Tom Philpott - July 2011

What the USDA Doesn't Want You to Know About Antibiotics and Factory Farms

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Reservoir hogs: According to peer-reviewed research, factory farms may be a "significant reservoir of resistant bacteria." Yum!

Here (PDF) is a document the USDA doesn't want you to see. It's what the agency calls a "technical review"—nothing more than a USDA-contracted researcher's simple, blunt summary of recent academic findings on the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections and their link with factory animal farms. The topic is a serious one. A single antibiotic-resistant pathogen, MRSA—just one of many now circulating among Americans—now claims more lives each year than AIDS.

Back in June, the USDA put the review up on its National Agricultural Library website. Soon after, a Dow Jones story quoted a USDA official who declared it to be based on "reputed, scientific, peer-reviewed, and scholarly journals." She added that the report should not be seen as a "representation of the official position of USDA." That's fair enough—the review was designed to sum up the state of science on antibiotic resistance and factory farms, not the USDA's position on the matter.

But around the same time, the agency added an odd disclaimer to the top of the document: "This review has not been peer reviewed. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of Agriculture." And last Friday, the document (original link) vanished without comment from the agency's website. The only way to see the document now is through the above-linked cached version supplied to me by the Union of Concerned Scientists. [Note, added Sept. 23, 2011: the above link originally went to a cached version, which has since disappeared; so I uploaded a PDF version).

What gives? Why is the USDA suppressing a review that assembles research from "reputed, scientific, peer-reviewed, and scholarly journals"?

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Your Chicken Nuggets Are Killing Your Crab Cakes

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Every year in the Chesapeake Bay, an algae bloom spreads out, sucking oxygen out of the water and destroying fish habitat. This year's "dead zone" stretches from Baltimore Harbor to south of the Potomac River, the Washington Post reports. It's on track to become the bay’s largest ever. Already, fully a third of the bay—once one of the globe's most productive fisheries—is incapable of supporting sea life.

Meanwhile, down the Gulf of Mexico, the same thing is happening on an even grander scale. According to Texas A&M University researchers, this year's Gulf dead zone blots out 3,300 square miles of our nation's most important fishery—"roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined," they calculate. Before the year's out, it could as much as triple in size, the researchers fear, which would make it the Gulf's largest hypoxic (oxygen-depleted) area ever.

Why such huge dead zones this year? The immediate cause is heavy rains in both the Midwest and the Northeast, which wash vast amounts of nutrients down streams and rivers and into the sea at key river delta areas like the Chesapeake and the Gulf. There, the nutrients provide a feast for algae, and voilà, dead zones.

But the ultimate source of the nitrogen and phosphorus that feed the algae blooms is industrial agriculture: millions of acres of fertilizer-guzzling corn farms in the Mississippi River watershed and massive concentrations of chicken farms right on the banks of the Chesapeake.

Syngenta Makes a Killing on Pesticides While Feds Snooze

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 3:06 AM PDT

The pesticide atrazine is vile stuff. A "potent endocrine disruptor," it causes a range of reproductive problems at extremely low doses; and it commonly leaches out of farm fields and into people's drinking water. Unfortunately, it's quite popular with industrial-scale corn growers, who apply about 70 million pounds of it per year to kill weeds.

Just this month, USDA researchers released a study finding that atrazine is even more volatile than they previously expected: It's highly prone to evaporate after it's applied, entering the air and eventually groundwater. That might explain why in towns throughout the Corn Belt, atrazine levels in drinking water tend to "spike" during the spring application season, as a 2009 New York Times investigation found.

A wise society might be expected to ban it. Citing its tendency to taint water, the European Union did just that in 2003. But that same year, atrazine's maker, the Swiss chemical giant Syngenta, convinced our own EPA to maintain approval for it. To make its case, the company presented a bunch of studies it had funded that that have since been discredited. The EPA changed course in 2009, announcing it formally would review its decision to green light the toxic chemical. The review was initially slated to take a year; so far, nothing has come of it. An EPA press officer told me via email that the agency's scientific-advisory panel charged with scrutinizing atrazine will meet this week. But it will be "upwards of 90 days" before any report is issued.

While the EPA undertakes its leisurely reconsideration, atrazine use is booming. It remains "one of the most widely used agricultural pesticides in the US" by the EPA's own reckoning. And Syngenta recently reported a 14 percent jump in profits for the first half of 2011, based in part on "strong sales of atrazine" in North America.

