India develops sound policy on antibiotic use in aquaculture and food animals

India is the most recent country to address the public health concerns associated with the use of non-therapeutic antimicrobials in food animal production, and in doing so, may just leap-frog the United States.

India’s Directorate General of Health Services recently released a policy document entitled “The National Policy for Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance (NPCAR)”, which outlines approaches for targeting both human and animal antimicrobial usage, infection prevention and control, education and training on administration of antimicrobials, antimicrobial resistance surveillance systems, and enforcement.

It is a move that should be viewed as very positive, if significantly overdue” says Ed Broughton, Research and Evaluation Director of the USAID Health Care Improvement Project at University Research Company and former doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Among the proposed policies specific to food animal production, the NPCAR recommends banning non-therapeutic usage of antimicrobials in food animals, labeling requirements in food exposed to antimicrobials, and banning over-the-counter (OTC) sale of antimicrobials. It is not clear whether the OTC sales ban would also apply to purchases of antimicrobials in feed (i.e. medicated feed) for food animals. Read More >

Biogas digesters for industrial agriculture in China

Biogas Digester for 8,000 pigs in Zhejiang Province

Biogas Digester for 8,000 pigs in Zhejiang Province

While researching meat consumption and production in China last month, I visited two farms that have installed large-scale biogas digesters. These intriguing, bulbous contraptions capture animal waste, prevent pollution, make use of a renewable source of energy (methane), and transform the icky stuff into a rich fertilizer for crops. Biogas digestion  has not been widely used by farmers in the U.S. (for reasons I’m still trying to understand) but has long been part of China’s rural energy strategy: the government estimates that today some 35 million small farmers have small-scale digesters installed in their backyards, a figure reflecting decades of work to distribute them. China has been called “biogas capital of the world” and now is making another big push to encourage large-scale farms, which are a key part of the government’s agricultural intensification strategy, to install them too.

How does it work? Well, biogas is a byproduct of the fermentation of waste. Micro-organisms go to work in anaerobic conditions, though I understand some digesters operate under aerobic conditions. As the bacteria work their way through the waste, they kill off the pathogens, and release a mixture of gas heavy on methane with a touch of carbon dioxide. That gas can then be used to power a stove, a farm, and can even go back into the grid if there’s enough of it and the transmission lines are set up.

In my conversations with Chinese farmers and even officials from the Ministry of Agriculture it was difficult to get a handle on exactly how many biogas digesters are in use on industrial-scale farms in China. This is an important question as small farms are increasingly replaced by big farms and farmers grapple with mounting piles of waste that can pollute waterways and contribute to dead zones in the ocean. (According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the volume of livestock and poultry manure increased from 3.8 billion tons in 2000 to 4.8 billion tons in 2008 and is responsible for much of the phosphorus and nitrogen discharges into waterways.) But an article recently published in China Daily cites a discouragingly low number: less than one percent of the 4.2 million large-scale farms for pigs, cattle and chicken use biogas digesters to dispose of livestock waste. I learned that some provincial governments are offering a number of incentives and subsidies — up to 50 percent of the cost of installation in some places — but apparently this coupled with the myriad environmental benefits of using the digester is not enough to lure most farmers.

The GM Stranglehold

Monsanto brand corn used all over the world; courtesy of Flickr

Monsanto brand corn used all over the world; courtesy of Flickr

In recent weeks some 280 South African corn farmers went to harvest their corn and discovered that although the exterior of the plants looked lush the interior was bare. An article by the Digital Journal reports that millions of dollars were lost to farmers when their three varieties of Monsanto brand corn seeds failed to produce. Monsanto’s “on the record” statement that 75,000 hectares, or 25 percent of the total planted hectares were damaged while other sources choose to emphasize an 80 percent reduction in crop yield for some farmers. Many activists are taking this opportunity to criticize genetically modified (GM) seeds and food in efforts to ban their use in South Africa. Monsanto insists that there was no error in the production technology, rather in the fertilization process and has offered to compensate affected farmers in this instance.

My criticism is focused not at the broad category that is GM but at the single company that has come to control the world’s agricultural production and transitively the fates of many countries. The problem is that Monsanto is a monopoly in global GM seed production and sales. When their seeds prove as unreliable as they have been, the world’s (or at least the countries that depend on Monsanto products, primarily India, Brazil and South Africa) ability to feed itself and all the economic and political complications that follow famine are at the mercy of one company. And that is what it comes down to, Monsanto is a company and its goal is ultimately profit, not the welfare of the people who rely on them. Read More >

Ag Nominee Vilsack: Concerns on Ethanol, Biotech, Climate, CAFOs, Corporate Concentration, Hunger and Nutrition

In response to the blog post below, it is worth expanding, to clarify the reasons many in the sustainable agriculture community – and others who are concerned about sustainability, justice and public health – are feeling let down by the choice of the new secretary of agriculture, even as we try to remain hopeful about the overall direction of change.  
First, Tom Vilsack is a major proponent of ethanol production. Industrially produced corn ethanol has been disvalued for climate change mitigation because it contributes more emissions than it reduces. Further, industrial corn ethanol production leads to substantial environmental impacts from fertilizer and pesticide use. But the impacts go beyond environmental, to corn ethanol’s destabilizing effect on food prices around the world. The former U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to food has termed corn ethanol “a crime against humanity.” As of early December, the U.N. reported that nearly 1 billion people around the world are now undernourished; these numbers have risen substantially  in the wake of the food price spikes. Estimates on ethanol’s role in the rise in food prices range from a few percent up to 3/4. Vilsack does support moving over the mid-to-long term towards other forms of ethanol.  But even with alternate ethanol sources, significant problems in terms of land use for energy vs. food, corporate concentration, and unsustainable production methods are likely to remain. Read More >

It Should Be Called “Midnight Madness”

Sure, the so-called “midnight regulations” are nothing new for an outgoing administration to take advantage of. In fact, in their waning hours every administration has attempted in some way, shape, or form to use this ability to correct the scorecard on their way out the door. These regulations, like nearly all issued by federal agencies, do not require congressional approval. Why is this alarming?

In the case of a rule change issued last Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency, factory farms will be exempt from reporting releases of hazardous substances like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI), the Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, called the action by the EPA “nothing more than a giveaway to Big Agribusiness at the expense of the public health and of local communities located near large factory farms.”   Read More >

Happy 25th Anniversary, Chesapeake Bay

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. In the two and half decades since the landmark Bay action agenda was agreed to, Maryland’s watershed clean up initiative has received mixed reviews on its success. As the Washington Post noted, “Despite a quarter-century of work, the bay’s biggest problem — pollution-driven “dead zones,” where fish and crabs can’t breathe — has not significantly improved.” Yet there are important environmental improvement initiatives on the way.

The Post’s editorial page yesterday hailed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s efforts to protect the Chesapeake by limiting further development along the Maryland shoreline and enacting new measures limiting agriculture runoff from chicken farms, the leading source of harmful nitrogen and phosphorous found in the Bay.

Read More >