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January 9, 2012

Changing Things Up
I haven't really been blogging here at Beyond Green much over the last year. All my blogging action now is over at Grist -- and that's where you should go to read my latest stuff. Of course, I'm also Executive Director of the new Food & Environment Reporting Network, which will get busier and busier.

As a result, I'm transforming Beyond Green into a Tumblr. So you should check it out. And add its RSS feed to your reader.

Thanks!


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July 6, 2011

Closing School Kitchens? Bad, Philly!
Here's a depressing lede from the Philly Inquirer:
Hot, healthy lunches may be a thing of the past for some children as the Philadelphia School District closes kitchens at 26 elementary and middle schools throughout the city to help bridge a $629 million budget gap
Saving all of $2.3 million by making it even harder to feed kids healthy food strikes me as a bad deal. Students learn on their stomachs, to paraphrase. Not only is this shortsighted, lousy policy, it's another sad example of how we as a society seem to be enjoying our deficit cutting mania by making sure the only ones who get hurt are the poor, the elderly, the infirm or minorities. Proud much, America?

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June 9, 2011

FDA Admits There's Arsenic in Supermarket Chicken

Chicken breasts. Why is Big Ag playing chicken with our health?Back in March, Tom Philpott wrote about the "insane" practice of feeding factory-farmed chickens arsenic:

The idea is that it makes them grow faster -- fast growth being the supreme goal of factory animal farming -- and helps control a common intestinal disease called coccidiosis.

The industry emphasizes that the arsenic is applied in organic form, which isn't immediately toxic. "Organic" in the chemistry sense, that is, not agricultural sense -- i.e., molecules containing carbon atoms as well as arsenic. Trouble is, arsenic shifts from organic to inorganic rather easily. Indeed, "arsenic in poultry manure is rapidly converted into an inorganic form that is highly water soluble and capable of moving into surface and ground water," write Keeve E. Nachman and Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Inorganic arsenic is the highly poisonous stuff -- see the absurd and wonderful Cary Grant classic Arsenic and Old Lace, or the EPA's less whimsical take here and here [PDF]. The fact that the organic arsenic added to feed turns inorganic when it makes its way into manure is chilling, given the mountains of concentrated waste generated by factory poultry farms.

One way farmers add arsenic to chicken feed is through drugs such as Pfizer's Roxarsone. And the industry has (as with most of its worst practices) strenuously defended the use of such additives. While the USDA has by and large ignored the risks (mostly in the form of an unwillingness to look for arsenic in chicken), finally -- astonishingly -- the FDA has acted.

According to the Associated Press, the FDA has confirmed that chickens given the drug (frequently those destined for the low-cost supermarket shelf) do indeed test positive for inorganic arsenic -- just as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found [PDF] back in 2006. Despite this earlier evidence, the industry had continued to steadfastly maintain that the arsenic could not and did not make it into the meat.

As part of its announcement, the FDA said the arsenic levels are low and represent no meaningful risk to those eating Roxarsone-treated chicken -- a point predictably emphasized by the National Chicken Council.

Tellingly, Pfizer announced that it would withdraw Roxarsone from the market starting next month. The FDA didn't order Pfizer to withdraw the drug -- the company did so voluntarily.

Of course, this does not solve the problem of arsenic in chicken. As Michael Hansen of Consumers Union observed in a press release, "There are several other arsenic-containing drugs for animals that are on the market, and those should also be withdrawn or banned, as they have been in the European Union."

As Food & Water Watch reported in March, "between 2000 and 2008, the USDA tested only 1 out of every 12 million domestically produced chickens." So it's not as if the government is tracking this problem in any systematic way.

It boggles my mind that the industry is so willing to risk consumer panic over this issue and wait for the media or government officials to force its hand. Instead of making smart business decisions and ending dangerous practices that might give consumers cause to avoid their product, they instead try to hold back the tide. One drug gets withdrawn while others remain. The FDA tests 100 chickens (as they did in this latest test), while millions are produced and sold every year.

It's no wonder that the so-called "ag-gag" bills remain popular among industrial farmers and their political lackeys. They can't seem to let go of consumer ignorance as a key business strategy. With arsenic in chicken, the FDA, the USDA, and the chicken industry seem to care far more about the perception of having acted rather than the reality of ensuring all chicken sold in the U.S. is free from this toxic substance.

