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Can a Wonka-Like Trick Make Candy Taste Just as Good With Less Sugar?

Nestlé is hollowing out molecules to cut the sugar content of its candies nearly in half.

As any calorie-conscious holiday reveler knows, it’s hard not to be a bit naughty during a season when so many sweets abound. Wouldn’t it be nice to indulge with a little less guilt? Well, maybe in a few years.

In what would appear to be a game-changing innovation for the multibillion-dollar candy industry, global giant Nestlé announced Thursday it has discovered a way to reduce the amount of total sugar in its confections by up to 40 percent—without changing the taste.

The secret, in layperson’s terms, is to alter the structure of sugar molecules—hollow them out, so to speak—so that they dissolve faster on your tongue. A quicker dissolve means your brain’s raging sugar craving gets satisfied with less sugar, because it perceives just as much sweetness on your tongue as if you were savoring whole molecules.

Nestlé is taking pains to emphasize the altered sugar is still, well, sugar—all natural, nothing artificial. In other words, we’re not talking about any of those pesky artificial sweeteners that have garnered their own negative press during the past several years.

The company is keeping mum about any further specifics because it is in the process of patenting its discovery—for which it presumably spent a pretty penny. Nestlé says it has one of the largest research and development apparatuses of any food maker in the world, with some 40 R&D facilities spanning the globe employing more than 5,000 workers.

In recent years big food makers, such as big soda, have come under pressure to rein in their products’ sky-high sugar content owing to growing concerns about the effects of consuming too much sugar on our public health. The World Health Organization, for example, now recommends that consumers limit their consumption of added sugars to 10 percent of daily calorie intake and further encourages a more extreme reduction to 5 percent. For the average adult, a single Nestlé Butterfinger, which has nearly 30 grams of sugar, torpedoes the 5 percent limit and puts you more than halfway toward the 10 percent limit.

Nestlé’s innovative “hollow” sugar would seem poised to go a long way toward helping the company meet its goal of reducing sugar content across its brands by 10 percent. Nestlé was slated to meet that goal sometime this year but has reported that “we may have to extend the work on this commitment beyond 2016.” As of the end of last year, the company was less than halfway there. Yet the promise of being able to slash sugar in its candy by up to 40 percent while not sacrificing taste may provide a needed jolt to reaching its sugar-reduction goals—and maybe even beating them. Still, public health experts have cautioned against perceiving the reduced-sugar candy as somehow healthier, which could simply encourage consumers to eat more of it.

But we can worry about that later. After all, Nestlé says it has no plans to start rolling out products containing its newfangled sugar until at least 2018.

  • Food
  • The Fight for $15 Celebrates Its Fourth Anniversary with New Protests

    A federal minimum wage increase may be unlikely under President Trump, but low-wage workers have already won major victories.

    Here’s today’s $62 billion question: Does progressive social activism really work?

    Three weeks after the stunning outcome of the presidential election sent left-wing progressives reeling, scores of low-wage workers and their allies have taken to the streets in cities across the country to mark the four-year anniversary of the first protests in the Fight for $15 movement. Back in 2012, some 200 fast-food workers in New York walked off the job to make what many at the time thought were impossible demands: a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right to unionize.

    It wasn’t just that these workers wanted to more than double the federal minimum wage that made their cause seem quixotic. No matter how much anyone may have sympathized with them, one didn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to wonder how some of the lowest-paid, most politically disenfranchised workers in America might be expected to take on corporate titans like McDonald’s and Walmart and their legions of lobbyists in Washington.

    With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and a billionaire just elected president, the future of the Fight for $15 might, at first glance, seem pretty grim, and yes, the federal minimum wage is stubbornly fixed at $7.25 an hour—just as it has been for the past seven years.

    But as reports roll in of dozens, if not hundreds, of protesters being arrested today in cities from New York to Detroit to Chicago, it’s worth considering how far the Fight for $15 has come in four years.

