My family and I are traveling through the American West, and I am awed by its wild majesty and beauty. During a stop at Yellowstone, we paused by a river to watch six bison cross. Soon, we were treated to one of the most astonishing sights I’ve ever seen—something I feel grateful that my sons were able to witness. Those six bison were soon followed by their herd mates, and we were able to see something not many Americans have experienced since bison were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century: the awe-inspiring power of a bison herd on the move. Probably 200 bison forded that stream as they moved to new grazing lands, and witnessing it was an unparalleled experience. Despite their powerful size, bison are graceful creatures and move almost daintily, but with speed and purpose. And they really do thunder. In 1800, it was estimated that more than 40 million bison roamed the United States; by 1900, after an unprecedented and sustained massacre, fewer than 600 bison remained. Most of the bison you see today are descendents of a ragtag group of several dozen bison who had been saved by conservationists dedicated to their survival. Historically, bison were the lifeblood of a number of Native American tribes, providing meat, skins, and other important supplies. Indeed, bison meat has fed humans for thousands of years. Six years ago was the first time I saw bison being farmed for meat. The animals were being raised on 13,000 acres in Texas and were roaming their homelands in family groups, just as nature intended. They were carefully overseen by skilled stockmen who knew that the best management for these magnificent creatures was to ensure that they had the space and freedom to utilize the land to their own advantage.
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.
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
This week, Animal Welfare Approved and Wild Turkey Farms hosted a poultry processing workshop to train potential users of the new mobile processing unit (MPU). Funded by a Good Husbandry Grant and built by Wild Turkey Farms, this plant-on-wheels can travel to area farms for on-farm processing – minimizing transport stress on the animals and providing farmers an economical processing alternative (rental rates start at $45/day). Techniques on humane slaughter were demonstrated as well as cervical dislocation for emergency euthanasia. Attendees learned the importance of humane handling and catching to ensuring product quality and took home some good tips on effective product presentation. Many farmers raising birds for meat operate under the 1,000 bird exemption, meaning that they are not required to have an inspector on-site at the time of processing. However food safety is even more important for the small farmer than it is for a large plant and sanitation, biosecurity and recordkeeping were emphasized as important tools to ensure a safe product for the consumer. A very knowledgeable and gracious staff from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, including Don Delozier, State Director for the NCDA&CS Meat and Poultry Inspection Division and Compliance Officer Melanie Pollard, presented on the relevant regulations for on-farm processing, how to comply and where to go for more information.
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.
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.
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.
P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and if he were alive today, he would probably be cozily ensconced in the corner office of a large agricultural company--particularly one that makes its profits selling industrialized animal farming to the public. Award-winning journalist David Kirby’s gripping new book, Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (St. Martin’s Press), exposes industrialized agriculture for the cruel, polluting, disease transmitting, manure-soaked con game that it is. Think that’s too harsh? By the end, one of the everyday heroes that makes the book such a compelling read, hardy ex-Marine Rick Dove, ends up with a severe case of antibiotic resistant E. coli after a tumble in a creek flooded with chicken manure from a nearby industrial chicken operation. The infection nearly kills him. Rick Dove is just one of the ordinary citizens-turned-activists that Kirby follows in Animal Factory, and he wisely lets the power of their stories drive the narrative. For Rick Dove of New Bern, North Carolina, Helen Reddout of Yakima Valley, Washington and Karen Hudson of Elmwood, Illinois, farming originally meant what we’ve all been taught to believe—happy animals standing in lush grasses with a welcoming red barn in the background. It’s not until Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, known as CAFOs, move nearby, complete with stench and large manure spills, that they begin to realize what today’s industrialized agriculture really represents. Polluted fields and waterways, cruelly confined and mistreated animals, dreadful working conditions, fish kills, stink, illness.
An article in the Washington Post on March 1 caught my attention. Entitled, “Manure becomes pollutant as its volume grows unmanageable,” it focused on a topic that really gets up my nose. The article is one of an increasing number of investigative pieces which have highlighted the massive pollution problems caused by intensive livestock farming systems – and the fact that we, as taxpayers, are the ones who are currently picking up the bill.