Sunshine Recorder

Link: Totalitarianism, Famine and Us

In late 1959, Chinese officials in the provinces began to investigate wild rumors that people were eating one another. Most of the officials must have already known that Mao Zedong’s call for a “Great Leap Forward,” a planned modernization meant to catapult the country into global economic leadership, had gone horribly wrong.

In the vast countryside regions of China, and with an eye to pleasing their bureaucratic masters, Communist Party functionaries had been inflating estimates of the amounts of food that peasants were producing for transfer to the industrial zones or for export sales. They also concealed that these transfers left hungry—and often for dead—the very peasants who had done all the farming, from cultivation to harvest. The horrifying reports of cannibalism sometimes involved peasants digging up the corpses of the recently deceased, among the millions who had already died of starvation. Other times, officials investigating unrelated matters came across disturbing evidence of murder and the butchering of people for meat. In Gansu province, according to one document in a new translation of source material, The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962,  a person named Meng was found in his home with meat in a jar, which also contained a clump of hair “alongside a floral-patterned hair band.”

The worst human tragedies of the twentieth century were certainly most deadly when sponsored or at least unleashed by totalitarian regimes, and food was a crucial element of their politics. Several years ago, the German journalist and scholar Götz Aly showed in books such as Architects of Annihilation (2003) the role of food in the horrors of National Socialist imperialism. More recently, Timothy Snyder has made the conquest of more productive agricultural territory—especially the Ukrainian “breadbasket”—an essential factor in the episodes of mass death occurring in what he calls the “bloodlands.” Soviet and Nazi planners both sought to occupy the region for the sake of food, and their macabre policies dictated that those on the home front would eat before the occupants of the newly conquered territory, who were deemed too numerous to feed with limited resources. In The Taste of War(2011), Lizzie Collingham has offered an accessible survey of how deeply the origins and course of World War II followed from the difficulty—real or perceived—of provisioning humanity. Even Americans soon became aware that the fight against totalitarianism in postwar Asia depended on filling empty stomachs at least as much as on winning hearts and minds, a policy that Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010), has elsewhere called “the foreign policy of the calorie.”

But the famines caused by totalitarian regimes can easily become a sensationalized distraction from considering the other causes of mass starvation. After all, mass hunger is older than totalitarianism, and in the most ancient records of human hunger, cannibalism is a depressingly common response to famine. In his already classic book Famine: A Short History (2009), Cormac Ó Gráda, the greatest contemporary historian of the topic, cites a Chinese woodblock from an 1870s famine that tells of a man who sells his daughter to avoid eating her; and many cases of cannibalism were reported in prior and later famines in China, under the rule of emperors and republicans alike.

That it has taken so long for the basic facts about the great Chinese famine to be recovered is not solely because of an information blackout at the time and since, but also because of the memory of such cyclical disasters. For a long time, observers assumed that the difficulties faced by Chinese communists were mainly ones they had inherited from a millennium of emperors. The persistent challenge of providing food led to vivid novels like Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) and influential theories of “Oriental despotism,” according to which China’s geography and demography permitted no alterative to coordinated rule from above to provide rice for the millions—a job that crop failure sometimes made impossible. For years after the Great Famine, it wasn’t even clear that mass death had occurred. And until the appearance in the mid-1990s of Jasper Becker’s popularizing account Hungry Ghosts, it was common to grant more credence to the official and persistent Chinese explanation for the Great Famine: bad weather. 

If famine antedated totalitarianism, famine has also outlasted it—even as China’s leaders, still officially communist, have embarked on a major new global venture in food politics, with the state’s vaulting economy and hungry consumers leading them abroad in search of new sources. It is in intuitive anticipation of a new food politics that mid-century totalitarian famine is being revisited. But while the Great Famine is a terrible warning from the past, as well as an occasion for heartfelt commemoration and a tool for Chinese democrats to criticize their regime, it can distract us from the very different food politics to come—especially when it’s used by Western critics merely to sound false alarms about the role of agriculture in contemporary China’s national ambitions. The new food politics, in short, is already under way.

Link: Revolutionary Plots

Urban agriculture is producing a lot more than food.

…The second green revolution is an attempt to undo the destructive aspects of the first one, to make an organic and intimate agriculture that feeds minds and hearts as well as bodies, that measures intangible qualities as well as quantity. By volume, it produces only a small percentage of this country’s food, but of course its logic isn’t merely volume. The first green revolution may have increased yield in many cases, but it also increased alienation and toxicity, and it was efficient only if you ignored its fossil fuel dependency, carbon output, and other environmental impacts. It was an industrial revolution for agriculture, and what might be happening now is distinctly postindustrial, suspicious of the big and the corporate, interested in the old ways and the alternatives. This is more than a production project; it’s a reconnection project, which is why it is also an urban one—if we should all be connected to food production, food production should happen everywhere, urban and rural and every topsoil-laden crevice and traffic island in between. 

Today, major urban agriculture projects are firmly rooted in Burlington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other American cities. Sales of vegetable seeds have skyrocketed across the country. Backyard chickens have become a new norm, and schoolyard gardens have sprung up across the nation and beyond since Alice Waters began Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project almost two decades ago. Organic farms and farmers’ markets have proliferated, and for the first time in many decades the number of farmers is going up instead of down. Though those things can be counted, the transformation of awareness that both produces and is produced by all these things is incalculable.

We think more about food, know more about food, care more about food than we did twenty or thirty years ago. Food has become both an upscale fetish (those menus that overinform you about what farm your heirloom ham or parsnips came from) and a poor people’s radical agenda, a transformation of the most intimate everyday practices that cuts across class—though it has yet to include all of us. In 1969, the Black Panthers ran breakfast programs to feed hungry inner-city children, and those children—or rather the children and grandchildren of those children—are still hungry, and the inner city is still a food desert: a place where access to decent food, or even to food, is not a given. But farming has come to the ’hood. And everywhere else.

When I go to colleges like Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, which has a food garden project on campus, I sometimes find myself telling the students that baby boomers in their youth famously had sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but the young now have gardens. Gardens are where they locate their idealism, their hope for a better world, and, more than hope, their realization of it on the small scale of a few dozen rows of corn and tomatoes and kale. Thought of just as means of producing food, the achievements of urban agriculture may be modest, but as means of producing understanding, community, social transformation, and catalytic action, they may be the opposite. When they’re at their best, urban farms and gardens are a way to change the world. Even if they only produced food—it’s food. And even keeping the model and knowledge of agriculture alive may become crucial to our survival at some later point. 

Link: Jared Diamond addresses Romney's inaccurate understanding of his book "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Mitt Romney’s latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar’s arguments, oversimplified the issue.

It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”

That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it. My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (As I learned this week, Mr. Romney also mischaracterized my book in his memoir, “No Apology: Believe in America.”)

That’s not the worst part. Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations — like the Harvard economist David S. Landes, whose book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” was mentioned favorably by Mr. Romney — would find Mr. Romney’s statement that “culture makes all the difference” dangerously out of date. In fact, Mr. Landes analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere.

Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work. But institutions and culture aren’t the whole answer, because some countries notorious for bad institutions (like Italy and Argentina) are rich, while some virtuous countries (like Tanzania and Bhutan) are poor.

A different set of factors involves geography, which embraces many more aspects than the physical characteristics Mr. Romney dismissed. One such geographic factor is latitude, which has big effects on wealth and power today: tropical countries tend to be poorer than temperate-zone countries. Reasons include the debilitating effects of tropical diseases on life span and work, and the average lower productivity of agriculture and soils in the tropics than in the temperate zones.

A second factor is access to the sea. Countries without a seacoast or big navigable rivers tend to be poor, because transport costs overland or by air are much higher than transport costs by sea.

A third geographic factor is the history of agriculture. If an extraterrestrial had toured earth in the year 2000 B.C., the visitor would have noticed that centralized government, writing and metal tools were already widespread in Eurasia but hadn’t yet appeared in the New World, sub-Saharan Africa or Australia. That long head start would have let the visitor predict correctly that today, most of the world’s richest and most powerful countries would be Eurasian countries (and their overseas settlements in North America, Australia and New Zealand).

The reason is the historical effect of geography: 13,000 years ago, all peoples everywhere were hunter-gatherers living in sparse populations without centralized government, armies, writing or metal tools. These four roots of power arose as consequences of the development of agriculture, which generated human population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses capable of feeding full-time leaders, soldiers, scribes and inventors. But agriculture could originate only in those few regions endowed with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, like wild wheat, rice, pigs and cattle.

In short, geographic explanations and cultural-institutional explanations aren’t independent of each other. Of course, not all agricultural regions developed honest centralized government, but no nonagricultural region ever developed any centralized government, whether honest or dishonest. That’s why institutions promoting wealth today arose first in Eurasia, the area with the oldest and most productive agriculture.

Link: Jared Diamond: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike twentieth century Americans as irrefutable. We’re better off in almost every respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval peasant, a caveman, or an ape?

For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short. Since no food is grown and little is stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the struggle that starts anew each day to find wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from this misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution spread until today it’s nearly universal and few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive.

From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought up, to ask “Why did almost all our hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt agriculture?” is silly. Of course they adopted it because agriculture is an efficient way to get more food for less work. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than roots and berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?

The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture with the remarkable flowering of art that has taken place over the past few thousand years. Since crops can be stored, and since it takes less time to pick food from a garden than to find it in the wild, agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.

While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

Since he wrote this piece in 1987, Jared Diamond has taken a great deal of criticism for it, almost exclusively from people who for some reason—poor reading comprehension, blinding personal agenda or lack of clarity on Diamond’s part—missed the point. As Diamond has since then stated, his thesis is actually pretty simple: pre-agricultural human society had very little environmental impact and as such was sustainable for hundreds of thousands of years. Post-agricultural human society has, so far, a much worse record and in only ten thousand years, has already brought about at least the possibility of our extinction as a species. As he indicates in many of his other writings, Diamond is not actually all that pessimistic about our chances. All he is saying is that if we do end up making our world unlivable for ourselves, it will at root be because the transition to agriculture was a behavioral dead-end in terms of adaptation.

