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Farm Conservation Programs Cost Billions and Have Mixed Results

The Environmental Working Group’s new database breaks down the allocation of federal funds for agriculture conservation.

The federal government has paid farmers billions of dollars over the years to mitigate the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. According to new data published this week by the Environmental Working Group, $30 billion in taxpayer funds has been spent on conservation programs over the last decade—and the results are decidedly so-so.

EWG has compiled the payments in excruciating detail in a comprehensive database. As it has done with farm subsidy payments, the group tracks—on a state-by-state, county-by-county level—exactly where the nearly $30 billion the federal government has spent over the last decade on agricultural conservation programs has gone.

It seems like a lot of money—until you realize that in 2014 alone, taxpayers shelled out $14 billion for farm subsidies and crop insurance programs. During the past couple decades, we’ve spent $265 billion on those programs, mostly to benefit industrial-scale farming operations as opposed to small family farms, as watchdog organizations such as EWG have reported.

That’s part of the point.

“It’s more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for the generous farm and insurance subsidies they receive,” Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said in a statement.

That it took more than seven years and 28 Freedom of Information Act requests for the group to collect this public data no doubt says something about the transparency of these programs, not to mention their sprawling complexity—which, in turn, reflects the myriad effects that agriculture has on the environment.

It’s almost impossible to adequately summarize the things that federal conservation programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture, are intended to do. There are programs for minimizing soil erosion, preventing the loss of wetlands, reducing agrochemical pollution of drinking water, conserving wildlife habitat, and the list goes on.

Yet while some conservation programs appear to be working on some level, EWG said, “too often the money is spread too thinly to counter the impacts of agriculture on our nation’s water, air and land.” The group notes that one program allows farmers to choose from among 350 conservation measures, while another offers 200 options—a “cafeteria-style” approach that gives farmers a pass to pick what they want to do rather than what might be most beneficial. “Results are hard to discern when public investment does a little for a lot of broadly defined ‘priorities,’ ” the group said.

Oh, and did I mention? These programs are voluntary anyway; there’s no requirement that farmers participate.

In effect, EWG argues that certain conservation measures, such as curbing the amount of polluted agricultural runoff pouring into public waterways, should be the cost of doing business for large-scale farms—not subsidized by taxpayers. When it comes to other programs, the group advocates for a more targeted approach focusing on conservation strategies that work as well as identifying areas or regions most in need.

While we’re at it, why don’t we reward farmers who make long-term commitments to sustainability? Shouldn’t we incentivize switching to organic farming practices rather than continue to spend billions paying farmers to temporarily set aside land for “conservation,” only to plow it under again when crop prices rise?

“Americans across the country are seeing the price of farm pollution firsthand,” Cox said. “It’s time for Congress to deliver a return on their tax dollars by requiring farmers who take money from these programs to do more to protect the environment and public health.”

  • Food
  • A Major American Meat Company Is Betting on Plant-Based Protein

    Tyson Foods now owns 5 percent of the start-up Beyond Meat.

    What does it say about the future of meat when the country’s largest processor of chicken, pork, and beef buys a stake in a start-up that aims to “perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein”?

    Tyson Foods announced this week that it purchased a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, the Southern California–based food-tech start-up that made headlines earlier this year with its rollout of a veggie burger that reportedly cooks, sizzles, and tastes like real beef.

    To be sure, Beyond Meat’s meatless patties have yet to take the country by storm. Although the 100 percent plant-based burgers have garnered plenty of positive press since they debuted in May, so far they’re only available at Whole Foods stores in seven states, where unlike conventional veggie burgers, the pink patties are sold near the meat counter. Even though the company’s “chicken” strips, “beef” crumbles, and meatless frozen dinners are available nationwide, Beyond Meat is hardly a household name.

    That may be what makes the news of Tyson’s investment all the more noteworthy. While the two companies declined to give details about the deal, it’s doubtful that Tyson’s 5 percent stake made much of dent in the meat giant’s coffers. The company posted $41.4 billion in sales last year; prior to the deal with Tyson, Beyond Meat had reportedly raised $64 million in venture capital funding—about what Tyson rakes in before lunch on any given day.

    Tyson is doing pretty great. The company reported record third-quarter earnings per share in August and says that it expects overall meat production to increase 2 to 3 percent during the next fiscal year. But like a big oil company shelling out cash to invest in wind turbines, Tyson’s toe-in-the-water move to team up with a start-up dedicated to bringing more plant-based protein to American dinner tables seems to suggest the meat industry is starting to see which way the winds are blowing.

    Sales of plant-based protein, which totaled an estimated $5 billion last year, continue to pale compared with the market for meat in America—but vegetarian alternatives to meat are booming, with sales growing at more than double the anemic rate for food products overall. The steady drumbeat of news about the negative health impacts, environmental problems, and animal welfare concerns associated with meat consumption appears to be sinking in. According to a poll released in April, more than half of Americans surveyed said they plan to eat more plant-based foods in the coming year. Yet there may be no more telling sign that the meat-free market is coming of age than that the industry now has its own trade group, the Plant Based Food Association, which formed this year.

    As one of the most talked-about players in the meatless game, Beyond Meat would appear well positioned to take advantage of Americans’ changing tastes. Producing plant-based products, like the Beyond Burger, that can go head-to-head with their conventional meat counterparts seems like a smart approach. But the disruptive game plan can make for strange bedfellows; in addition to Tyson, Beyond Meat counts The Humane Society of the United States as one of its investors.

    It’s also liable to raise some eyebrows. As The New York Times reported, Beyond Meat was originally in talks with Hillshire Brands, maker of Jimmy Dean sausage, before Tyson bought Hillshire a couple years ago. Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, visited a Hillshire facility in Chicago. He told the Times that “the similarity between what we were doing and they were doing in making sausage was eye-opening. It could have easily been our fat and our protein moving through that system with little distinction the consumer could see.”

  • Food
  • The Fight for $15 Is Now Fighting Against Sexual Harassment Too

    A group of McDonald’s employees filed complaints over mistreatment by McDonald’s managers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    A new battlefront opened this week in the long-running fight to secure better pay and better working conditions for the more than 3.5 million fast-food workers in America. Workers from across the country have slapped McDonald’s, the nation’s largest fast-food chain, with 15 separate complaints of sexual harassment. The claims, all of which were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, detail an obnoxious and repugnant level of abuse, typically directed at women working as cooks or cashiers and perpetrated by men in supervisory positions. They provide vivid examples of the type of harassment that, according to the results of a poll also released this week, it seems far too many women in the industry face.

    In the federal claims filed against McDonald’s this week, the group of women allege a litany of forms of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal taunts to unwanted physical advances. One employee said her supervisor harassed her on a daily basis, including grabbing her and rubbing his genitals against her. Another said she faced similar abuse and that her supervisor sent her a text message offering to pay $1,000 for oral sex. Both women, as well as others who filed complaints, maintained that when they tried to report their supervisors’ behavior to a store manager or higher authority—including McDonald’s corporate office—either nothing was done or, even worse, the woman was retaliated against.

    “McDonald’s monitors everything we do—from how fast the drive-thru is moving to how we fold our customers’ bags,” Cycei Monae, one of the complainants, who used to work at a McDonald’s in Flint, Michigan, said in a statement released by the worker advocacy group Fight for $15. “Yet when I filed a complaint against my shift manager for regularly sexually harassing me—which included him showing me a photo of his genitals—McDonald’s had no response.” Monae quit her job to avoid further abuse. “I really needed that job and money, and I considered remaining silent,” she said. “But I believed McDonald’s had my back and would be horrified by the way I was treated. I was wrong.”

    In an emailed statement provided to Bloomberg News, a spokesperson said the company is reviewing the complaints but that “there is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in McDonald’s restaurants or in any workplace. We take any concerns seriously.”

    Yet if recent battles are any indication, the company is going to fight tooth and nail to dodge any responsibility for the women’s claims. Not simply because that’s de rigueur for most major corporations facing such allegations but specifically because McDonald’s has racked up enormous legal bills—and tied up the federal regulatory system for the past few years—arguing that it can’t possibly be held accountable for what goes on at the stores its franchisees operate. Worker advocates claim that is far from the case and point to the kind of micromanagement of restaurant employees that Monae’s statement details as proof. In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that more or less agreed with groups like Fight for $15 and said that the company is a joint employer of franchise workers.

    It would be a mistake to think that this kind of abhorrent sexual harassment is limited to these 15 women—or limited to McDonald’s. A new poll sponsored by a coalition of women’s advocacy groups finds a staggering 40 percent of female fast-food workers have experienced sexual harassment on the job, a rate that is 60 percent higher than for women in the American workforce at large. One in five who said they were assulted reported the harassment only to suffer some sort of retaliation, such as having her hours cut or being fired. One in eight women working on the front lines of the industry says she faces “extensive” sexual harassment but feels “trapped and unable to leave.”

    It’s clearly an epidemic that workers’ rights advocates hope to counter by targeting the nation’s biggest burger chain. Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15, said in a statement, “As the country’s second-largest employer, McDonald’s has a responsibility to set standards in both the fast-food industry and the economy overall.”

  • Food
  • Fertilizer May Be Good for Plants, but Not for Drinking Water

    A new study highlights the health risks of consuming water contaminated with nitrates.

    When it comes to the chemical free-for-all that generally characterizes industrial agriculture’s approach to modern farming, there’s no doubt that the public has become increasingly wary of pesticides. But what about all that fertilizer?

    Somehow, the chemicals used to feed crops don’t seem to have aroused quite the same level of suspicion as those used to kill weeds and pests. Most of us are at least vaguely aware that fertilizer-laden runoff—not to mention waste seeping from huge factory farms—has been blamed for today’s toxic algae blooms and the 6,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which sounds like a sci-fi ecological horror film that happens to be true.

    But a report released this week from the heartland—which is to say, the heart of industrial farming—suggests that we might do well to start worrying about what the deluge of fertilizers is doing to our bodies too.

    Just as it has taken years for the public to begin to accept that carbon dioxide, of all things—the stuff we exhale—could possibly be a pollutant and responsible for global warming, the same might be said for the nitrogen found in fertilizers. After all, nitrogen comprises nearly 80 percent of our atmosphere. How bad could it be?

    Well, in addition to those toxic algae blooms, the folks at the Iowa Environmental Council found in a review of prior research that consumption of drinking water containing higher levels of nitrates—nitrogen-based compounds often associated with fertilizer runoff—has been linked to a number of human health effects. Those include birth defects related to brain and spinal development as well as bladder and thyroid cancers.

    “While more research is needed, the current findings offer compelling reasons to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution from nitrate flowing into our surface and groundwater from farm fields, urban yards, livestock facilities, water treatment plants, and other sources,” Ann Robinson, an agriculture policy specialist with the group and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

    Medical science has known for years that excess nitrate consumption is especially dangerous for infants. It’s tied to a terrifying condition known as blue baby syndrome. Babies fed formula made with nitrate-contaminated water could develop a potentially fatal condition when the contaminants interfere with the body’s ability to circulate oxygen in the blood, turning the skin blue.

    The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limit for nitrates in drinking water at 10 milligrams per liter, a threshold shown to prevent blue baby syndrome. But the review conducted by the Iowa group raised new concerns over potential health risks from water containing levels of nitrates below the federal standard—especially if other agricultural chemicals are present as well. In one study, for example, a higher prevalence of bladder cancers was found in women who were exposed to water for four years or more with nitrate concentrations greater than half the EPA’s limit.

    While the public may not yet be clamoring for answers about nitrate pollution, public water utilities have been grappling with the problem for years. It’s an imperative for them in more ways than one: Getting nitrates out of drinking water is expensive. In Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works is suing three of the state’s “drainage districts”—essentially industrial ag strongholds—to recoup costs associated with nitrate contamination of the municipal water supply. The utility has said it may have to build a new $183.5 million nitrate-removal facility in the next four years.

