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August 13th, 2014

Busting the Bureau of Land Management’s Frackopoly

By Wenonah Hauter 

Even without looking at a photo album, I can picture in my mind’s eye a vacation photo from the gorgeous BLM-managed land near Moab, Utah. That image of my family and friends on a bicycle trip in the red rock lands, perfectly faded by time, carefully preserved for posterity. Nowhere in that photo does a fracking rig, or any telltale signs of industrial activity appear. But skip ahead fifteen or twenty years into the future, and this photo could be telling an entirely different story.  Read the full article…

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The Horseburgergate Cliffhanger: Episode III — Where’s The Report?

By Eve Mitchell

Fair FoodRemember that huge scandal about illegal horsemeat in Europe’s food chain? Ever hear about who was responsible? No, me neither.

We good citizens of the UK were recently told that the latest round of testing found no horsemeat in meat products on sale in our shops. We were assured that of 50,876 sample results submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) since February 2013, only 47 were positively horse, and none at all since the June 2013 report (remember the industry does the testing and then sends in the results). We’re also assured that no horse was found in the testing the UK has done as part of the EU-wide screening programme of processed beef products.

The horsemeat isn’t exactly gone, though. The Commission did find 16 new cases of beef contaminated with horsemeat across the EU, a development the Commissioner calls “encouraging”. Well over a year ago French authorities suggested some of the “horse” (that is supposed to be beef) might actually be donkey. Odd then, isn’t it, that the tests only look for, at most, beef, horse, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and turkey? Also, they only tested products that were supposed to be more than 15 percent beef, so the cheaper end of the market could still be a free-for-all. I guess we’ll have to live with all that for now – we’ve got bigger problems.

The UK Government says again, “The full participation [in testing] reflects the Government’s commitment to consumer protection and tackling food fraud.” It’s not the hardest tackle I’ve ever seen. We’re told that in 2013 the Commission “confirmed recurrent non-compliance with legislation applicable to labelling of meat products in most Member States”. That’s big. Really big. That needs a serious response.

Yet what we still haven’t been told is what comes next, or who put the horsemeat in the system or how they will be brought to book. It seems fair that whomever did this should be heavily fined, at least, to help the taxpayer cover the costs of all this testing and investigating. The fine-toothed inquiry into the mess conducted by the UK Parliament turned into a blame game extraordinaire, with supermarkets, food companies, regulatory agencies and Government Ministers all trying to slime out from under the weight of scrutiny. The inquiry Committee said way back in July 2013 it was “dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity”.

Slow, indeed. In January 2013 the Government had promised a full report of its investigations, then finally in mid-May 2014 we gathered we’d get the report “within the next month”. That didn’t happen, as the Government demanded “more detail” from the report author. A conveniently-timed Cabinet reshuffle in July offered the chance to delay again until some unnamed point in the next Parliament (which next sits in September). Meanwhile, allegations fly that the report’s author has been told to “tone down” his findings. Maybe he gave them a bit too much detail?

Not that things at the EU level are much better. The Commission says that when horse is found marked as beef, “appropriate enforcement measures” include market withdrawal, tracing, relabeling, extra controls for food business operators and “penalties”. The old song had it wrong: the word “prosecutions” actually seems harder to say than “sorry”.

Former Food Minister Owen Paterson said way back in February 2013 the horsemeat scandal was a “fraud and a conspiracy against the public”. Of all the judgments he got wrong, that one does ring true. The real question now is: how high does the conspiracy go?

PS – If you thought you could avoid all this by getting chicken, just hold your horses (sorry, couldn’t resist). As the Guardian and EcoStorm have helpfully showed us, elements of the UK chicken industry that supply supermarkets and fast food outlets are just plain nasty – and that’s before we’re treated to a TTIP/RAFTA race-to-the-bottom on food standards. Rest assured, the good old FSA is on the case: it is “conducting audits and investigations at the plants. These are underway today [25 July] and the findings will be published in due course.” Initial findings are that standards at the two poultry plants involved are “good” and “generally satisfactory”. Bon appétit!

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August 12th, 2014

A “Science-based” Look at GMOs

By Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) sets out on an 18-month, “science-based” study into the safety, benefits and drawbacks of GMOs, it will be interesting to see which science—and which scientists—the NRC will be consulting. 

The initial indications aren’t great. While the NRC boasts that it is aiming to “provide an independent, objective assessment of what has been learned since GE crops were introduced,” several of the scientific experts it has selected to direct the new report have substantial ties to industry—and are clearly in a position to advocate on behalf of biotech companies. 

The reason this matters is because the biotech industry has long had an outsized role in shaping the science surrounding GMOs, with tactics including funding and authoring countless studies, censoring or restricting independent research and attacking unfavorable findings. The result of this influence is a body of scientific literature with substantial industry bias and major gaps—especially in safety research. Industry also uses its unparalleled financial resources to bulldoze the public debate on GMOs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. Do biotech companies really need another platform to advocate their pro-GMO stance? Read the full article…

August 7th, 2014

Frackopoly: Documenting the Movement to Fight Fracking

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

By Wenonah Hauter

Writing a book is both a daunting and energizing experience. My first book Foodopoly took months of research (helped by many here at Food & Water Watch) and sheer discipline. But the payoff was great: I was able to tour the country and meet people who are concerned about the state of our food and the state of our politics, and I felt palpably that the work of Food & Water Watch is necessary and making a difference by building a movement of concerned citizen activists to become politicized to protect our essential resources from corporate control.

What Is Fracking?
  • Inherently unsafe, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It’s a water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well. This releases extra oil and gas from the rock, so it can flow into the well.
  • Sign the petition to ban fracking.

Now, I’m back in the trenches of research and writing with my follow-up book. A true tale of corruption and greed, Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment looks at how a powerful citizen-led movement is making progress fighting one of the biggest and most powerful industries in the world on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: fracking. In preparation for the book, I am interviewing people in affected communities across the country who have had their well water contaminated with methane; their health impacted; their air polluted; and the value of their homes destroyed.

As I’m starting to wrap up the book, I’m feeling excited about what lies ahead, and what the book represents. It’s a story of what’s possible and ultimately, what will save our democracy: engaged citizens, impacted by an issue in their backyards, in a fight for their lives and making a difference.

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August 6th, 2014

Cereal Problems: Letting Corporations Address Climate Change Won’t Solve the Problem

By Mitch Jones

Our friends at Mother Jones posted a story that points us to a recent announcement on climate change by agribusiness giant General Mills. While many of us may just be happy to see a corporation willing to admit climate change is anthropogenic climate change, we shouldn’t be fooled by the announcement or the idea that supposedly good behavior by corporations will save us.

The company announced that it will make changes to its global supply chain in order to reduce its carbon footprint. But what it’s proposing are some of the same gimmicks to which others that aren’t serious about making real change resort. To begin, the company announced that 92 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions related to its product line occur outside of its control in the supply chain. Of course, a major supply chain component for a company like General Mills are the farmers that provide the ingredients for its products. But, instead of pledging to seek out (and fairly compensate) small farms that actually have less negative impacts on our climate, General Mills is going to support the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an initiative supported by the largest players in the dairy industry. Read the full article…

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History Will Repeat Itself With New Herbicide-Tolerant Crops

By Genna Reed airplane spraying pesticide

Working against the advice of consumer, environmental, public health and family farm groups, the USDA has released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Dow’s controversial “Enlist” varieties of corn and soybeans, genetically engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup). This statement is the final step in the agency’s regulatory process for GE crops before issuing a formal approval.  Read the full article…

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Germany’s Environment Agency Calls for an End to Fracking

By Geert Decock

Fracking rig and wastewater pit

How far do you need to sit from the halls of power to not be influenced by constant lobbying and spin from Big Oil & Gas? The correct answer may be surprising: 1.5 hours exactly. How so? That is how long it takes to drive from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in central Berlin to the Federal Environment Agency of Germany in Desslau-Rosslau, southwest of Berlin.

Just last week, the Federal Environment Agency released a 600+ page report giving a detailed outline of the many risks involved in fracking. This research led its president Maria Krautzberger to this conclusion (translated from German): “Fracking is and remains a risky technology and therefore requires considerable limits to protect the environment and health. As long as the significant risks involved in this technology cannot yet be predicted with certainty and controlled, there should be no fracking in Germany to extract shale gas and coalbed methane.”

Her warning stands in sharp contrast with the approach of other European governments, e.g. in the UK and Poland, who have put large swaths of their territory up for grabs for shale gas exploration companies. Given the serious water-related risks of fracking, the German Federal Environment Agency states clearly that a lot of areas should be exempted from fracking: drinking water protection zones, spa areas, nature reserves and the catchment areas of lakes and reservoirs.

The report of the Federal Environment Agency also clearly confirms something that anti-fracking campaigners have been saying for years, namely that the treatment of the flowback from shale gas wells remains an unresolved issue. (Flowback is the liquid that flows back to the surface when a well is fracked.) The flowback contains heavy metals and aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene. Sometimes, radioactive materials can also flow to the surface. Again, president Maria Krautzberger: “No company has been able to offer a concept for the sustainable water treatment of flowback from fracking operations”.

What about industry’s oft repeated talking point that natural gas can be a transition fuel to a zero-carbon power generation? Again, the German Federal Environment Agency begs to differ with those who link shale gas and the fight against climate change: “The fracking technology is not a miracle cure for climate protection that can make the transition to renewable energies easier. It would be better, if our country would concentrate on forms of energy that are demonstrably better for the environment, such as renewable energies”.

The Germans are well known for their ‘Gründlichkeit’, or thoroughness. If their environment agency makes such strong claims about the risks of fracking after a couple of years of research, we better take their findings seriously!

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August 4th, 2014

Another Manmade Water Crisis in the Midwest: Toledo

By Mitch Jones 

While Detroit has been justifiably making headlines because of the manmade water crisis there, just south over the Michigan-Ohio state line another manufactured water crisis has erupted. Toledo, Ohio faced a weekend water ban after tests showed toxins in the city’s drinking water supply.

According to The New York Times, residents of Toledo were told not to use their water for drinking, cooking or brushing their teeth. Meanwhile, children and the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, were told not to use the water for bathing. Toledo isn’t the first city in the region to face this problem; last year Carroll Township experienced a similar ban. In 2010, Grand Lake St. Marys was so bad, officials had to warn people not to even touch the water, and it’s having problems again this year.

Read the full article…

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Setting the Record Straight on the Obama Administration’s Privatized Poultry Inspection System

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference last week to announce the final rule for the “New Poultry Inspection System” (NPIS). I listened in, and noted that he made certain statements that were not completely accurate. Some of the written materials provided to the press did not tell the whole story either. Unfortunately, this is par for the course, regardless which party controls the executive branch. That’s because the poultry industry influences much of the policies that come out of the USDA, and the powers-that-be don’t even try to disguise this fact. 

Let’s take a closer look at what this new inspection system will actually do: 

At the present time, chicken slaughter plants that are subject to conventional FSIS inspection can run their line speeds to 140 birds per minute (bpm). Current regulations limit what each USDA inspector can inspect to 35 bpm. So, if a plant were operating its slaughter lines at 70 bpm, there would be two FSIS inspectors stationed on that line – with each inspector looking at every other bird. If a plant were running its lines at the maximum 140 bpm, there would be four FSIS inspectors stationed on each line – with each inspector inspecting every fourth bird. In a young turkey plant, the current maximum line speed is 52 bpm, with each USDA inspector looking at a maximum of 26 bpm. Read the full article…

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Reaching for the Stars in Colorado’s Battle Against Fracking

By Scott Edwards

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

Earlier this month, in a decision that can only further galvanize the push for local control of fracking in Colorado, a state court held that a democratically enacted fracking ban was invalid because it conflicted with the state’s interests in promoting mineral development. The people of the city of Longmont overwhelmingly passed the ban in 2012 after deciding that they did not want to live their lives and raise their children under the ongoing threats to health and the environment posed by this irresponsible method of mineral extraction.  The Longmont ban has helped spur the anti-fracking fight across the country, in no small part because it was achieved in the face of incredible odds: the industry spent nearly half-a-million dollars to defeat the measure and Colorado’s Governor threatened to sue any community that banned fracking.

Despite these intimidation tactics, Longmont’s citizens voted for the ban knowing full well the uphill battle they faced in Colorado’s courts.  Unlike New York, a state where no fracking currently exists and where courts recently upheld the long-established rights of local communities to enact local land use controls on industrial activities like fracking, the Colorado legislature and courts have spent the last several decades actively handing the state over to the oil and gas industry with little regard for the rights of citizens and the health and safety of local communities. Even Colorado’s current Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is an ex-employee of the oil and gas industry who likes to boast that he drank fracking fluid. Coloradans are living with a fracking fiasco that hopefully New York never sees.

The politicians’ ongoing effort to grease the skids for oil and gas development has resulted in an industry free-for-all in Colorado. There are over 52,000 active fracking wells in Colorado, with Hickenlooper’s agency approving an average of 4,000 new permits each year.  This proliferation of wells has led to over 2,000 spills in the last 5 years, of which nearly 200 have impacted groundwater—now spills have reached a rate of 2 per day. Coloradans have reported experiencing terrible health impacts from living near wells and precipitous drops in their property values. A recent study showed that nearby proximity to oil and gas drilling, including fracking,was associated with a greater incidenceof birth defects in Colorado.

It is against this oppressive backdrop that the heroic citizens of Longmont and the lawyers who represented them in court have been fighting their ongoing battle to save their communities. And it’s a battle that continues even with the decision to preempt the Longmont ban because even the court seemed to recognize that it’s time for to revisit whether the interests of oil and gas should continue to take precedent over the health and safety of local communities and citizens of Colorado. In its finding, the court stated:

Longmont and the environmental groups, the Defendant-Intervenors, are essentially asking this Court to establish a public policy that favors protection from health, safety, and environmental risks over the development of mineral resources. Whether public policy should be changed in that manner is a question for the legislature or a different court.

Tellingly, the court also left the fracking ban in place until the people of Longmont have had a chance to file their appeal and seek the change needed to protect their towns and their residents.

One of the legal arguments Longmont made in its case to ban fracking was that a ban did not conflict with an Oil and Gas Conservation Act that makes no mention of fracking, but does demand that oil and gas be developed “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”Although the court ultimately disagreed, its open invitation to appeal while maintaining the ban leaves Longmont positioned to reverse the misguided state policy of placing industry’s financial interests over those of citizens’ health.

Some have suggested that Longmont may have reached too far in banning fracking, that land use approaches would have been an easier fight. But that suggestion ignores the depth of control oil and gas has in Colorado. A 2002 state court case held that it’s the state that determines oil and gas land use restrictions like setbacks, noise abatement, and visual impacts, not local governments who are preempted from enacting more protective standards. It also ignores the fact that new land use laws generally allow for existing nonconforming uses to continue. Since there’s no fracking in NY, that preexisting use doctrine doesn’t present the problem it does in an already-fracked Longmont.

The fact is, when it comes to stopping fracking in Colorado, there is no easy fight. Longmont’s fracking ban is a reach, but it’s a reach for the stars; advocates who are fighting for their very futures should never reach any lower. Thanks to the people of Longmont, there is still now, nearly two years after its passage, a fracking ban in place in a state in which oil and gas is king (and governor). And there’s now a chance, while the Longmont case moves into higher courts and fractivists across the state rally to fight for additional local bans and moratoria, statewide ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, to bring to Colorado what New Yorkers and some others across the country have enjoyed for years – the right to determine the rights and futures of their communities and to live free from contamination caused by reckless oil and gas extraction.  It’s a fight we should all be applauding.

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