Link: Booklist: Factory Foods Exposed

Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” commercial drew in more than 5 million views, and McDonald’s has recently unveiled a plan to remove sow gestation stalls. It appears that fast food chains are trying to jump ship from the industrial farming label that’s branded the business. But why the sudden focus on animal rights and ethical farming? What exactly do terms like “free range” and “local” mean, and where does our food come from? For this week’s GOOD Books, we’re looking straight into the convoluted American food industry.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: The bible of meatpacking industry exposés, The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair in 1906, was the first of its kind to uncover the nauseating realities of the American meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s story follows a family of Lithuanian immigrants who find themselves unable to attain the “American Dream” working at Chicago’s Stockyards, where their lives become nightmarish. Sinclair originally intended for this book to expose the perils and exploitation that immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry faced, but the story became the herald for food sanitation. Thanks to Sinclair’s muckraker reporting on the industry’s rat-infested and waste-water soaked meat, corruption, and its overall sickeningly unsanitary conditions, the meatpacking industry experienced an overhaul. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were both passed following the book’s release, and worker conditions slowly improved.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer: Just for fair warning, this might turn you into a vegan—Natalie Portman turned into one after reading this book. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s first foray into nonfiction, he humorously and intelligently shares his personal, rocky relationship with vegetarianism. Part collection of anecdotes, part research investigation, and part social commentary on America’s eating habits, Foer shares how he came to realize how the chicken on his plate was once a living, breathing animal prior to becoming a nugget. This childhood realization ends up changing his life. From translating scientific terms to easy-to-follow layman’s description to personally investigating the ethics and horrors of factory farms, all for the sake of his soon-to-be-born son, Foer seeks to find an answer to why people eat meat without giving a second thought.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan deconstructs a meal on the table and literally traces it back to its roots. He grapples with the question “Where does our food come from?” by inserting himself into the frighteningly unnatural state of U.S. industrial farming, investigating the backbone of “organic” sustainability, and finally pulling on his hunting boots to shoot, gather and cook his own meal. Realizing what America eats can be queasy and shocking, but Pollan’s humorous narratives seamlessly propel the book from diseased industrial feedlots straight to the forest floor, which makes the truth a little easier to digest. His quests to present the truth behind the American food industry makes him do things from purchasing a cow who will live and die in a CAFO to following its journey into becoming a standard McDonalds burger. In the process, he works on a grass farm, observes factory farms, and eventually comes to the conclusion that everything we eat, even the menu at mega-chain McDonalds, is corn-based. Pollan unravels the tight ropes on which the food industry is currently balancing, while tackling issues like obesity, food anxiety, oblivion and ethics along the way. The message is unsettling, suggesting that Americans have planted themselves to the point of detriment, ruining not only ourselves but also the very biology of animals that surround us, but hopeful in the sense that omnivores ultimately have the power to shape what to eat.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg: While poultry and meat industries have been routinely blasted for their problems by various investigators, the fishing industry has had troubles of its own. In Four FishNew York Times’ seafood writer Paul Greenburg investigates the murky issues present in global fisheries—and the fact that the ocean’s bounty has limits. The four fish that Greenburg focuses on are the world’s dominant wild-caught and farmed fish: salmon, bass, tuna and cod. By weaving together narrative and research, Greenburg, a life-long fisherman, reveals how farming, biotechnology, and overfishing can ultimately destroy the ocean and its creatures, stressing the importance of sustainability.

(Source: sunrec)

Link: Brazilian President Vetoes Controversial Changes to Forest Code

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has vetoed critical revisions to the nation’s Forest Code that environmental advocates said would lead to rampant deforestation of the Amazon. Speaking to reporters, government officials said Rousseff had vetoed vetoed 12 of the 84 articles in the controversial land-use legislation that was passed by the Brazilian congress last month, including provisions that would grant partial amnesty to landowners who illegally cleared forests and would reduce the size of forested buffer zones along rivers. Those revisions had been seen as a key victory for Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby. Today, however, Environmental Secretary Izabella Teixeira said the proposed changes posed threats to ecosystem preservation and sustainable agriculture production. Opponents had contended the legislation would create loopholes that would enable landowners to clear significantly more forest, require them to restore only half as much forest as mandated under existing laws, and send a dangerous message about Brazil’s commitment to forest preservation. The presidential veto comes just two weeks before global leaders descend on Brazil for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.


Joel Salatin responds to New York Times’ ‘Myth of Sustainable Meat’ 
Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farm — which was featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food, Inc. He is a third generation family farmer working his land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his wife, Teresa, son Daniel, daughter Rachel, and their families. Polyface Farm, an organic grass-fed farm, services more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs. Salatin writes extensively in magazines such as Stockman Grass Farmer, Acres USA, and American Agriculture.
The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain’t Normal.
Let’s go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we’ll all perish. I assume he’s figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions. But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane. This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds: herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.
As for his notion that it takes too much land to grass-finish, his figures of 10 acres per animal are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures. At Polyface, we call it neanderthal management, because most livestock farmers have not yet joined the 20th century with electric fencing, ponds, piped water, and modern scientific aerobic composting (only as old as chemical fertilization). Hence, while his figures comparing the relative production of grain to grass may sound compelling, they are like comparing the learning opportunities under a terrible teacher versus a magnificent teacher. Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production. The rainforest, by the way, is not being cut to graze cattle. It’s being cut to grow transgenic corn and soybeans. North America had twice as many herbivores 500 years ago than it does today due to the pulsing of the predator-prey-pruning cycle on perennial prairie polycultures. And that was without any corn or soybeans at all.
Apparently if you lie often and big enough, some people will believe it: Pastured chicken has a 20 percent greater impact on global warming? Says who? The truth is that those industrial chicken houses are not stand-alone structures. They require square miles of grain to be carted into them, and square miles of land to handle the manure. Of course, many times that land is not enough. To industrial farmers’ relief, more often than not a hurricane comes along just in time to flush the toilet, kill the fish, and send pathogens into the ocean. That’s a nice way to reduce the alleged footprint, but it’s devilish sleight of hand with the data to assume that ecological toxicity compensates for the true land base needed to sustain a factory farm.
While it’s true that at Polyface our omnivores (poultry and pigs) do eat local GMO (genetically modified organism)-free grain in addition to the forage, the land base required to feed and metabolize the manure is no different than that needed to sustain the same animals in a confinement setting. Even if they ate zero pasturage, the land is the same. The only difference is our animals get sunshine, exercise, fresh pasture salad bars, fresh air, and a respectful life. Chickens walking on pasture certainly do not have any more leg sprains than those walking in a confinement facility. To suggest otherwise, as McWilliams does, is sheer nonsense. Walking is walking — and it’s generally considered to be a healthy practice, unless you’re a tyrant.
Interestingly, in a lone concession to compassion, McWilliams decries ranging hogs with rings in their noses to keep them from rooting, lamenting that this is “one of their most basic instincts.” Notice that he does not reconcile this moral imperative with his love affair with confinement hog factories. Nothing much to use their noses for in there. For the record, Polyface never rings hog noses, and in the few cases where we’ve purchased hogs with rings, we take them out. We want them to fully express their pigness. By moving them frequently using modern electric fencing, polyethylene water piping, high-tech float valves, and scientifically designed feed dispensers, we do not create nor suffer the problems encountered by earlier large-scale outdoor hog operations 100 years ago. McWilliams has apparently never had the privilege of visiting a first-rate, modern, highly managed, pastured hog operation. He thinks we’re all stuck in the early 1900s, and that’s a shame because he’d discover the answers to his concerns are already here. I wonder where his paycheck comes from?
Then McWilliams moves on to the argument that economic realities would kick in if pastured livestock became normal, driving farmers to scale up and end up right where we are today. What a clever ploy: justify the horrible by eliminating the alternatives. At Polyface, we certainly do not discourage scaling up — we actually encourage it. We think more pasture-based farms should scale up. Between the current abysmal state of mismanagement, however, and efficient operations, is an astronomical opportunity to enjoy economic and ecological advantages. McWilliams is basing his data and assumptions on the poorest, the average or below. If you want to demonize something, always pick the lowest performers. But if you compare the best the industry has to offer with the best the pasture-based systems have to offer, the factory farms don’t have a prayer. Using portable infrastructure, tight management, and techno-glitzy tools, farmers running pastured hog operations practically eliminate capitalization costs and vet bills.
Finally, McWilliams moves to the knock-out punch in his discussion of nutrient cycling, charging specifically that Polyface is a charade because it depends on grain from industrial farms to maintain soil fertility. First of all, at Polyface we do not assume that all nutrient movement is anti-environmental. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground. This is why low lands and valleys are fertile and the uplands are less so. Animals are the only mechanism nature has to defy this natural downward flow. Fortunately, predators make the prey animals want to lounge on high ground (where they can see their enemies), which insures that manure will concentrate on high lookout spots rather than in the valleys. Perhaps this is why no ecosystem exists that is devoid of animals. The fact is that nutrient movement is inherently nature-healing.
But, it doesn’t move very far. And herein lies the difference between grain used at Polyface and that used by the industry: We care where ours comes from. It’s not just a commodity. It has an origin and an ending, start to finish, farmer to eater. The closer we can connect the carbon cycles, the more environmentally normal we will become.
Second, herbivores are the exception to the entire negative nutrient flow argument because by pruning back the forage to restart the rapid biomass accumulation photosynthetic engine, the net carbon flow compensates for anything lost through harvest. Herbivores do not require tillage or annuals, and that is why all historically deep soils have been created by them, not by omnivores. It’s fascinating that McWilliams wants to demonize pasture-based livestock for not closing all the nutrient loops, but has no problem, apparently, with the horrendous nutrient toxicity like dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey created by chemical fertilizer runoff to grow grain so that the life of a beef could be shortened. Unbelievable. In addition, this is one reason Polyface continues to fight for relaxing food safety regulations to allow on-farm slaughtering, precisely so we can indeed keep all these nutrients on the farm and not send them the rendering plants. If the greenies who don’t want historically normal farm activities like slaughter to occur on rural acreage could understand how devastating these government regulations actually are to the environmental economy, perhaps McWilliams wouldn’t have this bullet in his arsenal. And yes, human waste should be put back on the land as well, to help close the loop.
Third, at Polyface, we struggle upstream. Historically, omnivores were salvage operations. Hogs ate spoiled milk, whey, acorns, chestnuts, spoiled fruit, and a host of other farmstead products. Ditto for chickens, who dined on kitchen scraps and garden refuse. That today 50 percent of all the human edible food produced in the world goes into landfills or greenie-endorsed composting operations rather than through omnivores is both ecologically and morally reprehensible. At Polyface, we’ve tried for many, many years to get kitchen scraps back from restaurants to feed our poultry, but the logistics are a nightmare. The fact is that in America we have created a segregated food and farming system. In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm. At Polyface, we only purport to be doing the best we can do as we struggle through a deviant, historically abnormal food and farming system. We didn’t create what is and we may not solve it perfectly. But we’re sure a lot farther toward real solutions than McWilliams can imagine. And if society would move where we want to go, and the government regulators would let us move where we need to go, and the industry would not try to criminalize us as we try to go there, we’ll all be a whole lot better off and the earthworms will dance.

Joel Salatin responds to New York Times’ ‘Myth of Sustainable Meat’

Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farm — which was featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food, Inc. He is a third generation family farmer working his land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his wife, Teresa, son Daniel, daughter Rachel, and their families. Polyface Farm, an organic grass-fed farm, services more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs. Salatin writes extensively in magazines such as Stockman Grass Farmer, Acres USA, and American Agriculture.

The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

Let’s go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we’ll all perish. I assume he’s figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions. But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane. This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds: herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.

As for his notion that it takes too much land to grass-finish, his figures of 10 acres per animal are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures. At Polyface, we call it neanderthal management, because most livestock farmers have not yet joined the 20th century with electric fencing, ponds, piped water, and modern scientific aerobic composting (only as old as chemical fertilization). Hence, while his figures comparing the relative production of grain to grass may sound compelling, they are like comparing the learning opportunities under a terrible teacher versus a magnificent teacher. Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production. The rainforest, by the way, is not being cut to graze cattle. It’s being cut to grow transgenic corn and soybeans. North America had twice as many herbivores 500 years ago than it does today due to the pulsing of the predator-prey-pruning cycle on perennial prairie polycultures. And that was without any corn or soybeans at all.

Apparently if you lie often and big enough, some people will believe it: Pastured chicken has a 20 percent greater impact on global warming? Says who? The truth is that those industrial chicken houses are not stand-alone structures. They require square miles of grain to be carted into them, and square miles of land to handle the manure. Of course, many times that land is not enough. To industrial farmers’ relief, more often than not a hurricane comes along just in time to flush the toilet, kill the fish, and send pathogens into the ocean. That’s a nice way to reduce the alleged footprint, but it’s devilish sleight of hand with the data to assume that ecological toxicity compensates for the true land base needed to sustain a factory farm.

While it’s true that at Polyface our omnivores (poultry and pigs) do eat local GMO (genetically modified organism)-free grain in addition to the forage, the land base required to feed and metabolize the manure is no different than that needed to sustain the same animals in a confinement setting. Even if they ate zero pasturage, the land is the same. The only difference is our animals get sunshine, exercise, fresh pasture salad bars, fresh air, and a respectful life. Chickens walking on pasture certainly do not have any more leg sprains than those walking in a confinement facility. To suggest otherwise, as McWilliams does, is sheer nonsense. Walking is walking — and it’s generally considered to be a healthy practice, unless you’re a tyrant.

Interestingly, in a lone concession to compassion, McWilliams decries ranging hogs with rings in their noses to keep them from rooting, lamenting that this is “one of their most basic instincts.” Notice that he does not reconcile this moral imperative with his love affair with confinement hog factories. Nothing much to use their noses for in there. For the record, Polyface never rings hog noses, and in the few cases where we’ve purchased hogs with rings, we take them out. We want them to fully express their pigness. By moving them frequently using modern electric fencing, polyethylene water piping, high-tech float valves, and scientifically designed feed dispensers, we do not create nor suffer the problems encountered by earlier large-scale outdoor hog operations 100 years ago. McWilliams has apparently never had the privilege of visiting a first-rate, modern, highly managed, pastured hog operation. He thinks we’re all stuck in the early 1900s, and that’s a shame because he’d discover the answers to his concerns are already here. I wonder where his paycheck comes from?

Then McWilliams moves on to the argument that economic realities would kick in if pastured livestock became normal, driving farmers to scale up and end up right where we are today. What a clever ploy: justify the horrible by eliminating the alternatives. At Polyface, we certainly do not discourage scaling up — we actually encourage it. We think more pasture-based farms should scale up. Between the current abysmal state of mismanagement, however, and efficient operations, is an astronomical opportunity to enjoy economic and ecological advantages. McWilliams is basing his data and assumptions on the poorest, the average or below. If you want to demonize something, always pick the lowest performers. But if you compare the best the industry has to offer with the best the pasture-based systems have to offer, the factory farms don’t have a prayer. Using portable infrastructure, tight management, and techno-glitzy tools, farmers running pastured hog operations practically eliminate capitalization costs and vet bills.

Finally, McWilliams moves to the knock-out punch in his discussion of nutrient cycling, charging specifically that Polyface is a charade because it depends on grain from industrial farms to maintain soil fertility. First of all, at Polyface we do not assume that all nutrient movement is anti-environmental. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground. This is why low lands and valleys are fertile and the uplands are less so. Animals are the only mechanism nature has to defy this natural downward flow. Fortunately, predators make the prey animals want to lounge on high ground (where they can see their enemies), which insures that manure will concentrate on high lookout spots rather than in the valleys. Perhaps this is why no ecosystem exists that is devoid of animals. The fact is that nutrient movement is inherently nature-healing.

But, it doesn’t move very far. And herein lies the difference between grain used at Polyface and that used by the industry: We care where ours comes from. It’s not just a commodity. It has an origin and an ending, start to finish, farmer to eater. The closer we can connect the carbon cycles, the more environmentally normal we will become.

Second, herbivores are the exception to the entire negative nutrient flow argument because by pruning back the forage to restart the rapid biomass accumulation photosynthetic engine, the net carbon flow compensates for anything lost through harvest. Herbivores do not require tillage or annuals, and that is why all historically deep soils have been created by them, not by omnivores. It’s fascinating that McWilliams wants to demonize pasture-based livestock for not closing all the nutrient loops, but has no problem, apparently, with the horrendous nutrient toxicity like dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey created by chemical fertilizer runoff to grow grain so that the life of a beef could be shortened. Unbelievable. In addition, this is one reason Polyface continues to fight for relaxing food safety regulations to allow on-farm slaughtering, precisely so we can indeed keep all these nutrients on the farm and not send them the rendering plants. If the greenies who don’t want historically normal farm activities like slaughter to occur on rural acreage could understand how devastating these government regulations actually are to the environmental economy, perhaps McWilliams wouldn’t have this bullet in his arsenal. And yes, human waste should be put back on the land as well, to help close the loop.

