Tom Philpott - 2012

The Making of an Agribusiness Apologist

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 4:18 PM EST

Earlier this month, Forbes.com published an op-ed by Jon Entine in which he purported to debunk Dashka Slater's must-read recent Mother Jones profile of Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley professor who found that tiny doses of the widely used herbicide atrazine affects frogs' sexual development.

Entine, who describes himself as an "author, think tank scholar, leadership and sustainability consultant, media commentator, and public speaker on the DNA of human behavior," accused Slater of blatantly overstating the dangers of atrazine, which shows up at low levels in drinking water in farming-intensive areas in the Midwest and South. According to Entine, as it's currently used on American fields, atrazine poses no risks to people or farms. Entine called out Mother Jones for promoting "End of Days hysteria" and displaying "a devastating lack of respect for science." Now, Entine's critique of the science indicting atrazine is sophisticated and deserves to be answered. I have written critically about atrazine before, and much of Entine's critique of Slater's piece applies to my work as well. I'll be digging into that in a forthcoming post.

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How Factory Farms Are Killing Seals

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 7:00 AM EST

The meat industry defends its reliance on routine antibiotic use by flatly denying the practice poses any public health problem. The view is summed up by this 2010 National Pork Producers Council newsletter: "[T]here are no definitive studies linking the use of antibiotics in animal feed to changes in resistance in humans." The claim, I guess, is that the drug-resistant bacteria that evolve on antibiotic-laden feedlots stay on those feedlots and don't migrate out.

That contention is looking increasingly flimsy. My colleague Julia Whitty recently pointed to a new study showing that a particular antibiotic-resistant pathogen "likely originated as a harmless bacterium living in humans, which acquired antibiotic resistance only after it migrated into livestock." In its new, harmful form, Julia reported, the bacterial strain "now causes skin infections and sepsis, mostly in farm workers."

And humans aren't the only creatures paying the price of routine antibiotic use. A research team from the Pacific Northwest has found that terrestrial pathogens, including strains of E. coli resistant to multiple antibiotics, are now infecting sea mammals. The researchers collected and performed autopsies on more than 1,600 stranded seals and otters over 10 years. They found that infectious diseases accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the deaths. "Comparing the diseases found in marine mammals with terrestrial mammals has identified similar, and in many cases genetically identical disease agents," the researchers report.

Shrimp's Carbon Footprint Is 10 Times Greater Than Beef's

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 8:00 AM EST

"Shrimp lovers don't need to crash a fancy party to enjoy premium, seasoned-to-perfection shrimp," announced a Taco Bell press release last year. The chain was heralding its "Pacific Shrimp Taco," which featured a half-dozen "premium shrimp" for just $2.79.

Marketing campaigns like Taco Bell's, along with Red Lobster's periodic "Endless Shrimp" promotions, crystallize shrimp's transformation from special-treat food to everyday cheap fare. What happened? The answer lies in the rise of factory-scale shrimp farms over the last generation. Twenty years ago, 80 percent of shrimp consumed here came from domestic wild fisheries, with imports supplying the rest. Today, we've more than flipped those numbers: the United States imports 90 percent of the shrimp consumed here. We now bring in a staggering 1.2 billion pounds of it annually, mainly from farms in Asia. Between 1995 and 2008, the inflation-adjusted price of wild-caught Gulf shrimp plunged 30 percent.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that plates mounded with cheap shrimp float on a veritable sea of ecological and social trouble. In his excellent 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, the Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe took a hard look at the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. His conclusion: "The simple fact is, if you're eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world's poorest nations."

France Seeks to Cut Pesticide Use in Half

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Anti-Monsanto sticker, Paris

Over in France, a farmer has successfully sued Monsanto for pesticide poisoning. The farmer claims he suffered a raft of neurological troubles after inhaling the agrochemical giant's Lasso herbicide while cleaning his sprayer in 2004. The court's ruling against Monsanto "could lend weight to other health claims against pesticides," according to Reuters.

All very interesting, but what caught my eye was this background bit toward the end of the story:

France, the EU's largest agricultural producer, is now targeting a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018, with initial results showing a 4 percent cut in farm and non-farm use in 2008-2010.

