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September 3rd, 2015

Monsanto Turns Its Attention to the Produce Aisle

By Genna Reed

BlogThumb_Broccoli-2Taxpayer-funded research should benefit the public, right? Sadly, that often isn’t the case when it comes to seeds. With a majority of the world’s seeds now owned by very few companies, it’s even more disturbing that publicly funded research on non-genetically engineered hybrids is resulting not in new varieties that are available to everyone, but in patented seeds controlled by big seed companies.

One of the biggest is Monsanto. Once known as a chemical company, Monsanto is now a global agricultural biotechnology powerhouse that specializes in genetically engineered (GMO) seeds and herbicides. The bulk of their GMO business comes from commodity crops like corn, soybeans and cotton. But the company hasn’t stopped there. Over the years they acquired a long list of seed companies, including many in the vegetable sector, buying up one of the biggest fruit and vegetable seed companies, Seminis Inc., in 2005.

Monsanto clearly has great big plans for the vegetable sector, including non-tear inducing onions, smaller bell peppers, sweeter melons and a super broccoli. Beneforté broccoli is a conventionally bred hybrid designed to be even more nutritious than conventional broccoli, with higher levels of cancer-fighting nutrients. First developed by the publicly funded Institute of Food Research and the somewhat government funded John Innes Centre, the product was turned over to Seminis Inc. for commercialization. It is currently only available in the UK but Monsanto expects to bring it to the U.S. within a couple of years.

Although super nutritious broccoli sounds benign enough, it’s the business model for distributing it that is so scary. The patenting of vegetable seeds will likely follow in the path of corn and soybeans, where genetic diversity and quality of seeds has been lost as consolidation has increased. And, loss of diversity in agriculture is the last thing we want to happen as climate change brings on more uncertainty in agricultural conditions like weather.

Not only could diversity in vegetable seeds be squandered, but consolidation in the vegetable seed market would mean fewer options for farmers and higher seed costs. Already, the cost of the new broccoli in the UK is a third more than regular broccoli, surely helping Monsanto to reach its future goal of increased profit from yet another sector of agriculture. And Monsanto’s track record in other types of seed indicates that it may only be a matter of time before the company employs genetic engineering techniques to “enhance” or “improve” fresh fruits and vegetables.

Instead of fueling agribusiness sales, traditionally bred seeds should be researched with public funding and released to the public domain to ensure fair access to seeds for produce farmers and affordable, healthy food for consumers.

For now, we can be thankful that Monsanto has dropped its bid to merge with another biotech behemoth, Syngenta, after Syngenta turned down Monsanto’s offer one too many times. This is good news since it prevents two massive companies from forming a gargantuan corporation with tremendous control over seed and chemical sales. But it’s clear that Monsanto still wants to grow, and the produce aisle is in their sights.

Click here to read more about Monsanto’s track record in Food & Water Watch’s corporate profile of the company.

September 1st, 2015

Is FSIS Rewarding Past Bad Actors With Less Oversight?

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

We are about to enter a new and critical phase in the implementation of the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). NPIS will reduce the number of USDA inspectors in poultry slaughter facilities by removing most of them from the slaughter lines, turning their responsibilities over to company employees to perform. Read the full article…

August 28th, 2015

Ethics-Related Retraction Tarnishes the Sheen of Golden Rice

By Genna Reed Genetically_Engineered_Golden_Rice

The controversial genetically engineered ‘golden rice’ fortified with Vitamin A was in the news again after the most recent feeding trial led by professor Guangwen Tang was retracted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The reason? The Tufts University author could not provide full evidence of consent from the parents of the
study participants—68 Chinese children between the ages of six and eight.

The authors of the study failed to provide documentation that all parents signed the consent form. Furthermore, it was previously discovered that representatives from the Chinese government overseeing the trial had not obtained the proper permissions to move forward with the study. Out of all this controversy, the Chinese government fired two employees and Tufts University barred Tang from conducting clinical research for two years.

