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Articles by Tom Philpott

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

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  • The dirty truth about Canada’s famed oil sands.

    [W]hen Canada announced in 2004 that it has more recoverable oil from tar sands than there is oil in Saudi Arabia, the world yawned. There is estimated to be about as much oil recoverable from the shale rocks in Colorado and other western states as in all the oil fields of OPEC nations. Yes, the cost of getting that oil is still prohibitively expensive, but the combination of today's high fuel prices and improved extraction techniques means that the break-even point for exploiting it is getting ever closer.
    --From "The Oil Bubble," Wall Street Journal editorial, Oct. 8, 2005

    Actually, with oil prices nestled comfortably above $60 per barrel, the oil giants are tapping Canada's famed tar sands, as this interesting NYT piece by Clifford Krauss shows.

    "Deep craters wider than football fields are being dug out of the pine and spruce forests and muskeg swamps by many of the largest multinational oil companies," Krauss reports. "Huge refineries that burn natural gas to refine the excavated gooey sands into synthetic oil are spreading where wolves and coyotes once roamed."

    Note well: They're burning natural gas to get at this stuff.

    Krauss adds:

    About 82,000 acres of forest and wetlands have been cleared or otherwise disturbed since development of oil sands began in earnest here in the late 1960's, and that is just the start. It is estimated that the current daily production of just over one million barrels of oil--the equivalent of Texas' daily production, and 5 percent of the United States' daily consumption - will triple by 2015 and sextuple by 2030. The pockets of oil sands in northern Alberta--which all together equal the size of Florida - are only beginning to be developed.

    Be sure and click on the article's multi-media link comparing the environmental depredations of producing a barrel of artificial oil from sands with those of conventional crude production.

    The only way this process can make economic sense for the oil giants is if they succeed in externalizing these costs -- i.e., shuffling them off of their balance sheets.  

  • A small farmer ruminates on consolidation in the global seed market.

    According to a recent study by ETC Group, the world's ten largest seed vendors control about half the global seed market.

    By current standards, that's a modest concentration level. In the U.S., for example, the top four beef packers pack more than 80 percent of the nation's beef. Microsoft famously owns more than 90 percent of the world's computer operating system market. Consolidation of markets is as American as the SUV and the Apache helicopter.

    Nevertheless, seeds lie at the heart of all organized food production, and thus at the heart of human culture for the past 10,000 years. Perhaps the seed trade deserves a closer look.

  • Why the environmentalists shouldn’t ignore the ground beneath their feet

    "Common as dirt," goes the old insult. Despite its antique nature, the saying may sum up industrial (and post-industrial) society's take on soil: low, squalid, filthy, annoyingly abundant, beneath dignity and respect.

    Consider the zeal to clean, to wash, to sterilize and scrub. Claudia Hemphill, a doctoral student in environmental science at the University of Idaho, has been doing some interesting work on the recent social history of soil. As U.S. society mutated from primarily rural to overwhelmingly urban and suburban in the span of less than a century -- today less than 3 percent of the population engages directly in agriculture -- dirt came to be demonized, Hemphill argues.

    By the dawn of the 20th century, when immigrants (many of them former farmers) and our own displaced rural populations flocked to U.S. cities, they found themslves confronted with a stark public-health slogan: "Dirt, Disease and Death."

    A society washing its hands of agriculture didn't want dirt clinging to its trousers. Hence the cult of detergent.

  • ‘Naked Chef’ dresses down U.S. school lunches, demands ‘real food,

    Ten years after sustainable-food doyenne Alice Waters launched her innovative Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, U.S. school lunches remain abysmal. In cafeteria kitchens throughout the land, de-skilled workers busy themselves opening cans and zapping pre-made meals in giant microwaves. Out on the floor, kids swill soda and dig their little hands into bags of fried stuff that may have, somewhere far way, once resembled food.

    Waters' effort remains laudable, but it's limited to one school. No public figure, no celebrity chef riding the waves of a Food Network show and the opening of an eponymous restaurant in Vegas, has bothered to make decent school lunches a national crusade.

    Enter Jamie Oliver, the "Naked Chef" of U.K. TV and cookbook fame.