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Factory Farms


Wasted milk produces as much CO2 as 20,000 cars

Photo by Chelsea Phillips.

The time to start crying over spilled milk is NOW. According to researchers from the University of Edinburgh, wasted milk in the U.K. creates the equivalent of 110,000 tons of CO2 every year. That's equivalent to the emissions from 20,000 cars.  

Read more: Factory Farms, Food


‘Weight of the Nation’ takes a realistic look at a looming crisis

HBO has a history of tackling serious American health-care crises. In recent years, the cable network has taken on addiction and Alzheimer's to much critical acclaim. And now the network has turned its attention to another huge health problem: obesity and its enormous economic, emotional, social, and health cost on individuals, families, communities, and the country at large.

As Americans have gained weight in recent years, rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related health problems have also skyrocketed. Rates of Type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult-onset diabetes”) are soaring among kids. And this is a generation of people that may well die at a younger age than their parents, largely because of medical concerns associated with excess weight.

These facts have become commonplace to those of us who have been paying attention. Still, The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic serves as a clarion call to the country to take action -- and fast -- to combat this pernicious, complex problem that has myriad root causes.


Leaked letters suggest Maryland’s governor is henpecked by the chicken industry

Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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.


Do the feds care about antibiotics in animal feed?

Photo by the University of Missouri Extension.

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.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food


‘Food, Inc.’ chicken farmer has a new, humane farm

A version of this post originally appeared on Eat with Care.

Carole Morison in the now-famous Food, Inc. scene.

Twelve minutes into the 2009 documentary Food, Inc., Carole Morison appears on the screen -- haggard, tired, quietly seething. Squinting into the sun, she tells the camera, “I’ve just made up my mind; I’m gonna say what I have to say,” and she proceeds to show and tell.

Wearing a face mask, she steps inside one of her chicken houses, where she is raising broilers for Perdue. Inside she reveals a crowded sea of birds bumping into each other and squawking in agitation. Chickens are shown taking a few steps and falling down -- due to the weight they’ve been bred to put on rapidly. Others are on their backs, gasping for breath inside a chicken house they cannot leave. Carole picks up a few dead birds and throws them in a pile.

She walks back outside, removes her face mask, wipes the dust off her face, and says with disgust, “That’s normal.”

But it’s far from normal today. Carole Morison is still stepping into her chicken houses in Pocomoke, Md., but now the chickens follow her. Rather than flee, they try to roost on her shoulder. Now she doesn’t have to wear a face mask, and she’s hopeful that she may be able to take antibiotics again after years of developing allergies while using Perdue’s antibiotic-laden feed. And in a widely circulated photograph taken for Flavor magazine, she looks 10 years younger than she did in the movie.

Carole today, managing the new farm's pasture.

“Everybody tells me that!” she said in a recent phone interview. "I just look at the new photo and say, man, I need to get my hair cut.”

Last year, in an inspiring turnaround, Carole and her husband, Frank, launched a pastured egg operation on their Bird’s Eye View Farm. When Perdue terminated their contract just before Food, Inc. was released (the reason given was Carole’s refusal to use dark, tunnel-ventilated chicken houses), it seemed unlikely they’d ever get back into farming. On the Delmarva Peninsula, nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, the vast majority of chicken farmers work for big agribusiness, entering into contracts in which they don’t own the birds or have much say in their raising, but are expected to invest in the expensive infrastructure to house and feed them. Carole wasn’t about to do that again.


It’s official: China now eats twice the meat we do

If meat eating is a race, China is so far ahead of us we can't even see what color shorts it's wearing. Americans still eat about twice as much of the stuff on a per-person basis, but, well, China has a lot more people.

If you like geeking out about who eats what where and how it impacts the environment, you might enjoy spending some time with this very data-rich post about the recent doubling of China’s meat consumption from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). But, for those who want a cheat sheet, I've collected what I think are some of the most memorable bits below.

First, take a look at this very telling chart, which shows plain and clear how fast things have been changing:


Burger King makes a big pledge — but what’s ‘cage-free pork’?

It appears the bulk of Burger King's pork is currently being served at breakfast, but there are plans in the works for a pulled pork sandwich from the chain. (Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.)

As of today, Burger King is calling itself the “first U.S. national chain to pledge cage-free pork and eggs.”

Never heard of “cage-free pork”? Neither had I. In fact, I’m guessing that the PR executives at Burger King may have invented it. There are cage-free eggs, yes. That term refers to eggs from chickens that are raised outside of tiny battery cages (the industry standard), but are still in confinement.

As the AP article makes clear, Burger King is referring to pork raised without gestation crates -- a practice of confining pregnant sows to spaces roughly the width of their own bodies that has long been considered the worst of the worst when it comes to animal husbandry. So yes, the pigs will be free of a certain kind of cage, or pen. Does that mean they won’t live in concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs)? Unlikely.

No doubt adding in “cage-free pork” beside the eggs seemed like a nice way to streamline Burger King’s big headline. And like the term “free-range” (which itself has no legal meaning and is now used solely for marketing purposes), cage-free sounds so humane, doesn’t it?

Not that we can chalk this whole announcement up to humane-washing.

Read more: Animals, Factory Farms, Food


Would you like a bad farm bill — or a terrible one?

Photo by Jeff Cushner.

The 2012 Farm Bill finally appears to be moving forward. Sort of.

On Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released their draft of the half-trillion-dollar bill. But not much has actually changed for the better since the behind-closed-doors "Secret Farm Bill" process from last fall. Ag Committee members are still planning deep cuts to crucial conservation funding that both keeps farmers from planting up every acre of available land and ensures that their farming techniques don't endanger clean water and air. Meanwhile, blustery boasts of eliminating farm subsidies are highly exaggerated: Last week, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that "farm subsidy days are numbered." But as was decided last fall, the committee simply plans to shuffle the bulk of "direct payment" subsidy dollars over to crop insurance, where they will continue to prop up the "Big Five" commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton).

Shortly after the draft was released, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) put out a statement claiming the bill “will do more harm than good.” Here's more from EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox:

It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.


Maryland blazes the trail to get arsenic out of chicken feed

If you saw "Arsenic in Our Chicken?," Nick Kristof’s much-read New York Times column from earlier this month, you’ve heard about the widespread use of some unexpected additives in chicken farming.

Studies released this year detected caffeine, acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac), various antibiotics, arsenic, and more in feather meal, a substance made from ground poultry feathers and used in animal feed. The findings were the results of studies by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State University.

“I grew up on a farm, and I thought I knew what to expect in my food. But Benadryl? Arsenic?” Kristof wrote. The studies, he added, “raise serious questions about the food we eat and how we should shop.”

Where arsenic is concerned, his alarm is not unfounded. For decades, chicken producers have used arsenic as a way to boost the birds’ growth and cut down on production costs. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested 100 chickens that had been raised on a popular arsenic-based additive called Roxarsone, and found that half the chickens had inorganic arsenic in their livers -- a known carcinogen that can cause cancer even at the low levels found naturally in our environment.


Where ‘the whole animal’ meets pink slime

Photo by Teresia.

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.