I don’t often find much to cheer about when I read the food and farming news. But a new report from the influential National Research Council (NRC) on the future of U.S. farming had me reaching for my pom-poms. On the face of it, the NRC’s report, “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century,” might not seem like headline-grabbing stuff. But this report really is big news for anyone interested in a sustainable future for farming—and not just because its conclusions represent another damning indictment of industrialized farming. You see, the NRC is a prestigious, independent U.S. scientific body, established in 1916 “to provide elected leaders, policy makers, and the public with expert advice based on sound scientific evidence.” And in publishing this report, the NRC joins a growing number of leading global scientific organizations in effectively throwing down the gauntlet to Big Ag, publicly criticizing the negative consequences of industrialized farming and calling for a more holistic approach to food production in the face of increasingly scarce natural resources and the growing threat of climate change.
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 all throughout the year. Gifts that we didn’t really want, need or — in some cases — didn’t even know about. Here’s my top 10 for 2013. It’s just a shame they didn’t include a gift receipt…
Bogus Food Claims
The number of bogus food claims continued to rise in 2013. Take Tyson Food’s new Farm Check program: it’s just the latest example of a so-called farm audit program that’s been specifically designed to convince consumers they’re buying a higher welfare meat product. But once you start to look beyond Tyson’s PR show program, you’ll find the same old intensive production systems and the same old welfare problems you were trying to avoid in the first place. Under Tyson’s Farm Check program, farmers are still allowed to use gestation and farrowing crates and confine their pigs indoors in concrete slatted pens and dock piglets’ tails so they can’t bite each other’s tails out of boredom (see the highly sanitized video link above). Farm Check isn’t about changing the way Tyson works: it has absolutely nothing to do with stopping–or even changing–any of these inhumane animal practices. Why? Because this kind of industrial farming system is exactly how Tyson is able to produce its pork so cheaply in the first place. It’s just a swanky PR stunt to fool consumers into thinking they’re supporting real change, when they’re not.
AWA launched its free Food Labels Exposed app in 2013 to provide clear and factual definitions for the most commonly used claims and terms for the production, marketing and labeling of meat, dairy, eggs and other farmed products. Download on the App Store here or get it on Google Play here.
The Horsemeat Scandal
The sordid underbelly of our global meat industry was exposed for all to see in early 2013. UK supermarkets were forced to clear their shelves of frozen hamburgers and other processed beef products after tests revealed some “beef” products illegally contained up to 100 percent horsemeat . Despite the fact that horsemeat is widely consumed on the European continent, the news shocked Britons. Setting aside the cultural issues of unwittingly eating what many consider companion animals, the scale of the contamination raises big questions about the integrity of the meat industry and the regulatory controls that are supposed to protect consumers. Remember: after the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the 1980s and 90s, the British meat industry is among the most regulated in the world. And before any of us get on our high horses (if you’ll forgive the pun), we’re hardly immune to food scandals ourselves: Anyone care for a serving of lean finely textured beef (a.k.a. pink slime) in their burger?
Food Waste and Obesity
So the only way we can feed the world is by further intensifying agricultural production, with more agrochemicals, more GE crops, and more intensively farmed livestock? Wrong. A report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers highlighted just how staggeringly wasteful our current food and farming system is. Almost half of all the food produced in the world never makes it to a plate. We allow a staggering two BILLION tons of food to go to waste each and every year. Don’t fall for the Doomsday rhetoric of those who call for the further industrialization of farming to feed the world: dig a little deeper and you just might find they are the people who would stand to profit the most. It’s a well-known fact that we already produce more than enough food today for everyone to have the nourishment they need to thrive. And if we eliminated this unnecessary food waste, we could potentially provide 60-100 percent more food to feed the world’s growing population. As our fast food diet, obesity, and the subsequent demand for drugs to treat diet-related health problems spreads worldwide, it’s now blatantly clear that Big Ag simply wants to continue profiting from our misery. Just producing more of the same crap would be the biggest waste of all.
In October, new scientific research on an anabolic steroid which is routinely administered to 90% of beef cattle in the U.S. raised yet more concern over industry practices. Trenbolone acetate (TBA) is a highly potent steroidal growth promoter, used to stimulate growth in feedlot cattle. Tens of millions of cattle receive this steroid implant every year, excreting the metabolized residues in their urine and manure. Stored in immense open lagoons, this liquid waste is then spread in vast quantities on to land, whereupon it routinely finds its way into our waterways. In the early 1980s, the European Union prohibited the use of steroids in beef production and banned the import of hormone-treated beef in 1989 on safety ground. The FDA and the U.S. beef industry disagree, claiming the use of steroids in beef production is perfectly safe on both health and environmental grounds, on the basis that it breaks down in the environment. So why should you be concerned? Well, the new research found that while the steroid’s chemical compounds do break down in sunlight, they never fully disappear. In fact, the chemical residues actually regenerate themselves at night. In other words, TBA still poses a very real risk. Previous studies show that endocrine-disrupting environmental steroids can affect fish and other aquatic life by reducing egg production of females and skewing the sex of some species — even at very low concentrations. There is also mounting evidence linking them to health problems in humans, including infertility and various cancers. Concerned now? I thought so.
Congratulations: You’re China’s Cesspool
In May, news broke that Smithfield Foods — the nation’s biggest pork producer — was being sold to Shuanghui International, one of China’s biggest meat processors. Despite all the positive spin, the deal is nothing but bad news for American farmers and consumers, our environment, and our long-suffering national pig herd. With U.S. per capita meat consumption falling and Chinese meat consumption rising, it makes perfect business sense for Smithfield to expand the number of so-called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the U.S. to meet Chinese demand for cheap pork. . The trouble is U.S. citizens will be the ones who will pick up the environmental and health check. A review of the impacts of toxic waste from U.S. CAFOs on water quality found that the “generally accepted livestock waste-management practices do not adequately or effectively protect water resources from contamination with excessive nutrients, microbial pathogens, and pharmaceuticals present in the waste.” Research also found that the toxic emissions from U.S. industrial hog operations –including gases, fecal waste dust, and bacteria — is causing serious adverse health effects on U.S. citizens and making their lives a misery. But now, most of the pork produced in the U.S. will be exported to feed Chinese people, not Americans (not to mention any profits). Thanks, Big Ag.
Corporate Shills in the State Department
In May, Food & Water Watch released a devastating report , revealing just how far the likes of Monsanto are willing to go to secure their global interests. “Biotech Ambassadors: How the US State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda” exposes the unwholesome relationship between Monsanto and our government, and how our tax money is being used to promote the special interests of the multi-billion-dollar biotech industry. It’s the kind of farfetched conspiracy-type plot you’d expect to see in a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie, but this is for real. As part of a concerted and coordinated clandestine global strategy, State Department officials have been collaborating directly with representatives from Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dow Agrochemical to promote genetically engineered (GE) crop technology and corporate interests in other countries, often against the overwhelming opposition of the public and governments, and to the near exclusion of other potentially more sustainable — and more appropriate — alternatives. U.S. State Department have hosted lavish pro-biotech events and paid for foreign opinion makers to visit the U.S. on extravagant trips to improve the image of GE crops overseas, and used underhand bullying tactics and threats to force nations to accept U.S. biotech foods and crops. You just couldn’t make some of this stuff up. And remember: the U.S. State Department’s activities would have all been funded by us — the U.S. taxpayer. Thanks, Big Ag.
GE Salmon: Coming to a Plate Near You?
It’s almost one year to the day since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly released its draft environmental assessment on AquaBounty Technologies’ highly controversial genetically engineered (GE) AquAdvantage Salmon–the world’s first genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption. The subsequent public outcry forced the FDA to extend its normal public consultation period by a further 60 days to mid-April. But since then we’ve not heard a peep: a clear indication of real concern about any potential political fallout. However, don’t be fooled into thinking GE salmon is now dead in the water: the Canadian government has just approved the commercial scale production and export of GE salmon eggs from AquaBounty’s facilities on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, and commentators anticipate news from the FDA very shortly–probably during this year’s Holiday Season again, when they hope the public’s attention is focused elsewhere. And remember: if GE salmon does gain FDA approval, current labeling rules mean you’ll probably have no idea if you’re eating it.
News that an unlicensed genetically engineered (GE) wheat was found growing on a field in Oregon–almost 10 years after it was supposed to have been completely destroyed–sent shockwaves across the nations cereal belt in May. While most corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, no GE wheat has ever been approved in any country in the world–primarily because there is no global demand for it. With about $8.1 billion in American wheat exported in 2012, representing nearly half the total $17.9 billion crop, the news of the unauthorized GE wheat led to temporary import bans in Japan and South Korea, while the subsequent loss in wheat export sales resulted in several lawsuits.
In August, news broke about a Washington state farmer whose alfalfa hay crop had been rejected for export because it was contaminated with Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant GE alfalfa–despite sowing non-GE seed. Alfalfa is increasingly sold for export but many countries do not want GE products. Exports of hay, including alfalfa, hit a record $1.25 billion in 2012, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. So the possible presence of GE alfalfa in export supplies could result in lost sales for U.S. farmers. At best, these cases highlight the complete lack of effective regulation to prevent GE contamination in the supply chain, and the risk posed to countless organic and non-GM farm businesses. As Steve Norberg of Washington State University told Reuters, “This is just really starting.”
Antibiotic Abuse: The Gift that Keeps on Taking…
Scientists from around the world now emphatically link the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming to the dramatic rise in life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria over recent years. Virtually all intensively farmed animals in the U.S. routinely receive low, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in their feed and water to maximize production or suppress disease. But by routinely exposing bacteria to sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics, intensive farms provide the perfect conditions for some very dangerous bacteria to mutate. Life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now routinely found on the food we are eat on a day-to-day basis and the risks are growing all the time. A report by the Environmental Working Group in April 2013 revealed high levels of potentially life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria on raw supermarket meat . In June 2013, the respected Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90 percent of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide — and many of the bacteria they identified were resistant to more than three antibiotic drug classes. As if these reports weren’t evidence enough, 2013 saw an outbreak of multi-drug resistant Salmonella linked to Foster Farms, which sickened at least 389 people in 23 states, although some reports suggest that up to 14,000 people may have been affected. Despite the outbreak, Foster Farms declined to initiate a product recall, choosing instead to (outrageously) remind its customers to always cook chicken meat properly. Thanks, Big Ag.
FDA’s Gift of Self-Regulation to the Big Ag and the Pharmaceutical Industries.
Back in 1977, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first acknowledged the link between the abuse of antibiotics on intensive farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the subsequent industry backlash and vigorous multi-million dollar lobbying efforts ever since have prevented any real progress on preventing antibiotic abuse on factory farming. As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in life-threatening bacteria and an emerging global public health catastrophe.
After years of inaction, December saw the FDA introduce voluntary recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, as well as proposals to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms. While this sounds like a good idea, the keywords here are “voluntary” and “proposals”. As ag blogger Tom Philpot points out, “there’s little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics “preventively,” continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria.” In the face of what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described as “one of our most serious health threats,” without any mandatory requirements or methods of on-farm enforcement, the FDA has effectively gifted Big Ag the role of regulating itself on antibiotic use in farming, and turned its back on protecting public health.