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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Three Lies

It is said that if you repeat a thing often enough people will believe in its veracity.  There are three stances the biotech industry continues to inculcate, only one of which could be true, except that it isn’t.  The industry’s main argument concerns the safety of GE foods.  The food itself may actually prove, over time, to be innocuous and comparable to non-GE food, but there’s an elephant in the room.  Whenever anyone, including executives, politicians or scientists, purport the safety of genetically altered foods, they omit the dangers of pesticides used extensively on these crops.  A second position used by industry to support the expansion of GMO crops is that their farming methods are essential to feeding a growing global population.  And coming round at the end, the industry keeps insisting, even in the face of cold, hard fact, that fewer pesticides are needed when growing GE foods.

In mid March of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a proclamation in the Lancet Oncology that glyphosate, Monsanto’s chief weed-killing chemical, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  This is not definitive, of course, but gains more weight when one considers that this listing is “the second highest classification for substances that could cause cancer – just below ‘known carcinogen.'”  This information was also published on the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) website.  Monsanto fired back immediately with a statement from Philip Miller, Monsanto’s Vice President of Global Regulatory Affairs.  Miller stated that “we don’t know how IARC could reach a conclusion that is such a dramatic departure from the conclusion reached by all regulatory agencies around the globe.”  And Mr. Miller is correct.  The EPA and the FDA continue to support the idea that glyphosate is safe, even while admitting that it “can cause kidney damage in humans, as well as inhibit normal reproduction, promote lung congestion and increase people’s breathing rates.”  The IARC report, however, is leading the EPA to “consider” WHO’s findings.  Another consideration, especially given Mr. Miller’s rather ominous title, is that agencies around the world have declared glyphosate to be safe because they have been infiltrated by industry executives.  Jeffry M. Smith, researcher for the Institute for Responsible Technology, points out that “Monsanto’s takeover essentially of the FDA has been replicated around the world.”  He goes on to say that “I’ve been in 37 countries and I’ve seen how they ‘capture’ regulators, ministries, departments, etc., and once that happens they discredit and dismiss any adverse findings about GMOs.”  More research will undoubtedly be conducted on the safety of glyphosate, but given that it is being detected in the air, the water, in our food and in our bodies (urine samples, blood samples and breast milk) it’s only reasonable to conclude that more study must be done to determine the health risks of GMO crops.

Second, much is being made over the estimated statistic that by 2050 the population on Earth will reach 9 billion people.  The agribusiness companies repeatedly state, along with others they have convinced, such as Bill Gates, that GE crops are the only solution in feeding the world.  A new report issued by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finally puts to rest that assumption.  Feeding the World Without GMOs effectively argues that GE crops “have not substantially improved global food security and have instead increased the use of toxic herbicides and led to herbicide-resistant superweeds.”  The report also correctly points out that the vast majority of GE crops consist of soy and corn (80% of global land devoted to GE crops) and are not used to feed people, but rather are grown to serve the biofuel industry and as animal feed.  The report also demonstrates ways to provide enough food to feed a growing global population with four approaches:  smarter use of fertilizers, a shift in biofuels policy, a concentrated effort to reduce food waste and a shift away from a meat dominated diet.

And finally, the blatant lie put forth consistently by Monsanto et al., that GE crops require fewer pesticides belies the facts.  As should be common knowledge at this point, nearly all of acreage devoted to GE crops is engineered by chemical companies to tolerate extensive glyphosate applications.  As could be predicted, such use  has created superweeds and superbugs that have become resistant to the toxin, requiring greater volumes of  more toxic pesticides.  Mark Bittman, a food journalist for the New York Times, is one of few who dare to point out the obvious, that it may not in fact be proven that GE foods are deleterious to our health in and of themselves, but the increasing amount of toxic chemicals required to grow this food is, as he says, “deeply problematic.”  A more  pointed and detailed study was conducted by Ramon J. Seidler, Ph.D.  He debunks media reports concerning decreased pesticide use since 2010.