Wait, France has a national policy in place to slash pesticide use within less than a decade? That's news to me. So I did a little digging and found that back in 2008, the French government rolled out a plan called Ecophyto 2018 in response to the European Union's 2006 Sustainable Use Directive, which called for all EU countries to concoct national policies on cutting pesticide use. Ecophyto sets an ambitious agenda for French agriculture: to meet the pesticide-reduction target while maintaining production levels.

And that's not all. After launching Ecophyto in 2008, the French government amended it in 2009 to add to more lofty goals, according to ENDURE, an EU-funded nonprofit that promotes integrated pest management. It's now official French policy to to expand certified-organic acreage from 2 percent of the nation's total farmland in 2009 to 20 percent by 2020; push at least half of the nation's farms to achieve "high environmental value" certification, which involves reaching certain levels of on-farm biodiversity and reduction in fertilizer use; and to withdraw 40 toxic pesticides from commercial use.

Bloody Valentine: Child Slavery in Ivory Coast's Cocoa Fields

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 7:59 PM EST
No denying it: A child laborer in the Ivory Coast's cocoa fields.

If you gave someone chocolate for Valentine's Day, it may well have come from the Ivory Coast, the source of about 35 percent of the globe's cocoa production. And if it did come from the Ivory Coast, it may well have been harvested by unpaid child workers being held captive on plantations—that is to say, child slaves.

That is the stark conclusion reached by the recent documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate, which I watched on the eve of today's chocolate-drenched holiday. The film is a collaboration between the American documentary film maker U. Roberto Romano (whose film on child labor in US farm fields, The Harvest/La Cosecha, I reviewed here) and the Danish journalist Miki Mistrati. As the trailer shows, there isn't much romantic about where your average bon-bon comes from.

The film-making is simple and stark, more straight investigative journalism than cinema. It opens with the narrator/protagonist, Mistrati, attending a chocolate trade convention in Belgium. He calmly asks several of the gathered worthies—reps from big chocolate trade associations and the transnational cocoa exporters and processors that dominate the cocoa trade—about rumors of forced child labor on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations. All claim ignorance of the phenomenon, and add sheepishly that if it does exist, they deplore it.

The Mystery of Exploding Pig Poop

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 7:00 PM EST
Stink bomb: Potentially explosive foaming manure on a hog farm

A specter haunts the Midwest's factory-scale hog farms: the specter of explosive "manure foam." From the Minnesota Daily:

A few years ago, hog farmers throughout the Midwest noticed foam building on top of their manure pits. Soon after, barns began exploding, killing thousands of hogs while farmers lost millions of dollars.

And you thought Santorum was gross.

But seriously, what gives? First, it helps to have an idea of how manure is handled at industrial hog facilities. In his classic 2005 Rolling Stone exposé of the industrial pork giant Smithfield, Jeff Tietz provided a vivid description:

The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

The manure itself is pretty nasty, too. Pigs on factory farms are given daily doses of antibiotics and growth-promoting additives like ractopamine, much of which ends up in their waste. So what you get in those cesspools, the ones now exploding in the Midwest, is kind of a stew of bacteria, antibacterial agents, and novel antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains, all mixed with the random detritus described by Tietz.

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US Pushes the World to Import Our Dodgy Meat

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 8:08 PM EST
Paylean is the brand name for Eli Lilly's growth-promoting hog-feed additive ractopamine.

Remember that recent story by Helena Bottemiller (my post about it here) on how the US meat industry regularly doses hogs and cows with an additive called ractopamine that makes their meat leaner but also stresses them out?

According to Bottemiller, the FDA approved ractopamine back in 1999 based on industry-funded science that remains controversial. Traces of the chemical, made by the animal-medicine subsidiary of the pharma giant Eli Lilly, routinely make it into the meat supply. And that's precisely why it's banned in dozens of countries, including the entire European Union as well as China and Taiwan. These countries also refuse to accept meat imports that contain residues of it.

Turns out, the Obama administration isn't just content to allow domestic meat producers to expose American consumers to Lilly's chemical. It also wants to impose it on consumers throughout the world, even those who live in one of countries where it has been banned. The issue has emerged as a central dispute in trade talks with Taiwan, because inspectors in that nation have been refusing to allow in American meat that tests positive for ractopamine.

