Unapproved, unwanted, and now out of control: the news that an unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat has been found growing on a field in Oregon – almost 10 years after it was supposed to have completely destroyed – sent shivers down my spine. I've been blogging about the known and unknown risks of GM crops for a while. But we are now witnessing a real ‘escape-from-the-laboratory’ nightmare and, in a worst-case scenario, the impacts on U.S. agriculture could be truly devastating.
Well, it’s official: the United States of America is on its way to becoming China’s cesspool. Or the world's largest “CAFO”… As reported by almost every major media outlet, Smithfield Foods – the nation’s biggest pork producer – is being sold to Shuanghui International, one of China’s biggest meat processors, for $7.1 billion (including assumed debts). According to the New York Times, it’s the largest takeover to date of an American company by a Chinese rival.
It’s the kind of farfetched plot you’d expect to see in a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. You know, where the bad guys are found to be secretly coercing governments – and even entire countries – to aid corporate global domination, and where good old Felix from the CIA saves the day and helps Mr. Bond defeat the evildoers. But in a bizarre twist to the plot, it now looks like the real-life U.S. Government officials have actually been working for the likes of Monsanto and the Big Ag lobby all along. A devastating new report by Food & Water Watch – entitled Biotech Ambassadors: How the US State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda – reveals that the U.S. State Department has been aggressively pursuing foreign food and agricultural policies that seek to benefit the vested interests of the largest biotech seed corporations – often collaborating directly with representatives from Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dow Agrochemical.
Maybe it’s time we demanded a health warning on intensively produced meat products. Because when it comes to the link between modern so-called science-based industrial livestock farming and the rise of life-threatening antibiotic resistant bacteria, the evidence just keeps on coming. Hot on the heels of a damning report by the Environmental Working Group, which revealed high levels of potentially life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria on raw supermarket meat, the respected Consumer Reports has found potential disease-causing organisms in 90 percent of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. What’s more, many of the bacteria they identified were resistant to more than three antibiotic drug classes.
The use and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic. Only earlier this month, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer weighed into the debate and said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria risks a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism. It’s serious stuff.
We know that most of the world’s hungry live in the developing nations in the South. They are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food or grow it themselves, usually because of poverty, but also due to conflict, poor infrastructure, poor agricultural practices, and the over-exploitation of the environment, among other things. They are also hungry because much of their agricultural production is focused on generating food and livestock feed to supply Western markets. Recent price rises caused by harvest failures, commodity speculation, and the diversion of grain to produce biofuels over recent years have hardly helped matters (see for example Tom Philpott’s excellent blog on the horrendous impact U.S. biofuels policy is having on global food prices – and hunger).
As the year comes to an end it’s become a tradition of mine to write a note of gratitude to Big Ag for the many ‘gifts’ they’ve given us throughout the year that we didn’t really want, need or – in some cases – didn’t even know about. Here’s my top 10 for 2012... #10 – Undermining Organic With Industrial Practices Many people are putting their faith in the “certified organic” label as an easy way to support farming systems that care about animal welfare, our health and the health of the planet. But the popularity of organic food is attracting industrial-scale operators who are exploiting the organic regulations for their own short-term gains. In October, news broke that a large-scale “organic” egg producer was being sued for making misleading marketing claims about the welfare of its chickens. Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs’ cartons feature images of hens roaming on green fields, while the carton explains the hens are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’.” Yet it’s alleged that the birds are kept in covered sheds with no outdoor access, misleading consumers. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident...
In a recent test of pork chop and ground-pork samples from six U.S. cities, Consumer Reports found low levels of ractopamine in almost one-fifth of the 240 pork products analyzed, as well as a range of other nasties – including several strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Ractopamine is a growth promoter drug. It is widely used on intensive livestock farms in the U.S. because it increases the rate of weight gain and carcass leanness in pigs, cattle and turkey. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the U.S. pig herd is fed the drug every year. Of course, the drug doesn’t come without its costs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)’s recent decision to lift the federal regulation protecting wolves in Wyoming – and allow hunters and ranchers to shoot wolves on sight across 90 percent of the state – has reignited the decades-old conflict between wildlife conservation objectives and the ranching industry. Native predator species, such as coyotes, bears, wolves and mountain lions, are critical to the functioning of ecosystems, helping to keep nature in balance. But as livestock farms and ranches have expanded, problems have often occurred where large predators come into direct contact with farmed animals, such as sheep and cattle. The FWS’s decision will allow anyone to shoot wolves on sight across most of Wyoming, although wolves will still remain off-limits inside the state’s national wildlife refuges and national parks, such as the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Wind River Indian Reservation. But therein lays the crux of the problem: Most people still see “conservation” and “ranching” as two very separate – and often incompatible – objectives. In the pursuit of maximizing food production, we have done our utmost to eradicate the threat posed by nature to modern farming systems. At the same time, growing recognition of the damage that human activity is inflicting on the environment has fueled campaigns to protect and conserve threatened species and wildlife habitats.
In the U.S., we pride ourselves on being the best of the best. And in this Olympic year we’re all hoping that we’ll come home with the Gold. However, there is one area where the U.S. leads which should deeply concern us all. Figures initially presented by Dr. Danilo Lo Fo Wong of the World Health Organization reveal that the U.S. is leading the world in the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming – and by a long way. We use more antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced than any other nation in the world – and we use 12 times as much as the country using the least, Norway. In doing so we are jeopardizing our future ability to treat killer diseases, all for the sake of so-called “cheap” animal protein and short-term industry profit. In this case, by coming in first, we may actually be in danger of losing it all. Just last week Professor Lance Price from the TGen Centre for Microbiomics and Human Health in Arizona spoke in London, the site of this years’ Olympic Games, to highlight not American excellence, but American failings, saying that U.S. lawmakers were "significantly further behind Europe" after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006.
Whether it’s the regular tweets of the big-name food pundits or the countless anonymous contributors to online food discussions, an astonishing amount of advice is now dished out on what food we should buy and where we should buy it. While much of this guidance is sound and reasonable, some of it is wildly inaccurate or just downright unrealistic. Take the latest mantra that cropped up in an online discussion that I was following: ‘Before you buy any food you should go and visit the farm, because that will answer all your questions.’ Buying direct from the farm or at the farmers’ market is something I wholeheartedly enjoy supporting. In doing so, my family hasn’t bought into the appalling practices of industrial agriculture; we’ve used our dollars to support local farms - and the food usually tastes great, too. But is it realistic to expect every conscientious consumer to have the time and ability to actually visit the farm first – let alone the expertise to assess what they see when they get there?
Ask any farmer to list his or her major challenges and the issue of who will take over the farm when it’s time to retire will no doubt feature in the top 10. According to government statistics about 40% of U.S. farmers are 55 years old and up, raising real concerns about exactly who is going to fill their shoes. The sad fact is that there are fewer young people getting involved in farming than ever, and many young people see no future in the family farm. As a result, countless family farms are being bought up and absorbed by larger industrial operations. In my opinion this is one of the greatest tragedies of our generation. This is why Shelby Grebenc of Broomfield, CO, is such an inspiration. Shelby is founder of “Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm,” located about 20 miles outside of Denver. And at just 12 years-old, Shelby is also the youngest Animal Welfare Approved farmer to date. Shelby represents a beacon of hope for the future. Her dedication to high-welfare farming is an inspiration to all of us – regardless of age.