    An analysis released this week by the National Employment Law Project found that since the Fight for $15 began, low-wage workers have won a staggering $61.5 billion in annual raises—thanks in large part to minimum wage increases in big states like California and New York, as well as in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The cumulative raise thus far, in a relative handful of states and municipalities, is 10 times larger than the total raise workers received across all 50 states back when Congress approved a three-year hike in the federal minimum wage in 2007.

    The momentum seems to keep going. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington all approved minimum wage increases in those states during the last election. Just as significant, the Fight for $15 movement has succeeded in making its rallying cry resonate across the country, transforming what seemed a pie-in-the-sky demand into a moral imperative, a cause that every American who thinks that no one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty can get behind.

    Does that include President-elect Donald Trump? While early in the campaign Trump notoriously said that wages in America were “too high,” by convention season last summer he appeared to have backpedaled—maybe even flip-flopped. Trump is on the record as saying the federal minimum wage “has to go at least $10.” Whether the candidate who built his victory on the backs of working-class voters will take on the entrenched business interests of his party to hike the federal minimum wage remains to be seen—but as today’s nationwide protests suggest, the Fight for $15 continues.

    “We won’t back down until we win an economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few at the top,” Naquasia LeGrand, a McDonald’s worker from Albemarle, North Carolina, said in a statement from the organization. “Working moms like me are struggling all across the country and until politicians and corporations hear our voices, our Fight for $15 is going to keep on getting bigger, bolder and ever more relentless.”

  • Food
  • Eligible Immigrants Aren't Applying for Food-Stamp Benefits

    New research shows that very few eligible citizens and legal non-citizens of Mexican heritage are taking advantage of SNAP.

    What about the kids? It seems that’s a question we should start asking ourselves sooner rather than later, specifically in the context of the ugly political rhetoric surrounding immigration these days, and what effect that will have on one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States: the children of low-income Mexican families. Early-warning signs point to a crisis whose consequences could be felt for years.

    Timely research published this month by the journal Social Science Research analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found only 17 percent of low-income households that included both noncitizen and citizen Mexican immigrants participated in the federal food stamp program, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s nearly half the rate of low-income native U.S. households. Among low-income households consisting solely of Mexico-born noncitizens, the rate was a scant 1 percent.

    Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that when we talk about “noncitizen Mexican immigrants” here, we’re not talking about undocumented immigrants. Despite the reams of insidious propaganda coming from alt-right America regarding the supposed drain on our social services caused by illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive a dime in food stamps.

    Rather, we’re talking about Mexican immigrants with legal status. A household of both noncitizens and citizens—a “Mexican mixed citizen” household, in demographic-speak—might include, for example, Mexico-born parents with a green card and children who were born here.

    The SNAP eligibility requirements for noncitizens can be complicated, which is one reason why the participation rate among noncitizens might be substantially lower than that for native-born citizens (coupled with a potential language barrier). This in and of itself is a tragedy, considering that any child who is a U.S. citizen living in a household that falls below the income threshold for SNAP is eligible to receive food stamps, as is any nonnative child with legal status.

    Where all this gets ominous, though, in the aftermath of the election and the hostility surrounding immigration is when you consider an analysis published last fall by Stephanie Potochnick, assistant professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Potochnick also authored the Social Science Research study, but previously she found that the risk of food insecurity for Mexican noncitizen households with children was sharply higher—10 percent—in communities where local law enforcement targeted undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation versus similar households in more tolerant communities.

    “Evidence suggests that local-level immigration enforcement can generate fear and reduce social service use among Hispanic immigrant families who often live in the shadows, making it difficult to understand the health impacts of such policies,” Potochnick said last fall.

    Yet if the fear ignited by a Trump-emboldened anti-immigrant sentiment—much less the president-elect making good on his promises to ramp up deportations—causes rates of SNAP participation among otherwise eligible low-income Mexican immigrant households to fall further, that would be a crisis, indeed.

