When Passion and Technology Meet


Their Invention Identifies Disinformation

Image

“I’m excited about them stepping up and applying public pressure” on the tech companies, said Raffi Krikorian, the committee’s chief technology officer. “We frankly think the administration and Congress are not doing enough, so we’re filling in this gap.”

Mr. Bhat and Mr. Phadte left school this spring to work with the committee and are seeking funding for their start-up. They’re on a deadline to develop their next product, which will be a tool that tests whether news has been altered as it gets passed around the web, warding against doctored photos and altered videos. They hope to market the tool to news media companies and political candidates this summer, in time for the run-up to the midterms.


Dealing With Crises in a Text-Savvy Generation

When Nancy Lublin started Crisis Text Line in 2013, she thought of her New York City nonprofit as a tech start-up — and not simply because they text to counsel people in distress. Ms. Lublin wanted to use analytics to be smarter at it.

“I’d consider myself a tech C.E.O.,” she said. “The first thing I ask is, ‘What does the data say?’”

Five years after the site began, 4,000 volunteer counselors across the country — the site is always recruiting more — can work on their computers wherever there is internet. The nonprofit said it handled nearly a million chats last year, mostly with people under 25 who would rather text than talk about their problems.

The platform the volunteers log into is honed with a machine learning algorithm, which has analyzed past chats for actionable information. For example, the system automatically moves distressed people who write words like “gun,” “military,” “fentanyl,” or a crying emoji to the front of the line, colored orange. Data shows those are the most likely indicators that the person will need an active rescue from 911, and counselors start chats with them first, responding within an average of 38 seconds.

The chats are also creating a trove of information on distress nationwide. The highest per capita texts come from Montana; Midwesterners report the most bullying; the coasts are the most stressed; and people in the South most often mention L.G.B.T.Q. issues. (You can track the state-level data in real time at crisistrends.org.) The organization’s tech team is currently working on software to make the counselors even faster: For example, suggesting they answer with “you’re strong” to people who say they are overwhelmed.

The data also helps people on the ground who are fighting crises. In 2016, Ohio started a state-specific keyword with the Crisis Text Line — 4HOPE — and advertised it in schools. The nonprofit’s data crunchers noticed that use of the keyword fell in the summer. Their Ohio partners were alerted and placed advertising in movie theaters. The texts surged once more.


From Soup to Brooms, Changing the World

Eileen Richardson

Chief executive of Downtown Streets Team, streetsteam.org

In 2005, Eileen Richardson started volunteering at a soup kitchen in Silicon Valley. She was chief executive of the music-file sharing platform Napster during the first tech boom, and she brought the same rigor to her volunteer position. She figured — in retrospect, with an embarrassing amount of hubris — that she could solve homelessness in six months and move on to her next project.

“That’s how tech people are,” she said. Instead, “Here I am all these years later. We’re onto something.”

Her solution is the Downtown Streets Team. Each weekday morning in nine California cities, team members sweep the streets for a four-hour shift. Led by other team members who have been promoted to managers, the daily shift teaches job skills and accountability, and boosts the team members’ self-esteem.

“You go from being a bad guy to now one of the great guys,” Ms. Richardson said of the members. “The chief of police and mayor are patting your back, and people are slipping you 20 bucks here and there.” The brigade of sweepers in yellow T-shirts acts as its own recruitment device: Other homeless people notice and ask to join.

In exchange for sweeping, team members receive stipends — gift cards for groceries, vouchers for housing, bus passes and prescription refills. They set goals with a case manager for housing and employment, and attend weekly team meetings that take on a nearly ecclesiastical fervor as everyone cheers each other’s successes. “This is not a program,” Ms. Richardson said. “It’s a team. They start seeing other people doing great and are like, ‘I want to get a car or housing, so it’s self motivating.’”

Thirteen years after Ms. Richardson’s experiment — with California in a housing crisis and a homeless epidemic — team members average four months to get housing and six months until they get a job. In a recent survey, 96 percent said they had more hope, 84 percent had health insurance and 73 percent said they were using less drugs and alcohol. Ms. Richardson is now looking to scale up with an affiliate program nationwide.


Crunching Numbers to Help People in India

In 2016, India’s federal government enlisted their help to get propane tanks to women living in villages who had been using smoke-billowing indoor fires to cook. The government wanted to install gas cylinders in 50 million homes in three years and have public oil companies open thousands more centers nearby to sell them refills.

SocialCops went to work, asking 17,000 oil distributors to submit their GPS coordinates using the company’s app. They then incorporated data like populations, affluence and distance from existing sales centers, and made all the information easy to analyze to pinpoint the best locations for new centers and track the rollout of the connections in homes. The company said the effort hooked up about 22 million homes in its first year, seven million more than the goal.


Delivering Messages to Aid Farmers in Ghana

In 2013, he started Farmerline with his co-founder, Emmanuel Owusu Addai, which is based in Ghana and has grown into a company of 32 employees. Farmers nearly universally own basic cellphones, so Farmerline delivers them prerecorded voice messages in their local language with localized weather forecasts and market prices for crops. (“It’s like a podcast on a ‘dumb phone,’” Mr. Attah wrote in an email.)

The messages also share farming tips — like how to get certified as fair trade farmers, or increase crop yields by, say, pruning cacao trees to increase the growth of pods, or how to meet the crop specifications for export markets.

Farmerline uses machine learning to predict the local demand for farming supplies like fertilizer and equipment to then negotiate better prices for good quality goods from distributors. They also are using artificial intelligence to create a credit score, so farmers can take out loans to grow their business.

Over all, it puts farmers “in a position of power,” Mr. Attah said. “They move from a position of let me take what everybody gives me, to let me choose because I have options now. You and I have that.”


How We Picked Our Visionaries

People love lists.

We want to check out the best places to travel, catch up with the best inventions of the last 100 years, be in the know about the best-dressed people, the best books, the best schools. And on and on.

Of course, there is a risk to listmaking. Maybe your choices won’t hold up over the years. Maybe the best book of decades ago seems not so great today.

With the listmaking fervor and its risks in mind, we searched for people who would fit our criteria for visionaries. They had to be people who are forward-looking, working on exciting projects, helping others or taking a new direction. We wanted diversity in gender, race and ethnic background.

We assigned writers who are knowledgeable about the subjects we deemed most important. And we limited the list to 30.

Narrowing down the numbers was a huge challenge. And that’s a good problem to have. It means there are a lot of people out there who are following their visions.

We hope this inspires you to follow yours.

REgional Australia, PArt 1 of 2: A Booming Economy With a Tragic Price


REgional Australia, PArt 1 of 2

Australia is a breadbasket to the world and a globalization success story. So why are its farmers killing themselves?

The grave of James Guy at a cemetery in the Australian state of Victoria. Mr. Guy hanged himself on the dairy farm that he owned with his wife, Mary.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

SIMPSON, Australia — James Guy had been a dairy farmer since he was 15, and at 55, he thought he’d be preparing for retirement. Instead, he struggled to make the payments on a bank loan after the price of milk fell and never recovered.

One night in November 2016, his wife, Mary, who was working part-time as a nurse to help make ends meet, came home to find he had hanged himself.

“When a farmer is looking down the barrel of having to sell his farm or lose his farm or give up the profession he’d done all his life, it’s devastating,” Ms. Guy said, her voice wavering, from her farmhouse in Simpson, a town in Australia’s dairy heartland of Victoria. “They just lose their identity.”

Family farms like Mr. Guy’s have been the producers of Australia’s agricultural bounty, and the bedrock of its self-image as a nation of proudly self-reliant types, carving a living from a vast continent. But as Australia’s rural economy has boomed on the back of growing exports, small farmers have not always shared in the bounty, with many forced into borrowing money or selling their farms.

Image
Jim Whelan, a cattle farmer, at his mother’s property near Charters Towers, in northern Queensland, Australia. Mr. Whelan has struggled with depression and the difficulties of farming through drought. His son, also a farmer, killed himself in 2013.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times
Residents of Clermont, Australia, at a men-only gathering in October to discuss suicide and mental health problems in rural communities. The vast majority of rural Australians who take their own lives are men.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

“There are always issues around mental health everywhere I go,” Mr. Cuylenburg said. “No one talks more about suicide, no one seems to be more affected by the numbers of suicide, than in the rural parts of Australia.”

Andrew Fernie on his farm outside of Clermont. Mr. Fernie has suffered for years from depression and other health issues, for which he has been treated with medication and therapy.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

The problem has become so severe that rural communities have gone on suicide watch. In some towns, residents have compiled lists of warning signs such as sudden withdrawal from society.

Despite such community-based steps, many cases require professional care.

“If prevention and treatment services got to them earlier we’d see less deaths,” said Martin Laverty, chief executive of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, one government-backed effort to improve access to health care in rural areas.

The service relies on small planes to cover some three million square miles of the most rural parts of Australia, flying in doctors and other professionals who offer basic and emergency care.

────
“If prevention and treatment services got to them earlier we’d see less deaths”
────

But Mr. Laverty said the service is spread too thin. Last year, it provided almost 25,000 people with mental health counseling.

New federal funding will allow it to triple that number next year, a sign of how dire the situation has become. But Mr. Laverty said even that will barely scratch the surface of the problem.

“There’s no more important topic,” Mr. Laverty said. “We need to make city folk aware that the food bowl of Australia — the area in which our crops are grown, and our milk and meat is provided — needs their support.”

Dairy farmer Phil Vines milks cattle on a farm near Simpson, Australia. Mr. Vines rents the farm from Ms. Guy, whose husband hanged himself after milk prices dropped. The low prices also prevent Mr. Vines from turning a profit.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

The causes of rural Australia’s crisis vary. Some farming areas have been pummeled by drought, which many blame on global warming. Other communities, like Pyramid Hill, Victoria, have desperately needed workers and are turning to immigrants for help.

But economists and mental health experts say a common thread is the changes unleashed by a globalizing economy.

There is a painful irony here, they say, since Australia has embraced free trade in farm goods, and even pressed other nations to liberalize their markets, in the belief that agriculture is one of its most competitive industries.

And Australian farm exports are growing: Last year, they totaled 44.8 billion Australian dollars, or $33.5 billion, up more than a fifth from just six years earlier, according to the National Farmers Federation.

But many experts say the biggest beneficiaries are larger corporate farms. Family farms are less able to ride out fluctuations in far-flung global markets that can drive down prices of their crops while raising the cost of tractor fuel.

Brian Sporne, a cattle farmer in Clermont, said people in the area had been working themselves “into a frazzle.”

“Everything is so competitive now,” said Mr. Sporne, a strong man with worn hands who raises his herd on a dry landscape of low scrubs and sandy orange earth. Mr. Sporne said he himself has suffered from depression. “Everything’s more expensive — land’s more expensive, then you’ve got to have bigger debt.”

“This is happening to more and more people, and it’s not their fault,” said Mary Guy, who still lives on the property where her husband took his life. CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

Farms are forced into debt to make ends meet. Across Australia, total borrowing from banks by farmers has ballooned to about 70 billion Australian dollars, or about $53 billion, seven times the level in the early 1990s, according to the Australian Farm Institute.

“Everything’s more expensive — land’s more expensive, then you’ve got to have bigger debt,” said Brian Sporne, a Clermont cattle farmer. People have been working themselves “into a frazzle,” he said.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

Romaine Riddle: Why the E. Coli Outbreak Eludes Food Investigators


A federal law enacted seven years ago was intended to prevent such outbreaks — or at least to shut them down swiftly. But rollout has been slowed by wrangling over compliance costs and details, and the challenge of training tens of thousands of farmers and facility operators. Standards may not take full effect for years.

Photo

A worker with a tray of romaine transplants at a farm in Puyallup, Wash.

Credit
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

As a result, regulations developed to safeguard fresh produce delivered to schools, restaurants and grocery aisles nationwide are not yet enforced with inspections. For now, however, most farms do keep up with federal recommendations known as good agricultural practices, or GAP, submitting to voluntary audits that check whether produce is grown and packed to minimize risk.

In 2010 Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to work up comprehensive safety regulations. The F.D.A. largely finalized the standards in 2015, prodded by a consumer lawsuit to adhere to deadlines.

But the first inspections of the largest farms don’t begin until next year. Standards for farmers to monitor water supplies are still being fine-tuned, and are scheduled in stages through 2024.

Virulent strains of E. coli do emerge, but at least in beef, they can be neutralized by cooking. And beef products, identified by bar codes and lot numbers, are easier to trace than produce.

But leafy greens are usually eaten raw, heightening the likelihood that a dangerous strain like the latest one — Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7, which has caused kidney failure in some patients — will infect the consumer. Unlike products such as flour, lettuce’s shelf life is short: Opportunities to test the offending crop range from limited to nil. And because detailed reporting requirements to track produce from field to supermarket have not yet been hammered out, fine-tracing the source of contamination is exceedingly difficult.

Dirt Detectives

The initial alerts in this latest outbreak came from the Garden State.

On April 2, New Jersey Health Department investigators contacted officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They were seeing a cluster of patients with E. coli infections.

“The first step in any of these large outbreaks is to understand we have a problem,” said Matthew Wise, deputy chief for outbreak response in the C.D.C.’s division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases.

Within days, more states called in, having identified a common DNA fingerprint of the bacteria among their patients. The states uploaded their DNA reports to the C.D.C.’s database. On April 4, the C.D.C. contacted the F.D.A., which searches for contaminated products.

By April 5, the database indicated a multistate outbreak and by the next day, C.D.C. researchers were working up a uniform questionnaire for state health workers to interview patients. They quickly zeroed in on leafy greens.

“Leafy green outbreaks are difficult to solve,” said Dr. Wise, an epidemiologist. “A lot of times people don’t even know what type of lettuce they’ve eaten.” Realizing it had been mostly eaten in restaurants was a significant clue, he added. “Maybe it was coming in big bags of prechopped lettuce.”

Between the two agencies and state partners, a battalion of several hundred investigators threw themselves into the hunt.

Ultimately, the full measure of the outbreak will not be known. Usually only the sickest patients seek medical help. The C.D.C. estimates that for every case reported to the authorities, 20 to 30 more people fall ill from the same strain; about 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illnesses. In a nationwide outreach to clinicians, C.D.C. officials have emphasized that Shiga toxin illnesses should not be treated with antibiotics.

By April 13, the C.D.C. announced that 35 people from 11 states had become ill from the same strain of E. coli, now linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma region of Arizona. F.D.A. investigators traced the sickness among a cluster of eight inmates at an Alaska prison back to whole-head romaine that had been harvested from Harrison Farms, in the Yuma area. But they could not link other cases to the same farm.

Harrison Farms is a member of the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, an organization of producers whose practices meet or exceed requirements established through the Food Safety Modernization Act, said Teressa Lopez, a spokeswoman for the group.

But it turns out that romaine is not romaine is not romaine.

It can be processed and distributed in many ways — chopped, cored, sold as hearts or even mixed with other greens in salad bags. The more processes, the more convoluted the trail. The scores of patients who became ill after eating romaine at restaurants had not consumed the whole-head product.

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the F.D.A., compared so-called traceback efforts to finding common points of intersection among flight paths on an airline magazine’s map. Step by step, investigators work backward from each known point of contact for a patient, sifting through menu items, individual recollections, bills of lading, distribution sites, chopping and bagging facilities, locations where lettuce is cooled, trucks and fields. It is rarely linear. Finding a needle in a haystack is a no-brainer compared with finding the source of the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli making its way around the country.

Officials say the bacteria almost certainly originated in the fecal material of an animal. But was it tilled into the soil? Found in farm animals? Did deer nibble and excrete their way at night through fields?

Or was the bacteria spread by any of the many ways water connects with fresh produce, including human hygiene practices?

Trevor V. Suslow, a postharvest quality expert at the University of California, Davis, who trains educators in the new compliance regulations, explained how the same water-involved practice used by two farmers could pose very different risks. Both might use crop protection sprays, he said. But one would fill farm tanks from a disinfected municipal water source, while another might draw from a pond or canal. “Same practice but very different risk profiles and potential for negative food safety consequences,” he said. Standardized training under the new act has been designed to highlight such risks.

The continuing investigation is focusing on the Yuma area, Dr. Ostroff said. The contamination, he added, “may be at several dozen farms. But we don’t know which farms. And it may not be that simple. The contamination may not have occurred at a farm but at a processor.”

The Yuma growing region includes some 230,000 acres of agricultural land, 23 cooling plants and nine facilities that produce bagged lettuce and salad mixes.

“We have to take into consideration every possibility,” Dr. Ostroff said.

Working Backward

The idea driving the new regulations, Dr. Ostroff said, is “to move the system from one that reacts when problems occur to working to prevent them in the first place.”

Because farmers are still receiving produce-safety training to prepare for when inspections of the largest farms begin next January, no one can say how effective these standards will be. The F.D.A. requirements include regular testing of water and manure used as fertilizer; the industry has discretion over how the testing is carried out.

Consumer groups say that rules streamlining record-keeping are as crucial to the program’s success as the hygiene and monitoring requirements.

“This outbreak highlights the important role that product-tracing has in an outbreak investigation,” said Sandra B. Eskin, director of the Safe Food Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “One of the reasons this investigation continues is that it’s been very challenging to trace lettuce back to a farm without an effective recording system.”

But that system does not seem to be imminent. “We will be engaging discussion with industry to identify ways to do better labeling and traceability of products,” Dr. Ostroff said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Correction: May 7, 2018

A caption with an earlier version of this article incorrectly described the photo. It shows romaine being transplanted to a field, not being harvested.

Continue reading the main story

Cannabis Flowers Are Legal in Italy. You Just Can’t Eat or Smoke Them.


In the past year, companies packaging cannabis light have blossomed, dozens of shops selling cannabis products have opened, franchising brands have taken off, and many farmers have rotated fields to produce one of the 64 varieties of industrial hemp certified by the European Union.

Farmers’ associations see wide-scale hemp production as one solution to Italy’s agricultural slump.

Photo

“We created an awesome phenomenon,” said Luca Marola, who is credited with kick-starting the cannabis-light boom, thanks in part to media coverage of his company, Easyjoint Project, which displayed its plants at the fair.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

“We created an awesome phenomenon,” said Luca Marola, who is widely credited with kick-starting the cannabis-light boom, thanks in part to extensive media coverage of his company, Easyjoint Project. As of February, he said, he had sold 17,000 kilograms, over 37,000 pounds, of flowers — a project that Mr. Marola, a longtime activist for marijuana legalization, calls a “form of civil disobedience.”

In the past century, marijuana and cannabis became associated with the word drug, effectively wiping out generations of tradition, said Gennaro Maulucci, the main organizer of a hemp-based trade fair in Rome. “We want to dismantle that defamatory reputation,” he said.

“It’s a new economy, it feels like Silicon Valley,” he added during the fair, Canapa Mundi, which drew more than 30,000 visitors over three days in February. And in this process, he said, “even cannabis light can contribute to the normalization of cannabis.”

The level of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the compound that makes people high — is under 0.2 percent in cannabis light, a small fraction of the 15 percent to 25 percent or more that is typically found in cultivated strains of marijuana, whose street-level quality can be significantly lower in Italy. It has varying levels of cannabidiol, or CBD, which proponents say has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, without the psychoactive effects.

Some aficionados working for marijuana-promoting magazines have described the effects of cannabis light as a taking-the-edge-off kind of buzz, without actually getting stoned.

Easyjoint’s website specifies that its products must not be burned or eaten, and that they are not medicinal. But in an interview, Mr. Marola said cannabis light had properties that could be effective in various instances.

“Fortunately, more people suffer from insomnia and panic attacks” than Lou Gehrig’s disease, for which medical marijuana is often prescribed, he said, adding that medical marijuana should be reserved “for those who really need a product with high THC content.”

The scientific community is still out about the medical properties of cannabis light. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, has been increasingly popular in Italy since it was approved in 2006, and demand now greatly dwarfs supply.

Photo

The trade fair drew more than 30,000 visitors over three days in February. Italy’s cannabis mania exploded after a December 2016 law regulating hemp production went into effect.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Thousands of Italians use medical cannabis to assuage the symptoms of issues like post-chemotherapy nausea, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anorexia and anxiety, even if many doctors hesitate to propose the treatment out of concern for potential legal liabilities.

Annual consumption of legal medical cannabis grew from 40 kilograms in 2013 to nearly 10 times that in 2017, “and we still haven’t reached a plateau,” said Col. Antonio Medica, the officer in charge of the Military Chemical Pharmaceutical Plant in Florence. That army-run plant is the only Italian agency to produce medical cannabis, and its first crop was distributed in 2017.

But as it cannot keep up with demand, the government also imports from Holland and, as of January, from Canada.

Colonel Medica said he thought demand could further quadruple. “Doctors have begun to see the importance of medical cannabis,” he said.

In September, pharmacies throughout Italy ran out of medical marijuana, prompting many patients with prescriptions to turn to the black market.

“The state isn’t respecting its own laws,” said Carlo Monaco, an owner of Rome’s Canapa Caffè, the only Italian locale for patients being treated with medical marijuana. “The people who are paying the consequences are disabled people, people with problems, who are unlikely to react because they are in difficult conditions,” he said.

While anyone can drink hemp tea or eat hemp-based food (when it’s available) at the cafe — whose legal status is also unclear — patients with a prescription can consume their own cannabis in a comfortable therapy room.

The cafe was created so that people didn’t have to medicate alone at home. “The problem is that the mentality is closed in Italy, and if you speak of cannabis as a cure, you’re seen as a druggie,” said Luigi Mantuano, the other owner of the cafe, which sells its own version of cannabis light. “We didn’t want people to close themselves off.”

Photo

Canapa Caffè in Rome, the only Italian locale for patients being treated with medical marijuana, was created so that people didn’t have to medicate alone at home.

Credit
Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Though medical and light cannabis are legal, several cannabis users shared stories of being detained when found with the flowers.

“If you’re stopped by the police after buying medical cannabis, you have to be lucky enough that the officers have read the law and don’t confuse it as a drug — otherwise it’s probable that you’ll spend the night in prison,” said Andreana Sirhan, a Rome pharmacist who sells medical marijuana.

The popularity of cannabis light has given fresh energy to marijuana legalization campaigns that have been simmering since the 1970s. A group of lawmakers from several political parties proposed a bill during the legislative session that ended last month, though it did not make its way through Parliament.

There is no guarantee that the nebulous legal status of cannabis light will survive the legislative appetite of incoming lawmakers. The two parties most likely to govern Italy for the next five years, perhaps together, have differing views on marijuana use: The Five Star Movement is open to legalization, the far-right League party is against it.

A spokesman for the association that represents licensed tobacco vendors noted that a ministerial decision was pending on whether cannabis light would be recognized as a tobacco substitute and be subject to taxes. That would mean cannabis light could be sold only through licensed tobacco vendors.

In December, Paolo Molinari transformed his downtown Rome bar into a wannabe Dutch coffee shop (though no smoking was allowed), and began marketing his brand of cannabis light: Erba di Roma (Rome weed), which he said was popular with tourists.

He said he was concerned that the Italian cannabis light bubble could burst, but he was heartened by the growing number of states that have legalized marijuana in the United States.

“Legalization there has created jobs, reduced criminality and the contraband of poor-quality marijuana, and it’s a big tax boon for governments,” Mr. Molinari said. “Why remove a substance that creates income for the state?”

Besides, he added, “people will use it anyway.”

Continue reading the main story

Across Midwest, Farmers Warn of G.O.P. Losses Over Trump’s Trade Policy


By proposing the tariffs, Mr. Trump has moved to fulfill a central promise of his campaign: confronting those countries he believes are undermining American industry. Yet his goal — to revive the steel and aluminum industries, thereby aiding the Rust Belt states that were crucial to his election — has effectively prioritized one element of the Trump political coalition over another, larger bloc of voters. That larger segment, the farm belt, is essential to Republican success in the midterm elections and beyond.

Photo

President Trump’s tariffs may prove to be a political gift to Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, who won her seat by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012.

Credit
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

From the still-thawing soybean fields of North Dakota and Kansas to the corn and pork farms of Iowa, voters across the political spectrum say the president’s attacks on American economic rivals could do grave damage to an already unstable commodities market.

“They’re not in touch with the reality of the Midwest and the impact that the tariffs would have,” said Bart Bergquist, a biology professor and part-time farmer who lives on 10 acres just south of Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Bergquist, who voted for Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, added that commodities prices had already taken a toll on the area.

“I know my neighbors are not rolling in money — they’re trying to supplement whatever else they can do to keep going,” he said.

Representative Rod Blum, a Republican, represents much of eastern Iowa and is facing a highly competitive race in what is the second-largest soybean-producing congressional district in the country. He and other politicians are facing a “nervous” farm community across the state, according to Grant Young, an Iowa-based Republican strategist.

“I listen to the farm show over the noon hour on WHO daily,” Mr. Young said of Iowa’s leading radio station. “They are usually a happy-go-lucky bunch promoting industry and holding a two-hour infomercial for the Farm Bureau. But the last couple of months I’m wondering if they need to take the sharp objects out of the studio.”

In Kansas, Bob Henry, who grows corn and soybeans in another up-for-grabs House district near the Nebraska border, said the country could ill afford to tangle with a market that American farmers rely on.

“For the United States soybean grower, China is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Mr. Henry said. He suggested that Beijing is exacting political payback against the Republican heartland: “China knows who got Trump elected.”

After an initial round of tariffs on a modest share of American exports, the Chinese have displayed a more keen awareness of the electoral map and moved to punish those industries whose misfortune will be felt most intensely in states and districts pivotal in 2018.

Karl Rove, the former strategist to President George W. Bush, said a trade clash “would limit Midwestern enthusiasm from our base and limit our ability to hold what we have and pick up more seats.” Mr. Rove also grumbled that Mr. Trump “has little to no understanding of the farm coalition.”

He may have a slightly better appreciation after a meeting last week in the West Wing with a small group of farm belt Republican senators and governors, during which two of them brought up the adverse impact that tariffs on exports could have in the midterm election, according to officials briefed on the conversation.

Mr. Trump used the session to direct a pair of his top economic advisers to reconsider whether the United States should join a free-trade pact with a group of Pacific nations. But just hours later he signaled on Twitter that he was unlikely to reverse course on that agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Instead, there are already whispers, in Washington and in agriculture states, that the president is risking a replay of President Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo on the Soviets, which contributed to the massive losses Democrats suffered in 1980.

Indeed, after a year in which Mr. Trump only mused about pulling out of Nafta and was stymied by Congress in his attempt to slash the Agriculture Department’s budget, there is now a sense in the farm belt that Mr. Trump’s yearning to punish China could inflict real economic and political damage on his own political base.

“This is the first time it’s in your face, especially to us in the Midwest,” said Ed Schafer, a Republican former governor of North Dakota who was agriculture secretary under George W. Bush.

There may be no other race in America that is at once as significant as the Senate contest here and as shaped by whether China’s tariffs take effect this year. Most of North Dakota’s votes are in the eastern end of the state, in the Red River Valley — a region that also happens to be home to the three largest soybean-producing counties in the nation.

Senator Heitkamp won her seat by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012. She remains personally popular, a valuable asset in a state with just 570,000 voters, but North Dakota has turned sharply away from Democrats in recent years.

But Mr. Trump has now handed her what may be a political gift.

“Senator Heitkamp will jump on the big, bad Trump and the stupid policy that’s coming out of Washington hurting our farmers,” Mr. Schafer said. “That’s a strong message in North Dakota.”

Or as Rob Port, a conservative talk radio host and columnist in the state, put it: “This is the perfect issue for her. Her base eats up the Trump bashing, but it’s also an economic argument that’ll have rural Trump voters saying, ‘Maybe blind allegiance to Trump isn’t such a good thing.’”

Ms. Heitkamp is already testing out such a message against her rival, Mr. Cramer.

“Clearly he sees his role is to be a vote for President Trump in the United States Senate,” she said. “And I believe my role is to be a vote for North Dakota in the United States Senate.”

Mr. Cramer, who Mr. Trump repeatedly wooed to run for the Senate, accused his opponent of “hysteria” and said she was overstating what are at this point only trade negotiations.

Photo

Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican, was wooed by President Trump to challenge Ms. Heitkamp for her Senate seat.

Credit
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

“People in North Dakota prefer humility to hyperbole, and that kind of hyperbole I don’t think sells very well politically,” he said. “But it’s certainly not good for our farmers or good for our economy.”

But on a local talk radio program, Mr. Cramer let slip his frustration with the president’s actions. “He tends to have rather emotional responses,” he said of Mr. Trump.

North Dakota is not simply another red state where Democrats are bound for extinction. There is an enduring populist streak here, dating back to its mistrust of distant bankers and millers in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York. To this day, the state retains a state-controlled bank and mill.

“We’re Republicans until it comes to subsidies for farmers,” said George Blank, only half-jokingly, as he sipped coffee with a half dozen fellow retirees at their daily breakfast-and-bull session in Casselton’s Country Kitchen.

And, Mr. Blank noted, “everything drives on ag in this state.”

Recalling his years running a construction supply business in a state where one in four jobs is agriculture-related, he said: “When the price of corn went down that impacted us greatly.”

Now, though, soybeans have become the go-to commodity, said Vanessa Kummer, who farms 4,000 acres with her husband and son near Colfax, N.D. “It has become our cash crop and the most reliable crop to go to,” she said.

Nancy Johnson, who leads the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, reached for a measure of cheery, upper-Midwest optimism as she expressed hope that the threat of tariffs was merely “a negotiating tactic” by Mr. Trump. But Ms. Johnson, who wears a soybean pendant necklace, said her farmers “are rightly concerned, because we’re being used as a weapon.”

Over on William Hejl’s farm in Amenia, N.D., just north of Casselton and part of the 86 percent of the state that is made up of farmland and ranches, the anxiety is as difficult to miss as the April snow crunching underfoot.

Photo

Agriculture-dependent states like North Dakota went strongly for President Trump in 2016, but voters are also keenly concerned about trade. Casselton, N.D., is in the county that produces more soybeans than any other in the United States.

Credit
Dan Koeck for The New York Times

Showing a visitor his gleaming, green John Deere tractor, still in its shed for winter, Mr. Hejl said to “check back in August” — and not just to find better weather.

“If this thing hasn’t been resolved, that’s when it’s going to hurt,” he said of the outset of harvesting. “You’ve got to pay for the fuel and for the people to drive the combine.”

Kevin Skunes, a neighboring farmer who is also president of the National Corn Growers Association, joined Mr. Hejl and a visiting reporter for coffee, a brownie and a chance to sound the alarm.

“In an already depressed farm economy, if we take another hit on soybeans and corn it’s going to be disastrous,” Mr. Skunes said.

Back outside the post office in Casselton, Mr. Runck found his voice nearly drowned out by the sound of the speeding Burlington Northern Santa Fe — the same freight train that will be carrying crops west to the Pacific this fall.

But his answer carried clearly when he was asked whether he would support Ms. Heitkamp or Mr. Cramer: “I think the president has got to do the right thing between now and the election.”

Continue reading the main story

Feature: Can Dirt Save the Earth?


For nearly 20 years, Williams worked as a contractor, building houses in Kansas City. But work dried up after the financial crisis hit in 2007. Williams decided to return to the family farm near Waverly, an area of gently rolling plains, and give farming a try. His family had farmed some when he was a teenager before leasing the land to tenants for years, and he knew it was difficult to make ends meet. But he was inspired by an article about a North Dakota rancher and farmer named Gabe Brown, who claimed to have developed, through trial and error, a more efficient and cost-effective way to farm.

The gist of Brown’s argument was that if you focus on the health of the soil and not on yield, eventually you come out ahead, not necessarily because you grow more corn or wheat per acre but because the reduction in spending on fertilizer and other inputs lets you produce each bushel of grain more cheaply. Williams decided to follow Brown’s prescription. “If after three years, I’m bankrupt, I’ll admit it was a bad joke,” Williams remembers thinking.

Seven years later, his gamble seems to have paid off. He started with 60 acres, now farms about 2,000 and, when I visited last fall, had just purchased an additional 200. In one of his fields, we walked down a lane he had mowed through his warm-weather cover crops — plants grown not to be harvested, but to enrich the soil — which towered over us, reaching perhaps eight feet. They included sorghum, a canelike grass with red-tinted tassels spilling from the tops, mung beans and green-topped daikon radishes low to the ground. Each plant was meant to benefit the earth in a different way. The long radishes broke it up and drew nutrients toward the surface; tall grasses like sorghum produced numerous fine rootlets, adding organic material to the land; legumes harbored bacteria that put nitrogen into the soil. His 120-strong herd of British white cattle — he introduced livestock in 2013 — would eventually eat through the field, turning the plants into cow patties and enriching the soil further. Then he would plant his cash crops. “Had I not found this way to farm,” he told me, “we would not be farming.”

A mat of dead vegetation — from cover crops, cash-crop residue and dung — covered Williams’s fields. The mulch, along with his cover crops, inhibited weeds from becoming established, a major concern for conventional farmers, because so many weeds have evolved resistance to herbicides. “I don’t lie awake at night wondering how I’m going to kill weeds,” Williams said.

Williams doesn’t till his fields. By minimizing soil disturbance, no-till farming prevents erosion, helps retain moisture and leaves the soil ecosystem — worms, fungi, roots and more — mostly intact. At one of his soybean fields, Williams showed me how this translated to soil with “structure.” “See how that crumbles into a cottage-cheese look?” he said, massaging a fistful of earth. Small clods fell through his fingers. “That’s what you want.” Worm holes riddled the dirt, giving it a spongelike quality that was critical, he said, for absorbing rain and preventing runoff. Weather patterns seemed to be changing, he noted. Rain used to arrive in numerous light storms. Now fewer storms came, but they were more intense. “We have to be able to capture rain and store it,” he said.

By focusing on soil health, Williams says he has reduced his use of herbicides by 75 percent and fertilizers by 45 percent. He doesn’t use pesticides — he relies instead on beneficial insects for pest control — and he saves money by not buying expensive genetically modified, herbicide-resistant seed. He estimates that he produces a bushel of soybeans for about 20 percent less than his conventionally farming neighbors. Last fall, he claims, his yields ranked among the highest in the county. While doing all this, he has so far raised the amount of soil organic matter, a rough predictor of soil carbon concentrations, from around 2 percent to 3.5 percent in some fields. Gabe Brown, for his part, says he has more than tripled his soil carbon since the 1990s. And an official with the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service confirmed to me that the amount of carbon in Brown’s soil — what his farming has pulled from the atmosphere — was between two and three times as high as it was in his neighbors’ land.

The successes of Brown and Williams suggest that farmers can increase carbon in the soil while actually reducing their overall expenses. This could be vital, because in order for carbon farming to have an impact on the climate, as much land as possible, including both crop- and rangeland, will have to be included in the effort.

Critics of regenerative agriculture say that it can’t be adopted broadly and intensively enough to matter — or that if it can, the prices of commodities might be affected unfavorably. Mark Bradford, a professor of soils and ecosystem ecology at Yale, questions what he sees as a quasi-religious belief in the benefits of soil carbon. The recommendation makes sense intuitively, he told me. But the extent to which carbon increases crop yield hasn’t been quantified, making it somewhat “faith-based.”

William Schlesinger, an emeritus soil scientist at Duke, points out that “regenerative” practices might inadvertently cause emissions to rise elsewhere. If you stop tilling to increase soil carbon, for example, but use more herbicides because you have more weeds, then you probably haven’t changed your overall emissions profile, he says. He thinks the climate-mitigation potential of carbon farming has been greatly oversold.

Williams has reduced his herbicide use, not increased it, but Schlesinger’s broader point — about the need for a careful overall accounting of greenhouse gases — is important. Williams, Brown and others like them aren’t focused on climate change; no one really knows if the carbon they put in the ground more than offsets the methane produced by their cows, for example. What they do demonstrate is that augmenting soil carbon while farming is not only possible, but also beneficial, even in a business sense. And that makes the prospect of rolling out these practices on a larger scale much easier to imagine.

Photo

Measuring equipment used on a test plot on the Wick-Rathmann ranch, including time-lapse cameras that watch the grass grow.

Credit
Jonno Rattman for The New York Times

The carbon-farming idea is gathering momentum at a time when national climate policy is backsliding. The Trump administration has reversed various Obama-era regulations meant to combat or adapt to climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, which required power plants to reduce their carbon emissions, and a rule instructing the federal government to consider sea-level rise and other effects of a changing climate when building new roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

In the absence of federal leadership on climate — and as emissions continue to rise globally, shrinking the time available to forestall worst-case outcomes — state and local governments (as well as nonprofits) have begun to look into carbon farming. Last year, Hawaii passed legislation meant to keep it aligned with the Paris agreement, which President Trump has said he will abandon; the state has also created a task force to research carbon farming. The New York state assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced legislation that would make tax credits available to farmers who increase soil carbon, presumably through methods like those employed by Darin Williams and Gabe Brown. A bill to educate farmers about soil has been proposed in Massachusetts. And in Maryland, legislation focused on soil health passed in 2017. Other carbon-farming projects are in the works in Colorado, Arizona and Montana.

But it is California, already in the vanguard on climate-mitigation efforts, that has led the way on carbon farming. By 2050, the state aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans. San Francisco, which already has the largest urban composting program in the country, hopes to become a model carbon-farming metropolis. Cities don’t have much room to plant trees or undertake other practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere, says Deborah Raphael, the director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. But they can certainly produce plenty of compost. “If we can show other cities how doable it is to get green waste out of landfills, we can prove the concept,” Raphael told me. “We like to say that San Francisco rehearses the future.”

Many of California’s carbon-farming efforts owe a debt to Wick, Creque and Silver. In 2008, they founded the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of ranchers, scientists and land managers. The goal is to develop science-based carbon-farming practices and to help establish the incentives needed to encourage California farmers to adopt them. Silver continues to publish her findings in respected journals. Creque also started a nonprofit, the Carbon Cycle Institute, that assists farmers and ranchers in making carbon-farming plans.

Wick has thrown himself into the policy realm, hiring a lobbyist in Sacramento to push a carbon-farming agenda. (In 2014, he even testified before Congress, outlining the project’s discoveries and explaining how compost could increase soil carbon on public lands. He deliberately mentioned “climate” only once.) Educating policymakers matters because, as Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, points out, carbon-mitigation efforts that focus on agriculture can be much cheaper per ton of carbon avoided than the flashier energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects that usually get most of the attention. The major obstacle to their implementation, he says, is that government officials don’t understand or know about them.

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which Wick helped shape, explicitly enlists agriculture in the fight against climate change. In principle, that means this carbon farmers can receive money from the state’s climate-mitigation funds not just for compost but also for 34 other soil-improving practices already approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s important because the compost needed to cover just a few acres can cost thousands of dollars. Wick has also tried to tap federal funding. Once N.R.C.S. scientists vet Silver’s work, a compost amendment could become the service’s 35th recommendation. As a result, farm bill money, which farmers receive to subsidize food production, could help finance carbon farming done according to Wick’s protocol — not to fight climate change explicitly (which is now seen as politicized), but to bolster the health of soil (which isn’t).

As a carbon-farming tool, compost bears some notable advantages — namely, it works both preventively and correctively. Composting prevents emissions from the starter material — manure, food scraps — that, if allowed to decompose, might emit potent greenhouse gases. (About one-fifth of United States methane emissions comes from food and other organic material decomposing in dumps.) By enhancing plant growth, it also aids in removing carbon from the atmosphere, a corrective process. And because the carbon in nearly all organic material was originally pulled from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, compost that enters the soil represents the storage of carbon removed from the air earlier — the grass eaten by cows that became manure, or the trees that became wood chips — and at a different location. That, too, is corrective.

Calla Rose Ostrander, Wick’s right-hand person at the Marin Carbon Project, told me that the project’s greater goal is to completely reframe how we think about waste, to see it as more than a nuisance — to recognize it as a resource, a tool that can help us garden our way out of the climate problem. Before the modern era, farmers had no choice but to return human and animal waste to the fields. (Wick is looking into the possibility of composting human waste as well; the end product is called humanure.) In a sense, Wick and Ostrander seek to resurrect these ancient practices and, with the aid of modern science, to close the loop among livestock, plants, air and soil — and between cities and the agricultural land that feeds them.

What seems to most impress experts about the Marin Carbon Project is the quality of Silver’s research. Eric Toensmeier, the author of “The Carbon Farming Solution” and a lecturer at Yale, says that the project figured out a new way to increase carbon storage on the semiarid grasslands that cover so much of the world. Jason Weller, the former head of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told me that “the level of science investment is out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, for a group that is really self-started.” Weller added that the agency’s scientists still needed to vet the research, which they are in the midst of doing. In late 2016 the agency oversaw the application of compost to different California regions — inland, Southern, Northern — to see if land in various conditions would, like Wick’s ranch, suck up atmospheric carbon.

But the group also has critics. “I’m very skeptical of their results and their claims,” William Horwath, a soil scientist at the University of California, Davis, told me. He wants to see Silver’s experiments replicated. This is the project’s major weakness: Its big idea is based almost entirely on extrapolation from a few acres in California. At this point, it’s impossible to say whether compost can cause land to become a carbon sponge in all climates and conditions, and for how long treated grassland will continue to take in and retain its carbon.

Cows, a flash point in any discussion about climate change, may also present problems. Ruminants burp methane, and while carbon farming does not require their presence, some argue that merely accepting them on the land undermines the goal of reaching a carbon-neutral or -negative future. Livestock emissions account for almost half the heat-trapping gases associated with agriculture, so an obvious way to reduce emissions is to decrease the number of cows on the planet. Instead of dumping compost on rangeland, says Ian Monroe, a lecturer on energy and climate at Stanford University, why not allow forests cleared for pasture to regrow, and change people’s eating habits so they include less meat?

Criticism is directed at compost too. The stuff requires energy to produce; huge machines are required to shred the material and keep it aerated. And it’s unclear if compost, like synthetic fertilizer, can cause nitrogen pollution when put on the land, or how much greenhouse gas composting itself generates. (As long as compost mounds are regularly aerated to prevent low-oxygen conditions, composting is thought to produce few emissions.)

Organic material from municipal sources can contain bits of plastic and glass, which no one wants on their fields. Manure might carry seeds of invasive plants. (Silver has seen no evidence of this.) Spreading compost on public rangeland could disrupt plant communities, squeezing out species adapted to conditions of scarcity. And in any carbon-farming scheme, who will monitor and verify that far-flung stretches of land are really absorbing and storing the carbon as they’re supposed to?

Horwath considers the amount of compost used in Silver’s research — about 10 times the usual application, he estimates — to be unrealistically high for practical use. “It seems an inordinately large amount to apply to any system,” he told me. And given what he sees as the many unknowns in Silver’s research, that compost would be put to better use on cropland where, he says, scientists know with greater certainty that it could improve water retention and the efficiency of fertilizer.

Then there’s the problem of supply. Demand for San Francisco’s compost, which mostly goes to vineyards in California’s wine country, already outstrips what’s available. But Wick thinks more starter material shouldn’t be hard to find: Americans throw out between 30 and 40 percent of all the food they buy, sending it to landfills where it rots and generates greenhouse gases. Silver has calculated that there’s enough organic waste material in California to treat one-quarter of its rangeland every few decades.

Still, given the energy requirements, the logistical headaches and the cost, skeptics question whether spreading compost across extensive portions of the world’s surface — including conflict zones in the Sahel or Central Asia — is really feasible. Even if it is, soils probably can’t soak up carbon indefinitely. If they have a saturation point, increases in carbon will eventually stop when that moment is reached. And because soil degradation can cause the release of whatever carbon it holds, treated lands would have to be well cared for in perpetuity.

On a cool autumn day at Wick and Rathmann’s ranch house, Wick fielded phone calls while I wandered around the cluttered, semicircular room that served as his office and meeting space. A whiteboard displayed scribbles from a presentation on the carbon cycle. Coils of warmly hued yarn hung from the doorways. They came via a local nonprofit dedicated to climate-friendly ranching practices called Fibershed. And draped over a chair was a T-shirt bearing what might as well have been Wick’s battle cry: “seq-C,” it read, punny shorthand for “sequester carbon.” Under that it read, “Doing it in the dirt.”

Down the road, he showed me a composting facility that Creque dreamed up initially. He and Wick hoped it would serve as a self-sustaining prototype. “Anything that has ever been alive can be composted,” he told me, surveying the 10-foot-tall piles of chicken droppings and feathers, horse bedding (manure and straw) and shredded trees. A tractor mixed woody refuse with animal waste — to get the composting process started requires the right mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. (That’s why some backyard composters recommend urinating on the pile to kick things off: Urine is rich in nitrogen.)

