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Continue reading Sandwiches, Ranked
With virtually no dairy industry of their own making it, the Chinese have suddenly discovered the deliciousness of American cheese. The cheddar-y revolution has only just begun.
Continue reading Say Cheese—China’s New Obsession
Crystal-ball gazers looking for the future of food often start with this question: How the heck are humans going to grow enough food to feed our teaming masses without wrecking the planet? There are two assumptions embedded in that question: first, that we’re going to have trouble growing enough food; and second, that we must race to keep food production up to speed with population growth, rather than reining in population growth. In questioning those assumptions over the last two weeks, my focus has shifted. If we want to prevent famine and ecological collapse, we should be thinking primarily about poverty, not food. However, looking for ways to deal with poverty takes us right back around to increasing food production. If we fail to deal with poverty and hunger, Joel Cohen told me, we are (counterintuitively) consigning ourselves to explosive population growth. To make sure everyone gets a healthy portion of the world’s pie, he said, we’ll need a bigger pie (more food), fewer forks (level off population growth), and better manners (share more equitably). And while each of these approaches has its partisans, Cohen thinks we’ll almost certainly need all three. As I found previously, if you can help small farmers grow more food, it’s a double whammy: It helps lift them out of poverty (better sharing) and gives us more food (bigger pie). That means that we really do need to ask, how the heck we are going to feed ourselves? It’s not the main issue (poverty), but it’s an effective lever to work on that main issue. So we still need a contingent of farmers and scientists working on increasing yields. And that’s a problem, because for years countries around the world have been pulling money out of agricultural research. “For almost thirty years, since the early 1980s, neither the private sector nor governments were interested in investing in agriculture,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, who recently concluded his stint as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. The amount of money that we invested in farming R&D has actually risen a tiny bit every year, but it’s so tiny that the amount has shrunk relative to the size of the farm economy — that is, the size of the investment wasn’t keeping up with the size of the job. Between 1990 and 2000, the world increased agricultural research investment by 1.9 percent a year. That’s about what you’d want for a cost of living increase — it doesn’t leave room for breaking new ground. Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators – Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D SpendingBIC = Brazil, India, China – click to embiggen“You need a certain minimum investment in agricultural science that continues year after year, because you don’t answer all the questions the first time, it’s a moving target,” said Melinda Smale, a professor of international development at Michigan State. “You need to invest in scientists, invest in institutions. Things like salaries have a recurring cost.” When I suggested to Smale that some argue for spending money on one transformative technology that could be used everywhere, rather than pouring money into local institutions every year, she scoffed: “We should dispel this myth of the silver bullet. That’s just bullshit. What works in one place will not work in another. You cannot export a single uniform model.” The Green Revolution — the modernization of agriculture that occurred between the ’40s and ’60s — is often the poster child for the single uniform model. After all, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was able to rapidly spread improved seeds around the world, instead of breeding strains to be adapted to local conditions. But the seeds were only part of the Green Revolution, Smale said. It also relied on tremendous investments from governments around the world to pay for wells, canals, and transportation systems to move harvests and fertilizers. To build agricultural systems that are truly adapted to local environmental conditions, we’d need enough investment in agriculture to sustain various types of research, and farmer training institutions in each of those environments. The question of what that money should pay for (agroecology research? fertilizer?) is a contentious one, and I’ll get to that soon. But first: there was an increase in agricultural R&D after 2008, when food price spikes scared a modest amount of money out of leaders around the globe. Were those price spikes a sign that we really we’re closer to running out of food than I’ve suggested here so far? I’ll try to answer that next.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Continue reading Why we really should care about boosting farm yields
Q. Is it OK to reuse the bottles that bottled water comes in? Sometimes when I am at a conference the bottled water they have is in a really sturdy bottle, and it seems like such a waste for it to be single use. But is it safe to refill it from the tap? My primary concern is BPA leaching into the water, but what about sanitation? Thanks,Rick C. York, PA A. Dearest Rick, Skip it. By now, I think the strikes against disposable plastic water bottles are pretty well-established: They’re made from petroleum, require energy to produce and ship, usually end up in the landfill, might leach chemicals into your drink, and can be used to club fuzzy baby seals (okay, I made that last one up). But equally entrenched are the reasons why they’re still so common: Namely, we all forgot our reusable bottles, and we’re thirsty. So when we’re left with what looks like a perfectly clean empty bottle, many eco-minded folks think like you do, Rick: Wouldn’t refilling this be better than recycling it and grabbing another? Unfortunately, signs point to no. You’re most concerned about BPA, so let’s start there. The story we’ve all heard by now concerns BPA in polycarbonate plastics (the ones with the #7 on the bottom), which are sometimes used in disposable plastic bottles. And there’s solid evidence to back this story up. One study found increased BPA levels in the urine of people who drank out of them for just a week. Another found that heating the bottles – as one would by washing them with hot water – accelerated the leaching. Longer-term use tends to lead to small scratches in the plastic as well, which also frees BPA to mingle in your drink. So are you in the clear if the bottles at your conference sport a #1, for PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate), instead? Not so fast. A 2010 study found that PET (probably the most common plastic used in throwaway bottles) may also leach endocrine-disrupting substances. It gets worse: Still another study discovered that pretty much every kind of plastic tested leached estrogenic chemicals – including the ones trumpeted as BPA-free. And even if you didn’t care a whit about BPA, Rick, I’d still point you and your plastic bottle away from the tap. The bottles are moist, enclosed, and getting a lot of full-body contact with your hands and lips: In other words, they’re bacterial breeding grounds. A study of elementary-school kids’ water bottles detected high bug levels in almost two-thirds of samples. The situation gets worse with extended use, as bacteria love to hang out in the same scratches that leach chemicals. You’d need to wash your bottle out with soap (and probably a bottle brush) and air-dry it completely to vanquish the bugs, and we now know what happens when hot water meets plastic. Will you face dire bodily consequences if you refill your water bottle once over the course of the day? I’m no doctor, but probably not. You will, however, be consuming a throwaway (recycle-away?) plastic when you could have sipped from a neverending fount of pure refreshment: a reusable bottle made from stainless steel or glass. Following the BYOB (bring your own bottle) philosophy also means you don’t have to worry about estrogenic anything sneaking into your water, which makes the practice pretty darn hard to beat. All you have to do is remember to pack it: Store it in your briefcase, set a reminder on your phone, clip it to your pants – whatever it takes to get in the habit. And if you find yourself at another conference sans bottle? You can always get up and go for the fountain. Your legs could probably use a stretch anyway. Of course, it would be even better if everyone at your conference did the same (I presume you’re not in the bottled-water business, Rick?). In a perfect world, organizers would plan for plastic-free events by providing glassware, selling reusable bottles on-site, or even soliciting a slew of donated bottles to pass out. You might want to put a bug in the ears of your next conference gurus on this subject. You’d be saving boatloads of plastic, and perhaps preventing a few intestinal infections along the way, too. Steriley, UmbraFiled under: Food, Living
Continue reading Will I poison myself if I reuse this plastic water bottle?
Blake LingleBoise Fry CompanyBoise, Idaho Let’s face it: The Gem State is really the Potato State, and Americans tend to consume their spuds in the form of french fries. Restaurant Boise Fry Company makes its from predominantly organic potatoes. Why we chose these fries: Ninety percent of Boise Fry Company’s potatoes are sourced from within an eight-hour radius of Boise, and 80 percent of their potatoes are organic. Lingle won’t rule out a farmer if he or she lacks the official certification, however: “We usually will try to meet with those farmers to make sure that they’re [growing] the organic way.” Recently, Boise Fry Company started working with ReCab, a local biodiesel-powered cab company, to recycle its french fry oil. The cars bear a “Fueled by Fries” sticker. The argument for “fries with a burger”: “I’m from Idaho, but when I was living in D.C., it occurred to me that you never really got to choose your fries — they were always kind of thrust upon you,” Lingle says. “I remember just jotting down in a notebook: Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a restaurant where the fries were choice, and the burgers were the side?” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living
Continue reading Why Idaho is doing french fries right
