Sunday, March 16, 2008

Weekend Update

The sturgeon have been driven almost to extinction. The great cod fisheries are a memory. Bluefin tuna are on the verge of collapse. Is it now the turn of Pacific salmon?

Fisheries managers from California to Washington State are talking about halting the catch of Pacific salmon--chinook, coho, pinks--because so few are showing up to spawn in local rivers and streams. The proposed ban--including sport fishing--would be a first.

"The situation is unprecedented and off the charts," said Donald McIsaac, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Why the salmon have disappeared is still a mystery. Researchers have 46 potential factors to investigate, everything from disease, hatchery problems and an increase in predators to changes in ocean conditions and environmental problems in local waters.

Wanna bet humans have something to do with it?

*****

Sure you want to feed that milk to your kid?

A largely unpublicized but scary bit of sampling found all kinds of toxins in milk. The data apparently has just been sitting at the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2004.

The Organic Center recently published the long-neglected results of 739 samples tested by the USDA's Pesticide Data Program. According to Tom Philpott at Grist, here's what they found:

--Ninety-six percent of samples contained DDE, "a breakdown product of DDT, which was banned from agricultural use in the early 1970s. DDT is very persistent and remains to this day in many cropland soils; its soil half-life (time required for 50 percent to dissipate) is generally between 15 and 30 years, depending on soil and climatic properties."

--Nearly 99 percent contained diphenylamine (DPA), a "'high volume' industrial chemical used for many purposes in manufacturing rubber and plastic parts, and in making certain drugs."

--Forty-one percent of samples contained dieldrin, a "long-banned" organochlorine pesticide.

--Endosulfan sulfate, an endocrine disrupter, turned up in 18 percent of samples.

--About a quarter of samples delivered synthetic pyrethroid insecticides.

--Nearly 9 percent of samples contained a lovely-sounding chemical called 3-hydroxycarbofuran, a "highly-toxic breakdown product of the carbamate insecticide."

Some of the toxins showed up in samples of organic milk as well as conventional milk.

Says the Organic Center: The fact that over one-quarter of the conventional milk samples tested in 2004 contained endosulfan or a carbofuran metabolite is deeply worrisome, given that these chemicals are among the pesticides found in numerous toxicological studies to pose serious developmental risks during pregnancy and to infants and children as their bodies grow and mature.

*****

Should organic dairy farmers just make cheese?

Organic dairies--especially small, truly organic dairies--are finding themselves increasingly squeezed in the current era of rapidly escalating costs. They say that big end-market producers such as Stonyfield Farms--maker of the national yogurt brand largely owned by Danone--aren't doing enough to pass along profits. Some organic dairymen are switching back to making conventional milk.

Read the debate at Grist.

*****

Biofuels are supposed to be good for the environment, right?

More and more, pollution from biofuel manufacturers is showing up in the nation's waterways, killing fish and fowl.

Repeated spills from a major biodiesel plant into a river in Alabama were found to contain pollution levels 450 times the legal limit. In the summer of 2006, a Cargill biodiesel plant in Iowa improperly disposed of 135,000 gallons of liquid oil and grease, which ran into a stream killing hundreds of fish.

More recently, a tanker truck was spotted in Missouri dumping a whole load of glycerin--a biofuel byproduct--into a drainage channel. A Missouri businessman has been indicted in the discharge, which killed at least 25,000 fish and wiped out the population of fat pocketbook mussels, an endangered species.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Barbara Lynch, who supervises environmental compliance inspectors for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “This is big business. There’s a lot of money involved.”

*****

We've been reporting lots lately on how food prices and the environment both are taking it on the chin from globalizing diets and the push to turn commodity crops into fuel for automobiles. Now Britain's top scientist says the world is heading for a food crisis, and that cutting down rain forests to plant crops for biofuels is just "stupid."

John Beddington recently told a sustainability conference, "There is progress on climate change. But out there is another major problem. It is very hard to imagine how we can see a world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous increase in the demand for food which is quite properly going to happen as we alleviate poverty."

Beddington predicted continuing price rises in staples such as rice, maize and wheat would continue because of increased demand caused by population growth and increasing wealth in developing nations. He delivered a sharp critique of the trend toward biofuels, which are helping to jack up the price of food globally.

"Some of the biofuels are hopeless," Beddington said. "The idea that you cut down rainforest to actually grow biofuels seems profoundly stupid."

*****

We know the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been complicit in the worst of this country's agriculture practices. We know the USDA has been schizophrenic on the matter of advocating healthy diets while subsidizing the production of unhealthy foods. But we did not figure the USDA as a bully.

Black farmers, after claiming they had been systematically denied loans, subsidies and other benefits by the USDA, won a court settlement worth billions of dollars. Many of those farmers did not get their due, however, because they failed to submit timely claims.

Congress, along with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, has stepped in, pressuring the USDA to give the farmers a break. Recently, auditors from the Government Accountability Office showed up at the agriculture department's office to check on progress in the settlement. What did the USDA do? They kicked the auditors out.

Apparently, the bouncers at USDA have been beefing up on some of the genetically modified corn the government is promoting. Further relief for the farmers is contained in the Senate's version of the farm bill. So apparently the message is, Don't hold your breath.

*****

Finally, it appears we are not the only ones who love to hate Monsanto. The French have made a film detailing all the chemical--er, I mean seed--er, I mean hormone--giant's sins. Can't wait for the U.S. release. Will it be dubbed, or subtitled, I wonder.

Particularly fascinating is how Monsanto has succeeded in playing the revolving doors to Washington power brokering. Over the years, the corporation that would hold the keys to the world's food production has managed to place it's people--or people sympathetic to Monsanto--in the highest echelons of government decision making. Remember Donald Rumsfeld?

You can read all the particulars in the Greenpeace take here.

Bon appetit....

2 comments:

Carol said...

I just wanted you to know I read and ponder your Sunday updates.

I know it must take time to round up all of this info, or perhaps, and this is a frightening thought, this is just the low hanging fruit?

Ed Bruske said...

Not necessarily the low-hanging fruit, Carol, just all that my addled brain can handle. Others do it my better, notably Bonnie at the Ethicurean blog and More Deliberate Every Day, links for which can be found under "Thinking About Food" on the right