Third, at Polyface, we struggle upstream. Historically, omnivores were salvage operations. Hogs ate spoiled milk, whey, acorns, chestnuts, spoiled fruit, and a host of other farmstead products. Ditto for chickens, who dined on kitchen scraps and garden refuse. That today 50 percent of all the human edible food produced in the world goes into landfills or greenie-endorsed composting operations rather than through omnivores is both ecologically and morally reprehensible. At Polyface, we’ve tried for many, many years to get kitchen scraps back from restaurants to feed our poultry, but the logistics are a nightmare. The fact is that in America we have created a segregated food and farming system. In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm. At Polyface, we only purport to be doing the best we can do as we struggle through a deviant, historically abnormal food and farming system. We didn’t create what is and we may not solve it perfectly. But we’re sure a lot farther toward real solutions than McWilliams can imagine. And if society would move where we want to go, and the government regulators would let us move where we need to go, and the industry would not try to criminalize us as we try to go there, we’ll all be a whole lot better off and the earthworms will dance.

Link: The Myth of Sustainable Meat

The industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.

There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animals instead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock. My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely. But most people upset by factory farming have turned instead to meat, dairy and eggs from nonindustrial sources. Indeed, the last decade has seen an exciting surge in grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options. These alternatives typically come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production. They appeal to consumers not only because they reject the industrial model, but because they appear to be more in tune with natural processes.

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Michael Pollan’s Book, Food Rules, Brought to Life with Animation

If you’ve listened to the past decade’s conversations about food, you’ll have noticed that eating, always a pursuit, has suddenly become a subject as well. One flank of this movement of enthusiasts has taken up Michael Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s journalism school, as its leading light. Whether they agree or disagree with his principles, intellectually engaged eaters who don’t have at least a basic familiarity with Pollan’s books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food can hardly consider themselves conversant in the food questions and controversies of the day. Both Pollan’s potential boosters and detractors alike can get themselves up to speed with his latest volume, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, which boils down his culinary weltanschauung into a series of simple sentences, including “Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature,” “Pay more, eat less,” and, “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” Pollan also takes positions on entirely gnarlier issues, such as the efficiency (or lack thereof) of agribusiness, and that’s when animators like Marija Jacimovic and Benoit Detalle provide their enlivening services. In the two-minute video above, Jacimovic and Detalle use pieces of actual food to illustrate Pollan’s critique of large-scale food production.

Farming the Unconscious

“The realities of the existing systems of production are just as shocking.”

The Architecture Department at the Royal College of Art had some thought-provoking projects at the work in progress show. Architectural Design Studio 1’s exhibition was looking at how a dense and vertical architecture can bring back food production and consumption in the city.

One of the students of the course, André Ford, looked at the intensification of the broiler chicken industry. Each year, the UK raises and kills 800 million chickens or ‘broilers’ for their meat. Broiler rearing might be unethical and unsustainable but it is now the most intensified and automated type of livestock production.

Broiler chickens spend their 6-7 week lives in windowless sheds, each containing around 40,000 birds. They are selectively bred to grow faster than they would naturally which often causes skeletal problems and lameness. Many die because their hearts and lungs cannot keep up with their rapid growth. Information about the atrocious conditions in which they are raised can be found online.

Philosopher Paul Thompson, of Purdue University is a proponent of The Blind Chicken Solution. Chickens blinded by “accident”, he says, “don’t mind being crowded together so much as normal chickens do.” He adds that while most people would think that creating blind chickens for the poultry and egg industry is an abomination, it would nevertheless be more humane to have these blind chickens.

Sadly, the demand for chicken is rising and methods of production will need to intensify in order to meet this increase. André Ford proposes to adopt a ‘headless chicken solution’.

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be reduced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious. The feet will also be removed so the body of he chicken can be packed together in a dense volume. Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner. Around 1,000 chickens will be packed into each “leaf” which forms part of a moving, productive system.

The model in the exhibition showed the system in which a chicken would be grown at The Centre for Unconscious Farming. Feed lines provide sustenance, excreata lines remove waste, electrodes stimulate muscle growth.

How have people reacted to your idea so far? Did they raise the issue that this is not a ‘natural’ way to raise chicken?

Mostly disgust, but it varies. When meat eaters express disgust I put to them this argument, borrowed from Jonathan Safran Foer, in Eating Animals:

One piece of flimsy logic that we omnivores employ to justify our dietary choice, is that our superior intelligence and greater ability to comprehend the world, verifies our position at top of the food chain. So, if for the sake of the argument, our planet became occupied by a species that was more intelligent than our own, what would our argument be for not being eaten? If you are a meat eater, you might not have an argument, or if you did, you’d run the risk or being a hypocrite. So then you have to ask yourself, how would you like to be farmed?

