The Potential of Modernizing the Safety Assessment of GMOs

On July 2 of this year, President Obama issued a bulletin called “Improving Transparency and Ensuring Continued Safety in Biotechnology.”  It’s a seemingly benign document, but the bulletin calls for more coordination between the EPA, USDA and FDA when framing the regulatory process, but also calls for “an outside, independent analysis of the future landscape of the products of biotechnology.”  Currently, the various agencies have relied upon the principle of “substantial equivalence,” which considers basic nutritional characteristics that non-GMOs and GMOs share, as well as how they taste, look, smell and feel.  The principle of substantial equivalence was first employed in the 1970s to assess the safety of medical devices.  In the early 90s, Michael Taylor, currently the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and formerly a lobbyist for Monsanto, established the official U.S. stance on genetically modified foods.  He embedded the notion in policy that if genetically modified food is “substantially equivalent” to non-GM food in composition, then there is no need to test it for safety or to label it.  In concert with the federal government’s stance on GMOs, the biotech industry has set up user agreements that explicitly forbid the use of the seeds for any independent research.  This is why people who advocate for the spread of genetically modified organisms can justifiably claim that no research has ever been conducted that shows GMOs to be harmful.  The only research on GE seeds that has been published has been approved by the industry.

Obama’s bulletin, then, may signal an end to the business as usual approach to the rubber stamping of any and all genetically modified plants or animals.  Back in the 90s, when GMOs were being initially introduced, most people were ignorant about them, which allowed the biotech companies to set the rules and standards.  The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, first introduced in 1986 and last updated in 1992, will again be updated under the terms of Obama’s bulletin.  Specifically, a newly created group, the Biotechnology Working Group Under the Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee, which will include representatives from the Executive Office of the President, the EPA, the FDA and the USDA, will be assigned to take steps to increase the transparency of the regulatory systems for biotechnology products.  All of this could simply prove to be a red herring, but the more significant assignment given the group will be a provision that will require that the FDA, EPA and USDA commission external and independent analyses of new GE products.  These external studies are meant to identify risks to human health and the environment and will be re-examined every five years.  The Obama bulletin also encourages public discourse, the first such session occurring in Washington, D.C. in the fall.

That the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Council on Environmental Quality all weighed in on the bulletin released July 2 can perhaps suggest that the increasingly contentious conversation about the safety of GMOs will be given a closer look.  It also suggests that the concerns of the organic movement are being recognized and heeded.  Or it could all come to nothing, especially considering the wording of the bulletin which contains the phrase “Continued Safety in Biotechnology.”  It is, of course, far too soon to evaluate the outcome of this initiative.  That it calls for “high standards that are based on the best available science that deliver appropriate health and environmental protection” is encouraging, but its other goal, one of making the regulatory process more “efficient,” could simply be a way of giving biotech companies better and faster access to markets than they already have.  It’s all pretty tame stuff, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a start.  We’ll see.

Recipe of the Week

This is a very simple salad, one meant to accompany a more complicated entree.  I was sceptical because of the lack of fat in the dressing, but it was quite good.

Butter Lettuce with Red Onion and Black Pepper

One head of organic red butter lettuce

juice from two small limes

onion slices from 1/2 a small red onion

plenty of black pepper, freshly ground

Combine and toss.

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A Renewed Argument Against Factory Beef

In 1871, Colonel R. I. Dodge, when traveling along the Arkansas River, came upon a herd of bison that he measured to be 25 miles wide and 50 miles long.  It has been estimated that 20 to 30 million bison once dominated the American landscape.  Their numbers were so great that they essentially formed the ecosystem of the American prairie.  They did this because of their grazing habits, tending to graze in patches, revisiting some areas and ignoring others, and by consuming only dominant grasses, leaving wild flowers and other species untouched.  This method of feeding resulted in an increase of animal and plant diversity; for instance, prairie dogs flourished in land made bare by the bison, which in turn provided food for foxes, hawks and eagles.  The bison also provided the land with nitrogen which was returned to the soil in the form of urine.  Another of their habits was to roll repeatedly in exposed soil, which created wallows.  In the spring, the wallows would fill with rainwater creating temporary pools which supported other wildlife.  In short, bison created a complementary ecosystem beneficial to all.  An understanding of how this system worked has led American cattle ranchers to utilize similar grazing practices to restore an ecosystem largely destroyed by modern industrial methods which involved the creation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Current reality provides incentives only for livestock weight gains which leads to management practices that maximize livestock production, leaving little room for independent ranchers to employ methods that would foster better engineering of rangeland vegetation by livestock.  Instead, the meat processing industry is now largely controlled by multinational and economically powerful companies that make it difficult for alternative producers to slaughter their animals and get their products to market.  CAFOs have replaced a system of food animal production which was integrated with crop production in ways that were beneficial to both farmers and society as a whole.  As a means of obtaining fast profits, the beef industry confines large numbers of cattle in confined spaces, an unnatural and unhealthy condition that effectively concentrates too much manure in too small an area.  Many of the problems associated with CAFOs are directly related to the storage and disposal of the manure.  These operations however, did not evolve on their own, but are a direct product of public policy.  By encouraging the growth of genetically modified corn, which has become so cheap that it is used almost exclusively by the industry as feed, CAFOs have been able to significantly reduce their costs.  Alternative production methods by independent ranchers can deliver abundant animal products while avoiding problems caused by CAFOs, but ranchers are at a competitive disadvantage as CAFOs can reduce their costs through subsidies that are provided at our expense.

