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May 272014

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Drought is not dramatic. At least in the beginning. It’s far more lumbering than other disasters, presenting as a slow burn, crisping crops, hardening the ground, turning rangeland into desert.

US Drought Monitor for May 20, 2014At the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, the staffers sometimes joke that drought is the Rodney Dangerfield of disasters. It gets no respect.

On one level, that’s easy to understand. A hurricane or tornado pounds into town, shredding houses, exploding windows and turning timber into missiles commands attention.

Drought is the sleepy cousin, the anti-climatic, climatic event.

And yet, the US drought, in its fourth year, could greatly damage crops and sap municipal water supplies. Already, more than 30 small towns in Texas have been warned that they have water supplies for 90 days or less and could simply run dry.

Welcome rainfall over the Memorial Day weekend, which brought up to four inches of rain to parts of dry western Texas and Arkansas, and soaking rains of three to six inches across the Austin region, may help reservoirs recover, to an extent. News stories cheered the rains, with one report out of parched, remote Hale County in West Texas gleefully switching its Twitter feed from pictures of dust storms to real time updates on every fraction of an inch of rainfall that graced that rural area.

But the weekend rains, while helpful, will need to become a trend before this entrenched drought cycle ends.

Dozens of other effects and possible effects of the US drought are being reported, and may well continue:

  •  Reservoirs across the Southwest are alarmingly low, running about two-thirds of normal in Arizona, about half of normal in New Mexico and only about one-third of average levels in Nevada, according to the USDA. In Texas, the picture varies by region, but the Hill Country and Northern Plains have suffered significant losses with many reservoirs at half or even one-third of their conservation capacity. Buchanan Lake, for instance, was reported to have dropped to only about one-third, 311,460 acre feet, of its normal 860,607 acre feet capacity, according to the April Water Conditions report by the Texas Water Development Board.
  •  Hydroelectric power is waning Texas, with power from the Lower Colorado River Authority producing in 2013 only about one-quarter of the power it generated in 2011, a direct impact of lower water levels, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Drought will affect crops, produce and prices

In anticipation of lighter allotments and stingy Mother Nature, produce growers in California have left an estimated 800,000 acres idle this year. That will affect their bottom line, prices at the grocery and the national economy. (Though a silver lining might be that the soil will get a rest.)

Across the Western US, the drought is affecting almost too many crops to name, but those that are taking a certain hit include winter wheat, almonds, avocados, cotton and all the water-intensive fruits and vegetables that won’t be planted in California’s Central Valley.

On the plains, ranchers who have been culling herds for three years may face another year of tough decisions as they weigh the economics of trucking in hay or reducing their headcount.

Ranchers and farmers in the southern plains saw some relief as rains fell over Memorial weekend. Still, experts say the drought, if it continues, will reshape the economic and actual landscape in 2014.

“We are seeing conditions that rival those we saw during the Dust bowl in the 30s,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in an interview with GRN on May 22.

While the dust events, which these days are called haboobs, have increased, especially in the winter months this past year, they’re not as bad as the massive rolling black clouds that devastated farms in the 1930s, Fuchs said.

Still, their incidence at all is an ominous indicator.

“Even with our changes in farming and tilling practices and the erosion controls that we have in place, drought can still override those and we are seeing some of those [dust bowl] conditions.”

Specifically, Fuchs was referring to parts of western Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where dry conditions, exacerbated by dry winds and summer heat, have created dust storms capable of stripping top soil and compounding drought’s insult.

Only time will tell how badly ranchers and crop producers suffer in 2014, Fuchs said.

Despite receiving some relief in the past few days (mainly in Texas), the area remains many inches behind in rainfall overall for the year. The Texas panhandle was rated as being in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category on the May 20 US Drought Monitor map. That means its hydrology (aquifers and streams) and ecology (natural and crop vegetation) have been significantly harmed and will take time to repair.

Drought is stealthly and has a long tail

Overall about 38 percent of the contiguous US was gripped by drought according to that most recent US Drought Monitor map. The weekend rains provided some easing, and the next map is expected to show improvement.

But with 28 percent of the country listed experiencing “severe” drought or worse (“extreme” or “exceptional”), the long dry spell will continue to pinch crops and livelihoods, even in areas where farmers have been growing mountains of produce, if not effortlessly, then efficiently.

But before we talk about California, we need to look at the reasons the US is drought-stricken.

