill is now just a presidential signature away from becoming law. Tuesday afternoon, by a vote of 68-32, the Senate passed the same bill the House approved last week.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to hate this legislation.

Read more: Food, Politics


Cancer rising? The numbers don’t tell a new story

Jason Garber

When I first saw the headline “Childhood Cancer on the Rise,” it triggered my journalistic salivary glands. Sad news, sure -- but it could also settle an old debate, I thought.

Cancer rates have been edging up over the years, which gives some credence to the idea that our modern way of life -- replete with bad food and new chemicals -- is killing us. But the statisticians have largely answered that hypothesis: The reason more people are getting cancer is because we are living long enough to get cancer.

Which is why a rise in childhood cancer perked my interest. Pediatric cancer can’t be chalked up to longer lifespans. But my (OK, somewhat ghoulish) thrill faded as soon as I read the article under that provocative headline.

The steady increase in these cancers can be attributed to better diagnostics and better technologies. It is often difficult for parents to spot early warning signs in children as they appear to mimic other childhood illnesses.

Good news! It’s not that childhood cancer rates are rising; it’s that our ability to detect cancer is improving. It’s amazing how headlines and articles can go in different directions. In this case, though, neither was quite right.

Read more: Food, Living


To become a law, a farm bill needs friends in unlikely places

Shutterstock / Jorge Moro

It now seems almost certain that -- after two years of pummeling in the congressional gauntlet -- the farm bill will limp down the Hill and make its way over to President Obama’s desk for its final step toward becoming a law.

When it finally completes that Homeric journey, Obama should kill it, according to the editorial board of the Washington Post. Why? “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor,” the Post writes. That’s because the bill makes cuts to food stamps but doesn’t strip away all subsidies to farmers.

All this raises the question: Why do we keep giving money to farmers? It’s not like they make up a huge voting block. You could argue that bailing out agriculture is simply good policy, but I can easily find a dozen experts who can tell me why government funding in some other field -- say, their own -- would be better policy.

Read more: Food, Politics