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?

TIME Food & Drink

How Uncle Sam Is Helping to Feed the Honeybees

Getty Images

A new program at the USDA will pay farmers and ranchers to plant bee-friendly crops. It's about time

When I wrote a cover story last August about the plight of the honeybees, I didn’t think I’d still be talking about it half a year later. Yet this afternoon I went down to Washington to address a meeting of the National Garden Club—and the topic, of course, was honeybees. I wish I’d had better news to offer. Scientists still don’t know exactly why rates of honeybee loss have been so high in recent years, though there has been some promising research identifying new viruses. Beekeepers are still under tremendous economic pressure to keep their hives going in the face of colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the country, as I wrote last year, is still inhospitable to honeybees, lacking the wild spaces and flowers that feed them.

But on that last bit, at least, there’s some good news. This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 million program to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers in the Midwest interested in helping out honeybees by planting bee-friendly forage in and around their plots. That includes reseeding pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that are good for bees—and for livestock as well. Ranchers will also be able to draw on the money to build fences and make other changes that allow them to move their livestock from pasture to pasture, to prevent the vegetation from getting worn down. The idea is to turn the farms back into a buffet for honeybees.

The states covered will be Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and both North and South Dakota, chosen because 65% of the country’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers store their hives there for at least part of the year. (Commercial beekeepers are an itinerant lot, moving their colonies from state to state as they chase pollination contracts.) Commodity crop farmers will be able to use the money to plant bee forage along the borders of their fields—vital, given that the spread of monocultures and soybeans offer very little nutrition for bees on their own. Such higher quality food will help honeybees battle the toxic mix of pesticides and parasites that have been wearing down their populations, as the USDA’s David Epstein told the AP:

You can think of it in terms of yourself. If you are studying for exams in college, and you’re not eating properly and you’re existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease and you get sick.

A $3 million outlay by itself won’t be enough to stop the onslaught of colony collapse disorder. But like the growth in rooftop and backyard beekeeping—even in crowded cities like Los Angeles and New York—it will help.

(MORE: Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?)

TIME Water

California’s Farmers Need Water. Is Desalination the Answer?

California drought farms
California's farms have been hard hit by the drought Ken James—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As Obama visits drought-stricken California, new ways to create fresh water are getting a second look

President Obama will get to see California’s disastrous drought first hand today on a visit to the farming city of Fresno. It won’t be a pretty sight. While the conditions are arid across the state, with 91.6% of California in severe to exceptional drought, agricultural areas are suffering the worst.

The state’s Central Valley has long been the fruit and vegetable basket of the country, growing nearly half of U.S. produce. But farms in the valley exist only thanks to irrigation—the Central Valley alone takes up one-sixth of the irrigated land in the nation. And thanks to the drought, there’s been little rain, and irrigation has been virtually cut off. California officials have already said that they won’t be able to offer any water to farmers through the state’s canals, and the expectation is that federal reservoirs won’t be of any help either, leaving farmers to their own dwindling supplies of groundwater. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that the drought could translate to a loss of $11 billion in annual state revenue from agriculture.

Obama will try to offer some help in his visit to Fresno, announcing that the federal government will make available up to $100 million in aid for California farmers who’ve lost livestock to the drought, as well as $15 million in aid to help farmers and ranchers implement water conservation policies. But while efficiency and conservation can go a long way to stretching dwindling supplies of water, the reality is that California is an arid state that consumes water—80% of which goes to agriculture—as if it were a wetland. If it wants to continue as the nation’s number one farming state—producing a record $44.7 billion in agriculture receipts last year—it’s going to need more water. And if scientists are right that the current drought is the worst California has faced in 500 years, and that the state could be on the brink of a prolonged dry period accentuated by climate change, that water is going to have to come from new sources.

(MORE: Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse)

As it happens, California sits next to the biggest source of water in the world: the Pacific Ocean. The problem, of course, is that seawater is far too salty to drink or use for irrigation. Desalination plants can get around that, using large amounts of electricity to force seawater through a membrane filter, which removes the salt and other impurities, producing fresh water. There are already half a dozen desalination plants in California, and around 300 in the U.S., but the technology has been held back by cost and by environmental concerns. A $1 billion desalination plant capable of producing 50 million gallons of water a day is being built in the California town of Carlsbad, but San Diego will be buying water from the facility for about $2,000 per acre-foot, twice as much as the city generally pays for imported water, while producing enough water for 112,000 households. Desalination can have a major carbon footprint—the Carlsbad plant will use about 5,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce an acre-foot of water. And because desalination plants in general needs about 2 gallons of seawater to produce a gallon of fresh water, there’s a lot of highly salty brine left over, which has to be disposed of in the ocean, where it can pose a threat to marine life.

Still, while efficiency and conservation will always be lower cost and lower impacts solutions to any water crisis, it’s hard not to see desalination playing a bigger and bigger role in California’s efforts to deal with lingering drought. The process of desalination is improving—the Carlsbad plant uses reverse osmosis technology, which is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than older methods —and it has the advantage of being completely drought-proof. In a world where water is more valuable and more valued, desalination can begin to make more sense.

“Desalination needs to be judged fairly against the other alternatives,” says Avshalom Felber, the CEO of IDE Technologies, an Israeli company that is helping to construct the Carlsbad plant.

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

If desalination could be powered by renewable energy, some of those environmental concerns would melt away. And that’s what a startup called WaterFX is trying to do in the parched Central Valley. While farmers in the valley generally depend on irrigated water brought in from hundreds of miles away, the land itself isn’t short of groundwater. But most of that water is far too salty for use in farming. WaterFX’s technology uses a solar thermal trough—curved mirrors that concentrate the power of the sun—to evaporate salty water. The condensate that’s later collected and cooled becomes freshwater, leaving salt and other impurities behind. “Solar stills are an old technology, but this has a new twist that makes it very efficient and very cost effective,” says Aaron Mandell, the CEO of WaterFX.

Because it uses solar power, WaterFX’s desalination has virtually no carbon footprint, and the company says that it has a 93% recovery rate, much higher than conventional desalination. But its biggest advantage might be its modularity—Water FX’s solar stills can be set up locally, allowing farms to recycle their own runoff, rather than having freshwater pumped in from afar. That saves energy and money. “You can create a closed loop where the water is reused over and over again,” says Mandell.

Right now the company is working on a pilot with the Panoche Water District in the Central Valley, producing almost 500 gallons of clean water a day. WaterFX has plans to expand to a commercial plant with a 2 million gallon capacity. Of course, the technology would have to be scaled up massively to even make a dent in California’s irrigation needs, given that the state sends billions and billions of gallons of water to farms each year. But if California really is on the edge of a great dry, every drop will help.

(MORE: Why the Drought Won’t Be Getting Better Anytime Soon — and Why This One Won’t Be the Last)

TIME climate change

Is Drought Becoming the New Normal for Australia?

A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013
A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013 David Gray—Reuters

With farmers and Outback towns fighting desperately to survive, Australia is reeling from a long-term lack of water

The lucky country hasn’t had much luck with its weather of late. Following the warmest winter on record, a summer heatwave where temperatures topped 49.6°C and a volley of wildfires that destroyed hundreds of properties and homes, vast swaths of Australia are now being devastated by drought. The situation is especially dire in Queensland’s interior, where the driest year on record has prompting a few towns to plan for all-out evacuations.

“I have lived here for 50 years, and I can never recall anything as serious as what we’re going through now,” say Tony McGrady, Mayor of Mount Isa, a mining town of 24,000 people. “If we don’t get a good dump of rain by the end of the monsoon season in March, we’ll be in a serious pickle.”

Australia’s highly populated southeast and southwest corners are also feeling the pinch. Residents there have only just recovered from the longest dry spell on record — the Millennium Drought of 1995-2012, which changed the way Australia managed its water resources, prompting massive spending on desalination plants, grey-water recycling and rebates for home owners who installed water tanks. The rapid return of drought conditions in the south, and the failure of the life-giving rains of the tropical monsoon in the north, have led many to wonder whether drought is the new norm.

“It’s too early to say if another Millennium Drought is on the way because rainfall is much more difficult to predict than heat,” says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, a non-government provider of climate change facts. “Yet over the past 30 years there have been clear long-term drying trends in the southeast of Australia and in the southwest where rainfall has declined 15 percent.

“But what’s happening in Queensland is different,” she adds. “We don’t really understand it, but are keeping our fingers crossed that it won’t have such huge implications as the Millennium Drought did for Australians.”

The drought in Queensland, a key beef-producing and agricultural region, may have dire implications for food security, however. Dry conditions that saw the culling of 8.6 million of Australia’s 27 million head of cattle last year have driven beef future prices to long-term highs, with patties now trading at a record $4 per kilogram.

Then there’s the human toll. In the past year, 16 graziers and farmers have taken their lives in Queensland as a result of drought-induced financial and emotional distress. They include a man who, after being told his 400 cattle were too emaciated to go to market, shot his entire herd before turning the gun on himself.

“There is going to be no alternative other than mass closures of farms,” says Scott Armstrong, a cotton producer in the town of St George, 390km west of Brisbane. “There’s been a chronic shortage of rainfall over not a great length of time but absolutely no relieving showers for 18 months. People are completely out of feed, and when you run out of feed you stop farming.”

A lengthy run on farm closures could have a far-reaching implications for Australia’s future prosperity. According to a report published by Deloitte in October, Australia is in a unique position to capitalize on the Asian middle-class’ growing appetite for protein. Agribusiness (along with gas, tourism, education and wealth management) stands to be become one of Australia’s top-five growth sectors, worth an additional $226 billion over the next 20 years, if things go well.

“What you always do battle with when it comes to drought policy is making the wider public aware of how problems in remote areas will affect the rest of the country,” Minister of Agriculture Barnaby Joyce tells TIME.

As deputy leader of the National Party, the minor partner of the center-right coalition that swept to power last September, Joyce is calling for $6.35 billion in drought assistance for farmers. In Mt Isa, Mayor McGrady is calling for an injection of state funds to build a third dam he says is essential for the survival of the town and hundreds of farms and cattle stations in surrounding areas.

“Talk of evacuation might grab a headline, but I don’t think it does the community good,” he says. “It’s time for a national summit between all levels of government on how to overcome water shortages so we we won’t have to face this problem again.”

TIME Agriculture

Five Questions with DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman

DuPont has long been known as a chemical company, but Kullman is shifting the 211-year-old corporation towards innovation and agriculture

There’s never a bad time to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but when Ellen Kullman took over the 211-year-old DuPont at the beginning of 2009, things could have been better. The global economy was tanking, sales were dropping and the future was hazy. Fast forward five years later, though, and DuPont is surging. Kullman has transitioned the company away from some of its traditional fields—including the performance chemicals business, best known for its nonstick frying pans and paints—and towards higher growth sectors in high-tech agriculture and nutrition. That shift has worked so far—last month DuPont announced that its fourth-quarter profits had doubled on the back of brisk sales of high-tech seeds and pesticides. I spoke recently with Kullman about the changes at one of America’s iconic companies, the global demographic shifts driving them and the big business of feeding the world’s 7 billion-plus people

TIME: You have been spinning off some business, investing in new ones. How do you see the company changing and what is driving those changes?

Kullman: I started right in the midst of the global financial crisis, so volumes were falling, and the world was not a very secure place. That gave me an opportunity to reflect on the portfolio, to reflect on how science was making a difference for us, how we were connecting to the market. We evolved to a strategy that is focused on science, and ag and nutrition, extending our advanced materials area and then really bringing to life areas like industrial biosciences that I was engaged in over a decade ago.

(MORE: Industrial Farming Slows Climate Change?)

The more I travel around the globe, the more I’m convinced that this strategy is going to lead to higher growth, higher value, greater shareholder value, because of the amount of change that is going on in the world today. We started in sustainability 20 years ago. That’s three CEOs ago. Basically then it was all about footprint reduction. You think about it now with the stressors on the world, sustainability is really important for the future of civilization, if you think about the climate, if you think about food and energy. And we think science can play a huge role in solving some of these problems, in a way that creates shareholder value. We’re much more energy efficient today than we were a decade ago, and we saved billions of dollars by not spending it on energy. But more importantly we can help airframe manufacturers lighten their vehicles or planes, and get higher efficiency out of the energy they’re using. We can help farmers utilize water much more efficiently, like through our AquaMax product, to increase yields in water stressed conditions

TIME: When it comes to ag and science and technology, and especially when it comes to biotech, you see different levels of public acceptance in different countries. How do you deal with the concern people might have for the impacts of bioscience agriculture, which is so basic to human life?

Kullman: I’m believe that countries and people make choices for themselves about what science they accept or don’t accept. And it should be fact based, so they understand [the science] and make those decisions. We as a company need to be relevant whether they choose to utilize the technology or not. I believe in the science. When you think about GMOs, I spend a lot of time on them, and I understand them. But I understand that my telling people on faith may not carry the day. They need to see it, understand it, [and we need to] arm them with facts, educate them, and let them make their choices.

We have a large business in agriculture in non-GMO seed in Europe [where GMO technology is less accepted]. We’ll be relevant there, regardless of the technology choices they make. We’ll ensure that they have the right studies and tests done to help that.

TIME: How do you deal with the differing regulation on this issue around the world, on biotech and on things like biofuel, where policy has a big impact on how the business grows?

Kullman: We are operating in an increasingly regulated world. We would certainly love to see a more harmonized regulatory environment around the world, to see that getting something approved in India is the same as getting it approved in America or China. That’s just more efficient. But I do think that we do have to participate in the process from a regulatory standpoint. We workwith different governments around the world to share information and to inform them, so when they consider laws and regulations, they do so from a standpoint of data and information that helps them make the right decision.

(MORE: Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?)
TIME: Within agriculture, you mentioned this enormous demand coming from parts of the developing world, and this yield gap, between what farms can do in Iowa versus farms in places like eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa. Is the aim eventually that farming in those parts of the world will come to resemble farming in America, or will there still be regional differences?

Kullman: Food is phenomenally local, and there are cultural differences that you have to comprehend. We need a common language, because people talk about this area in so many different ways. In the fall I was in an area in northeast China, above North Korea, part of the corn belt there. You drive along a road and you’re seeing an area that looks damn close to what you might find in the rolling hills [of Iowa], and then you find out the corn is all hand sown and hand harvested. That each farmer owns or gets the ability to farm a certain number of mous—about a tenth of an acre. And you go sit with a farmer or a family and you talk about farming, and they’re doing pretty well under their historic methodology in farming that is very labor intensive. But they know that has to change, and they know they need to mechanize. And that is very different there than what you’d find in India, or in Tanzania. It will always be different, but there’s a big gap that can be crossed from a productivity standpoint in agriculture that shouldn’t be lost on us. And I think it creates huge economic opportunity in places like sub-Saharan Africa, as farmers go from subsistence farming to farming with an income.

TIME: You mentioned sustainability as a big part of what you do. That word has a lot of different meaning for a lot of different people. When you say sustainability, what does it mean? Is it just efficiency or does it go beyond that?

Kullman: Sustainable means selecting for a long time, so [what you produce] can withstand the rigors of the world, while allowing the environment to continue to be plentiful and grow. I think that whole area is evolving greatly, and as the regulatory environment changes, people become concerned about how the future looks, and the part that each of us plays. There’s real opportunity. Think about cellulosic biofuels. First generation biofuels are in use, but what’s really sustainable are second or third generation biofuels that utilize plant waste and things like that. This is an area that is not just something to do to create real value for our customers and for our company going forward. We don’t have all the answers but I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

(MORE: Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?)

TIME Agriculture

New Report Says FDA Allowed ‘High Risk’ Antibiotics to Be Used on Farm Animals

Experts worry that the overuse of antibiotics on livestock is leading to resistant-strains of bacteria Elyse Butler via Getty Images

Antibiotic resistance claims 23,000 lives a year in the U.S.—and the overuse of antibiotics in livestock plays a role. Is the FDA doing all it can to protect Americans?

A stark fact: around 80% of the antibiotics by weight used in the U.S. are given not to sick human beings, but to farm animals. And for the most part, these drugs aren’t prescribed by veterinarians to save ill pigs or chickens, but instead are administered to animals in low doses in their food and water, for the purpose of growth promotion—the drugs seem to help livestock pack on weight—and prophylactially, to help them survive the packed conditions of a modern factory farm.

That the heavy use of antibiotics on farm animals in the U.S. can pose a real health threat to human beings—by inadvertently promoting the growth and spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria—is something that nearly every expert outside the food and drug industries agrees on. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 2 million Americans are sickened and 23,000 die each year thanks to antibiotic-resistant infections, and while some of that is due to the overprescription of antibiotics to human beings, use and abuse of the drugs in meat production plays a significant role as well, but it’s one that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long been reluctant to crack down on.

