If you’re Monsanto, you’re probably really proud of your genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. Introduced in 2008, the beets are the company’s most recent Roundup Ready product genetically engineered to withstand the direct application of the herbicide glyphosate. Immediately successful, they took over the sugar beet market within two years. By 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto’s genetically modified variety.
This matters to us all because about 50 percent of white sugar sold here is made from sugar beets. In other words, unless that bag of sugar you just bought is labeled “Certified Organic” or “100 percent cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar made from GMO crops.
If the food police has a chief, it may very well be New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His battles with the food industry are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. And his latest gambit is his boldest yet: Bloomberg just announced a plan to ban the sale of any sweetened beverage over 16 ounces at all restaurants, delis, and sports arenas in New York City.
And just so the soda industry doesn’t feel singled out, this ban would apply to sports drinks and sweetened iced tea, along with pretty much anything with added sugars -- although the Starbucks Frappucino likely makes it through on a technicality; dairy products like it (as well as fruit juice, “diet” drinks, and booze) are exempted.
So why enact an outright ban on large drinks when there’s evidence [PDF] that a penny-per-ounce soda tax would have cut consumption while generating needed revenue for the public coffers? Do you really have to ask?
When President Obama announced a new program during the recent G8 summit to help bolster food and agriculture in developing nations through corporate “pledges,” I was most struck by his choice of partners in the effort. A Reuters report on the announcement read:
The initiative includes a new partnership with agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill, along with smaller companies, including almost 20 from Africa, which will commit some $3 billion for projects to help farmers in the developing world build local markets and improve productivity.
Those three companies are the good food movement’s equivalent of the law firm Dewey, Cheatem & Howe -- not the folks it wants to see put in charge of anything, much less “feeding the world.” These companies believe that exporting western-style industrial agriculture to the developing world (Africa in particular) is key to ensuring enough food for a growing population. And they maintain this position despite the growing evidence that industrial agriculture can’t solve the problem.
It’s always nice when someone writes an article so you don’t have to. In this case it was New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who has been doing the thankless job of writing about the health risks of toxic chemicals in our environment, as well as the politicization of the regulatory process that’s supposed to be in place.
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone seems to get all the attention. Yes, the low-oxygen area that forms every year in the waters surrounding the Mississippi Delta is the largest dead zone -- currently around the size of Massachusetts -- but it’s not the only one in U.S. waters.
The Chesapeake Bay has a dead zone, too. In fact, it covered a third of the Chesapeake last year and continues to grow. And last month, the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science gave the Bay a D+ in its annual “health report card.”
About a year and a half ago, in response to the crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in to put the states that surround the Chesapeake on a “pollution diet,” meaning the state has to keep its “Total Maximum Daily Load” -- whether from agricultural, municipal, or private landowners -- down to a minimum.
It seems like everywhere we turn, there’s more evidence of industrial agriculture’s reckless use of antibiotics. The latest example: antibiotics in ethanol production.
As we reported recently here on Grist, this isn’t just a waste of important medicines. It may also contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And that’s because the main by-product of the ethanol production process, the leftover corn mash known as distillers grains, has become a major ingredient in animal feed over the last decade. More than 30 million metric tons of the made-in-the-USA stuff are fed to beef cattle, dairy cows, and pigs here and abroad every year.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not track exact figures, meaning there’s no way to know exactly how much is used, the agency's own research has shown antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin, which are important for human medicine, at detectable levels in distillers grain. A 2010 study by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine found enough erythromycin present in samples of the distillers grains it tested to cause resistance to develop in certain bacteria -- compelling evidence that the risks of using antibiotics to make ethanol are real.
A new coalition is trying to throw sand in the gears of industrial agriculture’s chemical treadmill. And this one just may have what it takes to slow it down. I’m referring to the fight over USDA approval for Dow AgroScience’s new genetically modified corn seeds (brand name “Enlist”), which are resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D.
This is part of biotech’s “superweed” strategy, by which they hope to address the fact that farmers across the country are facing an onslaught of weeds impervious to the most popular herbicide in use, Monsanto’s glyphosate or RoundUp (and in some cases impervious to machetes as well!). Of course, this is a problem of the industry’s own making. It was overuse of glyphosate caused by the market dominance of Monsanto’s set of glyphosate-resistant genetically engineered seeds that put farmers in this fix in the first place.
So it’s interesting to see this new coalition’s opposition to 2,4-D getting so much traction so quickly. Perhaps it’s because the group -- dubbed Save Our Crops -- isn’t made up of environmentalists and sustainable agriculture types, but rather Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic conventional farmers and large food processors (and Organic Valley, the organic co-operative organization which is both a producer and a processor).
I know what you’re thinking: “Tom, it’s been ages since you wrote about high-fructose corn syrup.” And you’re right! It has. But as I’m feeling petulantly defiant, I think it’s time to take another look at America’s favorite sweetener. You see, while the HFCS industry still claims there’s no difference between how the body handles HFCS and sugar, a new study has come out suggesting just the opposite. And in a very big way.
The blaring headline version of the new study’s conclusion would read: “High-Fructose Corn Syrup Causes Autism.”
And while that may be a bit of an overstatement, it’s not off by much. In a provocative new peer-reviewed study published in Clinical Epigenetics, researchers led by a former FDA toxicologist purport to have found a very real link between HFCS consumption and autism.
A recent New York Times op-ed declared that sustainable meat is a “myth.” Whether pastured, small-scale, large-scale, rotationally grazed, locavore, industrialized, etc., all meat is essentially the same and none of it is sustainable. So says author James McWilliams who points, as many have, to the climate impact of livestock production.
I take issue with some of McWilliams’ figures (for example, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s explanation of pastured meat's reduced climate footprint), but by and large I agree! Meat production at its current scale -- and the scale it’s projected to reach as the developing world increases its consumption -- is not sustainable. Period.
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. His writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.