Should the new Dietary Guidelines—the advice the federal government issues every five years on what constitutes a healthy diet—include recommendations about what makes for a healthy planet? The meat industry sure doesn't think so.
The industry started flipping out when it saw some of the language in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's February report: "Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods...and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average US diet."
Big Meat takes issue with two main things:
1) That the committee's scientists dared to comment on environmental sustainability issues in a nutrition report.
2) That the report said (elsewhere) that a healthy diet should be lower in red and processed meats.
The film focuses on the health merits of meat, arguing that it trumps other foods because, unlike plants, "animal proteins are considered complete proteins, or ideal proteins." Never mind that plenty of other accessible and cheap vegetarian foods, including rice and beans, or buckwheat, also provide complete proteins.
One calorie of beef requires 18 times the amount of fuel to produce as one calorie of grain.
But the video does not try to refute the notion that meat's environmental footprint is cause for concern—the UN argues, for instance, that livestock produce 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Dietary Guidelines' committee points out that producing one calorie of beef requires 18 times as much fuel as producing one calorie of grain.
It's no coincidence that the committee chose to flag the carbon footprint of our food: The guidelines are ultimately about people's relationship with food, and the deterioration of the environment's health is a blow to our food security. "Meeting current and future food needs," the committee notes, will depend on changing the way people eat and developing agricultural and production practices "that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."
So will the Dietary Guidelines retain this responsible language when they are officially published this fall by the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture? On Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that he could not rule out the chance that the final version will mention sustainability, but he implied that he would steer clear of doling out environmental advice. He told the Wall Street Journal:
"Our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that's what the law says. I think it's my responsibility to follow the law."
The law or the money? The AP has reported that meat processing and livestock industries spent $7 million on lobbying and donated $5 million to members of Congress during the last election cycle.
For decades, it's been thought that low, regular doses of antibiotics help livestock grow big—thus increasing meat producers' profits. So common is the practice of lacing farm animals' feed with the drugs that an astonishing four-fifths of all antibiotics in the United States now go to livestock.
But a new meta-analysis by two Princeton researchers shows that antibiotics aren't as effective at promoting growth as they used to be. Studies from 1950-1985 suggested that antibiotics increased weight of young pigs by an average of about 17 older pigs by 4 percent. But similar studies since 2000 found much less dramatic results: 1 percent increase for young pigs and no measurable increase for older pigs.
No one knows why the drugs have become less effective—and in fact, there's no consensus on how exactly antibiotics increased growth in animals to begin with. One theory is that the drugs fight low-level infections, which allows the animal to use its energy for growing instead of warding off germs. The authors of the new analysis theorize that as hygiene at livestock operations improve, the rate of infections might be decreasing, thus negating the need for antibiotics.
Another (scarier) possibility: Bugs that cause common animal infections are becoming resistant to the antibiotics. The consequences of antibiotic resistance, of course, go far beyond pigs' rates of growth. As my colleague Tom Philpott has reported, superbugs can jump from animals to humans. Antibiotic-resistant infections already kill 700,000 people every year worldwide. A recent UK report predicted that number will rise to 10 million by 2050.
"If the benefits of [antibiotics for animal growth] have diminished, then it becomes reasonable to be cautious and avoid the potential public health costs," write the new report's authors. "Antibiotics are not needed to promote growth, but they are essential to treat infectious diseases and maintain animal health."
Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)
The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.
One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.
In August of 2012, a salt cavern maintained by the mining company Texas Brine collapsed, creating a sinkhole outside the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, and prompting a mandatory evacuation order that has yet to be lifted. Two and a half years later, the sinkhole has grown to 31 acres, Texas Brine has reached a $48.6 million settlement with displaced homeowners, and the company is considering bulldozing much of the town and converting it into "green space."
But it's not just Bayou Corne evacuees who are looking for a new place to live—the neighborhood near the sinkhole is still home to 38 feral cats, who risk losing their suburban habitat if the properties return to nature because of the sinkhole.
The New Orleans Times Picayunehas the full story on the kittens of Bayou Corne, and the efforts of one of the few remaining residents, Teleca Donachricha, to find them a home:
Some of the residents had been feeding different groups of them, but those residents are all gone now. One woman had been trying to drive the hour from Baton Rouge every other day to feed one group of the cats, but Donachricha knew that wasn't going to last long. She said if the woman could provide food, she would feed the cats for her, and she has.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said he couldn't say when demolition will occur. The company donated $1,000 to a nonprofit Donachricha was working with to get some of the cats spayed and neutered. All but three of the 38 cats are now spayed or neutered -- one of the remaining ones is a newer arrival that was recently dumped there, and the other two she hasn't been able to catch.
"We support her efforts," Cranch said. "Hopefully she'll be successful in finding homes for these animals."
Another day, another oil train derailment. Early Saturday morning, a Canadian National Railway train carrying Alberta crude derailed outside the tiny town of Gogama in northern Ontario. Thirty-eight cars came off the tracks, and five of them splashed into the Mattagami River system. The accident caused a massive fire and leaked oil into waterways used by locals—including a nearby indigenous community—for drinking and fishing. No one was injured, but according to CN Railway's Twitter feed, fire fighters were still suppressing fires earlier today. People in the area, including members of the Mattagami First Nation, have been complaining of respiratory issues from the smoke.
This oil train derailment was the second in three days in Canada and the fifth in three weeks in North America. An oil train derailed last week near Galena, Illinois. The oil boom in Canada and the United States has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of these trains, and derailments now appear to be the new normal.
After the 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, many pointed to old, unsafe DOT-111 tanker models as a main reason for the disaster and others like it. But at least four of the five recent incidents have involved newer, and theoretically safer, CPC-1232 models.
Environmental and safety advocates say oil-by-rail needs even more stringent safety measures, but they have been slow coming. The US government reportedly balked at creating national standards to limit the amount of potentially explosive gas in tankers carrying oil from North Dakota. And the White House Office of Management and Budget has said it will need until May to finalize rules proposed by the Department of Transportation last summer that would slow down crude-by-rail deliveries and require tankers to have insulated steel shells. The CPC-1232 tankers that derailed in Galena did not have these shells. I asked the Canadian National Railway Company if the tankers involved in Saturday's derailment had these shells. The company didn't directly answer that question. In an email, it stated: "The tank cars involved were CPC 1232 tank cars. The exact specifications will be information gathered as part of the ongoing investigation."
Below are Twitter pictures of Saturday's derailment in northern Ontario.
Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming," according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).
The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as "unwritten," to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.
Scott's office did not comment on Sunday, when contacted by the Guardian. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: "There's no policy on this."
The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to "climate change" came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.
"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change', 'global warming' or 'sustainability,'" the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. "That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel."
"We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change' or even 'sea-level rise,'" said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. "Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.'"
According to the employees' accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.
The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an "imminent threat of increased inland flooding" in Florida due to climate change and called the state "uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise."
A decades-long surge in heroin use has left behind a trail of overdose victims. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week found that the number of heroin overdoses quadrupled from 1,842 in 2000 to 8,257 in 2013—with a significant boost among people between the ages of 18 and 44, particularly white men.
Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist who studies drug overdoses at the CDC's Injury Center, says that both the growing availability of heroin nationwide and the shift among prescription drug users to heroin use may have contributed to the dramatic rise in deaths. "Thirty years ago, people snorting heroin never used OxyContin or Vicodin before" using heroin, says Paulozzi, who did not contribute to the CDC report. But now the drug's abusers start with prescription drugs, he says, turning these medsinto gateway drugs. A National Survey on Drug Use and Health study found that heroin abuse was 19 times higher among people who had previously abused pain relievers.
The increase in overdoses follows a federal crackdown on prescription painkillers, beginning toward the end of the Clinton era and lasting through the Bush administration, that resulted in a rash of arrests for illegal use during the mid-2000s. While the rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin appears to have leveled off, heroin overdoses have risen 348 percent. Most of the deaths occurred after 2010. That year, a new tamper-resistant form of Oxy hit the market, making it less potent and harder to abuse.
The rate of heroin deaths accelerated among people between the ages of 18 and 24, from 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 3.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. For people between 25 and 44 years old, the rate jumped from 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2013. Among young and middle-aged white people, that death rate reached 7.0 per 100,000 by 2013.
The CDC report also highlighted the stark gender and regional disparities among those who overdose. Deaths among men from heroin overdoses were four times higher than those among women between 2000 and 2013. While heroin overdoses increased throughout the country, the greatest number occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. In those regions, particularly near cities, the Justice Department observed the illicit drug as a rising threat—especially given the reported spike in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid some 30 times more potent than heroin.
According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department predicted the emerging trend in 2002: "As initiatives taken to curb the abuse of OxyContin are successfully implemented, abusers of OxyContin…also may begin to use heroin, especially if it is readily available, pure, and relatively inexpensive." A flood of heroin from Mexico, the world's third-largest opium producer, also factored into the drug's availability in the United States. In 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 2,196 kilograms of powder and black tar at the US-Mexico border, a nearly 160 percent bump from 2009.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has a different idea. It involves wolves. Specifically, releasing grey wolves into the districts of 79 of his peers in Congress who had recently called for greater protections for the endangered species.
"How many of you have got wolves in your district?" he asked. "None. None. Not one."
"They haven’t got a damn wolf in their whole district," Young continued. "I’d like to introduce them in your district. If I introduced them in your district, you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore."
If you're unfamiliar with Don Young, he is renowned for his outlandish antics, mostly about animals, like that time he brandished an 18-inch walrus penis bone on the House floor or the time he called climate change the "biggest scam since Teapot Dome" (a major bribery scandal in the 1920s involving the Harding administration).
A Young spokesperson told the Post that the comment was "purposely hyperbolic."
When we talk about global warming at the poles, the Arctic tends to get more press than the Antarctic, because it's happening faster there than anywhere else on Earth. But Antarctica is still a juggernaut. As ice sheets there collapse—a process some scientists now see as irreversible—global sea level could rise 10 feet. The complete meltdown could take hundreds of years, but if you live anywhere near the coast, it's not hard to imagine why my colleague Chris Mooney called that discovery a "holy shit moment for global warming."
Tonight, our friends at VICE will kick off their third season of documentaries on HBO, and they're headed to Antarctica to get a close-up look at the potentially catastrophic changes underway there. We'll also hear from Vice President Joe Biden, who says denying climate change is "like denying gravity." Check out the trailer above; the show airs tonight at 11pm ET.
The scene of crude oil train that derailed in Ontario, Canada on February 14.
Earlier today, yet another massive train carrying crude oil derailed and caught on fire, this time in northern Illinois near the Mississippi River. One-hundred-and-three of the the train's 105 cars were carrying crude oil—from where was not immediately clear (Update: BNSF has since confirmed the train was traveling from North Dakota; see below for their response)—eight of which derailed. Two of the derailed cars have caught on fire, according to BNSF Railway which owns the train, sending plumes of smoke and fire into the sky above Galena, Illinois, a town of just over 3,300.
The image of smoldering oil train cars is now a familiar sight: Incidences of exploding oil trains have been rapidly rising in North America thanks to the fracking boom in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields (Bakken oil is potentially more flammable than normal crude) and the slow transition away from old, unsafe rail cars. Oil-by-rail carloads are up 4000 percent from 2008 in the United States and this is the the third derailment in North America in the last three weeks, including a massive explosion in West Virginia on February 16 that injured one person and spilled oil into the nearby Kanawha River. In fact, a Department of Transportation report predicted trains carrying crude and ethanol would derail an average of 10 times per year in the next two decades. This is bad news for people who live near railways and the ecosystems in which they reside.
People living within a mile radius of today's derailment have begun evacuating, and authorities are monitoring the Mississippi River for leakage. BNSF Railway has not responded to inquiries from Mother Jones about the age of the trains' cars and whether the train was carrying Bakken crude. (Update: See below for a response from BNSF). The Birkshire Hathaway subsidiary did tell Reuters, however, that no injuries had been sustained.
Update 3/6/15 11:30 AM PST: BNSF spokesman Mike Trevino has confirmed to Mother Jones that the train was traveling from North Dakota, and the AP is reporting its tankers were carrying Bakken crude. Trevino said the cars were the CPC-1232 model (newer than the notorious DOT-111 that has raised concern amongst lawmakers), but were nonetheless "unjacketed." Kristen Boyles, an attorney with environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, told Mother Jones that "unjacketed" tankers do not have the insulated steel shells that US regulators have proposed mandating for new cars to prevent puncturing after derailment. "This derailment is yet another indication that these trains are not good enough and we've got to get federal standards greatly strengthened," Boyles said. The White House's Office of Management and Budget says it will finalize the DOT's proposed rules in May.