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Tom Philpott's Posts

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WSJ: China’s oil-demand surge slackens

Peak-oil enthusiasts and skeptics alike will find much to chew on in this page-one piece from today's Wall Street Journal. By all accounts, China's explosive energy-demand growth over the past several years has strained the ability of OPEC and other oil producers to keep up. Now, the Journal claims, that pressure shows signs of easing: This year, China is on track to account for about 16% of the world's new oil consumption, little more than half last year's share. The Centre for Global Energy Studies estimates that Chinese demand will rise by about 230,000 barrels of oil a day this …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The WSJ documents GM contamination

The Wall Street Journal came out with a terrific page-one article documenting "genetic pollution" -- the damage caused when genetically modified crops cross-pollinate with conventional crops. The article leads with an organic farmer in Spain whose sells his red field corn at a premium to nearby chicken farmers, who prize the product because it "it gives their meat and eggs a rosy color." (I'd be willing to bet that rosy color also translates to higher nutrition content.) Now the farmer is screwed -- his seeds, carefully bred over time, have become contaminated by GM corn from nearby farms. The rich …

Read more: Food

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Junk food: The Senate trashes organic standards

The Senate succumbed last week to food-industry pressure and approved a rider that would water down organic standards. (Grist's Amanda Griscom Little a few weeks ago ably laid out the context behind the Senate's surrender.) This AP article states that a Senate vote last Thursday ... ... unravels a court ruling on whether products labeled "USDA Organic" can contain small amounts of nonorganic substances. Earlier this year, an appeals court ruled that nonorganic substances such as vitamins or baking powder can't be in food bearing the round, green seal. As I understand it, the real issue isn't that baking powder …

Read more: Food, Politics

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Seedy business: A sustainable-ag champion gets plowed under at Iowa State

Is agribusiness behind the ouster of one of its biggest critics?

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and the nation's greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always had a tough row to hoe. Imagine trying to operate an Anti-Cronyism League from Bush's West Wing, and you get an idea of what the Leopold Center is up against. Industrial agriculture runs the show in Iowa, sustained by regular infusions of federal cash and its government-sanctioned ability to "externalize" the messes it creates. The state grabbed $12.5 billion in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2004 -- second only to Bush's …

Read more: Food

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Genetically modified TV

Ag giants launch new public-tv show that promises to be so bad it’s … bad

What do you get when Monsanto and the Farm Bureau (whose sorry politics are discussed here) team up with the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, the U.S. Grains Council, and the National Cotton Council (discussed here)? If your answer is vast-scale, heavily subsidized, environmentally ruinous agriculture, you have a point. But I was thinking of a different response: Television that promises to be so bad that it might qualify as camp. The above-mentioned crew have pooled funds to create a public-television series called America's Heartland. According to its website, the show is: [A] new weekly public television …

Read more: Food

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How now, organic cow?

USDA inaction supports feedlot-style

Consumers looking for milk from grass-fed cows can't rely on the USDA's organic label. As this Chicago Tribune article shows, the department has been allowing feedlot-style mega-dairies to claim organic status -- despite a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board that it close existing loopholes. Access to pasture lies at the heart of any meaningful definition of organic farm-animal stewardship. Grass-fed cows produce a healthier product, they're easier on the environment, and they're not forced to live miserable lives completely enslaved by the mechanized milker.With organic milk sales booming and demand unable to keep up with supply, it's no …

Read more: Food

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Organically groan: working conditions on California's organic farms

Organic farms don’t treat workers any better than other farms

As Grist's own Amanda Griscom Little recently reported, a trade group representing Kraft and Dean Foods has been quietly pushing Congress to tweak organic labelling standards to make them more friendly to food-processing giants. Thankfully, the Organic Consumers Association has led a fight, so far successful, to stymie those changes. While it's important to preserve the organic label's integrity on the supermarket shelf, it's just as important to interrogate what it means in the field. An interesting study published in UC Davis' Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter sheds much-needed light on that issue. The study examines the attitudes of California organic growers …

Read more: Food

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A well-oiled machine

Big ag is energy intensive and has no plans to change

Big Ag is nervous about energy costs. The hand-wringing reveals much about the energy-intensive nature of industrial agriculture -- and its lack of imagination regarding alternatives. Even before the latest big runup in oil prices -- incidentally, oil had reached $60 per barrel before Hurricane Katrina trashed the Gulf of Mexico -- farmers were feeling the pinch. Here's an Associated Press article from May laying out the energy story in terms dictated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which not inaccurately calls itself "the voice of agriculture." It has only forgotten to add a few compound modifiers: vast-scale, heavily subsidized, …

Read more: Uncategorized

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Food (r)aid: NYT's Celia Dugger on the 'Iron Triangle'

Most U.S. food aid goes up in smoke

Celia Dugger, my favorite New York Times reporter, had another knock-out article in yesterday's paper. Titled "African Food for Africa's Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress," the piece lays out the absurd tangle of laws that govern the United States' food-aid program. Rather than send money to Africa to buy food from African farmers to relieve hunger there, generating a little economic development in the process, U.S. policy stipulates that "American generosity must be good not just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture," Dugger reports. Thus all U.S. food aid must utilize food grown on domestic soil. But …

Read more: Uncategorized

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The supermarket goes south

Supermarkets push to the southern hemisphere, driving farmers out of business

The United States has made two great contributions to world cuisine over the last century: the fast-food franchise and the supermarket. Temples of the cheap-food revolution, both institutions flourished in the 20th century, offering consumers convenience and the cachet of fast life. At the height of the post-war prosperity boom, before the yuppie-led backlash, fast-food and the supermarket occupied the cutting edge of food fashion in a rapidly suburbanizing nation. At a Grocery Manufacturers Association convention in 1962, an air of hubris and self-celebration held sway that would not have been out of place at, say, a tech trade show …

Read more: Uncategorized