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Articles by Tom Philpott

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

All Articles

  • How the UN’s FAO tacitly supports environmentally and socially ruinous commodity agriculture

    This post originally appeared on Bitter Greens Journal.

    In business terms, a commodity is a useful item, produced in bulk, with no characteristics that distinguish it from others of its kind. What brand of DVD player do you own? Few people know. DVD players have become a commodity; they're all pretty much the same.

    In commodity markets, prices tend to drop over time. Personal computers, for example, have steadily fallen in price over the past 15 years. Remember when "IBM or Macintosh?" meant something? Now it's "PC or Mac," and PC controls upwards of 90 percent of the market. In commodities markets, the producer that can churn out the most product at the cheapest price wins. Dell clawed its way to the top of the PC market by streamlining production and squeezing its suppliers for price breaks as it gained heft. Producing a great, innovative product had nothing to do with it.

    It's counterintuitive to me that we would surrender something as sensual and poetic as food production to the brutal economics of commodity markets. Food a commodity? Nonsense!

    Well, it is. Last year, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization released a report called "The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets." It provides an interesting look at what happens when food is treated as a commodity, and what role international aid organizations play in propping up the system.

  • How can junk-food makers label goods laden with partically hydrogenated oil

    Long a staple of industrial food processors, partially hydrogenated oils are widely known to have health-ruining effects.

    After decades of looking the other way as study after study emerged documenting this phenomenon, the FDA is finally making moves to at least encourage consumers to avoid them. The industry is already retrenching, removing the vile stuff from popular junk-food products, often heralded by a "0 Grams Trans Fat" label on the package.

    Restaurant chains such as McDonalds' own Chipotle Grill have followed suit. Archer-Daniels Midland and Monsanto have even forged an evil alliance to market a genetically altered, trans-fat-free soybean oil that mimics some of the properties manufacturers have come to love about partially hydrogenated oil.

    Yet does any of this mean anything at all?

    I ask because many potato/corn chip labels I've seen declare "trans fat free" in one place and then casually list partially hydrogenated oil on their ingredient lists. Don't believe me? Check this out.

    From what I can tell, when a fat has undergone partial hydrogenation -- making it solid at higher temperatures, mimicking that grand and blameless ingredient, butter -- it becomes a trans fat. For practical purposes, trans fat and partially hydrogenated oil are synonymous.

    How do they get away with it?

  • GM seed manufacturers create conditions that will force their acceptance

    This post first appeared on Bitter Greens Journal.

    Maverick Farms, where I work, lies on a dirt road halfway up a steep hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Twenty years ago all the land around here was agricultural. Each family generally had a couple of milk cows, a pig or two, and a garden plot to feed themselves; for cash, they planted cabbage (to be sold to a nearby sauerkraut factory, long gone) and tobacco.

    All of that has changed. The word "farm" has become a marketing tool to move real estate, and little else. The only other entity with "farm" attached to its name on our road is "Clark's Creek Farm" -- a suburban-style subdivision.

    Our area is a magnet for SUV-driving second-home seekers and the real-estate flacks who serve them. Up the road from us, the dirt flies as machines rip into the mountainside to create new lots for fancy homes. Starting at about 7:00 a.m., the rooster's hoarse cry is drowned out by the steady roar of giant trucks careening up the mountain, carrying construction material and machinery.

    Nearly everyone up there wants the road to be paved -- it would make construction so much easier, and you could comfortably drive your SUV faster than 20 mph to get up and down the mountain. We say: Hell, no. We're joined in our refusal by two neighbors, people with deep family roots in the area who don't want to see our holler turned into a suburb of Orlando or Charlotte. We refuse to sign the papers that would force the road's paving.

    In the end, we will lose and the developers and second-homers will win. They will have forcibly created the logic that makes the road's paving "necessary." Carve enough mini-mansions into the mountainside, cram the road with enough construction trucks and "utility" vehicles, and of course it will have to be paved. It will become a safety issue. The road as it is will have to be condemned; a handsome strip of asphalt will rise up in its place. Progress! And goodbye to our chicken shed and springhouse.

    I tell this bitter story to illustrate what's going on with genetically modified (GM) food in Europe. Bear with me.

  • An internal audit exposes the USDA’s lax oversight of GM crop tests.

    In a press release last June, the anti-GMO watchdog group Center for Food Safety questioned the USDA's oversight of tests involving genetically altered crops. The agency had just greenlighted a biotech company's proposal to grow test plots of rice containing human genes on 270 acres in North Carolina and Missouri, right in the middle of large-scale conventional rice production.

    The press release quotes a CFS scientist thusly:

    With this approval, USDA has signaled that it thinks it's okay to grow drug-producing crops near food crops of the same type, despite the threat of contamination ... There have already been numerous examples of contamination of food crops by biotech crops, including pharmaceutical crops. Over time, such contamination of our food is virtually inevitable under the conditions allowed by USDA.
    The USDA brushed aside this complaint and plunged forward, asserting that it monitors such tests with all due care.

    According to a recently released internal USDA audit, though, the CFS had a point.