Heading to California's Annual Organic-Farming Woodstock

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:34 PM EST

At California's annual Eco-Farm conference, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, farmhands, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference center an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk seeds, weeds, and agribiz misdeeds amid the dunes. I loved it when I attended in 2008. At the Asilomar center overlooking Monterery Bay—incidentally, the site of a seminal meeting of scientists and lawyers about how to proceed with GMO research way back in 1975—there's no brain-sucking hotel auditorium, no day upon day of artificial light and processed air. Break-out sessions take place in scattered bungalows, linked by trails through rolling dunes. The low roar in the background isn't some infernal highway; rather, waves lashing up against a rocky shore. It's a bit like summer camp for sustainable-ag nerds: You wind up outdoors a lot, wandering from activity to activity, often pelted by rain.

I'll be there for the next several days, filing dispatches as possible. I'm also giving a talk on how it's up to communities to create alternative food systems in an era of outright industry capture of regulation and food policy. Here is the schedule.

VIDEO: What Happens to Piglets on Factory Farms

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:30 PM EST

The remarkable thing about Humane Society of the United States' latest factory farm video exposé is how banal it is. No illegal acts like "downer" animals being forced down the kill line with fork lifts, or getting their brains bashed in with a pickax. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs' lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video looks at two aspects of the dirty business of raising thousands of pigs en masse in close quarters: 1) the way pregnant pigs live as they wait to have their litters; and 2) what happens to baby pigs with they're weaned after just three days. Neither is for the squeamish.

In case you couldn't watch, the video illustrates the well-known, widespread practice of confining gestating pigs for months on end in 2 foot by 7 foot crates that deny them room to move or even turn around; and the ghastly (though perfectly legal) custom of snipping off baby pigs' tails without use of painkillers.

The targets are two relatively obscure but quite large companies in Oklahoma, Seaboard Foods and Prestage Farms, the nation's third- and fifth-largest hog producers. In addition to raising hogs, Seaboard also slaughters them and sells pork to large retailers, including Walmart. Its brands include the rustic-sounding Prairie Fresh; and the company's website proclaims its "strong commitment" to animal welfare.

80 Percent of Chicken Growers Never Sanitize Poop-Filled Crates

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 8:13 PM EST
You don't want to tailgate one of these—trust me.

I was going to call this post "The Poultry Industry's Dirty Secret," but then I got to thinking: Isn't that too broad? It raises the question of which dirty secret—the fact that it turns independent family farmers into low-income serfs? Intentionally feeds arsenic to chickens, which ends up both in meat and in ground water? Severely damages one of the nation's most productive fisheries with tainted chickenshit? Routinely sends out chicken that's infected with pathogens resistant to several antibiotics?

So I added the parenthetical modifier "latest." This one shocked even me. Reports the meat-industry trade journal Meatingplace (sub required):

Survey results seem to indicate that about 80 percent of poultry growers don’t ever sanitize their crates, according to an Auburn University survey of 10,317 farms. What’s more, just 18.3 percent sanitize their trucks and trailers—two areas that contribute to the spread of Salmonella and Campylobacter.

What does this mean? First it's important to get some definitions straight. For background, this Humane Society of the United States report (PDF) delivers a pretty good overview of how poultry facilities work. Every year, HSUS informs us, the industry raises 9 billion birds in sheds the size of 1.5 football fields (about 450 feet) lengthwise and 40 feet wide. These factory-style facilities hold as many as 20,000 chickens, with enough space to offer each about a letter-size piece of paper's worth by the time they reach market size.Naturally, such conditions—along with the industry's zeal to get birds to fatten as quickly as possible—leads to all manner of injury and disease, HSUS reports:

Between 5-7 weeks of age, broiler chickens spend 76-86 percent of their time lying down, depending on the degree to which they suffer from lameness. This unusually high level of time spent lying down is thought to be related to fast growth and heavy body weight, and, in turn, leads to breast blisters, hock burns, and foot-pad dermatitis. Because sheds are sometimes cleared of litter and accumulated excrement only after several consecutive flocks have been reared, the birds often must stand and lie in their own waste and that of previous flocks.

As I've written so many times before, these sad birds are kept alive by daily doses of antibiotics—and so it's no surprise that in 2008, Johns Hopkins researchers found not only poultry-house manure, but also flies that find their way into the houses, to be rife with bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics.