Saturday, December 1, 2012


Fracking Our Food Supply  

By Elizabeth Royte

In a Brooklyn winery on a sultry July evening, an elegant crowd sips rosé and nibbles trout plucked from the gin-clear streams of upstate New York. The diners are here, with their checkbooks, to support a group called Chefs for the Marcellus, which works to protect the food shed upon which hundreds of regional farm-to-fork restaurants depend. The food shed is coincident with the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation that arcs northeast from West Virginia through Pennsylvania and into New York State. As everyone invited here knows, the region is both agriculturally and energy rich, with vast quantities of natural gas sequestered deep below its fertile fields and forests. 

In Pennsylvania, the oil and gas industry is already on a tear—drilling thousands of feet into ancient seabeds, then repeatedly fracturing (or “fracking”) these wells with millions of gallons of highly pressurized, chemically laced water, which shatters the surrounding shale and releases fossil fuels. New York, meanwhile, is on its own natural-resource tear, with hundreds of newly opened breweries, wineries, organic dairies and pastured livestock operations—all of them capitalizing on the metropolitan area’s hunger to localize its diet.
But there’s growing evidence that these two impulses, toward energy and food independence, may be at odds with each other. 
Tonight’s guests have heard about residential drinking wells tainted by fracking fluids in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. They’ve read about lingering rashes, nosebleeds and respiratory trauma in oil-patch communities, which are mostly rural, undeveloped, and lacking in political influence and economic prospects. The trout nibblers in the winery sympathize with the suffering of those communities. But their main concern tonight is a more insidious matter: the potential for drilling and fracking operations to contaminate our food. The early evidence from heavily fracked regions, especially from ranchers, is not reassuring. 
Jacki Schilke and her sixty cattle live in the top left corner of North Dakota, a windswept, golden-hued landscape in the heart of the Bakken Shale. Schilke’s neighbors love her black Angus beef, but she’s no longer sharing or eating it—not since fracking began on thirty-two oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch and five of her cows dropped dead. Schilke herself is in poor health. A handsome 53-year-old with a faded blond ponytail and direct blue eyes, she often feels lightheaded when she ventures outside. She limps and has chronic pain in her lungs, as well as rashes that have lingered for a year. Once, a visit to the barn ended with respiratory distress and a trip to the emergency room. Schilke also has back pain linked with overworked kidneys, and on some mornings she urinates a stream of blood.
Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes’ water.
State health and agriculture officials acknowledged Schilke’s air and water tests but told her she had nothing to worry about. Her doctors, however, diagnosed her with neurotoxic damage and constricted airways. “I realized that this place is killing me and my cattle,” Schilke says. She began using inhalers and a nebulizer, switched to bottled water, and quit eating her own beef and the vegetables from her garden. (Schilke sells her cattle only to buyers who will finish raising them outside the shale area, where she presumes that any chemical contamination will clear after a few months.) “My health improved,” Schilke says, “but I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing to this land?’”
Schilke’s story reminds us that farmers need clean water, clean air and clean soil to produce healthful food. But as the largest private landholders in shale areas across the nation, farmers are disproportionately being approached by energy companies eager to extract oil and gas from beneath their properties. Already, some are regretting it. 
Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first (and, so far, only) peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled case studies of twenty-four farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems. Exposed either accidentally or incidentally to fracking chemicals in the water or air, scores of animals have died. The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning. 
Exposed animals “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.” 
In Louisiana, seventeen cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid. (Most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.) In north central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately seventy cows died; the remainder produced eleven calves, of which only three survived. In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing waste pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: half their calves were born dead. The following year’s animal births were sexually skewed, with ten females and two males, instead of the usual 50-50 or 60-40 split. 
In addition to the cases documented by Bamberger, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed around well pads in New Mexico found petroleum residues in fifty-four of fifty-six animals. In North Dakota, wind-borne fly ash, which is used to solidify the waste from drilling holes and contains heavy metals, settled over a farm: one cow, which either inhaled or ingested the caustic dust, died, and a stock pond was contaminated with arsenic at double the accepted level for drinking water.
Cattle that die on the farm don’t make it into the nation’s food system. (Though they’re often rendered to make animal feed for chickens and pigs—yet another cause for concern.) But herd mates that appear healthy, despite being exposed to the same compounds, do: farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of fracking contaminants before middlemen purchase them. Bamberger and Oswald consider these animals sentinels for human health. “They’re outdoors all day long, so they’re constantly exposed to air, soil and groundwater, with no break to go to work or the supermarket,” Bamberger says. “And they have more frequent reproductive cycles, so we can see toxic effects much sooner than with humans.”
Fracking a single well requires up to 7 million gallons of water, plus an additional 400,000 gallons of additives, including lubricants, biocides, scale and rust inhibitors, solvents, foaming and defoaming agents, emulsifiers and de-emulsifiers, stabilizers and breakers. About 70 percent of the liquid that goes down a borehole eventually comes up—now further tainted with such deep-earth compounds as sodium, chloride, bromide, arsenic, barium, uranium, radium and radon. (These substances occur naturally, but many of them can cause illness if ingested or inhaled over time.) This super-salty “produced” water, or brine, can be stored on-site for reuse. Depending on state regulations, it can also be held in plastic-lined pits until it evaporates, is injected back into the earth, or gets hauled to municipal wastewater treatment plants, which aren’t designed to neutralize or sequester fracking chemicals (in other words, they’re discharged with effluent into nearby streams). 
At almost every stage of developing and operating an oil or gas well, chemicals and compounds can be introduced into the environment. Radioactive material above background levels has been detected in air, soil and water at or near gas-drilling sites. Volatile organic compounds—including benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene—waft from flares, engines, compressors, pipelines, flanges, open tanks, spills and ponds. (The good news: VOCs don’t accumulate in animals or plants. The bad news: inhalation exposure is linked to cancer and organ damage.) 
Underground, petrochemicals can migrate along fissures through abandoned or orphaned wells or leaky well casings (the oil and gas industry estimates that 60 percent of wells will leak over a thirty-year period). Brine can spill from holding ponds or pipelines. It can be spread, legally in some places, on roadways to control dust and melt ice. Truck drivers have also been known to illegally dump this liquid in creeks or fields, where animals can drink it or lick it from their fur.
Although energy companies don’t make a habit of telling potential lease signers about the environmental risks they might face, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires them to inform potential investors. In a 2008 filing, Cabot Industries cited “well site blowouts, cratering and explosions; equipment failures; uncontrolled flows of natural gas, oil or well fluids; fires; formations with abnormal pressures; pollution and other environmental risks.” In 2011, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids, with many more releases likely unreported. Between 2008 and 2011, drilling companies in Pennsylvania reported 2,392 violations of law that posed a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities. 
* * *
Schilke looks left and right, twice, for oncoming tanker trucks, then scoots down a gravel road in her camo-patterned four-wheeler. She parks alongside a leased pasture about a mile from her house and folds her body through a barbed-wire fence. “These guys are much healthier than those I’ve got at home,” she says, puffing as she hikes up a straw-colored hill. “There’s Judy…that’s Buttercup…those are my little bulls.” The black-faced animals turn to face her; some amble through the tall grass and present their foreheads for rubbing. “We’re upwind of the drill rigs here,” Schilke says. “They’re high enough to miss some of the road dust, and they’ve got good water.” Ever since a heater-treater unit, which separates oil, gas and brine, blew out on a drill pad a half-mile upwind of Schilke’s ranch, her own creek has been clogged with scummy growth, and it regularly burps up methane. “No one can tell me what’s going on,” she says. But since the blowout, her creek has failed to freeze, despite temperatures of forty below. (Testing found sulfate levels of 4,000 parts per million: the EPA’s health goal for sulfate is 250 parts per million.)
Schilke’s troubles began in the summer of 2010, when a crew working at this site continued to force drilling fluid down a well that had sprung a leak. Soon, Schilke’s cattle were limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves; they lost from sixty to eighty pounds in a week; and their tails mysteriously dropped off. (Lab rats exposed to the carcinogen 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent used in fracking, have
lost their tails, but a similar connection with cattle hasn’t been shown. In people, breathing, touching or consuming enough of the chemical can lead to pulmonary edema and coma.) 
An inveterate label reader who obsessively tracks her animals’ nutritional intake, Schilke couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Neither could local veterinarians. She nursed individual cows for weeks and, with much sorrow, put a $5,000 bull out of its misery with a bullet. Upon examination, the animal’s liver was found to be full of tunnels and its lungs congested with pneumonia. Before the year was out, five cows had died, in addition to several cats and two dogs. (A feline autopsy came back inconclusive, but subsequent hair testing of cows, cats and dogs revealed sulfate levels high enough to cause polio in cattle.) Inside Schilke’s house today, where the china cabinets are kept empty for fear of a shattering drill-site explosion, nearly a dozen cats sneeze and cough, some with their heads tilted at a creepy angle. 
Before the drilling started, two cars a day traveled down Schilke’s gravel road. Now, it’s 300 trucks hauling sand, fresh water, wastewater, chemicals, drill cuttings and drilling equipment. Most of the tankers are placarded for hazardous or radioactive material. Drilling and fracking a single well requires 2,000 truck trips, and each pass of a vehicle sends a cyclone of dust and exhaust fumes into the air. Mailbox numbers are obliterated, conversations are choked off, and animals die of “dust pneumonia.” (More formally known as bovine respiratory disease, the illness is associated with viral, fungal and bacterial infection.) 
Ordinarily, Schilke hauls her calves to auction when they’re eight months old. “Buyers come from everywhere for Dakota cows,” she says. The animals are then raised on pasture or in feedlots until they are big enough for slaughter. No longer Schilke cattle, they’re soon part of the commodity food system: anonymous steaks and chops on supermarket shelves. Now, Schilke is diffident about selling her animals. “I could get good money for these steers,” she says, cocking her head toward a pair of sleek adolescents. “They seem to be in very good shape and should have been butchered. But I won’t sell them because I don’t know if they’re OK.”
* * *
Nor does anyone else. By design, secrecy shrouds the hydrofracking process, casting a shadow that extends over consumers’ right to know if their food is safe. Federal loopholes crafted under former Vice President Dick Cheney have exempted energy companies from key provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, the Toxics Release Inventory, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a full review of actions that may cause significant environmental impacts. If scientists and citizens can’t find out precisely what is in drilling or fracking fluids or air emissions at any given time, it’s difficult to test whether any contaminants have migrated into the water, soil or food—and whether they can harm humans. It gets even more complicated: without information on the interactions between these chemicals and others already existing in the environment, an animal’s cause of death, Bamberger says, “is anyone’s guess.” 
Fracking proponents criticize Bamberger and Oswald’s paper as a political, not a scientific, document. “They used anonymous sources, so no one can verify what they said,” Steve Everley, of the industry lobby group Energy In Depth, says. The authors didn’t provide a scientific assessment of impacts—testing what quaternary ammonium compounds might do to cows that drink it, for example—so treating their findings as scientific, he continues, “is laughable at best, and dangerous for public debate at worst.” (Bamberger and Oswald acknowledge this lack of scientific assessment and blame the dearth of funding for fracking research and the industry’s use of nondisclosure agreements.)
No one doubts that fracking fluids have the potential to do serious harm. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst and former director of the World Wildlife Fund’s wildlife and contaminants program, identified 632 chemicals used in
natural-gas production. More than 75 percent of them, she said, could affect sensory organs and the respiratory and
gastrointestinal systems; 40 to 50 percent have potential impacts on the kidneys and on the nervous, immune and
cardiovascular systems; 37 percent act on the hormone system; and 25 percent are linked with cancer or mutations.
Thanks to public pressure, several states have started to tighten regulations on the cement casings used to line wells, and the Obama administration recently required energy companies to disclose, on the industry-sponsored website fracfocus
.org, the fracking chemicals used on public land. (States regulate fracking on private land and set different requirements.) Still, information about quantities and concentrations of the chemicals remains secret, as do compounds considered proprietary. Further, no state requires a company to disclose its ingredients until a fracking job is complete. At that point, it’s easy to blame the presence of toxins in groundwater on a landowner’s use of pesticides, fertilizers or even farm equipment. 
Clearly, the technology to extract gas from shale has advanced faster, and with a lot more public funding, than has the study of its various effects. To date, there have been no systematic, peer-reviewed, long-term studies of the health effects of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production (one short-term, peer-reviewed study found that fracking emissions may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for people living near drill sites). And the risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse. 
“Different plants take up different compounds,” says John Stolz, an environmental microbiologist at Duquesne University. For example, rice and potatoes take up arsenic from water, but tomatoes don’t. Sunflowers and rape take up uranium from soil, but it’s unknown if grasses do. “There are a variety of organic compounds, metals and radioactive material that are of human health concern when livestock meat or milk is ingested,” says Motoko Mukai, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. These “compounds accumulate in the fat and are excreted into milk. Some compounds are persistent and do not get metabolized easily.” 
Veterinarians don’t know how long the chemicals may remain in animals, and the Food Safety Inspection Service, part of the US Department of Agriculture, isn’t looking for them in carcasses. Inspectors in slaughterhouses examine organs only if they look diseased. “It’s gross appearance, not microscopic,” Bamberger says of the inspections—which means that animals either tainted or sickened by those chemicals could enter the food chain undetected.
“The USDA focuses mostly on pathogens and pesticide residues,” says Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch. “We need to do risk assessments for these fracking chemicals and study tolerance levels.” The process, he adds, could take more than five years. In the meantime, fractivists are passing around a food-pyramid chart that depicts chemicals moving from plants into animals, from animals into people, and from people into… zombies. 
* * *
The relatively small number of animals reported sick or dead invites the question: If oil and gas operations are so risky, why aren’t there more cases? There likely are, but few scientists are looking for them. (“Who’s got the money to study this?” Colborn asks rhetorically.) Rural vets won’t speak up for fear of retaliation. And farmers aren’t talking for myriad reasons: some receive royalty checks from the energy companies (either by choice or because the previous landowner leased their farm’s mineral rights); some have signed nondisclosure agreements after receiving a financial settlement; and some are in active litigation. Some farmers fear retribution from community members with leases;
others don’t want to fall afoul of “food disparagement” laws
or get sued by an oil company for defamation (as happened with one Texan after video of his flame-spouting garden hose was posted on the Internet. The oil company won; the
homeowner is appealing).
And many would simply rather not know what’s going on. “It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” says rancher Dennis Bauste, of Trenton Lake, North Dakota. “I’m gonna sell my calves, and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipeout, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.” Ceylon Feiring, an area vet, concurs. “We’re just waiting for a wreck to happen with someone’s cattle,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just one-offs”—a sick cow here and a dead goat there, easy for regulators, vets and even farmers to shrug off. 
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association takes no position on fracking, nor has it heard from members either concerned by or in favor of the process. And yet it’s ranchers and farmers—many of them industry-supporting conservatives—who are, increasingly, telling their stories to the media and risking all. These are the people who have watched helplessly as their livestock suffer and die. “It’s not our breeding or nutrition destroying these animals,” Schilke says, her voice rising in anger. “It’s the oilfield industry.” 
However, some institutions that specialize in risk have started to connect the dots. Nationwide Mutual Insurance, which sells agricultural insurance, recently announced that it would not cover damages related to fracking. Rabobank, the world’s largest agricultural bank, reportedly no longer sells mortgages to farmers with gas leases. And in the boldest move yet by a government official, Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for studies that “include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals.” While the EPA is in the midst of a $1.9 million study of fracking’s impact on water, no government agency has taken up Portier’s challenge to study plants and animals. 
* * *
The possibility of chemical contamination aside, oil and gas operations have already affected food producers. “I lost six acres of hayfields when the gas company put roads in,” says Terry Greenwood, a rancher in western Pennsylvania. “Now I have to buy more feed for my cattle.” (Like other farmers hurt by drilling and fracking, he still pays taxes on his unproductive land.) Others have lost the use of stock ponds or creeks to brine spills. 
“We’ve got 12,000 wells in the Bakken, and they each take up six acres,” says Mark Trechock, former director of the Dakota Resource Council. “That’s 72,000 acres right there, without counting the waste facilities, access roads, stored equipment and man camps that go along with the wells.” Before the drilling boom, that land might have produced durum wheat, barley, oats, canola, flax, sunflowers, pinto beans, lentils and peas. In Pennsylvania, where nearly 6,500 wells have been drilled since 2000, the Nature Conservancy estimates that thirty acres are directly or indirectly affected for every well pad. 
East of the Rockies, intensive drilling and fracking have pushed levels of smog, or ground-level ozone, higher than those of Los Angeles. Ozone significantly diminishes crop yields and reduces the nutritional value of forage. Flaring of raw gas can acidify soil and send fine particulate matter into the air; long-term exposure to this material has been linked to human heart and lung diseases and disruption to the endocrine system. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized standards that require reductions in airborne emissions from gas wells, although the industry has more than two years to comply.
Besides clean air, farmers need clean water—lots of it. But some farmers now find themselves competing with energy companies for this increasingly precious resource. At water auctions in Colorado, the oil and gas industry has paid utilities up to twenty times the price that farmers typically pay. In Wyoming, ranchers have switched from raising beef to selling their water. Unwilling to risk her animals’ health to creek water that’s possibly tainted, Schilke spent $4,000 last summer hauling safe water from town to her ranch. “I’d wait in line for hours,” she says, “usually behind tanker trucks buying water to frack wells.”  
* * *
Given the absence of studies on the impacts of drilling and fracking in plants and animals, as well as inadequate inspection and scant traceability in the food chain, it’s hard to know what level of risk consumers face when drinking milk or eating meat or vegetables produced in a frack zone. Unless, of course, you’re Jacki Schilke, and you feel marginally healthier when you quit eating the food that you produced downwind or downstream from drill rigs. But many consumers—those intensely interested in where and how their food is grown—aren’t waiting for hard data to tell them what is or isn’t safe. For them, the perception of pollution is just as bad as the real thing. Ken Jaffe, who raises grass-fed cattle in upstate New York, says, “My beef sells itself. My farm is pristine. But a restaurant doesn’t want to visit and see a drill pad on the horizon.” 
Nor do the 16,200 members of the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, which buys one cow per week from Jaffe. “If hydrofracking is allowed in New York State, the co-op will have to stop buying from farms anywhere near the drilling because of fears of contamination,” says Joe Holtz, general manager of the co-op. That’s $4 million in direct sales, with economic multipliers up and down the local food chain, affecting seed houses, creameries, equipment manufacturers and so on. 
Already, wary farmers in the Marcellus are seeking land away from the shale. The outward migration is simultaneously raising prices for good farmland in the Hudson River Valley, which lies outside the shale zone, and depressing the price of land over the Marcellus. According to John Bingham, an organic farmer in upstate New York who is involved in regional planning, lower prices entice absentee investors to buy up farmland and gain favorable “farm rate” tax breaks, even as they speculate on the gas boom. “Fracking is not a healthy development for food security in regions near fracking or away from it,” Bingham concludes. 
Only recently has the Northeast’s local-foods movement reached a critical mass, to the point where colleges and caterers trip over themselves in the quest for locally sourced and sustainably grown products. (New York has the fourth-highest number of organic farms in the nation.) But the movement’s lofty ideals could turn out to be, in shale-gas areas, a double-edged sword. “People at the farmers’ market are starting to ask exactly where this food comes from,” says Stephen Cleghorn, a Pennsylvania goat farmer.
With a watchful eye on Pennsylvania’s turmoil, many New York farmers have started to test their water pre-emptively, in the event that Governor Andrew Cuomo lifts the state’s current moratorium on fracking. And in the commercial kitchens of a city obsessed with the provenance of its prosciutto, chefs like Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez, a founder of Chefs for the Marcellus and the executive pastry chef at Manhattan’s Print Restaurant, are keeping careful tabs on their regional suppliers.
“I have a map of the Marcellus and my farmers on my office wall,” Carlucci-Rodriguez says at the Brooklyn winery event. “So far, I haven’t stopped buying from any- one. But I’m a believer in the precautionary principle.” She nods to a colleague who’s dishing up summer squash with peach slices and ricotta. “We shouldn’t have to be defending our land and water,” she says with a sigh. “We should be feeding people.”
This article was published at NationofChange at: All rights are reserved.


