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.
When I examined the reasons agriculture often gets a pass in climate negotiations recently, I pointed to the fact that precise measurement of the climate impact of many industrial farming practices remains difficult and controversial. This is especially true when it comes to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
The effect of excess fertilizer on our waterways gets much more attention than it does when it enters the air. And for good reason. It’s toxic to consume nitrates in your drinking water. We’re learning that agricultural overuse of fertilizer has contaminated the drinking water of whole regions of California. Meanwhile, nitrogen that runs into the ocean causes oxygen-depleted “dead zones” around the world. The dead zone in our own Gulf Of Mexico (measured every summer) keeps getting larger -- last year’s was the size of New Jersey.
While we know that excess fertilizer escapes farm fields as gas, exactly how much and where it goes has largely been a mystery. But it has been a mystery worth solving, as the amount of nitrous oxide -- the third most potent greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide and methane -- in the atmosphere is increasing fast. In fact, it has risen by 20 percent since the Industrial Revolution, with a good part of that increase coming in the last 50 years. For the sake of comparison, atmospheric carbon dioxide rates have increased around 40 percent in the same period. But nitrous oxide is around 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. And it’s also a major ozone-depleting chemical.
Pinpointing the cause of these nitrous emissions has been made especially difficult by the fact that every molecule of nitrous oxide looks alike. And there are so many sources -- from microbes in farm fields, oceans, and natural landscapes to oceanic phenomena and human activities like rainforest destruction.
As a result, it has been impossible to know just how much is coming from fertilizer use; and Big Ag has never been made accountable. But that may have all just changed.
It hasn’t been a good week for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- if you care about public health. If, however, you think corporate interests and politics should trump science, well, then it’s been one red-letter day after another.
First, the FDA announced its refusal to ban the common endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Then, on an unrelated note, The New York Timespublished a lengthy analysis of the repeated interference by the Obama White House in the FDA’s decision-making process. (The White House meddled in calorie-labeling on movie popcorn, warning labels on low-SPF sunscreen, and an ozone-deplete chemical in certain asthma inhalers.) It’s a distressing pattern of political involvement in science that Obama inherited from the Bush administration.
But it gets worse. Or better if you’re Monsanto. The deadline for the FDA to respond to the Just Label It petition for genetically modified food labeling arrived last week. And, as required by law, the agency responded. Sort of. It supplied a letter to the group behind the petition that said, essentially, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
It’s no secret that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would like nothing more than to send Americans back in time. Given their recent attempts at banning contraception, we might think that digging up a DeLorean or getting Mr. Peabody to dust off his Way Back Machine were perhaps their best shots at it. But it now appears that the House GOP may have discovered an easier way -- the 2012 Farm Bill.
Where are we going? Back to the great year of 1949. Ah, 1949. The Yanks beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series (on their way to five straight World Series victories) while Hedy Lamarr ruled the box office in the thrilling epic Samson & Delilah. It was also the year William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As for America, its population, at just under 150 million, was less than half of what it is today. The Interstate Highway System didn’t even exist yet.
In 1949, approximately 15 percent of Americans lived on farms and almost 10 percent still worked in agriculture overseen by 5 million farmers (compared to less than a million today).
It was also the year Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 1949, the only piece of “permanent legislation” when it comes to farm subsides. You see, the farm bill gets adjusted and reauthorized every five years, but virtually all the programs and subsidies within it expire at the end of each five-year period. The provisions of the 1949 act never do.
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.