We didn't plan it, but somehow, it has turned into Potato Week here at The Salt. The latest twist in the tater tales takes us to Capitol Hill.
Americans love to pile on the potatoes - we consumed a whopping 225 pounds per capita last year. But lately, the potato industry has been playing the part of jilted lover and taking its heartache to Congress.
According to the National Potato Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture "discriminates" against fresh, white potatoes.
Back in 2007, the USDA ruled that women and children enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, couldn't buy potatoes with the program's vouchers. Instead, the nearly 9 million WIC participants, who have to be poor and at risk of under- or malnutrition to enroll in the program, are given a monthly benefit ($10 for women and $6 for children) to buy any fruit or vegetable except white potatoes.
This month, industry groups persuaded some members of the House Appropriations Committee to introduce an amendment to change that — by permitting states the option to include potatoes in their WIC programs. The potato lobby is also hoping to change the final WIC rule on what foods are eligible for the WIC benefit. USDA is taking comments on it until June 29.
"There is an inconsistency with the program, and it creates a misperception that the potato doesn't have nutritional value," Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the National Potato Council, tells The Salt. Potatoes, and especially potato skins, are loaded with nutrients like Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. And, Szymanski adds, the most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that women and children increase their consumption of starchy vegetables.
So why not add potatoes to the WIC program?
According to WIC advocates, potatoes don't belong in the program because a scientific panel, the Institute of Medicine, found in 2005 that Americans already consume more than enough starchy vegetables.
"The point of the supplementation program is to get our population to consume more leafy green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables because they're lacking in their diet," says Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association. "And it makes sense that these food [rules] are driven by science and not by politics."
Also, it's not as though people in WIC can't or don't eat potatoes.
"People are still buying them with their own money," says Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, a group that works closely with people in food assistance programs like WIC. "We aren't hearing from them that they have a potato access problem. They can get potatoes."
Instead, Henchy argues that the potato industry's current campaign to change the USDA rule is just another one of its attempts to circumvent the scientific process that determines which foods should be allowed in publicly funded food assistance programs.
Potato industry groups were able to influence the updating of the school lunch program's nutritional standards in 2012, Henchy says. At first, the USDA wanted to limit the amount of potatoes in school lunches and mandate no more than two servings a week. But the industry argued the spud was being unfairly excluded. And it found friends in Congress to ensure that french fries would remain a staple in the school cafeteria.
"They were emboldened by that win to try to do something on WIC," says Henchy. "So ultimately, this isn't just a potato war. It's about open, transparent processes versus people who have political clout and money to direct nutrition policy through veiled amendments."
The industry, however, maintains that it's about restoring the good image of the potato. "This policy impacts potato growers, but it's not a financial issue for us," says Szymanski. "The problem is that the government is saying one class of vegetables is less important than another."
It was early September, that's springtime in Western Australia, and two young biologists, Dwayne Gwynne and David Rentz, were on a field trip, wandering dirt roads near the highways, looking for insects, when one of them noticed a loose beer bottle lying on the ground — not so unusual in the Dongara region, where Australians zooming by often launch beer bottles from their car windows. This particular bottle was a "stubbie," squat, 370 milliliters, colored golden brown.
When the two looked more closely, they saw something extra, hanging on the bottom end. It was a beetle, and it was fiercely gripping the glass. They shook it, and it wouldn't fall off. It wanted to be there.
Looking even closer, they recognized it as an Australian jewel beetle, and looking closer, they noticed it had (as they wrote later) its "genitalia everted — attempting to insert the aedeagus," which is a very polite way to say they were looking at a beetle attempting to mate with a glass container. Clearly, this was a very confused individual.
But then they found three more stubby beer bottles, and on two of them, surprisingly, were more male beetles, also "mounting" their bottles. That makes three frustrated males.
Hmmm. That got them interested. So they wandered about, found four loose stubbies, and placed them side by side on open ground where they could be seen by any male beetles flying overhead. "Within 30 minutes," they wrote later, "two of the bottles had attracted beetles. In total, 6 male beetles were observed to mount the stubbies. Once on the bottles, the beetles did not leave unless displaced by us."
More surprising, Gwynne and Rentz found one beetle hanging onto his bottle even while when "a number of ants" were busy biting "the soft portions of his everted genitalia" — and still he stuck to his business. This was not just a pattern, this was a mission. What, the two scientists wondered, could explain these beetles' super-allegiance to Australian beer bottles? It wasn't the beer. These males didn't gather at the spout end, and the bottles, the scientists said, were long dry.
The answer became obvious when they got a close look at a female Australian jewel beetle. Females, as it happens, are golden brown. They are big, much bigger than the males. But most important, they are covered, as you see here, with dimples, little bumps.
Australian beer bottles at the time (this happened in the 1980s) were also big, also golden brown, and down near the base, they also had little bumps, arrayed very much like the bumps on a female jewel beetle.
Clearly, Gwynne and Rentz wrote in their paper, the males were unable to distinguish between beer bottles and lady beetles. They thought — or rather their inner wiring told them — they were mating.
This is what biologists call "an evolutionary trap." It's what happens when birds, turtles, moths, beetles, all kinds of animals, wired to respond to certain cues in nature, bump instead into a human inventions and get confused. They try to do the right thing — like having a little baby beetle, and end up spending hours scraping glass.
When sea turtles finish laying eggs on beaches, they look for moonlight over the ocean. The light tells them which direction leads back to the sea. Hotels with big lights on their end of the beach can confuse mother turtles, making them go the wrong way. Some hotels now douse their lights when sea turtles come to lay their eggs.
There are so many examples. Farmers in the Midwest used to put red insulators on their electric fences. Hummingbirds thought they were red flowers. If they touched the wire with their beaks, they died. The insulator company, when it realized what was happening, stopped using red paint, and farmers eventually substituted not-red models. As the world gets more crowded, some humans are learning to try — at least some of the time — to be less of a nuisance to other animals.
That, happily, is how our jewel beetle story ends. When beer companies in Australia learned that their bottles were having a discernible effect on the population of jewel beetles — so many males were spending useless hours fornicating, often dying under the hot Australian sun and leaving no heirs — the companies decided to change their bottles. The little bumps were eliminated to be replaced by smooth glass, the beetles lost all interest bottles, and life in the Australian west — at least beetle life — went back to normal.
The problem is, this problem doesn't end. Humans keep inventing things. Animals keep bumping into these things, sometimes with very unhappy results, and we have to keep correcting our mistakes. That's one reason we've been given the big brains, I suppose, to help us undo the many things we've done when didn't even know we were doing them.
Thanks to Carl Zimmer, Radiolab regular and author of the wonderful blog, The Loom, whose musings about evolutionary traps and the work of Bruce Robertson of Bard College, Jennifer Rehage of Florida International University, and Andrew Sih of University of California, Davis, got me thinking about all this. Also, thanks to two wonderful songwriters out of Britain, Flanders and Swann, who years ago wrote about the impossible love of an armadillo for an Army Tank — one of the most poignant evolutionary traps ever. Their song includes these lines ...
Then I saw them in a hollow, by a yellow muddy bank
An Armadillo singing ... to an armour-plated tank.
Should I tell him, gaunt and rusting, with the willow tree above,
This - abandoned on manoeuvres - is the object of your love?
I left him to his singing,
Cycled home without a pause,
Never tell a man the truth
About the one that he adores.
And to further celebrate my theme, for those of you who want to see beetle/bottle footage from Australia, here's a BBC video which would be X-rated if you were an underage beetle unaccompanied by an adult.
Taking advantage of an intense heatwave that broke long-standing records yesterday, residents of Anchorage, Alaska headed to the beach at Goose Lake.
As The Anchorage Daily News reports, the National Weather Service recorded a high temperature of 81 degrees in the city, beating the previous record set in June of 1926.
The AP reports that in other spots, it got in even hotter:
"All-time highs were recorded elsewhere, including 96 degrees on Monday 80 miles to the north in the small community of Talkeetna, purported to be the inspiration for the town in the TV series, 'Northern Exposure' and the last stop for climbers heading to Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain. One unofficial reading taken at a lodge near Talkeetna even measured 98 degrees, which would tie the highest undisputed temperature recorded in Alaska.
"That record was set in 1969, according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the online forecasting service Weather Underground.
"'This is the hottest heat wave in Alaska since '69,' he said. 'You're way, way from normal.'"
NBC News reports that the unusual heat follows an unrelenting winter that hung on until the end of May, when the state gets 18 hours of sunlight a day.
"Eventually, the sun is going to win out, and once it did, boy, did things change in a hurry," Michael Lawson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Anchorage office, told NBC News.
The AP put together a video that shows Alaskans have traded in parkas for shorts and are running to the nearest body of water for some relief: