Use pesticides on a field for long enough and the bugs that you're supposed to be defeating will adapt. But you know what adapts faster than bugs? Bacteria. They can run through multiple generations in a day or so, and a new study shows that when bugs team up with a certain pesticide-loving bacteria, the bugs, too, can develop resistance to pesticides incredibly quickly.
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.
The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled "The Myth of Sustainable Meat," contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain't Normal.
Let's go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we'll all perish. I assume he's figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions. But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane. This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds: herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.
When Sofia Gatica’s 3-day-old daughter died from kidney failure, she didn't connect it with an environmental problem. It was only as she noticed neighbor after neighbor developing health problems that she started to wonder about the agrochemicals that were being sprayed on the farms nearby.
"I started seeing children with mouth covers, mothers with scarves wrapped around their heads to cover their baldness, due to chemotherapy," she told me recently through a translator. It was then, Gatica says, she knew something was seriously wrong.
Her city, Ituzaingó, Argentina, is surrounded by soybean fields where farmers use some of the same chemicals used on crops grown in the U.S. -- chiefly glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's weed killer Roundup. But in Ituzaingó, the industrial-scale farms that grow soybeans for export have crept right up to the edge of the residential community, and many of the chemicals are sprayed aerially, allowing them to drift wherever the wind or water will take them.
"There are soybeans to the north, to the south, and to the east, and when they spray, they spray over the people because there's no distance," Gatica said, adding that some homes are less than five yards from where the fields start.
1. FDA and antibiotics: If you’re confused, it’s not your fault
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the courts have recently told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it has to regulate several commonly used antibiotics if they can’t be proven safe. The ruling was the result of a long-running lawsuit by a group of environmental and public health advocates lead by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and gave many in the food movement a reason to feel cautiously optimistic.
Meanwhile, the FDA has been moving at a glacial pace on its expressed intention to put a voluntary control on antibiotics in place. And this week it finally put the rubber to the road, in the form of a major press effort and the release of a new set of guidelines for cooperating companies. (The two events are supposedly unrelated, but it’s not hard to see how FDA may want to distract attention away from a court order that requires it to play the bad cop, if it can play up and formalize its role as good cop.)
The agency’s press release is even called "FDA takes steps to protect public health," and in it the agency promises to “promote the judicious use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals” [emphasis mine]. FDA also comes right out and acknowledges that “antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections.” In other words, the agency is talking. Whether it'll do any walking to go along with it is yet to be seen.
Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.
Q.What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?
A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.
It’s been three weeks since beekeepers filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove clothianidin -- the pesticide widely suspected to be wreaking havoc on honeybee populations -- from the market. In that time three studies have been released that strengthen the link between bee die-offs and neonicotinoids (neonics), the chemical family of which clothianidin is a member. Here’s what they found:
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.”