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The Vatican Has a Farm, and Pope Francis Is Going to Open It Up to the Public

Just 15 miles outside Rome, Castel Gandolfo is a local-food paradise.
The Vatican Has a Farm, and Pope Francis Is Going to Open It Up to the Public

A visit to a local farm has become something of a sacred rite for any number of farmers market enthusiasts. But the Vatican has announced what promises to be a bona fide agro-religious experience: public access to the papal farm outside Rome. Who knew the pope was a locavore?

Pope Francis has decided to open the farm at Castel Gandolfo to public tours next year, after similar guided excursions of the formal gardens surrounding the papal summer residence proved popular, reports The Associated Press.

No doubt plenty of devout Catholics will be eager to see where the Holy Father gets his tomatoes. But at a time when a nagging wariness in both Europe and the U.S. over the ramifications of industrial-scale agriculture has spawned something of a cult for smaller, more organic farms, the farm at Castel Gandolfo would seem like heaven on earth.

Just 15 miles southwest of Rome, the estate is perched in the rolling hills overlooking the clear waters of Lake Albano, amid the sort of picture-perfect Italian countryside that, for centuries, has been a retreat for emperors and popes alike. Pope Pius XI established the farm in the early 1930s, and it adheres to mostly "traditional"—if not strictly organic—growing practices. Farm manager Giuseppe Bellapadrona termed the agricultural practices “natural” when writer Anne Hanley visited the farm for back in 2012.

“We use copper sulfate to fight fungal diseases. And of course, the manure from our animals goes back into the soil,” Bellapadrona told Hanley. “And if, for example, we have a plot of green beans with a bad attack of greenfly and it’s early in the season, we’ll dig up the plants, burn them, and start again in a different part of the garden. But if we don’t have time to do that, we will use chemical pesticides. Of course, we’re very careful about spraying well before harvest time.”

In what could be described as the envy of all CSAs, a van departs every morning from Castel Gandolfo to deliver the farm’s produce, eggs, dairy, and meat to the Vatican, where it is not only welcomed into the pope’s kitchen but sold as well at the Vatican supermarket that serves the employees of the Holy See.

Terraced vegetable gardens produce everything from artichokes and bell peppers to carrots and zucchini. Some 80 cows munch on local hay, grass, and clover (“nothing treated or processed”) in a shed made from spruce wood. They yield more than 120 gallons of milk each day, and the dairy production adheres to the same strict rules that govern the making of Parmesan cheese to the north. The “milking parlor,” according to Hanley, “is tiled in a restful, old-fashioned shade of lavender blue.” Meanwhile, the chicken coops are decorated with majolica tiles that detail “scenes of poultry life”—a bit of artistic embellishment that may pale in comparison with the Sistine Chapel but isn’t too bad for chickens.

Among the estimated $330,000 worth of food the farm produces each year is 320 gallons of olive oil, made in the traditional way from the olives grown on the property; the olives are crushed “in a wide, shallow basin with two immense stone wheels standing on end,” Hanley writes.

Talk about artisanal.

Congress Launches Stealth Assault on Progressive Food Policy

That $1.1 trillion spending bill was about a lot more than just keeping the government running.
Congress Launches Stealth Assault on Progressive Food Policy

More Americans than ever care about the impact their everyday food choices are having on the environment—but don’t tell that to Congress.

In a legislative body in which a raging climate denier is poised to take the helm of the Senate’s leading environment committee early next year—that would be Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.—it perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise that our democratically elected lawmakers have once again allowed politics to trump science. Though that doesn’t make it any less disheartening. Even more infuriating is that conservatives appear to be trying to advance their radical agenda on the sly.

Tucked into the massive $1.1 trillion spending bill recently passed by both the House and the Senate are a number of retrograde measures—intended to mollify Big Ag and its allies while throwing up a bunch of roadblocks against progressives trying to move the country toward a saner food policy.

First on the list: a “congressional directive” that instructs the Obama administration to ignore any environmental factors as it works to issue a new set of national dietary guidelines next year.

Never before has any administration taken into account the impact of its dietary recommendations on the environment; this year marked the first time that the government-appointed panel of nutrition experts decided to consider the environmental ramifications of their proposed guidelines.

That was a huge step in the right direction, especially given the mounting data that show, for example, just how much global warming pollution is caused by livestock production. In all, agriculture consumes half of all the arable land in the U.S., as Timothy Searchinger, a researcher with Princeton University, points out at NPR, and farming is a major source of greenhouse gases. “That doesn’t mean farmers are bad,” he says. “It means that eating has a big impact on the environment.”

