Foreign hormones in food—atrazine is just one of many

Posted August 25, 2009

On Sunday, the New York Times reported on new research suggesting the common pesticide, atrazine (often used on corn), may be more dangerous to human health at lower levels than previously thought.

According to the Times, "Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems."

Atrazine is just one of a slew of foreign hormones that contaminate or are intentionally used in our industrialized food system. Like atrazine, science now implicates many of them as contributors—even at very low levels of exposure—to hormone-related chronic diseases.

The latter includes not only birth defects and reproductive problems, but also diseases of the immune system, nervous system, and cancer—especially including breast and prostate cancer. 

Today, IATP released its new Smart Guide: Hormones in the Food System—an overview of dozens of different chemical-disrupting hormones that we likely ingest or are exposed to each day.

The Smart Guide covers steroids and arsenic given to food animals to spur more rapid growth: rbGH, hormone-disrupting pesticides, synthetic hormones in food packaging, as well as other hormone-disrupting food contaminants (such as dioxins, PCBs and flame retardants).

The bad news is that common, low-level exposure to these hormones just keeps looking worse, the more closely scientists study them. On the other hand, consumers have some easy, common-sense steps they can take to reduce their exposure.

The Smart Guide recommends eating low-fat meats and dairy products, eating certified organic when possible, avoiding pesticide hormones and using hormone-free cans and bottles. The guide also lists a series of steps for policymakers to take.

Check out the full Smart Guide.


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Do we need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

Posted August 24, 2009

Okay, only fair to warn you. I do not answer the question here. Second, the subject is not really one for a blog, more for a book. But it's important to say short things as well as long. Third, I have a bias. We all do. In this case, it matters that I like Michael Pollan's writing and that I believe there is much wrong with conventional agriculture as practiced in the United States. You will see why that is relevant in just a moment. Now back to the question.

This one really matters. The world (I guess I mean governments, but also private companies and a lot of NGOs besides) is spending on agriculture like it has not in decades. So how the money gets spent is important. Is more of what we have already better than trying to grow (and process and transport and sell) our food differently? Can we do better? If so, how?

This blog is prompted by a recent short and angry piece from the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association—Rick Tolman—in the Delta Farm Press. His article drew my attention to another article, this one in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American entitled "The Omnivore's Delusion" written by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst. The title is a play on Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

As I said, I am one of Pollan's fans—I think he writes persuasively and cogently; even if I do not always agree with him and find that he makes some issues too easy. So I was curious to see what Blake Hurst had made of it. Hurst writes well, which is always a pleasure. He makes some good points, too. But in the end, he fails to give his critics' point of view their due and thereby fails to persuade. Those who agree with him, people like Rick Tolman, are happy. But those who thought that conventional agriculture was the problem before will not change their mind after reading the piece. Sorry, but driving a tractor is no longer any kind of claim to special wisdom. The question on how we, as a planet, feed ourselves and the world deserves a lot more thought, humility and openness to debate. 

Rightly or not, farmers are having to fight hard to be heard, because they are not where the money is. They are not where the subsidies stick (they flow right back out the farm door), and they are outnumbered 440:1 (at a generous estimate) by the eating population (in the U.S. that is—in much of the world, those who grow food outnumber those who do not). As the most recent Farm Bill showed, the fight is no longer among farmers and between farmers and grain traders, or between food companies and consumers. The debate now engages doctors and public health experts, environmentalists and biologists, parents and school boards, anti-poverty organizations and churches, groups against racism, trade unions and a whole slew of more organizations. 

Hurst has his argument with Michael Pollan, but Pollan is just the journalist here—a smart, rhetorically astute, journalist. Behind Pollan are the people that inspired the stories that make Hurst angry—and Hurst's retort does not answer them. Because they, too, are farmers—some of them in a long line of farmers, and some of them new to the land. They are food workers, some of them living and working in conditions that have inspired latter day Upton Sinclairs to write about their condition (Eric Schlosser is just one for instance). And then there are the others—thousands of them, who, for myriad reasons, care about what we eat, how we grow it, and whether we can do better. 

Hurst opens with an attack on a man (nameless) who he overhears holding forth on all that ails the food system. The trouble for Hurst is, whether or not the man's diatribe is well informed, that man has a significant stake in what Hurst does. It is not a symmetrical relationship—Hurst would not presume, he tells us, to tell the man how to run his real estate or tax accountancy firm. All well and good. But actually, the man in question, just like every one of us, is directly involved in Hurst's business. We eat the food he grows, we pay to clean up the mess agriculture makes, we pay the costs of a grossly inefficient and market distorting farm bill—so we have a voice. Like it or not, agriculture in the United States is not "just another business." And with the somewhat hallowed ground of "feeding the world" comes a whole lot of necessary public oversight and meddling that is not optional, but just the way it is. 

