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.
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.
At a hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday, July 14, 2010, a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally caught up with the rest of the world—and his peers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and admitted that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America. Dr. John Clifford, Deputy Administrator for Veterinary Services for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) read from his previously submitted testimony that the USDA believes it is likely that U.S. use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of resistance in humans and the animals. Why is this news? Because the USDA has been continually playing the Three Wise Monkeys game—it sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil—when it comes to deadly consequences to humans of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. In fact, Dr. Clifford looked as he’d been given a choice between testifying or having his eye poked out with a stick and he lost the toss. Others, though, readily stepped up to the plate. Despite the feeble nature of the recent FDA Guidance to Industry on farm animal antibiotics (read more about this in our blog), Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principle Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, was clear in his testimony that the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using antibiotics for production purposes in livestock farming (as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat illness) is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health. Dr. Sharfstein also turned away a challenge from Representative John Shimkus (R-IL 19) about the soundness of the science upon which his findings rest. Mr. Shimkus, obviously unhappy with Dr. Sharfstein’s testimony, badgered him to come up with up a U.S. peer-reviewed study (which Dr. Sharfstein did—a 2003 Institute of Medicine study) and then questioned the veracity of the findings. Dr. Sharfstein assured Mr. Shimkus that the Institute has a peer-review process in place and reminded him that “the Institute is considered our nation’s leading scientific expert...”
On June 28, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft Guidance to Industry document for the use of antibiotics in farm animals. It’s the first time in over 30 years the FDA—the agency charged with regulating drugs in the U.S.—appears to be taking steps to limit the use of important antibiotics in food animal production. Good news? Sadly, the draft guidance contains only two recommendations, both so weakly worded they would allow the agricultural industry to carry on just as it is has. Even more distressing, once the document is finalized, it only represents the FDA’s current thinking on the topic; it doesn’t carry any regulatory power whatsoever. In what appears to be a saving grace, the guidance summarizes many reports dating back to 1968 showing the link between antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. In fact the best part of 10 of the 19 pages is used to demonstrate this very point. In fact the FDA press release announcing the release of this guidance states “that the overall weight of evidence available to date supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production or growth enhancing purposes (i.e., non-therapeutic or sub-therapeutic uses) in food-producing animals is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.” However, the rest of the world has already acknowledged this link and has acted to reduce the very real risk of indiscriminate antibiotic use in the livestock industry. In the U.S. we have listened to Big Ag, allowed the powerful agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies to have their way, and continued to put tons of antibiotics into farm animal feed and water. There are estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used to promote growth in farm animals, not to treat animals that are sick or ailing.
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.
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.
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.
“The truth will out” – no matter how hard you try to discredit or disregard it. That’s certainly what the industrial meat lobby is finding when it comes to the human health implications of the overuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming. For while they desperately fight a rearguard action to counter growing public concerns over intensive livestock production, yet another independent scientific study has proved that resistance to antibiotics is on the increase in intestinal bacteria in animals as a direct result of antibiotic treatments. In her doctoral research at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, Anne-Mette R. Grønvold looked at the impact of antibiotic treatments on bacteria in the intestines of animals. Grønvold found that resistance to antibiotics is on the increase in intestinal bacteria in animals as a direct result of antibiotic treatments. She found that antibiotic resistance can spread between ordinary intestinal bacteria and disease-producing bacteria, and between bacteria from animals and bacteria from humans.
The demand for locally produced meats is well-documented, and there are farmers eager to produce it. Too often the bottleneck in this scenario is simply an absence of independent processing facilities. A new report by Food and Water Watch explores the reasons behind this absence and the changes that would be needed to rectify it. Entitled, "Where's the Local Beef?," the report describes an monopolistic industry that favors large operations at the expense of smaller ones. Despite a large number of small start-ups, the authors note that most of these will go out of business. The current regulatory and industrial climate is just not designed for independent slaughter plants - existing or planned. Among the obstacles faced by smaller plants (defined as having fewer than 500 employees) are: scale-inappropriate regulations, lack of skilled personnel, and a near absence of competition in the industry. For instance in 2005, the top four beef-packing companies controlled over 80% of the market...