TIME States

Young Children Are Getting Sick Working on U.S. Tobacco Farms

Tobacco farm - Warfield, VA
Tobacco farmer in Warfield, Va., on Aug. 30, 2013 Matt McClain—The Washington Post/Getty Images

A new Human Rights Watch report finds that child laborers, some as young as 7 years old, who work on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, "get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear"

Children as young as 7 years old are suffering serious health problem from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands, according to a report released Wednesday.

New York City–based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 140 youngsters working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where most American tobacco is sourced.

They reported nausea, vomiting, headaches and other health problems associated with nicotine poisoning, known colloquially as green tobacco sickness, which is common among agricultural workers who absorb the toxic substance through their skin.

“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, HRW children’s-rights researcher and co-author of the report.

“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear.”

Much of what HRW documented remains legal. While strict provisions govern child labor in industrial environments, U.S. agriculture labor laws are much looser, allowing 12-year-olds to labor for unlimited hours outside of school on any size of farm. On small farms, there is no minimum age set for child workers.

HRW called on tobacco giants to ensure safe working practices and source responsibly. The global tobacco industry generates annual revenues of around $500 billion, but some 6 million people die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Not everyone favors stricter controls. Republican Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback says he worked in tobacco fields from when he was 10 years old and doesn’t think further legislation is necessary. “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor,” he told the Associated Press.

TIME Environment

It’s Hard Out There for a Honeybee

Honeybees
Honeybees still face a variety of health threats Photographer's Choice RF via Getty Images

Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?

Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.

But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.

That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.

A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.

TIME Agriculture

Why There Is No Lime Industry in America Anymore

Dairoby Aldana sorts limes that have been imported from Columbia at SA Mex produce on March 26, 2014 in Miami.
Dairoby Aldana sorts limes that have been imported from Columbia at SA Mex produce on March 26, 2014 in Miami. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Bad weather, disease and other factors affecting Mexico’s lime industry have made prices in the U.S. skyrocket

Across the U.S., ice waters are being served without their usual lime wheels, while lime wedges on gin cocktails are getting thin — if they’re still there at all. Bad weather, disease and crime have been ravaging Mexico’s lime crop, and because America depends almost exclusively on Mexico for its limes, domestic prices are skyrocketing.

A standard 40-lb. box of limes that would have cost a San Francisco bar manager $20 a few months ago now costs more than $120. And many of the limes in those boxes are juiceless nubs; with prices so high, Mexican growers are stripping everything they can off their trees to ship across the border, regardless of quality. Unfortunately, as one USDA Market News spokesperson says, it’s not like restaurants or grocery stores can call up Florida to get limes from domestic growers instead.

That wasn’t always the case.

Once upon a time, back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a growing lime industry around Homestead, Fla., a town at the southern tip of the state where the humid climate is particularly suited to supporting lime trees. Unlike avocados or mangoes, limes provided year-round work for people like Craig Wheeling, a former fruit-company executive who at that time was a young man, learning the ropes on his father’s lime farm.

“In 1960,” he says, “the only game in town was really the Florida-grown limes.”

As the industry grew, so did Americans’ appetite for limes. Immigrants flooded into the country from Latin America, lands where limes are more central to cuisine, and Americans developed a taste for the fruit. Today Americans consume nearly 10 times the amount of limes they did in 1980; as the population has grown from 226 million to 317 million, a half-pound of consumption per person each year has become three.

The first natural disaster struck in 1992. Hurricane Andrew, at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, made landfall in Dade County and nearly wiped Homestead’s lime groves off the map. “The impact on lime trees was devastating,” Wheeling says. “The hurricane picked up the trees and blew out the fences and the irrigation risers, virtually destroying all the plantings of the industry.” The larger businesses with more resources replanted their trees, Wheeling says, and by 1999, “we had a fabulous year.” America’s lime industry was back, and Florida growers were printing a little American flag on each piece of fruit so consumers would know where they came from.

But during most of the 1990s, when Florida was rebuilding after the hurricane, people still wanted their margaritas and ceviche. “There was a vacuum,” says Jonathan Crane, tropical-fruit-crop specialist at the University of Florida. “Mexico stepped up their production to take advantage of the U.S. being out of the market.” As Homestead slowly regrew its groves, a Mexican industry, built on much cheaper labor and land around Veracruz, became established, with trees planted specifically for exporting their goods to the U.S.

Wheeling, who had become president at the country’s biggest lime producer, still remembers seeing the next disaster hit, a quieter one but equally deadly for the industry. A disease called citrus canker appeared on a tree in the middle of the lime groves of his company, Brooks Tropicals, in 2000. At the time, Crane says, “the dogma” was that citrus canker would weaken trees to the point where they would die. The much more powerful citrus industry to the north, producing Florida’s famous oranges and grapefruit, was worried that the disease would spread to its crops, and so was the government. Because citrus canker spreads by wind and rain, an eradication program was established in 1996 to destroy all the citrus trees planted anywhere near an infected one. “The state of Florida agriculture department would order them destroyed, send in bulldozers, pile up the trees and burn them,” Wheeling says. By 2007 the industry had been wiped out again.

This time, Crane says, there was a prohibition on replanting citrus in the area for years, for fear that new trees would also get infected. Farmers turned to other crops, like avocados and vegetables. Wheeling says farmers feared a new disease would arrive, and the low costs of production in Mexico were impossible to beat. “You’re not going to get rich having your trees destroyed every 15 years or so,” he says. “Given all the risk, it was hard to justify going back in and growing them.” His business shifted to papayas, and imports from Mexico increased. Today the U.S. gets some 97% of its limes from Mexico, followed by Guatemala with a paltry 1.5%.

In other parts of the U.S., the climate isn’t as suited to supporting a lime industry, experts say, even in places where backyard growing is popular. Limes are the most “cold tender” of citrus trees, says David Karp, who has worked as a plant specialist of the University of California at Riverside. So in California, he says, “90% of the time you’d be fine, but if there’s one cold day, you lose your trees and crops die. If you’re a backyard grower, it’s no big deal.” Currently there are about 400 acres dedicated to lime-growing in the state, enough to support some local farmers’ markets; by contrast, 41,000 acres of California land are dedicated to lemons. And importing limes from Hawaii isn’t worth the cost, Karp says, especially when Mexico is so close by.

The most tragic part of the Florida story may be that citrus canker wasn’t actually as harmful to lime trees as scientists thought at the time. Crane is currently helping Florida growers experiment with new plantings, having published a paper earlier this year suggesting it would be profitable to produce limes in southern Florida again, partly because of their resistance to disease. “There’s a tiny bit of lime out there,” he says. It may resurge. In the meantime, the U.S. will be beholden to other countries for wheels and wedges.

TIME Smart Spending

Your Grilling Season Budget Just Went Up in Smoke

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Mike Lang—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s finally the time of year to break out the barbecue and cook outdoors. Now if only you could afford some steaks to toss on the grill.

This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Beef prices have been rising sharply since the beginning of the year, and the increases have come as a result of factors in play long before then. Thanks to long periods of drought, shrinking cattle herds, soaring feed prices, and high demand among consumers, analysts have been saying that beef prices will remain high for years to come.

So this week’s Associated Press headline indicating that beef prices in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in nearly three decades shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Just how high are prices? USDA choice-grade beef reached $5.28 a pound in February, up from $4.19 a year prior and $3.97 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Retail beef prices usually decrease after the winter holidays, hand in hand with a fall-off in demand after the period of New Year’s parties and Christmas gatherings is over. But that never really happened in early 2014. A Department of Agriculture reported released earlier this year indicated that average beef prices were up to $5.04 per pound, a record high that was quickly surpassed when the next Department of Agriculture study was published.

What’s a hungry home griller to do? Well, there’s always Meatless Monday. Long before the dramatic rise in beef prices, the concept of scaling back on meat consumption has been pushed as a way to improve one’s health and finances. Data cited by Bloomberg News indicates that Americans are eating less red meat than they have in the recent past. The USDA forecasts that Americans will eat an average of 101.7 pounds of red meat this year, compared to 104.4 pounds in 2013.

Even so, due to the exceptionally small number of cattle in the U.S., as well as growing demand for beef overseas, the supply-demand ratio has pushed prices higher—and likely, higher still down the road. Understandably enough, beef prices generally rise during “grilling season,” which peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Penny-pinching experts always roll out essentially the same handful of tips for coping with higher meat prices. You can make do with cheaper cuts, for instance, or eat more pork, poultry, or yes, even vegetables. Buying in bulk—at a warehouse club like Costco, or perhaps via a service like Zaycon Foods, which sells meat wholesale in church parking lots and other prearranged locations—is a classic bit of advice.

In fact, not that this will do us much good now, but back in January, observers who were taking note of the trajectory of wholesale prices were advising people to stock up on beef and freeze what meat couldn’t be used in the short-term. Prices were high then, but forecasts indicated that they’d be higher later on. And now we know, the forecasts were correct.

TIME Agriculture

Climate Change Could Cause the Next Great Famine

Climate change impacts crop yields
A warmer climate could reduce the yield of staple crops like maize Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A new study finds that as the planet warms, yields for important staple crops like wheat could decline sharply.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, which means the 100 million or so people of Irish descent around the world get the opportunity to celebrate their heritage with song, food and increasingly controversial parades. The sheer size of the Irish diaspora is what has made St. Patrick’s Day an international event—after all, there are only 6.4 million Irish people in Ireland. But it’s also a reflection of the waves of emigration that marked Ireland’s history until recently—emigration that was fueled in part by the great famine of the 1840s. Triggered by a disease that wiped out the potato, Ireland’s staple crop, the Great Famine—an Gorta Mor in Irish—led to the death of a million people and caused another million to flee the country. Without the potato blight, that Irish diaspora—and your local St. Patrick’s Day festivities—might be significantly smaller.

The Great Famine is a reminder of the way failures in agriculture can drive lasting historical change—while leading to immense human suffering. That’s a useful backdrop of a new analysis on the impact global warming will have on crop yields, just published in Nature Climate Change. The news isn’t good: the research, based on a new set of data created by the combination of 1,700 previously published studies, found that global warming of only 2º C (3.6º F) will likely reduce yields of staple crops like rice and maize as early as the 2030s. And as the globe keeps warming, crop yields will keep shriveling unless drastic steps are taken to adapt to a changing climate. As Andy Challinor, a professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds and the lead author of the study, put it in a statement:

Our research shows that crop yields will be negatively affected by climate change much earlier than expected…Furthermore, the impact of climate change on crops will vary both from year-to-year and from place-to-place—with the variability becoming greater as the weather becomes increasingly erratic.

The effect that warming will have on crop yields is one of the most vital areas of climate research—and one of the most vexing. Warming will have different impacts on different kinds of crops in different parts of the world. Warmer temperatures—and the higher levels of carbon dioxide that come with them—may enhance yields in the short-term, but as the climate gets hotter and hotter, crops could wilt, especially in the tropics. Changes in precipitation—both prolonged droughts and bigger storms—will hit farmers hard as well. And with a 842 million hungry people around the world—and another 2 billion or so who will need to be fed by mid-century as global population grows—accurately nailing down the impact climate change will have on crop yields could make the difference between life and death for vast numbers of people.

The last assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2007 found that temperate regions like Europe would be able to deal with moderate, 2º C warming without much of an impact on crop yields. But the newer research used in the Nature Climate Change study indicates that that conclusion might have been too optimistic, especially as the climate gets warmer and warmer towards the century’s end. Farmers in the tropics will have it particularly difficult—yields from maize could drop by 20% or more if temperatures increase by more than 3º C (5.4º F). And those reductions in yield could hide much bigger year-to-year swings, if the weather gets more extreme. “Climate change means a less predictable harvest, with different countries winning and losing in different years,” said Challinor. “The overall picture remains negative.”

We should have a better sense of where climate research stands on crop impacts later this month, when the IPCC comes out with the next chapter in its newest climate science assessment. And farmers—especially in developed nations—can and likely will adapt to what global warming will throw at them, whether by changing crop planting schedules, shifting to more efficient irrigation or taking advantage of biotechnology. But there’s no guarantee that poor farmers—who already produce less per acre—will be able to keep up. The Great Famine was triggered by the potato blight, but it was intensified by cruel policy on the part of Ireland’s British masters, who ensured that rich stores of grain and livestock were exported out of the country even as Irish citizens starved to death in the streets. As a warming climate makes the difficult task of keeping the world fed even tougher, we can only hope that wiser policy prevents the next famine.