    Simply put, SNAP works—and it works really well for kids. Despite having become a regular lightening rod for conservative criticism, SNAP is among one of the most efficient social service programs we’ve got, and it has exceptionally low rates of fraud or abuse. More than 93 percent of SNAP funds go directly to food benefits; the rest—less than 7 percent—go toward administering those benefits.

    The vast majority of SNAP recipients are the working poor, the elderly, and the disabled—and children. Lots of children. In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in any given month, one in four children in the United States receives SNAP benefits. Nearly a third—yes, a third—of preschoolers participate in SNAP. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence out there concerning the impact of hunger on childhood development, it comes as little surprise that children who benefit from SNAP are more likely to do better in school and to complete high school than low-income peers who don’t receive benefits. They’re also less likely to suffer from ailments such as heart disease and obesity as adults.

    So yes, as the country’s specious immigration debate rages on, it seems we should be asking “What about the kids?”

  • Food
  • Morgan Spurlock Is Opening His Own Fast-Food Restaurant

    Holy Chicken! promises to serve the exact opposite of the unhealthy foods the filmmaker criticized in ‘Super Size Me.’

    Believe it or not, it’s been 12 years since Morgan Spurlock achieved fame by chronicling the effects on his body during his monthlong, self-imposed experiment consuming a McDonald’s-only diet, which became the film Super Size Me. After all, the image from the movie poster—a wide-eyed Spurlock, his mouth stuffed with french fries—hasn’t quite disappeared from our collective cultural consciousness. What’s the renegade director up to nowadays?

    It may come as something of a surprise (and yet, no surprise at all) to learn that Spurlock is gearing up to open his own fast-food restaurant in Columbus, Ohio—a relative hop, skip, and a jump from his home state of West Virginia. The “no surprise” part? Rather than the tangled global supply chains and dubious claims to sustainability that often characterize fast-food chains, Spurlock’s Holy Chicken! promises grab-and-go grub that is “made and backed with integrity and openness, including closing the loop in sustainability by raising our own chickens,” according to a company statement. “The food is not only hormone free, it’s antibiotic free, cage free, free range, farm raised, humanely raised and 100 percent natural!”

    Spurlock “is determined to prove that fast food doesn’t have to be unhealthy,” reported IndieWire. He’s a little late to the game.

    Super Size Me—along with Eric Schlosser’s best-selling 2001 book, Fast Food Nation—brought a new level of skepticism to the fast-food industry, transforming the public perception of a mainstay of American popular (food) culture from, at worst, a guilty pleasure into something more like an insidious social ill. But Spurlock’s latest venture might seem like a latecomer to the revolution his film helped to inspire.

    Year after year, growth in the fast-casual segment of the U.S. restaurant industry—which includes popular chains, like Panera Bread and Chipotle, that have made fresher, healthier, more sustainable eating central to their business model—has outstripped growth for conventional fast-food chains overall. In 2015, fast-casual restaurants grew 11.6 percent, according to the market research firm Technomic, just a slight dip from the 13.5 percent growth rate posted the year before. Those are about double the rate for the restaurant industry as a whole.

    There’s been an explosion in quick-serve restaurants offering kale-and-grain alternatives to the classic burger and fries and plenty of feel-good variations on the burger-and-fries classic as well. In Boston, for example, at b.good you can get an “all-natural, house-ground” burger made from beef sourced from a “Maine-based co-op of family farms.” While these trendy lunchtime haunts often cluster in the hip urban hubs of blue state America, the big players have hurried to hop on the food-with-integrity bandwagon too. Hardly a week seems to pass without one chain or the other announcing a commitment to antibiotic-free chicken or cage-free eggs or no artificial ingredients. For any number of commentators, that McDonald’s, the target of Spurlock’s landmark documentary, now has kale on the menu would suggest that the tipping point toward healthier, more sustainable fast food in America has come.

    Not so fast.

    Among the many characterizations of Donald Trump that have been made, it would seem the prospect of his soon being sworn in as America’s “fast food president,” per a New York Times article, should perhaps be among the least of progressives’ worries. Yet as with so many of our president-elect’s retrograde positions, his unapologetic embrace of Big Macs and buckets of KFC can be seen as part of his nativist movement’s crusade to “retake” American culture. This would, in part, seem to include a repudiation of the Obama-era emphasis on healthier, more sustainable fare and a restoration of McDonald’s Super Size option as one of those things that might just make America great again.

    After Spurlock cuts the ribbon at Holy Chicken!, he might consider a rerelease of Super Size Me—if only as a refresher course in why we needed a fast-food revolution in the first place.

  • Food
  • Organic Farming in the U.S. Is Now Bigger Than Ever

    The number of certified organic acres in the country rose by more than 10 percent over the past two years.

    More than 4 million acres of U.S. farmland now are devoted to organic agriculture, according to a new report from the market research firm Mercaris, a record that marks an 11 percent increase over two years ago. The number of certified organic farms is close to 15,000, rising just over 6 percent since 2014.

    While it may not be shocking that hotbeds of consumer demand for organic food such as California and New York are among the leading states in the total acreage of organic farmland—with 688,000 acres, California is No. 1—Montana, Wisconsin, and North Dakota rounding out the top five is something of a surprise. Montana’s 30 percent increase of 100,000 acres of organic acreage since 2014 bumps it into the No. 2 spot, while North Dakota’s increase of more than 40,000 acres pushes it past Oregon, which now ranks sixth. Colorado and Texas round out the top eight.

    To be sure, the amount of organic cropland in the U.S. remains but a sliver of the total overall. Organic corn, wheat, and soybeans each account for less than 1 percent of the total number of acres planted with each crop. The largest organic crop, oats, accounts for 3.6 percent of all the oats grown in the U.S.

    But double-digit growth in organic farmland is nothing to sniff at, and as you might expect, it’s a trend fueled by a consumer demand for organic products that continues to boom. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products grew almost 11 percent last year, the fourth straight year of double-digit growth. Compare that with the relatively meager growth rate of the market for food products overall (3.3 percent in 2015), and you can see why big food companies such as General Mills are committing themselves to expanding their organic offerings—which in turn is driving them to launch programs aimed at increasing the amount of organic farmland in the U.S.

    “I think we will see more of an impact of those programs in the next few years as more farmers start the transition process [to organic],” Alex Heilman, sales associate at Mercaris, told Civil Eats.

    As more Americans make the switch to buying everything from organic eggs to organic cereal, it has created something of a paradox: The U.S. exports more grain for animal feed than any other country in the world, but because so many of our crops are conventionally grown—i.e., genetically modified and sprayed with pesticides—those same crops can’t be used in the production of organic food at home. Thus, the U.S. has been forced to import an increasing amount of organic feed from other countries. Imports of organic corn, for example, tripled over the last year, according to Bloomberg News, and it is primarily used as feed for dairy cows to help meet Americans’ demand for organic milk, which has tripled since 2007.

    In a week that has been consumed by election news and in a country trying to come to grips with Donald Trump’s upset win over Hillary Clinton, it can seem like small potatoes to go all rah-rah over a report that organic acreage has hit a record high in the U.S. While there’s ample reason for progressive-minded folks who have been advocating for a more sustainable food supply to despair over the sort of setbacks a Trump administration might pose—for example, cutting funding to the federal programs designed to help farmers make the transition to organic—it’s also worth remembering that we don’t just vote our conscience every two or four years at the polls; in our market-based economy, we vote every day with our wallets.

    Organics have long benefited from a kind of halo of healthy goodness. But when it comes to promoting sustainable agriculture and its related environmental benefits, committing to buying organic when you can is one of the best things you can do—whether we’re talking about avoiding GMOs or reining in the amount of toxic agrochemicals polluting our land and water. After all, a company like General Mills isn’t getting ready to launch a program devoted to increasing the amount of organic farmland out of the goodness of its heart; it’s doing it because consumers are essentially calling for it every time they choose organic oatmeal over conventional. Small choices really can add up to big differences.