First, the country has been in a dry cycle that’s many climatologists say was worsened by the record heat delivered by climate change, particularly in 2012, the hottest year on record overall.

This natural and recurring dry cycle, based on winds and ocean temperatures in the Pacific, the feeder area for precipitation in the Plains, is called La Niña.

Some meteorologists are predicting that the US will move into the countervailing cycle, known as El Niño, which would bring wetter weather.

But if that doesn’t happen, the four-year drought could continue its slow-motion wreckage. The fact that Fuchs even mentioned the Anasazi, the long-ago inhabitants of the US Southwest who abandoned their pueblo cities when the climate dried up, ending their cultivation of the land, suggests that climatologists have been considering worst case scenarios.

This current dry cycle, because of its duration and severity, will have lasting impacts that cannot be overcome with even one rainy season. Aquifers that have sunk to new lows – such as parts of the Ogallala in the Southern range of the aquifer – and streams and rivers that have run dry will not bounce back immediately. First, the rains will soak only the topsoil, or even run off because the ground has become hard and unreceptive.

“What happens is when you have multi-year events like this, you’re not replenishing it (the aquifer). You’re not recharging to the degree of what your withdrawals have been,” Fuchs explained.

On a brighter note, other drought cycles, such as those in the 1950s and 1930s, were difficult, but the land and the farmers recovered.

But before you take much comfort in that last thought, remember there are more people than ever drawing on the natural groundwater, reservoirs, rivers and melting snow than ever before.

That’s really problem No. 2 as Fuchs explains it. Too many people sucking on too many straws cramming into the water supplies.

Take California. The current drought there has virtually the entire state into the severe, extreme or exceptional drought categories. But it’s not that different from what happened in the 1970s when low snowpack and inadequate rainfall resulted in two years of serious drought.

“The big difference is there’s 23 million more people in California than there were in the mid-70s and so you’ve added that many more straws into that cup of available water and you have to manage with that in mind,” he said.

California’s system, indeed most water systems across the entire South – even Atlanta had a water crisis in 2008 – were built for smaller projected populations.

Agriculture, to feed growing US and world population, also sips deeply on its straw. One study found that agriculture in two key areas, the High Plains and California’s Central Valley, accounted for more than 50 percent of the depletion of groundwater supplies in the US since 1900.

Water-intensive crops like corn, which have expanded over the decades into arid areas as US farmers follow the subsidies that make this a lucrative crop, also take a toll.

But each region faces individual factors that affect its water vulnerability. Some cities are over-reliant on the shrinking Colorado River system. Others, such as Los Angeles, have sprawled into megalopolises, despite being dependent on water piped in from hundreds of miles away.   Now that LA’s source region also is suffering, the water scarcity issue is stalking the entire Golden State.

For the Western half of the US, where these issues are most acute, there are plenty of reasons to practice better water conservation, Fuchs said.

People should take a page from desert residents who’ve installed xeriscape or drought-tolerant landscaping. They also can make water do double duty with gray water use, watering outdoor plants with bath or wash water.

If they can afford it, they should install low-flow toilets and showers, take shorter showers, never leave faucets running and only run full loads of dirty dishes and laundry, he said.

“If you save a couple gallons per person per day and you multiply that by millions of people that’s a lot of water, and that just helps to conserve more for later.”

Copyright © 2014 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Jan 272014

Green Right Now Reports

Another undercover investigation exposing cruelty toward animals bound for slaughter has surfaced, resulting in calls to close a loophole in the law to better protect veal calves.

Mercy for the MeekThe behind-the-scenes investigation in late 2013 by The Humane Society of the United States revealed that calves that were too sick or injured to walk on their own were still sent to slaughter at a New Jersey meat-processing plant, prompting the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to suspend operations at the facility.

That practice of killing “downer” calves is not against USDA regulations, which do forbid sending injured or sick adult  cattle to slaughter.

Male dairy calves, the progeny of dairy cows in milking operations, have no use in the dairy industry, and are routinely sent to slaughter to be turned into veal.

In the interest of preventing human illness and stopping animal cruelty, the USDA will intervene when it learns of  sick and downer adult cattle being sent to slaughter. The HSUS wants that protection extended to all animals in the livestock system and has asked the USDA to close the loophole that has left veal calves at the mercy of brutal handlers. The advocacy has set up a petition to the USDA in which people can thank the agency for acting to close the New Jersey plant, and also ask that the government close the calf loophole.

In the video, the calves are hung on the slaughter line still conscious and are poked and harassed to get up so they can get into line at the slaughter house.

The USDA acted to temporarily close the Catelli Bros. plant in Shrewsbury, N.J., after the HSUS filed a legal complaint and played footage of their undercover video for officials. The video shows“serious and systemic violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act,” according to HSUS, specifically capturing these events:

  • Still-conscious calves struggling while hanging upside down on a conveyor belt.
  • Calves being shot numerous times before reaching unconsciousness.
  • A truck driver dragging a downed calf with a chain around his neck.
  • Plant managers twisting downed calves’ ears and tails when they were too exhausted or weak to stand, lifting the entire weight of some calves by their tails, and telling employees never to do the same when USDA inspectors are watching.
  • Employees shocking, hitting, and spraying calves with water.

HSUS posted video evidence of the abuses on You Tube, but we wouldn’t recommend watching them.

Veal CalfIf you want to get see a sampling of the evidence and get a taste of the attitude toward the animals, without having to watch the graphic details, view the video from about 1:50 to 2:20, a section which documents a conversation between the undercover HSUS worker and the driver of a truck making a delivery of calves. The investigator/worker tells the driver that a calf with a broken leg cannot get up and walk out of the truck, to which the truck driver replies that the calf “just wants to play lazy now.”

The calf is dragged from the truck.

The animals rights group asked animal treatment expert Bernie Rollin, distinguished professor of animal science at Colorado State University, to watch the video and respond.

Rollin, who has lectured widely about animal mistreatment and has viewed videos of animal abuses across the United States and in Europe, including some that resulted in prison sentences for the perpetrators, wrote that:

“Of all the atrocity videos I have viewed, the current video of the slaughterhouse at Catelli Brothers must be ranked among the three worst….,” Rollin said. “The conclusion to be drawn from this video data is self-evident. This plant should be closed down immediately.”

Rollin goes on to explain that the video is a “poster boy for animal cruelty,” which is officially defined by the federal government as the “unnecessary, deviant, purposeless, sadistic, intentional” infliction of suffering on animals.

He notes that St. Thomas Aquinas first noted that humans who treat animals that way will graduate to treating humans similarly, “an insight fully confirmed by psychological research. . . “

“Not only are the animals hurt, but such callous attitudes are contagious, and spread to other workers. In addition, there is no sign of good management, of the sort that would quickly put a stop to the sadism which is not only brutal, but counterproductive to the economic mission of the operation,” Rollin continued. (See the rest of his remarks.)

Rollin goes on to chide a rabbi shown in the video for incorrectly performing a ritual slaughter intended to ordain the meat as kosher. The rabbi violates Jewish law, according to Rollin, who adds that the incompetence he witnessed “makes me ashamed of coming from the Jewish tradition.”

You can see the video on You Tube. It should not be viewed by children, or anyone, save for those who need convincing.

If you must watch, skip to 1:50 and watch until 2:20, as the HSUS undercover investigator and truck driver discuss a downer calf that cannot get up because it suffered a broken leg, apparently enroute to the slaughter house. The worker (and undercover HSUS investigator) tells the truckdriver the calf has a broken leg and cannot get up.

The truckdriver replies that “he just wants to play lazy now.”

Dec 132013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Antibiotic-resistant diseases are depriving Americans of good health every year, with 23,000 people dying from diseases that were untreatable because antibiotics failed to work.

Chickens in CAFO...Farm Sanctuary photo cThis week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sprang into action – 30 or so years into this growing problem — to take aim at a major culprit, perhaps the major culprit, the livestock producers who routinely administer antibiotics to make animals (i.e., profits) grow faster and larger.

The agency issued guidance to livestock producers, asking them to voluntarily quit using antibiotics as a daily treatment for animals, which causes the bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs. Instead, the livestock industry should only use antibiotics to treat illness in the animals it raises for slaughter, or so the FDA is asking.

“We need to be selective about the drugs we use in animals and when we use them,” says William Flynn, DVM, MS, deputy director for science policy at FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). “Antimicrobial resistance may not be completely preventable, but we need to do what we can to slow it down.”

Here’s the problem: The new rules, aren’t even rules. They’re policy suggestions. This is voluntary.

New York Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, a microbiologist and longtime advocate for stricter actual, enforceable rules for antibiotic use in animals, was quick to note this major failing in the FDA’s plan.

