Over the past few weeks I have been busy commenting on pretty negative news— genetically modified salmon is a step closer to being on the market; the Supreme Court overturned an injunction that would stop the USDA from allowing a partial deregulation of Monsanto genetically modified alfalfa; a study was released, based on highly questionable science, that grassfed beef isn’t any healthier than grainfed beef; GMs are being driven to market even though 53 percent of Americans object; and Smithfield is being given control of environmental comities —but rays of light are shining through the darkness. What a welcome to the beginning of the week when I can read a report that focuses on a real solution. Big Ag isn’t going to like the recent report issued by the United Nations one bit because it threatens its very existence. Big Ag wants you to believe that unsustainable farming practices that lock animals in barren cages and feedlots are the only way to provide enough meat, dairy and eggs. That arable systems only work if you spray the fields three or four times with poisons. That fruit farms require nerve gas linked to autism to produce a crop. That leaving mountains of poisonous manure and contaminated water that sickens our children is just the cost of doing business. That this abhorrent failing system that takes profit from farms and diverts it to corporate monoliths with no conscience or morality is just the way it has to be. Yes, Big Ag really needs you to believe that this massive failed experiment called modern mono-agriculture is our only chance to stave off worldwide hunger. But, it turns out, it’s not. The new U.N. report, “Dead Planet, Living Planet: Biodiversity and ecosystem restoration for sustainable development," made me smile. The report documents over 30 successful reforestation case studies and proudly proclaims, “Restoration is not only possible, but can prove highly profitable …” In one region alone, known as the “Desert of Tanzania,” agroforestry (planting trees and crops on the same parcel) increased household income by up to $500 U.S. a year. The average yearly household income for Tanzania is under $500 U.S. per year.
News that an “efficient and environmentally sustainable” genetically modified (GM) salmon may be a step closer to commercial release had me reaching for a large pinch of salt—and not, I might add, to help season the dish. As some of you will know from my previous blogs, I am extremely skeptical about the real benefits that GM technology offers us all. Indeed, I have grave concerns about GM—not only about the potential environmental and health risks associated with the technology, but also the potential control that GM gives “Big Ag” over global food production. These concerns are just as relevant to GM fish production as they are to GM soy, cotton or corn. The difference, of course, is that, with fish, we are dealing with a living creature, where welfare is also an issue. On June 15, 2010, Massachusetts-based biotech company AquaBounty announced that it had moved a step closer to gaining formal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval of its AquAdvantage® Salmon. According to the AquaBounty website, the AquaAdvantage Salmon is genetically modified to “include a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon that provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon.” This enables “shorter production cycles and increased efficiency of production.”
So who really won the Supreme Court case Monsanto Company v. Geertson Seed Farms? Both sides are claiming victory, but the reality is that while the Supreme Court may have ruled, the jury is still out and there’s still a good chance to stop a genetically modified (GM) alfalfa seed from overtaking the nation’s fields. The trouble began when Monsanto did an end run around the law by convincing the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, the division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with regulating genetically modified plants amongst other things) to approve its GM Roundup Ready™ alfalfa without the mandatory environmental review. Consumer groups and farmers hauled them to court, which completely banned the sale and planting of Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready™ alfalfa until APHIS completed the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that could take years. On the surface, the Supreme Court ruling may seem like a victory for Monsanto. The Court lifted two injunctions issued by the Ninth Circuit Court: one stopped farmers from planting any Monsanto GM Roundup Ready™ alfalfa seed. The other banned APHIS from performing a “partial deregulation” of the seed, allowing restricted or limited planting during the time an EIS is being prepared. However, the Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit Court ruling that APHIS illegally approved Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready™ alfalfa seed to begin with. In short, despite the furious spin from Monsanto and agri-business, GM Roundup Ready™ alfalfa seed remains illegal
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has recently released a thirty-nine page summary of the various USDA grant programs relating to local and regional food systems. The new Guide to USDA Funding for Local and Regional Food Systems is a comprehensive, digestible and highly relevant piece that outlines the major funding programs available to farmers, nonprofits, associations, individuals, schools and others working towards successful local and regional food systems. The handy “quick guide” chart on page 4 details each program’s eligibility requirements, grant amounts and any matching funds needed. Eligibility is further explained in each program description, including helpful hints about who the programs are really targeting. When applying for a grant it can be tempting to try to fit a square peg into a round hole in terms of eligibility – this guide is a great resource to make sure you are barking up the right tree. Other features include a resource section (regional and national), a how-to-guide for the application process (Appendix 1: Preparing to Apply to USDA Grant Programs using Grants.gov) and case studies of successful applications. Contact information for each program is listed along with sources for more information.
Coincidence or the tip of an iceberg? Following my blog last week on the unintended consequences of GMOs, you may forgive me for a being little smug as I follow the news that eminent scientists are bailing from a steering group formed to allay fears in Britain about GM food. You see, my blog stepped on a few toes and raised a few hackles among those who think people like me should just shut up and let agri-business decide what’s good for us. But I balk at a whitewashing of the truth and I’m glad to see others do, too. Since the food fight about GMOs is being fought on a global scale, I pay attention to what’s going on in other countries as well as my adopted homeland of the U.S. So I was happy to see that an agri-business effort in the U.K. to promote GM food under the guise of the public good is falling to pieces, thanks to scientists unwilling to be corporate pawns. Professor Bryan Wynne, vice-chairman of a U.K. steering group set up to gauge public opinion of GM food in Britain, has stepped down from the committee in protest, telling the London Telegraph that the committee was rigged in favor of GM food. Professor Wynne’s resignation comes on the heels of the resignation of Dr. Helen Wallace, another member of the committee, who stepped down a week or so earlier because of the cozy relationship between GM manufacturers and the agency overseeing the group.
John Boyd, Jr., President of the National Black Farmers Association, is now more than ten years into his fight to see justice done for the farmers he represents. Boyd—who once had his loan application torn up in front of him by a USDA agent who later admitted he thought blacks “were lazy”—has been instrumental in compelling the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to own to up to decades of obvious discrimination against black farmers. This year, it appeared he was finally going to meet his goal. In February, the Department of Justice and the USDA announced a settlement with the black farmers, with the money to be allocated by Congress by March 31, 2010. It didn’t happen. Instead, according to a CNN profile, Boyd found himself going to the funeral of another elderly black farmer who never received the money due him. According to CNN, Boyd, speaking at the farmer’s memorial service, said, “It really hurts to be here and have to deliver a message at Mr. Bonner's going home services that Congress failed to act."
I’m going to stick my neck out here: I think we might just be seeing the beginning of the end of our love affair with genetically modified (GM) crops. Emerging science from both home and abroad is raising serious questions about the long-term risks of GM crops. And from what I can gather, mounting anecdotal evidence suggests that many U.S. farmers are beginning to regret ever setting eyes on the damn crops. To be perfectly honest, I’m actually quite surprised at just how long this romance has lasted. Of course, the billions of dollars spent by the likes of Monsanto on PR, lobbying Congress and all the rest has certainly helped keep us all fixated on this glamorous technological panacea. But, like most whirlwind romances, our own niggling doubts and the sage advice from trusted sources (in this case independent scientists) is becoming difficult to ignore. Was it really all too good to be true? Robert Kremer is beginning to think so. Kremer is a government microbiologist, based at the University of Missouri. He works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and has studied Midwestern farm soils for the last two decades. He is one of several scientists who have uncovered what appear to be hitherto unpredicted problems in plants and soils associated with the use of glyphosate-resistant GM crops and the glyphosate herbicide
A recent paper published by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that exposure to Organophosphates (OPs) could result in a higher risk of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children. My major concern is that we are not talking about children who came into direct contact with excessive amounts of OP; the results suggest that that exposure to OP is potentially harmful to U.S. children at levels that are commonly found in their immediate environment. Organophosphates are one of the most widely used pesticides across the world. Among other things, they are used as insecticides on grains, fruit and vegetables, to control parasites on farm livestock and pets, and for fly control in industrial and commercial premises. You might think that a product that has been around for more than 60 years--and which is used so widely--is safe and has no side effects. But sadly this is not the case.
Talk about a waste of time on top of a waste of money. Three senators recently sent a letter to the USDA leadership to protest that a paltry $65 million from an agribusiness support fund of $307 billion (i.e., the 2008-2012 U.S. Farm Bill) went to groups trying to supply tax-paying customers the healthy, safe, nutritious food they demanded from local American farmers. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing their “serious misgivings” regarding the new USDA initiative, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (KYF2). They charged that the program’s measures were “completely detached from the realities of production agriculture” and accused it of prioritizing locovore markets “at the expense of rural communities with documented rural development needs.” Am I missing something here? According to the 2000 census, nearly 80% of the U.S. population (i.e., eaters) live in urban areas - wouldn’t it make sense to focus our resources there? Though farms may be located in rural areas, their markets are by and large where the people are - in cities. The major beneficiaries of government funding to date have not been farmers but big business and shareholders. Government payments that facilitate production below the market value help the company, not the producer.
On May 4 Animal Welfare Approved hosted an expert panel of writers, farmers and representatives of sustainable livestock production. Entitled, “Green Pastures, Bright Future: Taking the Meat We Eat Out of the Factory and Putting it Back on the Farm," the discussion centered on the need for truly sustainable livestock farming that takes into account animal welfare and the health of our environment - and ourselves. Panelists included investigative journalist and author of Animal Factory David Kirby; author of the bestselling Righteous Porkchop Nicolette Hahn Niman; chicken farmer and whistle-blower in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.” Carole Morison; and rancher, veterinarian and president of the American Grassfed Association, Dr. Patricia Whisnant.
The USDA is moving forward with its efforts to revamp the animal identification policy after the public comment period for the National Animal Identification Service (NAIS) revealed that the majority of respondents were highly critical of the program. Only a fraction of the producers in the United States were willing to participate in NAIS. The USDA announced on February 5, 2010 it was going to revise efforts to track animal disease using input from producers, individual state agricultural policymakers, experts and Tribal Nations. The USDA has now committed to forming a new animal disease traceability framework in partnership with the states and Tribal Nations. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has expressed hope that the new framework will allow producers, the states and the Tribal Nations to use their expertise to draft a traceability program that works best for them. The new framework will only apply to animals shipped interstate and will only focus on animal disease traceability.
A couple of opinion pieces that appeared within days of each other have recently caught my eye. First was “Grass-fed beef packs a punch to environment” by Dr. Gidon Eshel on the Reuters Blog, swiftly followed by “The myth of green beef,” in the Atlantic Blog, by Helene York. Both pieces swim rather vigorously against the scientific tide on the issue of the environmental impact of beef and grassfed cattle systems in particular. The issue of environmental impact and meat production is a complicated one and open to misinterpretation and confusion. With my obvious interest in grassfed and pasture-raised production I am always looking to see what new evidence is being presented. After reading both pieces, however, I was left feeling rather disappointed. These articles are interesting, but they are interesting for all the wrong reasons. While they appear to put forward a strong argument, with independent studies mentioned, if not always actually referenced, they actually expose the problems of scientific reductionism and a general lack of academic rigor.