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From Droughts to Disease, 2015 Highlighted Our Food System's Shortcomings

A look at the big moments in food production this year reveals how far we’ve come, and how very far we have left to go.

2015 was a bit of a news roller-coaster when it came to the things we eat. We've made some progress over the year in some areas but struggled to cope in others as we faced challenges from disease to drought, highlighting the flaws of a food production system that too-heavily relies on industrial farming.

A look at the big moments in food production this year reveals how far we've come, and how very far we have left to go in terms of sustainable, healthy, ethical solutions for feeding the masses:


Thirsty for Change

Image: David Prasad/Flickr

This spring, we had to contend with a fourth-straight year of drought in California, where the situation became so dire that some farmers decided to sell their water rights instead of trying to grow crops—and motivated some well-meaning hipsters to boycott almonds in a vain attempt to make up for some of the lowest snowfall in California's history. As the year comes to a close, everyone is anxiously eyeing the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides a third of California's water supply, to see if we'll get enough snowfall this winter to start pulling the state out of drought. Early snowfall looks good, but it's too early to tell.

Superbugs Versus Fast Food Nation

Image: Brandon Wang/Flickr

There was some good news in March when McDonald's announced it would phase out chickens raised with the use of medically-important antibiotics in its poultry dishes, a move that became a running theme for fast food joints and chicken producers throughout the year. Tyson said it would phase out human antibiotics from its broiler chickens by 2017, Subway committed to sourcing only antibiotic-free animals, and Papa John's pledged to make all its chicken toppings antibiotic-free by next summer.

The overuse of medically-important antibiotics (as in antibiotics used on humans) on farm animals is one of the biggest contributing factors to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so phasing them out of food production marks a huge step forward in the fight against superbugs. These changes were almost entirely driven by consumer pressure, since the government has fallen short on making any real legislative prohibitions on livestock antibiotic use. Even President Obama's long-awaited National Action Plan to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria (which came out in March) lacked any real teeth in this area. The one major exception to the lack of government intervention would be California, which passed the strictest farming antibiotic laws in the country this year, making it illegal to use human antibiotics on animals except when the animal is already sick. Much more needs to be done, but we've made a bit of headway this year, largely propelled by consumers demanding more.


Sick Chickens

A Department of Agriculture employee doing diagnostic testing. Image: USDA

Winter and spring was a bad time for the nation's chickens and turkeys. Millions of birds had to be euthanized after contracting highly pathogenic avian influenza, a deadly flu virus that ravished poultry farms across the country. The outbreak was so bad, it caused multiple governors to issue a state of emergency, yet scientists were struggling to pinpoint exactly how the sickness was spreading.

The pandemic epidemic was mostly quelled by the summer—the outbreak was spread by wild birds migrating over the winter—giving the United States Department of Agriculture time to cook up a plan in case another outbreak begins this winter. The plan includes a lot of common-sense tactics like improving biosecurity: protocols such as changing shoes and donning lab coats when exiting and entering farming facilities to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease. But it also green-lit a controversial method of euthanizing sicks birds called ventilation shutdown, where the air systems in a chicken coop are shut off and the animals slowly overheat and suffocate to death (a process that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours, according to the Humane Society).

With any luck, the other actions in the plan will mean no farmer actually has to enact ventilation shutdown, but the outbreak has prompted a number of questions over the long-term effects and costs of the country's reliance on industrial farms, where close-cooped birds are more susceptible to spreading disease and more difficult to euthanize en masse.


Gardens on Mars

When Ridley Scott's The Martian debuted this fall, we had a lot of fun here at Motherboard discussing the film and the future of a colonized Mars. But NASA's announcement of finding its best evidence yet of flowing water on Mars really took the Red Planet daydreams over the edge. What does this mean for food? Well, flowing water would make Martian greenhouses—similar to the one Matt Damon's character creates in the film—a much more achievable reality, according to NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John M. Grunsfield.

And there are researchers who have already built a prototype for these kinds of greenhouses, successfully nurturing strawberries, basil, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes in the Mars-like conditions. We're still a few decades away from chilling on the red planet with a sustainable supply of fresh produce, but it's completely within the realm of possibility. This year, we took a bit of the fiction out of science fiction.

Delicious, Sizzling Carcinogens

Image: anakorina/Flickr

People really lost their minds when the World Health Organization classified processed meats like hot dogs and bacon as carcinogens, but the report was largely taken out of context. It doesn't mean you have to give up bacon (although there are lots of good reasons why you might want to do that), it just means that eating it in moderation puts you at a lower risk of cancer than eating it with abandon at every meal. Still, it made many nutrition experts curious if the new US nutrition guidelines, which are set to be published in January, will advise a reduction in processed and red meat.

The Secret of the Slurpee

Last but certainly not least, we reported on one of the most bizarre food phenomena around: brain freeze, and investigated why some of us just don't experience it. In lieu of actual winter, here's our slurpee-sucking video to give you the chills: