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September 23rd, 2015

Private Water and Fracking, a Dubious Duo

by Hugh MacMillan

Last week, I got to be a fly on the wall at Shale Insight 2015 in Philadelphia, the annual conference of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which includes companies working at all stages of gas drilling, fracking, processing and distribution As you can imagine, I heard some concerning things I while there, but among the more revealing “break-out sessions” was a love-fest between the oil and gas industry and private water industry, sponsored by American Water, the largest private water company in the country.

American Water has aggressively privatized water systems in Pennsylvania and sees dollar signs in the fracking industry’s relentless thirst for water — up to 10 million gallons of water to frack some wells.

Kathy Pape, Senior Vice President of American Water and head of the company’s Pennsylvania arm, chaired the session, titled “Working with Public Water Utilities: Reliable and Beneficial Water Sources for Hydraulic Fracturing.” In her opening remarks, she shared her disbelief that, years ago, American Water’s decision to sell water for fracking was actually a subject of heated debate within the company. Smiling from ear to ear, she explained how American Water “got over that hump” by making the argument that the company shouldn’t discriminate and not sell water to a sex shop, so it likewise ought not miss the opportunity to sell water to the fracking industry. Of course, unlike the fracking industry, sex shops don’t have a reputation of polluting drinking water.

American Water, a company with a track record of raising water rates and providing poor customer service, seized the opportunity for a new source of revenue, and has partnered with Rex Energy and XTO, the latter being one of the largest shale gas producers in the country and a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil. The two industries have since fostered an unholy alliance based on profiting off of our shared resources. American Water has built water pipes and upgraded pumping stations to service the fracking industry. In recent years, American Water has earned about $3 million in revenue by selling 460 million gallons of water to Rex Energy to frack 88 wells in Pennsylvania.

The Rex Energy panelist explained the many benefits it reaps from the partnerships, saying “we were very grateful for private water.” The XTO engineer on the American Water-sponsored panel read his own lines somewhat flatly, stating “It’s been a great partnership and we are thankful” to American Water.

Though this partnership may be great if your goal is to generate profits, it is not in the best interest of Pennsylvania residents, who are concerned with ensuring safe affordable water for generations to come.

September 22nd, 2015

The Heavy Price Tag of GMO Contamination

By Genna Reed GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its newest data on the organic sector, featuring results from a survey of organic farmers conducted earlier this year. The survey results confirm what organic farmers have been saying in recent years – while overall organic sales went up, the number of organic farms in the U.S. went down. It’s a pattern that’s sadly familiar in the world of conventional agriculture and one that is sparking serious discussion in the organic community.

Buried fairly deep in the report is another result that makes it very clear that GMO crops are putting an unfair burden on organic farms across the country. GMO crops can contaminate non-GMO and organic crops through cross-pollination on the field or through seed or grain mixing post-harvest. And because the USDA organic standards require that organic farmers take preventative measures to minimize the risk of contamination, organic farmers end up bearing the burden of trying to avoid GMO presence from crops planted by their neighbors. But if their buffers or delayed planting regimens are unsuccessful at preventing GMO presence on their farm, they also bear the financial burden if they can’t sell their crop for a premium since there are no programs currently in place to compensate them for their losses.

We know that these losses aren’t abstract threats, but actual problems suffered by organic farmers, because in 2013 we asked farmers themselves. We worked with the Organic Farmers Agency for Responsible Marketing (OFARM) to conduct our own survey of organic farmers, and one out of three respondents indicated that they had dealt with GMO contamination on their farm. Of those with contamination, over half had been rejected by their buyers for that reason with a median loss of $4,500 per rejection.

Food & Water Watch and other organizations called on the USDA to collect its own data on this topic, and this year it finally did. Results from the newest USDA survey indicate that of the farmers who chose to answer the question, 92 had experienced monetary loss between 2011 and 2014 averaging approximately $66,395 per farmer during that timeframe. Overall, GMO presence cost organic farmers at least $6.1 million over four years. This figure is 77 times that reported during the 2006 to 2011 timeframe—a staggering increase.

Six million dollars might sound like a lot, but that burden is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the financial harm GMO production can impose on organic producers. This survey question conspicuously did not take into consideration any financial impacts associated with pesticide drift, which is becoming more and more common as the USDA continues to approve a bevy of herbicide-tolerant crops.

Regarding drift issues, one farmer we surveyed wrote, “my only problem comes from drift when commercial chemical sprayers spray on a windy day and the spray drifts across the road or buffer strip to kill my alfalfa or other crops. I call the company and complain but they have never compensated me for my loss as of yet.” Regarding dicamba, another farmer wrote, “I’m more concerned with spray drift—especially with the effort to release Banvel-resistant soybeans. Everyone knows how volatile that chemical can be—not only to organic farmers but all farmers and home owners.” Even Roundup, considered to be less harmful and less prone to drift than 2,4-D and dicamba has been a huge problem for organic growers. One farmer wrote, “in the last 16 years I have had three instances where spray drift has affected my fields. All three times it was Roundup. It has totaled $65,000 and I have had to start the three-year transition process [for organic certification] all over.” Not only has spray drift negatively affected relationships between neighbors, it has resulted in organic farmers being forced to take some areas of their farm out of organic production completely.

These new reports from organic farmers about the real costs of GMOs make it clear once again that it’s past time for USDA to hold biotech and seed companies with GMO seed patents accountable for all losses associated with GMO contamination. But it also makes clear that the USDA’s commitment to herbicide-tolerant crops as the be-all end-all solution to weed control will continue to harm organic and non-GMO producers.

Tell the USDA to conduct a full environmental review of Monsanto’s newest dicamba-tolerant corn variety, including an analysis on its drift risk to farms.

September 15th, 2015

The Conflict of Interest Culture Among GMO Advocates

LandGrantCoverPromo_WebBy Tim Schwab

The New York Times recently weighed in on the scandal involving University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a leading GMO advocate whose passionate declarations about his absolute independence from the biotech industry were revealed to be false. Documents turned up a few weeks ago showing that Folta has received tens of thousands of dollars from Monsanto, promised the company a “solid return on the investment,” and even attached his named him as the author of GMO advocacy materials largely written by the biotech industry’s public-relations firm. Read the full article…

September 10th, 2015

Ravenous #Foodopoly Threatens to Gobble Niman Ranch

By Kate Fried

The name Niman Ranch is well known among socially conscious diners for its sustainable practices. The company’s website describes its products as All-Natural Meats Raised by Small Family Farmers Committed to Sustainable & Humane Practices. It’s a comforting brand identity for many foodies hoping to avoid buying meat produced in the industrialized, factory farm system. But the problem with the food movement’s common tactic of relying solely on boycotting goods from Big Food was illuminated once again this week when news broke that Perdue is buying Niman Ranch. Cows Read the full article…

Diet or Exercise?  Guess Which One Coke Thinks is Driving Obesity

By Tim Schwab

The New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola is funding a group of academics whose scientific research emphasizes that exercise, not diet, is key to addressing obesity. This focus on exercise shifts attention away from the link between the calories in Coke’s drinks and obesity and also contradicts the prevailing scientific opinion, the Times reports. It also happens to support the political and economic agenda of Coke.

Scandalous? Sure. But is it news?  Read the full article…

September 8th, 2015

Mother Jones’ Un-Watchdog-like Review of Irradiation


Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch

By Wenonah Hauter

I admire Mother Jones for its reputation of a century of critical watchdog reporting. So I was a little perplexed to see a column uncritically praising irradiation. What’s worse, the column included some serious misstatements about the known issues plaguing the technology that has justifiably concerned the public for decades.

The article laments that sales of irradiated beef at Wegman’s, an East Coast grocery chain, are low, likely because shoppers see irradiated products as “creepy and unsafe.”

It goes on to interview two experts; the meat merchandising manager from Wegmans, who said, “Some people even think their food is going to be radioactive…which is just totally not how this works.” A foodborne illness expert is quoted as saying, “Food irradiation shows absolutely no detrimental impact on the food.”

On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that food irradiation diminishes the quality of the food. Numerous published studies have shown potential mutagenic effects (meaning it could cause damage to genes in mammals.) A study in 2001 linked colon tumor promotion in laboratory rats to new chemical compounds found only in irradiated foods. What’s more, it can affect the appearance, odor, texture and taste of foods. Published reports have described irradiated beef as smelling “burnt”, tasting like “singed hair.”

No wonder the efforts to mass-market irradiated meat have failed miserably.

The article goes on to liken irradiation “doubters” or “rejecters” to those in the anti-vaccine movement. It’s a disingenuous argument that the food industry has doled out to those skeptical of industrial food technologies like GMOs, and it’s always infuriating to hear journalists run with it.

An honest look at the independent studies, where they exist, shows that these techno fixes aren’t as rosy as the industry would have you believe. It’s unfortunate that Mother Jones didn’t look at the independent research on known effects that irradiation has on food quality and at least mention the possible safety risks associated with the technology.

The meat industry has been trying -– and failing –- to convince us to eat irradiated food for decades, even going so far as to lobby the federal government to let them call it “pasteurized” instead of irradiated. Their efforts have largely failed because people want real food safety protections, like good sanitation and strong government inspection in meat plants, not a technological quick fix with serious side effects like irradiation. It’s a shame to see Mother Jones doing the meat industry’s work for them.

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.

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