That Monsanto and other biotech companies would like all the above information kept from the public is obvious because of profits reaped by the sale of glyphosate.  In 2014, as related in their annual report, that division consisted by about a third of the company’s $15.8 billion in total sales.  That showed a 13% increase from the previous year.  These preliminary and cautious studies emerging across the globe increasingly demonstrate that GE crops are linked indelibly with pesticide use and are destroying a sustainable global food supply.

Recipe of the Week

Chinook salmon is readily available for much of the year in the Pacific Northwest.  And it can be relatively cheap if one buys directly from the fishermen.  This recipe is easy and delicious.

Salmon Poached in Red Wine

1 lb. wild salmon filet

1 cup red wine

2 tbls. butter

salt to taste

Pour the wine into a cast iron pan just big enough to hold the filet.  Place the salmon in the pan and turn the heat to high.  After it reaches a boil, turn the heat to low, cover the pan and gently simmer for about 15 minutes.  Remove the filet and place in a warm oven.  Add the butter to the wine with a little salt and cook down to about 4 tbls.  Pour over the fish and serve.  I simply made a green salad to accompany the fish, but mashed potatoes with goat cheese would be excellent.

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A Simple Reform

In accordance with the definition of capitalism, we will constantly be doing battle with private industry, bent only the accumulation of profit, in order to protect our health and the health of the environment.  The state must be forced to be ever vigilant in the establishment of laws and regulations that would safeguard our overall well-being.  And often, regulatory strictures focus around minutiae in creating solutions.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is proposing legislation that would allow the USDA the authority to issue mandatory recalls of tainted beef, poultry and pork.  Astonishingly, the USDA currently can only politely recommend that a manufacturer, retailer, distributor or importer recall a product, and that request can be refused.  If, however, the product contains an adulterant such as E.coli, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) can then mandate a recall.  Gillibrand’s bill, the Meat and Poultry Recall Notification Act, is designed to overcome the fact that Salmonella is not considered to be an adulterant.  The law, in effect, would simply allow the FSIS to label Salmonella an adulterant.  The law would clean up the mess that stands, where the FDA, the agency that regulates manufactured food products, can and does ban Salmonella from food, but the FSIS, that oversees beef, chicken and pork, cannot.  The roadblock lies in the simple labeling of Salmonella as an adulterant.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that Salmonella, a fecal bacteria, sickens 1.4 million people a year in the U.S., hospitalizing  1,500 and killing 400.  It is also estimated that these particular illnesses and deaths cost $3.6 billion a year in medical costs, wage losses and premature death.

There is precedent that would support the merits of Gillibrand’s bill.  You may remember the E.coli outbreak in 1993 which was linked to 73 Jack in the Box restaurants.  Seven hundred and thirty people were sickened, four children died, and many were left with kidney and brain damage.  That most of the victims were children under the age of 10 galvanized the public to demand that something to done.  Under Bill Clinton, the then FSIS Administrator Michael Taylor proposed a “Zero Tolerance Rule,” and the E.coli bacteria was labeled an adulterant.  Even though the beef industry sued against the rule, over time it was found that, according to Bill Marler, whose law firm handles food safety issues, “industry and government found that with E.coli banned, the numbers of outbreaks and recalls linked to hamburgers fell from commonplace to infrequent.”

Despite the success of the “Zero Tolerance Rule,” Congress, controlled by industry, continued to resist further legislation that would ensure greater food safety.  In 2014, a group of legislators introduced a bill, the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act, which would have amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act to include language that would add any “microbial pathogen that is associated with serious illness or death” to the list of food products that could be recalled.  Two sponsors of the bill, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Louise Slaughter of New York, stated at the time that the “USDA has failed to recall meat contaminated with anti-biotic resistant  pathogens because they do not believe they have the legal authority to do so.  This bill will ensure there is no confusion…We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation.”  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) backed the bill, saying “CSPI believes USDA can act now to declare dangerous strains of anti-biotic resistant Salmonella to be adulterants.”  That bill died in Congress.

And this is really a simple matter of language.  The Federal Meat Inspection Act describes adulterated meat as “containing poisons, toxic pesticides, unsafe food additives or contains any deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an adulterant under this clause the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it it injurious to health.”  That typically most people do not develop symptoms when infected with Salmonella, and others who do get sick recover within a few days without treatment, apparently has led the USDA to believe that it is not “injurious to health.”  The 400 people who die from it every year would beg to differ.

As Bill Marler says, “safer food should be non-partisan.  Republicans and Democrats eat and drink, and they have parents, kids, grandkids, and constituents who are some of the most vulnerable to foodborne illness.”  Senator Gillibrand’s bill is simple, reasonable and is certainly a small step Congress can take to make the food we all eat safer.

Recipe of the Week

I’m always advocating homemade chicken stock to boost the flavor of various stews and soups, especially since the stock one can buy is chock full of sodium.  There’s no reason, however, one can’t use vegetable stock instead, and it takes far less time than chicken or beef stock to make.

Vegetable Stock

Get the biggest pot you have and add:

1 cup of onion skins

4 cups of celery, including the leaves

1/2 cup of chopped carrots

1 cup of leeks, chopped (optional)

mushroom stems (about 1 cup)

asparagus trimmings (about 1 cup)

one or two chopped tomatoes, with their skins

Cover the vegetables with cold water and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook for two hours.  Drain.  This should make about 8 cups of stock, but you can add more vegetables and make as much as you like since it freezes well.

 

 

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Tom Udall Gets It Wrong

There are currently more than 80,000 chemicals available for purchase and use in the U.S. today that have never been tested for potential toxic effects on human health and the environment.  The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was enacted to ensure the safety of each chemical released into our economy, but was so full of loopholes that it prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from acting even on known health dangers.  For instance, it was entirely possible for the EPA to ban asbestos altogether, but a clause in the TSCA, that the EPA use “the least burdensome” means to achieve its goal, meant, over time, that regulating asbestos rather than banning it was a less burdensome option.  And so it goes.  Recently, Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and David Vitter of Louisiana have proposed the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), which is being lauded mostly because it’s a rare example these days of bipartisan collaboration.  But there are problems with this legislation as well, largely because it appears to have been written by the chemical industry.

The core problem with the CSIA is that it places the burden of proof on the EPA.  In other words, the EPA must prove a chemical is toxic rather than the industry proving a chemical is safe.  The status quo remains in place, therefore, allowing almost any chemical to be put on the market.  Various chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors, such as BPA and fire retardants, will then simply continue to be put into products that are used everyday.  Although the “least burdensome” requirement has been expunged, the CSIA would only require that 10 chemicals be designated high priority for testing in the first year.  How many years would it take to assess the health risks of 80,000 chemicals at this rate?  You do the math.

Another problem, which provides a huge loophole, is that the CSIA would require a cost-benefit analysis before the EPA would be allowed to either phase out or ban a chemical.  The bill states that “no unreasonable risk of harm to human health or the environment will result from exposure to a chemical.”  But in order for the EPA to define “unreasonable,” they must also, according to the precepts of the CSIA, weigh the dollar value of the chemical against the dollar value of cancers, birth defects, attention deficit disorder, etc., that it may cause over the years.  And if the EPA rules that the chemical presents no unreasonable risk of harm, the bill states that any new scientific studies in regards to the health or environmental dangers of any particular chemical would be excluded from courtrooms challenging the EPA’s decision.  It would also allow the EPA a seven year time frame to investigate a single chemical.  And most egregiously, the CSIA would block states from taking any action to keep their residents safe from toxic chemicals.  Had California passed prop 65, which would have required the labeling of GMOs, the CSIA would have made it illegal.  Washington State currently has a law on the books to restrict fire retardants; that would also be nullified.  And Maine’s attempts to eliminate toxic mercury from products would be erased from the books permanently.  That eight Republican and eight Democrats co-sponsored this bill shows only that our legislators are interested in proving that something can get done at all, even if nothing at all really gets done, except what is wanted by the industry.

