Wednesday, September 14, 2011


food booksFood Studies: the edible curriculum

Photo: JumanggyIf, like me, you love food, chances are you've spent at least an hour or two daydreaming about going back to school to study it. Maybe you've fantasized about a hands-on career as a butcher, cheese-maker, or hydroponic farmer; maybe you occasionally picture yourself campaigning for food justice or traveling the world to write a history of the persimmon. Perhaps you secretly want to catalog and save rare potato varieties in the Andes, learn about other cultures through the way they serve breakfast, design more environmentally friendly packaging to reduce waste, or find urban planning solutions to America's food deserts.
The possibilities are endless -- and that's the point.
Food is inherently multi-disciplinary, which means that every time we look at our foodscape through a different lens, we have the opportunity to learn something new.
But most students of food -- whether they are enrolled for credit or simply self-directed enthusiasts -- remain firmly embedded within the constraints of their disciplines. Industrial chemists working on new flavor enhancers spend relatively little time understanding what food might mean to an international development scholar, and vice versa; urban planners often miss out on an anthropologist's understanding of food's role in building community; and food safety watchdogs are not in dialogue with the economists analyzing global trade inefficiencies. And because of that, we all miss out on the kinds of holistic understanding and innovative ideas that studying the world through the lens of food can reveal.
So what if we created a space where people who are studying food in a huge variety of agriculture and food-focused programs around the world could report back, share their perspective with you, and start a whole new conversation?
Starting today, we're doing just that here at Grist, with a new feature called Food Studies.
We've asked eleven students to let us in on their mental diets this fall -- to share the particular food ideas, stories, and questions that they encounter in their various classes, lectures, lab sessions, and field trips. They come from different places -- we have an Israeli studying plant science at Hebrew University, an anthropologist studying Korean gastro-diplomacy in Indiana, as well as an American studying at the Slow Food movement's University of Gastronomic Science in Bra, Italy. And they're enrolled in different programs -- from culinary school in Singapore to a PhD program in the history of science with a focus on canning. Every weekday this semester, you can expect an update from one of them, covering topics as diverse as how to put together a restaurant wine list and the sensory dimensions of artisanal cheese.
So steal some of that back-to-school buzz yourself and follow along. It's cheaper than tuition. And, much more importantly, it's an amazing chance to blow open the boundaries around how food is taught and discussed, to test new ideas, and to start thinking holistically about how food can make the world a more sustainable, healthier, and better-tasting place.
Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, founder of the Foodprint Project, and director of Studio-X NYC, part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning urban futures network. 


e. coliFood safety breakthrough: USDA declares ‘Big Six’ E. coli strains illegal

E. coliPhoto: Microbe WorldAbout a month ago, Food Safety News broke the story that the government was on the verge of action on a much-delayed rule to make several toxic forms of E. coli illegal in meat. And today, the USDA, in particular the director of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Dr. Elizabeth Hagan, came through.
You heard that right. Before today, the only form of E. coli that had been banned was H7:O157 -- the strain behind the infamous Jack in the Box outbreak of 1994. There are several other highly toxic forms of E. coli that appear in food, however, including a set of pathogenic Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains known as the "Big Six." Despite the fact that, as Food Safety News reported in August, the Big Six "cause almost 40,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually," it has taken until now for the USDA to make this change.
From The New York Times:
Federal food safety officials said on Monday that they would ban the sale of ground beef containing six toxic strains of E. coli bacteria that have increasingly been showing up in the food supply, taking a long-delayed step that was opposed by many in the meat industry.
"This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time," said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the head of food safety for the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat. "We're doing this to prevent illness and to save lives."
The meat industry is predictably nonplussed -- they have been unabashedly and stridently fighting the Big Six rule change for the last several years. According to The New York Times, the American Meat Institute, an industry group, released a statement saying:
"Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars -- costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers. It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy."
I imagine the 40,000 people sickened and the 30 families who have experienced tragic loss from the Big Six in any given year might beg to differ. It's also worth noting that aggregate costs such as the AMI cites are highly misleading. Given the amount of meat sold nationwide, the new testing is likely to add pennies per pound, if that, to the cost in the supermarket.
In fact, FSN says some experts have speculated that the controls industry has already put in place against O157 will likely be equally effective against the other members of the Big Six, which suggests the costs to industry might be quite modest. Sadly, it's hard not to conclude that the meat industry would rather wait for another watershed outbreak, such as the one that occurred in 1994 (which pushed the USDA to declare O157 illegal), than take the proactive stance the public health community has been demanding for years.
Of course, the fight against pathogens is far from over. The toxic form of E. coli that caused the recent German sprouts outbreak wasn't on public health experts' radar before it happened. And the Salmonella strain behind the recent massive recall of ground turkey is also still legal in meat. Even so, it's nice to know that "people-killing" pathogens take precedence over supposed "job-killing" regulations at the USDA. FSIS Chief Hagan deserves our thanks.  
A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea.


corn silos

Food fighters: Don’t give up on the farm bill

Photo: Jim When the 2008 Farm Bill passed, Michael Pollan took to the pages of Grist to ask, "why so little change on the key issue? Why didn't we get a food bill, rather than another farm bill?" Then he tasked food reformers to prepare for the next one, when change might really happen:
It's not enough to engage the public, important as that is; we also have to get much smarter about both policy and politics, and craft some attractive proposals that will divide the farm block as well as move us to a healthier and more sustainable food system -- economically sustainable for farmers and farm workers and environmentally sustainable.
Since then, food reformers -- who have begun to drive the media conversation as well as force agribusiness to engage in opposition research new marketing campaigns -- have had reason to hope they might control the debate over the next Farm Bill.
But the recession plus the Republican wave of 2010 smashed those hopes. The ensuing GOP governing philosophy of corporate welfare combined with budget-cutting mania led Tom Philpott to opine earlier this year that the "Budget fight threatens to turn Farm Bill into Industrial Ag Bill." Though the Farm Bill only comes up every five years, Congress appropriates money on an annual basis; the fight over this year's spending is just now coming to an end.
In this latest agriculture budget battle, the GOP targeted conservation programs, which serve as rare counterweights to a system designed to encourage excessive production of commodities like corn, soy and cotton. Organic transition, rural development programs, and research funding also took considerable hits. Without these elements of the bill, practically all that remains are policies that encourage overproduction of a small set of commodities -- namely, the programs most associated with agribusiness.
And there remains enormous pressure to find even more "savings" in agricultural subsidies. Unlike in the past, when talk of cutting subsidies ended up as just that, Congress is currently full of conservative "true believers" in austerity, who don't seem concerned about voting against their constituents' interests, even in farm states. Significant reductions to traditional commodity programs are a very real possibility. Of course, in bargaining situations such as this one, the most influential insiders do all they can to protect their interests at the expense of less powerful players. In the case of farm subsidies that could mean protection for commodities producers and reductions in the programs that support sustainable agriculture.
This reality has encouraged a hands-off approach to this year's Farm Bill from one major potential force for reform: AGree, a recently formed coalition that includes the Gates Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation. The group hopes to "break the stalemate" on agricultural policy in this country -- just not this year.
AGree's co-chair and former Clinton administration USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said in an interview that when the group does get more fully involved, it will focus on a "three-legged stool" of agricultural policy: Risk management, research, and conservation. We'll just have to wait until 2017 to see if it's a stool we can sit on.
One source of new ideas for this year's Farm Bill is the National Farmers Union, the moderate counterpart to the more "notorious" American Farm Bureau (the AFB is the group that has called for war with food reformers and is the most strident in its climate denial).
The NFU just released a study that explains how the use of what they call "farmer-owned reserves" would have have saved over $56 billion in taxpayer money over the last 12 years. The very complex idea goes something like this: farmers would get paid by the government to put some of their harvest in reserve to use as a buffer for both high and low prices. The reserve wouldn't be government-owned or controlled, and market forces would drive the decision to stock-pile it or sell it. What's interesting is that such a reserve reduces both over-production of commodities and price spikes such as the one we're experiencing now. And it wouldn't interfere with farmers' ability to sell abroad, which -- for better or for worse -- is a major source of income for commodity growers. Their proposal could represent a small but significant improvement in our subsidy system.
We're clearly not looking at Michael Pollan's vision for the Farm Bill. But these might be the kinds of positive changes we can expect this time around. And if food reformers want to show themselves to be the sophisticated players in food and ag policy they strive to be, it might require pushing for ideas like these, now that the Whole Enchilada is off the table.
A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea.

Monday, September 12, 2011


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.
Here's the context. For years, the company minted profits by selling farmers seeds engineered to withstand that potent weed killer, and also selling them copious amounts of the weed killer itself. But its patent on glyphosate expired in 2000. By the late 2000s, Chinese competitors selling cheap generic glyphosate had stormed into the market, eating away at Monsanto's Roundup sales. In response, according to Bloomberg, Monsanto announced in early 2010 that it would spend up to $150 million on "incremental price concessions or trade incentives" to boost its Roundup brand.
Now, there's nothing illegal about a company giving discounts to its distributors. The question is what the company gets in return. Did Monsanto essentially bribe agrichemical dealers to promote Roundup and squeeze out competitors? That, I suspect, is the question SEC investigators are asking. Monsanto certainly has a history of using its heft to manipulate the markets it dominates. Here's what AP's Christopher Leonard concluded after digging into Monsanto's business practices for an an excellent 2009 investigative report: "The world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies, and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops."
We also know that the $150 million the company said it would deploy to boost its Roundup brand last year seems to have been well spent. In its recent quarterly profit statement, the company reported that its "agricultural productivity" segment—mainly, Roundup—saw sales leap 57 percent compared to the same quarter a year earlier. Altogether, the company expects to make a cool $700 million in gross profit from that segment in 2011. That's not quite equal to Roundup's mid-2000s glory days, when the herbicide routinely churned out $1 billion in annual profits for the company, but it's a lot more than most analysts thought it would be raking in after Chinese competitors swooped into the market.
Thus, for all of its marketing blather about "sustainable agriculture," Monsanto's business model still relies heavily on selling lots and lots of herbicide. And as the SEC investigation suggests, it may be resorting to illegal tactics to maintain its Roundup cash cow. 


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."
The problem is accelerating, because the resistant weeds are driving out their non-resistant counterparts, and also cross-pollinating them with the resistant gene, spreading it far and wide:
These weeds adapt faster and more vigorously than their weed cousins, choking fields and clogging irrigation ditches so badly water can't pass through. "Pollen can transfer the resistant trait; that's the problem," said Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist with the University of Missouri. "There's not much we can do about pollen flying through the air, and that's why we see such rapid spread of resistance."
Now, as I reported recently, the USDA openly acknowledges the superweed problem and even delivered a pretty good explainer on it in its environmental impact statement (PDF) on Roundup Ready alfalfa. Yet it keeps deregulating or choosing not to regulate at all new Roundup Ready crops, all of them quite widely planted. This year alone, the agency has green-lighted Roundup Ready versions of alfalfa (a major cow feed); sugar beets (source of half of US sugar), and most recently, Kentucky bluegrass (popular lawn turf). These dubious USDA decisions will likely bring millions more acres—including lawns, parks, and golf courses near you—under the Roundup Ready domain. From the USDA's perspective, superweeds—and the toxic cocktails they call forth upon the to land—are simply something we have to live with.
As for farmers, crop prices are high enough—thanks, ethanol!—that they're still eking out a profit despite having to buy and spray the extra herbicides, the Post-Dispatch reports. And in many cases, Monsanto's market dominance is so complete that farmers literally have no other alternative than to buy Roundup Ready seeds. For example, it's virtually impossible to buy non-Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds.
As for Monsanto, well, as I reported Tuesday, Roundup sales are booming. The company expects to clock $700 million in profit from that product alone this year. And it has a plan for complaints about Roundup resistance. It will develop crops resistant to other poisons, creating whole new cycles of profit and ecological destruction. The Post-Dispatch reports:
There is, however, some hope in the pipeline. Monsanto is working on developing soybeans and cotton that are resistant to the chemical dicamba. The cotton could be on the market within three years.
Dicamba is a truly nasty poison—it makes the Pesticide Action Network's "bad actor" list, and is classified as a "developmental or reproductive toxin.  Meanwhile, Roundup's status as a relatively benign agrichemical poison is coming under withering attack. The latest: in a report last month (PDF) the European NGO Earth Open Source delivered an impressive body of evidence that Monsanto's flagship herbicide causes "endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and cancer, as well as birth defects." Those are explosive claims, given that Roundup and other forms of glyphosate are now the most-used herbicide in the world. I'll be digging into the report over the next couple of weeks.

THE YEAR OF THE SUPERINSECT....could topple the entire GMO corn crop

Monsanto Denies Superinsect Science

Tom Philpott

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 3:25 PM PDT
Superinsect problem? Show me the evidence!
As the summer growing season draws to a close, 2011 is emerging as the year of the superinsect—the year pests officially developed resistance to Monsanto's genetically engineered (ostensibly) bug-killing corn.
While the revelation has given rise to alarming headlines, neither Monsanto nor the EPA, which regulates pesticides and pesticide-infused crops, can credibly claim surprise. Scientists have been warning that the EPA's rules for planting the crop were too lax to prevent resistance since before the agency approved the crop in 2003. And in 2008, research funded by Monsanto itself showed that resistance was an obvious danger.
And now those unheeded warnings are proving prescient. In late July, as I reported recently, scientists in Iowa documented the existence of corn rootworms (a ravenous pest that attacks the roots of corn plants) that can happily devour corn plants that were genetically tweaked specifically to kill them. Monsanto's corn, engineered to express a toxic gene from a bacterial insecticide called Bt, now accounts for 65 percent of the corn planted in the US.
The superinsect scourge has also arisen in Illinois and Minnesota. "Monsanto Co. (MON)’s insect-killing corn is toppling over in northwestern Illinois fields, a sign that rootworms outside of Iowa may have developed resistance to the genetically modified crop," reports Bloomberg. In southern Minnesota, adds Minnesota Public Radio, an entomologist has found corn rootworms thriving, Bt corn plants drooping, in fields.
Monsanto, for its part, is reacting to the news with a hearty "move along—nothing to see here!" "Our [Bt corn] is effective," Monsanto scientist Dusty Post insisted in an interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We don't have any demonstrated field resistance," he added, pretending away the Iowa study, to speak nothing those corn fields that are "toppling over" in Illinois and and Minnesota.
But the company's denials ring hollow for another reason, too. Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, alerted me to this 2008 study, conducted by University of Missouri researchers and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this precise question of Bt corn and rootworms.
The first thing to notice about the study is that Monsanto is listed in the acknowledgements as one of the "supporters." So this is Monsanto-funded research, meaning that he company would be hard-pressed to deny knowledge of it.
The researchers found that within three generations, rootworms munching Monsanto's Bt corn survived at the same rate as rootworms munching pesticide-free corn—meaning that complete resistance had been achieved. Takeaway message: rootworms are capable of evolving resistance to Monsanto's corn in "rapid" fashion.
But such concerns were nothing new by 2008. From the early days of Bt-based GMOs in the '90s, everyone—Monsanto, the EPA, independent scientists—agreed that farmers would have to plant a portion of their fields in non-Bt corn to control resistance. The idea was that, as bugs in the Bt portion of the field began to develop resistance, they would mate with non-resistant bugs from the so-called "refuge" patch, and the resistant trait would be kept recessive within the larger bug population and thus under control.
The contentious point involved how large these refuge patches would have to be. Monsanto insisted that 20 percent was adequate—that farmers could plant 80 percent of their corn crop with Bt seeds, and 20 percent in non-Bt seeds, and in so doing, avoid resistance.
But the majority of a panel of scientists convened by the EPA countered that the refuge requirement should be 50 percent—which would have, of course, eaten into Monsanto's profits by limiting its market. The reason for the scientists' concern, Freese explained, was that the corn plants express the Bt protein toxic to root worms at a low dose, meaning that a large portion of the rootworms survive contact with the plants, leaving them to pass on resistance to the next generation. With just 20 percent of fields planted in non-Bt crops, the scientists warned, resistant rootworms would eventually swamp non-resistant ones, and we'd have corn fields toppling over in the Midwest.
The minutes (PDF) of the committee's Nov. 6, 2002, meeting on the topic documents their concerns. The majority of the committee's members, the minutes state, "concluded that there was no practical or scientific justification for establishing a precedent for a 20 percent refuge at this time."
I asked Freese why Monsanto didn't simply engineer a high-dose version of its rootworm-targeted corn, since that would have lowered resistance pressure and thus addressed the panel's concerns. "Well, from the start, the EPA pushed for a higher dose for the toxin," he said. "My sense is that Monsanto came up with the best they could in terms of dose." Freese stressed that industry rhetoric to the side, the genetic modification of crops turns out to be a rather crude process: The companies can't always make the genes behave exactly as they want them to.
Nevertheless, the EPA registered the rootworm-targeted corn in 2003—and defied the scientific panel it had convened by putting the refuge requirement right where Monsanto wanted it: at 20 percent.
Jilted panel members, along with other prominent entomologists who hadn't been consulted by the EPA, greeted the decision with anger and disbelief, as this May 2003 Nature article (behind a pay wall but available here) shows."The EPA is calling for science-based regulation, but here that does not appear to be the case," one scientist who served on the panel told Nature. Another added: "This is like the FDA approving a drug with flimsy science and saying to then do the safety testing... I don't think that's how you do science."
Eight years later, Monsanto and the EPA have been proven wrong, and their scientific critics have been vindicated. Monsanto, meanwhile, booked robust profits selling its corn seeds without the burden of a 50 percent refuge requirement—and continues to do so today even as the tehnology fails.
So what happens now?



Fracking with our food: how gas drilling affects farming

This story originally appeared on Gilt Taste.
There's a stunning moment in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland, where a man touches a match to his running faucet -- to have it explode in a ball of fire. This is what hydraulic fracturing, a process of drilling for natural gas known as "fracking," is doing to many drinking water supplies across the country. But the other side of fracking -- what it might do to the food eaten by people living hundreds of miles from the nearest gas well -- has received little attention.
Unlike many in agriculture, cattle farmer Ken Jaffe has had a good decade. But lately he's been nervous, worried fracking will destroy his business. Jaffe's been good to his soil, and the land has been good to him. By rotating his herd of cattle to different pastures on his Catskills farm every day, he has restored the once-eroded land and built a successful business with his grass-fed and -finished beef. His Slope Farms sells meat to food co-ops, specialty meat markets, and high-end restaurants in New York City, about 160 miles to the southeast. "If you feed your micro-herd -- the bacteria and fungi in the soil -- then your big herd will do well, too," he said when I visited him recently on a cool, sunny afternoon.
Fracking well.A fracking well in Pennsylvania.Photo: RiverkeeperBut a seam of black rock lies nearly a mile beneath the topsoil he has so scrupulously nurtured, and the deposit contains enormous quantities of natural gas. Profit-hungry energy companies -- and the politicians that their campaign donations support -- are determined to exploit that resource, even though it could destroy the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers like Jaffe who have sprung up in New York City's vibrant, alternative food shed.
Energy companies liberate the gas, which is trapped in tiny bubble-like pockets in the rock, by forcefully injecting chemicals diluted with millions of gallons of water into the rock. This fracking ruptures the earth, creating fissures through which the gas passes -- along with a witch's brew of carcinogens, acutely poisonous heavy metals, and radioactive elements.
"For sustainable agriculture, fracking is a disaster," says Jaffe. The gas rush started in the South and West, but has spread to the East and now affects 34 states. Under much of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York lies a 400-million-year-old geographic formation called the Marcellus Shale. Although estimates vary, the shale may hold 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, enough to meet New York state's needs for 50 years. To see what fracking can do to food production, Jaffe has only to look at what has happened to some of his colleagues in nearby Pennsylvania, where the first fracked well came into production in 2005, and where there are now more than 1,500.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle belonging to Don and Carol Johnson, who farm about 175 miles southwest of Jaffe. The animals had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well that showed concentrations of chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of frightening consequences, from poisoned wells to sickened pets to debilitating illnesses.
The Marcellus Shale itself contains ethane, propane, butane, arsenic, cobalt, lead, chromium -- toxins all. Uranium, radium, and radon make the shale so radioactive that companies sometimes drop Geiger counters into wells to determine whether they have reached the gas-rich deposits. But those compounds are almost benign compared to the fracking fluids that drillers inject into the wells. At least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, but the companies are not required by law to divulge the ingredients, which are considered trade secrets. According to a report prepared for the Ground Water Protection Council, a national association of state agencies charged with protecting the water supply, a typical recipe [PDF] might include hydrochloric acid (which can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines), glutaraldehyde (normally used to sterilize medical equipment and linked to asthma, breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, and skin rashes), N,N-dimethyl formamide (a solvent that can cause birth defects and cancer), ethylene glycol (a lethal toxin), and benzene (a potent carcinogen). Some of these chemicals stay in the ground. Others are vented into the air. Many enter the water table or leach into ponds, streams, and rivers.
For the most part, state and federal governments have turned a blind eye to the problems brought about by fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that it has no jurisdiction to investigate matters related to food production, a contention disputed by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who wrote a report urging the EPA to study all issues associated with fracking. A concerned farmer who prefers not to be identified forwarded me an email written to him by Jim Riviere, the director of the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, a group of animal science professors that tracks incidents of chemical contamination in livestock. Riviere wrote that his group receives up to 10 requests per day from veterinarians dealing with exposures to contaminants, including the byproducts of fracking. Nonetheless, the United States Department of Agriculture has slashed funding to his group. "We are told by the newly reorganized USDA that chemical contamination is not their priority," Riviere wrote.
"The dangers of fracking to the food supply are not something that's been investigated very much," said Emily Wurgh of Food and Water Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. "We have been trying to get members of Congress to request studies into effects of fracking on agriculture, but we haven't gotten much traction."
Fracking is not a new technology. It was first put into commercial use in 1949 by Halliburton, and that company has made billions from employing the extraction method. But it really wasn't until 2004 that fracking really took off, the year that the EPA declared that fracking "posed little or no threat" to drinking water. Weston Wilson, a scientist and 30-year veteran of the agency, who sought whistleblower protection, emphatically disagreed, saying that the agency's official conclusions were "unsupportable" and that five of seven members of the review panel that made the decision had conflicts of interest. (Wilson has continued to work at the EPA, and continues to be publicly critical of fracking.)
A year later, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act with a "Halliburton loophole," a clause inserted at the request of Dick Cheney, who had been Halliburton's CEO before becoming vice president. The loophole specifically exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the CLEAR Act, and from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it unleashed the largest and most extensive drilling program in history, according to Josh Fox, the creator of the film Gasland.
In 2010, New York state imposed a moratorium on gas drilling, but if that were to be lifted, fracking would deal a triple whammy to Ken Jaffe's farm, and thousands more like it. (Compare a map of the Marcellus Shale with one of small organic farms.)
Back on his pasture, Jaffe gestured to a pond in a bowl-like valley surrounded by sloping pastures and hillsides of maples, white pines, and blossoming wild cherries and apple trees, that, along with wells on the property, provides water for his animals. Given the geography of the land, any chemical contamination seeping from the rock would go directly into Jaffe's water supply, poisoning his cattle.
And it's not just his herd that's vulnerable; all the plant life on his property would also be in danger. According to Jaffe, ozone is more lethal to crops than all other airborne pollutants combined, and of all crops, few are more susceptible to it than clover, a nutrient-rich feed that is critical to his method of sustainable cattle raising. While ozone is normally associated with automobile exhaust, fracking generates so much of it that Sublette Country, Wyo., has ozone levels as high as Los Angeles. This, despite the fact that it has fewer than 9,000 residents spread out over an area the size of Connecticut. What it does have is gas wells.
Even if his cows and his land would somehow remain unaffected by nearby wells, Jaffe's business would still likely suffer. Joe Holtz is manager of Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Co-op, which buys a cow a week from Jaffe (and upwards of $3 million products from other New York area farms). He says that his environmentally conscious organization would be forced to seek alternatives to New York meat and produce if fracking becomes commonplace. "If the air is fouled and the animals are drinking water that contains poisonous fracking chemicals, then products from those animals are going to have poisons," he told me. Given the progress that small, local farms have made in the region, he says, the decision to stop dealing with long-term suppliers would be hard. But he adds, "We would have to stop buying from them. There is no doubt in my mind."
A former contributing editor to Gourmet magazine, Barry Estabrook is the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and blogs at


