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Tom Philpott's Posts


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 …


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 …


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 …


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 …


Startling new report shines light on farm labor conditions — and they ain’t good

Like a factory in the field, except for the wage protections, benefits, and union. Photo: Vera ChangMost corporations involved in the food business quietly benefit from the invisibility of U.S. farmworkers. Bon Appetit Management Co., a U.S. subsidiary of the U.K.-based, transnational catering giant Compass Group, has done something odd: It has partnered with the nation's leading farm worker's union, the United Farm Workers of America, to produce a blunt, important report on the conditions of farm labor in the United States [PDF]. How weird is that? Well, most of Bon Appetit's peers in the food industry prefer not to …


Spelt linked to cancer & other health problems, even as Big Ag muscles in on market [APRIL FOOLS]

Spelt: the silent killer? UPDATE: This is an April Fools' Day article, entirely made up, from the the baldness and gout to the lashed legionnaire. As far as we know, you can eat your spelt in good health and conscience. Phew. Every year, thousands of Americans reject wheat and turn instead to spelt, an ancient grain. Are they making a grave error? First, a bit of context. Domesticated from wild grasses in the Fertile Crescent (present-day Iraq) some 10,000 years ago, spelt eventually, after generations of seed selection by farmers, mutated into wheat. But even as new derivatives spun off, …

Read more: Food, Scary Food


U.K. guv takes threat of bee-killing pesticides seriously. Why doesn’t the U.S.?

Remember neonicotinoids? They're the widely used class of pesticides that an increasing body of evidence -- including from USDA researchers -- implicates in the collapse of honeybee populations. Neonicotinoids are marketed by the agrichemical giant Bayer, which reels in about $800 million in sales from them each year. Germany (Bayer's home country), France, and Slovenia have either banned their use outright or limited it severely. Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA has stood by its approval of them -- even though its own scientists have discredited Bayer's research purporting to declare neonicotinoids safe for bees, and the USDA's chief bee scientist, Jeff …


All about the food: The NYT on the ‘future of manufacturing’

Coffee roasting at San Francisco's Ritual: the future of manufacturing? Photo: Scott Beale of Liquid SquidI wanted to love Allison Arieff's New York Times opinionator piece on how "The Future of Manufacturing Is Local." It presents a vision of a world I want to live in: cities revitalized by small, artisanal manufacturing; a revival and revaluing of skilled labor; an upswing in regional identity based on people making cool stuff. In short, robust urban economies bristling with small businesses spawning new small businesses, as described by the great Jane Jacobs in the immortal "Efficient Manchester and Inefficient Birmingham" chapter of …

Read more: Cities, Food, Locavore, Urbanism


Organic matters

Organic farming just as productive as conventional, and better at building soil, Rodale finds

Organic agriculture is a fine luxury for the rich, but it could never feed the world as global population moves to 9 billion. That's what a lot of powerful people -- including the editors of The Economist -- insist. But the truth could well be the opposite: It might be chemical-intensive agriculture that's the frivolous luxury, and organic that offers us the right technologies in a resource-constrained, ever-warmer near future. That's the conclusion I draw from the latest data of the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial (FST), which Rodale calls "America's longest running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic …


Playing chicken

Study: Organic chicken carries significantly lower salmonella risk

Want it free of drug-resistant salmonella? Make it organic.Photo: sierravalleygirlThis study from the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety came out in November and has bounced around the internet, but for some reason I'm just now noticing it. It's worth a look. The researchers looked at broilers -- chickens raised for meat -- from "three organic and four conventional broiler farms from the same company in North Carolina," and tested their manure for salmonella. They also tested samples of their feed. Here's what they found: 38.8 percent of the conventional birds were carrying salmonella, versus 5.6 percent for the …