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Blog Posts: Food

May 12th, 2014

Spinning a Consensus on GMOs

By Tim Schwab 

Journalist Keith Kloor, always a busy beaver advancing the biotech industry’s agenda, linked to Food & Water Watch in a recent blog, portraying us as part of the “GMO Fear Train” that’s going off the tracks. His post centered on New York Times’ writer Mark Bittman’s recent statement that GMOs are “probably harmless,” a stance Food & Water Watch criticized last week as hollow and shortsighted. Read the full article…

May 8th, 2014

Another View on Mark Bittman’s Recent Note to Food Activists

By Wenonah Hauter

For the Presss: High Resolution Image of Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel Tuesday night with Mark Bittman, who mentioned that his New York Times opinion piece the following day about GMOs would be controversial. On Wednesday morning I looked and saw why: it called out the food movement for focusing too much on organics and GMOs—saying of the latter, “GMOs are probably harmless…. It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies. But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful.” He argues that instead, the movement should focus on making agriculture sustainable and promoting healthier food in general.

But these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, GMOs are part and parcel of the industrialization of the food system, as Bittman describes. What’s worse, disparaging the views of people who care about organics and GMOs is disempowering to the tens of thousands of food activists fighting to have a say in their democracy by working to label GMO foods—clearly an important transparency issue. Dissing those who are concerned about pesticides and GMOs distracts from the real debate about the harms of chemicals and untested technologies in our food supply—and the fact that both phenomena stem from the corporate control of our food system and our democracy.

I have great respect for Bittman, and think that for the most part, he’s helped bring about much needed attention to the myriad problems with how we grow, sell and eat food (I look forward to reading his new cookbook highlighting his “flexitarian approach.”) And much of the piece I agree with: we need to talk about sustainability more generally. We need to talk about food marketing to kids and the harms of processed foods. We need to encourage people to eat better and to stay away from processed food. But I don’t agree with setting up these examples as a way to squash debate on organics and GMOs. They are all issues that people who fight for a better food system should address. We should be talking about them all in the narrative about the dysfunctional food system and our vision for the future.

I am baffled by Bittman’s unwitting support for the agrochemical industry. The health effects from agrochemicals are well documented and while EPA sets limits on the amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, the agency does not limit the number of different pesticides or the synergistic or accumulative effects they may have—especially in children.

What’s more, Bittman disregards the fact that there have been no long-term studies on the human health effects of genetically engineered foods. As Bittman acknowledges, giant agribusiness companies have used GMOs to take control of the production of crops, hiding behind false claims of sustainability. But he does not go on to say that the production of genetically engineered crops requires massive amounts of herbicides that create superweeds, pose risks to human health and threaten ecosystems.

Indeed, none of this seems harmless, or “probably harmless,” to me.

Honestly, while some in the food movement lauded the piece, it left me scratching my head. As someone that the movement looks up to, it’s really disappointing to see Bittman setting up GMOs and organics as things that we shouldn’t care about. We most certainly should fight against untested, unproven genetic experiments that rely on chemical inputs and give corporate food giants increasing control over our food. Debating the details of whether the science itself is imminently harmful is really a red herring—one that the industry is happy to have journalists focused on because it distracts the public from the real fight we’re engaging in for a better food system.

For that, I fear Mark Bittman’s piece is actually, probably, very harmful and I would ask that he reconsider.

Collaboration or Obfuscation?

By Tony Corbo 

Recently, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agreed to share information during the investigation of foodborne illness outbreaks. A laudable effort since animal diseases and pathogens that lurk in animal husbandry can often lead to human foodborne illnesses. But this recent announcement is clouded by the revelation that FSIS may have deliberately delayed the release of an audit report that revealed some serious shortcomings in the Brazilian meat safety system. Had that report been publicly released on the date that it had been transmitted to the Brazilian government, on April 16, 2014, it would have provided valuable information for a proposed APHIS rule to green light the importation of fresh beef products from Brazil. The comment period on the APHIS proposed rule ended on April 22, 2014. Apparently, the FSIS audit report was only recently posted on its website and was made public as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Read the full article…

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May 7th, 2014

What’s Beyond GMO Contamination?

By David Sánchez

Read “Organic Farmers Pay the Price for Contamination” in English or Spanish.

Felix is an organic farmer in Spain, the country that hosts 90 percent of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. He grows grains, alfalfa and vegetables. His organic maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and therefore he lost the organic certification for his 7.7 hectare farm. He lost €14,756 (US$20,585) as a result of the preventive measures he took to avoid contamination in addition to the direct loss of being forced to sell his harvest in the conventional markets. According to the Spanish law, he has no one to blame, so cannot claim for damages. 

Tom is an organic farmer in the U.S., a country where 90 percent of soy and 93 percent of maize area is planted with GM varieties. He grows maize and is forced to take many measures to prevent contamination: planting buffer strips, delaying planting or performing extra tests, with median annual costs up to US$8,000 (€5,735). One year his maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and the buyer rejected his load, with a median loss in that season of US$4,500 (€3,226). He has no one to blame for the damage either.

The first story was reported by Greenpeace a few years ago. It just shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of GM cultivation in Spain. The second could be the story of any of the organic farmers surveyed by Food & Water Watch and OFARM earlier this year, just released in Europe in (available in English and in Spanish).

The stories of organic and GM-free farmers in both countries are extremely similar. They’ve been forced to abandon organic cultivation of crops where there is a GM variety, incur additional labour costs and economic damages, faced financial insecurity and experienced strained relations between neighbours—without any legal protections. Clearly, what the U.S. Government, the European Commission and the industry call “coexistence” simply mean imposing GM crops. 

Nevertheless, there is one important difference: the EU only allows the cultivation of one GM maize variety so far. But the reality of European small-scale agriculture shows that the situations in those countries that allow GM cultivation (Spain, Portugal or the Czech Republic) are already too serious to be ignored. And this is something the European Commission should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to approve a new GM crop, a maize engineered by Pioneer to kill insects and resist herbicides.

We have mounting scientific evidence on the right way to create a food system to achieve sustainability and social justice goals. And the European Commission will have to decide whom do they want to stand for. Will they stand for Felix and the organic farmers, a growing sector that creates employment and puts new energies in rural areas? Or will they stand for Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta, who are lobbying hard to get their GM crops approved in Europe? The answer will be coming soon.

Tell the European Food Safety Authority: If it’s dangerous you want less NOT more!

May 2nd, 2014

FSIS’s Fantasy World

By Tony Corbo

Today, officials from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are escorting a congressional delegation on tours of two poultry slaughter and processing facilities in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia operated by George’s Chicken. One is a plant that receives traditional inspection with a full complement of USDA inspectors and the other is a pilot plant that has been using the privatized inspection scheme called the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) where most of the on-line inspection is turned over to company employees called “sorters” to perform.

FSIS has conducted dozens of tours at these two plants over the past decade. Over the years, we have heard about the extraordinary preparations that the George’s HIMP plant in Edinburg, Virginia, has undertaken for these “VIP” tours. Walls have been scrubbed and even repainted; floors have been meticulously cleaned; and the speeds of the slaughter lines have been reduced. Two years ago, I told FSIS agency officials that they have conducted so many tours of that plant that the new AAA Tour Book for Virginia lists the Edinburg HIMP plant as a must-see tourist stop and to call FSIS to make reservations for the “Fantasy Tour.”

In the past, whenever congressional staff, White House staff, consumer representatives or other prospective visitors have asked to visit HIMP plants other than the George’s Edinburg facility, FSIS has balked. That is because the Edinburg plant is the so-called “showcase” plant.  It is immaculate on the inside, FSIS can easily control the tour, access to the plant workers is restricted, and no one is able to look at the plant’s production or safety records to see if there have been any past problems. Fortunately, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted its study of HIMP in 2013, the analysts were able to visit several different HIMP plants and concluded that since the data was lacking, FSIS could not make the claims that poultry slaughtered in HIMP plants was safer than the product that received traditional inspection. Read the full article…

May 1st, 2014

How Industry Steers the Conversation on Pollinator Health

By Genna Reed

Earlier this week, I attended a hearing hosted by the House of Representatives Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture intended “to review current research and application of management strategies to control pests and diseases of pollinators.” Between the end of 2012 and the end of 2013, U.S. beekeepers lost an average of 45 percent of their colonies, which has threatened not only their livelihoods, but the very existence of one of the world’s most vital pollinators. The decline of bee populations across the country at levels higher than ever before seen is good reason for Congress to take notice, not only for the struggling bees, but also for the health of the broader environment, since bees are considered an indicator species of ecosystem health.

Colony Collapse Disorder is the term given to the disappearing-bee situation for which a single cause has not yet been defined. Members of the subcommittee saw the disorder as a problem caused by a wide variety of things, including varroa mites, disease, diet and nutrition, genetics, loss of habitat, beekeeping management practices and last but not least, “improper use of pesticides,” which “may also play a role.” The varroa mite is indeed a serious pest that should absolutely get some credit for bee losses, but it is also serving as the perfect scapegoat for Congress and agrichemical industry forces to take attention away from the harmful pesticide cocktails widely used in agriculture. As Jeff Pettis, Research Leader of the USDA’s Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD, testified, “…even if the varroa mite problem were solved today, this would not by itself solve all of the problems facing honey bees and beekeepers.” The weak language regarding pesticides’ impacts on bee health and the trivialization of the scientific evidence related to the adverse effects of pesticides on bees that was repeated throughout the hearing is a glaring example of how pesticide companies have been instrumental in framing the conversation surrounding bee health. Read the full article…

April 30th, 2014

Thank You Food & Water Watch Volunteers!

By Mark Schlosberg

At Food & Water Watch, we take on powerful interest groups to protect our food and water – big agribusiness and chemical companies, massive private water companies, and big oil and gas companies. We might not be able to match these corporations dollar for dollar, but due to the many wonderful volunteers who work with us, we are able to build winning campaigns.

As the Organizing Director at Food & Water Watch I have been fortunate enough to watch our volunteers truly make a difference – by helping out in our state offices, tabling at events and participating in phone banking opportunities. Many of our volunteers also end up leading campaigns and taking on larger organizing efforts – planning rallies, lobby visits and campaign strategy meetings. Leaders like these truly give us the ability to go toe-to-toe with powerful interest groups as we work to protect our essential resources 

April is Volunteer Appreciation Month, and we would like take a moment to thank all of the people who take time our of their day to help us out. Volunteers from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California and all the way to Brussels, Belgium: you guys ROCK. And because words alone do not do your hard work justice, we created a special thank you message from some of our on-the-ground organizers. 

Food & Water Watch is made up of researchers, communicators, organizers and technological wizards, but an equally essential part of this organization and the work that we do are the many passionate and dedicated volunteers who, every day, build power in their communities. Whether you have petitioned, helped plan a local event, organized a rally or made calls to your state legislators – your efforts are critical to growing a movement to protect our food, water, planet and democracy. You inspire your communities and you inspire us. For all of this, we could not be more grateful! 

April 28th, 2014

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: FDA Weakens Public Process on GMO Animals

Working to Ensure Safe and Sustainable SeafoodBy Tim Schwab

The FDA is taking steps to limit transparency and remove independent review of genetically engineered animals by disbanding its Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. The committee, composed of academics who peer review FDA’s risk analysis of GMO animals, met in 2010 when FDA initiated the approval process for the world’s first biotech food animal, GMO salmon. The agency has still not approved GMO salmon, probably in part because of how critical its invited scientists were.  Though members had different opinions, a clear chorus emerged on several specific safety questions, including telling the FDA there was not sufficient science to demonstrate animal safety. 

FDA is now disbanding that entire review process, claiming it was too costly to maintain. Food & Water Watch filed a records request to find out just how costly the committee is. Turns out, it’s not. The agency spent $0 in 2013 (see here and heremaintaining the committee, including all administrative and labor costs.

Congresswoman Louis Slaughter (D-NY) recently went to bat for consumers, asking FDA to reinstate the advisory committee. FDA again claimed it was too costly. With such bankrupt responses, it’s clear that the real cost is to FDA’s industry-friendly agenda and the agency’s efforts to fast-track GMO animals into our food supply. Read the full article…

April 23rd, 2014

A Shocking, Alternate Universe of “Special Interest” Science

By Tim Schwab

stack of one hundred dollar billsLast week I noticed a bizarre publication in the Journal of Animal Science, whose editors and sponsors include representatives from Merck, Pioneer and ADM: an article about the need for scientists to assert themselves in the public debate on the rules and policies surrounding animal agriculture.

The article, derived from a presentation made at a Monsanto-funded symposium, asserts that “special-interest groups” (quickly identified as “food activists” and environmental groups), routinely misrepresent science to advance a political agenda on issues like the environment, animal welfare and use of animal drugs.   

However, the authors fail to address the most obvious, most powerful “special interest” in animal science: industry. Industry funds hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural research, including millions of dollars given to animal science departments at public land-grant universities, where several of the authors work. This money can influence the direction and outcome of research.

This omission isn’t terribly surprising, given that the authors of the new study include Dr. Jude Capper, whose research routinely helps advance the economic and political agendas of the industry groups that support her work. One Capper study, funded by an animal-health industry group, purports to demonstrate the environmental benefits of industrial beef production through use of dangerous growth-promoting drugs like Zilmax (which was later withdrawn from the market following reports of major animal health problems). Another study Capper co-authored with Monsanto determined that use of Monsanto’s rBGH, a controversial growth hormone, presents environmental benefits to dairies. Several of Capper’s industry studies are cited as evidence that sound science contradicts environmental groups’ “flawed” analyses of the environmental impact of industrial agriculture.

At every turn, the 15-page article strays deeper and deeper into an alternate universe, where the authors correctly diagnose a problem – special interest groups manipulating science to advance an agenda – but incorrectly identify the perpetrators. They appear to invent a mythical landscape where extremely powerful environmental groups and food activists bulldoze public policy and media debates with bogus science. They preach about the role of scientists as “honest brokers of truth” who must remain committed to “objectivity,” “transparency,” and challenging “conflicts of interests,” but,with no apparent sense of contradiction, present industry studies supporting industry positions as evidence that public-interest groups are distorting public policy debates with agenda-driven research.

The authors repeatedly invent non-existent debates around controversial scientific topics, parroting the corporate spin historically used to confuse the media and the public on topics like the health effects of smoking. For example, when attacking environmental groups working on the role of industrial agriculture in climate change, the authors state that there is “considerable debate” over whether climate change is caused by human activity. In reality, there is a clear, international consensus, backed by 97 percent of climate-change scientists, that climate change is real and very likely caused by human activity. (“Very likely” means greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence.)

On the subject of whether and to what extent widespread use of antibiotics as growth-promoters in animal agriculture is having an impact on public health, the authors assert that this topic is “vigorously debated.” They don’t mention that the debate is between the veterinary medicine industry and the scientific community working on public health. For decades, scientists have identified the use of antibiotics as livestock growth-promoters as a public health problem, as it creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria that make infections harder to treat. Even the CDC and FDA recently agreed on this point. But the authors cite a contrary point of view from the American Veterinary Medical Association, failing to mention that this high-power trade group has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, including on many industry causes like favorable legislation to allow continued, widespread antibiotic usage.

Unlike the consumer and environmental groups that the Capper article vilifies, corporations and industry groups have the power, the money and the demonstrated will to bully, intimidate, censor and attack science and scientists they don’t agree with. They also use their deep coffers to overwhelm our public universities with donations, endowed faculty positions, research funding and lucrative consulting gigs for professors. Using the stick and the carrot, industry has created a powerful system of incentives and disincentives that has long helped cultivate favorable academic research and academic shills to advance corporate agendas that mislead consumers in fields like tobacco, pharmaceutical and agricultural research

The rare scientists who dare to openly challenge industry practices or products find their personal lives and professional careers subject to aggressive attacks and public relations campaigns, their tenure challenged, their research access and funding limited or their articles retracted. In one case, dozens of scientists, fearful of retaliation from corporate agribusiness, anonymously complained to the EPA that industry restricts and limits independent research, creating a scenario where industry can potentially “launder the data.” If that’s not misuse of science, I don’t know what is. 

For more on this topic, check out Food & Water Watch’s report on the outsized role that corporate money plays in agricultural science, Public Research, Private Gain.

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April 17th, 2014

Monsanto’s Dream Bill is a Nightmare for State GMO Labeling Efforts

By Genna Reed

Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432), a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that would serve as a real road block to the thousands of people who have been fighting for the right to know what’s in their food. This piece of legislation would make voluntary (not mandatory) labeling for genetically engineered foods the national standard, ensure that GMOs can be ambiguously labeled as “natural,” create its own rules for non-GMO labeling and, most heinously, preempt all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods.

We have been aware of the GMA’s plot to move into the GMO labeling policy world since Politico leaked its proposed bill language in January and then the GMA launched its “Safe and Affordable Food Coalition” in February. Unsurprisingly, the GMA found a sponsor who would support all of its original intended language in the bill, resulting in an extremely industry-friendly final version.

So, what is the GMA and why is it so powerful that congressmen do its bidding? Well, this massive trade organization represents 300 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies as well as agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The GMA and its member companies have poured over $50 million into political action committees to help block GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state over the past two years. To illustrate the type of political power GMA is wielding with its big pockets, here’s a paragraph from Food & Water Watch’s new profile on the GMA:

“Between 2001 and 2012, the GMA political action committee donated more than $1 million to federal candidates, political parties and other campaign committees. But it is a much bigger presence roaming the halls of Congress. From 2004 to 2013, the GMA spent $38.9 million lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal officials. In 2013 alone, the GMA spent $14.3 million lobbying on food labeling, country-of-origin labeling, labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as GMO labeling), food marketing to children and other regulations affecting the food and beverage industry.” 

This kind of spending activity on the GMA’s part makes the food movement’s state-level efforts that much more significant. Not only does it show that grassroots organizing is working to hold elected officials accountable on food issues, but it also shows how work in the states is truly bothering the industry and impacting national policy. It gives us even more reason to keep pressuring our lawmakers to protect consumers because they want the right to know if GMOs are in their food. What consumers definitely don’t want is a voluntary labeling policy created by the very companies who have kept that information from them for 20 years.

Now is the time to stop the GMA from getting its way and fueling its own profit-driven interests. Food & Water Watch will continue to work with the grassroots movement to fight for  GMO labeling around the country. You can take action by telling your members of Congress not to pass Monsanto’s dream bill. For more information on the GMA, you can view our industry profile, here

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