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Blog Posts: December 2012

December 21st, 2012

Farm Bill Update: Still on the Precipice of the Imaginary Cliff

By Patty Lovera

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

The breaking news on the farm bill is that there really isn’t any actual news. There are rumors (so many rumors…), theories, shifting scenarios, and an abundance of opinions, but no concrete progress or clear path forward.

To recap: the 2008 Farm Bill expired at the end of September. The full Senate passed their version of a new Farm Bill in April; the House bill made it out of the Agriculture Committee but has not been passed by the full House. We’re out of time in this Congress for the bill to pass in a normal fashion (passage by the full House and then using a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the House and Senate versions).

This Congress only has a few days left and their main priority is to deal with the supposed ‘fiscal cliff.’  There is much debate about whether a fiscal cliff bill would serve as a vehicle for attaching some farm bill package – whether that is a full farm bill or an extension of the 2008 farm bill. If that happens (and that seems to be a pretty big if), it’s not clear yet whether the language would come from the House or the Senate versions of the farm bill, or some combination.

So with that crystal-clear prediction of what’s next, here’s one more complicated nugget to chew on: what happens if nothing happens by the end of the year? Since the last farm bill expired several months ago, what is happening with all the programs that the farm bill creates? We talked about some of the important conservation and sustainable farming programs that are left behind until a new farm bill re-establishes them, but there are other delayed impacts that took a few months to come into play. Read the full article…

Holiday Horror Story: GE Salmon Swims Towards Approval

Move over Grinch. The FDA is doing everything in its power to give American consumers a terrible holiday gift this year. Today they took the final step toward approving genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the first GE food animal. Even after countless Americans have expressed their deep concerns about this frankenfish, the FDA has turned a deaf ear moving forward with this reckless approval. That’s why we’re asking Congress to block the approval of GE salmon.

We’ve been anticipating this move from the FDA since last year, so we’re not surprised that the FDA chose today, the Friday before Christmas, to release their draft Environmental Assessment. AquaBounty, the biotech company responsible for bringing us GE salmon, used its own data to convince the FDA that this fish is safe to eat. Of course they think it’s safe: their profits are inextricably linked to its approval. Which is why it’s so outrageous that the FDA would take AquaBounty’s word over that of dozens of legislators and scientists, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, not to mention thousands of concerned consumers. The best way we can fight the FDA’s abuse of its approval power is by asking members of Congress to keep GE salmon out of our grocery stores. Read the full article…

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December 18th, 2012

Water Is Invaluable

By Mary Grant man holding glass of water

A range of private players in the water arena, including water service companies like American Water, are part of a relatively new corporate effort to coordinate public outreach about the “Value of Water.”

It is a fairly clever PR tactic that plays on two meanings of the word value: importance and monetary worth. The idea seems to be to convince the public to pay more for water service by tying water’s importance to its price.

The argument goes: Something of great value is worth a lot and should be priced accordingly, so if you think water is important, you should pay more for it. Although illogical, this line of thought is supposed to make people more amenable to hikes in their water bills and even to pricing water on a market.

Without a doubt, water is important. In fact, it is too important to let whims of Wall Street dictate access to it and too important to let price force families to go without it.

Read the full article…

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December 14th, 2012

Reports From the UN Climate Negotiations in Doha, Qatar

Image by Victor Korniyenko. Used by permission according to the rules of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

By Daniel Weinshenker, Former FWW Intern

Last summer I was an intern for the New Brunswick, New Jersey office of Food and Water Watch, where I got to see state-level politics and environmental negotiations at work. So when The University Centre for Development Cooperation (Universitair Centrum voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking – UCOS) in Belgium gave me the opportunity to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference, informally referred to as Doha 2012 or COP 18, I knew I would get to see similar work on an international level.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and increasingly erratic weather patterns, more Americans are accepting that global warming is real, and that we must take action both in the United States and in global agreements. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Protocol to lower global green house gas emissions, and U.S. negotiators are widely considered to be playing a spoiler role.

At every passing round of climate negotiations, I hope that the United States will join this fold of the international community. As a global power, we should lead on this issue and set a good example. Instead we are receiving tongue-in-cheek awards like Fossil of the Day.

Read the full article…

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Maple Leaf Foods, Canned Hams, FSIS and the 47 Percent

By Tony Corbo

About a year ago, the Obama Administration and the Harper Government in Canada announced an effort entitled the “Beyond the Borders Initiative,” that was designed to reduce regulatory requirements to encourage more trade between the U.S. and Canada. One of the areas that the two countries decided to pursue was a pilot project to eliminate border inspection for meat products exported between the two countries. At the present time, there are 11 border inspection stations stretching from Washington State to New York State where USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors check incoming meat, poultry and egg products from Canada to ensure that they are safe for U.S. consumers. All shipments receive a visual inspection and check of paperwork. Occasionally, the inspectors are instructed to perform a more detailed inspection, such as opening up the containers and sampling the products for defects and microbiological and chemical contaminants. This system has worked extremely well since it was implemented in the 1980’s after the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) found deficiencies in the manner in which USDA was inspecting imported food products from Canada.

Since the Obama Administration made its announcement last December, Food & Water Watch has expressed extreme reservations about the wisdom to the elimination of the border inspection program at USDA. While the Obama Administration has claimed that the experiment with the border inspection program will be confined to one Canadian pork plant and one Canadian beef plant, we know that “pilot projects” have a history at USDA of spreading to entire industries, especially since they will have cherry-picked the companies participating in the pilot.

We have learned that Maple Leaf Foods will be one of the participants in the pilot. We have also learned of various recent incidents involving Canadian meat products that have been rejected at the FSIS border inspection stations for a variety of reasons (e.g., meat shipments commingled with toxic chemicals, defective packaging that caused the meat to spill onto dirty truck beds, visible fecal contamination on meat products). It was the FSIS border inspection station in Sweetgrass, Montana on September 3, 2012 that discovered the E.coli contamination on beef products produced at the XL Foods in Alberta, Canada that caused the largest food recall in Canadian history.

Read the full article…

December 13th, 2012

Are the GM Industry and Failed Bankers Controlling UK Agriculture Policy?

By Eve Mitchell

Eve Mitchell is EU Food Policy Advisor for Food & Water Europe.

This week The Telegraph splashed a story that the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, had announced the UK should grow and sell more genetically modified (GM) foods. The story was then picked up by other outlets, and a public outcry followed, including many strong comments on those papers’ websites against any such move.

Much of the media coverage was nearly identical, suggesting precious few sources were consulted, especially since some pieces repeated the same factual errors. Here are some of them:

  • Paterson based his stand on his belief that GM crops have “real environmental benefits” saying, “I’m very clear it would be a good thing.” The UK ran Farm Scale Trials of GM crops to determine their safety. The results, published in 2004, showed damage to farmland wildlife, so GM cultivation was shelved – a fact conveniently forgotten by the UK government. The report also found that even if GM crops did ever manage to provide better environmental outcomes than conventional farming at some point in the future, what we do to our fields and streams now is extremely damaging and cannot be used as a comparison for anything called “sustainable”. In addition, countries growing GM crops like the U.S. are now suffering serious direct complications including the development of pests and weeds the technology cannot control and dramatically increased chemical applications by farmers trying to cope. The results for food production and toxic residues in food remain to be seen.
  • There is a “block” or “ban” on GM cultivation in the EU. This is simply untrue. GM crops are grown in Spain and to a limited degree in a few other EU countries. The fact that more GM crops are not available for cultivation in the UK is due to the normal operation of the authorisation process and democracy. Even the pro-GM European Commission defended Europe’s right to operate it’s own approvals of GMOs when the U.S. complained to the WTO. The UK and the Commission now find the results of the democratic process inconvenient, so the Commission presses unwanted GMOs into the market, and the UK blames the EU for lack of “progress”. Read the full article…
December 12th, 2012

Jump-starting the Conversation on the Financialization of Nature

Let’s face it: not every one in the media is talking about the financialization of nature. While it’s not always the hottest topic in mainstream media circles, it’s important that we take every opportunity to engage in this discussion in order to bring it to the forefront of any conversation about our common resources and the consequences of putting them up for auction to the highest bidding industries. So when Thom Hartmann invited Food & Water Watch Common Resources Director Mitch Jones to be a guest on his show, The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Mitch jumped at the chance to discuss our latest brief, And the Value of Nothing: GDP Alternatives to the Alternatives

Watch the video and then check out the report right here: http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/ValueofNothing.pdf

 

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December 10th, 2012

Fracking Companies Seek Exemption from Democracy

By Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

While the nation was largely focused on the presidential election in the swing state of Colorado, there was another very important vote taking place in the state in Longmont, a city of about 86,000 people located just northeast of Boulder. On the same day Obama carried Colorado, the citizens of Longmont voted overwhelmingly to ban the harmful practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a method of extracting local gas deposits in their community. Longmont’s ban of fracking was nothing short of heroic given the undue influence, massive amounts of money and open threats of financial ruin thrown about by the oil and gas industry and the state’s governor leading up to the vote on November 6th

Each day brings new, irrefutable evidence that fracking is poisoning our communities. Data released just last week shows that 17 percent of the over 2000 fracking chemical spills and releases reported in Colorado resulted in groundwater contamination with cancer-causing chemicals like benzene. None of that, of course, gives the industry or its supporters any pause. In fact, groups like Environmental Defense Fund and the fracking companies have once again shamelessly joined hands and are sharing talking points in Colorado in response to this new evidence. They’re jointly calling for a testing protocol to raise “public confidence” in fracking when the only thing the public can be increasingly confident about is that fracking is threatening their communities and clean water. 

The passing of the ban was the latest step in Longmont’s battle to keep the oil and gas industry from polluting their drinking water and poisoning their community. The next fight will be in the courts, where industry will dispatch its high-priced lawyers to ask a judge to quash the rights of tens of thousands of Longmont residents and allow the big gas companies to do what they want, where they want, without regard for the citizens of the state or the democratic process which enacted the ban in the first place.

On one level, this will be a legal battle about fracking and the devastation it brings to our public health and precious resources. The fracking companies like to pretend that fracking is harmless, but the truth is the fracking “debate” ended in 2005 when the industry deployed their lobbyists and got Dick Cheney and Congress to exempt their inherently harmful gas extraction process from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Their need for an exemption from the one federal law that protects our aquifers was an open concession that they couldn’t engage in fracking without poisoning our drinking water supplies. That fact was just proven with the latest Colorado contamination data. The SDWA free pass added to their exemptions to parts of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and virtually any other public health law with the words “safe,” “clean,” “conservation” or “environmental” in it.

But even all these regulatory exemptions aren’t enough for the industry; they’ll be walking into court any day now in Colorado seeking an exemption from democracy, the last great hurdle in their effort to poison and pollute with absolute impunity.  And that’s the other important aspect of this upcoming case – its about the fundamental rights of people in communities in Colorado, and elsewhere, to decide what they want their towns and cities to look like, what kinds of activities they want taking place next to their schools and playgrounds, how safe they want the water they drink and the air they breath to be.

Whether you’re for fracking or against it, whether or not you’re paying attention to study after study which shows that fracking is having detrimental impacts on ground and surface waters, airways, climate, property values and public health, and regardless of whether you think extreme fossil fuel development is worth the price we’ll all have to pay if fracking is allowed to proliferate even more, the one thing we can all agree on is that we live in a country where voting and the democratic process should count for something. All, that is, except for industry and the bought-and-paid-for politicians who are so willing to sacrifice the rights of their citizens for the profits of fracking companies. 

Just as EDF has lost its way in the fight to preserve our environment, Colorado’s governor, John Hickerlooper, has forgotten who elected him when he recently stated that that he would support industry if they sued his own citizens in Longmont over the fracking ban.  Perhaps Hickernlooper should take a lesson from the authors of Colorado’s State Constitution; they understood the rights of local citizens in ways that the governor doesn’t seem to grasp. This document, written in 1876, grants the people of Longmont and everyone else in the state “essential and inalienable rights,” including the right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties and protect their property, to seek and obtain safety.  They also understood that these inalienable rights can never be eclipsed by the financial interests of industry. Article XV of the Constitution says that the state can never use its powers to “permit corporations to conduct their business in such a manner as to infringe the equal rights of individuals, or the general well-being of the State.”

Once the will of corporations take over the rights of citizens, we lose the power to determine our own future. When industries get to decide how safe our water and air is, we no longer control our own health and safety. And if the fracking companies who seek to profit in Longmont area allowed to undo the November 6th fracking ban, we can no longer pretend to live in a democracy.

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December 7th, 2012

Farm Bill Update: A Fiscal Cliffhanger

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

Understandably, readers of our blog have been asking for an update on the Farm Bill. As I reported back in October, dealing with the largest single piece of food and agriculture legislation is still on Congress’s to-do list before the end of the year. But as you’ve probably heard, they have a few other critical issues to deal with before the end of the year, including tax cuts and the deficit reduction deadline, a.k.a the imaginary Fiscal Cliff. And the outcome of the Farm Bill is tied to these negotiations going on right now in Congress.

Leadership from the House and Senate agriculture committees are reportedly working to find things they can agree on so they might be able to attach some form of a new Farm Bill or an extension of all or pieces of the 2008 Farm Bill to a tax bill, deficit reduction, or some other Fiscal Cliff measure. Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis of farm bill negotiations next week.

Trickle-Down Benefits from Exporting Fracked Gas? Don’t Bet on It

By Hugh MacMillan

A new report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and conducted by NERA Economic Consulting, touts the supposed net benefits to the U.S. economy of allowing exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The study is incredibly out of touch.

The headline that LNG exports are unequivocally good – the more exports the better! – gives a huge gift to the oil and gas industry, and to its backers on Wall Street, but the devil is the details. Look closer, and you see that the narrow economic analysis does the public a disservice. As our Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter, has put it, “NERA’s report not only sweeps under the rug the public costs of more drilling and fracking, it insults us with the argument that the benefits enjoyed by the oil and gas industry and its financiers will trickle down.”

First, LNG exports will mean higher natural gas prices for American consumers, but the NERA report claims that on average, Americans will benefit because the gains will be so large for the oil and gas industry. This is the old “Bill Gates walks into a bar” illustration of lying with statistics.

In essence, the NERA analysis is that, while 10 million Americans would likely pay $100 each, a couple of oil and gas industry executives and banking executives could pocket a couple billion dollars, so if you take an average over everybody, it works out to everyone getting an extra $100. How the net economic benefit is distributed is completely lost. To its credit, the report does acknowledge that those Americans who rely on income from wages “might not participate in these benefits.” That says it all—how many people do you know that don’t make a living from wages, but who instead live off of their oil and gas industry investments? Not many? I didn’t think so.

Second, the NERA report has an appendix called “Factors That We Did Not Include in the Analysis,” but it needs another appendix. Perhaps it could be called: “Factors That We Did Not Include in the Factors-That-We-Did-Not-Include-in-the-Analysis Appendix.” 

LNG exports also mean more widespread and destructive drilling and fracking, but the costs to local communities exposed to this drilling and fracking – the long terms costs of a legacy of pollution – are ignored in the NERA report. These communities will be worse off when the fracking boom goes bust. They will face long term risks to their public water resources. And all of us will bear the escalating costs of global climate change that will come from giving the oil and gas industry its wish, and allowing it to drill and frack for as much fossil fuel as possible, as fast as it can.

Finally, it’s no surprise that more drilling and fracking would be projected to increase GDP, especially given that all the destructive and costly negative impacts are externalized, foisted on to the public and not included in NERA’s calculations. But increased GDP is not a measure of economic welfare.

The Natural Gas Act mandates the U.S. DOE swiftly authorize applications to export natural gas to countries with which the United States does have a Free Trade Agreement. The unbalanced findings of the NERA Economic Consulting report are being used by the U.S. DOE to evaluate whether LNG exports to countries with which the United States does not have a Free Trade Agreement are actually in the public interest. The potential impact on U.S. energy security is also being considered by the U.S. DOE as it decides whether or not to authorize LNG exports.

Our recent report, U.S. Energy Insecurity: Why Fracking for Oil and Natural Gas is a False Solution, exposes the misconceptions, falsehoods and misleading statements behind the oil and gas industry’s claims that modern drilling and fracking can deliver U.S. energy security. We show that the 100 years of natural gas is a dangerous mirage. There are a lot of threads to the industry’s claims that are unwound in our report, but above all else, the industry’s plans to export shale gas, America’s supposed ticket to energy security, are the most revealing. The only thing the industry seeks to secure is its bottom line. NERA’s report, commissioned by the U.S. DOE, moves them one step closer.

The U.S. DOE will be making an enormous mistake if it adopts the unbalanced and shortsighted conclusions of this study. The agency must not allow the oil and gas industry, and its Wall Street backers, to write federal energy policy to benefit its bottom line at the public’s expense.

The oil and gas industry will simply extract as much natural gas as possible, as fast as possible, for maximum profit, while fighting tooth and nail to prolong America’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels. Then, once U.S. natural gas is gone, the global oil and gas industry will simply convert the export facilities back to import facilities and bring in foreign sources of fracked natural gas to feed the entrenched U.S. dependence.

It is not too late for the United States to avoid going down this self-destructive path. Long-term U.S. energy security and independence can only be achieved by getting off of fossil fuels, but the country needs to act now to deploy existing energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions, invest in public transportation systems to reduce energy demand, and invest in future technologies that build on these proven solutions.

The U.S. DOE will be considering public comments on the NERA report until mid-January, and Food & Water Watch will be working with allies to urge the agency to reject the unbalanced and shortsighted economic study. Food & Water Watch will also be calling on you in the coming weeks to make your voices heard.

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