3 Ways Scientific American Got the Organic Ag Story Wrong

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 4:47 PM PDT
The organic farm at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Over on the Scientific American blog, Christie Wilcox set out to expose the "myths" of organic farming. Frankly, the piece was so poorly reasoned that I read it with a yawn. But people take Scientific American seriously (as they should—it's a great publication) and the piece was received with credulity on Matt Yglesias' influential blog and at my former employer, Grist. (Grist has since published a critique of the Wilcox piece by Tom Laskawy).

Since some smart people seem to be buying what Wilcox is peddling here, let's look at her central claims.

1) Organic farms are seething hotbeds of toxic pesticide use. Wilcox notes, correctly, that organic farms are allowed to use certain non-synthetic pesticides. I agree the practice is problematic. Organic farming is built on the principle of on-farm ecological balance—that crop biodiversity should provide habitat for a variety of "beneficial insects," which should in turn keep crop-eating ones under control. Use of pesticides, even non-synthetic ones, represents a breakdown of that principle, and should be avoided by organic farmers.

But how much of a problem is pesticide use on organic farms? To hear Wilcox tell it, buyers of organic food are unwittingly getting all manner of pesticide traces on their produce. To back that up, she drops this dud of a bombshell:

Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels—and these are of pesticides that are not organic.

Just over 1 percent, eh? That means that just under 99 percent were found to be ok. Scary! It would be interesting to see how non-organic food fared in that study; Wilcox doesn't see fit to compare the two. Meanwhile, back here in the United States, the USDA collects data on pesticide traces on produce. In 2009, reports the Organic Center, the USDA analyzed 386 samples of organic lettuce, "by far the most extensive sampling of an organic food crop for pesticide residues ever carried out in the world." Again, "just over 1 percent" of the samples contained a pesticide residue not approved for use on organic farms, the OC reports. As for pesticides approved for organic use, 78 samples carried traces of those, meaning that 20 percent of organic produce carried a residue. 

By contrast, the most recent USDA data on non-organic lettuce showed that the average sample carried residues of nealy four four distinct pesticides, the Organic Center reports.

Thus, despite Wilcox's bluster, organic food is clearly consumers' best bet for avoiding pesticide traces on their food. (For more information on the pesticide-residue cocktails that coat conventional vegetables, see my analysis of Environmental Working Group's recent report on the topic.)

Monsanto's "Superweeds" Gallop Through Midwest

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 11:30 AM PDT

Back in the mid-'90s, Monsanto rolled out seeds genetically engineered to withstand its Roundup herbicide. To ensure huge growth potential, the company shrewdly chose the most widely planted, highly subsidized US crops to grace with its new "Roundup Ready" technology: corn, soy, and cotton.

The pitch was simple and powerful: No longer would large-scale farmers need to worry about weeds. All they would have to do was douse their fields with Roundup, which would wipe out all plant life except the desired crop. Farmers leapt at the technology. It represented a fantastic labor-saving opportunity, allowing them to manage ever-larger swaths of land without having to pay more workers.

Today, Roundup Ready crops blanket US farmland. According to USDA figures, 94 percent of soybeans and more than 70 percent of corn and cotton planted in the US contain the Roundup-resistant gene. Back-of-the envelope calculations tell me that nearly 200,000 square miles of prime farmland—a land mass about two-thirds the size of Texas—now grow crops rigged to flourish amid an annual monsoon of Roundup.

Well, in what is surely the least surprising, most-anticipated major development in the history of US agriculture, farmers are discovering that when you spend years dousing land a single herbicide, ecosystems adapt. Roundup Ready crops, meet Roundup-defying weeds.

Such "superweeds" have been vexing farmers for several years now, but this season, according to a stark report in Monsanto's home-town paper The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the problem is galloping out of control. In recent years, farmers have had to supplement Roundup with other, harsher herbicides, subjecting their land to highly toxic chemical cocktails. But now, weeds are developing resistance to the cocktails, too. The Post-Dispatch reports that "in some areas of the state, certain weeds have become resistant to three herbicides. In Illinois, some weeds have become resistant to four."

SEC Investigates Monsanto's Roundup Biz

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

While I have been fixating on the USDA's decision to ramp down oversight of the genetically modified seed industry, another federal agency has been quietly asking hard questions about the business practices of the industry's dominant player, Monsanto.