“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success,” Rep. Slaughter. “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Slaughter has proposed mandatory regulation that would forbid livestock operations from using eight classes of antibiotics except to treat sick animals, and people.

The very existence of Slaughter’s legislation – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) – may even be what pushed the FDA off the sidelines, maneuvering to find an answer to the problem more palatable to industry. Of course, that’s speculation.

PAMTA, which has the support of 450 medical and consumer advocate groups, according to Slaughter’s office, may still have legs.

But it will take consumer outrage over needless human illnesses and deaths to push it along.

Slaughter reports that so far this year groups opposing PAMTA have spent $17 million trying to stop it. Similar voluntary guidelines in Europe also failed to stop the overuse of antibiotics, her office reported. Only in the Netherlands, where the rules had penalties, was the routine use of antibiotics curbed.

From the livestock producer’s point of view, where every pound of flesh carries an additional dollar or two in profits, that makes sense. Stop rules that interfere with making chickens, pigs and cattle weigh as much as possible.

The FDA’s weak position also makes sense. The agency says the new guidelines need to be voluntary so they can be put in place faster and easier (read: industry wouldn’t cooperate with serious regulation). It maintains that the pharmaceutical companies making these drugs are on its side and will re-label them for use only for illnesses.

But for the rest of us, this half-measure does not make sense. With 23,000 people dying, who otherwise wouldn’t have (that’s from the Centers for Disease Control), and millions more suffering with illnesses complicated by antibiotic resistance, it’s abundantly clear that our interest lay with the medical professionals supporting PAMTA and would like to see antibiotics preserved to treat illnesses.

Check to see where your Congressional representatives stand on PAMTA.

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Aug 122013

From Green Right Now Reports

Texas Long Horn Cow smaller

Texas Long Horn (Photo: Wikimedia)

A visit to West Texas will invariably take you by two common sites, oil and natural gas wells and pastures where Texas’ iconic longhorn cattle are grazing.

These are the industries that built the Lone Star state. But now that water’s getting scarce in parts of the state suffering under a two-year drought, tensions are mounting between ranchers and the oil and gas industry, especially the natural gas fracking companies that require millions of gallons of water to drill each well.

This video by The Guardian shows how a water fight is simmering in West Texas.

This story reports that about 8 million gallons of water are needed per fracked well;  some place that figure closer to 5 million gallons of water. The more conservative estimate is still enough to serve the daily water needs of about 50,000 Americans, according to the EPA.

Jan 252013

(This report was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent investigative journalism non-profit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental health. It was first published in November 2012. A longer version of this story appears on TheNation.com.)

Cattle on the Schilke Ranch in northwestern North Dakota, located on Bakken Shale.

Cattle on the Schilke ranch in North Dakota (Photo: Jacki Schilke).

In the midst of the domestic energy boom, livestock on farms near oil-and-gas drilling operations nationwide have been quietly falling sick and dying. While scientists have yet to isolate cause and effect, many suspect chemicals used in drilling and hydrofracking (or “fracking”) operations are poisoning animals through the air, water, or soil.

Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca, New York, veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first and only peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals.

The authors compiled 24 case studies of farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive, and acute gastrointestinal problems after being exposed—either accidentally or incidentally—to fracking chemicals in the water or air. The article, published in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, describes how scores of animals died over the course of several years.

The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning.

Exposed livestock “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water, and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”

In Louisiana, 17 cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid, which is injected miles underground to crack open and release pockets of natural gas. The most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.

In New Mexico, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed near well pads found petroleum residues in 54 of 56 animals.

In northern central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately 70 cows died, and the remainder produced only 11 calves, of which three survived.

In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing wastewater pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: Half their calves were born dead. Dairy operators in shale-gas areas of Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Texas have also reported the death of goats.

Drilling and fracking a single well requires up to 7 million gallons of water, plus an additional 400,000 gallons of additives, including lubricants, biocides, scale- and rust-inhibitors, solvents, foaming and defoaming agents, emulsifiers and de-emulsifiers, stabilizers and breakers. At almost every stage of developing and operating an oil or gas well, chemicals and compounds can be introduced into the environment.

Cows Lose Weight, Die

After drilling began just over the property line of Jacki Schilke’s ranch in the northwestern corner of North Dakota, in the heart of the state’s booming Bakken Shale, cattle began limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves, and they lost from 60 to 80 pounds in a week and their tails mysteriously dropped off. Eventually, five animals died, according to Schilke.

Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene, and xylene—and well testing revealed high levels of sulfates, chromium, chloride, and strontium. Schilke says she moved her herd upwind and upstream from the nearest drill pad.

Although her steers currently look healthy, she says, “I won’t sell them because I don’t know if they’re okay.”

Nor does anyone else. Energy companies are exempt from key provisions of environmental laws, which makes it difficult for scientists and citizens to learn precisely what is in drilling and fracking fluids or airborne emissions. And without information on the interactions between these chemicals and pre-existing environmental chemicals, veterinarians can’t hope to pinpoint an animal’s cause of death.

The risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse, since different plants and animals take up different chemicals through different pathways.

“There are a variety of organic compounds, metals, and radioactive material [released in the fracking process] that are of human health concern when livestock meat or milk is ingested,” Motoko Mukai, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says. These “compounds accumulate in the fat and are excreted into milk. Some compounds are persistent and do not get metabolized easily.”

Veterinarians don’t know how long chemicals may remain in animals, farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of contamination before middlemen purchase them, and the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t looking for these compounds in carcasses at slaughterhouses.

Documenting the scope of the problem is difficult: Scientists lack funding to study the matter, and rural vets remain silent for fear of retaliation. Farmers who receive royalty checks from energy companies are reluctant to complain, and those who have settled with gas companies following a spill or other accident are forbidden to disclose information to investigators. Some food producers would rather not know what’s going on, say ranchers and veterinarians.

“It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” rancher Dennis Bauste of Trenton Lake, North Dakota, says. “I’m gonna sell my calves and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipe-out, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.”

Fracking proponents criticize Bamberger and Oswald’s paper as a political, not a scientific, document. “They used anonymous sources, so no one can verify what they said,” says Steve Everley, of the industry lobby group Energy In Depth. The authors didn’t provide a scientific assessment of impacts—testing what specific chemicals might do to cows that ingest them, for example—so treating their findings as scientific, he continues, “is laughable at best, and dangerous for public debate at worst.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the main lobbying group for ranchers, takes no position on fracking, but some ranchers are beginning to speak out. “These are industry-supporting conservatives, not radicals,” says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are the experts in their animals’ health, and they are very concerned.”

Last March, Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for studies of oil and gas production’s impact on food plants and animals. None are currently planned by the federal government.

As Local Food Booms, Consumers Wary

But consumers intensely interested in where and how their food is grown aren’t waiting for hard data to tell them their meat or milk is safe. For them, the perception of pollution is just as bad as the real thing.

“My beef sells itself. My farm is pristine. But a restaurant doesn’t want to visit and see a drill pad on the horizon,” Ken Jaffe, who raises grass-fed cattle in upstate New York, says. Only recently has the local foods movement, in regions across the country, reached a critical mass. But the movement’s lofty ideals could turn out to be, in shale gas areas, a double-edged sword.

Should the moratorium on hydrofracking in New York State be lifted, the 16,200-member Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, will no longer buy food from farms anywhere near drilling operations—a $4 million loss for upstate producers. The livelihood of organic goat farmer Steven Cleghorn, who’s surrounded by active wells in Pennsylvania, is already in jeopardy.

“People at the farmers market are starting to ask exactly where this food comes from,” he says.

Jun 032011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Could it be manure, again?

If the E. coli outbreak in Europe turns out to have come, ultimately, from infected manure/fertilizer that contaminated vegetable crops, it will be little surprise.

E.Coli 0157

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is found in the digestive systems of mammals, and it has become particularly virulent in cows fattened on corn, as most cattle are these days. Few cattle are fed exclusively on the grass that nature intended for ruminants, and few are raised without being routinely dosed with antibiotics. This insistence on feeding cows something they’re not equipped to digest, coupled with the excessive overuse of antibiotics, has created a food roulette that could be behind the European food illnesses.

I’m out on a limb here, because we don’t yet know the source of the contaminated food. But many previous outbreaks have pointed that way.

Scientists have documented these connections for more than a decade. Yet, the livestock industry has persisted in “finishing” beef with grain to fatten the animals quickly and produce tender, marbled meat. Antibiotics also have become an integral element in raising cows in the accelerated industrial system. The drugs are used to keep the animals alive until slaughter (because eating corn sickens them) and again, to hasten their growth.

This leads cattle, among other livestock such as pigs treated similarly, to excrete deadly varieties of E. coli that are resistant to antibiotics.

Even in the 1990s, researchers were aware of the fact that cows are excellent E. coli carriers, especially when fed corn.  Later on, after  numerous outbreaks of E coli infections involving hamburger, the industry developed a unique, absurd solution: treating hamburger with a sanitizing ammonia spray to kill the bacteria.

But back in 1998, Cornell University researchers proposed a different solution to the problem. Apparently resigned to the fact that  cows would continue to be abused by the industrial food system, they offered that the meat produced could at least be made a bit safer by feeding the animals some hay in their final days.

Hay, the animals’ natural grass food, would help them clear their guts of toxic E. coli. The university team reported this as an exciting development that would provide a “workable solution to the food-safety problem.”

“Most bacteria are killed by the acid of stomach juice, but E. coli from grain-fed cattle are resistant to strong acids,” said research team member James B. Russell, a USDA microbiologist and faculty member of the Cornell Section of Microbiology. “When people eat foods contaminated with acid-resistant E. coli — including pathogenic strains like O157:H7 — the chance of getting sick increases.”

“By feeding hay to cattle for about five days before slaughter, the number of acid-resistant E. coli can be dramatically reduced,” the Cornell team reported in a university article.

Bless them. These scientists found a way to circumvent the sneaky tendency of E. coli to survive in grain-fed animals and also the gastric acids of humans, allowing the bacteria to attack in its favored territory, the intestines.

Of course, feeding cattle hay as their last meal couldn’t strip the acid-resistance of the E. coli in the cows’ excrement that had been collected or sprayed about while the cattle were still grain fed. (More clarity on that in a moment.)

Meanwhile, the antibiotics that were becoming a standard feature of livestock production, with animals being fed a low-dose to both fight illness and speed their growth, raised the ante.

Antibiotics, like the corn feed, altered the E. coli produced by the cattle in modern feeding settings. In this case it added a level of potency to the bacteria. So now the cows were not just E. coli production machines, they were churning out antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria — leaving humans especially vulnerable to serious illness.

An E coli infection that might have once been a survivable, day- or two-long food poisoning episode, had been transformed into a deadly illness.

The unlucky person who ingests the E. coli “superbug” – often identified as some variation of the 0157 strain – can find themselves at the hospital, bereft of the usual toolkit of antibiotics.

Sadly, at least 18 of those affected by the outbreak that began in Hamburg, Germany several days ago have lost their lives. An estimated 50o of nearly 2,000 affected remain seriously ill; many are on dialysis because the bacteria has savaged their kidneys. It is being called the deadliest E.coli outbreak ever, as more victims surface across Europe, even in the United Kingdom.

Investigators are still looking for the cause of the food-borne illnesses. They think the germs came from infected tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce. That’s ironic, because if more people worldwide relied on produce and grains as the staples of their diet, then perhaps the meat operations that have been churning out E. coli germs would not be running on hyper-drive.

I’ll hold the diatribe on a livestock connection until we know more. There are many ways, beyond fertilization that produce could become contaminated, but some of these also could involve cross-contamination with animal products.

This Europe-wide outbreak, though far more severe, could mimic that of the spinach scare in the U.S. in 2006 which sickened 205 people and killed three.

That outbreak was traced to improper drainage from a livestock operation that had apparently infected the spinach field at the heart of the calamity. The Food and Drug Administration didn’t pin the source down completely, but cited “surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife” that drained into the field as the likely cause of the contamination in its final report.

Manure from modern cattle feeding operations often is used as fertilizer. In a traditional farm setting, with healthy animals, this would be a good thing. Manure is rich in nitrogen and replenishes the soil. It may contain a small amount of E. coli, but without the antibiotics and the forced corn feedings it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous.

Envision a farm-to-market scenario with pastured, grass-fed, antibiotic-free animals (which produce healthier, leaner meat anyway) and you’ve flushed much of the risk from the system.

Make that an Organic-certified operation and you’ve taken another giant step in favor of safer food.  Organic farmers must follow stricter guidelines about the use of manure on food crops, according to the Organic Trade Association.

“Raw animal manure [which could contain pathogens] must be composted if it is to be applied to land used for a crop intended for human consumption, unless it is applied to the land at least 120 days prior to harvest if the edible part crops come in contact with soil, and at least 90 days prior to harvest of edible parts that do not come into contact with soil. OFPA further recommends a longer period if soil or other conditions warrant. (The rules mean that the E.coli would not survive the prescribed composting time.)

