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Big Ag’s Gifts for 2012

  • A Greener World

iStock_000004660168Small 330As 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: A 2010 report by the Cornucopia Institute found numerous instances where industrial-scale poultry operations were exploiting loopholes and managing thousands of so-called organic hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors, undermining the organic principles and threatening the livelihoods of countless real organic farmers.

#9 – “Ag Gag” Bills Make Law

If there’s one thing we have learned during 2012, it’s that Big Ag will do everything they can to prevent consumers from knowing how their food is produced. After numerous undercover animal welfare investigations which exposed routine welfare abuses at industrial farming operations across the U.S., Big Ag fought back the only way they know how – by flexing their financial and political muscles. Earlier this year, Iowa became the first of a handful of new states to enact so-called “Ag Gag” bills. This legislation, which was openly supported by the industrial farming lobby and pushed through by their political lackeys, was introduced on the almost laughable basis that it would help to improve animal welfare and protect family farms. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that these laws have absolutely nothing to do with animal welfare. It’s now a felony in several states to expose the horrific practices that are going on daily behind the gates of our industrial farms. It’s a shocking abuse of power and the politicians involved should be utterly ashamed.

#8 – A Small Matter of $46 million to Prevent Freedom of Choice

In November, Californians arguably had the opportunity to change the very direction of U.S. agriculture. Following a groundswell of popular support, Proposition 37 (or Prop 37) was introduced as a statewide ballot, calling for the labeling of all foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered (GE) crops in California. Prop 37 shook Big Ag to its very core: if California introduced GE labeling, chances are that other states would soon follow suit. Giving consumers a choice about whether or not they eat GE foods was a risk Big Ag couldn’t take. Employing the same PR suits who defended Big Tobacco, the “No on 37” campaign swung into action, bankrolled by a “Who’s Who” of agribusiness and food industry giants. Monsanto and DuPont donated $8,112,069 and $5,400,000, respectively, to the “No on 37” campaign’s coffers, joined by PepsiCo ($2,145,400), BASF ($2,000,000), Bayer ($2,000,000), Dow ($2,000,000), Syngenta ($2,000,000), Coco-Cola ($1,690,500), Nestle ($1,461,600) and ConAgra Foods ($1,176,700) – to name but a few. In fact, the “No on 37” campaign spent a staggering $46 million on a barrage of TV and radio advertisements designed to scare the public into voting against Proposition 37. But it didn’t end there: the “No on 37” campaign was subsequently accused of carrying out a range of professional dirty tricks to derail the campaign to label GE food. The Prop 37 initiative was narrowly defeated by 51.5% to 48.5%, so it was $46 million well spent on keeping consumers in the dark about what they’re eating.

#7 – GE Crops: Big Ag’s Silver Bullet Continues to Misfire

Despite claims from the outset that genetically engineered (GE) crops would reduce pesticide use, new research in 2012 revealed that the widespread adoption of GE crops had actually led to a massive increase in herbicide use across the U.S. Published in the Environmental Sciences Europe journal, the study by Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, reveals that the introduction of GE herbicide-resistant crops led to a 527-million-pound increase in herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996 and 2011, with ever-increasing glyphosate application rates and, in recent years, the use of older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds. Indeed, Monsanto and Dow are planning to introduce new GE crops that are resistant to 2,4-D –a key ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant used in the Vietnam War. With ever-growing concerns about the impact of pesticides on our health – particularly among babies and young children – the dramatic rise in herbicide use is one gift that Big Ag really can keep to itself.

#6 – Colony Collapse Disorder: Are Insecticides to Blame?

Staying with pesticides, 2012 may well be the year when the scientific evidence that neonicotinoid insecticides were harming global bee populations became too great to ignore. Each year, farmers in the U.S. plant millions of acres of crop seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticide. As the vulnerable seedlings grow, the plant absorbs the insecticide, protecting it from hungry pests. The problem is that important non-target insect species are also affected – including the honey bee, which plays a vital role in global food production . Yet despite the mounting scientific evidence, the main neonicotinoid producer – chemical giant Bayer – continues to deny any link between the insecticide and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has devastated U.S. bee populations over recent years. The evidence against these chemicals is so strong that they have been banned or suspended in France, Germany and Italy. Yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still refuses to act.

#5 – Polluting Our Back Yard to Feed China

We’ve long known that industrial farming systems pollute our land, waterways and air, and that our diet of cheap meat and dairy has also had a devastating impact on our health, with obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and diet-related cancers reaching epidemic levels in the US –even among our children. Perhaps as a result, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in domestic demand for intensively produced meat over the last few years. But rather than shift to more sustainable and healthful production systems, Big Ag is making plans to continue to pollute our environment and make our families sick in order to profit from China’s appetite for meat . More than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China, and the country’s 1.35 billion people are hungry for more. With U.S. meat consumption falling and Chinese consumption rising, the U.S. intensive meat industry is targeting China as an alternative market for its unwanted products. Of course, the Chinese are only too happy to pay other countries to produce their cheap meat – and avoid the associated environmental and health costs to their own citizens. The problem is that it’s U.S. citizens who will pick up the ultimate check. Thanks, Big Ag.

#4 – Malign Myths to Undermine Pasture-Raised Beef

Over recent years, intensive livestock farming has come under increasing fire for its awful record on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But rather than clean up its act, Big Ag has gone on the offensive, claiming that research shows that feeding cattle in confinement is the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce beef, because feedlot cattle emit less methane—an important GHG—per pound of meat than grassfed or pasture-raised cattle. The problem is that most of the research used to support this argument tells only part of the story. First, it ignores the significant non-methane GHG emissions associated with intensive livestock farming, such as the carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions resulting from grain-based feed production or feedlot manure lagoons. Second, it ignores the potential role that carbon sequestration could play in offsetting the overall GHG emissions associated with pastured beef production. The fact is that methane emissions from pasture-raised cattle are more than offset by the overall benefits of pasture-based production systems – including no environmental costs of producing corn and grain, no pollution from manure lagoons, and the positive impact of carbon sequestration on overall GHG emissions. Look out for AWA’s forthcoming report, A Breath of Fresh Air (request a free PDF at

#3 – “Voluntary” Action on Farm Antibiotics

Anyone who follows my blog will know that exposing the link between the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in intensive farming and the rise of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of my passions. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria present one of the greatest threats to humankind, yet we’re throwing away these vital medicines for the sake of cheap protein – and Big Ag profits. So why didn’t I welcome the FDA’s announcement earlier this year that it was introducing limits on the use of a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins in food animal production? During 2009 alone, the FDA revealed that 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. were used for animals. Yet cephalosporins amounted to less than half of one percent of all antibiotics used. Moreover, recent data also shows that cephalosporin use was already declining. The bottom line is that the FDA’s action was way too little, way too late. But what’s worse is that this all came just weeks after the FDA quietly announced that it was no longer seeking to regulate certain uses of the key antibiotics penicillin and tetracyclines for food-producing animals and would instead focus on encouraging the livestock industry to introduce “voluntary measures” on antibiotic use. It’s a tragedy in the making.

#2 – Hidden Ingredients in Our Meat: Tylenol and Ractopamine

Last year, I wrote about the routine use of highly toxic arsenic in intensive poultry feed that was not only poisoning the environment, but also the poultry meat. I’m afraid that things haven’t improved much. Research published earlier this year by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) and Arizona State University – and first picked up by the New York Times – raised serious questions about the concoction of pharmaceutical products used by unscrupulous industrial poultry farmers. The researchers found an astonishing variety of drug residues, including an antibiotic called fluoroquinolone that was banned for use in poultry in 2005, as well as unusual drugs such as the antihistamine diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). The results just beggar belief. But it’s not just industrial chicken meat we should be worried about. I recently wrote about new research which found low levels of the growth-promoting drug ractopamine in almost one-fifth of all the 240 U.S. pork products analyzed. Ractopamine is widely used on intensive livestock farms in the U.S. – particularly for pigs – because it increases the rate of weight gain and carcass leanness. Up to 80 percent of the U.S. pig herd is fed the drug every year. Yet the European Union, China, Taiwan and more than 100 other countries have long banned its use in livestock farming because of concerns about the effect of ractopamine residues in meat on human health and animal welfare.

#1 – It’s Beef. Well, Almost…

On March 5, 2012, The Daily broke the news that the USDA was planning to buy seven million pounds of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) for use in school meals. The story would lead to one of the biggest consumer backlashes to hit the meat processing industry for years. Just 20 days later, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) – the company at the center of the so-called “Pink Slime” affair – would close down most of its processing plants due to lack of demand.

Although BPI described LFTB as the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut, these trimmings were used for pet food or converted into oil rather than being served as hamburgers to people. But BPI came up with a technique to add more value. First, the trimmings were heated so that the fat separates from the muscle, before being spun in a centrifuge to separate the fat and protein. As trimmings from the outer surface of the beef carcass have the potential for greater contamination with bacteria than other cuts of meat, BPI’s solution was to spray the mixture with ammonia gas to kill the bacteria. Some estimates suggest that as well as being fed to school kids, 70% of all hamburgers contained at least some LFTB. But what BPI didn’t count on was that once the existence of LFTB became common knowledge, almost everyone (aside from those making money from LFTB) could see that when you have to use a centrifuge and add ammonia to fatty scraps of meat to make it lean and “safe,” you really shouldn’t be trying to sell it as “beef.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Last thoughts

I believe that the public outrage over “pink slime” is a symptom of a wider, latent concern about the over-industrialization of food production. Many people innately feel that the pendulum has well and truly swung too far towards the adoption of highly questionable and secretive practices on the basis of “what can make us the most money – regardless of the costs.” As a result, they are looking for a real alternative – and a growing number of farmers and ranchers are stepping up to the plate.

The Animal Welfare Approved program has experienced yet another year of fantastic growth and innovation, driven by this ever-increasing demand for healthy, environmentally friendly and high-welfare products. As we look towards 2013, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our farmers and ranchers, donors, consumers, and everyone else who has helped to change the way we farm and feed ourselves over the past year. Happy Holidays, and a prosperous, sustainable New Year to you all.

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