Link: Booklist: Factory Foods Exposed

Chipotle’s "Back to the Start" commercial drew in more than 5 million views, and McDonald’s has recently unveiled a plan to remove sow gestation stalls. It appears that fast food chains are trying to jump ship from the industrial farming label that’s branded the business. But why the sudden focus on animal rights and ethical farming? What exactly do terms like “free range” and “local” mean, and where does our food come from? For this week’s GOOD Books, we’re looking straight into the convoluted American food industry.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: The bible of meatpacking industry exposés, The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair in 1906, was the first of its kind to uncover the nauseating realities of the American meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s story follows a family of Lithuanian immigrants who find themselves unable to attain the “American Dream” working at Chicago’s Stockyards, where their lives become nightmarish. Sinclair originally intended for this book to expose the perils and exploitation that immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry faced, but the story became the herald for food sanitation. Thanks to Sinclair’s muckraker reporting on the industry’s rat-infested and waste-water soaked meat, corruption, and its overall sickeningly unsanitary conditions, the meatpacking industry experienced an overhaul. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were both passed following the book’s release, and worker conditions slowly improved.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal: Before you roll into another drive-thru and dig into a burger and some greasy fries, take a second to think about the contents that are going be pumping through your body. Chances are, you’ll be eating things a lot more horrifying than McDonald’s recently exposed “pink slime.” In Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser forces us to face the feces, E.coli, and chemical-filled foods that Americans pay to eat. Unfortunately, fast food has become a part of America’s DNA; Schlosser claims that it’s become so rooted in our nation’s tradition, “just like apple pie.” The question is: can we detach ourselves from the unhealthy addiction? Schlosser travels to factory farms, slaughterhouses, feed lots, and flavor factories to break down the unfortunate realities and human costs that go into the America’s demands for quick culinary satisfaction. It turns out that the fast food giant that industrialized “the Happy Meal” is far from sunny.  Schlosser writes, ”The federal government has the legal authority to recall a defective toaster oven or stuffed animal—but still lacks the power to recall tons of contaminated, potentially lethal meat.”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer: Just for fair warning, this might turn you into a vegan—Natalie Portman turned into one after reading this book. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s first foray into nonfiction, he humorously and intelligently shares his personal, rocky relationship with vegetarianism. Part collection of anecdotes, part research investigation, and part social commentary on America’s eating habits, Foer shares how he came to realize how the chicken on his plate was once a living, breathing animal prior to becoming a nugget. This childhood realization ends up changing his life. From translating scientific terms to easy-to-follow layman’s description to personally investigating the ethics and horrors of factory farms, all for the sake of his soon-to-be-born son, Foer seeks to find an answer to why people eat meat without giving a second thought.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan deconstructs a meal on the table and literally traces it back to its roots. He grapples with the question “Where does our food come from?” by inserting himself into the frighteningly unnatural state of U.S. industrial farming, investigating the backbone of “organic” sustainability, and finally pulling on his hunting boots to shoot, gather and cook his own meal. Realizing what America eats can be queasy and shocking, but Pollan’s humorous narratives seamlessly propel the book from diseased industrial feedlots straight to the forest floor, which makes the truth a little easier to digest. His quests to present the truth behind the American food industry makes him do things from purchasing a cow who will live and die in a CAFO to following its journey into becoming a standard McDonalds burger. In the process, he works on a grass farm, observes factory farms, and eventually comes to the conclusion that everything we eat, even the menu at mega-chain McDonalds, is corn-based. Pollan unravels the tight ropes on which the food industry is currently balancing, while tackling issues like obesity, food anxiety, oblivion and ethics along the way. The message is unsettling, suggesting that Americans have planted themselves to the point of detriment, ruining not only ourselves but also the very biology of animals that surround us, but hopeful in the sense that omnivores ultimately have the power to shape what to eat.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg: While poultry and meat industries have been routinely blasted for their problems by various investigators, the fishing industry has had troubles of its own. In Four FishNew York Times' seafood writer Paul Greenburg investigates the murky issues present in global fisheries—and the fact that the ocean's bounty has limits. The four fish that Greenburg focuses on are the world's dominant wild-caught and farmed fish: salmon, bass, tuna and cod. By weaving together narrative and research, Greenburg, a life-long fisherman, reveals how farming, biotechnology, and overfishing can ultimately destroy the ocean and its creatures, stressing the importance of sustainability.

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan: “What if you can’t afford $9 tomatoes?” journalist Tracie McMillan asked herself before embarking on the research for the latest book, The American Way of Eating. McMillan takes the question beyond buzzwords like “organic” and “sustainable” and discovers exactly what it takes (and how much money you need) to eat well in America. She works, eats, and lives with the working poor for a year—in the fields of California, in a produce aisle of a Detroit Walmart, in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s—and chronicles what it’s like to try to eat well while earning minimum wage. She traces the story of food not only to its production, but to wages and work. The inevitable truth she uncovers? Everyone wants to eat good food.

Link: France Seeks to Cut Pesticide Use in Half

Over in France, a farmer has successfully sued Monsanto for pesticide poisoning. The farmer claims he suffered a raft of neurological troubles after inhaling the agrochemical giant’s Lasso herbicide while cleaning his sprayer in 2004. The court’s ruling against Monsanto “could lend weight to other health claims against pesticides,” according to Reuters.

All very interesting, but what caught my eye was this background bit toward the end of the story:

France, the EU’s largest agricultural producer, is now targeting a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018, with initial results showing a 4 percent cut in farm and non-farm use in 2008-2010.

Wait, France has a national policy in place to slash pesticide use within less than a decade? That’s news to me. So I did a little digging and found that back in 2008, the French government rolled out a plan called Ecophyto 2018 in response to the European Union’s 2006 Sustainable Use Directive, which called for all EU countries to concoct national policies on cutting pesticide use. Ecophyto sets an ambitious agenda for French agriculture: to meet the pesticide-reduction target while maintaining production levels.

And that’s not all. After launching Ecophyto in 2008, the French government amended it in 2009 to add to more lofty goals, according to ENDURE, an EU-funded nonprofit that promotes integrated pest management. It’s now official French policy to to expand certified-organic acreage from 2 percent of the nation’s total farmland in 2009 to 20 percent by 2020; push at least half of the nation’s farms to achieve “high environmental value” certification, which involves reaching certain levels of on-farm biodiversity and reduction in fertilizer use; and to withdraw 40 toxic pesticides from commercial use.

Now, these goals aren’t binding, and I need to dig into just how the French government plans to reach them. But in laying them out, the government creates conditions for agricultural innovation that don’t involve chemicals. French crop breeders, for example, are already selecting for plant varieties that do well amid weed pressure, reducing the need for herbicides. The transnational corporations that dominate US agriculture, by contrast, are fixated on generating seeds that withstand herbicide cocktails.

Indeed, being an American citizen in the early 21st century, I find it stunning that a government would intervene explicitly against the interests of the agrochemical industry. Our once-in-five-years Farm Bill, due for reauthorization this year, gives farmers incentives to produce as much of a few select crops (corn, soy, cotton) as possible, environment be damned. Our USDA, even under Obama, routinely rubber-stamps the latest herbicide marketing schemes cooked up by Monsanto and its few peers. Meanwhile, the USDA patronizes organic agriculture as a marketing niche; it would never occur to US policymakers to push for a dramatic expansion of organics.

In Europe, evidently, they do things differently. The herbicide that allegedly poisoned that French farmer back in 2004, the one that just won him a judgment against Monsanto? Its chemical name is Alachlor; the Pesticide Action Network has it listed as a "bad actor" based on cancer and endocrine-disruption concerns. The European Union banned it in 2007. Monsanto still happily sells it here.

Link: France vs. Monsato

France has held firm in its opposition to Monsanto’s genetically modified MON810 maize and the agri-chemical multinational has admitted defeat.

Monsanto had been putting legal pressure on the French government to lift its 2008 cultivation ban on MON810, firstly with a successful appeal to the European Court of Justice, then with a follow-up case heard in France’s own highest court, the Council of State. But despite both these institutions ruling that the ban was “insufficiently justified in law”, the French Government, backed by President Sarkozy, has insisted that it will still not allow cultivation of the biotech maize.

Now Monsanto has announced that it would not be selling seeds for MON810 in France this year. France’s stand—and Monsanto’s capitulation—has been warmly welcomed by anti-GM lobbyists GM Freeze, whose campaign director Pete Riley said: “The decision by Monsanto not to market MON810 seeds in France in 2012 is yet another sign that Monsanto has failed to convince the public or policy makers that there is any benefit to growing to growing GM crops.

"This needs to be acknowledged by industry and politicians and there should be a big shift to agricultural research and development which addresses the future sustainability of farming in Europe. EU policy needs to forget about the bottom line of biotech corporations and focus on developing agro-ecological farming which provides for the needs of farmers, consumers, the environment and future generations."

Five other EU countries—Germany, Greece, Austria, Luxembourg and Hungary—have current bans on MON810 cultivation in place, and the issue has recently been complicated by another European Court of Justice ruling requiring honey contaminated with GM pollen to be fully authorized as a novel product and labelled as such before it can be sold.

Story of a Dying Sea by Radek Skrivanek

This photo documentary project explores the legacy of the former Soviet regime and its destructive impact on the environment of Central Asia, specifically, the Aral Sea. Due to decades of aggressive irrigation for agriculture, the Aral Sea (formerly the second largest lake in the world) is likely to disappear from the map in the near future. 

Former ports on the Aral sea are now landlocked and lay abandoned some 40-80 miles from the current water’s edge. Rusting cranes lay idle on the docks with their arms stretched towards the sky, like the necks of the birds that no longer come here during their migration. Due to the high salinity, native fish cannot live in the remaining lake. With no fish to catch and no port to go to, the fishing fleet was left deserted in a harbor, where the ships slowly sank their keels into the mud. Children pass by their rusting hulls everyday on their way to school, yet they have never seen the sea itself. 

The demise of the Aral Sea over the past four decades is more than another ecological disaster. Its fate is a reflection of the negative consequences of political and economic policies across Central Asia. Its shrinking has severely impacted regional climates, agriculture and economies, as well as populations. In many ways its fate is a metaphor for our attitudes towards the environment, and the conflict between man and nature.

See more.

Link: The Bugs That Ate Monsanto

Now that 94 percent of the soy and 70 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, Monsanto - one of the companies that dominates the GMO seed market  - might look to some like it’s winning. But if we look a little closer, I’d say they’re holding on by a thread. Their current success is due in large part to brilliant marketing. The company’s approach was both compelling - their products were sold as the key to making large-scale farming far simpler and more predictable - and aggressive: Monsanto made it virtually impossible for most farmers to find conventional seeds for sale in most parts of the country. Despite promises of improved productivity, enhanced nutritional content, or extreme weather tolerance - none of which has ever come to market - Monsanto has only ever produced seeds with two genetically modified traits: either herbicide tolerance or pesticide production. And even those traits never lived up to the marketing hype. But it now appears that the core traits themselves are failing. Over the last several years, so-called “superweeds" have grown resistant to the herbicide RoundUp, the companion product that’s made Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant (aka RoundUp-Ready) corn, soy, and alfalfa so popular. Those crops were supposed to be the only plants that could withstand being sprayed by the chemical. Oops. The superweed problem is so bad that farmers in some parts of the country are abandoning thousands of acres because the weeds are so out of control, or dousing the crops with ever more toxic (and expensive) combinations of other herbicides. Thankfully, it’s an issue that’s getting more and more media attention. And now Monsanto’s other flagship product line, the pesticide-producing “Bt crops,” named for the pesticide they are genetically modified to emit, is in trouble. Scientists have warned that insects would become resistant from the overuse of Bt crops, but Monsanto poo-pooed it. Even so, when the EPA first considered Bt crops for approval, agency scientists wanted a 50-percent buffer to prevent resistance (only half the acreage in any given field could be planted with Bt crops). Of course, if that demand stood, there is no way that Monsanto would ever have achieved their current market dominance.