“No other agricultural regulation in the United States imposes such strict control on the use of manure,” the OTA reports in its FAQ on manure and food crops.

Contrast that with the current practices that have evolved to serve our ever-increasing demand for meat (that doesn’t cost too much) and you’ll see why we’re knee-deep in it.

Toxic meat, toxic fertilizer, toxic soil, toxic vegetables.  We’re creating not just a catchment for a deadly bacteria, but a spawning ground where illness lies in wait.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Nov 152010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Our friends in vegan-land issue a call every year about this time asking people to consider celebrating the holidays without eating animals.

For those of you already looking for turkey substitutes and other veggie friendly recipes, you can jump off right now to Gentle Thanksgiving, where they’ve got a recipe for juicy, tofu-based stuffed Not-A-Turkey. Or skip over to Meatless Mondays and check out their long list of veggie dinner entrees or to the ready-to-go veggie “turkeys” by Tofurky or Gardein or Field Roast.

Gardein's Turk'y is one veggie option for T-Day

We recognize that some people might find this call to abandon the roast beast needless, strange, even an affront to their position atop the food chain. That is certainly understandable considering that the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas ham (or brisket or pork loin roast) are a big part of the winter holidays. Other events that fall around this time, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, also have their meat components, kosher or otherwise. Having meat is usually part of the repast.

Among holidays, Thanksgiving is most dependent on its meat. Known by its entree, Turkey Day,  recalls the hardships of the pioneers who faced starvation when settling the U.S., and were saved by helpful Native Americans and their own fortitude (but mostly by helpful Native Americans). The roast turkeys and squash of those early harvest feasts stoked the health of the settlers, helping them endure the harsh winter.

Yet on this shrinking planet, where food scarcity looms like an anvil over human existence and family farms are giving way to hyper-driven factory facilities known for brutalizing animals and workers and spreading infection, it is time to consider reducing our meat intake. Doing so on Thanksgiving can be a symbolic nod in this direction. But the day doesn’t really matter. We should  take stock of how much meat we eat every day, every year, and consider shifting our diet toward plant-based meals. Go meatless just one day of the week, perhaps; that’s what Meatless Mondays is all about.

In today’s world, it is still the neighborly thing to share our food and expertise, as the Native Americans did, and many of us will donate food to those less fortunate this season.

But more may be required of us.

Producing meat takes so much energy — a lot more than growing grains or vegetables for food — that the “Western diet” is being blamed for the loss of land around the world.

A 2010 United Nations Environmental Programme report on dwindling resources, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” identified the meat-intensive diet as a major contributor to the loss of habitat and native species, and to increased pollution. Livestock operations don’t just claim a lot of land, they produce a lot of waste because the majority of companies controlling the process don’t follow sustainable practices.

The report noted that:

  • Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the consumption of freshwater worldwide. Some of this water is devoted to growing grains and produce that we eat directly; but more than half of crops grown worldwide are used to feed livestock. (Which is a crazy situation because the beef cattle eating all that grain are ruminants or grass eaters; the grain is used simply to fatten them quicker and make the meat more fatty and tender, another questionable “Western” contribution to food production.)
  • Livestock farming ranked third on the report’s list of “produced goods” with the greatest environmental impact. (Vehicle manufacturing and pig iron/steel products ranked first and second). This ranking looked at the greenhouse gas emissions, use of metal and organic resources and contribution to the acidification of the oceans over the products’ entire life cycle).

Many people displaced by flooding in Pakistan already struggle with malnutrition. (Photo: American Medical Corps)

Even fossil fuels didn’t present as large of a sustainability challenge as food consumption, particularly when diets are weighted toward animal products, according to the report’s nine authors who came from universities around the world.

“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products,” they wrote. “Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products…”

The authors also questioned whether we should be using our arable land to grow biofuels, and they lament the loss of forests in countries that have sacrificed these resources to expand livestock operations.

As our world population grows, the discussion of how to use the world’s finite land, will gain urgency. Already experts are warning of another possible food crisis reminiscent of 2008 as food prices spiral in parts of the world.

So this Thanksgiving, roast a bird, if that’s your tradition. (See our list of greener turkey options.) But, once the leftovers are gone, consider following up the feast with a pledge to lower the impact of your diet. Then go make an avocado sandwich.

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