Now a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) underscores just how lacking the FDA’s regulation of antibiotics in farm animals has been. Using FDA documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the NRDC found that the agency allowed 30 potentially harmful antibiotics—18 rated as “high risk” by the FDA itself—to remain on the market for use as additives in livestock feed and water. Despite internal FDA reviews that raised questions about the risks posed by the drugs, the additives still remain approved and many of the drugs are still on the market for food production. “The FDA knew the risks, but they still haven’t done anything to revoke the approval of these drugs,” says Avinash Kar, an attorney for the NRDC and the co-author of the new report.

(MORE: Farm Drugs: The FDA Moves to Restrict (Somewhat) the Use of Antibiotics in Livestock)

The FDA has been looking at antibiotics in farm animals since 1970, when the agency convened a joint task force of experts that eventually found that the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock—meaning for growth promotion or for prophylactic use on healthy animals—could lead to resistant strains of bacteria that could threaten human health. In 1973, the FDA adopted regulations that required drug manufacturers to prove the safety of antibiotics used in animal feed and water. In 1977 the FDA found that the use penicillin and tetracyclines—two classes of antibiotics that are widely used to treat humans—in animal feed was unsafe, and proposed to withdraw approval of the drug classes. But according to NRDC’s findings, the agency never followed through.

In 2001, prompted by legislation that set aside money for the agency to look at antibiotics, FDA experts began reviewing livestock feed additives already in use that contained penicillin or tetracyclines. The additives—30 altogether—were reviewed according to two sets of criteria: the 1973 safety regulations, and 2003 guidelines meant to evaluate the safety of any new animal antibiotic drugs. (The 2003 guidelines gauged the risk of antibiotics in feed leading to resistant strains of bacteria, as well as the chance those strains can reach people and damage human health. The antibiotics would then be classified as low, medium or high risk.) The internal FDA documents unearthed by the NRDC show that agency experts found that 26 of the 30 additives had never even met the initial 1973 safety criteria. The agency also found that 18 of the 30 additives posed a “high risk” of exposing human beings to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the food chain, according to the criteria set out by the 2003 guidelines.

(MORE: Talking Meat and Antibiotics)

For the 12 remaining additives, manufacturers hadn’t even supplied the FDA with sufficient evidence for the agency to determine the health risk they might pose to human beings. According to the NRDC, none of the 30 antibiotic feed additives in question could be approved today under the current guidelines. Because the FDA does not disclose sales of specific animal drugs, it’s impossible to know how widely those additives are still being used in animal feed. But the NRDC found evidence that at least nine of the additives are still being marketed today, and 28 of the drugs apparently still remain approved for use. The remaining two were withdrawn voluntarily from the market.

While the food industry says that restricting antibiotics in livestock would lead to sicker animals and more expensive meat, it is possible to have a major meat producing industry without the dangerous use of antibiotics for growth promotion. The European Union has banned all antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed, and Denmark—which produces about as many hogs as Iowa even though the Scandinavian country is more than three times smaller than the Hawkeye State—has banned all prophylactic uses of antibiotics in animals. But while a few food companies in the U.S. like Chipotle have touted their drug-free meat, millions of pounds of antibiotics are still being used on farms. There are a pair of bills in Congress that would curb antibiotic use in animals—the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) in the House and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA)—but neither are likely to pass.

That leaves the FDA, which has in recent years begun to move gently on antibiotics in animal feed. Last month the agency released guidelines that ask drug manufacturers to change their labels voluntarily so that farmers would no longer be able to use the drugs for growth promotion, and instead would need a veterinarian’s prescription to use the drugs for therapeutic purposes, rather than simply allowing them to be bought over the counter. The FDA has said that voluntary guidelines will lead to faster changes in antibiotic use, largely because tougher rules could face time-consuming legal challenges from the food industry. And the agency says that once the labels on drugs have been changed, it would be illegal for the additives to be used for growth promotion—and the FDA has claimed it would take action against companies that failed to comply.

In response to the NRDC report, Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine team noted that two major drug companies have expressed support for the agency’s new guidelines, which she said are informed by the FDA’s earlier scientific review of those 30 additives. She added that the FDA expects to fully implement its strategy to phase out all medically important antimicrobials—including the penicillins and tetracyclines called out by the NRDC—within three years:

The FDA is confident that its current strategy to protect the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials, including penicillins and tetracyclines, is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture. We note that our strategy also does not limit our authority to take future regulatory action.

But consumer and environmental groups are doubtful that much will change without a legal mandate. “The FDA has the authority to move independently on this,” says Kar. “It seems to me the FDA is using the specter of time and resources to justify a voluntary approach.” Until that changes, neither will our other drug problem.

(MORE: Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food)

TIME

Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse

California faces historic drought
California is the driest it has been on record, but its geologic history indicates the drought could get far worse David McNew / Getty Images

Scientists fear California's long-ago era of mega-droughts could be back

As he gave his State of the State speech yesterday, California Gov. Jerry Brown had reason to feel pretty good. The 75-year-old governor has helped rescue the state from fiscal insolvency and presided over the addition of 1 million new jobs since 2010. But as he spoke, Brown hit a darker note. Last week, amid the driest year for the state since record-keeping began in the 1840s, Brown declared a drought emergency for California, and in his speech he warned of harder times ahead:

Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration…We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

Californians need to be ready, because if some scientists are right, this drought could be worse than anything the state has experienced in centuries. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at rings of old trees in the state, which helps scientists gauge precipitation levels going back hundreds of years. (Wide tree rings indicate years of substantial growth and therefore healthy rainfall, while narrow rings indicate years of little growth and very dry weather.) She believes that California hasn’t been this dry since 1580, around the time the English privateer Sir Francis Drake first visited the state’s coast:

If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period and the middle Holocene [the current geological epoch, which began about 11,000 years ago]. The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.

Ingram is referring to paleoclimatic evidence that California, and much of the American Southwest, has a history of mega-droughts that could last for decades and even centuries. Scientists like Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont-Dohery Earth Observatory have used tree-ring data to show that the Plains and the Southwest experienced multi-decadal droughts between 800 A.D. and 1500 A.D. Today dead tree stumps—carbon-dated to the Medieval period—can be seen in river valley bottoms in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and underwater in places like California’s Mono Lake, signs that these bodies of water were once completely dry. Other researchers have looked at the remains of bison bones found in archaeological sites, and have deduced that a millennium ago, the bison were far less numerous than they were several centuries later, when they blanketed the Plains—another sign of how arid the West once was. The indigenous Anasazi people of the Southwest built great cliff cities that can still be seen in places like Mesa Verde—yet their civilization collapsed, quite possibly because they couldn’t endure the mega-droughts.

(MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive)

In fact, those droughts lasted so long that it might be better to say that the Medieval West had a different climate than it has had during most of American history, one that was fundamentally more arid. And there’s no reason to assume that drought as we know it is the aberration. Ingram notes that the late 1930s to early 1950s—a time when much of the great water infrastructure of the West was built, including the Hoover Dam—may turn out to have been unusually wet and mild on a geologic time scale:

I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming. When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.

These mega-droughts aren’t predictions. They’re history, albeit from a time well before California was the land of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And the thought that California and the rest of the modern West might have developed during what could turn out to be an unusually wet period is sobering. In 1930, a year before construction began on the Hoover Dam, just 5.6 million people lived in California. Today more than 38.2 million live in the largest state in the U.S., all of whom need water. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches produced crops and livestock worth $44.7 billion in 2012, but dry farming districts like the Central and Imperial Valleys would wither without irrigation. (Altogether, agriculture uses around 80% of the stare’s developed water supply.) More people and more crops have their straws in California’s water supply. Even in normal years, the state would be in trouble. If we see a return to the bone-dry climate of the Medieval period, it’s hard to see how the state could survive as it is now. And that’s not even taking the effects of climate change into account—the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that it was likely that warming would lead to even drier conditions in the American Southwest.

In his speech, Brown told Californians “it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought.” The good news is that the sheer amount of water we waste—in farms, in industry, even in our homes—means there’s plenty of room for conservation. The bad news is that if California lives up to its climatological history, there may not be much water left to conserve.

(MORE: Rising Temperatures and Drought Create Fears of a New Dust Bowl)

TIME ecocentric

How a Plant Virus May Help Cause the Beepocalypse

A new study says that a plant virus could be killing honeybees YunhyokChoi via Getty Images

A new study finds that a plant pathogen could play a role in honeybee colony collapse disorder

Honeybees are dying. In the winter of 2012-2013, one-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared, a 42 percent increase from the year before and well above the 10-15 percent losses beekeepers once thought was normal. Many of them have been hit by colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious and still unexplained malady that wipes out honeybee hives. Given that honeybees pollinate about one in every three mouthfuls of food you eat—adding some $15 billion worth of value to crops each year—this is a big deal. And we don’t know why they’re dying.

As I wrote in a cover story for TIME last summer, there’s no shortage of possible causes. Agricultural pesticides, Varroa destructor mites, the Israeli paralytic virus (IASV), the loss of open wilderness—each and every factor could play some role in the death of the bees. But there’s been no single smoking gun—which has made it that much tougher to save the bees.

(MORE: The Plight of the Honeybee)

A new study, though, may shed more light on the beepocalypse. Researchers at the USDA’s Agriculture Research Laboratory, as well as academics in the U.S. and China, have found evidence of a rapidly mutating plant pathogen—the tobacco ringspot virus (TRSV)—that seems to have jumped into honeybees, via the pollen bees collect as they fly from flower to flower. The study, published in the journal mBio, found that the virus spread systematically through infected bees and hives, reaching every part of their bodies except the eyes.

While it’s not yet clear how TRSV spreads among honeybees, or what it may do to the infected—though researchers theorize it attacks the nervous system—the study found that the presence of TRSV, along with other bee viruses like IASV, was correlated with lower rates of honeybee colony survival over winters.

Part of what makes TRSV so worrying is that it’s an RNA virus, like HIV and the influenza virus in humans, which allows it to rapidly mutate and evade its hosts’ immune defenses. As a plant virus that has found a way to jump the species barrier, TRSV could be especially tricky. Cross-species pathogens are so new that hosts generally have no defense against them.

Still, this virus isn’t acting alone. The researchers found that the virus was present in Varroa mites, blood-sucking parasites that have killed millions of bees in the U.S. since being introduced in the late 1980s. It’s possible that the mites could help spread the virus from bee to bee and colony to colony, or could weaken the honeybees enough to make them more susceptible to new pathogens like TRSV. The more we learn about CCD, the more it seems as if bees are suffering from a host of ills—pathogens and pesticides and nutritional problems—all interacting in ways we haven’t yet untangled. TRSV is far from a smoking gun, but it could be a very big bullet.

(PHOTO: The Bee, Magnified)

TIME Retail

Colorado’s Pot Shops Say They’ll Be Sold Out Any Day Now

Marijuana Cigarette
Getty Images / Image Source

A few days into the experiment, the new world of legal-recreational-marijuana sales in Colorado appears to be a big success — so much so that pot shops are finding it impossible to keep up with demand.

According to the Denver Post, at least 37 stores in Colorado were licensed to sell recreational pot to anyone 21 or over as of New Year’s Day. The Associated Press and others reported long lines outside Denver pot shops, with some eager customers forced to wait three to five hours before getting a chance to go inside, step up to the counter and make a purchase.

Prices have been steep — in some cases, stores were charging $50 or even $70 for one-eighth of an ounce of pot that cost medical marijuana users just $25 the day before — and taxes add on an extra 20% or so. Even so, sales have been brisk.

The two operational pot shops in Pueblo collectively sold $87,000 of marijuana on Jan. 1, per the Pueblo Chieftain, and store owners say if demand persists anywhere near the current high, they’ll be sold out in the very near future. Likewise, Toni Fox, owner of the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that a sellout is imminent. “We are going to run out,” she said on Thursday, Day 2 of legal-recreational-marijuana sales. “It’s insane. This weekend will be just as crazy. If there is a mad rush, we’ll be out by Monday.”

Another Associated Press story noted that some shops had to close early on Wednesday because they didn’t have enough marijuana on hand to oblige customers.

(MORE: Colorado’s ‘High Country’ Takes On New Meaning)

For more than a month, many have speculated that Colorado pot shops would not be able to meet demand due to the limited number of stores open in the state, as well as tough regulations regarding how marijuana is grown and distributed at the wholesale level. Of course, strong demand — especially from “smoke birds,” a.k.a. out-of-state tourists visiting Colorado for legal marijuana purchases — also plays a big role. By most accounts, since Jan. 1 more than half of pot sales have gone to non-Coloradans.

Prices in legal pot shops have already risen to upwards of $400 an ounce. Once you factor in taxes, as well as the fact that it looks like shops may periodically be sold out for a while, and some are saying the situation is one that could push pot enthusiasts back to buying marijuana on the black market. “People will get real tired of paying the taxes real fast,” one street dealer in Pueblo named Tracy told the Chieftain. “When you can buy an ounce from me for $225 to $300, the state adds as much as $90 just for the tax.”

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