  • Food
  • The Other Carbon Tax: Why Meat Eaters Should Pay More for Beef

    Researchers propose a 40 percent tax on products made from cattle to offset emissions and declines in public health.

    How much extra should you be paying for your hamburger to compensate for all the damage that the all-beef patty is doing to our climate? How about 40 percent more?

    That’s the figure put forth this week by a team of British and American researchers in a provocative study that argues we should be putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to addressing the significant amount of global warming pollution generated by food production—especially livestock.

    About a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from raising food, and much of it can be tied to the production of meat. The global beef industry is particularly egregious, from its massive clearing of carbon-storing forests to the cattle’s odious production of methane, which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon.

    As such, the authors of the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, propose what would essentially be a 40 percent carbon tax on beef. Taking into account the climate effects of other types of foods, the researchers likewise propose a 20 percent tax on milk, 15 percent on lamb, 8.5 percent on poultry, 7 percent on pork, and 5 percent on eggs.

    Marco Springmann, a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University and lead author of the study, told The Guardian, “It is clear that if we don’t do something about the emissions from our food system, we have no chance of limiting climate change below 2˚C”—that is, below the level climate experts say is necessary if we want to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

    Yet addressing food-related emissions has often been overlooked in the debates surrounding climate change—even at the landmark international climate summit in Paris last year. This, despite that global livestock production alone accounts for as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles combined, according to a report published last year by Chatham House, a British think tank. The trend lines don’t bode well for the future: Consumers in industrialized countries consume twice as much meat as medical experts deem healthy; in the U.S., it’s three times as much. Forecasts predict global meat demand will increase by 76 percent in the next 30 to 40 years, and as a result, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock could cancel out or even exceed reductions made in other sectors.

    By design, the taxes proposed in the recent study dovetail with medical research, with higher rates assigned to foods that have a greater impact not only on the climate but on our health as well. All told, the authors say, the taxes could cut an estimated 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere each year while preventing more than 500,000 early deaths from heart disease, stroke, and other diet-related diseases.

    No doubt, if the battles over things like soda taxes are any indication, levying a carbon tax on American middle-class staples such as ground beef and milk is a tough sell—and that may be an understatement.

    Still, for Springmann, who last year was the lead author of another study showing we could cut climate pollution by 70 percent if the entire world went vegan, the choice is clear. “Either we have climate change and more heart disease, diabetes, and obesity,” he told The Guardian, “or we do something about the food system.”

  • Food
  • Agriculture Hasn’t Made Much Progress on Its Promise to End Deforestation

    A new report shows that more companies are making commitments to curb clear-cutting, but there isn’t much follow-through.

    Lots of talk but little concrete action—that seems to be the takeaway from a report published this week examining the progress made in tackling the global agriculture industry’s devastating effect on the world’s forests. In short, farming is making forests disappear.

    An average of more than 32 million acres of forest continues to be lost each year, according to the United Nations. Whether trees are cleared to produce palm oil, which goes into everything from ice cream to margarine, or to raise the feed to satisfy a growing global demand for beef, agriculture is the biggest driver of that destruction. Four major commodities alone—palm oil, wood, cattle, and soy—account for 40 percent of deforestation.

    In 2014, as part of a U.N. climate summit in New York, a group comprising national and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, indigenous groups, and more than 50 large multinational corporations signed on to the New York Declaration on Forests. The (non–legally binding) plan set out the ambitious goal of cutting forest loss in half by 2020 and ending it altogether by 2030.

    That the plan emerged from a climate summit points to a critical—yet often overlooked—battlefront in the fight against global warming. Yes, forests are important in their own right. They provide habitat for upwards of 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species and primary sustenance for more than 1.6 billion people. But forests also store massive amounts of carbon—and they release massive amounts of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere when they’re destroyed, presenting a sort of climate-change double whammy.