And the chemical industry certainly was involved in shaping the CSIA, as they have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Udall’s campaigns and even sponsored a television ad praising his leadership.  Barbara Boxer, a critic of the bill, says that “I’ve been around the Senate for a long time, but I have never before seen so much heavy-handed, big-spending lobbying on any issue.  It looks to me like the chemical industry itself is writing this bill.”  Indeed, testifying to the toothlessness of the bill is clear as it was endorsed by the American Chemical Council, which has reportedly spent $375 million lobbying Congress between 2005 and 2012 to prevent any meaningful reform of the TSCA.

For his part, Tom Udall falls back on expediency, saying, “we can’t do something that is pie in the sky; we have to deal with reality.”  But rather than offer up any real reform, Mr. Udall is contributing heavily to the notion, not new, that democracy is dead.  Long live oligarchy.

Recipe of the Week

To make this simple soup deeply satisfying, organic veggies should be used, as well as home-made chicken stock.

Potato Broccoli Soup with Cheddar

2 quarts chicken stock

1/2 lb. broccoli, chopped

3 russet potatoes, unpeeled and chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese

salt and pepper to taste

Put all the ingredients, except the cheese, salt and pepper, in a large soup pot.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 45 minutes.  Puree, then add the cheddar and taste for salt and pepper.  If you want to add more cheese, go ahead.

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Spawn of Monsanto

Loblolly sounds as though it’s a name of a quaint little village in Ireland, but it’s actually an important tree species in the U.S., and is being considered as a major player in the biofuel industry.  Currently, 80% of pine plantations in the country are devoted to the loblolly pine.  The USDA and the Obama administration definitely support the production of the tree as a biofuel source and have given the green light to the biotech firm, ArborGen, to genetically modify the tree to increase its usefulness.  This particular decision by the U.S. government has created an international uproar, and it would seem that there’s good reason for these protests, the major ones being that no government or public oversight was allowed, nor was any assessment of environmental risk conducted.  Risks do abound however; some known and others potential.

The Global Justice Ecology Project points out that the loblolly pine naturally produces terpene, which is already being used to produce biofuels.  ArborGen is working on genetically altering the pine to produce up to 20% more terpene.  One of the known risks of allowing this genetic alteration is that terpene is highly flammable, and with global warming and droughts on the rise, along with a probable increase in the number of loblolly plantations, conditions could be set for major firestorms.  I would consider that possibility to be enough to derail the project.  Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch adds that “if these GE loblolly pines are released on a large scale in the U.S., there will be no way to stop them from cross-contaminating native loblolly pines.  This is deliberate, irreversible and completely irresponsible contamination of the environment with unknown and possibly devastating consequences.  Forest ecosystems are barely understood,  and the introduction of trees with genes for modified wood characteristics could have all manner of negative impacts on soils, fungi, wildlife, songbirds, and public health.”

Groups from around the world (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, EcoNexus, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Ecology Project, and the Dogwood Alliance) join Biofuelwatch in their condemnation of this unprecedented  and unregulated decision by the USDA.  Winnie Overbeek, International Coordinator of the Uruguay based World Rainforest Movement has stated that “we are greatly concerned that these unregulated GE pines could be shipped to Brazil or other countries without public, or maybe even government knowledge, further promoting the expansion of industrial tree plantations in the Global South.  This contributes to deforestation and affects indigenous and peasant communities worldwide who depend on forests for survival.”  As with GMO crops, the altered loblolly pine tree will be developed to withstand pests, which would of course involved the use of pesticides, already a known and dangerous problem.  Introducing pesticides into a poorly understood ecosystem would enhance the destructive capabilities of these toxins, leading to more harm.  Bees and Monarch butterflies are already acknowledged victims of Monsanto’s glysophate, so it stands to reason that more extinctions would occur with unknown repercussions.  As with GMO  crops, where cross contamination with non-GMO crops and native varieties is common there is no reason to believe that the opposite will occur, especially as the loblolly pine is capable of projecting its seeds and pollen over a distance of many miles.

