Book Talks

The authors can occassionally make themselves available for slideshows, readings, or discussions.  Arthur has previous experience discussing several of the issues in the book at dairy and swine health conferences scattered throughout the midwest.

June 2014 – International Health Convention, Beijing, China.

January 2014 – FSA Convention, Miami Floridia.

Sunday Dec 8th (General Book Talk) UU of Northampton & Florence.

Sunday Sept 15th – White Square Fine Books and Art (General Book Talk & Reading), Easthampton, MA.

The Project

Arthur Dunham, a large animal veterinarian from Northeastern Iowa, has spent years poring over research papers and farm publications in attempts to remedy the underlying causes of unusual animal ailments.  In 2008 his daughter Leah Dunham decided to turn her father’s research notes and observations into a book.  In her book, America’s Two-Headed Pig, she explains how several veterinary diagnoses have been complicated by genetically modified, antibiotic resistant, and pesticide dependent ag systems.  In each chapter, she explores how an animal illness has been affected by two-headed science — science that has been deformed and corrupted by vested interests. She also uses stories from her personal experiences on Iowa livestock farms to illustrate the numerous connections between these illnesses and misinformed policies.  She argues that changes to farm policies and human consumption patterns could make huge differences to the future health of all creatures, great and small.


Investigation #8: The Chinese People Fight for their Right to Know

In the last decade, Chinese citizens, like Americans, have become increasingly defensive of their right to know. They’ve noticed that bad things happen when companies and multinational corporations aren’t held accountable for the environmental damage they cause. In fact, environmental pollution has become such a problem in China that it often can’t be kept a secret. The air in some places is so thick with industrial toxins that children are actually encouraged to stay home from school. For similar reasons, important, life-sustaining waterways have become a source of cancer. In fact, entire villages have struggled with malignant epidemics linked to industrial sources upstream and upwind. Toxic metals used to construct modern electronic devices and agricultural chemicals haven’t been properly regulated.

Historically, these very visible and painful consequences haven’t been as visible to the consumer halfway across the globe. We do not see anyone suffering the consequences of our most recent smartphone or laptop purchases. We also don’t have to walk through the asthma inducing smog that has become particularly worrisome in disadvantaged communities. The consequences of our materialistic desires belong to another people and place. It is easy for us to forget that our own money often fuels so much devastation in major manufacturing nations like China.

But why should Chinese citizens sacrifice their health for the global economy and, ultimately, non-essential goods? Is there any way Americans can work together with the Chinese to put these industrial atrocities to an end? Can we uphold espoused commitments to be good global citizens in a more realistic sense than simply trying to be more aware of global environmental problems?

Chinese food safety investigators have recently identified an environmental threat that lends itself to cooperative Chinese-American solutions. These volunteers discovered that in addition to all of the other environmental cover-ups and concerns the Chinese regularly deal with, an American company may have hidden important information from Chinese consumers for years.   These volunteers were appalled when they realized that the Chinese government did not properly test the herbicide Roundup before it entered Chinese markets. Rather, for some yet unknown reason, the Chinese Ag Ministry allowed Monsanto, an American company, to present its own animal safety tests to demonstrate that Roundup was indeed safe for the Chinese people. The tests used to justify the active ingredient’s safety were not conducted by a Chinese laboratory under Monsanto’s hire, as would usually be required to pass federal inspection, but by another American company called Younger Laboratories. Chinese citizens are now asking an important question: Why did an American company have so much influence over the Chinese scientific process and agricultural market when Roundup was first approved? How did China then reach a place where Roundup accounts for 80% of China’s national herbicide market?

Americans are currently asking similar questions. The FDA and EPA have been accused time and again of lending a larger ear to giant agribusinesses, like Monsanto, than to consumer interest groups hoping to uphold important chemical safety benchmarks. Misinformation, the commercialization of toxic products, and government employees with previous ties to these agribusinesses lend to consumer skepticism. Today, numerous grassroots groups work round the clock to monitor the strings that are pulled when companies like Monsanto get a new, environmentally dangerous herbicide approved.

Chemicals like Roundup are extra controversial both here and in China because they are used to treat genetically modified, Roundup resistant crops. Today, genetically modified American soybeans are actually exported to China where they become part of the Chinese food supply. The glyphosate residues on these food products, when ingested three times a day, on a regular basis, are then taken up by the human body, where they can potentially cause damage.

The fact that soybeans are imported at all might seem ironic to a Chinese farmer as soybeans are native to China and were once a reliable export crop. Today China imports roughly 80% of its soy supply. These soy seeds are primarily consumed as soy oils that are used in numerous processed food products. If these soy seeds were previously treated with Roundup, they will contain both toxic glyphosate residues and toxic surfactant residues from the chemicals used to make the Roundup stick to soy leaves.

Following the recent publication of a paper exposing the potential problems with GM foods and glyphosate, the Chinese Army announced that it would no longer permit GMO foods or oils in it’s food supply. The author, Mi Zhen-yu, has a variety of respectable credentials not least of which is his position as the vice president of the Academy of Military Science. As Chinese citizens demand more accountability from both industry and their government, it seems likely that other government departments might follow suit. The significance of these stances cannot be underestimated in a society that is no longer willing to tolerate significant threats to its health. We should stand behind the Chinese people as they demand more information about the GMO and herbicide products used in both of our nations.


You can visit the following links for more information:

(2014-05-14 19:56:48)

Mi Zhen-yu: We must face the harm caused by imported GM soybeans to 1.3 billion Chinese people.

Chen I-wan. Chinese People Fight Back on Monsanto Against Glyphosate-based Roundup.

Investigation #7: Better Left Unsaid

I was surprised this week to come across a full page Humane Society advertisement opposing the use of gestation crates in Feedstuffs, America’s leading agribusiness news source.  Historically, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Feedstuffs haven’t exactly seen eye to eye.  In fact, previous articles and editorials have called HSUS’s concerns into question on numerous occasions.  I was even more surprised then to read a Feedstuffs editorial in which the paper defends its decision to include the Humane Society’s advertisement.  Regular readers understand that such a decision doesn’t sit well with a significant portion of the pro-gestation crate pork industry – including several regular Feedstuffs advertisers.

The main message of the HSUS advertisement is that consumer expectations are changing.  According to the add, “More than 60 major food companies–including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Costco, and Oscar Mayer–require an end to gestation crates.” In case you’re not in the know, sows on many industrial farms spend the majority of their pregnancy in crates that seriously restrict movement and social interaction.  During the last decade, gestation crates were considered an industrial norm.  The HSUS ad features a collage of quotes by current food industry leaders who posit that gestation crates are indeed a harmful and frowned upon practice of the past.  These leaders realize that it’s time for the industry to move toward more modernized group housing options.

While I was perfectly ready to congratulate Feedstuffs for both allowing an ad they obviously disagree with AND writing an editorial explaining why they did so, I actually lost respect for the paper as I read their editorial.  In the editorial, the authors admit that refusing the advertisement could “compromise the hard-earned respect for everything we do and everything we stand for at Feedstuffs,” and, that if they chose not to print it, it could “degrade our credibility.”  The editorial then questions whether or not this was HSUS’s objective all along and what it might mean if a source of “balance and objective news,” like Feedstuffs couldn’t see through it’s emotionally charged blinders to objectively accept any paying advertiser, including HSUS.

It’s unfortunate then that this worthy goal – to report balanced news based on available science – is undermined in the paper’s own editorial. While defending their decision, Feedstuffs reveals their stance saying that, “a publication may disagree with an organization’s or company’s sales pitch, the science behind the message or even its overall mission or business strategy.  However, that disagreement –or even that feeling of repugnance — is simply not reason enough to refuse the advertisement.”  They also indicate that, “it is not necessarily a fact-based message,” a frequent observation made by Feedstuffs reporters whenever industrial practices are widely scrutinized.  Because, of course, Feedstuff’s ability to sift one fact from another, in light of various “repugnant” views, is superior to anyone else’s.  Seriously…I can’t make this stuff up!

In my opinion, the editorial was a mistake.  As I read it, I thought of all of the Feedstuffs titles I’ve read over the years that were clearly biased and unbalanced.  One of the most consistently biased columns is called “Connecting Farm to Fork” in which, from my perspective, the paper uses an informative article format to advertise industrial products and ideas.  In this column, designed to help readers connect with their food sources, I have read articles titled: “Farmers prefer biotech crops,” “GM seeds called better for future of children, planet” “”Crunch Point” Needs GMOs” etc…  Even in the body of the paper it is sometimes difficult to tell if reporters are writing articles or advertisements with titles like “EPA:  Still a Threat in 2013…”  Are farmers really buying this news as balanced and unbiased?

Today we can use science to support just about anything.  Feedstuffs claims that its science is better than HSUS emotionally-charged science but Americans aren’t naive.  You can find science to support gestation stalls and science to support the banning of gestation stalls.  You can find science that will say that an America planted to a single monoculture is saving the environment (thank you Monsanto) even as other science is proving that this very science has wiped out hundreds of species that were once important biological controls (thank you environmentalists). I do not read Feedstuffs because I think it is a credible source of agricultural fact. In fact, sometimes I simply like to read Feedstuffs because the paper is so biased toward the food industry that it is very easy to read between the lines and connect the dots between funder and new scientific information. With regard to the editorial, I think Feedstuffs would have been better off letting HSUS speak for itself.  Instead they drew a bunch of attention to their rather questionable integrity.

From what I gather, most researchers who are not relying on industry to back their funding agree that crates are bad for pregnant sows.  Unfortunately, the entire debate is often presented out of context.  Group housing at high densities is also bad.  The industry and HSUS need to encourage density reduction along with crate reduction.  As I explain in America’s Two-Headed Pig, group housing may introduce unintended consequences for American sows if it doesn’t come with other management changes.

I look forward to the next Feedstuffs editorial in which Feedstuffs will undoubtedly defend its decision to include antibiotic growth promoter adverstisements now associated with a range of health issues amongst cattle and swine and other not-so-necessarily fact-based messages…

Investigation #6: Bioinsecurities

During the last decade, the American veterinary community and swine industry have pushed pork producers to practice tighter biosecurity measures on American farms.  Changes to industry structure, average herd size, and animal feed ingredients have led to new and complex diseases that often involve multiple viral pathogens and a weakened immune system.  Any confinement operator who has dealt with post-weaning diarrhea and wasting, high mortality rates, or high rates of stillbirth and abortion knows that managing disease outbreaks due to Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Virus (PRRS), Porcine Circovirus (PCD), mycoplasma, clostridia, and other pathogens requires daily vigilance, foresight, and up-front investment.

Industry experts argue that biosecurity measures are a must and that farmers who fail to biosecure their facilities put the entire American swine industry at risk.  By using biosecure measures, farm operators can reduce the number of new pathogens entering a herd.  Because pathogens are invisible to the naked eye, entirely eliminating their existence is not a reality.  Rather, farmers must learn how to manage diseases that do enter and prevent, to the best of their abilities, new issues from developing. For this reason, facilities attempting to be absolutely pathogen free can sometimes take on an ultra-sterilized, high-security prison-like quality.  Any new supply or person attempting to enter a modern biosecure unit must first pass various biosecurity checkpoints.

You can’t just stop by these wash-in, wash-out operations.  If you are a veterinarian, farm operator, or approved visitor, you might need to change your clothes, borrow company boots, shower in, shower out, and walk through disinfectant.  During your visit you will likely notice extra fencing around the building’s perimeter.  Surrounding trees and hedges are often cleared to increase visibility while simultaneously discouraging birds and other potential pathogen-distributors from setting up adjacent homes. Giant air filtration systems work round the clock to filter out pathogenic aerosols.  Leave your shoes in the designated “dirty” zone, park where you’re told, and be careful not to cough, sneeze, or breathe.

Feed and hog delivery trucks also follow special protocol because transport of any kind, especially of living plant and animal matter, introduces additional risks.  On some farms transport vehicles are completely disinfected before and after delivery.  Newly introduced groups of animals are of particular concern and are often quarantined for a month or more to confirm that they are pathogen-free.  Semen, sick pigs, rats, dust, insects:  there’s a biosecurity guideline for it all. If you’d like to check out a sample of one university’s recommendations see the following link: Biosecurity Recommendations

While, in general, practices designed to prevent pathogen-entry are laudable and a biosecurity plan on any farm shows foresight and concern, I have some huge gripes with the American swine industry’s frequent attempts to market biosecurity as an industrial ag success story.  Too often, the industry tries to set large biosecure confinement units apart from dirtier small to medium sized farms failing to keep up with the latest biosecurity standard.  In some cases, experts even blame bioinsecure small farms, including pasture pig and organic farms, for the continued spread of swine diseases.

While any farm can reduce the biosecurity of another farm and farmers do adopt biosecurity practices to different degrees, I find such accusations both infuriating and perplexing.   This is because large confinement operations are part of the reason all farmers need to practice such stringent and expensive biosecurity measures today.  As animal farms consolidated in the latter part of the twentieth century, commingled hogs exchanged illnesses (this happened with cattle and chickens as well).  Both small and large farms suffered as a result.

Nonetheless, veterinarians are right to encourage large confinement operators to practice strict biosecurity measures.  This isn’t because confinement operators are better agrarians or even more concerned about animal health than their surviving small-farm or pasture pig counterparts.  In fact, research has historically shown that large confinement populations are often less healthy than smaller counterparts. The real reason veterinarians must recommend such strict biosecurity measures within the industry is because raising pigs in large numbers at high densities is 1) inherently risky and 2) inherently stress-inducing.

One pathogen can easily become a risk for an entire one to two thousand member herd, especially when an animal’s immune system is already fighting a stress-filled environment, toxin-coated feed system, and the collective pathogen-load carried by the rest of the herd.  Large operations need to be especially concerned about pathogen entry because the economic stakes in the event of an outbreak are super high.

Which leads me to my second beef with all of this lovely dialogue our ag media churns out about on-farm biosecurity and American Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  If we are going to tell American consumers that industrial farms are more biosecure than they were years ago and promote the idea that we are more concerned about animal health, then we also need to spend more time openly worrying about the pathogens and negative health conditions we create on these farms.  Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem on both animal farms and in human populations.  Yet, antibiotics continue to be misused to perpetuate productivity and efficiency measures within pork production systems that already call themselves biosecure.  I can say the same for beta-blocking drugs like Paylean, Optiflex, and Zilmax used to promote rapid weight gain right before slaughter.  These repartitioning agents do increase protein gain and muscle mass, but they also put extra stress on an animal’s cardiovascular system, joints, and hoofs.  When used regularly, at high doses farmers have also reported that these beta-agonists can cause hogs and cattle to develop tremors and a generally anxious and agitated state.

While industry-wide bans on products containing ractopmine & zilpaterol (the active ingredients in the above beta-agonists) seem like a no-brainer from a health standpoint, deciding what to do about antibiotics is a trickier issue.  If we ban many of the antibiotics used in current systems without changing the animals’ feed supply and other systematic stressors, the animals won’t fair well.   On the other hand, if we don’t reduce antibiotic use, we will continue to run into similar problems with antibiotic resistance, antibiotic pollution, and, in the case of broad-spectrum antibiotics, poor long-term immunity.

Experts estimate that 70-80% of the registered antibiotics prescribed in the United States are used in animal agriculture.  Many of these antibiotics are used to promote growth and help animals combat stress that could be reduced in other ways (ie. by letting them walk outside, eat healthier feeds, or wean later).  In some cases, antibiotics are also used to treat complex viral illnesses that don’t respond to antibiotics anyway.

Unfortunately, the above figure does not include antibiotics used as pesticides on feed-crops like corn and beans.  In 2011, the FDA reported that  29.9 million pounds of registered animal antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production (note this number does not include antibiotics used to raise farmed fish or other livestock animals).  Simultaneously our nation used 185 million pounds  of glyphosate – a popular broad spectrum antibiotic-herbicide used regularly to grow animal feed crops.  According to a Global Industry Report, analysts estimate the global commodity crop market will absorb 1.35 million metric tons of this plant antibiotic by the year 2017.   When these glyphosate-treated crops are later fed to livestock animals, glyphosate residues can have an affect on animal health (as I report in America’s Two-Headed Pig).  This herbicide has been linked to a range of health issues that may further weaken an animal’s immune system, driving a need for even more antibiotics!

We can do better.  Antibiotics are, in many cases, necessary and we need to work harder to ensure their continued effectiveness.  But this, of course, will take change.  Below, I describe a few steps we should take to reduce our dependencies on unnecessary antibiotics:

1.  Reduce metaphylactic antibiotics used to prevent expected disease outbreaks. Animals are often mass medicated via their feed or water immediately after they’ve been transported, commingled, or weaned.

2.  Raise the acceptable weaning age of piglets.  In the United States pigs can be weaned at a surprisingly young age (sometimes as early as 14 days).  Antibiotics are often used to combat the stress and disease-onset associated with early weaning, followed by transport to another farm, and a quick introduction to glyphosate treated feeds.

3.  Reduce the international transport of animals and animal products.  Animal transport is one of the most common sources of disease.  It kills me to think that the industry simultaneously promotes the non-regionalized trade and transport of animal products while promoting strict biosecurity measures.  We seem determined to create some of the problems we work so hard to destroy.

4.  Better regulate the number of antibiotic-pesticides (like glyphosate) used on the animal feed supply.  Chemicals linked to bacterial imbalances in the gut and the development of mycotoxin-related feed issues weaken a young pig’s immune system, making it necessary to use even more antibiotics to prevent illness.  Viewed:  August 15, 2013.

Waddilove, Jake.  Production Viruses:  A Global Challenge that’s Costing a Fortune.  Viewed:  August 10, 2013. Viewed:  August 30, 2013.  Viewed:  August 30, 2013.