And we no longer can afford the external costs of this harmful system.  CAFOs cause water and air pollution, which we pay for in the form of prevention and cleanup, they lower property values in rural communities because of environmental degradation, and we continue to see excessive antibiotic usage, making once easy to treat human diseases more costly to address.  Transforming a system that is ecologically beneficial is possible, and many ranchers have been able to produce meat efficiently by working with nature, but the federal government also needs to stop fueling the needs of a few large corporations by changing a policy that benefits only them.  Without government subsidies to factory farms, enabling them to purchase corn and soybeans below the cost of what it takes to grow the crops, it’s unlikely these factory farms could remain profitable.

Resisting the spread of GMOs does not only involve the understanding that they require excessive amounts of toxic chemicals or that the foods created could harm human health.  They are becoming so incorporated into our food system that inhumane practices such as are involved with CAFOs are supported by the federal government.  These practices are inefficient as well as being cruel.  The massive global acreage of monocrops that produce corn, soybeans and hay to feed livestock in confinement could be better managed to create diversified farms and pasture operations.

Alas, it would seem any lessons learned in this country about the damage industrial meat operations cause are being ignored abroad.  Although manure runoff is the “biggest source of water pollution  in the country,” China is set to create the world’s largest CAFO with 100,000 cows.  What we as individuals can do is refuse to consume industrially produced meat.  One can become vegetarian or support local ranchers, your choice.

But did you know that kale can actually be bad for you?

Recipe of the Week

This recipe is simple and can be adjusted according to taste.  You can add roasted peppers, raw onion, or whatever else you wish.

Mozzarella and Pesto Grilled Sandwiches

1 loaf batard (or any type of bread you choose)

1 cup pesto, either homemade or purchased

1 cup mixed, pitted olives, chopped

1/2 lb mozzerella, sliced

1 large tomato, sliced

Slice the bread lengthwise.  Spread the pesto, then add all other ingredients.  Heat a large cast iron frying pan to medium, place the loaf in the pan and weigh it down with a smaller cast iron pan.  Turn once and adjust heat downward in order to melt the cheese.

 

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The Irrationality of Increased Pesticide Use

“The Earth our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth…The deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest…It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary:  plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.  But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products…The spread of GMO crops destroys the complex web of ecosystems, decreases diversity in production and affects the present and the future of regional economies.”

This statement provides the gist of Pope Francis’ recently released encyclical on climate change and the increasing use of pesticides on GMO crops.  Previously, in September 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the use of 2,4 D on genetically modified corn and soybean crops, which, in conjunction with glyphosate (Roundup), is being registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Enlist Duo.  And on the heels of the Pope’s message and the approval of Enlist Duo comes the evaluation of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that 2,4 D is, like glyphosate, “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  Dow AgroSciences, which created the Enlist Duo mixture of chemicals, like Monsanto, relies on the sale of GMO seeds and the chemicals that go with them for their profits.  Their response to the IARC assessment, then, is disingenuous at best, as they claim, falsely, that “no herbicide has been more thoroughly studied.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), however, disputes the EPA’s cursory testing of the combination of 2,4 D and glyphosate, stating that the “EPA overlooked both the significant potential health risks for young children and the environmental damage that would result from large-scale 2,4 D spraying.”  They go on to say that “the risk assessment documents published by the EPA contain multiple inaccuracies and significantly underestimate the real harm to human health and the environment.”  One such study employed the No Observed Adverse Effects Level standard, which indeed demonstrated that toxicity effects were not observed in adult animals, but did show toxicity effects in young animals; this part of the study was ignored.  Concurrently, the EWG noted that the EPA failed “to apply the additional safety factor of 10, as mandated under the Food Quality Protection Act, for cases in which children are shown to be more vulnerable than adults.  The animal study data clearly show that young animals are more susceptible to 2,4 D toxicity compared to adult animals.  In such a case, the 10-fold safety factor…is required by law.”  Older studies have also been ignored.  In 1992, U.S. Cancer Institute scientists found that “frequent use of…2,4-dicholorophenoxyacetic acid has been associated with 2 to 8-fold increases of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in studies conducted in Sweden, Kansas, Nebraska, Canada and elsewhere.”

Aside from the consideration of concrete evidence that these pesticides harm human health, it should stand to reason that increasing the use and variety of pesticides is not rational.  It has long been established that spraying a pesticide repeatedly selects for weeds which also resist the chemical.  In response, ever more resistant weeds are then bred, able to withstand increasing amounts, and often different forms, of pesticides.  In 2013, Food & Water Watch produced a study called “Superweeds.  How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry,” which showed that as weeds developed resistance to a particular pesticide farmers reacted by applying more pesticides.  They found a 10-fold increase in pesticide use from 1996 to 2012.

Pope Francis, as well as the Dalai Lama, are simply trying to bring a greater awareness of the dangers GMO crops inflict on the planet and human beings.  One need not be a scientist to recognize that the increased use of pesticides  world wide threatens human health, the environment and local economies.  Rick Santorum infamously has stated that Pope Francis should “leave science to the scientists,” and focus instead on “theology and morality.”  Jeb Bush, in his response to the Pope’s encyclical, said that “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people.”  I would argue that curtailing the use of potentially dangerous chemicals that are seeping into the ground, water and food falls decidedly into the camp of what’s moral or what would make us better as people.  The continued expansion of GMO crops and their dependence on ever increasing amounts and types of chemicals does nothing but line the pockets of Dow Chemical, Monsanto, et. al.  The Catholic Church continues to be on the wrong side of many issues, but this harmless encyclical is not one of those times.