Half a Million Lives Threatened by Land & Water Grabs for Plantations in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley

Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa

WASHINGTON - September 12 - A new Land Deal Brief from the Oakland Institute (OI) exposes that the controversial Gibe III hydroelectric project located in Ethiopia's Omo Valley, portrayed as development, is facilitating the take over of 350,000 hectares (ha) of land for sugar cane and cotton plantations and resulting in state-sponsored human rights violations, which have escaped international attention so far. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lower Omo Valley is home to approximately 200,000 agro-pastoralists made up of some of Africa's most unique and traditional ethnic groups, including the Kwegu, Bodi, Suri, Mursi, Nyangatom, Hamer, Karo, and Dassenach among others and contains two National Parks. The project also threatens an additional 300,000 agro-pastoralists who rely on the waters of the Lake Turkana in Kenya, fed by the Omo River.
In recent months, the Oakland Institute (OI) was contacted by a growing number of people on the ground who reported increased political pressure on the population and criminalization of dissent. Field work confirmed that abuses are on the increase. For instance, villagers are expected to voice immediate support of the sugar plantations, otherwise beatings (including the use of tasers), abuse, and general intimidation occurs. Ethiopian security forces are putting pressure on these populations to end their pastoral ways and settle in one place. The development of plantations will result in loss of access to essential grazing lands, areas of wild food harvest, loss of the ability to grow food along the Omo River, sacred/culturally significant lands, and water sources, with no indication of how lost livelihoods will be replaced.
OI's investigation shows that this travesty is taking place as the Ethiopian government continues to receive massive financial and political assistance from donor countries. For instance, the US is the single largest donor of aid to Ethiopia. The United States, thus cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the massive human rights violations resulting from land and water grabs in South Omo as well as in other regions of Ethiopia. Without significant and timely intervention, the rich cultural traditions of the indigenous people will be gone forever, raising immediate questions about their future livelihoods and identity. The numbers of people forced to relocate and lose their self-sufficiency, will undoubtedly rise due to this land development, joining the already swelling ranks of aid-dependent villagers in Ethiopia. As one Suri pastoralist puts it "This is the end of pastoralism in southern Ethiopia."
The Oakland Institute is a policy think tank whose mission is to increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic and environmental issues in both national and international forums.
September 12, 2011
1:01 PM
CONTACT: Oakland Institute
Anuradha Mittal
(510) 469-5228;
Frederic Mousseau
(510) 512-5468,


Hoebel labA sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain

A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. 

In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides. The researchers say the work sheds light on the factors contributing to obesity trends in the United States.

"Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn't true, at least under the conditions of our tests," said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. "When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they're becoming obese -- every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don't see this; they don't all gain extra weight."
Hoebel lab
A Princeton University research team, including (from left) undergraduate Elyse Powell, psychology professor Bart Hoebel, visiting research associate Nicole Avena and graduate student Miriam Bocarsly, has demonstrated that rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup -- a sweetener found in many popular sodas -- gain significantly more weight than those with access to water sweetened with table sugar, even when they consume the same number of calories. The work may have important implications for understanding obesity trends in the United States. (Photo: Denise Applewhite) Photos for news media
In results published online Feb. 26 by the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, the researchers from the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute reported on two experiments investigating the link between the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.

The first study showed that male rats given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar, or sucrose, in conjunction with the standard diet. The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, while the high-fructose corn syrup solution was half as concentrated as most sodas.

The second experiment -- the first long-term study of the effects of high-fructose corn syrup consumption on obesity in lab animals -- monitored weight gain, body fat and triglyceride levels in rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup over a period of six months. Compared to animals eating only rat chow, rats on a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup showed characteristic signs of a dangerous condition known in humans as the metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and augmented fat deposition, especially visceral fat around the belly. Male rats in particular ballooned in size: Animals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet.

"These rats aren't just getting fat; they're demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides," said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. "In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes." In addition to Hoebel and Bocarsly, the research team included Princeton undergraduate Elyse Powell and visiting research associate Nicole Avena, who was affiliated with Rockefeller University during the study and is now on the faculty at the University of Florida. The Princeton researchers note that they do not know yet why high-fructose corn syrup fed to rats in their study generated more triglycerides, and more body fat that resulted in obesity. 
When male rats were given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow, the animals gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar, or sucrose, along with the standard diet. The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, while the high-fructose corn syrup solution was half as concentrated as most sodas, including the orange soft drink shown here. (Photo: Denise Applewhite)
High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are both compounds that contain the simple sugars fructose and glucose, but there at least two clear differences between them. First, sucrose is composed of equal amounts of the two simple sugars -- it is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose -- but the typical high-fructose corn syrup used in this study features a slightly imbalanced ratio, containing 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose. Larger sugar molecules called higher saccharides make up the remaining 3 percent of the sweetener. Second, as a result of the manufacturing process for high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules in the sweetener are free and unbound, ready for absorption and utilization. In contrast, every fructose molecule in sucrose that comes from cane sugar or beet sugar is bound to a corresponding glucose molecule and must go through an extra metabolic step before it can be utilized.

This creates a fascinating puzzle. The rats in the Princeton study became obese by drinking high-fructose corn syrup, but not by drinking sucrose. The critical differences in appetite, metabolism and gene expression that underlie this phenomenon are yet to be discovered, but may relate to the fact that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles.

In the 40 years since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as a cost-effective sweetener in the American diet, rates of obesity in the U.S. have skyrocketed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1970, around 15 percent of the U.S. population met the definition for obesity; today, roughly one-third of the American adults are considered obese, the CDC reported. High-fructose corn syrup is found in a wide range of foods and beverages, including fruit juice, soda, cereal, bread, yogurt, ketchup and mayonnaise. On average, Americans consume 60 pounds of the sweetener per person every year.

"Our findings lend support to the theory that the excessive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup found in many beverages may be an important factor in the obesity epidemic," Avena said.

The new research complements previous work led by Hoebel and Avena demonstrating that sucrose can be addictive, having effects on the brain similar to some drugs of abuse. 

In the future, the team intends to explore how the animals respond to the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in conjunction with a high-fat diet -- the equivalent of a typical fast-food meal containing a hamburger, fries and soda -- and whether excessive high-fructose corn syrup consumption contributes to the diseases associated with obesity. Another step will be to study how fructose affects brain function in the control of appetite.

The research was supported by the U.S. Public Health Service.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


crop duster

It’s raining chemicalsDefault badge avatar for Steph Larsen

Photo: Accidental Ocelot
It starts with a distant, unmistakable whine, like a fly in another room you've been too lazy to swat. As the sound grows, I make sure the dog is inside, then grab the camera and head to the pasture.
Planes spraying fungicides have interrupted several quiet weekends on our small farm this summer. They're hard to ignore -- the buzz of their loud propellers is deafening, especially when they fly above our house to turn around. Over the corn fields they soar, sometimes only a few feet about the tips of the tassels, with white mist trailing nefariously behind. Depending on the direction of the breeze, I can often smell the chemicals from inside the house.
I hate every minute of it.
Once it's clear that the plane is in fact spraying the field beside our small farm, the most immediate concern is the integrity of the electric netting that keeps in our grass-fed sheep. There's a substantial voltage charging through the fence, but the sheep have been known to charge through it or jump over it when they're startled, creating a messy, scattered scene. The giant noisy yellow bird in the sky can definitely cause a breakout, and I don't blame them. Luckily -- this time -- the sheep stayed where they were supposed to, though the running they did trampled the grass they were supposed to eat for breakfast.
As long as the sheep are inside their paddock, the next concern on my list is chemical drift. Our farm is not certified organic, so we're not risking 3 years of lost revenue if the pilot misses or the wind shifts. Even so, the welfare of the animals is important, and I'm not excited at the prospect of potential respiratory problems if they get a lungful of pesticide.
Unfortunately, neither the company spraying the chemicals nor or our conventionally farming neighbors are required to tell us when they plan to fly over. Don't get me wrong, my neighbors are really good people, though we have different attitudes about farm chemicals. The corn harvest is their livelihood, and the fungicide producers say that protecting it from disease could mean an additional 15 bushels per acre of grain (although this claim is still contested). I think it probably doesn't occur to them to let us know, because they're surrounded by these materials all the time.
All the same, I'd like to maintain my choice to keep chemicals off my land and out of my body.
If they had told us about the timing of this latest plan to spray, we would have moved the girls and their babies closer to the barn, where they're less likely to be affected. Even when I know what they're spraying (in this case, a fungicide called Headline they assure me is harmless), I have to wonder what impact it could have when combined with all the other chemicals floating around in our environment.
My concern also extends to my own health, especially since we've watched them over-spray onto our grove. After they spray, I always wonder: how long will it be before I can safely romp in the woods with my dog? Did anything drift onto the garden I've been working so hard to keep chemical-free? Has anyone been spraying while we're not home?
After a conversation with staff at the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), however, I'm not sure there's much I can do. Liability is complicated, especially since we're not organic and cannot point directly to loss associated with chemical exposure. In order to make a solid case, we'd also have to do more than take pictures of planes - we'd have to make use of a "drift catcher," which samples air and measures for the presence of pesticides. Then we'd have to show that the presence of pesticides has directly hurt our  farm income -- and it hasn't.
I did look up Headline in PANNA's chemical database. It's not a human carcinogen or a cholinestrase inhibitor (a dangerous neurotoxin), but that was about all the site could tell me. Chemical companies aren't required to test for synergistic effects, where the presence of more than one chemical amplifies the toxicity of all of them. And of course, I have no idea whether it could affect my sheep. At least they're not pregnant yet.
The best we can do is write a letter to our neighbors and to the aerial sprayers they hire, asking them nicely to be very careful when spraying on us. I mean, I know they can be incredibly accurate if they want to be.
Before long, the planes move on to another field. The odor dissipates, the sound grows faint, and the sheep calm back down and start munching alfalfa again. Back inside, I wonder whether the pilots have seen us in the pasture snapping pictures and making our presence known. Do they think we're watching in awe at their daring, low-flying maneuvers, or that we're crazy for not trusting the chemical company's claims that it's safe? I also worry for the pilots and other chemical workers; I'm only exposed to this stuff for a few days a year, and from a distance. For their sakes, I hope that I am just paranoid.
Steph Larsen is currently the Assistant Director of Organizing for the Center for Rural Affairs. She lives in rural northeastern Nebraska where she aspires to grow food for her household and community. Previously she spent three years in Washington, D.C. advocating on food security and nutrition issues. Steph holds a master's degree in geography from her home state of Wisconsin and serves on the board of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.