Dylan ButterbaughManoa Chocolate HawaiiKailua, Hawaii There’s only one state in the country that can create home-grown, bean-to-bar chocolate, and that’s Hawaii. (Thanks, Eisenhower!) With Manoa Chocolate, Butterbaugh is encouraging the development of a cacao industry in Hawaii. Why we chose these treats: Butterbaugh sources as many cacao beans — i.e. the seeds used to make chocolate — as he can locally, and most of the farmers Butterbaugh buys from in Hawaii use organic practices. Currently there are not enough cacao producers on Hawaii to meet demand, so Butterbaugh sources supplemental beans from Fair Trade-certified producers overseas — for example, from one in Liberia that’s employing former child soldiers to rehabilitate cacao groves. In time, he sees a future where even more beans are grown locally. “We’re buying everything and farmers are planting more, but we have to wait a few years before [the new] trees are producing cacao,” he says. Want to become an expert chocolatier? Just YouTube it! Butterbaugh had no experience with chocolate-making before founding Manoa. “I kept learning by trial and error,” he says. “I watched a lot of YouTube videos. There’s a lot of other chocolate makers out there that have little videos posted of their processes, and machines that they designed.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living
Continue reading Why Hawaii is doing chocolate right
I’d always thought of booze as something that was trying to kill me in the most unnatural way possible. So reading Adam Rogers’ new book Proof: The Science of Booze was like meeting a bully from high school and finding out that he’s really a sweet, misunderstood guy. Rogers shows, again and again, that booze is actually a high form of cooperation between human technology and nature. I asked the author to meet me at one of his favorite bars and explain how drinking connects us to the natural world. He told me to meet him at Handlebar, a place in Berkeley with a massive wooden bar, muted lighting, and tinkling music. (I’ve edited and condensed our talk.) Q. I thought I’d just ask you to recommend a drink and tell me all the different ways it links us to the natural world. But you should know: I’ve become a lightweight since I had kids. A. Maybe we should drink through the process of production. Here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll get a glass of wine — they don’t have grape juice to start with, which is a shame because it’s a good substrate. But wine, then pisco — which is distilled wine. Then brandy from a distillery called Osocalis in the mountains above Santa Cruz, run by a former scientist, very nice guy. And then an old fashioned, which is in some respects a model for the earliest kind of cocktail, because all it is booze, sugar, and bitters. Q. Is this a historical progression as well? A. There’s the progress of the way human beings learned to make this stuff. And also the process of one thing turning into another. This also became the organizational structure for the book. It walks you through this process and pivots on the moment a bartender puts something like that brandy in front of someone like you. That moment — to be super hyperbolic about it — is when 20 million years of evolution, 10,000 years of work on fermentation, 2,000 years of work on distillation, all come down to whatever is in that glass in front of you. When you take a sip, all that history and science and interaction of species gets filtered through your ability to isolate all the other sensory inputs around you and smell and taste and feel what you are drinking. And then, the effect that it has on your body, which is a way we connect to the natural world. These things in front of us aren’t all made from the same grape, but they are essentially the same thing. If you start with grape juice, that’s the sugar source. You ferment that, give it to yeast; they eat the sugar, excrete carbon dioxide and ethanol, and you end up with this — wine. And that metabolism is actually much more complicated, it produces a lot of other chemicals, too. Q. Which is what makes wine so fabulous. A. Exactly. And grapes are eminently suited to that process. There are a lot of molecules in grapes that yeasts are good at putting together. But it’s possible that we just think that because grapes happened to be around in the Fertile Crescent. As one researcher said to me, if we evolved on a Pacific island, it would be coconuts, and grapes would be an afterthought. But grapes are what you get, so you get to taste it. That’s really good. Q. That does taste good. Wasn’t one of your points that yeast like to live on grape skins, so if you have grapes, you probably have wine? A. Yeah. It’s hard not to have it ferment. Now, if it’s just ambient microbes in the air, it’s probably not going to taste that good. They’re not the ones that have been tuned over thousands of years to make wine. Same issue with some breads, same issue with sausage, any fermented product. Fermentation is a natural process — if a grape falls in a forest and no human is there to drink it, it still turns into ethanol. Distillation is different. Distillation is a human technology. It takes smart monkeys with wrinkled frontal cortexes and opposable thumbs. I try to celebrate that in the book: We bring something new. We make stuff. We work with tools better than any other animal. The story that I like says that distilling grows out of the very beginnings of science in ancient Alexandria. The beginnings of when humans were starting to say, we can think about our universe differently — we can say, I want to understand why something happens, and I can apply a method that will give me answers. That’s really kind of wonderfully hubristic — the idea that we can figure something out. Q. It’s not just the realm of the gods. A. Or, another way to think about it is, we can apprehend the realm of the gods. Sure the gods did it, but we can figure it out. Which is beautiful. So you build a still. It takes 900 years before anyone thinks to put wine in a still, in