    If we could meet the goal of stopping deforestation altogether, we’d cut between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion tons of carbon pollution each year, the U.N. estimates—as much as all the current emissions from the United States.

    But is progress being made? When it comes to reining in global agriculture’s destruction of forests, the answer would largely seem to depend on just what kind of optimistic person you are.

    The good news: More companies than ever have made some kind of pledge to reduce deforestation in their agricultural supply chains, according to the new report released this week by a coalition of nonprofit groups led by the organization Climate Focus. In just one year, the number of companies making such commitments increased 43 percent.

    Yet the majority of those pledges don’t come with deadlines for meeting their goals, and fewer than half the companies surveyed report that they are in compliance with their own deforestation policies—the very sort of foot dragging that can seem particularly disheartening at a moment when 2016 is burning up the record books, on track to be the hottest year since...2015.

    “What we now need, if forests and climate are to be saved, is action on commodities with the biggest forest impacts, and an increase in partnerships between companies and governments, and among retailers, traders, and producers that pool resources to save forests,” Charlotte Streck, director of Climate Focus, said in a statement.

    While half the companies dealing in palm oil and wood have made commitments to curb deforestation, it’s the cattle and soy markets that are the real laggards. Fewer than a quarter of corporate commitments regarding deforestation concern the production of soy, the vast majority of which is used for animal feed, and a mere 12 percent of commitments concern the production of cattle.

    It’s a finding that would seem to dovetail with a slew of research surrounding the outsize impact of our collective appetite for beef (and, to a lesser extent, other types of meat) on our planet’s climate. A study out of Oxford University published earlier this year, for example, found that if everyone on the planet were to become vegan, we’d cut climate pollution by 70 percent between now and 2050.

    Fat chance of that. But as the landmark international agreement on climate adopted in Paris last year goes into effect, it seems we might all do well in whatever corner of the world we find ourselves to ask whether that juicy hamburger is really worth the cost to our climate after all.

  • Food
  • Will New GMO Potatoes Really Require Fewer Pesticides?

    The USDA approved new varieties of genetically modified spuds just days after a major investigation once again called the technology into question.

    Consumers seeking to satisfy their salty snack cravings sans genetically modified ingredients may soon have to get savvier about scouting out chips and other products made without the use of GMO potatoes. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally approved two new types of genetically engineered potatoes, both of which were developed by Simplot, the Idaho-based spud giant. (A third GMO variety was previously approved by the department.) Now, pending what amounts to a fairly cursory review by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the company expects all three GMO strains to be available to farmers for planting next spring.

    It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that over the past two decades, the agriculture industry in the United States has wholeheartedly embraced GMO crops with gusto. Almost all the soy and corn grown in the U.S.—upwards of 90 percent for both crops—is genetically modified. Same goes for canola. More than half of sugar beets are also grown from GMO seeds.

    The same cannot be said for potatoes. Indeed, field tests of an early GMO potato variety sparked one of the first protests against the technology back in the late 1980s, and the industry remained largely GMO-free. It was just last year that the potato industry began planting a GMO variety on a commercial scale, a cultivar also developed by Simplot and named White Russet.

    The three new varieties—Ranger Russet, Atlantic, and Russet Burbank—follow that first generation in that they are designed to minimize bruising and black spots as well as reduce the amount of a chemical that is potentially carcinogenic that develops when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures. The trio of 2.0 cultivars have also been engineered to resist the pathogen that causes late blight, the disease that led to the great Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century, and for “enhanced cold storage,” a trait that may be of particular interest to potato chip makers, according to The Associated Press.

    “We obviously are very proud of these,” a Simplot spokesperson told the AP. The company says it only used genes from other potatoes to create its GMO varieties, such as a gene from an Argentine potato that yields a natural defense to blight.

    As agro-tech companies have done since the dawn of the GMO revolution, Simplot is touting a promise that its GMO spuds will allow farmers to dramatically reduce the amount of chemical pesticides they’re forced to spray—in this case, by up to 45 percent. Maybe so. But there are signs that public skepticism against such claims is growing ever more widespread, like that the damning results of a New York Times investigation published last weekend under the not-so-subtle headline “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” shot to the top of the newspaper’s list of most emailed articles.

    The Times takes to task two of the biotech industry’s dominant claims about the need for GMO crops: First, that genetic modification is essential if we’re going to grow enough food to feed the planet’s burgeoning population, and second, that by engineering crops to resist common pests while withstanding the application of herbicides, those crops would in turn require fewer dangerous chemical inputs.

    Well, it’s been 20 years since Monsanto and other companies rolled out their first GMO crops on a wide scale. So how has it all worked out? The Times compared crop yields and agrochemical use in Canada and the U.S.—where, as mentioned, GMO crops are widely grown—with those in Western Europe, where greater public hostility toward the technology led to many GMO crops being banned. The investigation found farmers in North America seem to have “gained no discernible advantage in yields” through their adoption of genetically engineered crops. Yet herbicide use among U.S. farmers has risen by 21 percent; in France it has fallen by 36 percent. Although use of insecticides and fungicides has indeed dropped by a third in the U.S., it has fallen by more than double that rate in France.

    As you might expect, the biotech industry strongly disputes the Times analysis, saying it relies on “cherry-picked data.” Yet even Matin Qaim—an independent academic at the University of Göttingen in Germany whose work Monsanto and other companies often cite to buttress their claims—offered an assessment that wasn’t exactly aligned with the industry’s PR spin: “I don’t consider this to be the miracle type of technology that we couldn’t live without,” he told the Times.

  • Food
  • Will Robots Be the Butchers of the Future?

    Robotic meat-cutting machines could help automate an industry rife with labor issues.

    An army of knife-wielding robots capable of “deep learning” via algorithms and artificial intelligence may one day soon be taking over one of the most gruesome industries in America. That may sound like a horrifying, high-tech Halloween fantasy, but it’s poised to become a reality.

    Forget R2-D2, C-3PO, and that lovable pile of gadgets and gears in Short Circuit—no one’s going to want to get cuddly with the bots being deployed by New Zealand–based Scott Technology, which are of a decidedly more dystopian, nightmarish variety.

    Armed with vice-grip clamps and blades that mimic everything from a guillotine to Freddy Krueger fingers, the Scott robots are designed to make mincemeat—almost literally—of raw animal carcasses, specifically lamb, pig, and beef. As the company’s CEO, Chris Hopkins, told Business Insider, “Our goal is to have them in all the plants for beef and pork worldwide.”

    To that end, which Hopkins optimistically sees occurring over the course of the next 20 years, the company got a big boost when JBS, the world’s biggest meat processing company, bought a controlling share of Scott late last year for $41 million. Owing to higher per capita consumption of lamb in its native New Zealand and neighboring Australia, the technology company has focused on creating robots geared to lamb processing in those two countries. But it’s now working with JBS to bring the machines to lamb plants in the United States, as well as to develop robots that can process beef and pork.

    While automation is nothing new to the meatpacking industry, Scott’s robots are truly, er, cutting edge. “Unlike most machines, which use a preprogrammed carcass outline, Scott’s bots look at the shape of each individual carcass and make specific cuts accordingly,” according to Business Insider. “The technology’s algorithms also use deep learning, which means the bots can become smarter over time as they collect data about the carcasses they encounter.”

    As unsettling as it can be to watch Scott’s smart bots tear into a splayed carcass, even the most die-hard opponent of job-killing automation in American industry might be hard-pressed to object to more robots in the country’s meatpacking plants. The meat industry had a field day earlier this year touting the release of a federal report that showed the rates of injury and illness had significantly declined over the past decade among the nation’s legion of meat-processing workers—a decline the industry attributes, in part, to greater automation.