This is not the first time that GMO feeding trials have been caught up in controversy. Earlier this year, we noted that Iowa State University failed to adequately inform student subjects about the potential risks associated with a feeding trial of a similar GMO crop, genetically engineered Vitamin A-enriched bananas. In the face of public controversy over this feeding study, an ISU ethical review board worked with the lead researcher to edit the “informed consent document” given to students involved in the study, but what resulted was a list of one-sided, pro-GMO talking points, not an impartial description of potential risks. The banana feeding study has been postponed for now, but the ISU community is still calling on the university to answer a list of unanswered questions regarding the claims made about the technology before moving forward with the trial.

But the larger issue here is that these vitamin-A enriched foods are not the appropriate answer to vitamin deficiency in Asia and Africa. There are still questions regarding the ability of golden rice to yield as much as non-enriched rice and whether the target population for the banana—Ugandans—will even be interested in growing and eating it. Additionally, there remains great doubt that incorporating these crops can actually deliver sufficient Vitamin A to consumers. There are many far simpler and far less controversial methods of delivering Vitamin A to undernourished populations than GMOs, like the use of vitamins or a more diverse diet.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has helped fund golden rice and the banana, seems to have its own ideas about what is best for nutrient-deficient individuals. The failure to bring golden rice to market after over ten years of field trials demonstrates that those millions of dollars could have been better spent developing conventionally bred fortified crops and helping Africans grow more yellow and orange fruits and vegetables and leafy greens to combat Vitamin A deficiency.   

In the midst of so much controversy, and so many unanswered scientific questions about GMOs in our food system, we need mandatory labels on GMO foods, so that consumers can make their own decisions at the grocery store based on facts about how the food that they buy is produced. But because sharing this kind of information with consumers scares big food companies, Congress is now considering taking away the rights of states to pass mandatory GMO labeling bills with the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act (DARK Act).

Protect your right to know by telling your Senators not to support the DARK Act.

August 26th, 2015

United Water’s Breach of Trust in New York’s Rockland County

By Mary Grant

At the end of July, United Water backed out of a water conservation task force in Rockland County, N.Y., in the wake of a scathing report about the company’s practices. This is its latest offense in an ongoing effort to build a boondoggle of a desalination plant, a project that could generate serious profits for the company while hiking water bills for the nearly 300,000 people it serves throughout Rockland County.

United Water, the U.S. water arm of French multinational Suez Environnement, first proposed desalinating Hudson River water in 2007. Soon after, a coalition of residents, elected officials and area groups formed the Rockland Water Coalition to oppose the company’s scheme and promote sustainable water management practices. (Food & Water Watch is a proud member of the Rockland Water Coalition.)

Last November, after years of tenacious organizing, the coalition’s efforts bore fruit when state regulators ordered the company to suspend its desalination plans and work with a county task force to study conservation measures. Earlier in 2014, Rockland County set up the Task Force on Water Resources Management to reduce water use and preserve water supplies in the county.

Around that the time, United Water CEO Bertrand Camus, Suez’s top ranking U.S. executive, promised that the company would be an active member of the task force. Explaining its involvement, a company spokesperson waxed lyrical in the local newspaper, “We are part of the fabric of the community.”

Now, the company has pulled out of the task force and says that it will pursue its own sustainability initiatives and consider the task force’s ideas but only if it can increase rates. Food & Water Watch warned three years ago that United Water can’t be trusted.

One of the company’s excuses was that it does not agree with everything that the task force says. In particular, it took exception to a report produced for the task force by an independent consultant. In response to the state’s November 2014 order, the task force hired Amy Vickers, an award-winning expert on water conservation and efficiency, to analyze United Water’s water system.

Vickers found that the company keeps unreliable records, replaces pipelines too slowly, inadequately monitors for leaks and wastes a large volume of water — an estimated 2.5 million to 3.3 million gallons a day. Her preliminary analysis determined that water conservation and main repairs could save a significant amount of water, making the company’s desalination plant of dubious value.

In response, the company vehemently attacked her findings, labeling them “overtly adversarial,” “closed-minded” and “aspirational advocacy.” Instead of studying how to address concerns raised by the report, the company went so far as to hire a firm to counter the report’s findings.

As Harriet Cornell, chair of the task force, wryly observed, “It is obvious that the independent study analyzing United Water’s data has touched a nerve and caused consternation at United Water.”

United Water’s commitment to conservation is questionable, and the company wants to charge residents for the money it sunk into a desalination plant that it now admits it doesn’t need for at least a decade.

The push is on to protect Rockland County’s water. Right now, state regulators are considering whether to order the company to completely abandon the desalination project. Check out the Rockland Water Coalition to get involved and learn more.

August 25th, 2015

86-ing Michigan’s Line 5 Pipeline

By Mariah Urueta – Michigan Organizer

1508_FBSq-GreatLakesLine5It is inspiring to see the progress that can be accomplished in as little as four months. I began working with Food & Water Watch in Michigan this past May, right after I finished college. Right away, I went to work with a coalition of Michigan groups in the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign to stop the frightening monster beneath the Straits of Mackinac – Line 5.

Line 5 is a pair of 62-year-old pipelines operated by Enbridge (a giant energy corporation) that transports oil and gas from Canada, and poses too great of a risk to the Great Lakes. The Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people, are home to numerous flora and fauna, and are essential to our Michigan way of life.

In the short months that I have worked with Food & Water Watch and the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, Michiganders have not gone a week without seeing concerns raised around Line 5 in the media! It all started for me when I participated in a rally in Mackinaw City at the end of May to call on the Governor and Attorney General to shut down Line 5. While our rally was taking place in Mackinaw City, Michigan lawmakers were making their way to the Mackinac Policy Conference that was taking place on Mackinac Island. Serendipitously, I was able to get into the conference and disrupt Governor’s Snyder’s speech. As he was discussing Michigan’s future, I stood up amid the crowd of 1,700 people with conviction and told him, “To keep Michigan pure, it’s time to shut down Line 5.”

As more and more people were beginning to learn about Line 5, we wanted to point to Enbridge’s history of operating pipelines in Michigan. In 2010, Enbridge allowed toxic tar sands oil to leak into the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours before responding. It would be outrageous to trust them with operating a 62-year-old pipeline through the Great Lakes. So, on July 25 we acknowledged the five-year anniversary of the disastrous Kalamazoo River oil spill by supporting the communities of Marshall, Battle Creek, and Galesburg, which have yet to recover from this ruin. Enbridge has taught all of us by example what their negligent company is capable of; incidents like these tell us why Line 5 needs to be decommissioned immediately.

Enbridge oversees not just Line 5, but also a network of tar sands pipelines that the company is trying to expand in the Great Lakes region and across the country. These pipelines, especially the ones that transport tar sands oil, are turning communities into sacrifice zones from Alberta, Canada to Detroit, Michigan and beyond.

Food & Water Watch has been working tirelessly on this issue, and in the time I’ve been with the organization, we collaborated with our volunteers and allies to recruit 186 businesses and organizations to sign a letter addressed to Governor Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette urging them to immediately decommission Line 5. This letter was delivered to Snyder and Schuette three weeks ago in Lansing.

The pressure to shut down Line 5 is on, and Attorney General Schuette even said, “the pipeline’s days are numbered.” But our work isn’t done yet!

So what’s next? This September, Food & Water Watch, along with local groups like Idle No More, will assist in organizing the Pipe Out Paddle Protest– a flotilla of kayakers and activists committed to shutting down Line 5. Stay tuned!

August 20th, 2015

A Witness to Africa’s Water Challenges

By Eric Weltman

This summer, my family took an extraordinary and illuminating vacation in Africa. We covered five countries, where we saw an abundance of wildlife, including thousands of giraffe, zebras, elephants and other animals. My personal highlight was visiting a Maasai village in Kenya where I showed a classroom of students how to juggle.

It was at this village, though, that the region’s struggles with access to water struck me hard. We witnessed women, young girls and old ladies, laboring to carry water to their homes, hunched over with jugs strapped to their backs. Our host told us that delivering water was a woman’s most important responsibility.

Indeed, water was a constant theme in our travels. In Zimbabwe, the thundering beauty of Victoria Falls astonished us, as did the crocodile-filled Zambezi River in Zambia. At the same time, we saw the prevalence of bottled water, along with the discarded bottles and stench of burning plastic from trash fires.

The facts are stark: According a 2015 United Nations report, 319 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to safe sources of drinking water. These are nations contending with lack of basic infrastructure, such as taps and toilets. But they’re also facing new threats, from fracking in South Africa to privatization in Nigeria.

Of course, Africa isn’t alone in facing water challenges, as we see in the United States. In Detroit and Baltimore, residents are struggling to prevent water from being shut off in their homes. Communities from Florida to California are resisting fracking. New York’s Rockland County is combatting United Water’s capricious management of their drinking water system. And across the country, we are dealing with drastically reduced federal funding for water infrastructure.

In Zanzibar, I was asked to lead a conversation about energy policy with other guests at the eco-lodge where we were staying. We discussed fracking as the waves of the Indian Ocean crashed on the nearby shore. We were joined by a local fisherman, who shared his concerns about pollution’s impact on his livelihood.

Food & Water Watch is proud to have helped win the passage of a UN resolution in 2010 explicitly recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. My trip to Africa further inspired me to stand in solidarity with people of all nations to build the power we need to fulfill that right.

August 19th, 2015

A Franken-Sized Salmon?

By Tim Schwabgeneticallyengineeredsalmon

For those of you who have read the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” you remember that the name refers to the scientist Victor Frankenstein, not the monster he constructed from body parts found in the local cemetery. The story has captured the public’s imagination for nearly 200 years, and “franken” has become a common prefix—and a pejorative—for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are made with cut-and-pasted genetic material from different species of plants, animals and microorganisms.

GMO salmon—or franken-fish, as it is sometimes called—is an Atlantic salmon whose DNA has been re-engineered with a “growth-hormone gene construct” made from genetic material of other fish. One of these fish, the ocean pout, is only as closely related to Atlantic salmon, taxonomically speaking, as a human is related to a porcupine or a platypus. This recombination of genetic material would never happen in nature. Read the full article…

August 10th, 2015

Ten Years Later, the “Halliburton Loophole” and America’s Dirty Fracking Boom

By Wenonah Hauter

This past Saturday, Aug. 8 marked a notable 10th anniversary. But it was certainly nothing to celebrate. Ten years ago, President George W.  Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The giant energy bill included massive giveaways for the fossil fuel, nuclear and ethanol industries, and provided only token incentives for renewables and improved energy efficiency. But the most infamous piece of the law was what is now commonly known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” an egregious regulatory exemption that ushered in the disastrous era of widespread oil and gas fracking that currently grips our nation.

Fracking – the extreme oil and gas extraction method that involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals underground at enormous pressures to break apart subterranean rock – has exploded in the last decade. More than 270,000 wells have been fracked in 25 states throughout the nation. More than 10 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking site. This means that 10 million Americans – and truly many more – have been placed directly in harm’s way. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have connected fracking to serious human health effects, including cancer, asthma and birth defects.

For this we can thank the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the law that holds the Halliburton Loophole. Named after Dick Cheney and the notorious corporation he led before becoming vice president, the law (championed by Cheney and disgraced Enron founder Kenneth Lay, among others) explicitly exempted fracking operations from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. These exemptions from one of America’s most fundamental environmental protection laws provided the oil and gas industry the immunity it required to develop a highly polluting process on a grand national scale.

One of the most troubling repercussions is how fracking companies hide the contents of their toxic water and chemical solutions pumped into the ground. Contamination of underground drinking water sources from fracking fluids is a glaring threat to public health and safety. Yet even doctors responding to fracking-related health complaints can’t access data on what particular chemicals their patients may have been exposed to.

But the Halliburton Loophole wasn’t the only fracking enabler in the Energy Policy Act. The act granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) sweeping new authority to supersede state and local decision-making with regard to the citing of fracked gas pipelines and infrastructure. It also shifted to FERC industry oversight and compliance responsibility for the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, another key law. This was akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

As it stands, FERC is entirely unaccountable to public will. It is unaccountable to Congress and even the White House. Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms and can do as they please. Until a law reigning in FERC is passed, the commission will continue to act as a rubber-stamp for the fossil fuel industry.

