The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics.
After three stunning courtroom losses in California, the legal battle over the safety of Monsanto's top-selling Roundup herbicide is headed for the company's hometown, where corporate officials can be forced to appear on the witness stand, and legal precedence shows a history of anti-corporate judgments.
Sharlean Gordon, a cancer-stricken woman in her 50s, is the next plaintiff currently set for trial. Gordon v. Monsanto starts Aug. 19 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, located just a few miles from the St. Louis, Missouri-area campus that was the company's longtime world headquarters until Bayer bought Monsanto last June. The case was filed in July 2017 on behalf of more than 75 plaintiffs and Gordon is the first of that group to go to trial.
According to the complaint, Gordon purchased and used Roundup for at least 15 continuous years through approximately 2017 and was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006. Gordon has gone through two stem cell transplants and spent a year in a nursing home at one point in her treatment.
She is so debilitated that it is difficult for her to be mobile.
Her case, like that of the thousands of others filed around the United States, alleges use of Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicides caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"She's been through hell," St. Louis attorney Eric Holland, one of the legal team members representing Gordon, told EHN. "She's horribly injured. The human toll here is tremendous. I think Sharlean is really going to put a face on what Monsanto's done to people."
Gordon said the hardest part about preparing for trial is determining what evidence to present to the jury within the three-week time span that the judge has set for the trial.
"This evidence against them, their conduct, is the most outrageous I've seen in my 30 years of doing this," Holland said. "The things that have gone on here, I want St. Louis juries to hear this stuff."
That Gordon trial will be followed by a September 9 trial also in St. Louis County in a case brought by plaintiffs Maurice Cohen and Burrell Lamb.
Monsanto's deep roots in the community, including a large employment base and generous charitable donations throughout the area, could favor its chances with local jurors.
But on the flip side, St. Louis is regarded in legal circles as one the most favorable places for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against corporations and there is a long history of large verdicts against major companies. St. Louis City Court is generally considered the most favorable but St. Louis County is also desired by plaintiffs' attorneys.
The approach of the August and September trials comes on the heels of a stunning $2 billion verdict issued against Monsanto May 13. In that case, a jury in Oakland, California, awarded married couple Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who both suffer from cancer, $55 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion each in punitive damages.
The jury found that Monsanto has spent years covering up evidence that its herbicide causes cancer.
That verdict came only a little more than a month after a San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto to pay $80 million in damages to Edwin Hardeman, who also developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup. And last summer, a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson who received a terminal cancer diagnosis after using Monsanto herbicides in his job.
Aimee Wagstaff, who was co-lead counsel for Hardeman, is set to try the Gordon case in St. Louis with Holland. Wagstaff said she plans to subpoena several Monsanto scientists to appear on the witness stand to answer questions directly in front of a jury.
She and the other attorneys trying the California cases were not able to force Monsanto employees to testify live because of the distance. The law provides that witnesses cannot be compelled to travel more than 100 miles or out of state from where they live or work.
The trial losses have left Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG under siege. Angry investors have pushed share prices to the lowest levels in roughly seven years, erasing more than 40 percent of Bayer's market value.
And some investors are calling for Bayer CEO Werner Baumann to be ousted for championing the Monsanto acquisition, which closed in June of last year just as the first trial was getting underway.
Bayer maintains that there is no valid evidence of cancer causation associated with Monsanto's herbicides, and says it believes it will win on appeal. But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has ordered Bayer to begin mediation talks aimed at potentially settling the sprawling mass of lawsuits that includes roughly 13,400 plaintiffs in the United States alone.
All the plaintiffs are cancer victims or their family members and all allege Monsanto engaged in a range of deceptive tactics to hide the risks of its herbicides, including manipulating the scientific record with ghostwritten studies, colluding with regulators, and using outside individuals and organizations to promote the safety of its products while making sure they falsely appeared to be acting independently of the company.
A May 22 hearing is being held in part to define details of the mediation process. Bayer has indicated that it will comply with the order, but may not yet be ready to consider settling the litigation despite the courtroom losses.
Meanwhile, the litigation that originated in the United States has crossed the border into Canada where a Saskatchewan farmer is leading a class action lawsuit against Bayer and Monsanto making allegations that mirror those in the U.S. lawsuits.
"The Queen of Roundup"
Elaine Stevick of Petaluma, California was supposed to be the next in line to take on Monsanto at trial.
But in his order of mediation, Judge Chhabria also vacated her May 20 trial date. A new trial date is to be discussed at the hearing on Wednesday.
Stevick and her husband Christopher Stevick sued Monsanto in April of 2016 and said in an interview that they are eager to get their chance to confront the company over the devastating damage they say Elaine's use of Roundup has done to her health.
She was diagnosed in December 2014 at the age of 63 with multiple brain tumors due to a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called central nervous system lymphoma (CNSL). Alberta Pilliod, who just won the most recent trial, also had a CNSL brain tumor.
The couple purchased an old Victorian home and overgrown property in 1990 and while Christopher worked on renovating the interior of the house, Elaine's job was to spray weed killer over the weeds and wild onions that the couple said took over a good portion of the property.
She sprayed multiple times a year until she was diagnosed with cancer. She never wore gloves or other protective clothing because believed it to be as safe as advertised, she said.
Stevick is currently in remission but nearly died at one point in her treatment, Christopher Stevick said.
"I called her the 'queen of Roundup' because she was always walking around spraying the stuff," he told EHN.
The couple attended parts of both the Pilliod and Hardeman trials, and said they are grateful the truth about Monsanto's actions to hide the risks are coming into the public spotlight. And they want to see Bayer and Monsanto start warning users about the cancer risks of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides.
"We want the companies to take responsibility for warning people—even if there is a chance that something would be harmful or hazardous for them, people should be warned," Elaine Stevick told EHN.
Regenerate: Formed or created again; spiritually reborn or converted; restored to a better, higher, or more worthy state. -Webster
“Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy.” - Vandana Shiva, Regeneration International Co-Founder
Five years ago, at the massive People’s Climate March in New York City, a small but determined band of food, farm, natural health and climate activists held a press conference at the Rodale Institute in Manhattan, where we announced the formation of a new global network: Regeneration International (RI).
Vandana Shiva, Andre Leu, Richard Teague, Ryan Zinn, Kris Nichols and myself, among others, put forth the bold, but then little-known proposition that regenerative food, farming and land-use practices, scaled up internationally, and in conjunction with a global transition to renewable energy, could not only substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down global warming, but could actually draw down enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reverse climate change.
We pointed out that a Regeneration Revolution could also dramatically improve the environment, soil fertility, food quality, public health, biodiversity and rural economies, while revitalizing the body politic.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of media to attend our first RI press conference. But 400,000 people marching in the streets of New York did generate massive world media coverage of the impending Climate Emergency.
Five years later . . .
Five years later, our growing Regeneration Movement has come a long way. Regenerative Agriculture is rapidly becoming the most talked about new concept in food, farming and climate circles. Media coverage, both mainstream and alternative, has increased exponentially.
Leading politicians in the U.S., including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are now talking about how the combination of regenerative agriculture, natural carbon sequestration in soils, forests, and wetlands, and reducing the massive greenhouse gas emissions of industrial agriculture and factory farms can help us reach “net-zero” emissions by 2030.
The concept of regenerative food and farming was featured in the Green New Deal (GND) Resolution introduced in the U.S. House and Senate February 7. The GND has now been endorsed by more than 100 members of Congress, leading Democratic Party contenders and, according to several polls, the majority of the U.S. body politic.
The GND calls for sweeping economic reforms (jobs for all, free public education, higher wages, universal health care) as well as a transformation of our energy, infrastructure and agricultural systems, including:
. . . working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including—by supporting family farming… investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health… and by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food… removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation… restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency… providing all people of the United States with access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently stated in a social media post (April 7, 2019):
Because of the Green New Deal, entirely new thinkers are now at the policy table instead of just Big Ag and Monsanto writing our public policy for us—from regenerative agriculture experts and family farmers, to indigenous leaders with intergenerational knowledge.
Media waking up to game-changing solutions
On the scientific and public education fronts, a flood of articles, videos and books are highlighting the fact that regenerative farming and ecosystem restoration practices dramatically increase soil fertility and carbon sequestration.
A recent article in Scientific American, features the work of RI member Dr. David Johnson. Johnson’s lab and field research on regenerative compost shows that high-fungal, biologically rich, semi-anaerobic compost and compost extracts produce unusually high crop yields, along with massive carbon sequestration of over four tons of carbon (15 tons of CO2e) per acre per year.
The Scientific American article points out the game-changing implications of Johnson’s compost practices, if scaled-up on the world’s four billion acres of croplands:
Johnson asserts that if his approach were used across agriculture internationally, the entire world’s carbon output from 2016 could be stored on just 22 percent of the globe’s arable land.
Johnson’s “bio-reactor” compost also eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers—inoculated soils enriched with cover crops naturally accumulate enough nitrogen for massive plant growth. Dr. Johnson’s BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management) practices mirror traditional and indigenous compost and agroecological farming practices used in India and other regions.
There is now a considerable body of published science and evidence-based practices showing that these (livestock) systems regenerate degraded lands, and improve productivity, water holding capacity and soil carbon levels. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s agricultural lands (eight billion acres) are used for grazing. The published evidence is showing that correctly managed pastures can build up SOC (Soil Organic Carbon) faster than many other agricultural systems and that the carbon is stored deeper in the soil.
Leu cites a 2015 study conducted in a region with highly degraded soil and pastures in the southeastern U.S. showing that regenerative, holistically managed grazing was able to sequester 3.24 tons of carbon per acre per year (29.36 metric tons of CO2e/hectare/year).
If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on all of the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 26 billion tons of carbon per year—that’s two-and-a-half times as much carbon as is currently being emitted by all human activities. Even if only 10 percent of the world’s ranchers and farmers adopted regenerative practices, we could sequester more than a quarter of all current emissions.
New incentives for reforestation and ecosystem restoration
The Earth’s forests once flourished with an estimated six trillion trees growing, storing water below ground, anchoring top soil, maintaining a healthy, predictable system of rainfall and hydrological balance, sequestering vast amounts of atmospheric carbon in tree trunks, limbs, roots, and soil.
Besides these essential ecosystem services, forests also provided food and habitat for much of the world’s population, especially in the global south.
Now, after several centuries of deforestation, we’ve lost half of our trees and forest cover. And many of our remaining forests are weakened and susceptible to forest fires and pest infestations. We’re now down to an estimated total tree population of three trillion trees on 10 billion acres.
But according to a new United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), “The Trillion Tree Campaign,” global reforestation could capture 25 percent of global annual carbon emissions and create wealth in the global south.
The UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign is inspired in part by a recent study led by Dr. Thomas Crowther, Crowther and his fellow researchers, using integrated data from ground-based surveys and satellites, found that replanting the world’s forests (an additional 1.2 trillion trees) on a massive scale in the empty spaces in parks, woods, cities and degraded and abandoned land across the planet would drawdown 100 billion tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere.
“There’s 400 gigatons now, in the three trillion trees, and if you were to scale that up by another trillion trees that’s in the order of hundreds of gigatons captured from the atmosphere – at least 10 years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out… [trees are] our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.”
Crowther’s figures don’t even include the massive amount of carbon drawdown and sequestration we can achieve through agroforestry and silvopasture practices, planting trees on the world’s often deforested croplands, pasturelands and rangelands.
More than 13.6 billion trees have already been planted as part of the Trillion Tree Campaign, which analyzes and projects not only where trees have been planted, but also the vast areas where forests could be restored. UNEP also emphasizes that there are “170 billion trees in imminent risk of destruction” that must be protected for crucial carbon storage and biodiversity protection.
‘Four for 1000’ global policy initiative gaining traction
At the upcoming Global Climate Summit in Santiago, Chile, December 2-13, regenerative, carbon-sequestering, agricultural and land-use practices will be highlighted for the first time at the international level.
Countries that are having difficulties meeting their 2015 pledges in Paris to reduce their country’s greenhouse gas emissions to specific levels (most nations are) will now be able to include soil carbon sequestration (along with reforestation and landscape restoration) as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Governments that sign the initiative agree to augment their emissions reductions with a commitment to increase soil carbon sequestration by 4/1000% every year so as to achieve net-zero emissions (drawing down as much GHG as they are emitting) as soon as possible. Regeneration International is an active partner with the French government and others in encouraging nations, regions, municipal governments and organizations to sign-on to the 4 for 1000 Initiative.
What do we go from here?
Besides stepping up our local and individual regenerative education and farming activities, the time has come for regenerators worldwide to focus on grassroots organizing, coalition building and bold political action.
With our Climate Emergency accelerating, and current atmospheric CO2 levels soaring to 415 ppm, we no longer have time to slowly scale up renewable energy and regenerative food, farming and land-use practices at our current pace. The inclusion of regenerative food and farming in the U.S. as part of the Green New Deal, amplified in the political arena by several major candidates for President in 2020, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has opened up an unprecedented opportunity to move forward and gain mass grassroots support. Activists in the UK are now calling for the Labour Party to put forth a bold UK Green New Deal, much as the Sunrise Movement, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders are doing in the U.S.
The final months of 2018 will likely be remembered as the decisive moment when the global grassroots finally awakened to the life-or-death threat posed by global warming. With violent weather and climate disasters becoming the norm, and international scientists finally shedding their customary caution to report that we must drastically slash (by at least 45 percent) global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, hundreds of millions of ordinary people across the world seemed to simultaneously wake up.