    But independent occupational safety experts and worker’s rights advocates were quick to point out the report’s rather glaring shortcomings. Specifically, as government investigators themselves noted, recent inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “suggest that more injuries occur than are reported, although the extent of underreporting is not known, and vulnerable workers such as immigrants and noncitizens may fear for their livelihoods and feel pressured not to report injuries.”

    Even so, the “official” rate of injury and illness for America’s meat-processing workers remains higher than that for manufacturing overall. Production lines run at seemingly breakneck speeds—50 hams per minute, say, or 140 chickens a minute—making the work both grueling and dangerous. As NPR recently reported, OSHA now requires plants to report serious injuries within 24 hours. During the first year the new regulation was implemented, the country’s four leading meat companies reported serious injuries at a rate of one every two and a half days. Meanwhile, meat-processing workers are also substantially more likely to suffer from less serious chronic but debilitating injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Of course, given a choice between rampant worker abuse on the one hand or a legion of “smart” blade-running robots dicing up pork shanks on the other, some may simply prefer a future that’s more...vegetarian.

  • Food
  • Farm Conservation Programs Cost Billions and Have Mixed Results

    The Environmental Working Group’s new database breaks down the allocation of federal funds for agriculture conservation.

    The federal government has paid farmers billions of dollars over the years to mitigate the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. According to new data published this week by the Environmental Working Group, $30 billion in taxpayer funds has been spent on conservation programs over the last decade—and the results are decidedly so-so.

    EWG has compiled the payments in excruciating detail in a comprehensive database. As it has done with farm subsidy payments, the group tracks—on a state-by-state, county-by-county level—exactly where the nearly $30 billion the federal government has spent over the last decade on agricultural conservation programs has gone.

    It seems like a lot of money—until you realize that in 2014 alone, taxpayers shelled out $14 billion for farm subsidies and crop insurance programs. During the past couple decades, we’ve spent $265 billion on those programs, mostly to benefit industrial-scale farming operations as opposed to small family farms, as watchdog organizations such as EWG have reported.

    That’s part of the point.

    “It’s more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for the generous farm and insurance subsidies they receive,” Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said in a statement.

    That it took more than seven years and 28 Freedom of Information Act requests for the group to collect this public data no doubt says something about the transparency of these programs, not to mention their sprawling complexity—which, in turn, reflects the myriad effects that agriculture has on the environment.

    It’s almost impossible to adequately summarize the things that federal conservation programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture, are intended to do. There are programs for minimizing soil erosion, preventing the loss of wetlands, reducing agrochemical pollution of drinking water, conserving wildlife habitat, and the list goes on.

    Yet while some conservation programs appear to be working on some level, EWG said, “too often the money is spread too thinly to counter the impacts of agriculture on our nation’s water, air and land.” The group notes that one program allows farmers to choose from among 350 conservation measures, while another offers 200 options—a “cafeteria-style” approach that gives farmers a pass to pick what they want to do rather than what might be most beneficial. “Results are hard to discern when public investment does a little for a lot of broadly defined ‘priorities,’ ” the group said.

    Oh, and did I mention? These programs are voluntary anyway; there’s no requirement that farmers participate.

    In effect, EWG argues that certain conservation measures, such as curbing the amount of polluted agricultural runoff pouring into public waterways, should be the cost of doing business for large-scale farms—not subsidized by taxpayers. When it comes to other programs, the group advocates for a more targeted approach focusing on conservation strategies that work as well as identifying areas or regions most in need.

    While we’re at it, why don’t we reward farmers who make long-term commitments to sustainability? Shouldn’t we incentivize switching to organic farming practices rather than continue to spend billions paying farmers to temporarily set aside land for “conservation,” only to plow it under again when crop prices rise?

    “Americans across the country are seeing the price of farm pollution firsthand,” Cox said. “It’s time for Congress to deliver a return on their tax dollars by requiring farmers who take money from these programs to do more to protect the environment and public health.”

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