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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Dissident Voices

A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year revealed differences between what ordinary citizens believe and how those beliefs are in contrast to what scientists believe.  The poll covered a variety of issues, but the one I’m concerned with is the data on the safety of GMO foods.  The poll showed that “a majority of the general public (57%) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% says such foods are generally safe; by contrast, 88% of AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] scientists say GM foods are generally safe.”  For many people in the media, this poll provides rock solid evidence that GMOs are safe to eat.  Leaving aside the issues of pesticide use, reduced yields, and the fact that GMO crops are used almost exclusively to feed animals or produce biofuels, all of which I’ve written about in the last couple of years, there remains the question of how these scientists arrived at the belief that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

There are dissident voices, however, in the scientific community that resist the conventional belief that GMOS are safe.  One such voice comes from Dr. Thierry Vrain, a retired soil biologist and genetic scientist who worked for Agriculture Canada and was the “designated spokesperson to assure the public of the safety of GMO crops.”  His reasons for becoming a “GMO whistleblower” are compelling, and an article written in 2013 is worth the read.  The section that interested me the most, however, revolved around how scientific projects are funded.  Dr. Vrain was asked “how can scientists operate independently when their paycheque depends on supporting a scientific point of view.”  His answer is long, but provides an area of thought little considered by those who automatically accept a scientific opinion without delving into how and why such an opinion was formed.  Dr. Vrain explains:

“When I started 30 years ago, I was given a lab, a technical assistant and a small budget and basically the game was play in the lab and make sure you publish and the more you publish, the better.  So it was called ‘publish or perish.’  But something happened 25 years ago; the game changed.  When I started, corporate sponsors were not allowed.  I could not go to Monsanto and say, ‘are you interested in me doing some work in my lab and for a small grant I could do research for you.’  But 25 years ago, it became allowed and then it became very strongly encouraged to seek corporate funding.  The more industry was interested in your project, the more outside money you could have.  That was a sign that you were doing good work because you were getting extra funding so the government didn’t have to give you money for your lab.  So more and more that became the thing of the day, and, of course, there was lots of money for molecular biology.  Others complained that all the money went to molecular biology in the late 80s and 90s.  Not only that, if you were successful and hit on a really good project, you could patent.  So from ‘publish or perish’ we went to ‘patent and get rich.’  Now a lot of scientists get grants from biotech companies.  When you get a half a million dollar grant, you have five graduate students, three post docs, and a big lab and now you’re professor so and so because you have a big lab with lots of money flowing.  But if you publish results that are not acceptable to companies such as Monsanto, your corporate grant is going to dry up.”

Dr. Vrain’s knowledge of how scientific inquiry is propelled is not new.  In the past decade it has been well documented that biotech companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta regulate what research can be done on their GMO seeds.  In order to conduct research on the seeds, scientists must adhere to user-agreements prohibiting research that would examine whether GM crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.  Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter he and 26 other scientists wrote to the EPA in 2009, said that “it is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough, but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward technology.”  What Monsanto and other companies are doing to prevent research on their GM seeds is legal, as genetically modified crops are patentable inventions.  Christian Krupke, a Purdue University entomologist who also signed the letter to the EPA, simply said, “Industry is completely driving the bus.”  The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that this is not how science should operate.  They believe that if indeed GMOs are safe, the biotech companies need to back up their rhetoric, and the only way to do that is to let truly independent research take place.

The lesson to the scientific community has been, since 1998, one of adhere to the dictates of Monsanto et al. or be fired and publicly humiliated.  Given that scientists truly are afraid of having their careers ruined, it’s difficult to automatically assume that those 88% of scientists from AAAS arrived at their conclusions apart from the wishes of the biotech communities.

Recipe of the Week

Potato soups are ubiquitous, but this  one was very satisfying.

Potato Soup with Veggies and Sheep Cheese

4 russet potatoes, washed and chopped (don’t peel them)

1 large green or red bell pepper

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

1 onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 lb creamy sheep or goat cheese

2 quarts homemade chicken stock

2 sausage links of your choice, casings removed

salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot.  Add the sausage meat and cook until brown.  Add the onion, celery and carrot and cook until the onion is translucent, about 15 minutes.  Add the garlic and stir in for about 1 minute.  Put the sausage back in the pot, add the potatoes and stock and cook on low heat for about 1/2 hour, or until the potatoes are quite done.  Turn off the heat and puree the soup.  Add the cheese and taste for salt and pepper.