The SEC is investigating Monsanto's tactics for defending the market for its herbicide, Roundup. The news emerged just before the July 4 holiday weekend, during Monsanto's press conference about its quarterly financial earnings. Company execs boasted of a 77 percent increase in profit before dropping a mini-bombshell, The Wall Street Journal reported:

Monsanto said it was cooperating with a previously undisclosed US Securities and Exchange Commission probe into its customer incentive programs for herbicides in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and had received a subpoena to provide related documents.

Neither the SEC nor Monsanto will comment on the ongoing investigation. But Monsanto did issue a terse press release after the earnings call explaining that the probe "relates to financial incentives Monsanto offered to distributors who carry its glyphosate products and the financial reporting of those incentives."

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto's flagship Roundup herbicide, and "distributors" refers to the seed industry's middlemen, the companies that buy seeds and agrichemcals from suppliers like Monsanto and sell them to farmers. So what the company is saying its that it gave "financial incentives"—presumably, discounts—to somehow promote Roundup sales in 2009 and '10.

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Craving Lamb Chops? Read This First

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 1:15 PM PDT

If your dietary goals include making as much of a mess as possible, I have a recipe for you.

First, devote huge swaths of the nation's best farmland to grains and beans in monocrops. Drench them in petrochemical-based fertilizers and poisons, much of which will run off into groundwater. Then, instead of eating the resulting mountains of grains and beans—that would be far too efficient—feed them to animals.

To ensure that you're creating as overwhelming a waste problem as possible, concentrate them by the thousands into vast pens and cages. Keeping them alive and growing in such cramped, unsanitary conditions will require staggering loads of antibiotics, thus providing an excellent breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

 OK, now run those animals through factory-scale slaughterhouses. Slaughtering them at such scale will require unthinkable amounts of clean water, and ensure a gusher wastewater teaming with dangerous nitrates and other poisons. Ship the resulting meat across the country in refrigerated trucks. Still hungry? Cook some industrial meat—or let a fast-food chain do so for you. Bonus: Focus on species that would otherwise turn something humans can't digest—grass—into meat. Cows fit the bill—in fact, grain diets make them sick, requiring more pharmaceuticals to keep them alive until slaughter.

That, in a nutshell, is the story told by Environmental Working Group's Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health. Everyone who eats industrially produced meat should read it. Below is a teaser. Lamb is our most carbon-intensive foodstuff, EWG reports, but Americans barely eat any lamb. We do eat lots and lots of beef, though, and that habit contributes mightily to climate change. Note that cheese ranks third—kind of tragic, given that the USDA is working with the food industry to get more cheese into fast-food items. 

Big Mac Attack: Changing the climate one burger at a time. Big Mac Attack: Changing the climate one burger at a time.

 

Annihilate an Entire Species of Fish, and Other Easy Ways to Really Mess Things Up

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
First we'll take menhaden, then we'll take bluefin.

So, there's this company called Omega Protein, and it seems intent on catching as much as it possibly can of an obscure, tiny, practically inedible fish called the Atlantic menhaden.

From Omega Protein's perspective, hoovering up menhaden like they're dust bunnies is a great idea. The company's entire business model hinges on transforming the oily fish into everything from livestock feed to omega-3 pills for people. In fact, it owns a monopoly on Atlantic menhaden fishing and processing—and has been doing just that for years. The stock market values Omega Protein at a cool quarter-billion dollars.

For the health of the ecosystem along the East Coast, though, declaring open season on the menhaden really, really sucks, as Alison Fairbrother and Randy Fertel say in their recent Gilt Taste piece, "The Most Important Fish in the Sea." All along the eastern shore, menhaden have entered a phase of calamitous decline. Stocks have plunged 88 percent in the past quarter century, the authors report. As Omega Protein sucks them out of the ocean, things are getting quite out-of-whack down below. Fairbrother and Fertel explain:  

[T]heir nutrient-packed bodies are a staple food for dozens of fish species you have heard of, as well as marine mammals and sea birds. Located near the bottom of the food chain, menhaden are the favored prey for many important predators, including striped bass and bluefish, tuna and dolphin, seatrout and mackerel.

And that's not all. "Menhaden are filter feeders, swimming with their mouths open and straining phytoplankton (algae) and other particles with their gills," Fairbrother and Fertel report. The little fish "have been removing damaging particles from our waters since time immemorial."

Thus menhaden have what I call ecological leverage. That is, if you fish them into oblivion, you're not just destroying a single species; you're also threatening to unleash a cascading set of effects that could lead to full-on ecosystem collapse. Other examples of ecological leverage include coral reefs, which act as engines of oceanic biodiversity but are under attack from a variety of forces, and tropical rainforests, which teem with biodiversity, too, and also help stabilize global climate by trapping vast amounts of carbon. We mess with ecological leverage at our peril.

As Fairbrother and Fertel show, menhaden are already displaying their ecological leverage on the Atlantic Coast:

One sign that points to the scale of the problem is that species like striped bass that normally feed on menhaden are displaying symptoms of malnourishment and disease. Seatrout are near their lowest population point on record, in part because of a lack of menhaden. When faced with the loss of both seatrout and menhaden as food, striped bass have been turning to other cherished delicacies. "Striped bass will feed on blue crabs and lobsters when they can't get enough menhaden. We are seeing increased mortality of juvenile lobster and blue crabs," [a prominent fisheries scientist] says.

Welcome to the Age of GMO Industry Self-Regulation

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
USDA chief Tom Vilsack: not exactly baring his fangs in his role as GMO-industry watchdog.

As I reported last week, the USDA's recent surprise decision not to regulate genetically modified bluegrass poked yet more holes in an already-porous regime for overseeing GM crops—essentially to the point of regulatory collapse.

There were a few important strands I wasn't able to wrestle into the story. The main one is an odd letter that USDA secretary Tom Vilksack sent Scotts Miracle-Gro as an addendum to the agency's response to Scott's GM bluegrass petition. Vilsack's letter, dated July 1, acknowledges concerns that GM bluegrass will contaminate non-GM bluegrass—that is, that the Roundup Ready gene will move through wind-blown pollen and work its way into non-modified varieties. This is the process known as "gene flow," and it has already been well-established for GM corn and other modified crops.

Since bluegrass shows up (among other places) in cow pastures, organic dairy and beef farmers face the risk of suddenly having their animals nosh on fields full of a GM crop, which would jeopardize their organic status. As the the secretary put it in his letter:

The USDA recognizes that if this GE variety were to be commercially released, producers wishing to grow non-GE Kentucky bluegrass will likely have concerns related to gene flow between the GE variety and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass. Exporters of Kentucky bluegrass seed, growers of non-GE Kentucky bluegrass seed, and those involved in the use of non-GE Kentucky bluegrass in pastures will likely have concerns about the loss of their ability to meet contractual obligations.

So, Scotts is going to release a product that will potentially cause real and arbitrary harm to market actors. What's Vilsack's response?

USDA therefore strongly encourages Scotts to discuss these concerns with various stakeholders during these early stages of research and development of this GE Kentucky bluegrass variety and thereby develop appropriate and effective stewardship measures to minimize commingling and gene flow between GE and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass.

Thus, in lieu of taking action to stop Scotts from doing harm or penalize it if it does, the USDA is encouraging Scotts to talk to stakeholders to avoid harm. In other words, go forth and regulate yourself ... please?

Vilsack's letter is deftly summarizes of the agency's paradigm for overseeing the introduction of new GM crops: Yes, they have the potential to cause serious harm; no, we can't do anything about it. In one sense, that approach represents progress. Before Vilsack, the agency was loathe to admit that GMOs posed any threat to the environment or to farmers. But as I reported last week, the Roundup Ready bluegrass decision also signals an even higher level of laissez faire: Whereas before the agency regulated novel crops weakly, it now seems content not to regulate them at all.

Has the Egg Industry Finally Cracked?

| Wed Jul. 13, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Twice in 2010, the Humane Society of the United States snuck undercover, camera-toting investigators into factory-scale egg facilities, and both times they revealed savage animal-welfare and public-health abuses: everything from unpackaged eggs exposed to rotting hen carcasses to "trapped birds unable to reach food and water."

Meanwhile, the industry put a bunch of egg on its own face by releasing a cool half-billion salmonella-tainted eggs. They turned out to have emerged from the fetid factories of a shadowy magnate named Jack Decoster, who has a decades-long history of violations. Congressional investigators found that the Decoster operation's own testing had detected salmonella on its conveyor belts no fewer than 73 times before the outbreak, and did nothing to remedy the situation. 

Perhaps chastened by these revelations, the industry is now playing ball with its most prominent critic. In what could prove to be an historic deal, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) have joined forces to push for federal legislation that would transform industrial egg production. According to their joint press release, the proposed legislation would be the "first federal law addressing the treatment of animals on farms." Among other things, it would nearly double the amount of space allotted each hen—making conditions less cramped and thus more humane and hygienic—and provide the birds "with environments that will allow them to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas."