Food News: Lobster, Insecticide, Organics

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Where Have All the Lobsters Gone?

On Cape Cod, Massachusetts, nothing says summer evening as clearly as a big pot of boiling seawater and a mess of locally caught lobsters. Thanks to warming ocean temperatures, the all-important "local" component of that timeless ritual may soon be a thing of the past.

With Cape Cod lobster catches reduced to a quarter of what they were in the 1990s, officials are thinking of imposing a five-year closure of the fishery from the Cape to New York's Long Island Sound.

This area marks the southern limit of "Maine" lobsters' natural range. Scientists suspect that warming water temperatures are either killing the crustaceans, which prefer cold conditions, or forcing them to move to cooler areas. "[The lobster decline] is a combination of factors that are all related back to changes in water temperature," Robert Glenn, senior marine fisheries biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told Doug Fraser, a reporter for the Cape Cod Times.

The good news is that lobster populations north of Cape Cod remain healthy. As anyone who has dipped a toe in the ocean in Maine knows, the water there is still mighty cold. Glenn said ocean temperatures would have to rise by 15 degrees or more to hurt northern lobsters. If the globe warms enough to do that, lobsters won't be only species looking for another place to live.

The End o' Endosulfan

Congratulations to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for finally doing what it should have done decades ago. Last week, the agency announced that it would ban endosulfan, one of the nastiest insecticides still sprayed on the country's tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and a host of other vegetables, fruits, and grains. According to the agency, the chemical, which drifts easily on the wind, posed "unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farmworkers and wildlife."

A close cousin of DDT (and perhaps even more toxic), endosulfan is the latest member of the organochlorine family of pesticides to be banned. The chemicals, a veritable rogues' gallery of toxicity, are notorious for their ability build up in the environment and in our bodies (including breast milk). They have been associated with cancers, Parkinson's disease, and birth defects, to name a few conditions.

No one can say that the EPA rushed to judgment. Most organochlorines were banned four decades ago following the grim revelations of Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring. Environmental groups have been urging the agency to ban endosulfan for more than a decade, and the European Union ordered the chemical's use stopped in 2007.

"We are all breathing a bit easier," said Jeannie Economos, the Farmworker Association of Florida's pesticide health and safety project coordinator, in a press release. She should be. The chemical is sprayed on 86 percent of her home state's huge tomato crop and is found in virtually all tested waterways in southern Florida.

Who's Inspecting the Inspectors?

Those of us who are suspicious about the cornucopia of "organic" food from China that has begun to appear in grocery aisles were vindicated recently when the New York Times reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had thrown a prominent organic certification agency out of China for what the newspaper describes as a "conflict of interest that strikes at the heart of the organics' guarantee."

Although the USDA grants producers its coveted green "USDA Organic" seal, private organizations usually do the inspections that determine whether a grower or manufacturer adheres to organic standards. In this case, a Nebraska-based non-profit called Organic Crop Improvement Association had Chinese government employees (not a particularly vigilant group, given the country's abysmal food-safety record) conduct inspections of farms owned and operated by the Chinese government.

The USDA told the Times that it plans to send an audit team to China this year to review the organic certification process in that country. The auditors will have their work cut out for them. In the last year alone, the number of certified organic Chinese producers exporting to the United States tripled to 669. Organic Crop Improvement certified fully one-third of those.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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