Cincinnati Passes Resolution
Requiring GE Food Labeling

Food & Water Watch  November 16, 2012

Yesterday, the city of Cincinnati became the first in Ohio to pass a resolution to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, citing that consumers should have the right to know what is in their food. The consumer advocacy organization Food & Water Watchbrought the resolution to city council as a part of their “Let Me Decide” campaign to make GE labeling the law. GE foods have not been fully tested for their impacts on human health and the environment.

Alison Auciello, Ohio-based organizer for Food & Water Watch said, “genetically engineered foods are potentially unsafe, and consumers should have the right to decide for themselves if they want to eat GE foods. It took regulation to get food processors to label ingredients and nutrition facts on labels, and now we’re calling for federal lawmakers to require the labeling of GE food.”

The majority of processed foods are genetically engineered, but unlike fat, sodium and sugar content, labels do not disclose which foods contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Biotechnology companies submit their own safety-testing data, and independent research is limited on GE foods because licensing agreements that control the use of patented seeds prohibit cultivation for research purposes.

Genetically engineered foods are made by inserting the genetic material from one organism into another to achieve a desired characteristic such as resistance to herbicides or pesticides. Roundup Ready varieties of corn, for example, are engineered to withstand treatment with the Roundup herbicide. But, the unintended consequence of increased use of herbicides has been a rise in “superweeds,” aggressive weed species like ragweed and pigweed that have become immune to Roundup.

Cincinnati Council Member and resolution co-sponsor Wendell Young said, “this is about transparency, about ensuring that people can make informed choices about what they feed themselves and their families. Consumers have a right to know what is in their food, especially until we know for certain whether genetically engineered foods are truly safe.”

Some of the independent research that has been conducted on biotech crops has revealed troubling health implications, including deteriorating liver and kidney function and impaired embryonic development. However, the Food and Drug Administration has no way to track adverse health effects in people consuming GE foods, and because there is no requirement for labeling GE ingredients, consumers don’t know when they are eating them.

“As consumers, we have a fundamental right to know about the safety of the food we’re eating,” said Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who co-sponsored the resolution. “With so much still unknown about the long-term risks of genetically-engineered products to our health and the environment, labeling of these foods is just common sense.”

Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from; keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes; protect the environmental quality of oceans; force government to do its job protecting citizens; and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.


Syngenta corporatte merger shopping
GroundTruth Blog

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman's picture Syngenta's shopping spree not limited to Black Friday

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
Over last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, many Americans will have paused to savor the blessings of health, family and community. Some of us will have binged on too much turkey and consumption-crazed Black Friday sales. But for the world’s biggest pesticide and seed biotech companies, the entire year has been one long feeding frenzy. This frenzy culminated in recent months in a multi-billion dollar spending spree in which, reports Bloomberg, three of the "Big 6" pesticide companies (Syngenta, Bayer and BASF) together shelled out over two billion dollars to acquire biopesticide and other “green product” companies.  
Concerns over corporate "greenwashing" notwithstanding, the larger issue here is a new frontier of market-making and corporate consolidation from the people who brought us "DDT is good for me" commercials. 
Bayer CropScience recently spent half a billion dollars to acquire biopesticide company, AgraQuest, while BASF spent over one billion dollars to buy up biological seed treatment company, Becker Underwood. Not to be left out, Syngenta — the largest of the world’s Big 6 pesticide companies—snapped up the biopesticide company, Pasteuria Bioscience. More significantly, Syngenta is now preparing to spend over half a billion dollars to acquire DevGen, a biotech company that has been “developing a proprietary portfolio of traits” in rice, based on the controversial gene-silencing technologies known as RNA interference (RNAi), used in insect control (more on that below).

Pesticide monopolies not enough

Explaining the pesticide industry’s “spending boom,” Chemical and Engineering News notes, “In contrast to tepid growth projections for traditional chemical markets, the market for crop protection products and seeds is expected to rise steadily over the next five years.”
What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s a consolidation of the entire food chain”— Robert Fraley, Co-President, Monsanto’s Agricultural Sector
In other words, chemical pesticide markets have been effectively monopolized and industry is moving onto more promising frontiers. And corporate mergers and acquisitions — in this case of smaller “crop protection” companies (i.e. makers of pesticides), continue to be a tried and true way to consolidate agricultural market control.
And, as I have been saying, GE seed technology is the secret growth engine of the pesticide industry. If in the process, you can buy up biotech companies like DevGen that enable control over plant genetics critical to the world’s food needs (such as rice), so much the better.

Silencing of the genes

With its latest acquisition, Syngenta has moved decisively into the controversial application of RNA interference (RNAi) in pest control. RNAi is a natural process that takes place within living cells, in which an enzyme triggers a chain of reactions ultimately resulting in the moderation or silencing of gene expression. Companies like DevGen have been experimenting with developing RNAi sprays and RNAi-based biotech traits in order to control insect pests.
If all goes according to plan, when target insects feed on plants sprayed with the company’s RNAi spray, the product triggers RNA interference, effectively silencing expression of one or more genes critical to the insect’s survival (or fertility). Much like GE seed technology however, the frequency with which "all goes according to plan" once these genetic experiments make their way from petri dish out into the mixed and messy world of farming is an open question. 
Recent experiments suggest that plants genetically engineered to contain double-stranded RNA can — if eaten by the target insect — also silence gene expression in that insect. (For the gene-wonks amongst you, the enzyme cleaves the dsRNA into short interfering RNA, or siRNA, which after several more steps, basically shuts down the target gene).
As a technology, this all sounds quite intriguing. But there is so much we don’t know about the real-world side effects of engineering food plants that can turn off genes in animals that eat those plants. One potential problem is that these manipulations of genetic material don't seem to respect the species barrier, and may in fact cross generations.  

Cool technology, but will it behave?

As a recent study from China’s Nanjing University reported in Nature, rice microRNA (an RNA form that, like siRNA, is central to RNA interference) not only survived digestion by humans, but also altered gene regulation in other parts of the body (in this case, affecting cholesterol function). Similarly, in mice, a rice microRNA was found to move from the gut to other organs, where it regulated gene expression and affected the mice's physiological condition.
In an interview with Grist, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman pointed out the relevance of the Chinese study’s startling findings to the pesticide industry’s recent discovery of RNAi application in pest control. Since humans and insects actually share a great deal of DNA, it’s entirely possible — says Gurian-Sherman — that the use of microRNA in gene silencing pest control technologies might also alter gene expression in humans (not to mention in other non-target organisms) in unpredictable ways.
Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain we cannot count on corporate “due diligence” when it comes to testing the potential long-term health and environmental harms of their products. What the industry's latest spending spree does show us, however, is the relentless drive of the Big 6 pesticide companies to expand and deepen their control over how agriculture happens — without apparent regard for whether or not their products actually behave as promised in the field.


Friday, November 30, 2012


By Alex Daley | 11/26/12
Last month, a group of Australian scientists published a warning to the citizens of the country, and of the world, who collectively gobble up some $34 billion annually of its agricultural exports. The warning concerned the safety of a new type of wheat.
As Australia’s number-one export, a $6-billion annual industry, and the most-consumed grain locally, wheat is of the utmost importance to the country. A serious safety risk from wheat — a mad wheat disease of sorts — would have disastrous effects for the country and for its customers.
Which is why the alarm bells are being rung over a new variety of wheat being ushered toward production by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) of Australia. In a sense, the crop is little different than the wide variety of modern genetically modified foods. A sequence of the plant’s genes has been turned off to change the wheat’s natural behavior a bit, to make it more commercially viable (hardier, higher yielding, slower decaying, etc.).
What’s really different this time — and what has Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury, NZ, and Associate Professor Judy Carman, a biochemist at Flinders University in Australia, holding press conferences to garner attention to the subject — is the technique employed to effectuate the genetic change. It doesn’t modify the genes of the wheat plants in question; instead, a specialized gene blocker interferes with the natural action of the genes.
The process at issue, dubbed RNA interference or RNAi for short, has been a hotbed of research activity ever since the Nobel Prize-winning 1997 research paper that described the process. It is one of a number of so-called “antisense” technologies that help suppress natural genetic expression and provide a mechanism for suppressing undesirable genetic behaviors.
RNAi’s appeal is simple: it can potentially provide a temporary, reversible “off switch” for genes. Unlike most other genetic modification techniques, it doesn’t require making permanent changes to the underlying genome of the target. Instead, specialized siRNAs — chemical DNA blockers based on the same mechanism our own bodies use to temporarily turn genes on and off as needed — are delivered into the target organism and act to block the messages cells use to express a particular gene. When those messages meet with their chemical opposites, they turn inert. And when all of the siRNA is used up, the effect wears off.
The new wheat is in early-stage field trials (i.e., it’s been planted to grow somewhere, but has not yet been tested for human consumption), part of a multi-year process on its way to potential approval and not unlike the rigorous process many drugs go through. The researchers conducting this trial are using RNAi to turn down the production of glycogen. They are targeting the production of the wheat branching enzyme which, if suppressed, would result in a much lower starch level for the wheat. The result would be a grain with a lower glycemic index — i.e., healthier wheat.
This is a noble goal. However, Professors Heinemann and Carman warn, there’s a risk that the gene-silencing done to these plants might make its way into humans and wreak havoc on our bodies. In their press conference and subsequent papers, they describe the possibility that the siRNA molecules — which are pretty hardy little chemicals and not easily gotten rid of — could wind up interacting with our RNA.
If their theories prove true, the results might be as bad as mimicking glycogen storage disease IV, a super-rare genetic disorder which almost always leads to early childhood death.
Although Heinemann and Carman cannot provide rock-solid proof that the new wheat is harmful, they have produced a series of opinion papers that point to the possibilities that could happen if a number of criteria are met:
·         If the siRNAs remain in the wheat in transferrable form, in large quantities, when the grain makes it to your plate. And…
·         If the siRNA molecules interfere with the somewhat different but largely similar human branching enzyme as well…
Then the wheat might cause very severe adverse reactions in humans.
Opinion papers like this — while not to be confused with conclusions resulting from solid research — are a critically important part of the scientific process. Professors Carman and Heinemann provide a very important public good in challenging the strength of the due-diligence process for RNAi’s use in agriculture.
However, we’ll have to wait until the data come back from the numerous scientific studies being conducted at government labs, universities, and in the research facilities of commercial agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill — to know if this wheat variety would in fact result in a dietary apocalypse.
But if the history of modern agriculture can teach us anything, it’s that GMO foods appear to have had a huge net positive effect on the global economy and our lives. Not only have they not killed us, in many ways GMO foods have been responsible for the massive increases in public health and quality of life around the world.
Nevertheless, the debate over genetically modified (GM) food is a heated one. Few contest that we are working in somewhat murky waters when it comes to genetically modified anything. At issue, really, is the question of whether we are prepared to use the technologies we’ve discovered.
In other words, are we the equivalent of a herd of monkeys armed with bazookas, unable to comprehend the sheer destructive power we possess yet perfectly capable of pulling the trigger?
Or do we simply face the same type of daunting intellectual challenge as those who discovered fire, electricity, or even penicillin, at a time when the tools to fully understand how they worked had not yet been conceived of?
In all of those cases, we were able to probe, study, and learn the mysteries of these incredible discoveries over time. Sure, there were certainly costly mistakes along the way. But we were also able to make great use of them to advance civilization long before we fully understood how they worked at a scientific level.
Much is the same in the study and practical use of GM foods.
While the fundamentals of DNA have been well understood for decades, we are still in the process of uncovering many of the inner workings of what is arguably the single most advanced form of programming humans have ever encountered. It is still very much a rapidly evolving science to this day.
While RNAi is not a panacea for GMO scientists — it serves as an off switch, but cannot add new traits nor even turn on dormant ones — the dawn of antisense techniques is likely to mean an even further acceleration of the science of genetic meddling in agriculture. Its tools are more precise even than many of the most recent permanent genetic-modification methods. And the temporary nature of the technique — the ability to apply it selectively as needed, versus breeding it directly into plants which may not benefit from the change decades on — is sure to please farmers, and maybe even consumers as well.
That is, unless the scientists in Australia are proven correct, and the siRNAs used in experiments today make their way into humans and affect the same genetic functions in us as they do in the plants. The science behind their assertions still needs a great deal of testing.
Still, their perspective is important food for thought… and likely fuel for much more debate to come. One thing is sure: the GMO food train left the station nearly a century ago and is now a very big business that will continue to grow and to innovate, using RNAi and other techniques to come.


Maine farmers, others have court date to refute Monsanto ruling 
At issue in the appeal is Monsanto's right to hold seed patents and farmers' need to be exempt from lawsuits.

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer nOV 23, 2012

A lawsuit filed by a nationwide consortium of farmers against the chemical giant Monsanto concerning genetically modified seeds is headed for court again.

Jim Gerritsen, Maine potato-seed farmer and president of the national Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., will hear oral arguments in the case on Jan. 10 and is expected to rule within three months of the hearing.

The case questions Monsanto's legal basis for genetically modified seed patents, and seeks blanket protection from patent-infringement lawsuits for farmers, should their crops be contaminated through unwanted pollination by Monsanto's genetically altered plants. The plaintiffs include Maine farmers.

By law, certified organic crops cannot contain genetically modified material.

While most of the plaintiffs are organic farmers, some are conventional farmers who farm with seed that hasn't been genetically modified and face the same risks of contamination.

Genetically modified seeds are protected by patents. Farmers who grow genetically modified crops must buy new seeds each year, and cannot use traditional seed-saving practices.

In February, U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald of the Southern District of New York dismissed the case brought by the national, nonprofit Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, which is based in Washington, Maine, and whose board president is a Maine potato-seed farmer, Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater.

The trade association seeks to have the judgment reversed and the case sent back to federal district court. Monsanto will argue that Buchwald's decision should stand.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2011 by the trade association and more than 70 agricultural and consumer groups, with legal backing from the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to reduce abuses of the U.S. patent system.

In dismissing the case, Buchwald acknowledged that some of the plaintiffs had stopped growing certain crops for fear of being sued, but ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.

The judge also called the farmers' claims that they could be subject to patent-infringement lawsuits "unsubstantiated" because "not one single plaintiff claims to have been so threatened."

The plaintiffs claim that Buchwald ignored Supreme Court precedent relating to intellectual property law and patent infringement litigation.

Calling the case one of basic property rights, Gerritsen said, "what our briefs show is that (Buchwald) committed certain legal and factual errors that led her to the wrong conclusion and led her to dismiss the case."

The trade association's brief names specific farmers who have stopped growing certain crops for fear of contamination and subsequent lawsuits by Monsanto. The brief also names plaintiffs, including Maine-based Fedco Seeds, that have discovered unwanted genetic contamination when they have sent their seed out for third-party testing.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has maintained throughout the case that it doesn't sue farmers whose crops are inadvertently contaminated by its genetically modified seeds. Representatives of Monsanto did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.

In a statement issued after Buchwald dismissed the lawsuit, Monsanto said the judge's ruling "makes it clear that there was neither a history of behavior nor a reasonable likelihood that Monsanto would pursue patent infringement matters against farmers who have no interest in using the company's patented seed products."

According to a report from the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., Monsanto annually investigates about 500 farmers for possible patent infringement. The same report says Monsanto sued 144 farmers from 1997 to 2010, and settled 700 cases out of court in that period.

The trade association is raising money to enable its member farmers to go to Washington, D.C., to hear the oral arguments in January. During oral arguments this year in New York, 60 farmers from more than 20 states and Canadian provinces filled the courtroom.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


Monday, November 26, 2012


gmopatent 255x159 Scientist: Many Pro GMO Corporate Biologists Own GMO Patents, in Bed with Monsanto

Scientist: Many Pro-GMO Corporate Biologists Own GMO Patents, in Bed with Monsanto

Anthony Gucciardi
The lead researcher behind the monumental study that linked Monsanto’s GMOs and best-selling herbicide Roundup to tumor development and early death is now blowing the whistle on many corporate scientists who are not just close to Monsanto and profit-harvesting GMO crops — many of them actually have or are seeking their own GMO patents. These patents, of course, enable them to make bountiful amounts of cash. Other corporate scientists are on (or ‘were’ at one point) Monsanto’s pay roll, including former Monsanto executive turned Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA Michael R. Taylor.
Dr. Gilles-Eric Séralini, a French scientists who has been under assault from Monsanto and pro-GMO scientists, was responsible for perhaps the largest awakening over the dangers of Monsanto’s GMO foods that we have ever seen. Not only did the public begin to further recognize the existence and threat of GMOs thanks to his research, but numerous countries like Russia and others actually enacted a suspension on the import of genetically modified maize due to public health concerns.
This, of course, upset the Monsanto-funded corporate scientists who proverbially ‘unleashed the dogs’ on Dr. Séralini. Even Monsanto released a comment, stating that the lifelong rat study wasn’t sufficient to substantiate any real health concerns. The company itself, amazingly, only conducted a 90 day trial period for its GMOs before unleashing them on the public.

Previous Peer-Reviewed Evidence Highlighting GMO Danger Ignored by ‘Scientists’

It’s important to remember that Séralini’s work may be the most popular within the media, but it’s not the only research linking GMOs and Roundup to serious health effects. Monsanto and fellow goons failed to mention this truth, especially the fact that Monsanto’s Roundup has been associated with over 29 negative health conditions according to peer-reviewed studies available on PubMed. And these conditions are nothing minor. Health effects linked to Roundup include:
  • Cancer
  • Parkinson’s
  • DNA damage
  • Low testosterone
  • Liver damage
  • Infertility
  • Endocrine disease
These are serious disorders that result from the very Roundup that is used on crops by farmers worldwide before hitting your dinner table. In fact an increased amount of usage is now needed thanks to ineffective GMO crops that are now being eaten by mutated superbugs that have developed a resistance to Monsanto’s built-in GMO pesticides. Roundup covered crops that eventually land on dinner tables worldwide.
But perhaps very few scientists around the globe actually dare speak about these dangers due to the overwhelming political influence Monsanto and other biotech companies have over nations around the globe. We know thanks to 2007 WikiLeaks cables that not only are most if not all U.S. ambassadors on Monsanto payroll, but that prominent U.S. political figures have threatened nations who oppose Monsanto with ‘military-style trade wars’. A threat that has managed to strike fear into many nations who would not risk massive retaliation from the United States.
Now, however, the awareness has grown stronger than ever before and consumers worldwide are taking a stand. A stand that countries around the globe can no longer ignore, nor can corrupt corporate scientists dissipate through phony bought-and-paid-for garbage science.



What’s at Stake for Agriculture in
COP 18?

by Shefali Sharma
Published on Monday, November 26, 2012 by Think Forward blog/ IATP
The biggest threat for agriculture at the 18th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is the certain likelihood (oxymoron intended) of “non-decisions” for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires. Bill McKibben’s widely circulated article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math tells us in starkly clear terms what we need to do to set things right:
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
McKibben lays out in simple terms what we policy advocates and scientists have failed to do thus far: convince the average citizen in the industrialized world why immediate, ambitious and drastic cuts in our fossil fuel use is necessary to prevent the deadliest impacts of global warming, not just for future generations, but for this generation. Yet, government representatives will be going to the climate talks prepared to take years to cobble together a legally binding deal to cut emissions worth the paper they sign. 
We are nearly three-quarters of the way to using the maximum gigatons of carbon scientists thought we could “safely” use until 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate impacts. The time to turn this around is the next sixteen years—this means we must hit our peak fossil fuel use within the next six to seven years, and this is exactly what governments will be discussing in Doha: what to do in the next six to seven years on climate change. For all governments going to the COP, and especially for the United States, this is neither an election issue nor one that will result in a political crisis. Hurricane Sandy might have done more to convince Americans (on the East Coast, anyway) of the consequences of non-action than anything else has to date. 
Devastation of agriculture and food systems worldwide, of course, will be one major calamity of this non-action. We already see it in the droughts in the Midwest, the floods in Pakistan and Australia and the erratic weather patterns that are making it difficult for food growers today. All this with just a .8-degree temperature rise in the past century. Scientists now know that even a total two degree temperature rise (the number governments have finally agreed on as the global limit) is too much. 
Yet, the discussions in Doha around agriculture are surprisingly not about the devastation of non-action on food systems. The COP 18 discussions will be about how to address agriculture in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA), a technical body that provides advice and responds to scientific, technological and methodological questions from the COP and the Kyoto Protocol Parties. IATP has long insisted that the primary focus of agriculture discussions in the UNFCCC must be on how agriculture and small producers can adapt to climate change and how this adaptation challenge can be financed. If we truly want to address agriculture emissions, let’s start by setting targets for reducing nitrous oxides and methane from industrial farms and transitioning to agroecological practices. Yet, the World Bank, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and other industrialized countries have pushed since 2008 to find in agriculture another big loophole to hide their actual emissions by developing offsets in the land use and land-use change sectors(which include forestry and agriculture) and trading them on speculative financial markets in the form of carbon credits. 
So far, developing countries have stemmed the tide, but the World Bank has been lobbying several developing-country agriculture ministries to influence their environment ministries to say “yes” to a work program that would help them create these carbon offsets. The irony here is that the entire African continent contributes less than 4 percent to the very problem that will devastate their food production systems, meanwhile Africans are being asked to do their bit to mitigate rather than North Americans whose per capita emissions are 14 times that of our counterparts in Africa. Though the very existence of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and the second commitment period (2013–2020) hang in the balance of the enormous deadlock in the UNFCCC, the last meeting of the Kyoto Protocol Parties (CMP) at COP 17 in Durban requested the SBSTA to start work programmes on 1.) the possibility of expanding the activities that could be included for accounting in LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry), i.e., inclusion certain agricultural activities such as soil carbon) 2.) possibilities of expanding the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to include additional land use, land-use change and forestry activities (i.e., soil carbon) and 3.) figure out how to get carbon credits for soil and better credits for forest carbon in the CDM even though science is demonstrating that carbon cannot be stored permanently in agriculture or forest systems for a large number of scientific and technical reasons.  Officially, the decision from Durban on this work program was phrased in the following arcane manner:
...a work programme to consider and, as appropriate, develop and recommend modalities and procedures for alternative approaches to addressing the risk of nonpermanence under the clean development mechanism with a view to forwarding a draft decision on this matter to the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol for adoption at its ninth session [in late 2013]  (para 7, Decision 2/CMP.7)
In addition, the SBSTA was asked to initiate a work program to determine how to address “additionality” in LULUCF. The program would focus on how governments can prove that the practices being adopted to reduce emissions or absorb carbon in the soil or forests is actually additional to what they would have done in the first place in a business as usual scenario. A critical question here: how would they even know it is additional given the problems related to non-permanence? 
McKibben’s math is indeed terrifyingly simple: we have 565 gigatons of carbon as a global community to spend to limit a global temperature rise to 2 degrees (which scientists say is already too much) with a window of time that is closing on us. The coal, gas and oil reserves that have already been bought and paid for, but as of yet remain unused, total 2795 gigatons:  five times the number we can justify and still have a livable planet. Keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than playing shell games with agriculture and forests, and determining equitable burden sharing between developed and developing countries, are the urgent tasks at hand. And, while we are doing that, we need to begin cleaning up the mess that’s already been created, particularly as peasants, fisherfolk and pastoralists struggle to cope with increasing climate chaos.
In contrast, the government representatives that get paid by our tax dollars to negotiate the climate treaty are truly having a difficult time distinguishing the forest from the trees. How long will we allow governments and intergovernmental organizations (who are also paid with tax dollars) to continue this game of smoke and mirrors with carbon sinks and carbon markets? The next six to seven years are literally game changers in humanity’s ability to tackle climate change. It’s time we all (especially us in the United States) made this a clear political mandate for our governments.
© 2012 IATP
Shefali Sharma
Shefali Sharma is a senior advisor with the Institute for Agriculture and Tr