Additionally, the Energy Policy Act repealed an important anti-monopoly law, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA). PUHCA safeguarded consumers from the overreach of the oil and gas industry, and banks that did business with those companies. It prevented the formation of giant state and regional energy cartels that could manipulate energy costs, engage in profiteering and exert undue influence over political debate. The Energy Policy Act transferred most of this oversight to FERC. Since then, the largest American energy companies have grown significantly more powerful, and spent almost a billion dollars on federal lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The 10th anniversary of the Energy Policy Act is indeed a sad occasion, but it provides us with a ripe opportunity to reexamine our nation’s disastrous policy of doubling-down on fossil fuels over the last decade, thanks to the extreme process of fracking. For the sake of countless Americans who are currently suffering health effects caused by fracking, and the countless more who will suffer in the future, we must immediately curtail our dependence on oil and gas, and turn decisively toward a truly clean, renewable energy future.

 

August 3rd, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About GMO Labeling; We’ve Got Answers

By Sarah Alexander

BlogThumb_GMOkidsWe get a lot of questions about why we need labeling for GMOs, even from staff of members of Congress. Our answers are below. We hope you’ll contact your Senators today, and give them the information below, so they can vote the right way and protect your right to know what’s in your food.

1: What is a genetically engineered food or GMO?

A genetically engineered food is a plant or animal that has been changed by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another species or altering the DNA in a way that could never happen through traditional cross-breeding or in nature.

2: Aren’t genetically engineered foods safe?

The approval process for new GMO crops in the U.S. is extremely weak and relies solely on the safety tests done by the corporations that are creating these crops. Right now, most crops are approved by federal regulators under the “generally recognized as safe” provision, which means that if a GMO corn variety looks and “acts” like the non-GMO version of corn, it is approved.

Currently, biotechnology seed companies and their advocates are oversimplifying the hundreds of factors involved in the GMO production process to broadcast the myth of a “scientific consensus” that GMO foods are safe. To the contrary, most scientific bodies weighing in on the subject openly acknowledge unaddressed safety considerations and gaps in knowledge.

3: But don’t farmers need genetically engineered foods to feed the growing world population?

Most of the GMO crops planted today are engineered to withstand strong chemical applications, or to produce their own pesticides. Often, the chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont that create GMO crops also create the chemicals that have to be used with the crops, so the main benefit of these patented crops is for the companies and their profits. Additionally, most of these GMO crops — like corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — are not grown as food for direct human consumption, but rather for animal feed, or to create ingredients in processed foods.

4: If over 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMOs, why hasn’t Congress or the Food and Drug Administration done anything?

 What we eat and feed our families has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, and we have a right to know if the food we’re eating has been altered in a way that could never happen in nature. Unfortunately, the big food industries spend millions lobbying Congress and federal agencies to keep labels off of GMO foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the biggest food and chemical companies, has spent over $50 million to defeat labeling initiatives in multiple states.

5: Won’t labeling GMO ingredients cost companies a lot of money and raise the price of our food?

 This is one of the biggest industry myths. Consumers Union did a study last year that shows the requirement of labeling genetically engineered food ingredients will cost consumers less than a penny per day or $2.30/person annually.

6: Why should I take action and ask my Senators to oppose this legislation?

Genetically engineered crops are in most processed foods but are unlabeled, so many people who wish to avoid foods with GMO ingredients don’t know where they are lurking. GMOs are untested, and it’s unknown how these engineered foods may be impacting our health and the environment. At the very least, shouldn’t we have a choice to avoid them if we want to? The legislation that Congress is considering will prohibit any states from labeling GMOs and will make federal labeling voluntary, which is what we have already, and not a single product is labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Ask your Senators to support labeling of genetically engineered foods and to oppose any attempt to take away states’ rights to require labels.

July 30th, 2015

Foodborne Illness is Not Funny

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.

The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.

As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.

Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.

The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.

Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it.  However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.

This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.

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