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Jared Margulies, MS

Jared Margulies, MS

Guest Blogger

Center for a Livable Future

Sustainable Food Systems for the 1 Percent

Chicken coop, circa 1939, Florida

Let me begin by saying I would love a mobile chicken coop in my backyard. In fact, I plan to build one this summer, hopefully for less than 100 dollars. I’m lucky enough that with an afternoon of work and a trip or three to the hardware store, I think I can accomplish this.  But although it would be wonderful if more people raised healthy egg-shaped protein in their backyards, this isn’t feasible for everyone.

Cue Williams Sonoma’s new “Agrarian” line.

For those less fortunate souls with little time but oodles of money, Williams Sonoma can provide you with a pre-assembled chicken coop for a mere $879.95 (1). Better yet, you can also purchase lettuce seedlings for just $16.95 each! (Yes that is the price for ONE seedling. But of course you’ll probably want 20 so that’s 339 dollars—but they come wrapped in burlap fabric with a cute bow!). Read More >

Third Time’s the Charm? The 2012 Arsenic Roundup

For the third time in as many years, legislation to ban arsenical drugs from poultry feed has been introduced in Maryland, with House Bill 167 introduced on Tuesday. The ban, if enacted, would help to curb the ongoing problem of arsenical drug use by the poultry industry, and associated public health risks to poultry consumers. For a glimpse of what’s in store for Maryland on this important issue, here’s an update on all things arsenic and the prospects for similar legislation in this upcoming session: Read More >

Time to Rethink Our P?

Much of the world's phosphate is in the Western Sahara

Here’s a riddle: What is essential to all life on earth, is thrown away instead of recycled, is quickly running out on a global scale, and yet has no substitute?

If you guessed fresh water, you wouldn’t be wrong. But would you have guessed phosphorus?

Despite growing acceptance in the scientific community of peak oil as a legitimate cause for concern—and perhaps a bit more attention from the media—far less attention has been paid to the phenomenon dubbed “peak phosphorus,” despite increasing evidence that peak phosphorus is expected to occur by 2030, if it hasn’t already. Read More >

Fracking and Food Systems in the Time of Peak Oil

Philadelphia, September 2011Last Wednesday while executives from the Marcellus Shale Coalition met inside the Philadelphia Convention Center, I joined several hundred activists outside to rally against high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking.”  This relatively new natural-gas extraction process is at the center of a growing tension: the urgency to discover new, “unconventional” fuel sources to replace diminishing conventional fossil fuel supplies, and the process required to adequately assess potential environmental and human health risks before embracing new energy sources.

In some communities where fracking is underway, alarm has been raised because fracking has been implicated in public health risks, tainting drinking water supplies and more recently even poisoning animals raised for food.  (This chart explains fracking’s potential impacts on agriculture.) Read More >

Roundup-Resistant Weeds Threaten U.S. Food Security

Roundup-resistant weeds are a rapidly emerging threat that puts U.S. agriculture in a terribly precarious position. The threat has evolved from farmers’ heavy use of the herbicide glyphosate, (aka Roundup, a Monsanto product) to control weeds, and farmers’ simultaneous reliance on crop varieties (also Monsanto products) that are genetically modified to resist Roundup. Despite a New York Times  article last year, this topic has received far less attention than it deserves, as the potential for Roundup-resistant weeds to raise food prices and threaten U.S. food security is severe.

The latest issue of peer-reviewed Weed Science contains a number of articles on the rising threat of herbicide-resistant weeds, with 21 weeds now confirmed as resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup, as reported by Fast Company. An article by University of Georgia scientists reported that Palmer Amaranth, a problematic weed found in cotton, corn, and soybean crops, which can impede harvesting, is now resistant to Roundup as well as another herbicide.   Read More >

Pfizer will voluntarily suspend sale of roxarsone following results of FDA arsenic study

From Flikr Creative Commons:barryskeates

From Flikr Creative Commons:barryskeates

The FDA announced today that Pfizer Inc., will voluntarily suspend the sale of 3-Nitro (better known as the arsenical drug roxarsone) following the results of an FDA study which found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chicken fed roxarsone compared to a control group. The announcement of both the study results by the FDA and Pfizer’s decision to suspend the sale of roxarsone (beginning in 30 days) come after increasing pressure from both scientific and non-profit sectors calling for the FDA to ban the use of roxarsone and other arsenical-containing drugs used by the animal meat industry. Roxarsone is currently approved for use in swine, turkeys and chickens, , though roxarsone is predominately used by the broiler chicken industry.

According to the FDA press release, the inorganic arsenic levels found in broiler chickens in the study were “very low,” but nevertheless represent an unnecessary risk to public health, as inorganic arsenic is considered a known carcinogen by the FDA. Despite this, FDA representatives today said animals raised using roxarsone are still safe for consumption and there will not be a recall of roxarsone-fed animal meat. “It is curious that the FDA says chickens produced with Roxarsone are safe for consumption, while also acknowledging it poses an increased public health risk,” said Dr. Keeve Nachman of the Center for a Livable Future, who has conducted research on the public health impacts of roxarsone use. “FDA’s study does little to characterize cancer risks to people who have been eating poultry for their entire lives,” he said.

Alpharma, the maker of roxarsone (and a subsidiary company of Pfizer) was alerted by the FDA of their results and voluntarily chose to suspend roxarsone sales for the time being—as roxarsone is found in scores of other veterinary drug formulations, this suspension will impact a variety of drug compounds currently used by the animal meat industry.

As the FDA’s study only tested inorganic arsenic levels in chicken livers, it still remains to be seen if inorganic arsenic is also found in the muscle tissue of animals fed roxarsone—this may be important when the time comes for the FDA to take a formal position on whether or not to enact a complete ban of Roxarsone or other arsenical-based veterinary drugs from use by the animal meat industry.

For now, consumers should consider this removal of roxarsone from animal feed as a major victory for public health—what remains to be seen is whether or not the FDA moves to eventually ban roxarsone and other arsenical-based veterinary drugs from the market and how long Pfizer’s voluntary suspension of roxarsone is maintained.

The Locavore Debate, Revisited

Photo courtesy of scottroberts-flikr


How can local food systems support a resilient and sustainable future food economy in the United States? That was the question of the day at a recent conference entitled, “Reviving the American Economy-One Heirloom Tomato at a Time.”  But for some, the question isn’t so much how, but even can local food systems support a sustainable food economy.  It’s always important to be open to dissenting viewpoints, so it was with great interest that I listened to Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto critique the “eating local” paradigm.

According to Desrochers, who has garnered a respectable amount of publicity as an “anti-locavore,” choosing to eat local foods isn’t necessarily the sustainable choice many believe.  Although he brings some very critical and noteworthy perspectives to the broader food system debate about energy efficiency and CO2 emissions from ‘food miles,’ he also obfuscates and distorts the broader goals of developing resilient local food systems, and for this reason I’d like to address some of his main talking points here.

Food System Resilience

The main thrust of Desrochers’ argument against the resilience of local food systems is his belief they may lead to future food insecurity.  He suggested that local food systems are inherently more unstable in the face of plant disease outbreaks, crop failures, and the limited growing seasons of different latitudes.  His argument, in sum, was against a pre-20th Century food system, where local crop failures might spell disaster for rural, isolated communities.

But is this really the vision of the local food movement?  I don’t believe local food system advocates are calling for a return to eating only what is produced in isolation of wider regional or global food systems-an idea which is historically contentious to begin with.  By creating a false dichotomy between choosing either an extreme local food system (where one would have to subsist only on foods grown directly in your locality) or a global one (where food would only come from where it was cheapest to grow-a “cheapness” dependent on agricultural subsidies and externalizing environmental health costs), it seems Desrochers has only constructed a straw man in order to knock it down. 

The reality of nearly all food systems is that they are nested on varying scales, from the local to the global, and can interact between scales.  As CLF Visiting Scholar Kate Clancy and co-author Kathryn Ruhf acknowledged in a well-articulated article 2010 in Choices on regional food systems, “An ideal regional food system describes a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.”

In sum, Desrochers’ suggestion that widespread adoption of local food production might lead to the next great American famine is only even remotely tenable if we ignore the pragmatic and sensible reality that opportunities for creating truly sustainable food systems exist between the local and the global. Read More >

Too Much and Too Little

covermed2A new take on global fertilizer use blames wealthy countries for over-polluting water ways and accelerating climate change while leaving poor countries with depleted soils and a lack of food.

The world’s use of fertilizer is extreme-in an article out this month in the journal SCIENCE, researchers highlight the disparities between fertilizer use in developed and developing countries. In many parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, a lack of access to fertilizers for maintaining soil fertility translates into year after year of low crop yields, chronic malnutrition, and the degradation of soils. Conversely, in developing countries like the United States, over-fertilization of agricultural lands has led to “the degradation of downstream water quality and eutrophication of coastal marine ecosystems, the development of photochemical smog, and rising global concentrations of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.”

While the authors don’t elaborate on how different fertilizers impact soil and agriculture (organic agriculture has been shown to be more drought resistant than agriculture using synthetic fertilizers and better suited to Africa’s economic and climactic environment), they argue that more research into farm nutrient budgets and policies which tackle food security, as well as the ecological and human health effects of agriculture, be implemented.