‘Farmers Got Billions From Taxpayers In 2019, And Hardly Anyone Objected’

Dan Charles for NPR:

In 2019, the federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to America’s farmers. Farm subsidies jumped to their highest level in 14 years, most of them paid out without any action by Congress. […]

The announcement aroused little controversy. “I was surprised that it didn’t attract more attention,” says Joe Glauber, the USDA’s former chief economist, who’s now a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Glauber says it deserves more attention, for a whole collection of reasons.

For one thing, it’s an enormous amount of money, more than the final cost of bailing out the auto industry during the financial crisis of 2008. The auto industry bailout was fiercely debated in Congress. Yet the USDA created this new program out of thin air; it decided that an old law authorizing a USDA program called the Commodity Credit Corp. already gave it the authority to spend this money.

‘A 6,000-year-old fruit fly gave the world modern cheeses and yogurts’

John Morrissey for the Conversation:

In a paper published in Current Biology, we discovered how “milk yeast” – the handy microorganism that can decompose lactose in milk to create dairy products like cheese and yoghurt – originated from a chance encounter between a fruit fly and a pail of milk around 5,500 years ago. This happy accident allowed prehistoric people to domesticate yeast in much the same way they domesticated crop plants and livestock animals, and produce the cheeses and yogurts billions of people enjoy today.

And you know I’m a sucker for a good love story. It goes on:

Kluyveromyces lactis, or milk yeast, is found in French and Italian cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, and in natural fermented dairy drinks like kefir. But the ancestor of this microbe was originally associated with the fruit fly, so how did it end up making many of the dairy products that people eat today? We believe milk yeast owes its very existence to a fly landing in fermenting milk and starting an unusual sexual liaison. The fly in question was the common fruit fly, Drosophila, and it carried with it the ancestor of K. lactis. Although the fly died, the yeast lived, but with a problem – it could not use the lactose in milk as a food source. Instead, it found an unconventional solution – sex with its cousin.

When K. lactis arrived with the fly, its cousin K. marxianus was already happily growing in the milk. K. marxianus is able to use lactose for growth because it has two extra proteins which can help break down lactose into simple sugars that it then uses for energy. The cousins reproduced and the genes needed to use lactose transferred from K. marxianus to K. lactis. The end result was that K. lactis acquired two new genes and could then grow on lactose and survive on its own. The fermented product that K. lactis made must have been particularly delicious as it was used to start a new fermentation – a routine that has continued to the present day.

I like thinking about chance and what it has afforded us in life.

Who did Pat Brown meet that made him vegan? What monk first thought it was a gift to replace meat with plants? Who let things rot and then ate them — aka fermentation? Who found out that some nuts have to be roasted twice to not be poisonous? Have we eaten everything new under the sun?


From Josefina Salomon at

Six out of every 10 Argentines are considering giving up beef and going vegan, according to a recent study by the country’s Institute for the Promotion of Beef. Martí, now 63 and head of the Argentine Vegetarian Union, remembers that, in 2000, he knew only one other vegan. A poll his organization commissioned found that 9 percent of Argentina’s population is either vegetarian or vegan at the moment.  

Finding a vegetarian or vegan restaurant is no longer a challenge, at least in the country’s main cities. Buenos Aires alone has at least 70 exclusively vegan restaurants. The capital’s colorful walls are plastered with messages and banners demanding the protection of animals and the yearly VeganFest is becoming increasingly popular. Many local celebrities are turning their backs on animal products (soccer megastar Lionel Messi has said he switches to a vegan diet during tournament season).

Health concerns and worries about climate change — drivers of veganism globally — are playing out in Argentina too. But there’s an additional factor pushing people away from meat and animal products: the country’s economic crisis and nearly 50 percent annual inflation. The latest report from Argentina’s Chamber of Commerce for Beef and Its Derivatives found that consumption of meat products has decreased to its lowest point in the last 50 years.

It’s interesting to see how veganism enters certain countries. I feel like there are a handful of reasons that dominate most shifts: financial cost, health, or considerations for the environment (animal welfare included), and sometimes religion.

Though most of Argentina is moving to save money, something like this means more people could be trying vegan food for the first time and will hopefully become more interested. Maybe they’ll try to adapt family recipes or try new dishes — both which open a new way of approaching food to them. Hopefully it’s enough to keep them coming back periodically for plant-based foods once they can afford beef again.

‘How This Guy Made the World’s Hottest Peppers’

In all food’s genesis, hidden away, there’s a story of how it brought people together. And there’s something magical in knowing that the Carolina Reaper might not exist if he and his wife didn’t fall in love with his peach-mango salsa.

‘How conventional soy farming starves honey bees’

Jessica Fu writing for the New Food Economy:

A significant, multi-year study […] provides new evidence that commodity crop production can be detrimental to honey bees, putting colonies at risk by depleting their access to food. […]

Now, by examining the health of honey bees in Iowa soy fields, scientists have showed precisely how damaging that lack of variation can be. Soy is one of the U.S.’s most highly produced and exported foods.

In 2018, farmers harvested 4.54 billion bushels of the crop (for reference, a bushel of soy weighs 60 pounds), with the Midwest contributing to the vast majority of this output. The industry’s rise, however, has come at the cost of traditional habitat: In Iowa, the second-largest soy producing state, the expansion of farmland has driven a steep decline in native tallgrass prairie. That, in turn, has depleted both the quantity and variety of food sources available to honey bees, according to the new research[.] […]

Typically, bees are supposed to produce honey for their colony from spring through fall in order to have enough food to survive the winter. What the researchers found, however, was that colonies adjacent to soy farms were turning to food stores for sustenance as early as August, and that by mid-October, all of them had wiped out the gains that they had made in the spring and summer. That’s like clearing out your fridge and pantry right before a power outage—and it means those hives would be far less likely to survive.

Ninety-eight percent of soy that is grown in the US is used for animal feed. One percent is grown for human consumption.

‘The rise of natural winemaking means more accidentally vegan vintages’

Janet Forgrieve for SmartBrief:

Vegans out for a meal pay attention to the ingredients in each dish to make sure there aren’t animal products but, until fairly recently, few thought to ask about the wine.

That’s changing as more people learn about the animal products that can be used in winemaking and seek out vegan vintages. Wine, though made from plants, is often processed using ingredients derived from animals to remove sediments and fine particles.


In the world of wine, more winemakers aren’t necessarily focused on the vegan aspect, but a growing number are opting for natural methods, which means eschewing straining and fining in favor of letting sediments separate naturally and, sometimes, accepting that there will be fine particles present, Jacoby said.

“I think the natural wine movement has been great for us, but I don’t think they [winemakers] have a vegan agenda in that choice,” Jacoby said. “It’s just a nice overlap for us.”

It’s lovely when popular things just happen to be vegan. I sometimes think about how excited I would have been, if I were vegan in the mid-90s, to learn that Oreos were accidentally vegan. Being able to participate in the minutiae of society (like buying things that are advertised) and talk about the foods that surround us, it’s a big deal. It’s a form of representation, albeit small. And this is the same sort of thing.

I hadn’t realized that natural wines were more likely to be vegan. I’ll have to pick up an extra bottle of orange to celebrate.

If you’re looking for the best way to check if your wine is vegan, Barnivore is what you’re looking for. It doesn’t have an app yet, but one is in the works.

‘Why are people malnourished in the richest country on earth?’

Tracie McMillan writes a thoughtful and difficult piece for National Geographic:

Chances are good that if you picture what hunger looks like, you don’t summon an image of someone like Christina Dreier: white, married, clothed, and housed, even a bit overweight. The image of hunger in America today differs markedly from Depression-era images of the gaunt-faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets. […]

In the United States more than half of hungry households are white, and two-thirds of those with children have at least one working adult—typically in a full-time job. With this new image comes a new lexicon: In 2006 the U.S. government replaced “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe any household where, sometime during the previous year, people didn’t have enough food to eat. By whatever name, the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012—a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s.

And these numbers will keep growing as the divide between the poor and the wealthy grows wider.

It can be tempting to ask families receiving food assistance, If you’re really hungry, then how can you be—as many of them are—overweight? The answer is “this paradox that hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” says Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty and Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, “people making trade-offs between food that’s filling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity.”

It’s terrible that obesity would be an indicator of hunger or malnourishment. It could be a different picture if the government would subsidize the right things. This part, with emphasis mine, speaks to that:

These are the very crops that end up on Christina Dreier’s kitchen table in the form of hot dogs made of corn-raised beef, Mountain Dew sweetened with corn syrup, and chicken nuggets fried in soybean oil. They’re also the foods that the U.S. government supports the most. In 2012 it spent roughly $11 billion to subsidize and insure commodity crops like corn and soy, with Iowa among the states receiving the highest subsidies. The government spends much less to bolster the production of the fruits and vegetables its own nutrition guidelines say should make up half the food on our plates. In 2011 it spent only $1.6 billion to subsidize and insure “specialty crops”—the bureaucratic term for fruits and vegetables.

The USA needs to subsidize produce with a focus on health. Every dollar that goes against that is a dollar squandered, and it’s easy to see this in our population. The government is the reason fast food is cheaper than vegetables. The general health of the people should be considered our government’s problem, because it starts with what crops they subsidize.

‘Czech Lab Grows Mustard Plants for Mars’

Reuters via the NYTimes:

Czech scientists have opened a lab to experiment growing food for environments with extreme conditions and lack of water, such as Mars.

The “Marsonaut” experiment by scientist Jan Lukacevic, 29, and his team at the Prague University of Life Sciences is based on aeroponics – growing plants in the air, without soil, and limiting water use to a minimum.


The team has already succeeded in growing mustard plants, salad leaves, radishes and herbs like basil and mint.

That’s interesting, but the last sentence of the article is what astounded me:

The main benefit of the growing method is that it uses 95 percent less water than normal plant cultivation and also saves space, which could boost agricultural yields in areas hit by urbanisation and climate change.

95 percent less. How is that possible? Can most produce be reduced like this? I want to know more.

‘A startup just announced the world’s first fake-meat “steaks” made from fungi. Are we ready?’

Joe Fassler for the New Food Economy:

A Boulder, Colorado-based startup has opened a new frontier in the world of vegan meat replacements. The company, Emergy Foods, announced on Tuesday morning the imminent launch of a brand called Meati Foods—the world’s first line of fungi-based steaks.

The whole piece and photos are interesting, but this bit about language and description follows after he gets to try the product:

That allowed doubt to creep in. The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to classify my experience, scribbling phrases in my notebook, reaching for descriptions that made sense. That strangely unsettled feeling helps explain why Emergy used the term “plant-based” in its press release, even knowing the label doesn’t quite fit. It wants to provide customers with a comforting reference point, a way to make its product not feel quite so unfamiliar and new. 

In our email interview, Nicole Civita explained further. 

“Unfortunately, such foods are notoriously hard to market—‘fungal foods’ doesn’t sound terribly appetizing! And it’s not accurate to describe the protein rich foods made from mycelium as ‘mushroom-based’ either, because they are made from the precursor to mushrooms, not mushrooms themselves,” she wrote. “So, companies in this space have struggled to describe their products in ways that are both accurate and appealing.  And sustainable food advocates have favored the less accurate and insufficiently encompassing “plant-based” vernacular. While this drives biologists crazy and could run afoul of food labeling regulations, lumping myco-foods in with the plant-based alts is a reasonable shorthand.”

Time will iron these things out, but for now we’re all enveloped by slang, jargon, and an evolving language.

‘Why do People Hate Vegans?’

George Reynolds has a thorough and thoughtful piece for the Guardian about where veganism started, currently is, and it’s future. I liked this bit that shows that vegans have always been dreamers:

Early attempts to establish a vegan utopia did not go well. In the 1840s, the transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of the author of Little Women, Louisa May) founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts – a vegan community intended to be nothing less than a second Eden. But Alcott’s insistence that crops had to be planted and fields tilled by hand meant that not enough food could be grown for all of the members (even though the population peaked at just 13); a diet of fruit and grains, typically consumed raw, left participants severely malnourished. Just seven months after opening, Fruitlands closed – derided, in the words of one biographer, as “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias”.

In a universal setting, veganism has to be plausible. It’s easy to dream that nothing and no one will suffer for a meal, but controlling those conditions is nearly impossible. It doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be an ambition. It means there needs to be a realistic understanding of what can be done. Being vegan can never exist under perfect conditions. Heaven has to meet earth at some point.

One thing that veganism rarely approaches is what meat means to the people who consume it and where that approach came from:

There is no justification for the amount of meat we eat in western society. The resources that go into humanely rearing and butchering an animal should make its flesh a borderline-unattainable luxury – and, indeed, in the past, it was. Meat always used to be the preserve of the wealthy, a symbol of prosperity: “A chicken in every pot” remained an aspirational but impractical promise across the best part of a millennium, from the days of Henry IV of France (when the term was invented) all the way through to Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign.

It was only through the technological advances of modern agriculture that meat became attainable and available at supermarket prices. From the mid-1800s onwards, farmers could raise animals bigger, better and faster than in the past; kill them quicker; treat their flesh to prevent it from spoiling; transport it further and store it longer. A commonly cited psychological turning point was the second world war, which engendered what Russell Baker, writing in the New York Times, later described as a kind of “beef madness”. GIs were sent to the front with rations of tinned meat; once peace had been declared, there was no better symbol of the brave new world than a sizzling celebratory steak. In the course of just over a century, meat went from unattainable luxury to dietary cornerstone; these days, we feel entitled to eat meat every day.

And it’s been interesting to see how meat-eating has become a part of politics and in some ways performative:

But “they’re taking our meat” is as evocative a rallying cry as “they’re taking our jobs” or “they’re taking our guns” – it conveys the same sense of individual freedoms being menaced by external forces, a birthright under attack. Ted Cruz (wrongly) alleged that his Democrat rival Beto O’Rourke planned to ban Texas barbecue if elected senator in his place: like the personal firearm, animal flesh has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachments of progressivism, something to be prised from your cold, dead hand. Men’s rights advocate Jordan Peterson is famed for following a beef and salt diet; Donald Trump is renowned for his love of fast food and well-done steak with ketchup; there is even a subset of libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts who call themselves Bitcoin carnivores.

With the massive inroads that veganism has made in the last few years, it’s important to recognize it still has a long way to go:

Sales may be growing fast, but they are barely making a dent in the $1.7tr global market for animal-derived protein. Certainly, a change of culture will not happen without the involvement of government, industry and science; as the past few years have shown, widespread change is also unlikely to happen without a fight. This makes the current field of conflict an unfortunate one – in the real world, we can practise moderation, emotional flexitarianism.

Emotional flexitarianism is a beautiful turn of phrase and absolutely the way we all must approach each other.