Last week, National Geographic took on the explosive impact that the widespread use of chemical nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has on human health and the environment. Scientists have been leading a clarion call about the impacts of excess nitrogen for decades, but the issue remains little known, even though the impacts touch every part of our lives. Read more
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Twitter-land was abuzz last week with news that a formerly ardent critic of genetic engineering (GE) has recanted his position. Mark Lynas gave a long mea culpa speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he apologized to the world for tearing up GE crops back in the day, and for what he described as his “anti-science environmentalism.”
Unfortunately, Lynas then went on to ignore the weight of scientific evidence (more on that below). He claimed that GE crop production is good for biodiversity and necessary to feed the world, that organic farming is bad, and that “there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment.” He then quickly slammed the door shut on public debate, pronouncing “discussion over.” Many of us in the global scientific community were left shaking our heads, bemused if disappointed in Lynas’ anti-science rhetorical flourishes. Read more
With the droughts, heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes of 2012 fresh on our mind, it may be an opportune moment to examine the connection between these extreme weather episodes and our warming planet. One aspect that is often overlooked is the surprising relationship between the foods we eat and climate change.
A new public radio project, called “The Diet-Climate Connection” examines how the environment is affected by the foods we eat and the food system that produces them, in some cases emitting substantial greenhouse gases. Why this is so and choices individuals can make to lower their “food footprint” is explored in depth in audio documentary segments with climate scientists, citizen activists, public health experts, and others. Read more
It happens like clockwork; every few months, a rant against local and/or organic food appears in one of the papers of record. The author is nearly always an educated man who uses the words “elite” and “elitist” at least 175 times while defending today’s corporate food system and implying directly or indirectly that changes to the status quo—which often inherently begin with those who can afford to make them—should be seen as suspect at best, and downright damaging at worst.
A comprehensive paper on the nutritional quality and safety of conventional versus organic food was published in the September 4, 2012 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine (Smith-Spangler et al., Vol. 157, Number 5: pages 349–369). The Stanford University Medical School team concluded that:
“The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
“Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
Their analysis loosely supports these conclusions, but many devils lurk in the statistical details underlying this study’s findings. Read more
I had barely drank my first cup of coffee when I heard the news yesterday morning on NPR—organic food, it turns out, may not be that much healthier for you than industrial food.
The NPR story was based on a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded, based on a review of existing studies, that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” The study, written by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, also found that eating organic foods “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The interwebs were soon full of headlines talking down the benefits of organic foods. “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” the NY Times announced, as reporter Kenneth Chang pointed out that pesticide residues on industrially grown fruits and vegetables are “almost always under the allowed safety limits.” CBS news, running the AP story on the Stanford study, informed readers: “Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests.” Read more
The worst drought since the 1950s continues to wreak havoc on America’s bread basket, shriveling up commodity corn and soybean crops and driving up food prices. But there is heartening news from the local agricultural sector: Farmers’ markets are booming.
Last week, the USDA released its annual update of the National Farmers Market Directory*, which is now 7,864 markets strong. It’s a 9.6 percent uptick since last year, and more than double the number of markets since 2004. Read more
As concerns grow about antibiotic-resistant pathogens in our food, environment, and hospitals, the Agricultural Research Service is trying to figure out the best alternatives for food animal producers, who have long relied on these miracle drugs for combating diseases and boosting feed efficiency.
Though antibiotic resistance is a known consequence of antibiotic use in both humans and animals, agricultural use has come under greater scrutiny in recent years as more consumers take an interest in how their food is produced. According to the most recent estimates, around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States each year are used in food animal production. Read more
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a summit to discuss “superweeds,” or the widespread problem of herbicide-resistant weeds currently afflicting millions of farm acres across the United States.
Superweeds—the “weeds that man can no longer kill!”—have been in the news for several years. All across the Midwest and Southeast farmers have been photographed and filmed standing in fields surrounded by the giant plants. They bemoan the cost of pesticides and point to industrial rows of crops that don’t have a chance when up against feisty weeds that grow up to three inches a day.
Superweeds have been especially likely to appear alongside genetically engineered (GE) crops, which are engineered to withstand large amounts of pesticide and herbicide use. And these weeds show no sign of going away any time soon. Read more
The newly established farm on UC Berkeley-owned Gill Tract will soon be empty. At the time of this writing, it is surrounded by riot police from at least 8 different UC Campus police forces. Nine have been arrested. This is the end to a standoff that began on Friday, when the police blocked farmers from entering or leaving, forcing supporters to toss food and water over the fence. In addition, the UC has filed suit against 14 individuals and 150 additional unnamed persons.
The farm began with a celebration of life, the planet and the people’s right help determine the fate of a place owned by a state-supported institution. Three weeks ago on, Earth Day, a group of 200 volunteers occupied the Gill Tract. The multi-generational crew planted two acres of vegetables, including a children’s garden, and began to offer workshops on sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty. A small encampment sprang up, but organizers insisted it be limited only to those doing the everyday work of maintaining the farm.
The land in question is a 10-acre parcel that comprises the last remaining class 1 agricultural soil in the East Bay. Despite years of community action favoring the creation of a research site specializing in urban and organic agriculture, the land is slated to be sold for development. Read more