There is a lot to respond to in Hurst's article, but let me focus on just one point: 

Hurst equates organic production with a return to 1930s technology. This would be news to people like Joe Salatin, whose farm Pollan is so enthused about in Omnivore's Dilemma. As Farhad Mazar with Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh explained to me, organic production in his community is not about worshipping the past, but combining traditional knowledge with modern science, and respecting certain basic principles (e.g., do not use pesticides that kill the life you want to preserve on the farm, or that harm the farmer and the farm workers). Rather than organic agriculture being a vision that is frozen in time, or a movement inspired by romantic city dwellers trying to get in touch with Little House on the Prairie (as Hurst implies), it is more like Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where the majority of U.S. farmers were pushed one way (industrial, increasingly concentrated, ever less diversified and ever more dependent on external inputs) and a few—now again on the ascendent, but still only about 1 percent of the total—chose to think about productivity per acre, not per plant; to think about how a symbiotic production cycle could be maintained among the sun, the rain, the plants and the animals (something Salatin's farm, as described so vividly in Pollen's book, brings alive). Alternatives to conventional agriculture are not historic relics. They are the future, and our present. 

The questions are: Do we know enough? Can we make it work well enough? Can we bring about the simultaneous changes required (in storage, transportation, distribution, processing, retail and standards) to make this a revolution now, or will it be more incremental and hesitant and messy? It will surely involve biology and genetics, but maybe not biotechnology to promote the use of particular pesticides and herbicides. It will surely involve the market, but maybe also functioning competition laws, and a radical reassertion of the public interest in food that is healthy for the planet and people alike. 

Farmer Hurst may not like what he hears about agriculture as he flies about the country, but he might want to pay a little more attention to the science and politics behind it. If Michael Pollan was it, he can ride his tractor in peace. Thankfully, Pollan is a sign of the times. Hurst might want to turn his attention to the President, for instance, and reflect some more.

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Transportation and sustainable food systems: an open policy window?

Posted August 14, 2009

IATP is exploring the roles that different federal departments and agencies play in America’s food system. While policies and regulations that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) implements and creates make the biggest mark on what we eat, cumulatively, other federal entities have significant and sometimes surprising impacts on how food is grown, distributed, transported, consumed and disposed of. With the upcoming expiration of the largest transportation bill in history, transportation and sustainable food advocates have an opportunity to find common ground to help reach the goals of both.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) made its biggest mark on the American food system with the creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System (IHS). When President Eisenhower signed the 1956 act that authorized construction of the IHS, lawmakers knew it would revolutionize the transport of food and other goods; the project’s full impact on eating and agriculture, however, would have been hard to imagine. Those 42,000 miles of new roads not only reduced our reliance on trains and increased the use of trucks for food delivery: they gave rise to the car-oriented culture that spurred the growth of the fast food industry, made suburban development (much of it on farmland) more attractive, and increased centralization in food industries.

Now, another opportunity exists for transportation policy to change our food system. DOT's mission is to “serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.” Consumer access to healthful foods and farmer access to markets are among the most vital of interests, yet no transportation-related policies or programs currently address the issues. The reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) could be a vehicle to change that.

SAFETEA-LU, set to expire at the end of September, is the farm bill of transportation—a massive piece of legislation that guides federal transportation policy. Leading up to the passage of the bill and its predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), organizations like Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) presented articulate cases for including food access in the bill. They suggested pilot programs and grants to improve food access and funding for mobile farmers' markets, among other things. While these proposals didn't make it into past laws, the argument for incorporating food-related programs may now be stronger. Two recently published government reports address the issue of “food deserts”: places where access to healthful and affordable foods is limited. One was carried out by USDA’s Economic Research Service to fulfill a statute in the 2008 Farm Bill. Another, from the National Academies Press, summarizes proceedings of a workshop titled “The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts” held earlier this year. Both documents cite transportation as a critical factor in remedying food access issues.

In July, Congress began debating the immediate fate of SAFETEA-LU. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, an 18-month extension of the current bill's policies. The committee, backed by the Obama administration, says that more time is necessary to craft a reauthorization. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by its chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), strongly opposes this action—they are concerned that the Senate committee's approach will put the bill on a course similar to SAFETEA-LU’s passage, during which TEA-21 was extended 12 times. Instead, they’ve introduced a 6-year authorization that would replace SAFETEA-LU.

Whatever legislative path the new transportation bill takes, food advocates should weigh in on its contents. Let’s resurrect old ideas, like those put forth in this 2002 policy memo from UEPI and CFSC, and think of new ways that transportation policy can help both farmers and consumers. What would a transport system most supportive of sustainable food look like?