But Congress doesn’t want the Obama administration to examine any of that when it comes to formulating the guidelines that “are the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and education,” as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services characterizes them.

Not only that, but the spending bill also prohibits the government from requiring farmers to report “greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems,” according to The New York Times, or from requiring ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits from methane released from their operations. This despite that agriculture is the primary source of methane emissions—and methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon.

As if that weren’t enough: The Times reports, “The spending bill requires the E.P.A. to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act.”

As Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, crowed in the Times, “This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into their operations.”

Simpson is right about one thing: The spending bill was a major victory—for the Big Ag status quo.

Can Organic Farming Feed a Hungry Planet?

Yields prove close to those of conventional ag in a recent study—but we need to think beyond the harvest.
Can Organic Farming Feed a Hungry Planet?

Long touted as the only sensible alternative to an industrial agriculture system that has wreaked all sorts of environmental havoc, organic farming has nevertheless been forced to limp its way through the debates surrounding the future of our global food supply. The notion of farming without chemicals is dogged by an Achilles' heel of epic proportion: Simply put, you can’t feed the planet with organic farms. At least that's what the critics say.

Yet that bit of so-called conventional wisdom has been subjected to renewed scrutiny by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. In a study published this week, a team from the school’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management found that the gap in crop yields between organic and conventional farming isn’t as wide as has been reported, and that certain organic farming practices may cut the gap even further.

On average, the study finds, organic yields are 19 percent lower than conventional ones, although researchers say that difference can be cut almost in half through organic multi-cropping (growing several crops together in the same field) and crop rotation. The difference also varies widely depending on the crop.

That’s a significantly rosier picture for organic farming than, say, the one portrayed by a controversial 2012 study, which found organic farms produced, on average, 25 percent lower yields than conventional ones.

The Berkeley researchers analyzed the results of 115 studies comparing the yields of organic and conventional farms, a data set they say is three times larger than used in similar analyses conducted previously. They stress that many of the studies they reviewed were often biased in favor of conventional agriculture, suggesting that the average yield gap may be even lower.

Is that any surprise? That we now refer to the chemically intensive, increasingly GMO-reliant form of agriculture born out of the technological revolutions of the 20th century as “conventional” is itself enough to convey Big Ag’s sweeping success in dominating the global farmscape. It’s hard to study the effectiveness of any alternative when alternatives are hard to find. Despite the surge in popularity of things like farmers markets and the local food movement, less than 1 percent of agricultural land is organically farmed.

Naysayers will no doubt charge that a 19 percent gap in yield is still a 19 percent gap. Whatever the environmental ills associated with industrial agriculture, it would seem an act of eco-suicide to switch to organic farming if it means we’d need to plow under nearly 20 percent more land (i.e., forest and other natural habitat) to produce the same amount of food. That doesn’t even taken into account the 2 to 3 billion more people the world will need to feed over the next 30 years.

But the argument that we need to amp up production to feed a growing population is as oversimplified as it is outdated. Claire Kremen, senior author of the Berkeley study, suggests as much: “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet,” she said in a statement. “Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production.”

As the United Nations has reported, roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide goes to waste every year; the estimated 40 million tons thrown away annually in the U.S. alone could satisfy the demand of the world’s 1 billion malnourished people, according to food waste activist Tristram Stuart.

Thus, we don’t need to produce more food; we need to work harder to get the food we already produce into the mouths of those who need it.

Big Ag’s relentless drive to boost yields tumbles even further down the global priority list when you consider how many of the crops we produce don’t actually feed people directly but livestock, which gobble up an outsize proportion of natural resources. On average, it takes 11 times more fossil-fuel-based energy to produce a single calorie of animal protein than it does to produce a calorie of protein from grain. As Parke Wilde noted at Grist, in response to the 2012 organic-versus-conventional-farming study, “Producing more grain is not the same as feeding the world.”

“Any time the high yields of U.S. corn production are mentioned, it should be noted that most U.S. corn goes to ethanol and animal feed,” Wilde wrote. “If the goal is to feed the world, then most of the calories produced in Iowa cornfields are squandered already, and this loss matters more than the organic yield penalty matters.”

'No Antibiotics Ever' for Chicken Served in 6 Largest U.S. School Districts

New standards will put meat raised without drugs on the trays of nearly 3 million students.
'No Antibiotics Ever' for Chicken Served in 6 Largest U.S. School Districts

Can you supply hundreds of thousands of schoolkids with their daily dose of chicken nuggets and fight a growing public health menace at the same time? Apparently, you can.

Today the Urban School Food Alliance announced plans to make antibiotic-free chicken the new norm in the lunchrooms of the six largest public school districts in the country.

This is big news: All told, these districts serve nearly 3 million kids every day, and you know chicken-as-finger-food is surely one of the most popular items on the menu. Not only that, but by marshaling their collective purchasing power—which amounts to more than half a billion dollars a year on food and supplies—the coalition is establishing a huge institutional market for antibiotic-free chicken that smaller districts nationwide may soon be able to take advantage of as well.

“The standards we’re asking from the manufacturers go above and beyond the quality of the chicken we normally purchase at local supermarkets. This move by the alliance shows that school food directors across the country truly care about the health and wellness of students,” Eric Goldstein, USFA's chairman, said in a statement. Goldstein is also the CEO of school support services for the New York City Department of Education, which makes up the alliance along with the school districts of Los Angeles; Chicago; Miami-Dade, Fla.; Dallas; and Orlando, Fla.

The new chicken standards, which were developed with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, not only call for “no antibiotics ever” but also require birds to be raised humanely, in accordance with the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines, and to be fed an all-vegetarian diet with no animal by-products in the feed.

Beyond the pragmatic issue of creating an outsize market for antibiotic-free chicken, it's particularly poignant that what we’re talking about here is lunches for kids. After all, it’s their future that we’re mucking up with what’s become an epidemic of Big Ag’s overreliance on antibiotics.

Even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction” in the face of the alarming spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the Food and Drug Administration has utterly failed to come up with new regulations that experts believe are capable of adequately curbing the antibiotic free-for-all on factory farms.

Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on animals—and these drugs aren’t even being utilized to treat sick animals. Instead, they’ve been routinely mixed with feed to prevent illness (in often overcrowded conditions) and to promote growth. What does all that antibiotic abuse add up to? Resistance. According to the CDC, 2 million Americans are already estimated to suffer an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, with 23,000 dying.

Antibiotic-free chicken isn’t the only new thing the USFA is looking to serve up in the coming year. In 2015, the alliance’s members plan to trade out the 270 million landfill-choking polystyrene serving trays they use every year, replacing them with compostable trays made from sugarcane. The group is investigating a switch to compostable utensils as well. While such innovation might be cost-prohibitive for one school district alone—even one as large as, say, Chicago’s, the largest in the nation—it becomes feasible when you combine the purchasing power of six huge school districts, which is the whole reason the alliance was formed back in 2012.

“We pay about 4 cents for a foam tray, and compostable trays are about 15 cents—but volume is always the game changer,” Leslie Fowler, the director of nutrition support services for the Chicago school system, told The New York Times last year. “We want to set the tone for the marketplace, rather than having the marketplace tell us what’s available.”

Should We All Become Vegans to Stave Off Climate Change?

A new report adds to the growing body of evidence that our appetite for meat is causing chaos for the environment.
Should We All Become Vegans to Stave Off Climate Change?

If you have even an iota of an environmental conscience, the issue of global warming no doubt crosses your mind every time you, say, fill up your gas tank or get on an airplane. But what about when you order a cheeseburger?

Even as worldwide demand for meat continues to grow, our collective carnivorousness is clobbering our climate—and most governments appear to be too chicken to do much about it.

That’s the takeaway from a new report released by Chatham House, an international think tank based in the U.K. Livestock production accounts for a substantial amount of our greenhouse gas emissions—14.5 percent, to be precise—which is more than what’s produced by all sources of transportation combined.

Climate scientists widely agree that to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we have to keep the rise in average global temperatures below two degrees Celsius. Yet as the Chatham House report states, recent analyses have shown it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stay below that threshold “without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.”

Indeed, as the Environmental Working Group chronicled in its own study of the issue a few years ago, global meat production tripled between 1971 and 2010, while the population grew at a comparatively slower pace. “At this rate, production will double by 2050 to approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of meat per year,” the EWG report states, “requiring more water, land, fuel, pesticides and fertilizer and causing significant damage to the planet and global health.”

Two other studies published this year (one out of the U.K. and one from Sweden) suggest that if current farming trends such as the runaway production of meat continue, emissions from the agricultural sector will gobble up the world’s entire carbon budget by 2050.

Yet, almost no one seems to be talking about it.

“Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,” Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author, tells the Guardian.

Despite national and international efforts to curb emissions from other major sources of greenhouse gas pollution, such as power plants and transportation, there have been almost no serious attempts to cut such emissions from agriculture. Just three countries—Brazil, France, and Bulgaria—have established quantitative targets to reduce livestock-related emissions.

Getting people to associate that juicy rib eye with climate change may seem like a tall order, but a concerted campaign to educate the public about just how bad meat (especially beef) is for the climate would seem relatively easy compared with, say, overhauling our power supply.

But while many national governments appear willing to at least try to tackle other sources of greenhouse gas pollution, they seem wary of possibly coming off like tsk-tsking nannies meddling in people’s decisions about what they eat. “A number of factors, not least the fear of a backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaign to shift consumer behavior,” notes the Chatham House report.

Yet in the first international survey on the issue, commissioned for the report, it appears the global public might well be receptive to such a message—if only they knew their meat-eating was causing a big problem.

The online survey included respondents from 12 countries, ranging from rapidly developing nations such as Brazil, China, and India to established economies including the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Generally, people were far less likely to identify livestock production as a significant contributor to global warming than other sources, even as an average 83 percent agreed that human activities contribute to climate change (U.S. respondents were the least likely to agree).

Notably, participants who were aware of the climate impact of meat consumption were more than twice as likely to report that they had taken action to reduce the amount of meat they ate or were likely to do so.

The Chatham House report comes less than a month after researchers at the University of Minnesota released their own study looking at the impact of global diet trends on both public health and climate change. This latest report gives a nod to the public health consequences as well, noting that “diets high in animal products are associated with increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer” while letting us know that if we all shifted to eating, on average, just three ounces of meat a day—the amount recommended by the Harvard healthy diet—we could avoid 2.15 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions.

That combined focus on personal health and the health of our climate may be important in convincing the public to cut back on meat, particularly in developing countries, where meat consumption is expected to rise the most but also, hearteningly (and embarrassingly for Americans), where the public appears more receptive to rethinking what they eat, according to the Chatham House survey.

If you need one more takeaway stat to make the case, consider this from the report: “A study for the U.K. suggested that dietary GHG emissions in meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans.”

Go Fish: A Next-Gen Rooftop Farm Is Set to Sprout in New York

VertiCulture Farms seeks to bring aquaponic agriculture to Brooklyn.
Go Fish: A Next-Gen Rooftop Farm Is Set to Sprout in New York

It says something good about the direction we’re heading when reports of a new rooftop farm cropping up somewhere like New York doesn’t feel exactly like news. But the new farm envisioned by VertiCulture Farms cofounders Ryan Morningstar, Miles Crettien, and Peter Spartos several stories up in Brooklyn manages to take the burgeoning trend to a whole new (and, yes, newsworthy) level.

Early in November, the trio launched a funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise $10,000 to create what appears to be New York’s first commercial-scale aquaponic rooftop farm, where they plan to not only raise locally grown herbs and vegetables, but also fresh fish. With just hours to go (as of this writing), they’ve already surpassed their goal by $1,000, and it seems they plan to waste no time in putting that cash to good use—they’ve already invited donors to tour the farm come mid January.

The new VertiCulture farm will be set atop a converted industrial building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Outfitted with fish tanks and vertical grow beds, the farm will yield the equivalent of 380 square feet’s worth of produce in just 120 square feet of space. It’s an ingenious little manmade ecosystem, really: The tilapia provide the nutrients that feed the plants, while the plants filter the fish’s water. (VertiCulture is even investigating how to close the loop completely by figuring out how to raise food for the vegetarian tilapia on-site.)

“When we look out at Brooklyn, we see opportunity,” Crettien says in a promo video for the VertiCulture funding campaign. “We see the potential for commercial-scale farming that will grow enough food to feed the people who live here directly.”

He’s not alone, of course. Back in 2010, Brooklyn Grange began a project that would eventually become the world’s largest rooftop urban farm, sprawling some 2.5 acres across two rooftops in Brooklyn and producing a whopping 50,000 pounds of organic produce each year.

Yet even with the proliferation of such success stories, there’s plenty of opportunity for more. In a city that reigns as one of the most densely populated on earth, where soaring demand has pushed luxury condo towers ever higher—and sent real estate prices into the stratosphere—New York’s rooftops remain a largely untapped resource. As The New York Times reported a while back, there's almost a billion square feet of rooftop across the city, most of which persist as desolate asphalt wastelands.

