Tom Philpott

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

Corn

Government-backed corn ethanol lurches on, paving a road to nowhere

During the Bush II administration, I used to groan that the closest thing we had to a concerted policy response to climate change was the federal government’s slew of goodies for corn-based ethanol. It was a monumentally depressing situation, because propping up corn-derived fuel is expensive and (despite industry hype) doesn’t actually do much, if anything at all, to mitigate climate change — but contributes actively to ecological disasters like the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” Now, two years into the Obama administration, we still have no concerted policy response to climate change, and the corn ethanol program abides, sucking …

Sustainable Food

Students fight to save innovative garden-based public school in Detroit

When I visited Detroit last summer, I found it to be a place of extremes. On the one hand, a city buckling under the weight of decades of deindustrialization, white flight, and abandonment — a city so gripped by economic malaise that it contained not even a single full-service supermarket. On the other, it also seemed a veritable beehive of community organizing, based mainly around urban agriculture. It’s not hard to see why the city’s community leaders have settled on urban ag. It takes two devastating problems — a surfeit of abandoned land, a lack of grocery stores — and …

Corn

Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture

In last week’s New York Times Magazine, the science writer Gary Taubes argues forcefully that a range of chronic health problems — heightened rates of obesity, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer — can be blamed on overconsumption of refined sweetener. It isn’t just the surge of empty calories that sweeteners provide that’s making us sick, Taubes argues; it’s also — and mainly — the way our bodies process them. Taubes acknowledges that the science around sugar metabolism isn’t fully settled. But he brings highly suggestive evidence to bear, and I find it convincing, with a couple of …

Factory Farms

Meat Wagon: Undercover video shows sick calves getting brains bashed in with pickax, and more

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. ——————- A grim ending awaits sick dairy calves on factory farms.Photo: Garrett ZieglerAs I’ve written so many times before, much of the dysfunction in our food system stems from its hyper-consolidation: It’s controlled by a handful of companies whose business models hinge on selling huge volumes of cheap food. When you make money by selling cheap, the whole game is about cutting costs. A system hinged on slashing costs can be counted on to produce a shoddy product, as well as all manner of unintended …

Industrial Agriculture

USDA moves to let Monsanto perform its own environmental impact studies on GMOs

“Everything looks A-OK. What a surprise!”Last August, Federal Judge Jeffrey White issued a stinging rebuke to the USDA for its process on approving new genetically modified seeds. He ruled that the agency’s practice of “deregulating” novel seed varieties without first performing an environmental impact study violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The target of Judge White’s ire was the USDA’s 2005 approval of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, engineered to withstand doses of the company’s own herbicide. White’s ruling effectively revoked the approval of Monsanto’s novel beet seeds pending an environmental impact study, and cast doubt upon the USDA’s notoriously …

Sustainable Food

Why the sustainable food movement should learn to love Nathan Myhrvold’s ‘Modernist Cuisine’

The most expensive cookbook you’ll (n)ever buyNathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine — in all of its six-volume, 2,438-page splendor — explicitly aims to “reinvent cooking.” Maybe it will; and it will almost surely reinvent a certain kind of high-end book retailing. It sells for a cool $625, and its initial 6,000-copy print run has already sold out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Myhrvold and his vast project have not been warmly received by the sustainable food movement. Alice Waters, the influential Berkeley restaurateur, dismissed the high-tech cooking championed by Myhrvold as a “kind of scientific experiment,” adding that “it’s not a kind of …

Industrial Agriculture

Should some pesticides be banned to protect bees? A USDA scientist dances around the question

Photo: Maury McCownAs I reported in January, the USDA’s top bee researcher, Jeffrey Pettis, has publicly revealed that he has completed research showing that Bayer’s blockbuster neonicotinoid pesticides, used on million of acres of crops across the country, harm honeybees even at extremely low doses. The revelation was significant because a growing number of U.S. beekeepers are worried that Bayer’s pesticides might be the key culprit in colony collapse disorder — the strange annual die-off of significant portions of the U.S. honeybee population. In December, a leaked document showed that EPA scientists had declared insufficient a previously accepted Bayer-funded study …

Industrial Agriculture

The American diet in one chart, with lots of fats and sugars

This is a non-interactive version of the chart. Also check out the interactive version, by Civil Eats and the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism News21 course.Over on Civil Eats, Andrea Jezovit has put together a terrific interactive chart on the U.S. diet. Using USDA data for “average daily calories available per capita, adjusted for spoilage and waste,” it tracks our eating habits since 1970, separating our foodstuffs into basic categories: grains, dairy, vegetables, fruits, proteins (“meat, eggs, and nuts”), added sugars, and added fats. For me, the most interesting categories are the latter two. They represent what could be called …

Farm Bill

Budget fight threatens to turn Farm Bill into Industrial Ag Bill

Will eco-friendly and people-friendly farm programs get steamrolled?Will the next Farm Bill, scheduled for passage in 2012, put public policy in service of a food system that works for farmers, eaters, and the environment? Well, optimism over federal food-policy reform never runs very high in sustainable-ag circles. The agrichemical lobby is flush with cash and friends in Congress and the White House. But the current budget fight is making a bleak situation look downright disastrous. It’s looking like the looming budget deal will slash funding for the few programs that currently counteract the Big Ag policy agenda. And while the …