China, or maybe Russia. But you end up with something like pisco. Pisco is distilled wine — it’s an unaged brandy, it originates from South America. Q. Hiiiyach! Yow. A. Yeah, that’s fiery, and there are going to be things behind this bar with a much higher alcohol content. The thing that’s interesting to me is if you take a sip of wine, then take a sip of pisco, you go, oh, OK, there are some similarities. Q. OK, I have to do this again, because I didn’t get that. It might just be the overwhelming burn. A. I think at least in the character of the sweetness. Q. Yeah, I taste that. In the pisco the flavors are more like overtones almost. A. Pisco is meant to be a pretty rough-hewn spirit. It’s a peasant fire water. And that’s a category of distillates that I love, but they are rough, man. Nobody ever meant them to be sipped, except in a cocktail like the pisco sour. So you ferment it, then you distill it. Next, you age it. Q. I see: you have nature doing its biology, then humans coming along and applying technology … A. … and then an additive technology, that probably comes from just attempting to store it, for trade. You put it in a barrel, and the wood begins to contribute to the flavor. Long about the 1820s, the rules about how much time it needs to stay in a barrel begin to be codified, because there’s a lot of ways to fake that. When cowboys in the old West walked into a bar and ordered a whisky, that was as likely to be a white whisky as it was to have been aged. And the aging just came from the long trip in a barrel from Kentucky to the Nevada Territory. Q. And white whisky is the equivalent of pisco? A. Right, white whisky is distilled beer. Everything that comes out of a still is clear; none of the pigments make it over the top. And when you put that clear stuff in a barrel, ethanol, which is a very good solvent, extracts that color from the wood. So you go from a pisco to brandy like this Oscallis. Ah, it’s really, really nice. Q. Brandy is pisco with bits of wood in it? A. At a molecular level, yeah. And in addition to the colors, it’s bringing in all kinds of molecules from the wood. Now, barrel making is its own type of technology. Changing the shape of wood is really hard. If you add heat and steam, wood will become thermoplastic — it will bend. And you have to be able to cut the wood with two different bevels, so that when you bend it and bring these staves together they fit into this barrel shape — it’s like unblooming a flower. Q. Unblooming — I love that. And it’s watertight. A. But only if you cut the wood the right way — if you quarter saw the wood. Otherwise, there are pores. You can imagine the experimentation that had to go into figuring out how to do all that. Typically it’s oak, though some Americans are experimenting with other kinds of wood. Hickory lends a kind of barbeque flavor, maple adds some sweetness. Q. There’s a connection to another species there, the tree. A. That’s right — and not just the tree, a connection to even more microbes. If you kiln-dry the wood you use to make a barrel, it actually changes the flavor. What wine makers have done for centuries is to use air-dried wood, wood that sits outside and weathers for up to three years. And when that happens, it’s being exposed to a whole suite of other microbes. Nobody has done a lot of good research on what those are. We know you get different flavors, but it’s just a connection to another undiscovered world. Q. This, by the way, is amazing brandy. A. He is so good at making brandy. And he’ll say that brandies don’t start coming into their own until they’ve been sitting in a barrel for 20 or 30 years. Because there’s an additional chemical process: Besides the extractives that come out of the barrel — the oak lactones that taste like coconut and lend mouth feel, plus a whole bunch of other chemicals that are still being identified — time contributes its own flavors. Oxygen gets added to the molecules; acids and alcohol molecules combine to form esters. There’s a slow, almost ineffable mixing of chemical processes. People talk about smooth drinking: smoothness is what you get from time. That brings us to economics. Because, in order to decide to keep a barrel in a warehouse 20 years before selling it, you need credit, and you need real estate, and you need an upper class that can afford it. A whole other kind of civilization has to develop to accommodate a bottle of 18-year old whiskey. Q. The kind we like to call “advanced” … A. Hah, I don’t know if it’s advanced or even good, but it’s what we have. And all those steps in this process, I would still argue, are all connections to the natural world. Sugar is a connection to this particular molecule that nature uses again and again because it’s both structural and contains a lot of energy — an amazing way the universe has organized itself. Yeast is a connection to domesticating the world around us, and how the world around us domesticates us. Distillation is us trying to effect change on that natural world — you have to be able to work with metal, you have to work with heat, you have to understand what steam is — you have to learn a lot about the natural world to make that work. For aging, you have to develop an economy, you have to develop trade, you have to realize that your field full of vines is worth more condensed down to brandy than it is as grapes. I don’t know what happened to the old fashioned. Perhaps we drank that too? Was that before or after we began talking about and sampling the Chartreuse? Things get hazy here. For any more, you’ll have to read the book.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Continue reading Booze is proof nature wants us to be happy
Robert MaxwellAlake’s PecansSavannah, Ga. Georgia has long held the crown as the nation’s top pecan producer; in 2012 alone the state cranked out 100 million pounds of the South’s favorite pie ingredient. Maxwell harvests pecans in Savannah’s backyards and sells the nuts at farmers markets and to local restaurants. Why we chose these nuts: Maxwell is harnessing and distributing a source of food that might otherwise go to waste. He works with Savannah residents who have pecan trees on their property, offering to extract the nuts for free. “In a large portion of the west side of town, a great deal of the pecan trees weren’t being utilized,” says Maxwell. “[The residents] were allowing the pecans to rot, they were throwing them away.” Maxwell has also planted his own pecan trees in a local orchard. In Savannah, money really does grow on trees: Says Maxwell: “Almost anywhere you go in Savannah, you’re going to find someone who has a pecan tree in their backyard.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living
Continue reading Why Georgia is doing pecans right
Wood’s FisheriesPort St. Joe, Fla. Florida’s Gulf Coast is a major shrimp-fishing area, and the local supply was hit pretty hard by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Wood’s Fisheries has a game plan to help keep the local shrimp populations healthy and intact. Why we chose this shrimp: With wild shrimp catches, Wood’s fishermen pay special attention to maintenance of both the shrimp stock and habitat. “We really started pushing a lot more with traceability and sustainability … because we want to make sure that we always have shrimp to go out there and catch,” says Antley, the fisheries improvement coordinator. Wood’s has also developed an entirely landlocked shrimp farm that sources from a deep underground saltwater aquifer. It’s isolated from wild shrimp populations, thus carrying no risk of contamination. Better practices equals better profits: Antley is working with other companies in the Florida shrimp industry to develop a set of sustainable shrimping standards. Planned monitoring tactics include video observation on boats and equipment inspections. “We want to reward the fishermen that are doing it right,” says Antley, “so we’re going to pay a higher amount to these guys.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living
Continue reading Why Florida is doing shrimp right
Food has become the domain of all sorts of shady underworld characters. There are drug dealers bootlegging rice through Europe, fraudulent fishmongers fencing fillets in fine restaurants, and mafia capos adulterating olive oil in North America. Now thieves are conducting elaborate heists to fleece farmers of their vegetables. According to a story in the New York Times, the crew that hit Whit Betts’ Green Acres farm had the perfect plan: The thieves had come at night and left 10 outer rows closest to the road intact so as not to arouse suspicion. They knew what they were doing: They picked cleanly, without wrecking the stalks. And they grabbed plenty of butter-and-sugar corn, a common variety in Connecticut, but left behind the more valuable Kandy corn. “I think we’re the only ones to grow that in central Connecticut, so that would have been traceable,” Mr. Betts said. The robbers who broke into Anderson Farms, 25 miles to the east, weren’t so careful, and were caught red handed. “They had corn tassels in their hair,” Mr. Anderson said. “A dead giveaway.” Seriously guys, this isn’t cool. If you all can’t deal with the temptation of beautiful local farms, we’re just going to have to consolidate them all to the remotest midwest and ship all your food to you long distance.Filed under: Article, Food
Continue reading Invasion of the corn snatchers
Fast food doesn’t sell like it once did so the burger chain is contemplating the takeover of Tim Horton’s—not for their donuts but for their lighter tax burden.
Continue reading Benedict Arnold Burger King
Dominique Ansel, creator of the Cronut, has surprised us again, with a pretzel that’s shaped like a—well, he insists it’s supposed to be a lobster tail.
Continue reading After the Cronut, Hail the Penis Pretzel
The Yazidis, members of an ancient religious sect, fled when the Islamic State overran their homes. Now they’re trapped with no food or water. Will the U.S. step in to help save them?
Continue reading Will the US Watch ISIS Starve Thousands?
Maybe there’s a reason England isn’t known for its food. Turns out, Brits are seriously picky eaters.
Continue reading Brits Are Very Fussy Eaters
Wouldn’t you like to know how much sugar the food industry is adding to the food you buy? The FDA thinks so, and is proposing a label change—but Big Sugar is battling back.
Continue reading The Food Fight Over Labeling Added Sugar
If you think the CIA spread HIV or that GMO foods are part of a population control plan, you’re not alone. And you drive doctors crazy.
Continue reading The Conspiracy Theorist Next Door
A movement is underway to tell the grocer to drop Eden Foods, which seeks to quit covering all birth control and preventative services for its employees.
Continue reading Hobby Lobby Backlash Hits Whole Foods
The story of Crumbs—beloved business grows until competition gets hungry and consumers get full—is the story of the American economy.
Continue reading The Cupcake Boom Was Always Doomed