News is breaking that Chinese scientists have created genetically modified (GM) cattle using human genes to produce "human-like" milk in a bid to make cow's milk more nutritious. The intention is to produce it on an industrial scale to replace formula milk and breast milk, when normal breast feeding is either not possible or undesirable. The Telegraph newspaper reports that scientists at the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University have successfully introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows to produce what they call "human-like" cow milk. It is well known that human breast milk contains key nutrients that can help to boost the immune system of babies and reduce the risk of infections. The scientists wanted to find a way to produce an alternative to human breast milk and formula milk on an industrial scale, with the eventual aim of getting this GM "human-like" cow's milk on supermarket shelves.
Did you know that a number of U.S. states have introduced a draconian law that effectively bans photography at certain designated sites? And that two other states are apparently proposing to introduce it? You might wonder what state secret or national asset these new laws are designed to protect, or which high-powered individuals will be shielded from prying eyes? The truth is that this legislation is nothing more than a prohibition of unapproved photography of farms. Yes, believe it or not, farms! Big Ag is protecting its interests again, stealthily promoting legislation that effectively makes it illegal to take unapproved photographs of industrial farm animal production. This is the same Big Ag which has lied to us all for years--trying to persuade us that GM is safe, that pesticides are not polluting our watercourses, that feedlots do not add to greenhouse gas, and that all industrial farm animal production is both safe and humane.
When news broke last week that a leading U.S. scientist had written to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to warn of a potential new threat linked to Roundup Ready GM crops, it didn’t take long for Monsanto’s PR machine to kick into gear. Dr. Don Huber – Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, with more than 40 years experience as a plant pathologist – wrote to the USDA in January to call for a delay in the approval of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa. He was concerned about preliminary evidence that he had seen of a new “microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings” that could be linked to GM agriculture – and particularly the use of glyphosate herbicide (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup).
Many people are unaware that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs are administered to animals. Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Union of Concerned Scientists provided the same stat ten years ago in the 2001 report, Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Of course, industry has since ignored and/or rejected this figure every chance they’ve had. But despite the best efforts of Agribiz, as this week’s press release from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter reports, the FDA has officially confirmed the 80% figure; check it out. I should note that our friend Ralph Loglisci of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future contacted the FDA back in December and was given the same numbers (he wrote an excellent post about this, which is absolutely worth reading). Nonetheless, it seems significant that the antibiotics stats have been released to and publicized by a congressperson. Very official, we think – and hopefully capable of capturing the nation’s attention.
Just when you thought the scandal surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops couldn't get any worse, breaking news of a novel pathogenic microorganism that might be linked to GM agriculture is spreading like wildfire across the internet. While you couldn't write a better sci-fi script if you tried, this research is potentially of grave concern. A senior U.S. soil scientist has written to the federal government about a novel microorganism apparently linked to GM crops that may have the potential to cause infertility and spontaneous abortion in farm animals, raising significant concerns about human health. The letter was written to the USDA in light of the then pending decision to approve Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa, which has been genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Yet it appears that no official action was taken to investigate the research before the green light was given for commercial planting.
The news that scientists think it is possible to genetically modify a chicken to make it resistant to avian influenza--also known as “bird flu”-- had me spitting feathers. Talk about treating the symptoms and not the cause! A BBC news piece on January 13 highlights the gallant efforts of scientists to cure the scourge of bird flu using GM technology. Researchers from a joint project between Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities have inserted an artificial gene into chicken cells that would make a chicken resistant to bird flu. The scientists go on to say that they think the potential to protect any farm animal from any viral disease is now only a test tube away. Professor Helen Sang said, “This is really exciting because bird flu is a real challenge to poultry production and if it were introduced to poultry breeding it would protect our large scale production flocks from avian influenza.”
Recently John Stossel of FOX Business Channel has aired a number of segments disparaging sustainable agriculture. His issues have included the use of herbicides and pesticides, grainfed vs. grassfed beef, genetically modified salmon and food safety. Is Stossel going out of his way to be outrageously provocative? To what end? And for whose benefit? Certainly we are not the only ones to condemn these reports as being inaccurate, unbalanced and biased, as the many comments to the reports attest. Stossel would no doubt accuse me of being unrealistic and only supporting small scale farms. However, the reality is that to keep the planet healthy and fed we will need to employ a wide range of solutions. Sadly, the last 40 years of ”big ag’s” version of the solution has shown chronic failure in the form of antibiotic resistance, tainted water and some of the largest food recalls in history. Too bad Stossel doesn’t recognize that we have to stop using the planet – a finite resource – as “big ag’s” test tube.
The seemingly ever increasing number and volume of meat recalls has made consumers aware of the risks of food borne illnesses that may be transmitted via contaminated meat. Between 2004 and 2009 466 million pounds of meat were recalled. This includes the staggering 143 million pounds in the single recall of February 2008 from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. Fifty seven percent of all meat recalled was beef and the major reasons for recall were Listeria and E. Coli contamination.
As the August 13 recall of eggs from Wright County Egg Farm expands, it continues to show us all how fragile our nation’s food supply is while highlighting the risks we run by concentrating our egg production in vast warehouses. A single group of battery caged hens appears to be affecting millions of people in the West and Midwest. Another day, another big food recall—it’s not a surprise—but it is a good example of how our food system fails us in almost every way. Salmonella is an unintended consequence of industrialized food production. No one set out to design a system that promotes disease; they just wanted to produce cheap food. However, it is a biological fact that if you keep animals in large numbers in a confined environment then pests and diseases will inevitably spread. Recent research has shown a direct correlation between flock size and confinement and the presence of salmonella. The bigger the flock and the more confined, the greater the risk of infection.
What if our newest invasive species is one that started in the lab and was unleashed on an unsuspecting world despite abundant warnings from scientists and others? And what if it is not even really “natural” to begin with? And what if this new invasive species, once liberated from a controlled setting, became even more potent and more persistent in the wild? Then you would be talking about genetically modified (GM) canola, which according to a report presented Friday at the Ecological Society of America, is now growing in the wild and is busily evolving into a plant that will outstrip our best efforts to contain it. It also has the potential to cross-pollinate and swap genes with other non-GM wild plants. More than 83% of the wild canola tested by researchers traveling through North Dakota tested positive for GM genes. But this is what’s really terrifying: some of the plants tested positive for resistance to both glyphosphate (Roundup) and glusfosinate (Liberty). Commercial GM canola is resistant to either Roundup or Liberty, not both. The dual resistance evolved in the wild, after the plants had escaped. The wild canola is doing what living things do—mutating and selecting for traits that will best ensure its survival. And all without our help.