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Data farm: MacArthur genius looks for food solutions from space

David Lobell.
David Lobell.

The most interesting of this year’s MacArthur “geniuses” is, for my money, the 34-year-old agricultural ecologist David Lobell. Lobell’s trying to figure out how we should be feeding ourselves in an environmentally friendly way.

“There are a million theories about how to do that,” he says in his MacArthur video clip, “and what we’re really interested in is trying to figure out what really works.”

Yep, him and me both.

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Are GMOs worth their weight in gold? To farmers, not exactly

Not an actual GMO field.
Shutterstock
Not an actual GMO field.
Harn Soper
Harn Soper.

Harn Soper has a real-world laboratory to test the benefits of farming with genetically modified (GM) seed. Soper’s family owns seven farms near Emmetsburg, Iowa, with organic crops on 410 acres and GM crops on some 300 acres. The farms are all in the same microclimate: If a torrential cloudburst hits one farm, it hits them all. So Soper can compare the economics of one farming style against the other. And it’s clear, when the numbers are tallied, that he’s making a lot more money farming organically than farming with GM seed.

The Farms owned by the Soper family
The farms owned by the Soper family.

Last week, I looked at GM farming from a 10,000-foot perspective and found that big farmers in the U.S. seem to have benefited from biotech crops. Now I’m looking at a couple of these farms from the six-foot perspective (that’s eye-level for me), and trying to understand what leads an individual farmer to choose GM seed. I emailed or chatted with farmers until I started to hear the same explanations over and again.

For the sake of concision I’ll just focus on a couple people here: Soper and Brian Scott. These guys aren't intended to be perfectly representative of the big picture (the 10,000-foot view is better at capturing that) -- I’m just going to present their decision making in more fine-grained detail.

And looking closely reveals something surprising: I’d thought that there would be an obvious financial advantage in biotech, making it impossible for conventional crops to compete. But that’s not the case. In the race toward profitability, GM traits don’t give seeds a jet-pack -- it’s more like they provide an umbrella.

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Republicans to the poor: Tighten your belts

empty plate hunger
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Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut the food stamp program by $40 billion over the next 10 years. I'm just going to come out and say it: This is incredibly wrong.

The bright side: These cuts won't actually happen. The chance that the Senate would agree to them is slim, and Obama has said he would veto the bill if it ever got to him [PDF]. Perhaps taking away food stamps will become one of those perpetually vexing but practically ineffectual initiatives (like killing Obamacare) that Republicans feel duty-bound to attempt, even if there's no hope of success.

It's perplexing, even to many conservatives, that Republicans feel so strongly about this. Henry Olson, writing in the conservative National Review points out that stripping benefits from the poor while ignoring handouts to the wealthy opens Republicans to the charge that they are the party of the rich. And this is arguably the issue that put Obama over the top in 2012. Olson writes:

Read more: Food, Politics

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Sketchy food policy: Exploring our broken food system in cartoons

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a political cartoon has got to be worth about double that. That's about ... the average length of one of my pieces.

By that reckoning, public health professor Marion Nestle's newest book packs a lot in: It's mostly cartoons, strung together with incisive, minimalist explanation. Eat Drink Vote touches on just about every issue that obsesses me, but without my tendency for running on at the mouth.

Car2a

Like a good cartoon, Nestle's main point makes the complex stunningly simple: The food Americans choose has already been chosen for them. What looks like a personal, or scientific, decision (to just get out and walk, or just eat healthier) is actually a political decision. We spend a lot of time obsessing about the little details that we can easily control -- like trying to get foods sweetened with sugar rather than corn syrup -- and not enough time on the big, tough, political problems that actually could make a difference.

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Golden apple or forbidden fruit? Following the money on GMOs

gold-apple-crop-2
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Much of the battle over transgenic crops has occurred in the realm of science fiction. There, entirely hypothetical health risks square off against visions of wondrous but imaginary benefits. This isn't nearly as ridiculous as it sounds: To decide which technologies to pursue and which to avoid, modern Jules Vernes need to dream up best and worst-case scenarios.

The problem is, the debate tends to get stuck in the future. We’ve had transgenic plants for nearly two decades, which is enough time to fairly ask, who has actually benefited from genetically modified crops? We’ve had these plants long enough now that we don’t have to look to fantastic visions of the future; we can simply look at the reality.

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Monsanto ponies up and Big Ag pulls ahead in GMO labeling horse race

horse race
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If the GM food labeling battle is a horse race, Big Ag just upgraded to a genetically modified super horse. With wings.

Just a few weeks ago those in favor of GMO labeling in Washington state were in the lead, having raised $3.5 million, nearly four times as much as those opposed. But, as we noted at the time:

The relative weight of contributions, however, is likely to shift rapidly as the Washington initiative approaches its Nov. 5 moment of truth at the ballot box. Last year, the campaign against the California proposition spent $42 million in the six weeks before the vote.

Monsanto validated this prediction last week, dropping $4.6 million into the campaign. Then DuPont Pioneer added another $3.2 million. The groups campaigning to pass the labeling initiative are getting more "in-kind" contributions, that is, use of office space, equipment, and volunteer labor. But the total value of the in-kind donations -- around $400,000 -- are relatively small. The tides have turned.

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Pork it over: U.S. OKs Chinese purchase of its largest pig company

sow
Just Chaos

Well they’ve done it. The U.S. government has signed off on a deal to sell the biggest player in the domestic pork industry to a Chinese firm, merging the two biggest pig producers in the world. The feds had held up the merger since May to determine if it might be a threat to national security. And now they’ve decided that no, foreign control of the bacon supply will not imperil our country’s integrity. You may feel differently.

And actually there are people who have real concerns. Here’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), for example, writing at Politico:

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Food, fatherhood, & fear: Documentary wades into GMO debate with honest emotions

I didn’t think I'd like GMO OMG, because it looked like an outrage documentary. You know the type: They're films that ask viewers to pound their fists with righteous indignation at the evil deeds they reveal. My problem with outrage documentaries is that the form pushes directors to overstate their case and ignore nuance. I can't enjoy a good fury fest when I'm aware that someone is trying to manhandle me into anger.

When I got a chance to watch GMO OMG before its release I figured I'd last for a few minutes, then switch it off. But I surprised myself by lingering until the end, and enjoying it. GMO OMG is an outrage documentary: It starts with the premise that GM food is frightening and demands that the audience get angry. But that's not all it is. Director Jeremy Seifert accomplishes something remarkable when he turns his camera on his family: In those moments the film feels utterly honest, rather than manipulative. You can take issue with the facts Seifert marshals against GMOs, but there's no arguing with his love for his sons, or his frustration with the opacity of the food system. A hail of arguments and counterarguments are hurled back and forth every day in the debate over GM food. But all this arguing never changes the way people feel. So it's refreshing to see a work that gives emotion its due.

I called Seifert to chat with him about food, fatherhood, and fear.

Read more: Food, Living

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Golden Rice: Fool’s gold or golden opportunity?

Golden Rice
IRRI
Golden Rice.

Golden Rice is rice that's been genetically engineered to deliver enough beta carotene to improve the health of the malnourished poor who might eat it. (Deficiencies blind over 250,000 children a year.) It’s a humanitarian project -- funded by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations, among others -- that has been in development since the 1990s. Some people object to it; they see it as a Trojan Horse that the biotech industry is using to enter countries that might otherwise reject their technology.

Recently, a group of protesters destroyed a test plot of the rice, turning up the heat on the debate over the crop that’s simmered for years. Amy Harmon wrote this reaction. Mark Lynas went to see the trampled rice for himself and has filed this angry but essential report from the scene. And Michael Pollan weighed in on Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog, saying “I certainly think that the research should go forward.”

Pollan had some caveats, writing, “I am willing to get behind a GM product that offers the world something great, but I’m not at all sure this is the killer app everyone thinks it is. It seems to me the focus should be on alleviating poverty and improving diet.”

Later, Alexander J. Stein, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, added some truly useful detail, pointing out that there was now research to address some of the issues Pollan raised.

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Pointed talk: Michael Pollan and Amy Harmon dissect a GM controversy

Last month, the New York Times put its front-page spotlight on a lengthy feature by Amy Harmon -- a story that followed an orange grower's quest to make the fruit disease-resistant through genetic engineering. The piece occasioned plenty of debate. But one tweet from Michael Pollan, in particular, triggered a cascade of puzzlement, debate, and anger.

Here's what Pollan said about Harmon's piece:

The barrage of angry responses was immediate and sustained, mostly focusing on the part about "industry talking points." What did Pollan mean by that? Was he simply knocking the story because it showed genetic modification in a positive light? Some felt he was calling Harmon, a widely admired feature writer who has won two Pulitzers, a shill. Many science writers leapt to Harmon's defense.

Read more: Food