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“NAFTA on Steroids”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement has once again reared its ugly head as it appears to be ready for passage.  President Obama roundly supports the agreement, as do a host of Senators and Congressmen from both sides of the aisle, Ron Wyden (D-OR) leading the pack.  Although WikiLeaks released some of the details of the agreement, the TPP negotiations have been conducted in secret by Australia, Canada, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, The United States, Vietnam and Japan.   And as I wrote over a year and a half ago (Kings of the World, 9/24/13), these negotiations have been restricted to officials and stakeholders such as representatives from Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Walmart.  Farmers are excluded, and the agreement does not include any health, labor or environmental obligations.  The TPP deal also includes the egregious Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause (ISDS), which would allow companies to sue or overturn democratically created laws and regulations if they threaten corporate profit.  The TPP agreement promotes export-oriented food production and would affect all levels of the food system including the ability of governments to protect their citizens.  Passage of the TPP agreement would threaten fracking bans, raise the price of pharmaceuticals, and increase food imports, much of which would be unregulated and coming from countries with few or no safety standards.

What is being negotiated here is a permanent power grab by multinational corporations that would make it impossible for countries to choose what laws they want to live under.  Agribusiness could, financially, through lawsuits, prevent any opposition.  This deal would establish a world under which corporations would acquire higher status than countries.  With this power, multinationals could overturn laws enacted to protect the public and the environment if they were to decide that those protections violated the ISDS.  As for food imports, the TPP agreement would undermine any attempts to regulate the foreign seafood market.  The FDA currently inspects two percent of the farm-raised fish  using antibiotics and hormones that are illegal here, and these imports would increase under the TPP deal without requiring the trading partners to ban the use of illegal chemicals.  The trade agreement would also require us to import meat and poultry that don’t meet U.S. food safety standards.  Any U.S. food safety rules on pesticides, labeling or additives that are higher than international standards would be challenged as “illegal trade barriers.”    The U.S. would be required to eliminate these rules or face trade sanctions.  Food labels could also be challenged as trade barriers.  The TPP agreement would also impose limits of labels providing information on where a food product comes from.  The negotiators of the TPP are also pressuring the EU to drop any objections concerning GMOs.

The TPP agreement will make it more difficult to adopt and maintain strong food safety regulations governing pesticides,  food additives and GMOs by granting Monsanto and others unprecedented power to erect barriers.  Similar to other trade agreements, the TPP will allow corporations to use foreign tribunals to sue participating countries that try to enforce higher food safety standards.  The trade policies put forth by the TPP will inhibit the ability of countries to make their own decisions, based on local conditions and markets, about farming practices and the production of local, healthy food.

Fortunately, there are a few progressive politicians willing to stand up to Senator Wyden and President Obama.  Peter DeFazio, also from Oregon, says that the “TPP is informed and manipulated by corporate interests.”  He also says that “it doesn’t matter who is president or what they said as candidates, once they become president they start saying free trade agreements will benefit Americans, and time and time again it does not.”  Elizabeth Warren is adamantly opposed to the TPP agreement, focusing particularly on the ISDS, saying that “it’s a clause that everyone should oppose.”

The perils and dangers of trade agreements in general are evidenced by the broken promise of such deals in the past, but become even more dangerous  when the negotiations are conducted in secret. Sen. Wyden was only allowed to have access to the text of the agreement if he agreed not to tell anyone.  Alan Grayson was offered the same deal, which he refused, saying the draft was a “gross abrogation of American sovereignty.”  He went on to say, and this was a couple of years ago, that “it’s all about tying the hands of democratically elected governments and shunting authority over to the non-elected for the benefit of multinational corporations.”  Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mn) said the TPP represents “the largest corporate power grab you’ve never heard of.”  Well now we have and there will apparently be a 60 day time frame for all of us to read the agreement.  The good news is only that sunlight is exposing the TPP and opposition is growing.  My concern now is that President Obama, Senator Wyden and others are so eager to relegate our rights, our health and the environment to corporate power.

If you want an overview of the future should this agreement be put into practice, read  an analysis by Lori Wallach, Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch on the results of NAFTA after 20 years.  This time, as she says, the TPP  would be like “NAFTA on steroids.”

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Soda Wars

According to the playbook on how to reduce tobacco use in this country, warning labels and taxes work.  In 1965, Congress enacted the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, and the Public Cigarette Smoking Act was passed in 1969.  These laws required a health warning on packages, banned advertising and called for an annual report on the health consequences of smoking.  The result was that tobacco use was greatly reduced and the anti-smoking campaign called a major public health success.  And this was brought about despite the addictive nature of tobacco and the massive economic forces promoting its use.  These types of bills are now slowly being introduced in order to protect the public from another health scourge,  excessive and dangerous sugar consumption.

This year, California State Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and New York Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) both proposed labeling bills.  Monning’s bill is a reintroduction of the bill that passed the Senate last year but was derailed by the Assembly Health Committee by three votes.  The Dinowitz bill is new.  Given that the “worldwide prevalence of obesity more than doubled between 1980 and 2014,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO), these bills stand as preliminary efforts to educate people concerning the over-consumption of sugar, as well as addressing the costs of obesity and the subsequent rise of diabetes.  The WHO, just last month, issued a recommendation that overall sugar consumption be maximized at 25 grams per day per person, or about 6 teaspoons.  To put this amount in perspective, a quick jaunt to the grocery store reveals that a 12 ounce can of Coca Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, and a 16.9 ounce bottle contains 55 grams.   A 7.5 ounce can of Coke has 25 grams of sugar, and a similar size can of Diet Coke also has 25 grams.  And the so-called healthier drinks, such as the ones produced by Odwalla (a Coca Cola subsidiary), are worse.  A 15 ounce bottle of Strawberry Banana drink has 44 grams of sugar, and their Original Superfood Smoothie contains 44 grams.  And for those of you who think drinking fruit juice is a more healthy alternative, 12 ounces of orange juice, unsweetened, has 39 grams of sugar; a similarly sized glass of apple juice contains 42 grams, and grape juice tops out at 60 grams.

The two bills introduced by Monning and Doniwitz are modest proposals at best, but represent the start of an education campaign nationwide on the dangers of sweetened drinks.  Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, in supporting the labeling law, said that “parents may know that drinking soda is not as healthy as eating broccoli, but they don’t know that sugary drinks, like sports drinks and sweetened teas, may be making their children sick.  It’s time to post warnings on the front of the bottle.”  The label would read, if this law is passed, “STATE OF CALIFORNIA WARNING:  Drinking Beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”  The executive director of California’s Center for Science  in the Public Interest says that “given the federal government’s failure to act, it’s important that states protect their consumers by giving them this information in a clear, inexpensive way so that adults and children alike could make truly informed choices.”  Goldstein added that the “average American drinks 45 gallons of soda a year.  That’s 39 pounds of sugar.”

The soda industry is of course fighting back.  As they spent millions to defeat a soda tax in San Francisco, they will surely spend as much or more to defeat these labeling laws.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the consumption of soda causes serious health issues, the America Beverage Association continues to claim that the sugar consumed from soda is no different than the consumption of sugar from other foods.  William Dermody, a vice president of the ABA stated that “a misleading warning label that singles out one industry for complex health challenges will not change behaviors or educate people about healthy lifestyles.”  But these proposals are not bans.  Harold Goldstein rightly points out that this is “really a Libertarian solution:  give consumers the information and let them make the choice.”

Added sugar is certainly the predominant characteristic of sweetened drinks, but is also present in all processed foods.  The ABA is then correct in crying out that they are being targeted when the food industry is every bit as guilty.  But again, these labeling laws are simply the beginnings of a conversation and as a means for educating the public about the foods we eat.  If we arm ourselves with solid fact and information, we’ll be better positioned to maintain quality states of health, with the added bonus of reducing health care costs.

Recipe of the Week

Yogurt isn’t cheap, and Greek yogurt costs even more.  There’s a simple way to make Greek yogurt, however, and it’s easy.  You can take any type of yogurt, from whole milk to non-fat, place an amount of your choosing in a sieve, and let it drain.  It usually takes just a couple of hours before enough whey has drained off to produce the consistency of Greek yogurt.  If you want to go further, you can produce labneh, which is simply yogurt that has been drained overnight in the refrigerator.  This “cheese” can be flavored with olive oil and herbs and spread on pita for a simple appetizer.

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