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Tom Laskawy's Posts


Gut punch: Monsanto could be destroying your microbiome


First the bad news: The "safest" herbicide in the history of science may be harming us in ways we're just beginning to understand. And now for the really bad news: Because too much is never enough, the Environmental Protection Agency just raised the allowable limits for how much of that chemical can remain on the food we eat, and the crops we feed to animals -- many of which end up on our plates as well. If you haven’t guessed its identity yet, it’s Monsanto’s Roundup, a powerful weed killer.

The EPA and Monsanto are apparently hoping that no one notices the recent rule change -- or, if we do notice, that we respond with a collective shrug. But that, my friends, would be a mistake. While Roundup may truly be the "safest" pesticide ever invented, that isn't quite the same as "safe." It just may be that Roundup represents a hitherto unrecognized threat to our health -- not because of what it does to our bodies, but because of what it does to our "internal ecology," a.k.a. our "microbiome."

As Michael Pollan deftly cataloged in his must-read cover story in the most recent New York Times magazine, scientists are just beginning to explore the inner reaches of our bodies to understand how our microbiome affects our health. Nonetheless, there are some growing signs that Roundup might be the last thing you want in there.

Read more: Food, Politics


Undead farm bill: Everyone’s favorite legislative zombie shuffles on

Matt Erasmus

While most of Washington, D.C., is consumed with the faux scandals du jour, in a few corners of Congress, actual work is getting done. A day 329 days late and a dollar $20 billion short, perhaps, the farm bill, an every-five-years legislative train[wreck], lumbers slowly forward.

Both the House and the Senate agriculture committees have just passed their own versions of the massive piece of legislation that controls U.S. agricultural policy as well as the federal nutrition program formerly known as food stamps (now called SNAP). A full House and Senate vote is the next step. Congress tried and failed to pass a farm bill last year. The question now is whether Congress can do it this time.

Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.

Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts -- almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!

That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.


Frankenfoods: Good for Big Business, bad for the rest of us


Thirty years ago, scientists figured out how to directly modify the genes in our food crops. No more of that inefficient and slow breeding! Farmers would grab plant genes by the horns nucleotides and bend them to their will!

Now, the preeminent science journal Nature has devoted an entire issue to the question (to paraphrase that legendary IBM ad), where are the magic seeds? We were going to get seeds that would grow faster, yield more, save the environment, and be more nutritious. What we got were seeds for a few commodity crops such as corn, soy, and cotton that made their own pesticide or resisted herbicides, but otherwise provided little, if any, benefit to consumers.

Nonetheless, Nature assures us that the magic seeds are on the way. What the journal doesn't say explicitly, however, is that there’s evidence that for existing GMO seeds, the best days are already over -- and the next generation of seeds may be doomed even before they’re in the ground.

Read more: Food


Gut bomb: That turkey burger could kill you, and here’s why


OK, meat eaters, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Hey, I know! I’ll start with the bad news: In a just-released study, Consumer Reports tested 257 samples of ground turkey from supermarkets, and found that virtually every one was contaminated with either fecal bacteria, staph, or salmonella. Even worse, most of the fecal bacteria were resistant to one or more antibiotics important to human medicine.

Clearly, between this study and the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on the high rates of fecal (and antibiotic-resistant) bacteria, it’s fair to conclude that the meat industry is struggling to keep its product safe.

The bit of good news here is that Consumer Reports tested both meat raised with antibiotics and meat raised without them. While meat raised without antibiotics had about the same rates of overall contamination as the industrial alternative, it had far lower levels of antibiotic-resistant strains -- and it’s the antibiotic-resistant bugs that should scare you. Infection with them puts you at far greater risk of serious illness or even death if you’re an infant, elderly, or immune-compromised.

The message to consumers is simple: Buying meat raised without antibiotics will reduce your exposure to the nastiest bacteria. Which is a good thing.

There’s a message here for the meat industry, too: Restricting agricultural use of antibiotics would have a big effect on meat safety. Of course, any Danish pig farmer would tell you the same thing. But here at home neither Big Meat nor the government agencies that police it are ready to face that reality.

Read more: Food


Nitrogen fertilizer is bad stuff — and not just because it could blow up your town

REUTERS/Mike Stone

Officials in Texas continue to investigate the cause of the explosion last week at West Fertilizer that killed 15 people and injured 200. The explosion, which could be felt up to 50 miles away, obliterated the facility and destroyed houses. It was fueled by a massive stockpile of nitrogen fertilizer -- up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer that comes in the form of a powder or pellets, and over 50,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia gas.

But while the explosion last week was spectacular and tragic, the lives lost there and the pain the community of West, Texas, is suffering offer a window into a much larger battle concerning the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers on American farmland.


What’s bugging your meat? Shit and antibiotics, probably

meat shelf

Take a deep breath, carnivores: 87 percent of supermarket meat -- including beef, pork, chicken, and turkey products -- tests positive for normal and antibiotic-resistant forms of Enterococcus bacteria. Fifty percent of ground turkey contains resistant E. coli, 10 percent of chicken parts and ground turkey tests positive for resistant salmonella, and 26 percent of chicken parts come contaminated with resistant campylobacter. Resistant or not, the mere presence of these types of microbes means the majority of our meat comes into contact with fecal matter at some point. Not very appetizing, is it?

The government recently admitted something a lot of conscious eaters probably already suspect: A significant majority of supermarket meat is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But it did so vewwy, vewwy quietly. It came buried in the FDA’s 2011 Retail Meat Report, which reveals the results from periodic testing of common supermarket meat products for bacterial contamination and bacterial resistance to multiple antibiotics. The FDA leaves these numbers opaque, but thanks to calculations by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) using the government’s data, we know just how terrifying these results are.

The threat of these superbugs goes beyond the academic. Three of the bugs listed above cause tens of thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths a year. Resistant salmonella-tainted meat recently caused several outbreaks, one of them quite deadly. And E. coli from supermarket chicken has been linked to millions of antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections in women.


To survive, fast food will have to think fresh

vegetable burger lettuce

We all know what Bad Fast Food looks like (I’m looking at you, KFC Double Down!) And we all know that tens of millions of Americans eat the stuff anyway -- whether out of choice or necessity. So can there be such a thing as “Good Fast Food”? There had better be -- or else the fast food biz is in real trouble.

Here’s food writer Mark Bittman, writing in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine:

Soda consumption is down; meat consumption is down; sales of organic foods are up; more people are expressing concern about G.M.O.s, additives, pesticides and animal welfare. The lines out the door -- first at Chipotle and now at Maoz, Chop’t, Tender Greens and Veggie Grill -- don’t lie. According to a report in Advertising Age, McDonald’s no longer ranks in the top 10 favorite restaurants of Millennials, a group that comprises as many as 80 million people.

Fast food companies understand that Bad Fast Food might be approaching its expiration date. Rather than clinging ever tighter to their fattening products like Coca Cola did, they’re remixing them. Some of it is just window dressing: Bittman offers the example of McDonald’s heavily sweetened yogurt parfait, which just replaces fat with sugar. Other outfits toss a few salads at customers, or push healthier items off to the side as if embarrassed by their existence. After all, having healthier options means admitting your main offerings aren't, well, healthy.

But Taco Bell just announced a new effort to remake its menu along healthier lines. And Chipotle, which has been called the Apple of fast food, is nipping at the big dogs’ heels. The company bills itself as serving “food with integrity,” cares about animal welfare and to some extent the plight of farmworkers, and yet has $3 billion in annual sales with double-digit annual growth. Other fresh competitors are popping up like superweeds.


Oh rot, the White House just gutted the new food safety rules

Eat your E. coli and apricots! Num num!
Eat your E. coli and apricots! Num num!

A little over two years ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed a historic reform to America’s food safety laws, the Food Safety and Modernization Act. It was the first major update in over 80 years to the laws that aim to keep our food from killing us.

The new law gave the feds broad new enforcement powers to do things that most Americans probably thought they could do already -- issuing mandatory food recalls, for example, and requiring frequent inspections of the riskiest food production facilities, and prosecuting executives of companies that knowingly ship contaminated food. Good news!

And now for the bad news. It looks like several of those new protections were quietly gutted earlier this year by a White House office charged with reviewing new regulations for their impact on corporate America. During a drawn-out review period, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rewrote rules drafted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that spelled out how the agency would implement new safety protocols for food producers.

When Congress passed the food safety law, it for the first time required food producers to design, implement, and test risk-based food safety plans. The law required testing for contamination in food processing facilities, and then testing the foods themselves. The OMB revisions axed the mandate for verified food safety plans and dropped virtually all the testing requirements, turning them into voluntary protocols. (And we know how well it works out when the food industry regulates itself.)

Without requirements for testing and verification of safety plans, the FDA will remain powerless to stop things like the deadly 2011 listeria outbreak in cantaloupe caused by shockingly unsanitary storage conditions at a Colorado farm. Had that farm been forced by law to produce a safety plan and then to have that plan verified, much less to have its produce tested, the people who died would likely be alive today.

Thanks, OMB.

Read more: Food, Politics


Monsanto flirts with disaster, owns the world anyway

giant tomatoe
Audun K

The top execs at Monsanto Corp. must be running around HQ these days like director James Cameron post-Titanic, screaming “We’re king of the world!” It’s an understandable reaction. Between a likely Supreme Court win, the recently passed Monsanto Protection Act, and the company’s victory over a government antitrust investigation, the company has been on quite a winning streak.

Odd, then, to remember that less than three years ago, CNBC’s stock market “analyst” Jim Cramer declared that Monsanto’s was “the worst stock of 2010.” This came just before Forbes magazine all but withdrew its 2010 accolade that Monsanto was “company of the year.”

Monsanto had all the hallmarks of a troubled company. Its net income dropped nearly by half in 2010. By October, its stock dropped by almost that much. But those were just the most obvious indicators.

While it’s true that, even at the time, the company dominated the seed industry -- 85 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. that year contained Monsanto’s patented genetically modified traits, as did 92 percent of soy -- its products were taking a beating both in the fields and in the mainstream press. Word spread of the rise of superweeds that were immune to Monsanto’s pesticides, while farmers complained that Monsanto’s new SmartStax seeds were overpriced and no more effective than the old. At the same time, its flagship Roundup Ready product was about to go “off-patent,” and analysts were expecting a flood of “generic” (and much cheaper) pesticide-resistant seeds on the market.

As if that weren’t enough, Monsanto was locked in a multi-year legal battle with one of its top competitors -- DuPont. It was a battle that some analysts thought could topple Monsanto from its perch atop the biotech seed pyramid. Anti-Monsanto activists even looked at DuPont as a potential ally, since it had filed an antitrust lawsuit against its sworn enemy as part of the fight. Then the government got into the act when it initiated its own antitrust investigation that threatened Monsanto’s core business. Oh, how the mighty had fallen!

Fast forward to today. Monsanto Ascendant. Here’s a stock chart that runs from Oct. 8, 2010, to today.

Read more: Food, Politics


Sustainable food loses its biggest champion in Washington, D.C.

Image (1) KMerrigan.jpg for post 32387The Obama administration is losing its most powerful supporter of local and organic foods. Kathleen Merrigan, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced last week that she would be leaving her post as USDA's deputy secretary. Sustainable agriculture groups responded with dismay and disappointment to what the Columbus Dispatch described as her “abrupt” departure. The food industry publication The Packer speculated that this could spell “the end of local food at USDA.”

Merrigan is best known for her local foods initiative called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, which brought all of the agency’s efforts to improve regional and local food systems under one conceptual roof. It was a modest program in terms of budget -- its funding was measured in mere millions while agribusiness reaped tens of billions in subsidies -- but it was the first effort of its kind at an agency long known for its support of large commodity growers. (And small as it was, it was revolutionary enough to draw the ire of Republicans.)

Merrigan is also credited with preserving strong standards for the Organic label, championing a national farm-to-school program, funding hoop houses to allow farmers to grow later into the season, and acting as a key player in the effort to improve the foods sold in school vending machines. Jerry Hagstrom has a good wrap-up in National Journal.

But it wasn’t just about her favored policies.

Read more: Food, Politics