TIME Food

Europe’s War on American Cheese

Feta cheese is seen on display in a delicatessen store in Sa
Graham Barclay—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The E.U. has Wisconsin feta in its crosshairs

Blessed are the geographically accurate cheese makers. In an attempt to defend and expand its piece of the growing global cheese market, the European Union wants the United States to ban the use of certain cheese names that have become ubiquitous for consumers.

The proposal, part of ongoing E.U./U.S. trade talks, would ban American cheese makers from using terms like parmesan, asiago, feta, gruyere, gorgonzola, fontina, romano and others that refer to European regions from which those cheeses originate. Domestic cheese producers would be forced to drop those names and rebrand their products, potentially ceding a major edge to their European competitors in booming international markets like Asia.

“It’s a clever trade barrier,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “There would be a lot of uphill work to do for cheese makers to convince consumers that their ‘salty white cheese in brine’ is feta. They would have to market it all over again.”

The widespread usage of European names has been an issue since the mid-1990s, when the E.U. released its geographical indication registry, which sought to restrict some category names to the regions most associated with them, like Scotland and Scotch whisky or France’s Champagne region for the eponymous sparkling wine. In 2012 the E.U. further shored up its exclusive claim to certain foods when it signed a free trade agreement with South Korea that blocked feta cheese made outside of Greece and asiago, fontina and gorgonzola made outside of Italy from being sold in South Korea.

“That was certainly a big wake-up call for us,” says Shawna Morris, senior director for the Consortium for Common Food Names, a Washington lobbying group formed by U.S. milk producers and dairy exporters to fight the E.U. proposals. Morris says her group is focused on what she believes is E.U. overreach against U.S. suppliers and products they’ve been making for decades. “We simply think it’s ridiculous to decide after so many years that they can no longer use these names.”

The stakes aren’t paltry. Last year, the U.S. cheese industry brought in $22 billion and produced 11 billion pounds of cheese, according to the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. ($10 billion of that is in Wisconsin alone.) Barring U.S. cheese makers from exporting feta or parmesan would give Greece and Italy an opportunity to step in. Marin Bozic, an assistant professor of dairy foods marketing economics at the University of Minnesota, says a deal would not only give Europe a non-price advantage in foreign markets, where American cheese exports are booming, but would affect domestic consumers, too.

“People will be confused,” Bozic says. “But the problem is that those names don’t indicate origin. They indicate method of preparation. When you order Greek feta, you don’t expect that it’s feta from Greece. You just expect feta.”

Consumers have come to understand these names as representative of a type of cheese rather than rooted in a certain place, Bozic argues. “It’s not adding anything for consumers. There’s nothing about Greek feta that would make it taste superior. It’s a common food name and reverting back 50 years is no solution. It’s going to be a hard fight, but I don’t see the U.S. relenting on this topic. I think the E.U. would have to make real concessions in other fields to make it beneficial for the U.S.”

TIME

U.N. Warns Asia-Pacific To Grow More Food Or Risk Wars

Governments in Asia and the Pacific must increase food production by mid-century, or risk food shortages and chronic hunger, warns U.N.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on Monday that governments in Asia and the Pacific must increase its food production significantly by mid-century, or risk food shortages and chronic hunger that could spur political unrest and civil wars.

The warning came as the organization launched a week long food security conference in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It said some countries in the region—which encompasses countries as diverse as Australia, China, India, New Zealand, and the Philippines—will need to increase their food production by up to 77 per cent to feed their populations by 2050. The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, reports Reuters.

While countries in the region have made progress on improving on under-nutrition, says the FAO, the region has more hungry people than in the rest of the regions of the world combined—more than 550 million.

“If we fail to meet our goal and a food shortage occurs, there will be a high risk of social and political unrest, civil wars and terrorism, and world security as a whole might be affected,” said Hiroyuki Konuma, the assistant director-general of FAO Asia-Pacific.

[Reuters]

TIME Food & Drink

Beef: It’s What’s No Longer Affordable for Dinner

Lean finely textured beef, is displayed at the Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Neb.
Nati Harnik—Reuters

Long periods of drought in many parts of the United States have left ranches with their lowest cattle numbers since the 1950s, causing a dramatic increase in prices when combined with rising fuel costs and increased demand for beef in other parts of the world

To paraphrase a Paula Cole song, where have all the cows gone?

At the start of 2014, U.S. ranchers had 87.99 million head of cattle, the lowest total since 1951. Long periods of drought in California and Texas are largely being blamed for the declining herd figures, so it’s not like the numbers should come as much of a surprise. Neither should rising beef prices hitting consumers and restaurants (and restaurant customers, of course). Analysts have forecast that beef prices will increase this year and for years to come.

Other factors, including rising costs for fuel and feed and increased demand for beef in developing countries, have also helped push beef prices higher and higher. “Really, the story’s pretty simple, and it begins back in 2007, 2008,” Ricky Volpe, research economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in a Marketplace interview recently. “In both those years, we saw basically every macroeconomic factor that influences food prices start working in the same direction to start driving up food price inflation.”

Regardless of the fact that rising beef prices make sense and shouldn’t really come as a surprise, shoppers and restaurant owners are being smacked with sticker shock lately when attempting to round up brisket, steaks, chuck, ground beef, and pretty much every other part of the cow. In the most recent Department of Agriculture report, the average retail price of fresh beef was measured at $5.04 per pound, up more than 50¢ over a two-year span and the highest price ever recorded.

(MORE: Reality Check: There Is No Chicken Wing Shortage, and Prices Haven’t Really Soared Either)

What’s especially alarming to consumers is that beef prices have continued on their upward trajectory through the early part of the year, a period that is traditionally a lull in the market in between two peak-demand times, the winter holidays and summer barbecue season. “Beef really didn’t drop much since the holidays,” the owner of one Milwaukee meat market told the Journal Sentinel. “Even the (beef) dog bones, those have gone up quite a bit,” he said. “We used to give those away.”

Steakhouses and other restaurants that lean heavy on beef are being squeezed as well. “How much have prices gone up in a year?” John Sanford, owner of BBQ on the Brazos in Cresson, Texas, asked before answering his own question in the Dallas Morning News. “Try in a month — prime brisket had gone up 50 cents a pound since December. Beef prices are killing everybody, and I mean everybody, in the barbecue business.”

Analysts expect that it will be several years before America’s cattle herds increase substantially in size. Until then, we should get used to the idea that beef prices will keep soaring, perhaps at a rate of 7% or 8% per year.

(MORE: Oh God No: Bread, Beef, and Other Foods That Will Cost Way More in 2014)

Some think those estimates are on the low side. Sanford told the Morning News, ““I think beef prices will go up over 10 percent this year,” and that while he hasn’t raised menu prices yet, he will probably have to do so soon. Given the relentless of rising beef prices, he may even do what was once unthinkable: The restaurant might break with a longstanding tradition and finally (gasp!) put chicken on the menu.

TIME Food & Drink

Our Global Diet Is Becoming Increasingly Homogenized—and That’s Risky

Bananas are increasingly popular around the world, but they're vulnerable to a new disease Ronaldo Schemidt—AFP/Getty Images

A new study confirms that worldwide, we're increasingly eating foods from the same small number of staple crops, which makes the global food supply vulnerable to new diseases and pests

All it takes is a trip to the closest Whole Foods to discover how much more varied the offerings of an American grocery store have become in recent years. Organic asparagus from Mexico, papaya from Hawaii, dry scallops from Nantucket Bay—the foodstuffs available to American consumers have never been more diverse. And on a country by country basis, that diversity is growing around the world, as people take advantage of economic growth and urbanization to move away from basic staples like rice and beans, adding meat and dairy and processed foods, while liberalized trade rules have allowed the spread of global food brands. Whether you’re in New York or Nairobi or Nagoya, chances are you have access to a greater variety of food than your parents or your grandparents once did.

But even as the offerings in each individual country become more diverse, the global diet as a whole—what people actually buy and eat—is becoming more homogenized, and that’s a dangerous thing. Those are the conclusions of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from around the world went through 50 years of data gathered by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to identify trends in the global menu. They found that human diets have grown increasingly similar—by a global average of around 36%—as a few staple crops like wheat and maize (corn) and soybeans come to play a bigger and bigger part of mealtime, displacing regional crops like cassava and sorghum.

