May 17, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Monsanto, Poop Foam, Itinerant Fish and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Movement on the farm bill this week

Monsanto victorious. On Monday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Monsanto in a trial that seems to have had patent law at its heart. The court found for Monsanto and against farmer Vernon Bowman, who’d discovered a way to grow “Roundup Ready” crops from his own seeds rather than purchasing them—at exorbitant cost—from Monsanto. Monsanto is already spinning this as a great validation of GMOs when it is actually a patent decision. Nonetheless, the implications of the decision are for greater monopoly control of GMOs and greater seed prices for farmers, already up over 300 percent in the last few years.

Poop foam? According to an article by Tom Philpott, scientists have not yet been able to explain a phenomenon known as “poop foam,” which is showing up in the cesspits that capture manure on hog farms. Because the foam traps toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, it is responsible for explosions on hog farms in the Midwest. To combat the foam, pork producers are now dumping an antibiotic into the manure. Philpott mentions that the drug, monesin, is not used in human medicine—but antibiotic resistance genes selected by exposure to monensin may provide cross-resistance to antibiotics that are used in human medicine. Snippets of DNA containing resistance genes form plasmids, which bacteria then freely swap among themselves and across species. So selecting for more resistance genes in the bacteria swarming in the cesspits, then spraying the waste on agricultural lands, will inevitably add to the problem of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.

Fish moving to cooler waters. A new study in Nature shows that fish have been moving to cooler waters for years as the oceans warm up. This has significant implications for food security around the world as bigger boats are able to get fish in deeper, cooler water, and smaller boats (which may be more likely to be used for subsistence or local commerce) cannot catch as many fish. In my native New England, the skippers of small fishing boats hailing from Gloucester, New Bedford, Portland, Port Clyde and on down east will find it harder to survive.

Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in the food supply. We at CLF were pleased to sign on to a letter sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The letter asks Secretary Vilsack to respond to a two-year-old petition submitted by CSPI aimed at keeping antibiotic-resistant Salmonella out of the food supply. Antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply pose a serious risk to consumers, and the USDA must propose regulations to protect consumers.

Food industry spin. The Center for Food Safety has published a report that exposes the well-funded organizations public relations strategies deployed to defend the food industry. The report, titled Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups, describes how Big Food and Big Ag hide behind friendly-sounding organizations such as the U.S. Farmers and RanchersAlliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the Alliance to Feed the Future.

Farm bill and conservation. The farm bill emerged from the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday evening, with a 36-10 vote. (Here are NSAC’s comments on that markup.)  We had signed onto a letter from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition supporting two amendments from Rep. Rick Nolan (D–Minn.). One amendment would have restored Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) funding to the level in the Senate version of the bill, and the second would have streamlined the CSP ranking criteria to focus on conservation outcomes. Sadly, the bill that emerged from the House committee on Wednesday night cuts CSP funding by one third.

Farm bill and SNAP. The farm bill that emerged from the House Ag Committee cuts SNAP by $20.5 billion. Rep. Nolan eloquently defended SNAP funding on Wednesday, question how it is that we are a nation that has spent trillions of dollars on “wars of choice” but that doesn’t have “the humanity to feed hungry children.” Now that both the Senate, which also cut SNAP funding but by much less, and the House have produced their own versions of the bill, they can begin to work together on the final version of what is officially titled The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act.

Further reading. Here are two great pieces from the New York Times. Michael Pollan has written “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” in which he urges us to think hard about our microbiomes and how to nourish them healthily, and Mark Bittman has written “Bad Enough,” in which he warns against overuse of the word “evil,” because things are already bad enough to be worried.

Hats off to our mappers. Last week we found out that the Center’s Maryland Food System Map Project won a 2013 SAG Award, an annual award given at the Esri International User Conference (Ersi makes GIS software ). The Map Project is one of 175 recipients, chosen from over 100,000 sites. I’m thrilled for our map team—Amanda Behrens, Jamie Harding, and Julia Simons.

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  1. Pingback: 1 year and 100 posts later | The Vegaquarian Times

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