Recipe of the Week

Grilled Flat Iron Steak Burritos with Black Beans

If possible, it’s best to use grass fed beef.  One of the advantages is that marinating the meat before grilling isn’t necessary, as grain fed meat is more stringy, which has to do with the animal’s inability to process grains effectively.

1 lb. grass fed flat iron steak

1 onion, sliced

1 bell pepper, sliced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

4 jalapenos, minced (optional)

Rub the meat with salt and pepper and grill for 2.5 minutes per side.  Let sit for 5 minutes before slicing.

Saute the onion, hot peppers and bell pepper in 2 tbls. olive oil until soft.  Add the garlic and cilantro, cook for 30 seconds more and turn off the heat.

You can cook a small batch of black beans or use a can of organic beans, well rinsed.  Slice the meat, add the beans and cooked vegetables and roll up in a flour tortilla.

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Big, Fat Chickens

You can walk into any large grocery store and buy a factory raised whole chicken for about $1.50 a pound.  Chickens raised on sustainable local farms currently cost close to $3.00 a pound, or more if they are organically raised.  To someone on a budget, purchasing the cheaper chicken would seem obvious, but there are hidden costs.  Consumers are more and more demanding that animals bred for food be treated humanely and the poultry industry is responding, but only with lip service.  Given the business model of the confinement method of raising chickens that was established in the late 1950s, it’s virtually impossible to treat these animals humanely or without antibiotic treatment, even if front-of-package advertising claims otherwise.  Waste treatment for factory farms is also a problem environmentally, and one that hurts us all.

The poultry industry prides itself on “vertically integrated” practices, which simply means that one entity, a corporation, controls all aspects of production, from how the chickens are bred and raised to how they are sold.  This method is a profitable one, and allows these large corporations to control nearly 100% of the multi-billion dollar annual market.  Individual farmers do participate in these large-scale operations, but have no control over any phase of production.  The poultry companies provide farmers with chicks and feed, and also put farmers under contracts which force them to raise the birds in confinement houses which can hold tens of thousands of chickens.  The chickens are bred to grow fast (from chick to meat in seven weeks) and large.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that a similar rate of growth in humans would result in a 6.6 lb. baby weighing 660 lbs. after 2 months.  The consequences of these vertically integrated practices result in cruelty, and conditions that contribute to easily transmitted diseases, such as the recent outbreak of bird flu.  And although the disease currently is not easily transmitted to humans, some epidemiologists believe that bird flu is only a mutation or two away from a strain that spreads easily from person to person.  At the very least, an outbreak can have severe effects on local economies.  Two farmers recently decided to expose conditions at their farms; Carole Morison, a Maryland resident who was under contract with Perdue, the nation’s third largest chicken producer, and Craig Watts of North Carolina, who is under contract with Perdue but who is suing the company for “intimidation.”

Craig Watts has been raising chickens (700,000 a year) for Perdue for some 20 years.  Late in 2014, he decided to allow Compassion in World Farming to film conditions at his farm.  As is reported in an article in the Washington Post, “Perdue labels all of its chickens as humanely raised.”  Perdue has since removed the “humanely raised” statement from its packaging as part of a settlement of a suit brought by the Humane Society of the United States, which is entirely insignificant as it does nothing to improve the conditions under which the chickens live.  Leah Graces, the U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming, appears in the film with Craig Watts.  She issued a statement concerning what she saw:  “Americans think they are buying chickens raised in idyllic pasture when the meat is labeled ‘natural.’  But what they are actually buying are chickens raised on a bed of feces-filled litter that hasn’t been changed for years.  They are buying chickens bred to get big, so fast they can’t stand on their own two feet.  They are buying chickens raised in dimly lit warehouses, who never will see the light of day except when coming from the hatchery or heading to slaughter.”  What Ms. Graces doesn’t mention is that the farmers themselves are abused by the conditions of their contracts.  They are frequently told to buy more chicken houses, which can cost approximately $200,000, the cost of which contributes to a debt load that is insurmountable.  A National Contract Poultry Growers Association study from 2001 calculated that 71% of chicken farmers live on or below the poverty line.

Carole Morison has a slightly different story to tell about her contractural relationship with Perdue.  She was featured in the 2008 documentary, Food, Inc., and has, with her husband, gone on to create a humanely run chicken farm.  Perdue cancelled the contract with the Morison’s after they had refused, at the company’s behest, to completely shield their chickens from any contact with fresh air or sunlight.  In this interview, Ms. Morison describes the conditions on their farm as dictated by Perdue.  She speaks of the fear farmers have of losing their contracts when under the pressure of debt, the pain and suffering of the chickens because of how they are bred and raised, as well as the financial difficulties they endured because of their contract.

None of this information is new, but it bears repeating as there seems to be no end in sight of these corporate enterprises.  And these conditions are not limited to chicken farms, but exist in every large operation involving meat animals.  And although the problems of these farms did not mention environmental concerns, it has also long been recognized that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) contribute to global warming and a host of health problems associated with tainted water and air.  Especially considering the study conducted by Professor Elliott Campbell demonstrating that 90% of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes (as discussed in the post, How the Demise of Agribusiness Would Save us All, June 10), we need to consider alternatives.  The business model for industrially raised chickens is cruel, disgusting, harmful to the farmers, and dangerously bad for the environment.  Buy local.