Investigation #5: Innovation

An innovation – (n) a change in the way of doing things

-Wesbster’s New World Dictionary

Earlier this summer, President Obama traveled to Africa where he toured Senegal’s Feed the Future Agricultural Technology Marketplace, a public private partnership demonstrating how research and innovation can improve the lives of farmers.  While he was in Senegal, Obama announced that the United States government will invest more than $180 million in Western African agriculture to improve food security.  To do so, the United States is promoting technology-driven agriculture in Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

But what exactly are the technologies and innovations being promoted?  The government is supporting a group called the Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership that is led by AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).  This alliance continues to be funded, in large part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

This news follows a year of intensifying external investment in African agriculture.  On an almost weekly basis, multinational conglomerates and private American companies have announced new investments in African seed, manufacturing, trade infrastructure, animal production, ag research institutes, and land.  In some cases, these investments have created partnerships.  In other cases, African businesses have become a listing in a multinational ag portfolio.

While groups like AGRA promise to help Africa “feed its own”, Africa’s “own” has begun to resemble the likes of U.S. agricultural interests.  Last fall, for example, Cargill announced that it would invest $20 million in sub-Saharan feed production, increasing its presence in animal nutrition markets.  At this point, Cargill already owned a 75% share of NuTec Southern Africa – a venture that supplies vitamin and mineral premixtures to South African poultry producers.  Simultaneously, a Flordia company called Blumberg Grain began planning a network of grain storage systems for Western Africa in hopes that it might become an infrastructural hub for the region’s crop and food storage.  Likewise, farm equipment giant, AGCO, announced that it would spend $100 million in Africa in the next few years as part of its African growth strategy.  This followed an announcement that AGCO produced its first Massey Ferguson tractor in Algeria.

But wait – there’s more.  At the end of July, DuPont Pioneer announced the successful acquisition of an 80% stake in South Africa’s Pannar Seed Ltd.  Through this merger, Pannar will acquire access to DuPont Pioneer’s biotech seeds, genetics, and breeding programs.  DuPont Pioneer, on the other hand, will gain access to an African seed market present in 18 African nations.  To obtain approval from the South African Competition Appeal Court, Pioneer also committed 7.5 million dollars to establish a regional research center designed to bring new technologies and advanced ag research to Africa.  The companies told the press that the African continent offers approximately 86 million acres of land available for corn production.

This is good news for the Iowa based company because it specializes in the sale of patented GM and hybrid corn varieties.  Now, if they can only convince the rest of Africa that these advanced seed technologies are worth adopting…For those of you who have followed the spread of multinational ag businesses elsewhere, these investments might remind you of similar investments made last decade in South America.

If groups like AGRA can successfully identify and create large “bread-basket” regions, as they propose to do, American investors in DuPont Pioneer will have even better news. These breadbasket regions will also create demand for Blumberg’s grain storage, AGCO’s tractors, and, supposing that some of this grain is used to make animal feed, Cargill-Nutec’s premixtures.

While these investments and philanthropic endeavors will help distribute greater quantities of high-yielding seed to some farmers and increase trade throughout the region, they also facilitate a growing network of external benefactors.  In this context, it is often difficult to tell if Africa’s new green revolution and all of Africa’s sought after agricultural growth potential will better benefit the African people or external agribusinesses. Perhaps in some cases, benefits are not mutually exclusive.  Nonetheless, in order to properly understand who is benefiting where, more transparency is needed.

More transparency

In many cases, interest groups are selling the Green Revolution as a solution to Africa’s food and environmental problems.  Unfortunately, in the United States, the Green Revolution hasn’t always been very green.  During the Green Revolution, farmers began to plant high-yielding crop varieties in large monocultures.  While we did make several advances in yield production with selective breeding technologies, today our ag systems are more dependent on synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides.  They are also less diverse.

In the eighties and nineties we introduced “innovative,” genetically modified seeds to these large monoculture systems.  These seeds are often modified to tolerate herbicides and poison insects.  Farmers who couldn’t afford genetically modified seeds had a difficult time competing in this system.  As a result, we also have fewer farmers overall.  To make matters worse, the use of GM seed in large monocultures has actually increased incidences of pest resistance, soil infertility, and nutrient run-off.  In many major ag regions there are now fewer songbirds, amphibians, honeybees, bats, insects, and native, non-agricultural plants.

While there are certainly innovations that can help people increase food production, I’m concerned that Africa will shortly become another marketplace for America’s GM seeds and agchemicals.  I often wonder why concerned investors and donors aren’t openly promoting a greener, more innovative and transparent approach from the get-go.

While researching this issue, I decided to investigate the ambiguously named “Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership.”  While the alliance includes respectable partners and seems committed to the idea of Africans growing their own food, I’m disturbed by what I perceive to be intentional ambiguities in their overall mission.

The Scaling Seeds Partnership promotes the commercialization and adoption of what it calls “key technologies” to strengthen Africa’s input and seed sectors.  They also promise to enable policy and regulatory reform to increase access to innovative seed technologies.  While, thus far, partnering groups have helped distribute and develop higher-yielding hybrids, one must wonder where these policy and regulatory reforms will take Africans.  Several of the Partnership’s champions, including Bill Gates, are also well-known champions of and investors in giant American agribusinesses.  Commercialized seed is typically poor quality when saved from year to year.  It is also typically planted in huge monocultures and dependent on a number of damaging inputs. Will promoted changes to the regulatory and political structure also pave the way for American inputs like Dupont-Pioneer-(Panneer)’s innovative biotech seeds? Or is an 80% ownership of an African seed company out of the range of consideration for projects that support African self-sufficiency?

And with regard to the words innovative, inputs, and key technologies, aren’t Africans deserving of more straightforward terminology?  Do marketers realize that GM seeds are not the only innovative technologies we’ve developed in the last twenty years to increase food production and security?  The words “innovate” and “technology” often seem poised to charm us out of a need for further explanation.

The United States government and philanthropic groups like AGRA can do better by regularly clarifying exactly what types of innovations, technologies, and businesses they support.  Instead, we’re left to wonder.   Are Africans or private foreign stakeholders deciding which innovations American donations (or investments?) should support?

As we’ve seen in the past, innovations can be bad or good.  The development of the atom bomb was innovative.  The development of agent orange was also innovative.  Neither of these innovations brought improvements to human lives.

Innovations and technology can also be good.  Fortunately, we do know how to make agricultural systems more productive without using grey-area technologies like herbicide dependent GM seeds. We have gotten better at selectively breeding crops, aerobic composting, crop rotation for improved pest management, marker assisted selection, cover crop mixtures to reduce fertilizer use, seed banking, slow drip irrigation, permaculture, using technology to trace and identify food sources, rotational grazing, and strip cropping.  Unfortunately, it’s often not clear whether groups put these types of innovations at the fore-front of their movements to sustainably feed the world.

The distinction between these agricultural innovations and innovations that are likely to create dependencies on chemicals and powerful patent-holding companies is important.  Failure to make these distinctions is misleading.

Perhaps it is even more important when recent reports debunk the over-exaggerated benefits of technologies like innovative GM seed.  According to a report issued by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield,” the increase in crop yields during the last several decades should not be attributed to innovative GM seed technologies, as the biotechnology industry often claims.  Gurian-Sherman estimates that improvements in both traditional breeding practices and ag practices account for 85% or more of the yield improvements observed, with genetic modifications contributing only 10-15%.  With this in mind, Gurian-Sherman encourages farmers to keep these numbers in perspective and to use other innovations to help boost yields while reducing the need for unnecessary inputs.

So when Monsanto or Syngenta or the United States government decides to “invest” in African agriculture and Africans become increasingly dependent on foreign systems, we need to ask better questions and start demanding better answers.  While funding selective breeding centers for locally adapted plant varieties (that remain in the public domain) is probably beneficial, investors typically don’t make distinctions between this type of research and research geared toward expanding patented seed distribution. Funding that introduces expensive patented seeds into rural ag systems before these systems are ready to handle such items will likely only increase regional disparities, and, as we’ve seen in America, environmental headaches.

While I wish organizations like AGRA luck in an endeavor to help sustainably feed a growing population, I urge both government and private ag philanthropists to be more transparent:  post itemized lists of purchases and suppliers and use transparent wording. This means distinguishing between investments in African companies and multinational companies as well as between GM and non-GM seed. We want to see Africa feed itself, especially if it can avoid the pitfalls we’ve already made elsewhere.  Indeed, I wish African farmers more luck than many American farmers have had! Viewed:  August 7, 2013. Viewed: August 8, 2013.

Vance, Andy.  Ag Investment in Africa Intensifies.  Jan. 7, 2013.  Feedstuffs. Viewed: July 13, 2013.

Investigation #4: The Jury’s Out…

Corn rows are being planted closer and closer together.  Are twelve-inch rows really better for Iowans when we’re already dealing with a nutrient runoff nightmare?

by L. Dunham

The idea goes something like this:  if we plant more corn per acre, farmers can generate higher yields and make more money.  By planting corn closer together we can also help feed a growing population while conserving precious resources.  New technologies have made it possible for Iowan crop farmers to plant corn in twelve-inch rows shaving inches off conventional twenty and thirty inch row widths.  This has helped farmers increase the corn population from about 30,000 plants to 50,000 plants per acre!  Sounds pretty great!…Right?

Actually, the jury has yet to decide.  While these farmers expect to harvest greater yields, they are also using far more fertilizer, chemicals, and water to achieve these ends.  In some cases, farmers are applying up to 500 units of nitrogen on acreages that only required half this amount.  They are also making 2-3 extra passes with crop-dusters to keep pests and fungus at bay.  Molds, in particular, thrive in a dense canopy of crop.  This can become a problem later for animals eating corn when they ingest moldy mycotoxins.  These fungi can also be a problem for subsequent plantings.  To make matters worse, the additional fungicides used to control these molds are linked to the loss of pollinating honeybees – insects we depend upon for various types of food production.

So are the advantages really worth all of this trouble?  Many ag-oriented states are already very concerned about nutrient pollution.  Recent articles in Iowa’s largest newpapers, the Gazette and the Des Moines Register, have spoken to these concerns.  Nitrate levels in watersheds and rivers were higher this year than they’ve ever been.  In fact, they were so bad that the Des Moines Waterworks spent $7000 dollars per day for the last several months to make residents’ water safe for consumption.  Meanwhile, farmers are being encouraged to plant more corn per acre, demanding even more nitrogen and water for the same amount of space.

The synthetic NPK fertilizers used today can create a nutrient management headache, especially when they are used in excess or washed away during a heavy rain.  While yields might be superb during a relatively mild, natural disaster-free growing season, losses have the potential to be devastating during seasons that are too wet or too dry, as many Midwesterners have experienced in recent years.  What’s more?  Many of these synthetic fertilizers don’t contain adequate trace minerals essential for proper plant growth and health.  To rectify the problem, farmers who are planting continuous corn and beans are sometimes applying foliar trace mineral supplements and manure applications in addition to their regular NPK applications.  More inputs are needed to sustain each acre.  When the trace minerals aren’t added, the resulting corn isn’t always fit to feed.

An argument could be made that a livestock/crop rotation might be healthier overall for this system.  Both plants and animals depend on the trace minerals in quality manure fertilizers.  Frequent animal and crop rotations might also help control some of the weeds and pests farmers currently use so many insecticides and herbicides to manage.

In my opinion, nutrient inputs of such high magnitudes should be illegal.  Farmers shouldn’t be increasing the pounds of nitrogen added per acre by 20-50% when Iowa is already considered a major agricultural polluter.  These issues will need to be addressed soon if Iowans hope to maintain their water quality, soil quality, and overall ecological health.  Iowa is one of twelve states called upon by the EPA to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels contributing to water pollution and the enormous Dead Zone in the Gulf.  As a result, Iowa now has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy to help it reduce nutrient runoff by 45% – a lofty goal that is highly dependent upon agricultural practices used throughout the state.

While the state intends to hold point-source polluters accountable, like factories and wastewater treatment plants, crop farmers are exempt from restrictions and regulations because they are considered nonpoint polluters.  Instead, crop farmers are encouraged to take voluntary measures to reduce overall nutrient use.

From a regulatory angle, it would be very difficult to monitor and fine farmers for nutrient pollution originating on private properties.  Farm runoff can be heavily dependent on soil type, weather, topography, and a range of other factors.

On the other hand, there are many things farmers can already do to reduce nutrient runoff on their properties.  Our actions do affect waterways that humans have shared and valued since before recorded history.  Planting twelve-inch rows and using gene technologies to increase a plant’s tolerance to pesticides ultimately only drive nutrient and chemical pollution up.

Such practices are disappointing, especially when we already have other technologies to feed each other without destroying our watersheds, not to mention those watersheds used by humans downstream.  We have to stop pretending that GM corn and beans are the only innovative technologies available and start using more practices that will increase long-term yield and sustainability.

As it stands, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy will fall short of its goals.  Farmers are not going to choose to make less money by voluntarily making changes when their neighbors aren’t doing the same.  In fact, subsidized crop insurance policies insure that farmers will make money on steep, tightly packed row plantings even if their crops don’t produce.  You’d have to be incredibly well intentioned or a fool to pass this free money up.

We need to decentivize this old system and encourage a new, more diverse agriculture.  New innovations should focus on minimizing inputs as much as maximizing outputs.

So far, I’ve compiled the following list of ideas but would love some help.  What do you think?  Do you have any genius ideas to add to our growing list?

1.  Place a tax on synthetic fertilizers.  Use the funds generated to support on-farm conservation, especially in areas that shouldn’t be in crop ground anyway.  This tax would encourage farmers to use on farm sources of manure as fertilizer, rather than synthetic NPK versions that don’t provide the same trace mineral benefits.

2.  Place a tax on pesticides (fungicides, herbicides & insecticides).  Use the funds to pay water treatment plants to remove these toxic chemicals.  Ban and better regulate pesticides that negatively affect animal health, especially the health of pollinators.

3.  Tie crop insurance to on-farm diversity and low input needs and/or low nutrient discharge measures.  Currently crop insurance payouts are highest for those working in continuous corn and bean monoculture systems.  Ironically, these systems are more likely to see nutrient loss in severe weather conditions.

4. Divert tax-dollars supplementing new fertilizer plants toward research that will generate healthier, more biologically active soils.  Agroecology research groups should continue to research ways to lower nutrient input requirements by improving the trace mineral content and biological activity of farmed soils.  Soils that have been in continuous corn for the last 30 years will continue to be deprived of the trace minerals specifically used by this monoculture system.  They may also be lacking biologically active species that help harness nutrients due to the number of chemicals used on such a continuous basis.

5.  Have another idea?  Add it below.

Animal Health Blog: Investigation #3: Neonics & Regulatory Differences

Why are Europeans restricting chemicals Americans use regularly on food and animal feed crops?

by L. Dunham

As a general rule of thumb, I try to remind myself that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence.  Everyone has issues.  Everyone’s life is complicated.  Even those who have apparently over-flowing glasses, the world’s rich and famous, aren’t necessarily brimming with feelings of fulfillment and overall happiness.  We each have a responsibility to prioritize our personal well-being and to be aware of actions that may have a negative impact on others.

Sometimes human nature gets the better of me.  I start to compare myself to the more fortunate and my own glass seems a little less full.  Or I notice that others’ actions directly impact people’s lives in a real and serious way.  Disparities in glass volume can lead to a sense of injustice especially when someone’s health or ability to obtain basic resources is unfairly damaged or taken away.

I was elated then, when I heard that the European Environmental Agency (EEA) decided to ban several insecticides that are damaging the world’s resources, threatening biodiversity, and reducing creatures’ overall biological health.  Europeans have, once again, stood up to the chemical and agbiotech giants that have proven difficult to defeat elsewhere.  In this case, the EEA is prioritizing consumers’ concerns for human health and biodiversity over interests in convenience and profitability.

The chemicals the EEA banned are three types of neonicitinoid insecticides that block nervous system receptors.  These nenonics can be used to coat seed products prior to planting.  The neonics used on these seeds travel up the developing plants, later killing insects feeding off plant pollen and tissues.  Bees, butterflies, birds, and hoverflies can die when they eat these plants.  Research has also shown that neonics negatively affect other terrestrial and aquatic inhabitants, as well as several insects we depend on for pollination.  While the European government is putting an end to some of this nonsense, Americans continue to use neonics across millions of acres of land.

When the EEA banned three neonics this year it also issued a report called “Late Lessons From Early Warnings.”  The report describes why the dangers associated with clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam should not be ignored.  Industries have worked for years to suppress accumulating evidence that such chemicals are a danger to various life forms.

In this report, EEA officials pointed out that France banned neonic use on sunflowers and corn way back in 2004.  Contrary to the industrial message that these chemicals are necessary, these bans did not affect crop productivity.  In fact, France’s most productive year for these crops occurred in 2007, several years after neonic use was discontinued.  Why, then, are Americans so addicted to chemicals we don’t even need?

One point I try to make in America’s Two-Headed Pig is that we can still have productive agricultural systems without introducing so many unnecessary risk factors.  While other countries more strictly regulate neonics, glyphosate, and GM crops, our regulatory agencies continue to facilitate their production.  We wait for “late lessons” even though we can already see them coming.  We simultaneously ignore viable alternatives to chemical dependencies that damage agro-ecological systems in the long run.


Mason et al.  Immune suppression by Neonicitinoid Insecticides at the Root of Global Wildlife Declines.  Journal of Environmental Immunology and Toxicology.  Volume X.  Issue X.  September/October 2012.

Neonicotinoid Pesticides are a Huge Risk, – So Ban is Welcome, says EEA.  Viewed:  July 4, 2013.  Last edited:  May 30, 2013.