Under a microscope, a varroa mite is a monster: armored and hairy, with eight legs and one piercing, sucking mouthpart, primordial in its horror. Since the parasite arrived in the United States from Asia in 1987, the practice of tending bees has grown immeasurably harder. Beekeepers must use harsh chemicals in their hives to kill the mites or risk losing most of their bees within two to three years. About a third of the nation’s honeybees have died each winter over the past decade, and Hayes, an apiary scientist, believes the varroa mite is a major factor in this catastrophe. ... the Internet was abuzz with theories about CCD. It offered a litany of dystopian ecological conspiracies: cell phones interfering with bee navigation, or genetically modified corn syrup, or neonicotinoid pesticides. But no one really knew. ... Traditional pesticides act like chemical backhoes, killing their targets (beetles, weeds, viruses) but harming good things along the way (beneficial insects, birds, fish, humans). RNAi, in theory, works instead like a set of tweezers, plucking its victims with exquisite specificity by clicking into sequences of genetic code unique to that organism.
In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia — the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi — who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across state lines. ... Cornett went into business for the same reason poachers are keen to rob him. The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. These days, most ginseng is mass-produced on large, pesticide-sprayed farms under the artificial shade of wood and fabric canopies. Wild ginseng, which tends to grow in temperate forests, is considered more potent and fetches a higher price. Plants like Cornett’s, cultivated in the woods, are closer to wild than to conventionally farmed ginseng. ... Dwindling supply and robust demand have inflated wild American ginseng’s value. In 2014, according to public and academic data, the 81,500 pounds that were legally exported commanded an average wholesale price of $800 per dried pound. That was almost 15 times more than the going rate for farmed roots. Nearly all exports go to China, where a burgeoning middle class is willing to pay marked-up retail prices — sometimes even thousands of dollars per pound. ... Scientists believe ginseng is native to both East Asia and North America because some 70 million years ago, the two land masses were part of a single megacontinent known as Laurasia
In 1609, Galileo wowed Venice’s big cheeses by letting them use his telescope to see ships way out at sea, a good two hours before their owners would see them enter the port. The Venetians were impressed (they doubled Galileo’s salary and gave him lifetime tenure at the University of Padua) because they immediately saw the huge financial and military advantages offered by this visionary device. A few hundred years later, we are on the cusp of an equally radical transformation in how information is gathered, analyzed and monetized. ... Seattle-based BlackSky Global is planning to launch six spacecraft; Terra Bella, a Google-Alphabet subsidiary, has two satellites in orbit and promises video that can “see objects up to the size of a car,” while Spire owns 17 orbiting satellites and plans to track ships in the world’s oceans. These and other upstarts are chasing imaging giants like DigitalGlobe, and Airbus, who have hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware floating miles above our heads. But no one has launched as fast and as often as Planet, a startup running out of an old gray warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District. In a neighborhood filled mostly with vintage furniture stores, hip restaurants and coffee shops, Planet has 62 satellites in orbit, the world’s largest private collection, and by the end of the year it will have 100, enough that every nook, cranny and keyhole on Earth will get its own medium-resolution photo every single day. This avalanche of images will create an unprecedented database of the entire planet, one that can be used to stop forest fires and maybe even wars.
Blue is a rarity among plants and animals. When it does occur in nature, it often isn’t truly blue, but rather a trick of diffraction, or the scattering of light, which is the case for bird feathers, sky, ice, water and iridescent butterfly wings. ... In response to growing pressure from consumers across the globe, Mars announced in February that over the next five years it would remove artificial colors from all the processed foods it makes for human consumption, and that pigments found in natural substances would take their place. ... In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved Mars’s petition to use the microscopic algae spirulina to make the first natural blue dye approved for use in the United States. As a result, any food manufacturer in the country can legally use spirulina as a colorant. Mars spent years researching spirulina’s safety; in order to overhaul 1,700 or so recipes and update its global manufacturing capabilities, the company desperately needs a substitute for synthetic Blue No. 1, as does the rest of the industry. But right now, there isn’t nearly enough spirulina dye to go around — and in any case, sometimes it doesn’t yield just the right blue, or the color degrades and comes out blotchy, or it tastes odd. ... Humans are color-seeking animals, and food companies learned to manipulate that trait early. ... One Mars executive told me that to convert only its blue M&Ms to spirulina blue, the company would, in his estimation, need twice the current global supply. ... last year the global market in natural colors was worth an estimated $970 million, up 60 percent since 2011. Natural colors now represent more than half the food-colors market in dollar terms.
There was no future, no jobs, said my companion. Corruption flourishes, he went on, so-called tenderpreneurs thrived, a breed who use inside knowledge to make a mockery of the tender process, inflating costs while lowering standards. ... A teacher-turned-trader, part-time entrepreneur and occasional taxi-driver, he owns a plot on which he grows maize — although not for his family: the crop is sent to relatives in the countryside. Reversing the traditional direction of trade, workers in the city are now feeding the farmers. The drought, the worst for three decades and embracing much of southern Africa, is taking its toll. ... Zimbabwe is far from “dead”. The country is free of religious divisions — although cursed by ethnic and clan tensions — and still has supportive neighbours, a battered but surviving infrastructure, a broad English-speaking skills base and a talented diaspora longing to return home. And above all, the military are still — for now — in the barracks.
Congo is one of the last frontiers in a global scramble for the world’s best-tasting coffee. The rise in demand for specialty coffee, which accounts for one of every two cups sold in the U.S., has encouraged exporters, roasters and retailers to go places where the potential is huge—and so are the risks. ... The many challenges of doing business in Congo include death threats, kidnapping and extortion. Government officials often concoct new taxes on the spot or forge documents to demand more money than what is owed. Last year, at least 175 foreigners and Congolese, many working for aid organizations, were abducted and held for ransom, according to Human Rights Watch. ... Most of the kidnappings happened in areas near where specialty coffee is grown, though no Western coffee prospectors have been abducted. ... Specialty coffee is a fast-growing segment of the approximately $175 billion-a-year world-wide coffee market. Specialty coffee is made from the highest-quality arabica beans, sells at a premium and has gone from the fringe to mainstream. In the U.S., 31% of adults drink specialty coffee every day, up from 16% in 2006, the National Coffee Association trade group estimates. ... Congo’s best beans regularly get at least an 85 and fetch a wholesale price of about $3 a pound, about double the price on the ICE Futures U.S. exchange in New York.
For years, enlightened restaurant-goers, shocked and horrified by Fast Food Nation, pink slime, and the evils of Big Food, have felt an almost religious pull to Chipotle’s "Food With Integrity" mission ... When a listeria outbreak caused by Dole’s packaged salads was linked to four deaths last year, the public outcry was not nearly as intense or sustained (despite an ongoing federal investigation). When Tesla reported its first driver fatality while using its Autopilot feature last June, it didn’t affect the company’s stock price at all. Why were these deaths only blips for Dole’s and Tesla’s reputations? By contrast, Chipotle spent a year in hell even though no one died—and more than 265,000 Americans get sick annually from illnesses linked to E. coli. ... Chipotle has had no choice but to grapple with the reality that its prestige status has evaporated. And there is no obvious road map for gaining it back. ... what’s ailing Chipotle is more pervasive and insidious than any foodborne illness. For Chipotle to win back all it has lost will require a soul-cleansing broader than perhaps even Ells and Moran realize. ... As Chipotle has grown, its operation has evolved to be anything but simple. The company purchases 185 million pounds of what it considers responsibly raised beef, pork, and chicken annually. ... Chipotle goes through more than 200,000 pounds of avocados daily ... The kitchen theatrics that Ells has deftly used to promote his food’s freshness to customers—the sizzling plancha, the tortilla grill—obscured that it was less safe than conventional fast food. The company had disclosed this fact to investors long before the crisis. ... Chipotle’s future hinges less on hourly audits or triple-washed lettuce or rewards programs than a reimagining of what Food With Integrity means for the next 20 years.
If water is not managed better, today’s crisis will become a catastrophe. By the middle of the century more than half of the planet will live in areas of “water stress”, where supplies cannot sustainably meet demand. ... Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces. ... As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. ... To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. ... around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited. This jeopardises future use by causing contamination. It also damages the layers of sand and clay that make up aquifers, thereby reducing their capacity to be replenished. ... People do not drink much water—only a few litres a day. But putting food on their tables requires floods of the stuff. Growing 1kg of wheat takes 1,250 litres of water; fattening a cow to produce the same weight of beef involves 12 times more. Overall, agriculture accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. ... estimated that agricultural production will have to rise by 60% to fill the world’s bellies. This will put water supplies under huge strain. ... Hydrologists expect that a warming climate will see the cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation speed up. ... There is no single solution for the world’s water crisis. But cutting back on use, improving the efficiency of that use and sharing out water more effectively would all help.
The mini-farm’s inventor, Ed Harwood, of Ithaca, New York, sold it to the school in 2010. Harwood is a sixty-six-year-old man of medium stature who speaks with the kind of rural accent that sometimes drops the last letters of words. He has been an associate professor at Cornell’s famous school of agriculture, and he began his career as an inventor by coming up with revolutionary improvements in the computer management of dairy cows, an animal he loves. ... After spending part of his youth and young adulthood working on his uncle’s dairy farm, he got degrees in microbiology, animal science, dairy science, and artificial intelligence, and applied his knowledge to the dairy industry. ... He first became interested in growing crops indoors in the two-thousand-aughts. Around 2003, his notebooks and diaries began to converge on ideas about how he could raise crops without soil, sunlight, or large amounts of water. ... Aeroponic farming uses about seventy per cent less water than hydroponic farming, which grows plants in water; hydroponic farming uses seventy per cent less water than regular farming. If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high. ... Harwood solved the problem of the crop-growing medium by substituting cloth for soil. ... Agricultural runoff is the main cause of pollution in the oceans; vertical farms produce no runoff.
For decades, poultry had been volatile in a frustratingly predictable way: When times started getting good, companies flooded the market with chicken, causing prices to crash. ... At first the transformation puzzled industry watchers. Some speculated that a merger spree during the 1980s and 1990s was responsible—with fewer decision-makers in charge and fewer competitors, the remaining companies could more easily survey and predict the landscape. But Sanderson’s conference call suggested another source for the shift: Agri Stats, a private service that gathers data from poultry processors, produces confidential weekly reports, and disseminates them back to companies that pay for subscriptions. ... Many industries, such as health care and retail, make use of information-sharing services, but Agri Stats provides chicken producers with a rare level of detail, in uncommonly timely fashion. ... Agri Stats has for years maintained that its reports don’t violate antitrust laws, in part because the information provided is historical. A typical report doesn’t say how much a company plans to charge for a cut of meat, only what it charged last month or last week. ... In 2013, according to SEC filings, Eli Lilly purchased Agri Stats for an undisclosed sum and folded it into its farm animal drug division. ... Illegal collusion occurs when companies plan with one another to cut production ahead of time with the specific intent of raising prices.
Why should we care about a Chinese chemical company buying a Swiss agricultural business, however mammoth the deal might be? For starters, it’s part of a wave of global consolidation in agriculture that will put an increasingly large portion of the world’s commercial seed market—roughly 50%—under the control of a few giant multinationals. In addition to the ChemChina/Syngenta union, Dow Chemical is buying DuPont, and Germany’s Bayer is in the process of swallowing up Monsanto, perhaps the most controversial producer of genetically modified seed species. This combined $170 billion deal binge promises to have a profound impact on the future of global agriculture. ... Beyond that, ChemChina’s purchase of Syngenta provides valuable insight about China’s broader view of its future. The deal signals important trends in the country’s policy on innovation, biotechnology, intellectual property, and globalization.
In recent years, nut theft has exploded into a statewide problem. More than 35 loads, worth at least $10 million, have gone missing since 2013. The number and style of the thefts—quick and professional, as if the characters from Ocean’s Eleven had descended on the Central Valley—have drawn the attention of federal organized-crime investigators and prompted the creation of a regional task force. ... California grows the majority of the world’s almonds and is the second-largest producer of pistachios and walnuts. Many environmentalists blame their cultivation for exacerbating California’s drought—nut trees are thirsty plants. ... The man tasked with finding missing nuts in Tulare County is sheriff Mike Boudreaux, and in 2015 he faced a growing problem. That year, thieves had stolen six shipments, valued at $1.6 million, from area processors ... food and beverages overtook electronics as the most commonly stolen cargo in 2010. ... food is the easiest target in an ocean of easy targets. A private investigator and transit-company owner from California named Sam Wadhwani said that he had tracked cargo thefts of tires, Xboxes, computer equipment earmarked for the military, baby formula, tampons, and iPhones. Inventing a fake trucking company is easy, he said, as is impersonating a legitimate one. The only people in the shipping industry responsible for verifying truckers are brokers, who connect customers with trucking companies. ... the situation is further complicated by the fact that many nut processors have avoided contacting the police, worried that reporting thefts could jeopardize future business.
In some Asian markets, white fruit is coveted, and Driscoll’s has conducted commercial trials in Hong Kong. But although the company has been breeding whites for fifteen years, it has yet to introduce any to U.S. grocery stores; Americans, accustomed to an aggressive cold chain, typically fear underripe fruit. “I brought these to a wedding, and all the parents were telling their kids not to eat the white ones,” a Joy Maker remarked. Lately, however, Driscoll’s focus groups have shown that millennials, adventurous and open-minded in their eating habits, and easily seduced by novelty, may embrace pale berries. With these consumers, unburdened by preconceived notions of what a white berry should look or taste like, Driscoll’s has a priceless opportunity: the definitional power that comes with first contact. Before that can happen, though, the berries must conform to Driscoll’s aesthetic standards. Stewart held a 21AA176 up to his face and inspected it carefully. ... Driscoll’s, a fourth-generation family business, says that it controls roughly a third of the six-billion-dollar U.S. berry market, including sixty per cent of organic strawberries, forty-six per cent of blackberries, fourteen per cent of blueberries, and just about every raspberry you don’t pick yourself. ... Produce is war, and it is won by having something beautiful-looking to sell at Costco when the competition has only cat-faced uglies. In the eighties, beset by takeover ambitions from Chiquita, Del Monte, and Dole, Driscoll’s embarked on a new vision: all four berries, all year round. ... For the shopper, the only impression that matters is the Driscoll’s name, and the red berries, as uniform as soldiers or paper valentines.