“More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” said Colin Khoury, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the lead author of the paper, in a statement. “These foods are critical for combating world hunger, but relying on a global diet of such limited diversity obligates us to bolster the nutritional quality of the major crops, as consumption of other nutritious grains and vegetables declines.

(MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable)

The conclusion shouldn’t be surprising to any world traveler who has noticed that you can get Mexican in Malaysia, sushi in South Africa and McDonalds just about everywhere. On a country by country basis, that can mean more choice and variety—Americans would never have eaten sushi 100 years ago and Japanese weren’t chowing down on hamburgers. But on a global level is all evens out, as the diets of individual countries become more and more similar.

While cheaper wheat and soybeans—much of which is consumed in processed food or in meat by grain-fed animals—has introduced new foods to billions of poor people who used to be dependent on a very limited diet, there are obvious drawbacks. The Westernized diet that’s sweeping the world has contributed to the rise in global obesity, which has nearly doubled since 1980, and the resulting spread of metabolic diseases like diabetes. The carbon footprint of crops like maize and wheat, and especially meat and dairy, is often bigger than that of the foodstuffs they’re displacing, amplifying agriculture’s role in climate change. And just as the homogenization of global culture through Hollywood mega-blockbusters and the spread of English has led to the crowding out of regional identity and language, the homogenization of the global diet could result in the loss of unique crops and obscure delicacies.

But the bigger problem is that a global diet that overwhelmingly depends on just a few staple crops is extremely vulnerable to any new diseases, pests or climatic changes that could threaten those plants. Just look at the banana, which has become the world’s most valuable fruit, with exports that reached 16.5 million metric tons in 2012. Americans alone eat more bananas than apples and oranges put together. But a pair of diseases are ravaging existing banana crops. Black Sigatoka, a disease that blackens bananas and can cut yields in half, is showing resistance to the fungicide that has long been used to control it. Worse, Foc Tropical Race 4, a disease that attacks the ubiquitous Cavendish banana variety, is spreading through Asia and is now threatening Latin America, which produces 70% of the world’s $8.9 billion banana export crop.

The reason Cavendish bananas now make up 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world is because they could survive an earlier version of the plant disease called Race 1. Over the first half of the 20th century, that pathogen drove what had been the world’s only export banana—the Gros Michel—to virtual extinction. (The losses caused by Race 1 were so great that they inspired the 1922 song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which as Homer Simpson once noted, is just so sad.) As Gwynn Guilford writes in Quartz, the damage to the global banana industry could be even worse if “banana HIV,” as some have called Race 4, spreads globally:

And at $8.9 billion, bananas grown for export are only a fraction of the $44.1 billion in annual banana and plantain production—in fact, bananas are the fourth-most valuable global crop after rice, wheat, and milk. Where are the rest of those bananas sold? Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories. And that’s the really scary part. Since the first Panama disease outbreak, bananas have evolved from snacks into vital sustenance. And this time there’s no back-up banana variety to feed the world with instead.

That’s true for too many of the increasingly narrow number of crops that the world depends on today. A homogenized global diet isn’t just unhealthy and boring; like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, it’s very, very vulnerable to any kind of disaster.

(MORE: Vital Farms: Raising the Ultra-Organic Egg)

TIME Agriculture

California Farmers Are Using ‘Water Witches’ to Make Your Two Buck Chuck

Proprietor Marc Mondavi demonstrates dowsing with "diving rods" to locate water at the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena, Calif. Eric Risberg—AP

Desperate times call for desperate measures?

In the middle of a record drought, some California farmers have hired dowsers — also known as “water witches” — to use uncommon techniques to find underground water, The Associated Press reports.

Dowsers extend copper or wooden sticks called “divining rods” over the ground to find new wells. Bronco Wine Co., the fourth largest winemaker in the U.S. (and the maker of Two Buck Chuck), employs dowsers on its 40,000-acre property, according to the AP.

The AP reports Napa Valley’s best-known “water witch” is winemaker Marc Mondavi, who charges as much as $500 per visit.

The state’s Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey do not endorse the practice, arguing that there is no scientific basis to it.

MORE: California Set to Get Rain, But It Won’t Quench The Drought

MORE: California Farmers Need Water: Is Desalination The Answer?

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