Which is a shame, because we know that green roofs have all sorts of environmental benefits, including dramatically reducing heating and cooling costs, and soaking up rainwater (up to 90 percent in the summer), which prevents all that runoff from swamping the city’s aging storm sewers.

And if you’re going to go green on the roof, why settle for the equivalent of a suburban-style lawn when you can actually raise food you can eat? You can’t get much more locally grown than hauling your vine-ripened tomatoes down the elevator to distribute to residents below.

It’s this aspect that makes the VertiCulture project even more outstanding, because in addition to ticking off all the boxes when it comes to sustainability, the project’s founders also plan to serve Brooklynites who haven’t exactly been part of the borough’s whole organic/artisanal/foodie renaissance.

“New York is a place that’s rich in opportunity and at the same time ridden with inequality,” Morningstar says in the video. “You walk through some neighborhoods and there are farmers markets, CSA pickups, Whole Foods. Then you walk through other neighborhoods, and the only place you can get fresh produce is a bodega.”

To help remedy that, VertiCulture’s team wants to sell its harvest at nearby farmers markets as well as establish a sliding-scale CSA for the local community.

“We are really a social-mission-driven company,” Morningstar tells Brooklyn Magazine. “One of the things we really want to do is to provide fresh, affordable food for people who don’t necessarily have the best access to it.”

Get Inspired: Former NFL Star Leaves Football to Farm for the Hungry

Jason Brown left the spotlight on the field to be a philanthropic farmer.
Get Inspired: Former NFL Star Leaves Football to Farm for the Hungry

With all the controversy surrounding its handling of domestic violence, not to mention the whole issue of traumatic brain injuries, the NFL could use some good off-the-field news for a change—and the league could not have dreamed up a better headline maker than former star center Jason Brown.

A couple years ago, Brown walked away from a multimillion-dollar pro career that had started when he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2005 after playing college ball for the Tar Heels. He became a free agent in 2009 and signed a five-year, $37.5 million agreement with the St. Louis Rams. Three years later, he quit—and decided to become a farmer and raise food to feed the hungry.

“My agent told me, ‘You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,’ ” Brown tells CBS News. “And I looked right back at him and I said, ‘No I’m not. No I’m not.’ ”

With the “100-percent” support of his wife, Brown bought a thousand-acre farm back in his home state of North Carolina, then proceeded to figure out how to, well, farm it.

“Get on the Internet. Watch YouTube videos,” is how he describes his agricultural education.

When word of his project got out, others stepped in to help, including a seasoned local farmer from down the road who gave Brown some tips and two others who donated a bunch of sweet potato plants.

“You look over a sweet potato field, and you don’t see a crop,” Brown told the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer. “The vines are kind of wilting. There is nothing to pick. You’ve got to have faith.”

Earlier this month, Brown’s big leap of faith paid off when he harvested a bumper crop of 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes—all of which he gave away. And there were still more spuds to harvest.

On the first harvest weekend, volunteers with the Society of St. Andrew—a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to recovering food from farms that might otherwise go to waste and distributing it to food banks—dispatched nearly 200 people and 13 trucks to Brown’s First Fruits Farm, and even then, they were almost overwhelmed by the bounty.

“Saturday was simply a wonderful day, but...we’re in over our heads,” Rebecca Page, a coordinator with Society of St. Andrew, told News & Observer. “Potatoes are the perfect food, and there is such a great need.... I know that it is all good and that this is wonderful, but when you are in the middle trying to organize something this big, there is some anxiety. We need a lot of help, but a lot of people are going to get food.”

Brown’s turn to farming may at first seem surprising, but he’s not alone—his former teammate Will Witherspoon, a Rams linebacker, is now raising grass-fed beef on his own farm in Missouri. (Go, Rams!) Not only does his work challenge some rather unsavory stereotypes about NFL players while being ridiculously inspiring, it shines a spotlight on the heroic-yet-undersung efforts of an organization like Society of St. Andrew, whose “gleaning network” has already gathered more than 20 million pounds of produce this year, all of which will go to feeding the hungry.

Long before the issue of food waste became an environmental cause célèbre, the group has been salvaging produce from farms across the nation that would otherwise be left to rot—edible, nutritious food that nevertheless fails the aesthetic test imposed by the commercial market. The organization then works with established food-distribution groups, such as food banks, to get all that produce onto the plates of the neediest folks.