Recipe of the Week

This recipe is perfect for this time of year, as the ingredients are seasonal, and in our case, at least, local.

Grilled Salmon Salad with Blueberries and Goat Cheese

1 pound of wild Chinook salmon

1 cup fresh blueberries

1/3 pound goat cheese

mixed wild greens

sugar snap peas

carrot

radishes

extra virgin olive oil

red wine vinegar

The salmon needs no treatment.  Simply grill it until just cooked, about 15 minutes.  Let cool.  Mix all other ingredients, dress with a sprinkle of oil and vinegar and serve.

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The FRESHER Act

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a report Congress commissioned in 2010 to study the impact of fracking on drinking water, the conclusions of which are somewhat muddied.  A 2004 EPA study stated that fracking posed no threat to drinking water, a conclusion that led to the exemption of the oil and gas industry from protections laid down by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974.  The strictures of the SDWA require continuous monitoring of public drinking water systems for contaminants and an issuance of an annual “Consumer Confidence Report” to customers, which would identify the contaminants and explain potential health impacts.  George Bush and Dick Cheney used the 2004 study to promote and pass legislation, widely referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole,” to specifically exempt hydraulic fracturing from the SDWA as well as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

The oil and gas industry has claimed victory with the publication of the new EPA study.  They point to a conclusion reached by the EPA that fracking had no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water.”  Environmental groups, however, also claimed victory by pointing to another part of the study that said “fracking could contaminate drinking water under certain conditions, such as when fluids used in the process leaked water into the water table.”  The study did find isolated cases of water contamination.  The facts concerning which specific chemicals are used in the fracking process, combined with the EPA’s finding that “approximately 9.4 million people [live] within one mile of a hydraulically fractured well,” would cause one to logically assume that water sources could easily be contaminated.

And public drinking water could be compromised by these chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing:  methanol, used in antifreeze, paint solvent and vehicle fuel, can, if swallowed, cause eye damage or death.  BTEX compounds (benezine, toluene, xylene and ethybenzene), found in gasoline, can cause cancer, bone marrow failure or leukemia.  Diesel fuel, which was specifically targeted by the EPA’s 2004 report, as “the greatest threat” to underground sources of drinking water.  Lead, which has been long established as particularly harmful to children’s neurological development.  Hydrogen fluoride, a lethal dose of which is 1.5 grams.  Naphthalene, a carcinogen found in mothballs.  Sulfuric acid, the lethal dose being one teaspoon.  Crystalline silica, a carcinogen found in concrete, and formaldehyde, a carcinogen with a lethal dose of one ounce.  These few chemicals are known to be used in the fracking process, while many more chemicals are listed as “proprietary.”

But as the Obama administration unilaterally supports hydraulic fracturing, as will the Clinton administration, this process to extract oil will remain.  At the very least, then, oil and gas companies should be required to adhere to the regulations specified by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) is proposing a bill that would eradicate the Halliburton Loophole.  The Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydraulic fracturing Environmental Regulation, or the FRESHER Act, “would create national standards to protect water resources.”  Senator Cardin released a statement saying that “recent advances in technology have helped America become more energy independent that ever before.  Our rise in energy independence has, unfortunately come with dangerous deregulation of oil and gas companies…The FRESHER Act is a needed safeguard to ensure oil and gas companies cannot pollute our water.”

Indeed, the EPA, in its recent report, stated that flowing water caused by rainstorms can pick up large amounts of pollutants and carry them as “stormwater runoff” into rivers, streams and other waterways.  Oil and gas construction (pipelines, wellpads, waste pits) can be sources of sediment and toxic runoff and it was identified in the report that “siltation is the largest cause of impaired water quality in rivers.”  The FRESHER Act would require that oil and gas companies get a stormwater permit and have a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan to eliminate illegal discharges into water sources.  Colorado and Wyoming already have a permit requirement, and in these states with a large oil and gas presence there reportedly are no complaints from the industry about this requirement.  It’s a modest bill that simply closes the loopholes that have prevented regulators from conducting oversight and kept the public unaware of any measures taken by a particular company to avoid pollution, or not.

The oil and gas industry did put pressure on the EPA over the design of its study,  and blocked the agency from gathering data from direct monitoring of fracking operations.  But the fact is that the EPA did confirm cases of water contamination and focused on communities that have been complaining about water problems for years.  EcoWatch calls the EPA study an “incomplete and inadequate study [that] is an embarrassment to the Obama administration and the EPA,” but it has apparently led to a call to close the loopholes that protect the industry from regulation.  The FRESHER Act, if passed, at least will shine a brighter light on hydraulic fracturing, which may, in the end and over time, cause its demise, and perhaps encourage a stronger focus on alternative sources of energy.

Recipe of the Week

This dinner and lunch staple is super easy, fast and delicious.  You can change the ingredients to suit your tastes.  An excellent hot weather meal.

Black Bean and Corn Salad

3 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

1 small green bell pepper, diced

1 cup frozen corn

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tbl. lime rind, minced

1 tbl. lime juice

2 tbl. red wine vinegar

1.5 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup chopped cilantro

4 green onions, chopped

Combine all ingredients and serve over a green salad.  I also added a little left over Mexican cheese I had on hand – cheddar would also be good.  Tomatoes would also be a good addition.