    Iowa is by no means alone. Although the state is home to plenty of big farms, a map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey shows a moderate to high level of risk for nitrate contamination of groundwater across a huge swath of the Midwest—from Minnesota and North Dakota to the tip of Texas. There are also high-risk clusters in ag-heavy regions such as California’s Central Valley, southeastern Washington state, and poultry-dense North Carolina and Maryland.

  • Food
  • Monsanto-Funded Study Says Monsanto’s Weed Killer Doesn’t Cause Cancer

    There’s yet another review of the health risks glyphosate presents to humans.

    If you’ve been worried ever since the world’s leading body of cancer experts designated the most heavily used herbicide in the history of modern agriculture a probable human carcinogen, take heart: Four “independent expert panels” have reviewed the science and determined it’s unlikely the chemical, a cash cow for agrochemical giant Monsanto, poses a carcinogenic risk to humans at all. Of course, whether that’s comforting depends on how you define “independent.”

    That “independent” appears prominently in the title of the study, which was published this week in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, should probably be a tip-off. If you have to say you’re “independent”—i.e., you haven’t been swayed by the very company whose flagship product you’re evaluating—there’s a good chance you technically aren’t.

    In this case, readers have to scroll aaaallll the way down to the “Declaration of Interest” to find out that, sure enough, the study was bought and paid for by Monsanto. The declaration goes on to state: “Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel’s manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.”

    The chemical in question is glyphosate, though you may know it better as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s blockbuster-selling herbicide Roundup. Ever since farmers went hog wild for the company’s Roundup Ready line of corn, soy, and other crops genetically modified to withstand regular applications of glyphosate, use of the chemical has skyrocketed.

    That’s been a profit bonanza for Monsanto, but just as the company was being wooed for a possible merger with fellow Big Ag giant Bayer, the dominoes started to fall.

    For starters, the International Agency for Research on Cancer slapped glyphosate with that “probable human carcinogen” label early last year. Around the same time, tests conducted by public health advocacy groups started finding the chemical in places you wouldn’t expect—including organic eggs and coffee creamer—suggesting that we might all be consuming more glyphosate than previously thought. Then there’s glyphosate’s suspected toll on the environment: Many wildlife biologists point to the explosive use of the chemical as a primary culprit behind the precipitous decline in monarch butterflies, for example, because glyphosate kills off the milkweed plants on which the butterflies depend for survival.

    A worried public might also have taken comfort in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it would host four days of public meetings come mid-October to examine the cancer risk posed by glyphosate. Then a few weeks ago, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs went ahead and released its own assessment, complete with a “proposed” conclusion that the chemical is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans at doses relevant to human health risk assessment.”

    It was a cart-before-the-horse moment that seemed to signal the agency “has no intention of contradicting Monsanto’s claims of glyphosate’s safety,” writes Carey Gillam, research director at the nonprofit advocacy group U.S. Right to Know.

    Why would it? The EPA has more or less allowed Monsanto and other chemical companies to unleash their glyphosate binge with virtually no restrictions, even as the agency now acknowledges much of the research on glyphosate is limited and out-of-date.

    Seems with the most recent study, Monsanto is all too happy to try to fill in that gap.

  • Food
  • Urban Ag May Get a Chunk of Farm Bill Cash

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow wants to extend federal grants and other programs to city-based farmers.

    While the Senate won’t consider the next version of the farm bill until 2018, there are signs the omnibus legislation that sets the budget for all agricultural and nutrition-assistance spending is on track to becoming more progressive.

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich., ranking member of the Senate agriculture committee, announced new legislation on Monday that she characterizes as “the most comprehensive urban agriculture bill” ever to be introduced in Congress. It includes provisions aimed at throwing federal dollars behind the burgeoning movement to transform more of the blighted, vacant land pockmarking our cities into thriving farms.

    Stabenow is keen for the bill’s provisions to be incorporated into the larger U.S. farm bill, which is renewed every four years (at least in theory). The Hydra of a bill—the passage of which was delayed for more than two years last time around, in large part because of partisan bickering over cutting food stamps—has generally been a boon to big agriculture and those industrial farms that churn out acre after acre of genetically modified corn and soy. But the 2014 bill, which Stabenow (with what would seem like the patience of Job) helped shepherd through Congress, contained a number of provisions and reforms that could lead to a more progressive, sustainable, healthy food supply in the U.S.

    To be sure, the 2014 bill contained plenty of subsidies for commodity growers, but it significantly expanded federal support for organic as well as fruit and vegetable farmers (in a sign of how messed up ag policy has been, theirs are known as “specialty crops”). Money earmarked to assist farmers transitioning from conventional to organic was more than doubled, for example, and fruit and vegetable growers were given expanded access to the decades-old crop insurance programs that have benefited commodity crop growers.

    Now, in championing a movement on the cutting edge of transforming our relationship to what we eat and how it’s grown, Stabenow appears determined to continue to nudge the behemoth farm bill in a more enlightened direction—and perhaps atone for pushing through this year’s anything-but-clear federal GMO labeling law. Stabenow’s Urban Agriculture Act is the product of a yearlong collaboration with urban farmers; the bill “came from what they told us that they need to take urban agriculture to the next step,” Stabenow told the Detroit Free Press. It would do things such as make federal agriculture loans and conservation grants available to urban farmers, create an urban ag office in the Department of Agriculture, and provide $10 million in research funds for urban ag technologies.

    Beyond the happy, utopian visions of green garden rooftops and gleaming, lush vertical farms, urban agriculture has captivated progressive thinkers for its potential to address any number of social concerns, from creating economic opportunity in impoverished urban areas to providing greater access to nutritious food. That’s not to mention the purported environmental benefits of supplying city dwellers with produce that’s locally grown instead of shipped.

    A report on urban farming published by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future this year cautioned policy makers against overselling the promises of transforming inner cities into urban farms—in part because more research is needed to determine the benefits and drawbacks of this relatively young movement. But the prospect is tantalizing. According to one study, if less than half of the publicly owned vacant land in Detroit were converted to farms, it could supply residents with almost 40 percent of (nontropical) fruit now consumed on average and 65 percent of fresh vegetables.

  • Food
  • World Leaders May Do Something About the Worsening Superbug Problem

    New research shows that MRSA can be transmitted from infected poultry to consumers.

    Are governments around the world getting serious about tackling antibiotic abuse in the livestock industry, or are we going to allow countless people to die in the name of cheap meat?

    It’s a question that only sounds dramatic if you haven’t been following the terrifying rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that’s been tied to the rampant overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

    As if on cue, just as world leaders were convening at the United Nations General Assembly this week to discuss the issue, researchers announced they had discovered a superbug in Denmark linked to poultry. It’s a strain of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant type of staph bacteria more commonly associated with hospitals.

    While MRSA infections have been on the rise, food-borne transmission has been rare and continues to be. Yet the researchers note it’s alarming that the new strain appears to have been transmitted from infected birds not to poultry workers but to consumers through either the handling or the consumption of infected meat.

    As one of the study’s authors said in a statement, “Our findings implicate poultry meat as a source for these infections. At present, meat products represent only a minor transmission route for MRSA to humans, but our findings nevertheless underscore the importance of reducing the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals as well as continuing surveillance of the animal-food-human interface.”

    It’s a warning that scientists and leading medical organizations around the world have been sounding for years—and until now, it seems it has largely fallen on deaf ears. In the U.S., for example, the overwhelming majority of antibiotics—70 percent or more—continue to be given to livestock. Not to treat animals that are sick, mind you, but to prevent illness, often on overcrowded factory farms.

    But at a U.N. summit on Wednesday, more than 190 member nations signed a landmark declaration promising to do something about the burgeoning crisis of antibiotic resistance. It’s only the fourth time in the U.N.’s 70-year history that the General Assembly has taken up a health-related issue, following summits on HIV, Ebola, and noncommunicable diseases such as obesity.

    “I think the declaration will have very strong implications,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization told NPR. “What it will convey is that there’s recognition that we have a big problem and there’s a commitment to do something about it.”

    NPR reported that a similar resolution concerning HIV that the U.N. passed in 2001 is generally credited with spurring action to combat the pandemic, bringing attention and a wave of money devoted to treatment and prevention. Countries targeted with such aid have seen AIDS-related deaths drop by 45 percent since 2004.

    There’s reason to be skeptical about the U.N. declaration on antibiotic resistance. For starters, it’s nonbinding, and it doesn’t set any firm targets for countries to reduce the use of antibiotics.

    That sort of toothless posturing should sound familiar. After all, an “action plan” unveiled by the White House last year to combat antibiotic resistance in the U.S. set targets for cutting the amount of antibiotics prescribed by doctors to people—but it failed to do the same for the agriculture industry, which continues to dose chickens, cows, and pigs with the same drugs. The Food and Drug Administration has called on the industry to stop feeding animals antibiotics on a regular basis to promote growth, but the agency continues to allow the drugs to be given as a “preventative measure”—more or less allowing factory farms to keep doing what they’ve long done. Only one state, California, has passed a law restricting antibiotic use on farms.

    In short, when it comes to protecting the efficacy of some of the most important lifesaving drugs known to humankind, the U.S. is forced to rely on an ad hoc collection of environmental and public health groups to do what regulators won’t. Naming and shaming has helped push America’s biggest restaurant chains into eliminating antibiotics from their supply chains. The hope is that by convincing huge buyers like McDonald’s and Subway to go antibiotic-free, the entire livestock industry will be forced to change.

    How’s that going? In a report issued earlier this week, just two chains—Panera Bread and Chipotle—got an A for taking meaningful action to reduce antibiotics in the poultry, beef, and pork they sell. The majority of restaurant chains got an F.

  • Food
  • Fast Food Isn’t Doing Enough When It Comes to Antibiotics

    Chains have made promises to remove drugs from their meat-supply chains, which is lauded in a new report, but action is needed.

    Considering the swirl of headlines these past couple years touting this or that restaurant chain’s vow to go antibiotic-free when it comes to meat, you could be forgiven for thinking that the industry has come a long way in doing its part to tackle one of the most potentially devastating health crises of our time.

    Simply put, it hasn’t.

    That’s the takeaway from a report released Tuesday by a coalition of nonprofit environmental and public health advocacy groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth—that follows up on a similar report from last year.

    Or, at least, that’s my glass-is-more-than-half-empty takeaway. The coalition, which no doubt deserves tremendous credit for attempting to do something—anything—about the escalating crisis of disease-causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in America as the laggards at the Food and Drug Administration more or less do nothing, puts a more positive spin on things. Compared with last year, the report points out, twice as many of the nation’s top 25 restaurant chains received a passing grade for working to eliminate or reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat they sell. So progress has been made, but what does that really mean?

    For starters, that means only nine scored the equivalent of a D or higher. A paltry four scored either an A or a B. Meanwhile, 16 chains—among them big names like Starbucks, Burger King, Olive Garden, Domino’s, and Jack in the Box—were given an F, which means they have taken “no action to reduce the use of antibiotics in their supply chains,” according to the current report.

    You’ve probably read the dire warnings about antibiotic-resistant infections from the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, or really, pretty much anywhere else that matters when it comes to public health. If, like me, you want to avoid the kind of antibiotic-riddled factory-farmed meat that’s fueling the growing epidemic of drug-resistant superbugs, there are but two big chains whose food you can eat in good conscience: Panera Bread and Chipotle.

    No surprise there. Those were the only chains to receive an A grade on the coalition’s report last year.

    The seven chains that got at least a passing grade represent a range of effort that is liable to befuddle the average consumer. Both Subway and Chick-fil-A are given respectable B’s, but because the coalition’s criteria favor robust, public-facing commitments to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat rather than the implementation of those commitments, you’re not likely to find much antibiotic-free meat at either chain today. While Subway gets kudos for promising to end the use of antibiotics across its entire meat supply—it’s the largest chain by far to make such a sweeping commitment—the company won’t do so until 2025, nine long years away. Only in the area of chicken has Subway made much progress. Even so, you’ve only got a two-in-three chance of being served antibiotic-free chicken at Subway and even less of one at Chick-fil-A, where it’s just one in four.

    Meanwhile, at McDonald’s, which scored a C+, you have a 100 percent chance of noshing on McNuggets made with chicken that doesn’t use antibiotics that are important to human medicine. But the country’s biggest burger chain remains frustratingly vague on its commitment to switching entirely to antibiotic-free beef and pork, as do any number of other chains that scored a passing grade.

    This is where it all starts to feel ridiculous. I shouldn’t even be writing this column because in all honesty, we shouldn’t be relying on an ad hoc group of nonprofit organizations to defend the efficacy of one of the most important classes of medicine known to humankind. Why? Because, to be blunt, the Food and Drug Administration should be doing its bleeping job.

    Despite ever more scary developments worthy of a Hollywood medi-scare drama—such as the discovery in the U.S. last spring of a gene that can easily confer resistance in bacteria to one of our last remaining antibiotics of last resort—the FDA continues to allow the livestock industry to ply animals with copious amounts of antibiotics, including many of the same drugs we rely on to fight infections in people. More than two-thirds of all the antibiotics used in the United States are used in animals—not to treat animals that are sick, mind you, but simply to prevent disease in what are often the abysmally filthy, overcrowded conditions of your average factory farm.

    So yes, by all means, support those restaurant chains that have taken meaningful action to curb antibiotic abuse—including the smaller chains that the authors of the new report give a shout-out to, such as Au Bon Pain, Noodles & Co., and Papa Murphy’s. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that when it comes to protecting something as important as humanity’s last line of defense against a host of infectious agents, we should be putting our faith in the good intentions of a handful of restaurant industry CEOs.

  • Food
  • American Honey: Same Great Taste but Now With More Weed Killer

    FDA documents show that the herbicide glyphosate is finding its way into honey too.

    What in the world to do now that glyphosate, the most heavily used weed killer in the world—a probable human carcinogen, no less—is showing up in everything from breakfast cereal to eggs?

    The public interest group U.S. Right to Know announced this week that it has obtained documents showing the Food and Drug Administration has found residues of glyphosate in samples of American honey. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, the use of which has increased 15-fold since the company introduced its line of Roundup Ready crops genetically modified to withstand the chemical some 20 years ago.

    Yet despite the skyrocketing use of glyphosate, federal regulators have been pressing the snooze button when it comes to dealing with Big Ag’s chemical onslaught. It was only this year that the FDA agreed to start testing samples of U.S. food for the presence of glyphosate, spurred by growing public unease about an herbicide that Monsanto and other chemical makers have long assured is safe—but that the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared last year likely can cause cancer in humans.

    That it took a Freedom of Information Act request from a nongovernmental watchdog group to get some answers from the FDA on its testing only begins to point to the government’s dysfunctional approach to regulating glyphosate—or, more aptly, not regulating it.

    The newly obtained documents include the testing results for three honey samples, which contained glyphosate in concentrations of 22 parts per billion, 41 parts per billion, and 107 parts per billion. That’s a small number of samples, but an FDA scientist lamented in an email, “One of the issues I found is that it is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate.”

    How do the test results square with the level of glyphosate that federal regulators legally allow in honey? Well, as with any number of foods, the feds haven’t bothered to set a tolerance level for glyphosate in honey—something the FDA scientist testing honey pointed out to Chris Sack, who oversees such pesticide residue testing at the agency. As Sack responded, “You are correct that honey has no tolerance listed for glyphosate, but there are good reasons for that.... In recent re-evaluations of glyphosate exposure and toxicity, [the Environmental Protection Agency] has confirmed that glyphosate is almost non-toxic to humans and animals. So, while the presence of glyphosate in honey is technically a violation, it is not a safety issue.”

    But the EPA’s assessment of whether glyphosate causes cancer was removed from that agency’s website almost as soon as it was posted last year, and it hasn’t reappeared. The EPA continues to push back the date by which the public might expect it to weigh in on the simmering controversy, most recently suggesting that Americans who are growing ever more wary of glyphosate might have to wait until next spring for answers.