According to Natural Resources Defense Council, 20 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. never make it off the farm, and the waste just piles up from there. From farm to kitchen, Americans end up throwing away more than half of the fresh produce grown. Reducing the total amount of food we waste by just 15 percent would be enough to feed 25 million people.

It’s something to think about as we all stock up to celebrate Thanksgiving, as are Brown’s sentiments, which he shared with his local paper: “I look out over this farm and see such a blessing. This has been more than I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed more than I blessed others.” 

New Tech Venture Seeks to Tackle Global Food Crisis

But one of the big names behind Farm2050 is a little troubling.
New Tech Venture Seeks to Tackle Global Food Crisis

It pretty much goes without saying that over the past generation, the tech industry has revolutionized the way we live in ways both big (um, the entire Internet) and small (ordering pizza through your Xbox). But one enormous area of supreme significance to human existence has, to a fair degree, been left out of the tech revolution: agriculture.

Now a coalition led by Innovation Endeavors, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s venture capital fund, and hardware tech firm Flextronics Lab IX is looking to change that. Dubbed Farm2050, the collective aims to “support AgTech startups with capital, design, manufacturing, and test farms to try out their innovations,” all in a bid to stave off a global food crisis.

As Lior Susan, Flextronics’ Head of Lab IX, tells TechCrunch: “It’s still not sexy to do agriculture. You don’t see IPOs and big acquisitions that pull Sand Hill into the game.” (For those not versed in Silicon Valley–speak, “Sand Hill” is shorthand for the road that’s home to a bunch of prominent venture capital firms.)

Dror Berman, managing director of Innovation Endeavors, adds: “You see a concentration where 90 percent of entrepreneurs are focused on 10 percent of the problems. Agriculture has been really underserved. You can build a ton of technology companies here that really matter.”

That all sounds great. After all, you probably don’t need to peruse the gloomy predictions of global policy wonks to know that the human population isn’t declining, while the amount of arable land isn’t getting any larger. Estimates vary about just how dire the situation is: The Farm2050 website says we’ll need to increase food production by 70 percent to feed the world’s expected population in 2050, ten billion people, while the World Bank puts those numbers at 50 percent and 9 billion. Then there's the recent National Geographic report that says we’re looking at a 100 percent increase in production to feed 9.5 billion people.

No matter which set of stats you choose, the numbers don’t look good.

So why not put the collective genius that has given us everything from next-generation smart-grid technology to manage the nation’s power supply to next-day delivery of your Chia SpongeBob from Amazon to work solving one of humankind’s greatest dilemmas?

Here’s what gives me pause: As sleek and seductive as the Farm2050 website is, it's maddeningly vague on specifics. In particular, it gives no theoretical framework for what sort of criteria it might use to select which ag-tech start-ups to support. That may be a sort of open-ended invitation intended to encourage all ideas, but it would seem any discussion of how the world might feed an additional 2 to 3 billion people would have to take into account how we might do it without destroying the planet in the process.

Despite plenty of green on the Farm2050 website—an extreme close-up of a leaf, a hand cupping green beans—there’s nary a word about environmental sustainability being a factor here, which gives it a whiff of the kind of greenwashing you find on big agribusiness websites. What do you know? Lo and behold, the ag industry giant DuPont is one of Farm 2050’s signature partners.

DuPont is the world’s third-largest chemical maker and a major developer of GMO crops. It is, in short, one of the “big six” multinational companies that essentially dominate global agriculture. As the Pesticide Action Network puts it:

Between them, Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont control the global seed, pesticide and agricultural biotechnology markets. This kind of historically unprecedented power over world agriculture enables them to control the agricultural research agenda; dictate trade agreements and agricultural policies; position their technologies as the ‘science-based’ solution to increase crop yields, feed the hungry and save the planet; escape democratic and regulatory controls; subvert competitive markets; and in the process, intimidate, impoverish and disempower farmers, undermine food security and make historic profits—even in the midst of a global food crisis.

Those companies were the tech wizards of their day, unleashing on the world a “green revolution” that promised a worldwide bounty of record-breaking crop yields through the wonders of industrialized agriculture. But dumping hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on farmland caused significant damage. It turns out, for example, that the increasingly heavy assault of pesticides and herbicides is killing off key pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies, while the nitrous oxide that forms through use of nitrogen-based fertilizers is a potent greenhouse gas. As Jonathan Foley writes for National Geographic, “Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined.”

Thus, without some sort of baseline criteria that might make the environmental ramifications of any future ag technologies an important consideration—or better yet, setting forth as a key objective the development of technologies that could both increase our global food supply and mitigate agriculture's huge environmental footprint—Farm2050 flirts with repeating the mistakes of the past: namely, letting the dazzle of tech innovation blind us to the laws of unintended consequences.

Conservatives Want to Take People's Food Stamps Away—Again

Meanwhile, a new report shows why low-income Americans need the program now more than ever.
Conservatives Want to Take People's Food Stamps Away—Again

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a time of year when the thoughts of many Americans turn to those less fortunate. Conservatives on Capitol Hill, emboldened by the Republicans’ outsize victory in the midterm elections, have turned their thoughts in that direction too—though their attention is one of the few things struggling Americans don't need.

“It’s never too early to start on the next farm bill,” Rep. Mike Conaway, the next chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told Politico. Considering that the legislation won't be up for renewal until 2019, the Texas Republican is taking preemptive aim at one of conservatives’ favorite love-to-hate federal programs: food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

You may recall the bruising and painful debate over the last farm bill earlier this year—and in particular, the aggressive campaign by conservatives in the House to cut a whopping $40 billion from SNAP. Conaway was among the majority in the House that voted for $20 billion in cuts, an amount that got reduced to $8.6 billion in a compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But while politicians continue to focus on the price tag of the social safety net, a new report released this week by Oxfam America and Feeding America adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that what should be an oxymoron in the richest country on earth—to be working poor—has instead become an intractable way of life for millions. 

The new report offers a portrait of the Americans who must resort to private food charities like food banks to feed their families every month. “While many of us think of those using food banks as destitute or homeless, the reality is much different,” the authors write.

Despite such signs that hunger is a concern for a broad swath of voters, politicians like Conaway can’t wait to slash away at SNAP, although he’s careful to couch his bloodlust in the rather bloodless bureaucrat-ese conservatives so often use to downplay their radical agenda.

“We ought to do a soup-to-nuts review of the entire program,” he told Politico. “What works? What doesn’t work? Are there moral hazards baked into the system? Where can the system do a better job? You spend $80 billion [per year] on a program, it ought to work.”

Never mind the program is working. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Its error rates stand at record lows; fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.”

Still, as Conaway’s allusion to “moral hazards” suggests, conservatives are obstinate in their belief that the food stamp program is rife with cheats, and a shadowy horde of Americans are loafing about, gobbling up hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

“What I’d like to be able to say is, at the end of the effort, that the food stamp program is now judged on the success basis, not on how long you can stay on the program,” Conaway told Politico. In other words, success should be determined by how fast SNAP beneficiaries “can get off [the program] and get back on their own two feet and take care of their families.”

There’s only one problem with that timeworn, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps logic: Conaway and his fellow conservatives are making it increasingly hard, if not impossible, for low-income Americans to do just that.

According to the Oxfam–Feeding America report, some 54 percent of all households that sought help from a food pantry or the like had at least one member who had been working in the last year; 20 percent had at least two members who were employed. Yet only 17 percent of households with full-time employment were able to earn more than $30,000 in a year.

Who are these people? They’re single mothers like Noel, who manages a fast-food restaurant full-time and also attends school while struggling to raise her three kids. Or single dad Derek, who works in security for the St. Louis transit system. Or Cary and Nick, who are both ski patrollers in Portland, Oregon, and the parents of two kids. “Despite the fact that each of us worked and worked hard, we did not have the resources to buy our children the nutritious, healthy food they needed to grow strong,” Cary says in the report, talking about the couple’s decision to seek help at a local food pantry. “It was difficult to walk through those doors. But ultimately it was about my children and my family’s future.”

Then there’s Jeff and his wife, both college educated and raising their two kids in North Carolina. During the recession, the only work Jeff could find was a minimum-wage job. “I was lucky to have any work at all, but minimum wage isn’t enough to support a family of four,” Jeff says. “We tried to trim our budgets anywhere we could, but we still couldn’t find the money we needed to feed our kids.”

Jeff’s family qualified for SNAP, and like half of the households with employed adults that responded to the survey, they receive food stamps (in addition to relying on private charities). Jeff even echoes Conaway when he says, “Food stamps are a critical resource that help families like mine get back on their feet again, and on the road to a better life.”

The dismal reality, though, is that for many Americans, that road is in as bad a shape as our ever crumbling infrastructure.

“Compared to other wealthy nations, the United States has the highest proportion of workers in low-wage jobs,” the Oxfam–Feeding America report states. “Overall, since the recession, lower-wage jobs have grown by 2.3 million while medium- and higher-wage jobs actually contracted by 1.2 million.” The U.S. Labor Department predicts that nearly half of the 15 million jobs the economy is likely to add over the next decade will be low-wage.

This is the dirty little secret of our lumbering economic recovery, which goes a long way toward explaining why, despite falling unemployment rates, the rate of food insecurity among U.S. households has remained stubbornly high, close to the dramatic spike that occurred after the economic collapse in 2008.

Analysts say raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would lift 5 million or more of the nation’s working poor out of poverty—but don’t count on conservatives like Conaway to get behind that anytime soon.

Is Eating Out Really Less Healthy Than Home Cooking?

A new study says yes—but the difference might be less than you think.
Is Eating Out Really Less Healthy Than Home Cooking?

If you need another way to convince yourself not to order takeout for the second or third night this week, science may be here to help. In addition costing more, eating out regularly may be more unhealthy than cooking at home. 

In a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who regularly cooked at home consumed fewer calories and carbs on average, as well as lower amounts of fat and sugar.

“If a person—or someone in their household—cooks dinner frequently, regardless of whether or not they are trying to lose weight, diet quality improves,” wrote authors Julia Wolfson and Sara Bleich, both of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This is likely due to the relatively lower energy [i.e., calorie], fat, and sugar contents in foods cooked at home compared with convenience foods or foods consumed away from home.”

What with the steady drumbeat of criticism leveled at restaurant chains by nutritionists and public health advocates for the often outlandish, gut-busting concoctions that populate menus these days (“Bruléed French Toast”—need I say more?), such findings hardly come as a shock. And consumers seem to have gotten the message: A survey released last year found that, for the first time, consumers were citing health concerns as their number one reason for eating out less, as opposed to budget constraints. Another report from the industry consulting firm NPD Group found the number of Americans eating at restaurants in 2014 has dipped to a 20-year low, despite the ecomonic recovery.

But what might be most surprising about Wolfson and Bleich’s findings is that the nutritional difference between home cooking and restaurant fare is not as hefty as you might think.

To come up with their results, Wolfson and Bleich crunched data from the 2007–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of those behemoth polls that asks a legion of participants a bunch of nosy questions about their diet and excercise habits. In this case, there were more than 9,000 participants, aged 20 or older.

The researchers found that just under half of those surveyed—48 percent—cooked dinner almost every night of the week. For 8 percent of respondents, it was essentially the exact opposite: On average, they cooked dinner one night a week or less.

Those who cooked at home most frequently consumed a daily average of 2,164 calories, 81 grams of fat, and 119 grams of sugar. Those who apparently use their kitchen counter primarily to collect junk mail averaged 2,301 calories, 84 grams of fat, and 135 grams of sugar a day.

Thus, people who ate out several times a week consumed an average of 137 more calories, 3 additional grams of fat, and 16 more grams of sugar. 

What does that equate to in the real world? Well, a single Nature Valley chewy granola bar (vanilla yogurt, to be exact) has 140 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar. That’s hardly the whopper of a difference you might have expected.

Wolfson acknowledged that the study didn’t consider what people meant by “cooking” when they said they cooked at home, according to the account in Time of her presentation at the APHA meeting. And as last month’s NPD report “Eating Patterns in America” puts it, “Americans now get eight out of 10 meals from home, but that does not mean that we are cooking more meals in our home.”

“You can see how Americans are making their lives easier, despite the economic limits, by looking at the foods and beverages that have become a part of more American diets,” NPD Group vice president Harry Balzer said in a release. “The real ‘Foods of the Decade’ are not hummus, quinoa, nor kale, and not even Sriracha.” Rather, they’re proccesed convenience foods eaten in the comfort of your own home instead of in a restaurant.

Among the seemingly disparate group of top 10 foods and beverages NPD found Americans consuming more of, there are some that seem healthy enough (yogurt, bottled water, fresh fruit) but more that aren’t (pizza, frozen sandwiches, potato chips and, oddly, store-bought pancakes).

“What’s the real preparation to consume these 10 items? A spoon for the yogurt and maybe a fork and knife for the pancakes!” Balzer says. “We are still leaving the cooking to others.”

So while it would be woefully premature to let America’s restaurant chains off the hook for their contribution to the ongoing obesity crisis, perhaps the next frontier is convincing Americans that what they think of as “healthy home cooking” may not be much more healthy at all.