Originally published at Grist

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June 2, 2011

Philly's Green Stormwater Plan a Go
If it's seems like years ago that I wrote about Philly's innovative stormwater infrastructure plan, that's because it was. Philly announced the -- literally -- groundbreaking plan to invest billions in building green roofs, permeable concrete sidewalks and other techniques so as to avoid investing several times that amount in sewer lines, holding tanks and other old-style stormwater solutions. Via Tyler Falk at SmartPlanet, the city announced that the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have both given the ambitious plan the "green" light:
The City of Philadelphia announced that it will move forward on a plan to invest $2 billion over the next 25 years on green infrastructure to clean up the city’s water.

The plan calls for building green infrastructure like stormwater tree trenches, vegetated bumpouts, porous asphalt, rain gardens, and sidewalk planters. These natural infrastructure projects to filter rainwater and allow it to slowly seep back into the ground rather than runoff into waterways, taking pollutants with it.
When completed, this new system would be unique among large US cities -- all part of Mayor Michael Nutter's goal of making Philly one of the greenest cities in America. A very worthy endeavor indeed. Oh, and look! A stormwater website! And video!

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May 24, 2011

Big Ag Loves Pesticides - And So Should You!

Business man holding carrotsPower to the people pesticide industry!The produce lobby is livid that consumers might be concerned about pesticides. They are taking their fury out on the USDA for its annual report on pesticide use (via The Washington Post):

In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 18 produce trade associations complained that the data have "been subject to misinterpretation by activists, which publicize their distorted findings through national media outlets in a way that is misleading for consumers and can be highly detrimental to the growers of these commodities."

This report happens also to be the basis for the Environmental Working Group's popular "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of fruit and vegetables with the most and least pesticide residues. The produce lobbyists are pretty steamed about those, too:

"There are some organizations with agendas that do want to scare people away from fresh produce," said Kathy Means, a vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, a major industry group. "We don't want anyone eating unsafe foods, of course. But for those products that are grown legally and the science says [the pesticide] is safe, we don't want people turning away."

Never mind that many consumers want this information. As with labels for genetically modified food, the industry's position is that ignorance leads to bliss (or at least profits!). The industry maintains that even the Dirty Dozen show pesticide residues beneath EPA limits, and to them, the letter of the law is what matters. Of course, if you believe that pesticides are more dangerous than government scientists are willing to admit then these limits are insufficient. Then there's the whole concept of synergistic effects -- combinations of several pesticides in small amounts can deliver a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts toxic punch.

As The Washington Post article observes, recent research showed that children exposed to higher levels of a once-common class of pesticides known as organophosphates displayed lower IQs, suggesting that "safe" levels of pesticides may not be safe at all. Organophosphate pesticides have also been linked to ADHD in kids. And research that came out last summer suggested that in families that eat conventional produce, pesticide levels in kids' blood can spike beyond EPA limits during the height of fruit and vegetable seasons.

Indeed, I'd feel somewhat more sympathetic to the industry's complaints about lists like the Dirty Dozen if not for the fact that they continue to fight tooth and nail the EPA's attempts to regulate pesticides. In fact, there is a massive battle going on right now in Congress over this very subject. A legal case from the 1990s has led to a court order requiring EPA permits for pesticide application. This represents a major shift for farmers, who can pretty much apply pesticides as, when, and where they want. The question now is what the exact permitting process will be and how onerous it will be with the EPA set to establish a final rule by this fall. See this McClatchy article for a bit more detail on the issue.

The GOP -- never a party to shrink from radical change or from heeling to the demands of agribusiness -- is attempting to get around the whole problem by exempting pesticides entirely from the Clean Water Act. This, despite the fact that pesticide run-off is one of the largest water pollution issues we face. A bill to do just that -- with a name designed to misdirect and obfuscate, The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011, has already passed the House and could pass the Senate soon.

At the same time, the GOP also opposes reform to the woefully outdated Toxic Substances Control Act. The update, known as the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, would require greater safety testing for the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals in use today, most of which were approved based on little or no data, and would move the burden to corporations to prove the safety of industrial chemicals. It would also tighten the EPA's approach to risk assessment so that the potential for harm becomes more important.

So while the produce lobby is accusing food safety experts of "fearmongering" and crying crocodile tears over the fact that misplaced consumer "panic" over pesticides will lead people to avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables, it's worth noting that it doesn't have to be this way. The produce lobby could support consumers' desires (and dollars) and push farmers to adopt more aggressive tactics to reduce pesticide use. It is possible. There is a middle ground between annually dousing crops with millions of pounds of toxic chemicals and going totally organic. It's called Integrated Pest Management, it's (of course) more common in Europe than in the U.S. and there's no reason why it can't become the norm here. Oh wait. There is a reason. It's our horribly corrupted political system. Right. Almost forgot.