 

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How the Demise of Agribusiness Would Save us All

A new study, The Large Potential of local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States, was recently conducted by Professor Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced.  The study itself is behind a paywall, but provides evidence that shows that up to 90% of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes.  Campbell and his students examined the calorie potential of local farms and then compared that to the population of each city.  Some cities, such as New York and Seattle, have less ability to feed their populations with food grown within the radius, but over all the study demonstrates a great potential for providing Americans with a sustainable diet which would also be beneficial to the environment.  Professor Campbell notes that the “2014 U.S. Farm Bill supports local production [as] there are profound social and environmental benefits to eating locally.”  The caveat, however, is that this seachange could not occur without economic and government shifts.  The major obstacles are how much of our land is being used to produce corn and soybeans, two crops that are chiefly used in processed foods, feed for meat animals and biofuels, and the amount of land required to raise cattle, pigs and chickens.

It has long been one of the myths purported by agribusiness that only the continued expansion of genetically modified crops will enable the world to feed a growing population.  Indeed, the World Expo, being held currently in Milan, has brought 140 countries together to consider this challenge.  Unfortunately, the U.S. sponsors include the U.S. Poultry and Egg Council, U.S. Dairy Exports, U.S. Grains Council and the U.S. Soybean Export Council.  The U.S., then, continues to promote the notion that industrialized farming is necessary to feed the world.  A closer examination, however, reveals the opposite.  According to Leah Garces of Food Safety News, “factory farming will ultimately starve us out.”  Ms. Garces points out “that for every 100 calories of human-edible cereals fed to animals, just 17 calories enter the human food chain as meat or milk.”  She cites a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study that says “simply cranking up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge.  It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils.”  The report offers seven proposals that would improve food security.  Among those seven is one to “support farmers in developing diversified and resilient eco-agriculture systems that provide critical ecosystem services…as well as adequate food to meet local…needs.”

Another consideration when discussing the requirements of industrialized farming is the amount of water necessary to sustain such operations.  According to data assembled by the Pacific Institute and National Geographic, “a single egg takes 53 gallons of water to produce.  A pound of chicken, 168 gallons.  A gallon of milk, 880 gallons.  And a pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water.”  The UNEP study and these water usage estimates suggest that “arable land and water…are all wasted in a factory farm model.”  The Union of Concerned Scientists have also weighed in with a study, The Healthy Farmland Diet.  They examine the results that occur when  vast amounts of resources are devoted to producing foods and feed for livestock.  Their “analysis finds that transitioning the American diet to one that includes less processed food and meat,  and more fruits and vegetables would significantly shift todays corn-and soybean-dominated farm landscape to one that is more diversified.  In turn, a landscape that produces a healthier mix of crops and livestock for local and regional markets can have positive effects – not only in improved nutrition and health for consumers but also in the form of significant benefits for the environment and farm country’s local economies.”

A handful of corporations now dominate most aspects of the food system, giving them unprecedented power to control food and agricultural regulations.  It is becoming increasingly clear that there is an abundance of hidden costs in this model, such as declining rural communities, environmental damage and public health consequences.  A 2008 Pew Commission study revealed that industrial food production contributes little to local economies as they often hire illegal immigrants, purchase equipment, supplies and animal feed from other conglomerates and often are owned by absentee owners whose profits are sent out of the area.  The report also showed that local, sustainable farms provide jobs for the communities in which they reside, as well as spending 95% of their expenditures within their communities.  Our government, aside from the toothless recommendations contained in the 2014 Farm Bill, should be playing a more significant role in shaping a shift from technology based food production that benefits only a few to real support of local agriculture.  Elliott Campbell’s research, among the first of its kind, offers some hard data that the federal government should heed.

Recipe of the Week

These burgers have always been a favorite of mine, and when combined with rosemary aioli, are incredibly meaty and satisfying.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers  with Rosemary Aioli

4 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tbls. balsamic vinegar

1 tbls. Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper

Combine the oil, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper.  Place the mushrooms in the marinade, turning once or twice, and let sit at room temperature for about one hour.

Light coals and allow to heat for 20 minutes.  Place the mushrooms on the grill, cover and grill for up to ten minutes on each side, or until very soft.

Rosemary Aioli

1 egg

1 tbls. lemon juice

6 large cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup olive oil

1 tbls. fresh rosemary, minced

Place all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor.  Pulse for about 10 seconds.  Using the oil dispenser, pour the oil into the food processor bowl with the motor running.  The aioli should be thick and spreadable.

The mushroom burgers can go on conventional buns, or whatever bread you prefer.  Slather with the aioli, add some lettuce and whatever other condiments you wish and enjoy.

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We Just Don’t Know

For those people who trot out the argument that there have been no studies demonstrating a link between the consumption of GMOs and health risks, I would like to point out why.  One of the factors involved in preventing GMO research by independent scientists is the trade group the American Council on Science and Health (ASCH).  It’s been around since 1978 and describes itself as “a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.”  A fine sounding mission statement until you understand that within those words is couched a much more nefarious agenda. Another factor involved in the suppression of GMO research is that the biotechnology companies themselves tend to suppress information derived from scientific inquiry and then attempt to defame the author.

ACSH keeps in business by soliciting funds from corporations on specific issues, such as GMO labeling.  They also have attacked anyone who has shown even concern over GMOs, pesticides, tobacco, DDT, asbestos, Agent Orange and fracking.  The council insists they are devoted to outing “junk science.”  Their clients include Monsanto, Chevron, Syngenta, the Koch brothers, McDonald’s and many more.  And the ACSH is led by Dr. Gilbert Ross, a felon convicted of defrauding New York State’s Medicaid program of $8 million.  It’s founder, Elizabeth Whelan, established the ACSH in order to combat such groups as the National Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Environmental Working Group.  This particular lobbying arm has been connected to attacks on public figures who support GMO labeling, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz.  Dr. Gilbert Ross was one of the signers of the letter demanding that Dr. Oz be removed from his position on Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Another signer of the letter was Dr. Henry Miller, once a board member of ACSH.  Dr. Miller gained some notoriety for his appearance in an ad for the “No on 37″ campaign, the California initiative to label GMOs.  Dr. Oz recently responded to his critics and revealed the backgrounds of the signers.  And the Senate panel that called Dr. Oz before them to testify was headed by Senator Claire McCaskill (D – MO).  Ms. McCaskill had previously accepted over $146,000 in campaign contributions from a major pharmaceutical company and $37,000 from Monsanto.

Aside from the machinations of ACSH, some of their clients work on their own to suppress data, defame the scientists who produce evidence of harm and otherwise shut down independent study.  One example is of the work Dr. Tyrone Hayes did for Syngenta on their weed-killer atrazine.  When Dr. Hayes produced evidence that atrazine affected the organs of frogs, Syngenta not only pulled the plug on his research, but attacked his reputation as well.  Another biotech company, Pioneer, reacted to a study that Ohio State University plant ecologist Allison Snow conducted which revealed preliminary evidence that a genetically altered sunflower could make wild sunflowers proliferate.  Pioneer then blocked any follow-up studies by refusing to supply the seeds.  And Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a Los Angeles Times article, provided the simple reason why research isn’t  done on genetically engineered crops.

Stated simply, it’s legal to prevent research.  Gurian-Sherman tells us that “under U.S. law, genetically engineered crops are patentable inventions [and] companies have broad power over the use of any patented product, including who can study it and how.”  He goes on to say that “agriculture companies defend their stonewalling by saying that unrestricted  research could make them vulnerable to lawsuits if an experiment somehow leads to harm…but it’s likely that the companies fear something else as well:  an experiment could reveal that a genetically engineered  product is hazardous.”  This is the point, and one seconded by geneticist David Suzuki, head of the David Suzuki Foundation.  He states that “because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle.  Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be.  And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is  not harmful.”  This has not been done.

You can’t just say there’s no evidence that GMOs are injurious to our health; you have to look deeper to uncover why these studies aren’t being conducted.  The bottom line is that we simply don’t have the science lined up to make blanket assertions that GMOs are safe – we just don’t know.

Recipe of the Week

This is a simple week night meal, taking at most an hour to prepare.

Pasta with a Creamy Balsamic Tomato Sauce

1/2 lb pasta of your choice

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 28 oz. can of whole, organic tomatoes, pureed

2 stalks celery, minced

1 small carrot, minced

1 small onion, minced

1 tbls. fresh rosemary, minced

1 half pint organic cream

1 to 2 tbls. balsamic vinegar

2 tbls. extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Put oil in a cast iron frying pan and heat to medium high.  Add carrot, celery and onion and cook for about 15 minutes.  Add the garlic, stir in for about 30 seconds.  Add the rosemary and tomatoes, turn the heat to it’s lowest setting and cook for about 30 minutes.  Turn off the heat, add the cream and balsamic vinegar.  Taste for salt and pepper.

While the sauce is cooking, heat a pot of salted water to boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente.  Drain but do not rinse.  Add to sauce.  Freshly grated parmesan can be sprinkled over the top.

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Chipotle’s – Giving People What They Want

Chipotle’s recent announcement that they were working on ways to eliminate GMOs from their food, which is in accordance with their historic philosophy, has apparently given rise to plentiful media criticism.  Most of the criticism takes the form of ridicule and accuses Chilpotle’s of fear-mongering and “bad science.”  The old arguments in favor of GMOs are in evidence, such as claiming that biotechnology will feed the world’s growing population, which has been shown to be false.  Another argument is that their food is, in essence, bad for you, which is obvious, but fast food will remain, which shouldn’t preclude any efforts to make it more healthy.  Critics also are calling this move a gimmick to increase profit, but Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle’s, has  been consistent from the beginning in his mission statement, which is that “We decided long ago that we didn’t want Chipotle’s success to be tied to the exploitation of animals, farmers, or the environment.”

In fact, many restaurants and retail establishments have been making changes and announcements of late regarding the phasing out of antibiotics (Walmart), or the use of humanely treated beef for burgers (Carl’s Jr.), without much push back, other than to say Carl’s Jr.’s ads are sexist, and that Walmart’s announcement asks for, rather than demands, less antibiotic use in farm animals.  One of the main reasons restaurants and food retailers are making these changes is to bolster their bottom lines in this capitalistic society.  Every year the National Restaurant Association conducts a poll and releases the information in a “What’s Hot” publication.  For the past two years, at least, this industry guideline, essentially, shows that people want “sustainable” food which is locally sourced.  Restaurants are wise to pay attention to this information whether or not it has any basis in science.  MacDonald’s has notoriously lost market share in the U.S., but flourishes in Europe where GMOs are banned.   And surely most businesses by now are aware that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of labeling foods that contain GMOs, which indicates a proclivity to avoid such foods.

