Tom Philpott

Tom Philpott was previously Grist's food writer. He now writes for Mother Jones.

Thoughts from a small farm during the midwinter lull

Before I became a farmer three growing seasons ago, I lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and reveled in the array of top-flight local produce available from mid-spring to late fall. Long about January, though, a kind of local-food withdrawal would set in. Frosty, with a chance of failure. Photo: iStockphoto By this time of year, the legendary produce aisle of the Park Slope Food Co-op would be given over mainly to dull vegetables trucked in from the mega-organic farms of California, Arizona, and Mexico. My beloved Clinton Hill CSA — which introduced me to the community-supported agriculture model now in use …

Make way CAFO-diesel

The latest beneficiary of biofuel subsidies: industrial feedlot operators.

So far, a huge amount of the government’s lavish support for biofuel has ended up on the bottom line of Archer Daniels Midland, the king of industrially produced, environmentally ruinous corn. Now another type of model corporate citizen is in line for a cut of the action: huge-scale confined-animal feedlot operation (CAFO) players like Tyson and Smithfield. This AP story details the efforts of a couple of oil men to set up a biodiesel plant outside of a Missouri industrial chicken-processing plant owned by Tyson, the world’s largest meat producer. The plan: to transform chicken fat into biodiesel. Now, at …

Why The Economist’s recent assault on “ethical food” missed the mark

Last month, the influential British newsweekly The Economist took the measure of the sustainable-food movement and found it wanting. “There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of ‘ethical food': organic food, fair-trade food, and local food,” the journal declared, and proceeded to subject each to withering analysis. Don’t put the cart before the voice. Photo: iStockphoto Like an uncle emboldened by wine at the holiday table, The Economist sought the role of truth-teller to the complacent and self-satisfied. “People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so …

What we’ve learned from the biofuels series

Future or folly? Photo: iStockphoto After spending much of the last several months thinking about the biofuels boom and its implications in preparation for this special series, we’ve come to a few conclusions. Like other energy sources, biofuels have significant environmental liabilities. Boosters’ rhetoric about “renewable energy” aside, topsoil — from which biofuel feedstocks spring — is not an easily renewable resource. It takes centuries under natural conditions to replace an inch of topsoil lost to erosion. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute reckons that “36 percent of the world’s cropland is now losing topsoil at a rate that …

What Brazil can teach the U.S. about energy and ethanol

In 2006, Brazil officially achieved “energy independence” — that is, its oil exports came into line with imports and cancelled them out. No longer beholden to foreign suppliers for its energy needs, the nation theoretically has no stake in costly Middle East military adventures to secure access to oil reserves. Grain alcohol? Haven’t touched the stuff since college. Photo: Whitehouse.gov Sounds like a certain colossus to the north has a lot to learn from Brazil’s recent energy strategy, huh? Indeed, much of Brazil’s energy independence stems from a successful ethanol program, which has replaced about 40 percent of gasoline use …

It’s time for a real ‘food vs. fuel’ debate

Can U.S. farmers keep filling the nation’s bellies as they scramble to fuel its cars? Given its evident gravity, the question has drawn remarkably little debate. Like it or not, though, more and more food is being devoted to fueling the nation’s 211-million-strong auto fleet. High gasoline prices, a dizzying variety of government supports, and an investment frenzy have caused corn-based ethanol production to more than triple since 1998. As recently as a year ago, corn seemed wildly overproduced. Suddenly, it’s a hot commodity. In 1998, about 5 percent of the corn harvest (526 million bushels) went into ethanol production, …

A thunderous 'No!' to faux guacamole

A Krafty concoction of hydrogenated goo gets its day in court.

Do I live in an ethanol bubble? Yes I do, for another day or so. But I'm coming up for air for long enough to give the finger to Kraft, the world's largest branded food conglomerate, for ripping off and desecrating one of the world's greatest food items. Kraft's heinous Guacamole Dip contains about 2 percent avocado, which is a little like marketing a Martini with 2 percent gin and the rest, well, corn liquor (ethanol). A woman in California is suing Kraft, arguing that the "guacamole" claim fraudulently promised an avocado-based concoction, and instead delivered, well, industrial goo designed to look avocado-y. Does she have a case?

The Ethanol Bill

Congress prepares to soak the 2007 Farm Bill in ethanol, to the delight of agribiz.

"You can have Republicans and Democrats absolutely in lockstep agreement on certain issues in the farm bill, and it has nothing to do with parties. These issues tend to be commodity-driven," gushed USDA chief Mike Johanns. Uh-oh. Looks like a good old-fashioned "bipartisan consensus" has formed: time to use the 2007 Farm Bill as a tool for maximizing ethanol production -- which evidently doesn't already draw enough government support.

An interview with David Pimentel

Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University. David Pimentel. Photo: Chris Hallman / Cornell University Photography. In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee’s conclusion: ethanol requires …

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