The decision made by the USDA to allow ArborGen to genetically modify the loblolly pine might have gone unnoticed as the information was never intended to reach the public.  A scientist from the Center for Food Safety, Doug Gurian-Sherman, however, recently exposed the previously unpublished letter from the USDA to ArborGen last August.  Gurian-Sherman says the USDA “is deliberately thumbing its nose at the public,” and points out that “this is probably the biggest environmental regulatory change in the US since the 1990s,” when GMO crops were first approved.  Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that when ArborGen requested permission from the USDA in 2013 to commercialize a GE eucalyptus tree, they received comments of 10,000 to one opposing the request.  Perhaps another reason to keep the proposal to genetically alter the loblolly pine secret comes from the fact that the USDA, as is well known, has become infiltrated with former Monsanto executives under Obama’s watch.  Most of ArborGen’s executives come from Monsanto, including Andrew Baum, ArborGen’s President and CEO.  Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary, has long been an advocate for Monsanto and is a cheer leader for the biotech industry.

“It’s clear from researching ArborGen’s public relations messaging that they see themselves as the new Monsanto,” says Will Benningham of Global Justice Ecology Project.  Benningham goes on to say “that ArborGen plans to follow the ruthless Monsanto model and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.”  If Monsanto can, and does, sue any hapless farmer who “possesses” their seeds after those seeds contaminate a farmers’ land, it’s not a long stretch to see ArborGen using the same tactic.  This time, however, it would be our National Forests and Parks under attack from a private company.  This is incredibly dangerous territory that our government is leading us into, and I don’t know what can stop it other than the work of such organizations mentioned in this paper.

Recipe of the Week

Recipes for steamed clams are everywhere, but most of them involve so many ingredients that the fresh taste of the clams themselves is lost.  This recipe is the most simple and, with good French bread, delicious.

1 or more pounds of Manila clams.  Inspect each one for cracks in the shell, place them in a bowl, and run a slow and steady stream of cold water over them for about 15 minutes

4 or more garlic cloves, minced

2 TBLS extra virgin olive oil.

Pour the oil into a sturdy pot.  Add the garlic, and when it starts to sizzle, add the clams, turn down the heat and cover with a tight lid.  You may stir them once or twice to help the shells to open.  When all the shells are open (discard the ones that are not), you’re ready to eat.  This takes mere minutes, so get the bread and lovely green salad ready.

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The Big Four vs. The Rest of Us

There’s still about a month left for the public and industry to weigh in, but the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will most likely be published intact after April 8th.  It has received more significant attention than previous guidelines as it veers closely to the notion that there’s a connection between the food we consume and subsequent environmental degradation.  The guidelines are a bit under the radar for most of us, but they are still employed in the development of federal nutrition policy, as well as in the schools, food assistance programs and the food stamp program.  The 2015 guidelines state the usual, that a diet concentrating on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low dairy and low sugar is the most healthy.  Where the report varies from previous guidelines is in its suggestion that the consumption of red and processed meat is inherently unhealthy.  And it calls for health professionals to provide preventive nutrition services which the report sees as “largely unavailable in the U.S. health system.”  Simply put, the report recommends doctors actively discuss the types of foods their patients are eating.

I find the report to be benign and rational.  The meat industry, however, and as is to be expected, is loudly protesting the conclusions of the report, and are mainly in opposition to a section on “Food Sustainability and Safety.”  This section ties the American diet and environmental impact, the first such time the federal government has ever made this connection public.  In particular, the guidelines state that “sustainable diets were…higher in plant-based foods, [which] is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”  The guidelines promote plant-based diets because, as they state, “current evidence shows that the average American diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use.”  However, the authors also emphasize that “no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.”  And so off we go.

The meat industry has tied its knickers into knots over these guidelines, and is loudly protesting what the North American Institute calls a “flawed” and “nonsensical” report.  Simply put, they believe Obama is trying to kill an entire industry.  The North American Meat Institute  and other powerful corporate lobbies plan an all out assault against the report and hope to prevent the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services from adopting the recommendations as national guidelines.  These groups intend to extend the comment period to 120 days in order to quash the implementation of the guidelines.  According to an article in the Washington Post, the meat industry attacks “the notion that meat production is environmentally unfriendly and discredit the idea that environmental concerns should influence the dietary guidelines.”  The meat industry also stands by a statement made by Mary Soukup, the editor of Drovers/Cattle Network, that “in the past 30 years, thanks to advancements in production, genetics and processing, beef has 34 percent less total fat and 17 percent less saturated fat [and] is recognized as an excellent source of…nutrients.”

While it may be true that beef provides essential nutrients (although vegetarians would argue, and correctly, that all necessary nutrients can be obtained from a plant based diet), there is an elephant in the industry’s lobby.  Nowhere do the industrial meat producers allow that environmental degradation is part and parcel of their operations.  And they continue to assert, as do industrial soy and corn farmers, that in order to feed the world, large scale production is essential.  In fact, as EcoWatch points out, “feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces.  For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy.  That’s a 70 percent loss.”  Moreover, much research has been done in the last decade proving that a meat based diet is, in fact, radically unhealthy.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that what Americans eat (and how much) needs to be addressed if we are to successfully battle the obesity/diabetes epidemic.  If a small dose of education eventually leads people to understand the connections between a healthy diet, better health and a cleaner environment, then more power to reports like the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Given the power of agribusiness lobbyists over the federal government, that this relatively small voice of reason and science should appear is an excellent sign that we are awakening to the dangers, not only to ourselves but to the planet as well, of industrial ranching and farming.

The Big Four, Cargill, Tyson, JBS USA and the National Beef Packing Co., together slaughter 86,300 cows a day.  Perhaps we can put a small dent in that figure.

Recipe of the Week

I tend to use only small amounts of meat to season a dish, or eat vegetarian meals.  However, I do like to boost the flavors of some soups, such as black bean, with homemade chicken stock.  It’s easy, basically free, and only requires a couple of days to make.  This recipe differs from most in the cooking time, which I’ve found increases the richness of the broth.  When I cook chicken, I freeze the raw backs, wings and gizzards for use in the stock, and usually make a full batch of stock from the remains of three chickens (or four).  I also freeze the skins of any onions I use, as well as cuttings from celery and carrots, or leeks, which is rare.  Don’t use too many onion skins, though, as their flavor can override all others.

Put the chicken pieces and vegetable leftovers in a large pot.  I use a 16 quart pot, but you could also use two 8 quart pots.  Add about 1 Tbls. whole black peppercorns.  Cover with cold water and turn on the heat.  Just when the water begins to bubble, turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and leave overnight, or about 12 hours.  The idea is that you should only see a bubble every ninety seconds.  In the morning, turn off the heat, let cool some and then drain.  Put the broth in containers in the refrigerator overnight to allow the fat to cohere on the top.  Skim off the fat and pour stock into containers and freeze.  I usually get about 8 quarts of stock.

 

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Smoke and Mirrors – Sustainable Palm Oil

On the heels of writing about how the food industry is suddenly responding to consumer demand that our food supply be sustainable, I stumbled upon an article about how Unilever and Cargill, the two leading exporters of palm oil, were in the process of sourcing only sustainable oil.  I wrote a small piece nearly two years ago examining the destructive properties of large-scale palm oil production in Indonesia, and was encouraged to believe that something had changed.  Indeed, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a “Palm Oil Scoreboard,” which evaluated the efforts of several large companies, declaring that most of them were making a concerted effort to source palm oil that “protects both High Conservation Value and High Carbon stock forests.”  But in a concentrated effort to locate these sustainable palm oil plantations in Indonesia I was stymied; the reason being that little has changed except the spin.  The exact same “safeguards” are in place just as they have been since 2004, and they are inadequate at best.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 and created a certification process known as Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, or CSPO.  This process allows manufacturers to purchase certificates that can be redeemed for palm oil which they then can claim is from segregated, fully traceable supply chains.  Companies can legally claim that their products are not produced on plantations responsible for deforestation, loss of animal habitat and destruction of local economies.  If you spy the stamp “GreenPalm” on your candy bar, you are supposed to be assured no orangutan had died to satisfy your sweet tooth.

RSPO and CSPO were created with admirable intentions.  The problem lies in the fact that the issued certificates could be essentially meaningless as the little palm oil that is actually CSPO is much more expensive to purchase.  The big companies aren’t willing to pay more, thus forcing producers to cheapen the load by adding more unsustainably produced oil into the mix.  The producers sell the GreenPalm certificates which the end user redeems and is then able to make a sustainable claim.  In this system, GreenPalm certificates tend to mask traceable and sustainable supply chains.  Nick Thompson, CEO of New Britain Palm Oil, listed as an authentically sustainable producer of palm oil, says that “although we understand the theory behind GreenPalm certificate trading we have always thought that because the associated claim is so weak, the value to any buyer would be correspondingly low and therefore represent too little incentive to the growers…The value of certificates is pathetically low and the fact that such a massive percentage of GreenPalm certificates are being redeemed by a very small number of companies illustrates their lack of franchise in the market.”  Another producer of palm oil, Agropalma of Brazil, rated by Greenpeace as the top maker of sustainable oil, issued a statement saying that “we are also against GreenPalm certificates and believe there is no sustainability where there is no traceability.”

The fact remains that Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil.  Agropalma operates in Brazil and New Britain Palm Oil in Papua New Guinea.  Companies such as Unilever and Cargill, among others, source their palm oil from Indonesia.  That these companies claim to be working towards the purchase of sustainable oil may be true, but they are also being forced to do so by 2020, and that may certainly be too late.  In the interim, vast tracks of land continue to be deforested.  Given that the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (ISPO) dissociated itself from the RSPO and pledges to make its stringent standards mandatory for all producers of palm oil in the country by 2020, business interests in the area are conducting huge land grabs in anticipation.  So not only are current programs ineffectual in stopping deforestation, the threat of stronger mandates appears to be ramping up production of palm oil and the subsequent razing of rain forests.

The sad irony lies in the fact that palm oil replaced the much maligned ingredient necessary for the production of processed food, trans-fat.  Palm oil may not be as injurious to human health, but the consequences of its massive production are dire for the planet.  It is estimated that Indonesia’s peatlands hold approximately 57 billion gigatons of carbon which is steadily contributing to greenhouse gas emissions as the forests are being destroyed.  Work is being done to replace palm oil with a substance that “matches palm oil’s key properties almost identically,” but it’s still in the early stages of development and its cost is as yet too high.

Greed, politics and corruption are, of course, at the root of our blind willingness to destroy the planet.  Good intentions by U.S. companies or the standards set by the ISPO may prove to be too little too late, particularly as China and India are the world’s biggest buyers of palm oil.  All of the countries in the world must act now if we wish to preserve the rain forests of Indonesia.

Recipe of the Week

This is an incredibly simple recipe, exceptionally delicious, but it takes about three hours to make.  Once you get it on the stove, however, it needs little attendance.

Pappardelle with Wild Boar

1 lb. ground wild boar

3 small stalks of celery, minced

4 Tbls. onion, minced

1 tiny carrot, minced

4 sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 small can of organic tomato paste

2 Tbls. flour

2 tbls. olive oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

8.8 ounce package of dried pappardelle

1 bottle of Italian red wine

In a large soup pot, preferably cast iron, heat the oil.  Add the meat and brown.  Add the carrot, onion and celery, stirring and cooking for about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, rosemary, tomato paste and flour, stirring it all together.  Add the wine, bring to a simmer, cover and allow to simmer on the lowest heat for at least 2 hours.  I checked the pot and stirred in every half hour, and it was fine, needing no more liquid.  Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain but don’t rinse and stir into the sauce.  This dish requires no sprinkles of cheese.  It feeds at least four people.

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A Quiet Revolution

I’m still chuckling over the Carl’s Jr. television ads featuring gorgeous women devouring monstrous hamburgers while the words “hormone-free,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range” are prominently displayed.  Their latest ad, apparently shown on Super Bowl Sunday, has a well-endowed female beauty parading down the street in a bikini while chewing on one of those burgers.  “This ad tells you that Carl’s Jr. sees this as enough of a mainstream issue.  They’re realizing that this is something people want and not just something that a bunch of activist, doomsday folks are trying to push,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumer’s Union.  Indeed, Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for CKE Restaurants, Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, says that “sales of the burgers have exceeded projections.”  And now, as many of us predicted, the trend is expanding into other food industries.  The ice cream behemoth, Breyers, announced last week it will stop using milk from cows treated with rBST.  Unilever, Breyers’ parent company, also owns Ben & Jerry’s, Fruttare, Good Humor, Klondike, Magnum and Popsicle, all of which they plan to include in the rBST ban in the next few years.  Alessandra Bellini, vice president of brand development at Unilever North America, says that “these industry-leading changes are the latest in our commitment to do right by parents and the environment.”

Once again, Monsanto is involved.  They developed this genetically engineered hormone in 1993 in order to artificially increase milk production in cows by 10 to 15 percent.  The FDA, as is its wont, rapidly approved the artificial hormone, despite the fact that no study had occurred examining possible side effects in either the cows that were injected or the humans consuming the milk.  The FDA accepted Monsanto’s “study,” which tested the hormone on 30 rats for 90 days, a study that was never published.  In 1998, Health Canada decided this study was reason enough for a review preceding approval of the drug and banned its use.  The European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand quickly followed suit.  All of this followed a 1991 report by Rural Vermont that showed that rBST injected cows suffered serious health problems.

Monsanto is, of course, fighting against this trend in the industry to source milk from rBST-free cattle.  Calling on the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission to do their bidding, Monsanto has asked that they stop “deceptive milk labeling practices [which] have misled consumers about the quality, safety, or value of milk and milk products from cows supplemented with recombinant bovine somatotropin.”  In the two letters written by Monsanto and sent to the government agencies, they specifically cited twelve companies who Monsanto says are using “false or misleading advertising” when promoting rBST-free dairy products.  John Thomas, present of Thomas Dairy, one of the companies named in the letters, acknowledges the power of Monsanto.  “They’re a huge company, and they can put pressure on small companies like us to get in line with what they want.”

Rick North, project director for the Program for Safe Food at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, believes Monsanto is fighting back because of lost profits.  He says that “Monsanto is getting clobbered in the marketplace” because dairies nationwide are going rBST-free.  In 2005, our very own Tillamook Creamery Association made the decision to ban rBST even in the face of pressure from Monsanto.  Since then, the trend eventually enveloped all of Oregon’s dairy producers, as well as Safeway in Oregon and Washington.  There are too many dairy producers in the country to list who have abjured the use of rBST, however Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, is on the list, as well as a growing roster of restaurants and coffee shops.  Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill among them.  Rick North simply said that “a hellava lot of dairies have gone organic or [rBST-free] since 2002.”

Consumer demand is obviously increasing production of organic foods and people are seemingly willing to pay more for milk.  A study done by the American Journal of Agricultural Economics Association outlines why sales of organic milk are increasing across the nation.  Sales of all organic food was estimated to be $35 billion in 2014.  That Breyers has joined the ever-increasing list of companies promoting “clean” food is heartening.  Unilever even has a “Sustainable Living” website, which also promotes the reduction of salt, fat and sugar in their products.  Americans are waking up to what corporations have been doing to their food and industry is paying attention.

Recipe of the Week

There are few salads better than a Caesar Salad, and if you make your own dressing it will be extra special.  Not hard to do if you own a food processor, although it can be done manually as well.

Caesar Salad

For the dressing:

2 eggs

2 TBLS lemon juice

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 anchovies

1 cup olive oil

1 tsp worcestershire sauce

Put all the ingredients in the bowl of the food processor except the oil.  Using a drip attachment, if you have one, turn on the processor and pour the oil into the attachment until it’s gone.  Taste for salt, although I don’t think it’s necessary.

For the croutons:

You’ll want some good French bread, preferably a bit stale, but fresh will work, too.  Cut the bread into cubes, any size you like, and drizzle with a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Spread out on a sheet pan and bake in a 350 degree oven until crisp.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before storing.

Caesar Salad

Pull off the tops of a bunch of Romaine lettuce.  Wash well and remove the leaves.  You should leave them whole for a better presentation.  Coat the lettuce with dressing, add the croutons, and shave some good parmesan over the top.

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