And Chipotle’s is not Walmart.  By U.S. standards, it’s not a large operation, making the over-sized negative media response puzzling.  I think then, that given the media abuse, Chipotle’s move is significant.  What it indicates is that Monsanto’s grip on the federal government and its ability thus far to prevent labeling laws is becoming irrelevant.  If businesses are pressured by the public to provide non-GMO products, they are going to comply.  This beginning  move by Chipotle’s could very well be the bellwether of the anti-GMO movement, and Monsanto certainly sees this very clearly.  The business decision of Carl’s Jr. to provide a “clean” burger requires an importation of cattle from Australia, which most certainly will force the U.S. beef industry to reconsider its practices.  If Chipotle’s can survive the media assault, and it will, other companies will follow in their footsteps.  As more people become educated about the potential dangers of GMOs to their health and the real dangers of GMOs to the environment, the cost to food companies of ignoring the growing consumer demand for non-GMO products will be dire.  The threat posed by Chipotle’s to agribusiness is that if it can gain market share and admiration from their decision to ban GMOs from their food, and give consumers what they want, it puts sellers of fast and processed foods in a negative light.

Kraft, Nestle, et al. are not going to sit back and allow their market shares to sink.  They have no particular allegiance to agribusiness, and exist only to make money.  If the public wants non-GMO foods and are willing to pay for them, then that’s the trend of the future.  It certainly won’t happen overnight, but the overwrought media response indicates, perhaps, the beginning of the end of GMOs.  Capitalism saves the world, yet again.

Recipe of the Week

Summer is fast approaching and the grill will be more often employed to provide dinner.  This sandwich is fast and easy and tastes wonderful.  Best to use charcoal for the flavor.

Faux Gryos with Yogurt Cucumber Sauce

1 lb. ground lamb

1 tbls. ground cumin

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp salt

pepper to taste

Mix all of the above and form into four patties.  Chill until the grill is ready.

Sauce:

1.5 cups plain yogurt

1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 tbls. chopped fresh mint (optional)

Mix all of the above.

Grill the patties over a hot grill for about 2 to 3 minutes per side.  Make the sandwiches with pita, adding the sauce, lettuce, tomato and onion.

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Dirty Water – The Use of Oil Production Wastewater to Irrigate California Crops

For two decades farmers in California’s Central Valley have been buying water from the Chevron Kern River oil field, which is currently the 5th largest oil field in the country.  The water being purchased is oil production wastewater.  The field is located in the San Joaquin Valley, where oil was discovered in 1899, and covers 10,750 acres.  Since most of the oil has been removed from the field, Chevron has moved to  use “enhanced production technologies” to extract the remaining oil, such as fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam injection.  By some estimates, these production methods use approximately 2.14 million gallons of water every day.  After production, this wastewater has nowhere to go.  According to Rock Zierman, the chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association, “if we’re not able to put the water back, there’s no other viable thing to do with it.”  But in league with corporate agriculture, Chevron has been selling the water to be used for crop irrigation as a “viable alternative.”

Aside from the fact that Governor Jerry Brown did not include the oil industry in his statewide clampdown on the overall use of water, and that he continues to allow all extraction methods that poison existing water sources, the composition of chemicals in the wastewater is what is concerning many environmentalists, small farmers and state regulators.  The chemical composition of the wastewater did not overly concern regulatory agencies in the past, but with the drought continuing, there’s more call for water recycling programs, which has caused increased concern over contamination of fresh water sources as well as the potential toxic effect on the crops themselves.  Standards for testing wastewater have been lax and outdated – screening for chemicals has never occurred.  The EPA has reported that there are nearly 700 chemicals used in the fracking process alone, and the majority of these chemicals are not being disclosed by the industry.  The Central Valley water authority, however, promoted new regulations, which were approved by the state legislators, that will require oil companies to reveal what chemicals are being used.

Of the chemicals known now to be used in various oil extraction processes, however, are acetone, methylene chloride and benzene.  All of these chemicals have been found in the wastewater as well as the presence of oil.  Scott Smith, a scientists at Water Defense, an environmental group founded in 2010, says that “all these chemicals of concern are flowing in the irrigation canal; if you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.”  Smith has been testing the water that flows into the Cawelo Canal, an eight mile stretch that is used to irrigate 45,000 acres of crops.  The water from the Kern River oil field is first passed through a series of treatment ponds before irrigation use, but Smith’s testing revealed this process to be ineffective.  One sample he took from the canal had levels of methylene chloride at 56 parts per billion, which was four times the amount of methylene chloride he found when the Arkansas river was polluted by the 2013 ExxonMobile tar sands pipeline spill.  Smith also collected samples containing acetone.

Farmers can smell petrochemicals in the water, and assume the soil is consuming and processing the chemicals, but no one really knows.  Carl Winter, who studies the detection of pesticides in foods at UC Davis, says that “some plants can readily absorb toxins without transferring them to the leaves or the flesh of their fruit, but that it’s difficult to say anything for sure because we don’t know what chemicals are in the water.”  In total, Kern County produces over $3.5 billion worth of agricultural products annually, much of which are irrigated with Chevron wastewater.  What little is known about the detected chemicals’ effects on crops is alarming and unstudied.

That we’re once again experimenting on human beings and the land in order to accommodate the oil industry is unacceptable.  Given the huge impact the drought has had on California agriculture, however, it’s reasonable to expect drastic measures.  A significant part of the state’s revenue comes from agriculture, as well as that provided  by livestock, all of which need water.  California grows over 200 crops, some of which are grown nowhere else in the country, and produces almost all of the country’s almonds, apricots, figs, dates, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes and walnuts.  It leads in the production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, asparagus and on and on and on.  It’s crucial these crops are maintained, but at the very least some regulation and testing must occur to prevent their wholesale destruction, as well as preventing yet another means of potentially harming human health.

Recipe of the Week

I was appalled to learn that many people use additives like mayonnaise when making guacamole.  Since you  may not be able to purchase avocados in the future, make this very simple one now and enjoy.

1 large, ripe avocado

2 tbls. minced sweet onion

juice from one lime

salt to taste

Mash it all up and serve with chips or fresh vegetables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Argentina vs. Monsanto

The recent announcement by the World Health Organization concerning the carcinogenic nature of glyphosate, the chief component of Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, has apparently encouraged a group of physicians in Argentina to demand that its government ban the substance altogether.  Environmentalists and other public health advocates were already seeking to rid their country of Monsanto and their agricultural practices, and now Fresprosa, a medical organization that represents more than 30,000 professionals, has joined the chorus of voices demanding a complete ban on Roundup.

Monsanto began operations in Argentina in 1996, which has become the third largest soybean producer in the world.  The company promised, as they still do despite mounting evidence against such claims, higher yields and lower pesticide use.  Just last month, the Physicians Network of Sprayed Peoples issued a statement which said that each year 108,000 square miles are sprayed with 320 million liters of glyphosate, affecting the health of 13 million people.  According to Greenpeace Andino, the use of agrochemicals has increased by 858% since their introduction.  Health professionals for years have been conducting research on the effects of agrochemicals on human health, specifically because cancer and birth defect rates had been climbing since glyphosate was first used in Argentina.  Fresposa issued a statement saying that “glyphosate not only causes cancer, it is also associated with increased spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin diseases and respiratory and neurological disease.”

Monsanto continues to assert that Roundup is safe and claims that if it is used properly the population can be protected.  One of the problems, however, is that Argentina allows each province the right to establish their own rules of regulation, and the rules vary.  In some areas, spraying is banned within 2 miles of a population, whereas in another province spraying could be allowed as near as 55 yards.  Some provinces set no limits at all and most lack enforcement policies.  Given this hodgepodge of regulation, there have been growing complaints directed at the federal government.  President Cristina Fernandez, a supporter of Monsanto, did convene a commission in 2009 to study the impact of chemical spraying, but the commission hasn’t met since 2010.  And the spraying continues unabated, and people are being contaminated regardless of any law.  Two years ago, Dr. Damian Verzenassi conducted an epidemiological study of 65,000 people in Santa Fe, which is situated in northeast Argentina and has long been a commercial and transportation center for a prominent agricultural area, and found cancer rates two to four times higher than the national average.  Hospital records in  Chaco, also a major producer of soybeans and corn, show that birth defects had quadrupled from 19.1 to 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000 in the decade after genetically modified crops were approved.  And a medical team surveyed 2,051 people in six towns, finding more disease wherever people were surrounded by farms.

Dr. Jeff Ritterman provides an excellent and thorough explanation concerning the dangers of glyphosate in his article, “The Case for Banning Monsanto’s Roundup,” which is well worth the read.  He points out that “glyphosate has been found in air, rain, groundwater, seawater and soil…Glyphosate persists in soil and water for long periods of time.  The chemical is accumulating in our environment…A study conducted last  year at the University of Leipzig showed that cows were excreting glyphosate in their urine.  These cows also had comparable levels of the herbicide in their organs (kidney, liver, lung, spleen, muscle, intestine), proving that meat and dairy are a source of glyphosate for humans.”  Dr. Ritterman concludes his article by saying that “there is really no sensible alternative to banning this poison.”  He also quotes Jane Goodall, who said in her book “Harvest for Hope:  A Guide to Mindful Eating,” “someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads.  How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poison?”

This fight against Monsanto will be difficult, particularly since the company has managed, with the encouragement of Argentina’s government, to almost completely alter the landscape of the country.  Where Argentina was once known as a major beef producer, one would be hard pressed to see any cows on the horizon.  Given the money to be made, a huge land grab is in progress, pushing the cows into giant feed lots, just as they are in the U.S.  Soy fields dominate the landscape.   People are beginning to organize on behalf of themselves and their families, however, and with the help of organizations such as Fresprosa, perhaps something will be done.

Recipe of the Week

Spinach Pie

4 bunches spinach, stems removed, washed and chopped

1/4 lb pancetta or bacon

1 large onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 egg

2 cups grated parmesan

2 cups flour

1.5 sticks of chilled butter

ice water

Put the spinach into a large pot and steam until wilted.  Drain, cool and squeeze dry.  Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and saute the onion until soft and lightly brown.  Add the garlic, stir in for about 30 seconds.  Add the spinach, egg and cheese.

For the crust:  with your fingers or a pastry knife, work the cold butter into the flour until the pieces are no bigger than peas.  Add 2 tablespoons of ice water and stir in with a fork.  Add another 2 tablespoons of water and stir.  Continue, using no more than 7 or 8 tablespoons, until the dough just comes together.  Form into a ball and cut in half.  Roll out one half and fit into the bottom of a pie plate.  Add the spinach mixture and cover with the remaining dough.  Poke with a fork and smooth the top with melted butter.  Heat the oven to 400 degrees and cook the pie for about 35 to 40 minutes.

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