People are concerned, alarmed and ready to listen to our message. Now is the time for the Regeneration Movement to step forward and help mobilize our millions of allies and would-be allies. We know what to do. The best practices and practitioners in alternative energy, infrastructure rebuilding and regenerative food and farming are already visible in our local communities. Our moral and existential imperative is to mobilize politically and scale up these practices, raising the banner of a Regenerative Green New Deal in every community, region and nation.
The hour is late. But there’s still time to turn things around. If you haven’t already, please sign the Organic Consumers Association and Regeneration International’s petition for a Green New Deal. If you’re a farmer or rancher, sign here If you’re an activist or a green consumer sign here.
It’s easy to forget that before there was a National Organic Program, before there was organic certification, before there were genetically engineered crops and industrial factory farms, there were farmers—farmers who grew nutritious food and raised healthy meat, using farming and ranching practices that worked with, and enhanced, Earth’s natural systems and cycles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program evolved out of the need to define “organic” in order to protect these good farmers in a marketplace increasingly being taken over by industrial food producers. Unfortunately, over the years, industrial food lobbyists have used their financial and political clout to try their best to weaken organic standards.
We continue to recommend that consumers look for the USDA organic seal, and we continue to lobby to protect and strengthen USDA organic regulations.
But it’s also important to remember that the original “definers” of organic were farmers—not the USDA.
If anyone knows how to define “organic,” it’s one of those farmers—Eliot Coleman. Coleman has more than 50 years’ experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. He’s an educator and researcher, founder of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, and the author of many books, including “The New Organic Grower.”Coleman recently shared his explanation of “organic” in an email, an explanation that serves as a good reminder that this is how we feed the world. Coleman’s “Organic Farming Explained” is printed here with his permission.
1. Organic farming is based on the creation and maintenance of a biologically active fertile soil.
2. Pest-free plants and animals with active immune systems are a direct result of a biologically active fertile soil that has been shown to induce pest resistance in the crops.
3. Truly fertile soil results in food of the highest nutritional quality.
4. Investigations into the miraculous soil microbiome are revealing the vital natural processes that support a self-renewing agriculture.
5. Real soil fertility does not require inputs from off the farm. It can be endlessly self-renewed with farm-derived compost, crop rotations, green manures, cover crops, grazing livestock, and other time-honored practices that nurture the boundless energy and logic of the earth.
6. Deep-rooting grass and legume pastures in the rotation can make available the almost inexhaustible nutrient supply from the lower levels of the soil.
7. Since the biologically based systems of the organic farm are powered by ecologically sound management practices, not purchased fertilizers, this food production system is freely available to farmers everywhere and can thus feed mankind with exceptional food in perpetuity.
Impossible Foods wants you to think the switch to GMO soy was motivated by the company’s “commitment to consumers and our planet.”
But that’s simply not true. We explain why, in our article, “Six Reasons Impossible Burger’s CEO Is Wrong about GMO Soy.”
Burger-loving consumers who care about their health, and the health of the environment, are likely to choose burgers made from 100% grass-fed beef—not a lab-grown fake meat product made with GMO ingredients.
And when managed properly, cows raised on grass can have a net-positive impact on the environment—by improving soil carbon sequestration and ecosystem biodiversity, and by reducing the need for toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
In his article, Brown says his company’s mission is to end the use of animals in food production by 2035.
But the real mission of Impossible Foods is to generate profits for Brown and his shareholders. That’s why the company is keen to sell its Impossible Burger to fast-food restaurant chains, where it’s certain they won’t be labeled.
Brown plays fast and loose with the facts in his article, then writes: “Noise from anti-genetic engineering fundamentalists is inevitable.”
Throughout the U.S., major food brands are trying to get rid of GMO ingredients—not necessarily for the right reasons, but because nearly half of consumers say they avoid them in their food, primarily for health reasons.
But the CEO of Impossible Foods, purveyor of the Impossible Burger, is bucking that trend.
The manufacturers of the controversial veggie burger just announced that in the future, due to “high demand” for the product, its plant-based patties will be made using GMO soy.
The formula change was made to ensure the smooth rollout of the Impossible Burger in Burger King restaurants. The soy formulation is apparently better able to withstand Burger King’s trademark flame grilling. As a result, in early in 2019, Impossible Foods dumped the textured wheat protein it had been using and replaced it with soy protein concentrate instead.
Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, publicly defended the move. But a closer look reveals that Brown’s claims about the healthfulness and sustainability of “Impossible Burger 2.0” just don’t stack up.
Here are six reasons the CEO of Impossible Burger is wrong when he claims that GMO soy is “the safest and most environmentally responsible option” for scaling up production of the fake meat product—a product that already uses a genetically engineered yeast, called heme, as its key ingredient.
1. Dubious health claims
When the switch to soy was first made. Sue Klapholz, Impossible Foods vice president of nutrition & health, said that "Soy is not only safe; it’s accessible, nutritious."
That’s not quite true.
Results from studies showing healthful properties of fermented soy products like tofu or miso are sometimes used to support the healthfulness of other, more highly processed types of soy.
But all soy is not created equal.
In the messy world of soy studies, where “soy” can be defined as almost anything with soy in it, there are just as many studies showing no or only marginal benefits, and in some cases, potential for harm—e. g. interference with thyroid medication—from diets high in soy.
Soy protein isolates and concentrates are made from defatted soybean flakes that have been washed in either alcohol or water to remove the sugars and dietary fiber. The flakes are then processed into powders or “flours.”
Alcohol is the most common process, as it produces products with a neutral taste. But the beneficial isoflavones in soy are removed by this method. Soy protein concentrate has the lowest level of healthful isoflavones—including daidzein, genistein and glycitein—of any form of processed soy.
There are other differences between the various types of soy. A 2014 study comparing GMO and organic soy beans found small but statistically significant differences in the nutritional quality: The organic soybeans had slightly higher protein levels and lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids showed no significant difference. Both fats are essential in human diets, but U.S. eaters tend to consume a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than is healthy.
2. Higher use of pesticides
Brown says that “careful analysis” has “conclusively shown” GMO soy is “better for the environment than the alternatives.”
Absolutely untrue. GMO soy, whether fed to cows or people, is bad for the environment.
A 2013 Food & Water Watch study, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, found that planting GM crops quickly resulted in the growth of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” which caused farmers to increase their herbicide use.
That report echoed the findings of another study produced by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook in 2012. In 2016, research from University of Virginia confirmed that glyphosate-resistant weeds have led to a 28-percent hike in herbicide use on GM soybeans compared with non-GM.
There is also evidence that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundupweedkiller, accumulates in GM soy. The same study that found GM soy is nutritionally inferior to organic, and that GM-soy contained high residues of glyphosate and its toxic breakdown product AMPA, while conventional and organic soybeans were free of these agrochemicals.
That may help explain why a recent laboratory analysis by Moms Across America found glyphosate residues in the new formula Impossible Burger. The levels of glyphosate and its toxic breakdown product AMPA were low (11ppb) but as the Moms note, evidence from animal feed studies indicates that just 0.1 ppb of glyphosate can destroy gut bacteria.
Other studies of animals fed GM foods and/or glyphosate show worrying trends, including damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, damage to gut tissues and gut flora, immune system disruption, reproductive abnormalities and even tumors.
Agrichemical companies continue to claim that glyphosate is safe. Yet glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen” according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and its maker Monsanto (Bayer) has recently been ordered to pay out billions in compensation to victims who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of using the weedkiller. More cases are pending.
3. No benefits for farmers
According to Brown, the company decided to source “American-grown, milled and processed GM soy” that is “from farms in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois” because there just isn’t enough non-GMO soy to meet demand.
There is no question that GM soy is more plentiful than non-GM soy in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. grows more soybeans than any other country except Brazil. According to the USDA, more than 90 percent of the soybeans harvested on U.S. farms are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, especially Roundup.
That should translate into more crops to sell, but an indepth investigation by the New York Times found that, in addition to increasing pesticide use, genetic modification in the U.S. and Canada has not brought the expected increases in crop yields.
This echoes the findings of a 2016 National Academy of Sciences report found that “there was little evidence” that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops.
Right now, U.S. farmers are suffering from a glut of soy, thanks to ongoing trade disputes with China, which have resulted in low prices and farm bankruptcies.
4. Kills biodiversity
The adoption of GMO herbicide-resistant crops like soy has favored the use of herbicides over tried and tested methods of weed management, such as crop rotation.
In addition to creating superweeds, glyphosate-based herbicides damage microbial life in the soil, which makes crops more susceptible to diseases. They are toxic to a range of aquatic organisms and also kill beneficial “weeds” like milkweed, a major food source for the Monarch butterfly.
As weeds become resistant, older and stronger pesticides such as 2,4-D or dicamba, are being used. In 2017-18, “dicamba drift” was responsible for damage to an estimated 5 million acres of non-GM soybeans in 24 states, in addition to numerous specialty crops and wild plants.
Globally, soy plantations have been responsible for wholesale clearing of forests and savannahs in places like Brazil, with the added effect of contributing to climate change. In the U.S., land converted to soy production has typically been pre-existing agricultural land and so is not linked to deforestation. But increasing demand for soy is destroying American prairies. Analysis of satellite data has shown that between 2006 and 2011, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska had converted 1.3 million acres of grassland into soybean and corn production.
These monocultures are bad news for wildlife, because they destroy habitats for a wide range of wild creatures, from ground-nesting birds to pollinators like bees and butterflies.
But crop monocultures also lead to mono-diets. Agricultural diversity ensures a healthier environment and greater food security on a global scale. But the over-focus on cash crops like soy means that today just a handful of crops now dominate diets around the world. This new global diet has more calories and less nutrition, and is responsible for the global rise in non-communicable diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
5. No ‘scientific consensus’ around safety
Brown proclaims there is “scientific consensus that GMOs are safe for consumers and the environment—a view now endorsed by the American Medical Association (AMA), the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization.”
But Brown’s statement is factually untrue.
A closer look at these claims shows that the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health statement opposing GMO labeling did not claim GMOs are safe. It acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events . . . due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity and toxicity.” The AMA recommended mandatory safety assessments prior to release of GM foods—a system which, as the AMA pointed out, is not in place in the U.S.
The National Academy of Sciences has not issued any blanket claims of GMO safety. It did issue a report in which it analyzed a range of plant-breeding techniques and concluded that GM posed a higher risk of introducing unintended changes into food than any other crop breeding method other than mutation breeding, a method in which plant genomes are bombarded with radiation or chemicals to induce mutations.
The WHO has stated: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
But take a look at the text that preceded that sentence: “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” The WHO also recommends that “adequate post-market monitoring” is carried out to ensure the safety of GM foods.
Yet such monitoring is not carried out anywhere in the world.
In fact, GM foods were not subjected to human trials before being released into the food chain. Their human health impacts are not being studied by any government agency, nor by the companies that produce them.
That’s why nearly 300 independent scientists from around the world issued a public warning that there was no scientific consensus about the safety of eating genetically modified food, and that the risks, as demonstrated in independent research, gave “serious cause for concern.”
6. Ignores consumer concerns
Brown says “we believe in our consumers and respect their right to consider the facts and decide for themselves.” He adds that the inclusion of GMO soy will lead to “noise from anti-genetic engineering fundamentalists.”
But concerns about GMOs aren’t just “noise.” They persist because they are legitimate, and because consumers want facts from independent researchers and other sources not from paid mouthpieces for the GMO industry, or from brands with a bias.
U.S. consumers overwhelmingly want GMO foods labeled so they can make real informed choices. Impossible Foods has chosen to ignore both legitimate concerns and the desire for choice by insinuating its fake meat burger onto the market via independent restaurants, large restaurant chains, theme parks, museums, stadiums, college campuses and corporate offices—places where no food labeling is required and where customers are least likely to ask questions.
It’s time to demand more from the food we eat, better protection from our regulators and a higher level of truthfulness and transparency from food brands.
A controversial drug allowed in meat production in the U.S.—but banned in 160 other countries—is in the news again. This time, it’s because the Trump administration, as part of a trade deal, is trying to force China to allow imports of U.S. pork raised with ractopamine.
Ractopamine is a beta-agonist routinely fed to pigs, cattle and turkey raised in industrial factory farms, or in industry parlance, “concentrated animal feeding farms,” or CAFOs. The drug mimics the effects of adrenaline, and is used to increase muscle tissue and make animals grow faster. It’s manufactured by Elanco Animal Health, until recently a division of drug giant Eli Lilly & Co.
If you buy industrially produced pork at a U.S. supermarket, it likely contains ractopamine—about 60 – 80 percent of industrial pork producers use the drug. If Trump forces China to allow imports of U.S. pork raised with ractopamine, that percentage could increase—and so will Elanco’s profits.
Pork producers aren’t required to tell you they use ractopamine, so don’t bother looking for it on the label. To avoid it, buy from a trusted local farmer, or look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo—AGA-certified meat prohibits the use of ractopamine.
Ractopamine’s long, controversial history
In 2013, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sued the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for withholding records pertaining to ractopamine’s safety.
According to the lawsuit, in response to the groups’ requests for information "documenting, analyzing or otherwise discussing the physiological, psychological and/or behavioral effects" of ractopamine, the FDA produced only 464 pages out of the existing 100,000 pages of records. Worse, all 464 pages had already been released as part of a reporter’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
In 2014, CFS along with the Humane Society of the United States and United Farm Workers of America filed lawsuits against the FDA trying to vacate 11 animal drugs approvals, including ractopamine. The suits claimed the FDA had not adequately considered the effects of ractopamine on animal welfare, worker safety, wildlife and waterways.
But in 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the petitions stating that the groups had not exhausted direct appeals to the FDA, in the form of "citizen petitions." Plaintiff lawyers argued that such drawn-out petitions allow dangerous drugs to remain in the food supply indefinitely.
USDA protects corporations first, consumers last
Unlike human drugs which must be proven safe, food ingredients approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must be proven unsafe before the agency will prohibit them in food.
In other words, instead of following the precautionary principle which would mean erring on the side of caution (and consumers), the USDA gives the benefit of doubt to food producers.
The bias toward food producers is magnified by the government blocking laws requiring labels. Both Big Food and the government claim labels would "confuse" consumers and are unnecessary because there is "no difference" between foods containing things like GMOs or ractopamine, and foods that don’t contain those ingredients.
The USDA did approve "Never Fed Beta Agonists" labels that U.S. meat producers may use (and some are beginning to use). But the ractopamine-free labels were approved to appease Big Meat's many trading partners, including China, who won’t buy U.S. exports of meat raised with ractopamine—not because the agency was concerned about animal welfare or consumer safety.
While the USDA did approve ractopamine-free labels for pork, there are no such labels And there is another serious limitation to the move of U.S. meat producers to go "ractopamine-free." Conspicuously lacking are labels declaring turkey and beef ractopamine-free though as much as 30 percent of ration-fed cattle are fed the ingredient and an undisclosed number of turkeys. Clearly pork has more export value than beef or turkey, especially because it is a mainstay of many Asian diets. Still, beef is an issue: Russia has not accepted U.S. beef since 2013, reports Successful Farming, including "beta-agonist-free" beef.
What exactly is ractopamine?
Ractopamine is a beta agonist. In humans, its used for asthma patients to relax and widen muscles of the airways to facilitate better breathing. The potential to use ractopamine to build muscle in livestock was discovered during testing, when researchers found the drug made mice more muscular.
Approvals of ractopamine in meat production flew almost completely under the public radar: It was approved for use in U.S. pigs in 1999 (Paylean), for cattle in 2000 (Optaflexx) and for turkeys in 2009 (Topmax). In 2010, the FDA expanded the feeding approvals for Optaflexx in cattle.
But from the beginning, there have been serious safety, regulatory and transparency questions about ractopamine.
Three years after ractopamine was already in use in U.S. pigs, the the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine's Office of Surveillance and Compliance accused drugmaker Elanco of withholding information about "safety and effectiveness" and "adverse animal drug experiences" in a 14-page warning letter.
The FDA’s Gloria J. Dunnavan wrote:
Our representatives requested a complete and accurate list of all your GLP [Good Laboratory Practices] studies involving Paylean® (Ractopamine hydrochloride), including their current status as well as the names of the respective study monitors. In response, your firm supplied to our representatives multiple lists which differed in the names of the studies and their status. In addition, your firm could not locate or identify documents pertaining to some of the studies. This situation was somewhat confusing and created unneeded delays for our representatives.
Somewhat confusing might be an understatement. But then the letter went on to say that Elanco had failed to document phone calls from angry farmers reporting "hyperactivity," "dying animals," "downer pigs" and "tying up" and "stress" syndromes. Where was the log of phone calls with farmer concerns including their reports that "animals are down and shaking" and "pig vomiting after eating feed with Paylean.” asked the FDA?
ractopamine developed cleft palates, protruding tongues, short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids and enlarged hearts. In addition to the mutations, some rat pups were born dead or died soon after.
But it’s ‘safe,’ claims Elanco lobbyists
Elanco’s extensive lobbying has keep ractopamine on the market and in wider uses, despite concerns about the drug. One-third of all meetings on the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s posted public calendar during several months in 2009 were either with Elanco representatives or had to do with ractopamine, as noted “Born with Junk Food Deficiency,” Martha Rosenberg.
As consumers call for ractopamine-free meat, Elanco defends the drug's safety and even presumes to call ractopamine "green," claiming that use of the drug means livestock need to eat less corn, which reduces the carbon footprint-per-pound of pork.
Taking a cue from biotech companies that try to call Frankenfoods “natural,” Elanco also says ractopamine "is made from ingredients that can be found in nature, including raspberry ketones."
Elanco even plays the "feed the world" card which companies like Monsanto has used to sell products like Golden Rice. Ractopamine "enables farmers to safely produce more pork with greater efficiency and allows them to feed more people," says Elanco.
No getting around it—beta antagonists are bad for people, bad for animals
Ractopamine is not the only beta agonist in use in animals and under a safety cloud. Clenbuterol, a cousin drug to ractopamine causes such adrenalin effects in humans it was banned in Olympics sports. Cyclist Alberto Contador failed a Tour de France anti-doping test in 2010 for levels of clenbuterol which he said he got from eating meat.
Zilmax (zilpaterol) hydrochloride) another ractopamine cousin is widely given to U.S. cattle with sometimes disastrous results. The hooves of cattle given zilpaterol were "basically coming apart," said Keith Belk, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who viewed photos of lame cattle at Tyson Foods Inc. slaughterhouse in southeastern Washington state in 2014, at a convention. Some of the animals were euthanized because of the effects.
After ag professionals saw the images of cattle severely injured from Zilmax, food giant Tyson told feedlot customers it would stop accepting Zilmax-fed cattle for slaughter and manufacturer Merck temporarily suspended Zilmax sales. The next year, however, despite FDA reports of 285 U.S. cattle dying unexpectedly or being destroyed after being fed Zilmax, and 75 animals who lost hooves, 94 with pneumonia and 41 with bloat, Merck reversed itself and said it would reintroduce the drug. Cattle producers said Zilmax was mandatory during drought conditions. Growing animals with more weight and meat with less feed is the name of Big Meat's game.
Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, confirms the deleterious effects of zilpateral. Feedlot managers report the “outer shell of the hoof fell off” on the drug she says. The indiscriminant use of Paylean (ractopamine) also contributes to an increase in downer non-ambulatory pigs and pigs that are extremely difficult to move and drive she notes, leading to unacceptable harm to animals.
An article in the 2003 Journal of Animal Science confirms that “ractopamine does affect the behavior, heartrate and catecholamine profile of finishing pigs and making them more difficult to handle and potentially more susceptible to handling and transport stress.”
According to an article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Talanta: “The use of highly active beta-agonists as growth promoters is not appropriate because of the potential hazard for human and animal health.”
“Cook Organic, not the Planet.” - Banner of the Organic Consumers Association at the mass climate march in New York City, September 21, 2014.
Before we talk about the future of food and farming and the crisis of organic standards, here’s some good news: Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), a leading contender for the White House in 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and several other presidential candidates have just come out strongly against Monsanto and factory farming and in favor of fundamental change in our agricultural policies. (Sign this petition to thank Sanders and Warren for taking on Big Ag).
Sanders and more than 100 members of Congress, supported by millions of Americans--including leading farmers and ranchers— are now calling for a Green New Deal that encompasses both urban and rural America. A Green New Deal that will scale up fundamental change, not only in our energy and economic policies, but also in the food and farming policies that have devastated our landscape, public health and rural communities.