Originally published at Grist

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January 13, 2011

Agribiz: Food or the Environment But Not Both
In a piece on the EPA's attempts to save the Chesapeake Bay as well as USDA's new policy of acknowledging risks of genetic contamination or organics by GMO crops, Tom Philpott has a key insight about industrial agriculture:
In both the case of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's vast chicken factories and that of GM alfalfa, industrial agriculture is admitting that it needs to trash its neighbors and the surrounding landscape to thrive. It wants us to believe that there are no alternatives if we want to feed ourselves plentifully.
The idea that protecting the environment is a luxury we can't afford is a standard defense for corporations in many sectors -- though typically only trotted out by the dirtiest industrial polluters (e.g. coal and oil companies).

This argument tends to be more effective when the environment that's being trashed has already been depopulated by economic forces (as in the sad decline of rural America). And as the natural gas drilling industry has discovered, it's a lot easier to steamroll the widely disbursed residents of West Texas than it is when you're drilling near population centers in New York or Pennsylvania. Still, the thing agribusiness has going for it is that, by and large, it has moved its biggest operations away from media and public attention.

But I do wonder in the two cases Philpott addresses, if agribusiness is using this threat as more an act of desperation than clever strategy. In the case of the Chesapeake, for which it is the primary cause of pollution at this point, industrial agriculture is mostly benefiting now from the unwillingness of local governments to take responsibility for the mess created by overuse of fertilizer and under-treatment of factory farm waste.

In fact, the "sky is falling" rhetoric is a direct response to the EPA's move to penalize state and local governments for polluting the bay. As this WaPo article documented, the actual desire is to force farmers to pay, not consumers. When faced with the continued death of an eco-system from which millions of residents of several states benefit, claims of falling skies may not quite be enough.

As for the new USDA policy that supports protecting organic agriculture from contamination by genetically modified crops -- on this point, agribusiness is all bluster. The USDA is partly doing this out of good intentions, but mostly because the science, and far more importantly, the courts, are demanding this policy shift. Even the Supreme Court, packed as it is with an industry-friendly majority, had to acknowledge the real risks of genetic contamination to other, legitimate forms of agriculture. And the series of losses in court over GM sugar beets has forced the USDA to bend, if not break, the law to maintain any plantings.

This fight is one to be welcomed. It represents the coming of age of organic ag. It doesn't mean the reign of agribusiness is anywhere near over -- but it does mean that organic agriculture is big enough and financially successful enough to represent a sector worthy of legal and policy protections. After all, there's now real money at stake!

Look at me getting all sunny. Must be something in the water... Too bad agribusiness doesn't want to clean it up.

Photo credit: Disney

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January 11, 2011

Bluefin Need More Help than a Boycott

Grist has a good piece by Marc Rumminger on the call for a consumer bluefin tuna boycott by the Center for Biological Diversity. So, yeah, you all should stop eating Atlantic bluefin tuna. Rumminger also reminds us that, thanks to the Center which submitted a successful petition, the National Marine Fisheries Service is actively considering declaring the Atlantic bluefin tuna an endangered species. This wouldn't do much to stop Japan, which eats about 80% of the Atlantic bluefin catch -- but would end legal consumption in the US and protect the bluefin's breeding ground.

But another sustainable fish article worth your time is Salon's interview with Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, on the very possibility of sustainable seafood. He makes several good points. He observes that consumer behavior is useful, but can't really save particular fish:
My feeling is that the "choose the right fish" approach is an excellent way to teach consumers about the different aspects of fishing and aquaculture and that does have a multiplier effect over time. But as an economic lever for change it doesn't really have that much effect.
And, of course, he notes the irony that identifying a fish as "sustainable" can put that fish at risk for overexploitation since "everyone will eat it and then it won't be sustainable anymore. It will be in our stomachs."

As a sidenote, he also recommends East Coasters use the Blue Ocean Institute's sustainable seafood guide. The Institute seems to have greater knowledge of particular East Coast fisheries than the more popular California-based Seafood Watch -- worth knowing given that sometimes particular species or areas are sustainable within a larger fishery that's not. This only works, however, if you know and trust the source of your fish.

Which brings us back to the bluefin: the bluefin boycott by the Center for Biological Diversity is really just a marketing campaign for the real action -- its campaign to have the government list the species as endangered. It's nice to think that everyone can do the right thing and save the world -- but we have governments for a reason and sometimes they have to actually, you know, do something. So, unless the US and other governments start taking a stand and enacting real protections for threatened fish like the bluefin, don't expect any happy endings.

Photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh

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