The debate over the use of antibiotics in farming might have finally hit the mainstream. This summer, ABC’s World News Tonightinvestigated the link between antibiotic use in industrially farmed chicken and the growing scourge of antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections in women. Meanwhile, Consumers Union published a survey in which 60 percent of respondents reported that they’d pay more at the supermarket for meat that was free of antibiotics.
So, I thought it might be a good time to check in with the latest news on antibiotics in agriculture. Let’s round up those antibiotic-dosed dogies!
Antibiotics in ethanol -- and thus your meat -- not coming out any time soon
The broader community of folks who eat food -- all of us, more or less -- don't clearly see the connection between policy and plate and so pay little attention to federal action. Our interests are largely lost because there's little in the way of political reward for serving the silent. Expecting Obama to change that because he read a magazine article is a sucker's bet. Obama's picks are traditional because he's a rational politician, and he's subject to the same incentives all politicians are subject to. The answer isn't in better, or more enlightened, politicians. It's in changing the surrounding political incentives. People who want farm policy to become food policy need to find ways to become louder.
This has been the great challenge for the “food movement” ever since. In last week’s food issue of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan himself points to the greatest opportunity yet for the movement to raise its voice -- passage of California’s GMO labeling referendum, or Prop 37. For the movement, says Pollan, the ballot measure is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.”
The food companies understand the importance of this moment as well as, if not better than, the proposition’s supporters, and Big Food is flooding the airwaves with a torrent of advertising in hopes of drowning out the activists. Led by Monsanto’s $7 million donation, opponents of Prop 37 have spent over $34 million in an ad blitz that has been effective, if not exactly accurate. According to one survey, support for the proposition has dropped from 61-25 in favor of the measure a few weeks ago, to a mere 48-40 in favor now.
Many farmers have ended up face-to-face with biotech giant Monsanto in court, but so far none of them have ever won. In fact, no farmer has challenged Monsanto in court without getting either 1) hammered financially like this farmer or 2) laughed out of court like these ones. But the company's winning streak could soon come to an end.
Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a federal court ruling that Monsanto won against an Indiana soybean farmer. And while that's no guarantee they’ll side with the farmer, I’ve often heard it said that the Supreme Court doesn’t take cases to pat the ruling judge on the back.
What a month it’s been for contentious science! The latest scrum is over a new study from the University of Washington agricultural scientist Charles Benbrook, who looked at the rate of pesticide use in the age of genetically engineered seeds, or GMOs. Benbrook’s results undercut one of the main arguments in favor of the seeds -- the idea that they have significantly brought down pesticide use. In fact, according to Benbrook’s analysis, since their introduction in the 1990s, pesticide use for commodity crops like corn and soy has increased by approximately 7 percent.
What’s interesting is that the biotech industry’s claim about GMOs reducing pesticide use was true when the first GMO seeds came on the market. Those seeds, known as Bt corn and Bt soy cotton, expressed their own pesticide. And when they were the only GMO game in town, Benbrook confirms that pesticide use did drop.
But then came Monsanto and its herbicide-resistant RoundUp Ready product line -- seeds engineered to withstand the pesticide RoundUp (whose active ingredient is glyphosate). These seeds had the opposite effect, encouraging farmers to use a single pesticide, ultimately to excess. Benbrook decided to figure out exactly how much.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture had ended its pesticide use tracking program years earlier, so Benbrook was forced to estimate the total use. He had to come up with a model using incomplete data from the USDA combined with other sources, like planting data and pesticide-use models. He arrived at this estimation: Since GMO crops were introduced 1996, U.S. farmers have used 404 million more pounds of pesticide than they would have with just conventional crops.
This conclusion is (surprise, surprise) not without its detractors.
There’s more to pork than the Baconpocalypse. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about a shortage of industrially produced bacon (something I think we should all be eating less of anyway), but it doesn’t look like there will be a shortage after all. And behind the bacon-flavored hype is another pork story. This one is about corruption linked to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And it’s a mess entirely of the agency’s own making, caused as it is by the USDA’s insistence on letting out its inner Don Draper (i.e. underwriting ad campaigns promoting American agricultural products).
Earlier this week, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced a lawsuit against the USDA over what it alleges was an illegal transfer of $60 million in marketing and promotion money to a political lobbying organization. It’s illegal because the marketing money, so-called “checkoff” funds, cannot by law be used for political lobbying.
In the Great Soda Wars, it often seems that beverage companies have the upper hand. Critics of restricting access to soda and other sweetened beverages have the rhetoric of freedom and liberty -- or rather Freedom! and Liberty! -- to draw on as well as the whole history of failed government attempts to restrict stuff people like that’s bad for you. But now we have the latest entry in the Soda Wars saga; what I’d call: The Researchers Strike Back.
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has published a series of articles dedicated to research and commentary on the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, yes, but also 100 percent fruit juice). The conclusions are striking. As The New York Times put it, the articles offered critics of soda consumption “a potent weapon: strong evidence that replacing sugared drinks with sugar-free substitutes or water really can slow weight gain in children.”
The study itself, published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, was performed by Gilles-Eric Seralini, head of the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering and a scientist who is a self-described opponent of genetically modified food.
The group that co-sponsored the research, the U.K.’s Sustainable Food Trust, declared it to be the first “lifetime feeding trial” of GMOs’ effects in rats; Seralini and his team followed the rats for two years -- the full lifespan of the animal. Most GMO rat feeding studies last no longer than 90 days -- the equivalent to a much longer period in human terms, of course.
Still, it’s worth noting that GMOs entered the marketplace less than 20 years ago, and there haven’t been any lifetime feeding studies of their effects in humans. So it’s worth paying attention to what Seralini has done. Here’s how he constructed the study, as summarized by The New York Times:
In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the first genetically engineered drought-tolerant corn -- despite minimal evidence of its actual drought tolerance. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of analysis suggesting that genetically engineering for this trait won’t give farmers much bang for their buck.
Engineering a plant for drought tolerance, which represents the interaction of many genes, isn’t like doing the same for traits like herbicide tolerance or pesticide expression, which hinge on a single gene. And even if successful, there’s no guarantee that the engineered plant will do as well in normal conditions as it does in drought.
Back in 2002, two political writers, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, wrote a book called TheEmerging Democratic Majority. In it, they traced the demographic changes in the U.S. and pointed to the potential for a growing and persistent electoral advantage for Democrats. It’s a prediction that looks reasonably good at the moment, but at the time it was a risky proposal, and Judis and Teixeira were mocked for their “early call” of these demographic changes.
Well, I’m making an early call of the Emerging Organic Majority. My evidence? For one, the fact that cranky, aging baby boomers are taking to the New York Times op-ed page, as columnist Roger Cohen did recently, with semi-coherent rants against organic food. I’d say that represents a pretty good “contrary indicator” for the organic industry (though you should really read Grist Food Editor Twilight Greenaway for a full and devastating takedown of Cohen. And check out this excellent NYT Room for Debate on the same subject while you’re at it).
In preparation, then, it’s not a bad idea to take stock of what we know about Romney’s food and agriculture policy. Dan Flynn at Food Safety News has already taken to predicting who would staff the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Romney (Hint: It’s all former GOP USDA officials and businessmen). The list was purely speculative, with names mostly drawn from members of Romney’s current agricultural advisory team. And while there’s no hard information out there to tell us who Romney might select to head the agencies that oversee food and agriculture policy, it’s worth attempting a review of his policy positions.
Of course, we’re talking about Mitt Romney here. The man is running a campaign that’s light on policy and light on facts. While his food and ag platform is not quite the blank page that his climate change policy is, there’s precious little to be found. There’s no rural policy or agricultural policy section on his campaign website. Scouring his website for references to agriculture brings up a “coalition page” called “Farmers and Ranchers for Romney.” The top post in this section is entitled “An Energy Blueprint for America” -- and it doesn’t even mention ethanol! Nor will you find a mention of ... food.
The campaign’s immigration page makes a nod toward easing the visa process for seasonal workers, but there’s no discussion of comprehensive reform -- something that the agricultural sector wants. Romney is in a bit of a bind, of course, because Republican governors in several states have passed draconian immigration laws that have hurt farmers’ ability to find workers to harvest their crops.
A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy, and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him on Twitter.