Consumer demand behind growth of organic market
In December 1997, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) launched a nationwide grassroots campaign called Save Organic Standards (SOS). Over the course of the next six months, OCA and our allies in the organic community successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of organic consumers, farmers and retailers to stop the Clinton Administration, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness from degrading organic standards and allowing GMOs, irradiated food and sewage sludge to be used in organic farming.
Since the first SOS battle, despite pro-agribusiness, pro-GMO, pro-factory farm policies and appointments by corporate Democrats (Clinton and Obama) and reactionary Republicans alike (Bush Sr., Bush Jr. and Trump), we’ve managed to expose the horrors of chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive food and farming, factory farms, GMOs and Monsanto, and to promote organic, grass-fed, agroecolgical and, more recently, regenerative practices. We’ve grown the U.S. market for certified organic food from a $3-billion niche market in 1997 to a $50-billion+ powerhouse today, and increased market demand for climate-friendly grass-fed and pastured meat, dairy and poultry.
According to numerous polls and focus groups, we’ve convinced the majority of U.S. food consumers, from all income categories, that organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, pastured, non-factory farmed products are better for your health, better for the environment, better for the climate, more equitable for farmers, ranchers and farmworkers, and more humane for animals. We’ve exposed the dangers of pesticides like Roundup, atrazine, and chlorpyrifos, and the damage to bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoids.
We’ve alerted the public about the hazards of artificial hormones and antibiotics in animal feed, meat and dairy, and educated consumers and parents about the damage of excessive sugar, bad fats and synthetic chemicals in conventional food.
Congratulations to conscientious consumers, chefs, restaurant workers, green retailers, ethical brands, food producers and activists. Seven percent of baby boomers and 20 percent of millennials now say they buy organic products “all the time” while the majority of Americans claim to buy organics occasionally. Millions more say they would buy organic, healthier, environmentally friendly products more frequently, if only they could afford to spend more for food, instead living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to cover rent, mortgage payments, childcare, credit card and student loan debt, healthcare, utilities and transportation.
Climate activists connecting the dots between ag policy and global warming
A new Regeneration Movement, described by many as the next stage of organics and agroecology, has connected the dots between our toxic food system and global warming, pointing out that industrial food, farming and land management, when you look at its total carbon footprint, generates a full 44-57 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
The degenerate food, farming and land-use practices responsible for half of our climate-destabilizing emissions today include the massive use of fossil fuels and toxic, soil-killing, environmentally polluting chemicals in agriculture. These on-farm and farm input emissions are compounded by energy-intensive and wasteful food processing and packaging (including massive amounts of plastic), long-distance transportation of foods, the concentration and confinement of billions of animals and their wastes in feedlots and factory farms, the dumping of rotting food waste and other organic garbage into landfills instead of composting it, and the throwing away of 30-50 percent of all the food we produce. These profit-at-any-cost practices are amplified by destructive land use: cutting down forests, draining wetlands, degrading marine eco-systems, destructively tilling the soil, dumping soil-killing pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the land, and plowing up grasslands and native prairie for GMO and monoculture crops and ethanol. These climate-destabilizing activities degrade the natural ability of plants, pasture, rangeland, wetlands and trees to draw down enough CO2 from the atmosphere (via photosynthesis) to keep the soil, atmosphere, ocean, carbon and hydrological cycles in balance.
So don’t believe it when you read that the carbon footprint of American food and farming is 11 percent or 15 percent, or even 30 percent of U.S. emissions. Our degenerative, corporate-driven food, farming and land-use practices are responsible for half or more of our GHG pollution.
Food & farming policy lags consumer and public awareness
Unfortunately, the alternative food movement’s impact on consumer awareness has not made much of a difference in terms of federal, state and local food and farm policy and spending. There continues to be little or no financial support for organic or regenerative practices, as opposed to billions to prop up the status quo. Instead of regenerative and potentially regenerative family farms, federal policy subsidizes the Poison Cartel, corporate agribusiness, factory farms and Big Box retailers. While large chemical and agribusiness corporations make out like bandits, billions of tons of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide still belch forth from our food factories, GMO mono-crops, agro-exports, long-distance supply chain, and factory farms.
Despite all our efforts over decades, organic, locally produced and agro-ecological products still make up less than 10 percent of U.S. food sales. Meanwhile organic standards have been steadily undermined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) corporate-friendly National Organic Program (NOP)—allowing factory-farmed, intensive-confinement dairy and poultry operations and non-soil hydroponic production to be certified as USDA Organic, and allowing a growing number of synthetic ingredients and fraudulent foreign imports to be used in organic production.
We need a ballot-box revolution in 2020
Our contemporary renewable energy and food system, though growing rapidly, is still a niche market. Public health (both mental and physical), biodiversity and the life-support capacities of our environment are deteriorating. Trillion-dollar wars for natural resources, markets and geo-political dominance are still considered “normal.”
Lobbying the USDA-appointed National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the NOP to back off on degrading organic standards is still important work, but it’s not enough. Voting individually with our food dollars and our knives and forks for organic and regenerative products is not enough. Sending petitions and emails to corrupt corporations or indentured politicians and regulatory officials is not enough.
We need to move beyond mourning the degradation of organic standards and all the other burning single issues that we care most about and get organized. We need to take control of our lives, our health, our communities and most of all our political institutions. Spaceship Earth is on fire, and we need all hands on deck.
It’s time for food and farm activists, conscientious consumers and the rest of the body politic, to wake up and get organized. America and the global food and farm movement need to move beyond defensive single-issue campaigning and boldly challenge the entire system of industrial agriculture, junk food, ethanol production, factory farming, ecosystem destruction and deforestation. We need to educate people to understand that industrial food and farming, GMOs, destructive deforestation and land use and mindless consumerism are major, not minor causes of global warming and climate destabilization. A slightly higher percentage of market share for organic, GMO-free or even regenerative organic food on a burnt planet in 2030 or 2050 is not going to save us.
We need a Ballot Box Revolution in 2020, with a new President, Senate and House majority who understand that solving the climate emergency is the world’s number one priority. We need a new government on all levels, including a new USDA Secretary of Agriculture, who understands that organic and regenerative food, farming and land use are not just desirable, but absolutely essential.
In the Presidential election cycle of 2016, and the Congressional races in 2018, there was little or no discussion about our disastrous food and farming policies and the damage they inflict on human health, the environment, rural communities, farm workers and the climate. Fortunately, this is starting to change. A growing number of leading 2020 Presidential contenders are speaking up about the need for a Green New Deal for both urban and rural America. New Congressional political leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are finally calling for System Change, not just minor change, and are pointing out that regenerative agriculture is an important part of the Green New Deal that we so desperately need.
Everyone needs to get involved in this battle for a better future. If you’re a farmer or rancher, please sign this petition. If you’re a concerned consumer and citizen, please sign here to join the growing U.S. and global movement for a Green New Deal.
Could the dismal state of the U.S. food & farming system finally be getting the attention it deserves? From high-profile politicians?
In the last two months, as they hit the campaign trail, two presidential candidates—Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—have floated proposals to take on Big Agribusiness and start rallying support for America’s small family farmers.
If we let Sens. Warren and Sanders know that we approve, maybe other presidential candidates will start talking about food & farming.
Family farmers aren’t going out of business because they aren’t working hard enough, or smart enough.
America’s independent farmers—once both the backbone and lifeblood of rural American communities—are filing for bankruptcy at an alarming rate because U.S. food and farming policies are being written by Big Ag lobbyists whose only concern is to line the pockets of corporations like Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill, Tyson and others.
We often hear from some corners of the food movement that food shouldn’t be “political.”
But like it or not, consumers suffer when our country’s food & farming policies are stacked against small, independent farmers—including organic regenerative farmers who grow the kind of food we want, using practices that heal, not harm the Earth.
"Because of the Green New Deal, entirely new thinkers are now at the policy table instead of just Big Ag and Monsanto writing our public policy for us—from regenerative agriculture experts and family farmers, to indigenous leaders with intergenerational knowledge." - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Instagram post April 7, 2019
The audacious, game-changing Green New Deal (GND) Resolution, backed by the youth-powered Sunrise Movement, introduced in Congress on February 7, by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has ignited a long-overdue debate on federal policy, including fundamental energy, infrastructure, food, farming and land-management policies.
At last count supported by 103 Democratic House and Senate members—including leading candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and other contenders for the 2020 presidential race—the GND has generated more enthusiasm and controversy than perhaps any other federal policy initiative since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The GND calls for a World War II-scale mobilization or “Moon Shot” to address the global climate emergency, combined with radical policy change (green jobs for all, universal health care, free public education, $15/hour minimum wage) to address the interrelated environmental, public health and economic crises gripping the nation.
This bold new proposal has galvanized unprecedented mass support— which is perhaps why it’s also provoked ferocious counter-attacks. The Trump Administration, Fox News and Big Business have repeatedly denounced OC and the GND as “dangerous,” “economically devastating,” “communist” and “anti-American.”
Adding fuel to the fire was a February rough draft memo of GND talking points, prematurely posted by AOC’s staff. The not-yet-ready-for-primetime memo included the following passage:
"We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero."
The “farting cows” and “airplanes” comment, taken out of context by GND opponents, set off a media frenzy, prompting corporate agribusiness and the Trump echo-chamber to screech that AOC wanted to “take away our hamburgers” and stop everyone from flying on airplanes.
It’s time to set the record straight. Let's not throw out something as brilliant as the GND just because opponents of the GND deliberately took a passage out of a draft FAQ and distorted its meaning.
Industrial food and farming: getting to the root of the problem
Beyond the hyper-partisan rhetoric, let’s clear the air on the relative size of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock and airplanes.
First of all, CO2 emissions from airplanes—2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution—are important. As rapidly as possible we must develop renewable aviation fuels and reduce fossil fuel-intensive air travel, while also scaling up mass transportation with renewable energy-powered electric trains, trucks, buses and vehicles.
This transportation revolution will take a while. Millions of people will still be flying on fossil fuel-burning, greenhouse gas-emitting airplanes in 2030, and driving and riding in gasoline and diesel power vehicles. That’s okay. Because transportation-related CO2 emissions, though they clearly contribute to global warming, are only part of the problem.
Methane emissions from livestock also amount to about 2.5 percent of all GHGs, approximately the same as air travel. But on the whole, most methane emissions come from leaking oil and natural gas rigs and pipelines, methane-belching landfills, biomass burning and flooded rice paddies—not cows.
And of the methane emissions that do come from livestock, the majority come from the burping, farting and manure pits of 50 million confined animals on feedlots and factory farms—not the burping, farting and defecation of 40-50 million grassfed cattle grazing naturally on pastures and grasslands. Why is that? Because healthy soils contain something called “methanotrophic bacteria” that actually consume and decompose methane, including the methane emitted by properly grazed large animals.
Along with fossil fuels, the main driver of global warming in the U.S. is our food and farming system. Far exceeding the 5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases coming from airplane pollution and farting cows on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), are the enormous emissions—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)—coming from our corporate-controlled, industrialized food, farming and land-use practices, which include deforestation, wetlands and grasslands destruction.
These food, farming and land use emissions, amounting to an estimated 44-57 percent of all U.S. and global greenhouse gases, arise primarily from fossil fuel-intensive factory farms, industrialized crop production, petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, and energy-intensive food processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation and waste. If we are serious about survival and reaching zero-net emissions by 2030, we’re going to have to fundamentally transform how we grow food and manage land. Farmers and consumers will need to move away from industrial, chemical- and fossil-fuel production and consumption.
Yes, we have a cow problem, but . . .
In fact, part of the agricultural GHG emissions in the U.S. and worldwide do come from the belching and farting and accumulated manure of 50 million hapless bovines confined in factory farm dairies and feedlots.
These 50 million “animal units,” in corporate agribusiness speak, are confined and treated like milk machines by Kraft and Dean Foods. Those cattle not producing milk are being fattened-up for slaughter by multi-billion dollar transnationals like Cargill, JBS and Tyson’s, to supply cheap meat and dairy for giant supermarket chains like Walmart and Kroger, or the fast-food assembly lines of McDonald’s and Burger King.
Besides the fossil-fuel-intensive beef and dairy industries (with the animal grain production, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and processing components responsible for most GHGs, rather than methane), massive amounts of GHG pollution are also coming from industrial-scale CAFO pig and poultry operations, which produce 90 percent or more of the meat and eggs consumed by Americans.
It’s America’s CAFOs and factory farms, and industrial-scale grain commodity operations—the largest 5 percent of U.S. farms produce 75 percent of all farm commodities—that generate most of our emissions, not our small and medium-sized family farms and ranches.
In reality, very little methane and other GHG are coming from the 50 million grass-fed cows and calves, or sheep, goats and bison, grazing on the pastures and rangelands of the nation’s 600,000 family farm-scale cattle operations. Why is this?
Healthy pastures, grazed traditionally and regeneratively—meaning they aren’t overgrazed or undergrazed—not only give rise to healthy, deep-rooted, carbon-sequestering native grasses, they also generate healthy, aerated soil that contains not only lots of organic carbon, but trillions of soil microorganisms, including methanotrophic bacteria, which actually consume the methane emitted by cows when they fart, belch or defecate.
"Healthy, well-aerated soils—a characteristic quality of grasslands under Holistic Planned Grazing—harbor bacteria called methanotrophs, which break down methane. Soil-based decomposition of methane may be equal to or greater than ruminant methane production, depending on animal density, soil type and soil health."
So yes, America’s farting cows are a problem, but only if they are confined, milked and/or fattened up in an inhumane, profoundly unnatural feedlots or CAFOs, where there’s no grass, no soil life, nor methanotropic bacteria to keep things in balance.