    Meanwhile, independent tests by environmental and public health groups have found glyphosate residues in a range of foods. Many, like honey, are unexpected places to find the chemical because it’s not directly used in the food’s production—suggesting Americans may be consuming far more glyphosate than thought. For example, a study of store-bought breakfast foods by the Alliance for Natural Health turned up glyphosate in items such as dairy-based coffee creamer, organic eggs, and whole wheat bread. Consumer advocates have filed suit against companies such as PepsiCo and Post, claiming that products like Quaker Oats and Shredded Wheat shouldn’t be marketed as “all-natural” if they contain glyphosate residue.

    All of which points to perhaps the only way to effectively put the skids on glyphosate’s two-decade march to dominance. Just this week, Bayer announced plans to buy Monsanto for $66 billion. If the feds have been reluctant to scrutinize Monsanto’s claims that glyphosate is perfectly safe, we probably can’t expect them to take on a corporate behemoth as large as a combined Monsanto-Bayer. But big food makers, with billions of dollars in sales at stake, might prove a formidable counterforce if U.S. courts start to rule that foods tainted with glyphosate can’t be hawked as “pure” or “natural.”

  • Food
  • We May All Have to Cut Carbs Thanks to Climate Change

    Rising global temperatures will harm wheat harvests—and poor countries will be hardest hit.

    It seems that as the world’s temperature heats up, more of the world may be forced to go gluten-free.

    Remember when climate change was commonly called “the greenhouse effect,” which seemed to suggest that at the very worst we might all end up living in a kind of perpetual summer surrounded by lush greenery? It would be a little humid, maybe, but might otherwise resemble a verdant, abundant, postindustrial Garden of Eden? Oh, those were the days.

    On the contrary, climate experts and agricultural scientists have long warned that climate change will likely wreak havoc on the global food supply. A new study appears to offer some of the most convincing evidence to date on the serious effect global warming could have on one of the world’s most important crops, wheat.

    More than 50 scientists based around the world—from China to the EU to the U.S.—participated in the research, the results of which were published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The team found that an increase of 1 degree Celsius in global temperature would cause worldwide wheat production to fall between 4 percent and almost 6.5 percent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international scientific body on the issue of global warming, predicts global temperatures to rise between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

    All told, worldwide wheat production hit nearly 735 million metric tons last year, a record high that the 2016–17 harvest is expected to surpass. A loss of 4 percent—on the conservative end of the estimate—would equate to 30 million metric tons of wheat, while the 13 percent decline that might occur if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius would equate to a staggering 95 million metric tons. That’s almost double the entire current output of the United States. Such losses are not the direction we need to be going, especially given that the world population is expected to hit 9 billion by the middle of this century, spiking global food demand by 60 percent, according to the United Nations.

    Adding insult to the injury that is already the general social injustice of climate change: The study predicts that countries in warmer regions will experience a more significant drop in wheat production, while those in cooler regions will fare better. Warmer, often poorer countries with lower emissions have long complained that they bear more of the burden of climate change than wealthier, heavier-polluting countries. The current study predicts, for instance, that an increase of 1 degree Celsius would mean a 3 percent decrease in wheat yields in China and an 8 percent decrease in India.

    What’s the silver lining in all this? Not much for the layperson warily eyeing rising sea levels and worrying about the future of bread. But for the scientists involved, the study represented something of a breakthrough in that it employed three separate methods—two model simulations and a rigorous statistical analysis—all of which produced essentially the same results.

    “This means we’re closer to more precisely predicting crop yields and their response to climate change worldwide, but we have shown this only for wheat so far,” Senthold Asseng, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida and a lead author of the study, said. “It’s the first time that a scientific study compared different methods of estimating temperature impacts on global crop production. Since the different methods point to very similar impacts, it improves our confidence in estimating temperature impact on global crop production.”

    Good news for science. Probably not so great for dinner in the 22nd century.

  • Food