tom philpott

The environmental impact of cow burps

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

This is not the first time the New York Times has given the prime real estate of its op-ed page over to James McWilliams, who has made a career out of tut-tutting the naivete of locavorism. It’s an easy target in some respects. But at least one of the claims he regularly trots out as fact — that raising livestock on pasture is worse for the environment than raising them in confinement — strikes me not only as counter-intuitive, but also flat-out wrong.

Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, cites a recent study by researchers from Stanford and Purdue Universities:

The authors create a model in which the US government cancels ethanol mandates, which would basically destroy the corn ethanol market and cause the price of corn to drop. If farmers responded to low corn prices would give farmers incentive to let their cropland revert to native prairie and put beef cows on it to graze, they argue, their land would store significant amounts of carbon in soil—more than offsetting cow-related greenhouse gas emissions like methane—thus helping stabilize the climate. Their bottom line:

Results indicate that up to 10 million ha [24.7 million acres, more than a quarter of land currently devoted to corn] about of could be converted to pastureland, reducing agricultural land use emissions by nearly 10 teragrams carbon equivalent per year, a 36% decline in carbon emissions from agricultural land use.

I have written before about McWilliams and the opportunities awaiting ambitious academics willing to crank out faux-contrarian arguments that, regardless of intent (McWilliams is a vegan) have the effect of bolstering the status quo (in this case the industrial meat system). Tom Laskowy has coined a name for this sort of thing: the FUDosphere (FUD standing for Fear Uncertainty Doubt), “a network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

God, I’ve totally forgotten that I’ve written on this subject at least three times in the past. But it’s kind of important to me personally. I raise a small herd of cattle on pasture, using intensive management techniques. I’ve invested in Philpott and the Stanford/Purdue study being right. And I know scientific studies offer results that are often all over the map. Might I suggest a debate between McWilliams and Philpott on this very topic?

Trivial things like bee extinction can’t get in the way of our industry-friendly EPA

Tom Philpott, writing in Grist, on the crazymaking consensus that Obama echoed this week in the WSJ, that there is TOO MUCH regulation in the United States.

Echoing this classic right-wing talking point seems an odd move in the wake of Wall Street meltdown, the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, and the BP oil spill — all directly related to excessive de-regulation. And let’s not forget the sad saga of the EPA’s attempts to reckon with clothianidin, the agrichemical giant Bayer’s blockbuster pesticide that the EPA’s own scientists think may be harming our extremely fragile honeybee population.

As many of you know, I keep bees, and it is a more-than-occasionally futile endeavor. This big infographic at the, ah, (is there another word for these things?) leaves me with mixed emotions. Slightly relieved that it is not (entirely) my own incompetence that is holding me back. But appalled at the numerous threats–pests, pesticides, weather, radiation, and stress from overworking–interacting together in evil synergistic combinations, to drive the honeybee to extinction.

The video below comes from Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper, the recipient of a leaked EPA memo. He is a new personal hero of mine.

You really should take the time to watch it.

Oh, well, it’s only bees. Just another species. Only a third of our food supply.

Next time anybody tells you there’s TOO MUCH regulation, show them this video.

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

Chicken litter. It’s what’s for dinner!

cow face
Nope, not eatin' THAT!

In a typically enlightening and frightening Grist article, Tom Philpott notices a few nasty ingredients that are now going into your “conventional” hamburgers.  Poultry litter, for one, thing, or in plain English, “feces mixed with bedding, feathers, and uneaten feed.”

A Missouri Extension publication blithely describes this gross practice as “provid[ing] opportunities for both the poultry producer and the beef cattle producer.” The Consumers Union sees it a little differently:

It can contain disease-causing bacteria, antibiotics, toxic heavy metals, restricted feed ingredients including meat and bone meal from dead cattle, and even foreign objects such as dead rodents, rocks, nails and glass. Few of these hazards are eliminated by any processing that might occur before use as feed. The resulting health threats include the spread of mad cow disease and related human neurological diseases, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the potential for exposure to toxic metals, drug residues, and disease-causing bacteria.

Philpott also points out that crude (i.e. unpurified) glycerin, a biodiesel byproduct which goes into cosmetics (in purified form)  is now finding its way into feedlot food, as well as distillers grains, even though, as Philpott notes, “regulators acknowledge that the [latter] practice seems to encourage the growth of the deadly-to-humans pathogen E coli 0157. Distillers grains are also loaded with antibiotic residues and various industrial chemicals.”

And finally, because you might have missed it, the massive Huntington Meat Packing recall of beef tainted with  e. coli 0157 was not a mere 866,000 pounds of ground beef (enough for 3.56 million Quarter Pounders).  It was five times that amount!

As per the USDA

Huntington Meat Packing Inc., a Montebello, Calif., establishment, is expanding its recall of January 18 to include approximately 4.9 million additional pounds of beef and veal products that were not produced in accordance with the company’s food safety plan.

The USDA release also notes that the Huntington “recall was expanded based on evidence collected in an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with assistance from FSIS.”

Are you lovin’ it yet?

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