If properly grazed, America’s cows can be part of the solution.
Michael Pollan, perhaps the most well-known food writer in the U.S., elegantly describes how plant photosynthesis and the holistic grazing of animals draws down carbon from the atmosphere:
Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.
“Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands [and croplands] are properly managed… that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us...
“This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.
We need net-zero emissions by 2030
We’re not going to stop all greenhouse gas emissions in 11 years, no matter what we do. Therefore, our goal for 2030 must be net-zero emissions,whereby the amount of GHGs we’re still putting up into the atmosphere is cancelled out by the amount of atmospheric CO2 that we are drawing down into our soils, forests and regenerated landscapes.
Net-zero emissions in 2030 will have the same climate impact as zero emissions, slowing down global warming enough so that we can move into the next phase (2030-2050) of net-negative emissions, when we will be drawing down increasingly more carbon from the atmosphere than we are putting up, thereby starting to actually reverse global warming.
We’re not going to accomplish this Great Transition with minor, slow-motion reforms. We need renewable energy combined with regenerative, carbon-sequestering food, farming and land use ASAP.
There’s no way around it. If we’re going to reverse global warming, we’re going to have to get rid of factory farms and the near-monopoly control of our food and farming system by giant corporations.
We need a Green New Deal for both urban and rural America, consumers and family farmers alike. And we need it now.
Avocadoes contaminated with listeria. Romaine lettuce recalled for E. coli contamination. It’s no wonder consumers are concerned about getting sick from the very food health experts recommend they eat more of: fresh fruits and vegetables.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serve only toreinforce consumer wariness. The CDC estimates that 48 million people become ill due to foodborne diseases each year. Of those, 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die.
Fortunately for consumers who choose USDA certified organic produce, a recent study provides some good news to counter the CDC’s sobering statistics.
Organic systems grow healthier food
A team of researchers at Washington State University compared organic farming with conventional methods, provoking an important conversation about how we farm, and how this relates to the growing problem of foodborne illness.
What the researchers found is that organic farms encourage a greater abundance and diversity of insects and soil microbes—and that all that diversity reduces the level of foodborne pathogens in the soil and on fresh produce.
With the introduction of new food safety regulations in the US many farmers are feeling under pressure to remove ponds, hedgerows and natural habitats from their land to reduce levels of pathogen-carrying wildlife and livestock.
Yet, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, reducing farmland biodiversity could actually make the problem of foodborne pathogens worse.
As wild habitats around farmland disappear, they said, so too do beneficial insects like the dung beetle and soil microbes whichhelpto eradicate pathogens from the soil.
The results are an important reminder of how organic systems, naturally teeming with life and diversity—both above and below ground—support healthier food for everyone.
The researchers surveyed 70 commercial broccoli fields in the western U.S, looking at levels of E. coli on produce and in the soils. They included both conventional farms and organic farms where natural habitats were kept intact and pesticide-use minimized.
Broccoli, like other types of ‘at risk’ produce is grown close to the ground, which makes it more susceptible to food-borne pathogens.
Scattering pig feces across these broccoli fields to attract feces-feeding dung beetles, the scientists found that organic fields supported more of these insects. On organic farms dung beetles cleaned up about 90 percent of feces in a matter of days, much more quickly than on conventional farms.
One reason for this was the way organic fields supported a much greater diversity of dung beetle species, including those that were highly efficient at cleaning up waste. Conventional fields, on the other hand, tended to be dominated by just one species of dung beetle species (Onthophagus nuchicornis), which is less efficient.
The researchers also sampled the soil across these farms and found that organic plots had more organic matter in the soil. This supported a higher diversity of soil microbes when compared to conventional farms – with possible benefits for controlling foodborne pathogens.
The ‘clean up crew’
While it’s not 100-percent clear how dung beetles reduce pathogens in the soil, the scientists suggest that antibiotic-like compounds in and on their bodies may help kill bacteria in feces as they process it.
Dung beetles also bury feces in the ground. Once below ground, soil microbes continue the process of neutralizing the pathogens.
The soil and insects work together as a kind of ecological ‘clean up crew’ say the researchers. Encouraging their presence—rather than destroying them with pesticides and soil fumigants—may be an important but overlooked aspect of food safety.
Organic food is safe food
The prevalence of microbial contamination in produce grown organically is historically very low. Although some proponents of industrial farming claim that the use of green and animal manures in organic farming leads to greater risk of contamination, most studies don’t bear this out.
Differences have been found between certified and non-certified organic farms, however. A 2004 study found that fresh produce such as tomatoes, leafy greens, lettuce, green peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, broccoli, strawberries and apples sourced from certified organic farms was less likely to have fecal contamination than produce from uncertified farms.
Animal foods may also benefit from organic management. A recent study of dairy farms in New York State, looked at bothconventional and organic dairy farming with respect to foodborne pathogens (E. coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella). While the bacterial mix varied between the two systems, there was little difference in the total pathogenic bacterial load of milk from organic and conventional farms.
Likewise a 2012 Stanford University analysis of the bacterial loads of organic versus conventional food found little difference between the two systems and noted that organic meat products—which don’t allow antibiotics use—may offer extra food safety benefits because they come with a lower risk of harboring antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Growing problem of contaminated food
Recalls of fresh produce are becoming all too commonplace, spurring heightened efforts at reducing the burden of pathogenic bacteria all along the food chain, including at farm level.
At a time when more of us need to eat healthy, fresh and unprocessed foods, it’s ironic that these foods should be the ones most prone to bacterial contamination. One CDC study, for instance, found that nearly half (46 percent) of foodborne illnesses were attributable to fresh produce, particularly leafy vegetables.
While the new Produce Safety Rule (officially known as ‘Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption’) doesn’t explicitly call for removal of natural habitats, it does stress risks to open farmland from water sources and borders that could attract the animals that carry disease.
Yet it has long been known that regenerative and conservation practices can help reduce pathogen load while providing other benefits, such as increased workability of the soil, water conservation and habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects.
Re-examining the food-chain
This latest study out of Washington State suggests that the natural diversity of organic farms provides more checks and balances in terms of food safety.
It adds to the weight of evidence showing that farmers can produce safer food while enriching the on-farm environment. It also shows the importance of widening the scope of our concern around what has been called ‘insect Armageddon’ beyond pretty pollinators like butterflies and bees to the entire ecosystem of more humble insects and microbial life necessary to support a healthy farm system.
Looking past the research itself, it begs us to look beyond on-farm risks to other more significant sources of food contamination. It’s worth remembering that contamination can occur at almost any point in the food chain—and the larger and longer the chain is, the more opportunities there are for food to become contaminated.
On-farm biodiversity combined with shorter food chains could form the basis of a win-win approach that puts farmers at the center of healthy, safe food that does not compromise the environment, food safety or consumer confidence.
Pat Thomas is a journalist, author and campaigner specializing in food, environment and health. See more on her website. To keep up with Organic Consumers Association (OCA) news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.