Continue reading the main story

More Than 200 Million Eggs Recalled Over Salmonella Fears


Photo

Eggs that may have been contaminated with salmonella were distributed to nine states, the federal Food and Drug Administration said on Friday.

Credit
Matt York/Associated Press

A company has recalled more than 200 million eggs after an outbreak of salmonella was traced to one of its farms in North Carolina.

The federal Food and Drug Administration reported Friday that eggs from the affected farm were distributed to nine states — Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia — and were likely connected to 22 reported cases of salmonella infections.

The agency learned about a cluster of salmonella outbreaks in multiple states last month, and investigators worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state authorities to trace the source of the illness, the F.D.A. said. That led them to an egg farm in Hyde County, N.C., owned by Rose Acre Farms of Seymour, Ind.

The affected farm has paused its egg distribution and the company has voluntarily recalled more than 206 million eggs. The F.D.A. urged consumers to check their purchases and avoid eating eggs that might be contaminated.

Eggs from the North Carolina farm were sold to restaurants and in supermarkets under multiple brand names, including Coburn Farms, Country Daybreak, Food Lion, Glenview, Great Value, Nelms and Sunshine Farms.

Continue reading the main story

Matter: All by Itself, the Humble Sweet Potato Colonized the World


Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)

Photo

A chromolithograph of Christopher Columbus arriving at the Caribbean.

Credit
Louis Prang and Company/Getty Images

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.

Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.

Photo

A sweet potato farmer in in Papua New Guinea. The plant arrived there long before humans, scientists reported.

Credit
Infocusphotos/Alamy

Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.

The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.

The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.

The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.

Photo

Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe.

Credit
Robert Scotland

The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.

But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.

It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.

Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.

A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.

As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.

Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.

“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.

For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.

Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.

Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.

“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.

Continue reading the main story

Trump Wants Back Into the TPP. Not So Fast, Say Members.


“We’ve got a deal” already, said Steven Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, who added, “I can’t see that all being thrown open to appease the United States.”

[Read about President Trump’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which came at a gathering of politicians from farm states that stand to lose from any trade war with China.]

An early test of the potential for the United States to rejoin could come as soon as next week, when Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and an ardent champion of the pact, is to meet with Mr. Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Trump’s renewed interest in the pact depends on whether the United States could strike a better deal than President Barack Obama did, Mr. Trump said in a Thursday night tweet. Still, negotiations with a group of longtime trading partners could hold appeal at a time of increasing tensions with China.

Mr. Trump faces a growing domestic backlash from corporations, farmers and others over fears that he is igniting a trade war with China, the United States’ largest single trading partner. Mr. Trump has warned that he could levy tariffs on $150 billion in Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to threaten retaliatory measures aimed at American soybeans, airplanes and other products.

Negotiating a new pact could take years. Still, rekindling negotiations could make it hard for China to play off the United States against its allies by promising to shift business from one to another if a trade war breaks out. It could be a way to assuage American farmers and businesses hurt by Chinese tariffs by assuring robust markets for American products in countries that signed onto the deal, like Japan, Australia and South Korea. It would give the pact a great deal more heft and help position it as an economic counterweight to China, which increasingly dominates the Asia-Pacific region.

More broadly, it signals to the region that the United States is not giving up on trade, despite Mr. Trump’s sometimes harsh words. Even as officials in other countries expressed skepticism on Friday, they said they would like to hear what Washington has to offer. “Japan would like to listen to the U.S.’s view,” said Mr. Suga, the Japanese official.

What Is TPP? Behind the Trade Deal That Died

On his first full workday in office, President Trump delivered on a campaign promise by abandoning the enormous trade deal that had became a flashpoint in American politics.


The barriers to a new pact are considerable. Many current members of the pact feel they already gave considerable ground to the United States to strike the original deal, particularly in sensitive areas like protections for pharmaceutical companies.

For its part, the Trump administration worries that the partnership will become a zero-tariff backdoor for Chinese goods into the American market. It worries that companies that have moved much of their supply chains to China could make components there, ship them to a member of the T.P.P. for assembly, then sell them in the United States tariff-free. It wants to toughen requirements for how much of the product is made within the T.P.P. country, which could make the goods less competitive.

Their worries focus largely on Vietnam, a member of the current version of the T.P.P. It has a large population, and a few big American companies, like Intel, have already invested heavily in setting up factories there that make products practically from scratch. But many other companies that are exporting goods from Vietnam rely heavily on imports from China. Vietnam’s huge garment industry, for example, relies greatly on fabric and accessories imported from China, according to garment manufacturing executives.

Vietnamese officials did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. Frederick Burke, managing partner for Vietnam at the American law firm Baker McKenzie, said that the Vietnamese government is “very aware of and focused on the issue of circumvention” in trade.

Renegotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, may not be quick. Mr. Trump’s trade negotiators already have their hands full this spring trying to complete changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. They need to decide whether to extend temporary exemptions from the president’s new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Above all, they are locked in a series of increasingly acrimonious trade spats with China.

China is making its own outreach efforts in the meantime. Wang Yi, its foreign minister, will travel to Tokyo on Sunday. China has played up free trade talks with Japan and with South Korea, which is not a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the Trump administration may have realized that it does not have the leverage it thought to renegotiate a new trade deal with Japan, and that embracing the regional pact may be the best fallback.

The Trump administration “could walk right back in with the exact same deal from last year that they walked out of, and claim victory,” said Ms. Smith, who noted that the government of Mr. Abe “has been continuously and quietly encouraging the U.S. administration to take another look” at the pact.

One lingering question would be how China would react. The pact’s rules were designed in part to challenge China by encouraging members to loosen state support of their economies and relax trade rules — steps Beijing would have to take if it hoped to someday join the pact and enjoy its lower trade barriers.

China is not likely to be troubled by a United States move to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership as long as the Trump administration is doing so for strictly trade reasons, said He Weiwen, a former Commerce Ministry official and trade specialist who is now a senior fellow at the influential Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.

But the Chinese government is likely to be dismayed if the United States is reconsidering it as part of any revival of the Obama administration’s geopolitical pivot to Asia, or as part of any attempt to isolate China, Mr. He cautioned.

“That’s what we should be careful about,” he said.

Some current members of the pact greeted Mr. Trump’s comments on Thursday warmly. A spokeswoman for Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry said it welcomed the American interest. “The TPP was designed to be an inclusive agreement, which is open to like-minded countries willing and able to meet its high standards,” the spokeswoman said.

Still, even American allies suggest a long road ahead if Mr. Trump moves forward.

“If the United States genuinely did wish to re-enter, that would trigger another process of engagement and negotiation,” Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, said on television, adding that she still planned to go forward with the deal as-is. “It’s not just a matter of slotting into an existing deal.”

Continue reading the main story

DealBook Briefing: How Hot Could the U.S.-China Trade Fight Get?


Markets watch: S.&P. 500 futures are down. Asian and European markets fell modestly this morning. And the VIX, Wall Street’s fear gauge, is back in vogue.

Reaction of the day, from Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska:

Photo

____________________________

Today’s DealBook Briefing was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin in New York, and Michael J. de la Merced and Amie Tsang in London.

____________________________

Photo


Credit
Eric Piermont/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What does Jamie Dimon’s annual letter say about his politics?

Andrew’s take: A favorite Wall Street parlor game is whether the JPMorgan Chase C.E.O. would run for president in 2020. Mr. Dimon’s latest annual letter increased that chatter, touching on immigration and political polarization. He praised some of President Trump’s policies (on tariffs, on taxes). But his stances on deregulation and on social issues likely mean that he would have to run as an independent — and history hasn’t been kind to third-party candidates.

Peter Eavis adds: The JPMorgan chief also homed in on regulations of bank liquidity, or access to cash and equivalents. He contended that liquidity requirements are higher now — which he favors — but are also more rigid and could impinge on lending. But the argument is flawed, in part because banks that have less liquidity aren’t in a position to lend.

Photo

BlackRock’s C.E.O., Larry Fink.

Credit
Mike Cohen for The New York Times

BlackRock acts on guns

The investment behemoth’s plan to offer new funds that exclude gun makers or sellers is the latest prominent step by a financial firm to offer some support to gun control. (And with $6.3 trillion under management, the firm’s actions carry enormous weight.) The products include:

• A new exchange-traded fund that focuses on favorable environmental, social and governance (E.S.G.) standards and excludes firearms-related companies. BlackRock will update other E.S.G. funds to exclude them, too.

• A bond-focused E.T.F. excluding gun-related companies.

• New strategies available through 401(k) plans that track five major indexes, including the S.&P. 500, but screen out firearms sellers and makers.

Walmart, Kroger and Dicks Sporting Goods, all of whom have now set some limits on gun sales, will still count as gun-related.

Critic’s corner: Rob Cox of Breakingviews writes, “By getting out early, BlackRock makes clear to those young people lobbying for tighter gun laws — who it hopes will be customers for decades to come — that it has something for them.”

Here’s the DealBook tally of financial firms that have announced concrete moves addressing gun control: Citigroup, Amalgamated, BlackRock. (Have we missed one? Let us know.)

The political flyaround

• President Trump’s attacks on Amazon arise from his anger at Jeff Bezos, unnamed people close to the White House say. (WSJ)

• The president dispensed with a “boring” speech on tax to denounce immigration. (NYT)

• E.P.A. officials were reassigned, demoted or requested new jobs after raising concerns about Scott Pruitt, unnamed sources said. Senior White House officials say the agency chief’s fate is uncertain given ethical questions about his housing (he reportedly fell behind on a lease from a lobbyist), staffing and travel expenses.

• Mick Mulvaney has complained that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau engages in “wasteful spending” — but gave his hires big raises. (NYT)

• Mr. Trump denied knowing of a $130,000 payment his lawyer made to Stormy Daniels. (WaPo)

• The administration and California officials are expected to try to settle a fight over car emissions standards. (NYT)

• At an NYT event, Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, said Mr. Trump was breaking democratic norms. (NYT)

Photo


Credit
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images For Makers

Don’t want Facebook ads? Pay up

If users wanted to opt out of data-driven advertising, they would have to pay, Sheryl Sandberg told NBC in one of many interviews yesterday. (They can’t, as yet.) Still, Ms. Sandberg told Bloomberg that some advertisers had cut spending and admitted that the network faced a challenge in reassuring them.

The California public pension fund CALSTRS also wants more detail on how Facebook is protecting user data. (Its investment chief has deleted his account.)

Mark Zuckerberg said yesterday that Facebook would apply tough new E.U. data-protection rules worldwide.

But some analysts say that the worst may be over for investors.

Elsewhere in Facebook: The company has put on hold a request for hospitals to share anonymized patient data for a research project. It has been accredited by the Media Ratings Council for the first of three rounds of ad impression auditing. Civic groups in Myanmar said Mr. Zuckerberg had exaggerated what Facebook was doing to stop incitement of violence there.

Photo


Credit
Joe White/Reuters

The tech flyaround

• Tesla’s Model 3 impressed Jim Stewart. Will it win over enough other consumers to lift the carmaker’s fortunes? (NYT)

• Google promised to increase office security in the wake of the YouTube shooting, and changes may come to other Silicon Valley campuses. (NYT)

• Didi Chuxing is open for business — and taking on Uber — in Mexico. (Reuters)

• Delta said that a cyberattack on the company that ran its website’s chat function may have compromised thousands of customers’ credit card data. (WSJ)

Cryptocurrency corner: South Korean prosectors detained the heads of Coinnest and another exchange, on accusations of embezzling from customers. Coinbase is going into venture capital. The former C.E.O. of Mt. Gox, the first big failed Bitcoin exchange, is no longer a believer.

Photo

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had coffee with Michael Bloomberg last month.

Credit
Bandar Al-Jaloud/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Behind Saudi Arabia’s courtship of Hollywood

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has met with a slew of companies during his U.S. tour, including Amazon and the augmented-reality start-up Magic Leap. But the movie business was a focus.

“Entertainment is the new oil for Saudi Arabia,” the head of the kingdom’s entertainment authority told the WSJ. (Diversifying away from the old oil is the crown prince’s stated mission.)

AMC Entertainment has announced plans to open the kingdom’s first movie theater in over 30 years. The crown prince is hoping for a Disney theme park, too. The Information has more, and says the Saudis are largely following a Chinese playbook.

Photo


Credit
Jonathan Fickies for The New York Times

The deals flyaround

• Nine West, the U.S. shoe seller, reportedly could file for bankruptcy protection as soon as today, with a plan to sell its main brand to Authentic Brands Group. (Reuters)

• Blackstone plans a $2.3 billion bid for the Spanish hotelier Hispania. (Reuters)

• The investment firm Kimmeridge Energy Management has built an 8.1 percent stake in Carrizo Oil & Gas and wants the driller to consider selling itself, or at least some assets. (WSJ)

• Domo, a Utah-based business software company, is reportedly preparing to file confidentially for an I.P.O. (Recode)

• Instacart has raised another $150 million from existing investors like Coatue Management. (Axios)

• Takeda Pharmaceutical might bid for Shire, its C.E.O., Christophe Weber, told some analysts at a meeting last week. I investors and the media weren’t invited. (Bloomberg)

Photo


Credit
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Revolving door

Steve Jurvetson appears to have founded a new venture capital firm, Future Ventures, after resigning from DFJ after reportedly lying about an unidentified matter. (Recode)

• Deutsche Bank’s co-head of investment banking and global head of markets, Garth Ritchie, is reportedly considering leaving. And Matt Zames, formerly JPMorgan’s chief operating officer, has reportedly been contacted about becoming the German lender’s next C.E.O.

• Skadden named 14 new partners, including in its M.&A., litigation and antitrust practices. (Skadden)

• WageWorks, a provider of employee-benefits services, replaced its C.E.O., Joseph L. Jackson, C.F.O. and general counsel, and said it needed to restate financial results from the past two years. (WSJ)

The speed read

• Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, has been dabbling in the film business and has a credit in Al Pacino’s latest movie. (NYT)

• Target agreed to revise hiring guidelines at its stores, after complaints that it considered old or very minor criminal records in a way that disproportionately affected black and Hispanic applicants. (NYT)

• I.S.S. and Glass Lewis are recommending that G.E. address accounting issues by firing K.P.M.G., its auditor of 109 years. (WSJ)

• Solar panels are everywhere, but renewable energy still accounts for barely 12 percent of electricity consumed globally. (NYT)

• The fashion industry, which employs an overwhelmingly female staff and focuses on female consumers and audiences, reported one of Britain’s worst gender pay gaps. (NYT)

• Memories of a long-distant boom have left Japan with a peculiarly potent version of 1980s nostalgia. (NYT)

Know someone who would enjoy this newsletter? Tell them to sign up here.

You can find live updates throughout the day at nytimes.com/dealbook.

We’d love your feedback. Please email thoughts and suggestions to bizday@nytimes.com.

Continue reading the main story