Many of the things that smart growth groups are already calling for—more money for bike trails and public transit, and rewards for communities that reduce their carbon emissions—could be helpful in improving food access and distribution, so if nothing else, sustainable food advocates should support the efforts of organizations like Transportation for America. Considering the role of transportation is one of many ways we can continue to broaden the definition of "food policy" and think beyond USDA to improve our food system.    

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Food Safety in the Legislative Grinder

Posted August 13, 2009

Before they broke for summer recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to improve food safety. In a new commentary, IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard dissects how jurisdictional battles among House committees ultimately weakened the bill and set back more fundamental food safety policy reform. You can read the full commentary here.

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How Are Your Tomatoes?

Posted August 5, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

Photo 1 Phytophthora infestans, or late blight, is a highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato and potato plants and has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. The spores of the fungus are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September; but the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, describes as an “explosive” rate of infection. There are two strains of late blight—tomato and potato—but the illness can jump between the species. A single open lesion on a plant can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores.

Fungicides can protect unaffected plants from disease, but there is no cure for late blight. Organic farmers, who are not permitted to use powerful synthetic fungicides, like chlorothalonil, have very few weapons against this aggressive pathogen.

Similar to the hand-me-down costs of our industrial food system, we now see residual effects by an  irresponsible industrial bedding plant nursery. The current outbreak is believed to have spread from plants in garden stores to backyard gardens and commercial fields. Geneticists at Cornell are tracking the blight, and have said the outbreak spread in part from the hundreds of thousands of tomato plants bought by home gardeners at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores starting in April. The wholesale gardening company Bonnie Plants, based in Alabama, had supplied most of the seedlings and recalled all remaining plants starting on June 26.

If the blight continues, there could be widespread destruction of tomato crops—especially organic ones— and higher prices at the market. “Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box” at wholesale, cites John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell who visited our farm pre-blight. “Some growers are talking about $40 boxes already.” Almost every farm here in Dutchess County has been affected. It's the quiet gossip at our farmers markets—"How are your tomatoes?" we often ask one another.

Authorities recommend that home gardeners inspect their tomato plants for late blight signs, which include white, powdery spores; large olive green or brown spots on leaves; and brown or open lesions on the stems. Gardeners who find an affected plant should pull it, seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away—not compost it. Many unaffected plants in commercial fields are being sprayed with heavy doses of fungicides to prevent the spread of the disease. (More information can be found at this Cornell Web site,)

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where I visited this past spring, has lost this year’s tomato crop. Because long-term management of the disease is of greatest importance, we might soon be pulling our entire first crop of tomatoes. In regards to consumers and our CSA members, we will be providing a hand-written letter on how we are actively managing this year's tomato and potato crops. 

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Free Trade and Agriculture—a Bad Idea

Posted August 4, 2009

MR090701cvr_140 The July–August issue of the Monthly Review features IATP's Sophia Murphy and her essay "Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time is Done;"  an examination of the original promises of free trade in agriculture and what actually happened—particularly to developing countries.

The essay also outlines alternative agriculture trade strategies that could help address hunger, build sustainable local foods systems and improve a trading system full of widening disparities.

The full issue of the Monthly Review is also worth checking out. Titled "The Crisis in Agriculture & Food: Conflict, Resistance, & Renewal," it includes articles by Walden Bellow, Miguel Altieri and Peter Rosset among many others. 

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WIC Gets an Upgrade

Posted July 29, 2009

The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program (WIC) is one of the most important government programs for low-income families. WIC's food package provides vouchers for milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and other food items. Now, for the first time in it's 35-year existence, it's getting an overhaul—and that requires retail food vendors who accept WIC vouchers to make fresh fruits and vegetables available.  

States have until September 30, 2009, to update their food package and there is some latitude among states in how they will implement the new requirements. Minnesota will implement its new rules on August 1. Those rules take the fruits and vegetables requirement a step further by setting a minimum stocking requirement. Many low-income communities, in both rural and urban parts of the country, do not have easy access to grocery stores. WIC participants are often forced to rely on corner stores without much of a selection of healthy food—particularly perishable items like fruits and vegetables.

IATP is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to publicize the new rules in corner stores around the state. And we are working with food distributors in Minnesota that supply corner stores to make it easier for those stores to stock fresh, high-quality produce. Our press release has the details.

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Land Grabbing

Posted July 8, 2009

When the sharp rise in food prices hit in 2007, countries and corporations began looking for land around the world that could produce both food and biofuels. The focus of so-called "land-grabs" has been on countries in Africa, South America and Asia. But, different from past forms of colonialism, much of the land investment is being led by southern countries or companies based in the southern hemisphere. In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch reports on the extent of global land grabs and analyzes their potential effects on food production and hunger around the world.

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When the Fly in Your Soup May Carry Superbugs

Posted July 6, 2009

The rise in illnesses due to antibiotic resistant bacteria has always been both easier and harder to understand than scientists have led us to believe.

Easier because on the one hand, the problem all boils down to one maxim: "The more we use them, the faster we lose them (antibiotics, that is)." In articulating his theory of natural selection, Charles Darwin fleshed out the concept. We live within a huge ecosystem of bacteria in which we humans are just one small cog. When we introduce a stressor into that system—antibiotics—we create the conditions where the bugs that most naturally resistant those antibiotics will be the ones that thrive and come to dominate our mutual environments.

Harder to understand, perhaps, because this bacterial ecosystem is a much more complex, nuanced world than most of us ever think about. It turns out that bacteria can swap their genes with ease with even unrelated families of bacteria. This includes the genes that render them resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, because these drug resistant genes are often physically connected to one another, bacteria that before was killable with several antibiotics, could, in one fell swoop, become much less killable. 

What prompted this blog is the latest study (Graham J et al. Sci Total Environ. April 2009) showing that these bugs and the genes that make them resistant could be carried by flies—yes, flies—from farms to elsewhere. Now foolishly, about 70 percent of all antibiotic supplies in the U.S. are used as additives to animal feed for chickens, pigs and beef cattle to make them grow faster under more stressful, confined conditions prevalent in factory farms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at poultry manure from these factory farms and compared the drug resistance of the bacteria in the litter with the bacteria on the flies collected nearby. And guess what, the drug resistance was pretty much the same.

We don't know where else those flies were headed to, but wherever it is, the implications aren't good.

So, next time you do find a fly in your soup, just say, "Waiter, no superbugs, please."

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The Labors of Chickens

Posted June 29, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

June 12, 2009

72 Labors

First, seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it
comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering, we should consider whether our virtue      
and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we
must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone
We eat to stop all evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings
And to accomplish our Buddha Way

- Meal Gatha, sacred chant performed before meals at a local Buddhist Monestary

The above words were uttered by our apprentice Heidi Kunz prior to our meal this evening. Forty minutes prior she had been pacing through the woods of a forested backyard, questioning her own choices about why she decided to become a vegetarian 17 years ago – “I feel like I have to decide right now if I want to keep eating meat,” she murmured in agonized mental confusion, tears streaming down her cheek.

Moments later she placed a sharpened knife at the jugular of a chicken.

We all know too well the modern minds’ seductive use of disassociation – not only have food companies and televised commercials aided in such separatist thought – but particularly pertaining to meat. Many attest – just give me the store-bought Cornish Cross, boneless chicken breast. We may think otherwise, but recent CDC studies show chicken to be the number one source of food borne illness outbreaks. So those eight-week old, four to five pound Cornish Crosses that topple over because they've been bred to grow so rapidly don't necessarily make the most appetizing (or humane) source of food.

The Cornish Cross, or Rock Cornish, is a hybrid variety of chicken, produced from a cross between the Cornish and Plymouth Rock strains. It has become a favorite because it lacks the typical "hair" seen in other breeds which often need singeing post plucking. It is a poor forager and would therefore be at a loss in knowing how to navigate our clover patches. 

Chicken coop So, in opposition to the antibiotic-injected, high protein diet, crammed indoor space of factory farms; our birds - a diverse group of eight different varieties - have been hanging out in their homemade mobile chicken coop. In the quiet months of March, we retrofitted the 1950s manure spreader that a local had been rotting in his backyard. We frequented the local lumberyard and piece-by-piece put together a homemade chicken tractor (see right).

About once every three days, the chickens get rotated through a section of fallowed clover cover crop. We supplement their local, organic feed from Lightning Tree Farm ($22/bag). With a rich supply of kitchen scraps and the clover abounding from our soil, our birds have been eating well since their arrival in February. After a few run-ins with mother nature's other species, we have 18 laying hens - all of which will begin laying in the coming weeks. As a side business we sell fresh eggs to those who ask - $5/dozen.

More than anything, these birds exist on our farm as a source of education. The mobile coop is part of the knowledge our apprentices gain from learning about about holistic farm management. And although we may be young at this, we aspire to provide a sound example of closed-loop farming systems, minimizing outside inputs of fertilizer.

Just like the disassociation from what appears on our plates at supper - we have become removed from understanding how humans can manage other animals in a humane and honorable way. Killing a chicken humanely and in the presence of others, for some, is a step in the direction towards honoring ones food supply. After participating in the process and asking, "why did you do it?" Heidi answered, "to justify my eating of meat - I can now understand why some don't do it."     

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