Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Elephant in the Room Has To Poop

Every Fall in rural PEI there are days when the "honey wagon"  is out spraying liquid manure (pig shit) taken from the concrete holding lagoons next to most pig barns.  I can't say I enjoy the smell, but I do find it comforting (let me explain before you think I've lost my mind).

Modern piggeries have slatted floors that allow manure and urine to be collected and pumped into holding lagoons. This can be dangerous. In concentrated pork production areas like North Dakota, there are many examples of lagoons with clay liners (rather than concrete) that have broken down releasing tons of pig shit into local waterways. Two problems: huge amounts of nitrates are added, leading to dead zones (the oxygen in the water is used to break down the waste which in turn kills water-life) and secondly the danger of pathogens like the deadly strains of e-coli we've been reading about lately. Think of it this way: in the same way that human waste goes through sewage treatment plants where oxygen is added to promote the growth of good "oxygen loving" or aerobic bacteria which begin the process of detoxifying waste,  livestock manure has to go through similar stages.  Take a look at the bags of manure you buy in the spring, it always says "composted".  Again good aerobic bacteria have broken down the manure creating enough heat to kill any bad stuff.

So back to the honey wagon. When I smell it I think of  several things:  a livestock farmer is still in business, the manure has successfully been held in the concrete storage, and now it's on the land (rather than in the water) and has access to all the oxygen it needs to break down safely and add fertility to the soil for a crop the following summer.  There are issues (there are always issues). Farmers need a big enough land base to properly utilize all of the pig waste, too much on the same land can create excess nitrates that end up in groundwater.

Cattle manure is just as important for soil fertility, and it's one of the big losses PEI faces as livestock farmers go out of business.

So the next time you smell that "eau de pig shit",  don't wrinkle your nose, put a smile on your face.

And raw manure of course has been in the news because of the  e-coli outbreak in Europe. Health officials are still looking for the source, and now say they may never know.A couple of stories, and one more about my favourite whipping boy: corn.

E. Coli: Don’t Blame the Sprouts!

One hundred thousand E. coli can dance on the head of a pin; it may only take 50 to make you sick enough to die. Benign E. coli are everywhere, even in your own pink gut right now, and all E. coli can live on (or in) things as different as sprouts, burgers and water. But if you were able to trace back far enough, their reservoir is mostly likely the gut of mammal: a goat, a sheep, a deer, even a majestic elk or a dog. They’re most often associated with cows.

The dangerous E. coli, the ones causing the horrorshow in Germany right now, are called STEC (Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli, for the name of their horrific poison, and pronounced ess-teck). And if you think it’s only a German problem, you’re so wrong.

STEC usually migrate to food through direct or indirect contact with the contents of the animal’s intestinal tract: dung, not to put too fine a point on it. Whether the growth or even origin of STEC — which have only been associated with human illness for 30 years — could have resulted in part from feeding cattle grain (as opposed to their natural grass), or was aided by industrial agriculture’s unnecessary reliance on prophylactic antibiotics (a shameful story, but one that must wait), may never be known.

What is known is that if you keep STEC out of beef you partially solve the problem, and if you keep manure off other foods you partially solve the problem, too. It isn’t easy, and it’s never going to be foolproof, but these are the steps to take. If you’re the cattle industry, you’d rather blame the whole thing on sprouts that were “somehow” contaminated. (Ban sprouts! No one really likes them anyway.) But blaming the sprouts is like blaming your nose for a virus-containing sneeze: That STEC came from somewhere, and in its history is an animal’s gut.

Because they’re grown in a warm, moist, gut-like environment, sprouts are an excellent vehicle for maintaining and maybe even reproducing STEC (indeed, so excellent that the Centers for Disease Control un-recommends them), but their involvement may never be proven.

Still, it’s likely that most of the thousands of people sickened in Germany ate a vegetable that was contaminated in its handling: manure got into the growing or rinsing water; or it was on the hands of a picker; or it got dropped on a veggie by a bird, or brushed onto it by a wandering animal; or it was in a truck that took the sprouts to the packager, or some other innocent accident, the kind we must do our best to prevent, the kind that’s magnified by combining huge lots of food from dozens of different sources and handling them all together. Remember, 50 STEC are enough to make you sick; one head of lettuce with a few hundred thousand bacteria, tossed together with a few tons of uncontaminated greens, then sold in thousands of packages, can mess up a lot of people.

Outbreaks of the deadly kinds of STEC — there are at least seven really toxic strains, including the German one — are common enough. But these outbreaks are the tip of the iceberg; there are tens of thousands of “sporadic” cases from STEC every year in the United States alone, most of them unreported but no less deadly for that.

Although the U.S. has a pretty good track record when it comes to identifying and fighting STEC — thanks to much struggle on the part of lawyers and public health officials, and sound thinking in the USDA and FDA — we’re falling way behind in preventing outbreaks like the current one, and we are even further behind in preventing the sporadic ones, those that get no headlines, remain unreported and probably comprise the majority of cases. As is so common these days, a lack of funding and political will is the root of the problem.

The STEC that caused the infamous Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993 is formally called E. coli O157:H7. The U.S. has zero tolerance for that STEC, because in 1994 — against the predictable protests of the meat industry — O157 was labeled an “adulterant,” which means that any food in which it’s discovered is recalled; happens all the time, though sometimes too late. There are, as I said, other STEC just as murderous, and we have a much more lenient policy about their presence in food: they’re unregulated. Their presence in food is, legally speaking, just fine.

In theory, if the German thing happened here and the culprit were O157, it might have been prevented. But if the German thing happened here and the culprit were a non-O157 STEC, as it was in Germany (for those of you keeping score at home, that one has been labeled O104:H4), we’d be in the same boat — er, hospital — as our Saxon cousins.

To slow the deadly effects of STEC, we need more and better basic and applied research to identify them and test for them. We also need more testing of water used for irrigation and washing; reduced animal intrusions; alert farmworkers (an aside: people tend to be more alert if they’re more valued and less overworked and underpaid); and increased testing before people get sick and better reporting when they do get sick. (Less cow manure would help, but that isn’t about to happen.) All of these steps take money.

Even more important, we need to immediately acknowledge that O157 is not the only deadly STEC out there (non-O157 STEC has been found in up to six percent of a random sampling of meat, and not just hamburger), an acknowledgment that — of course — the meat industry is unwilling to make. And we need to declare those other STEC as “adulterants” and get them out of the food supply to the best of our ability. The two agencies that can act on this are USDA and FDA, and both are hamstrung by budget policy (the FDA needs more money for inspection; the House wants to give it less) and, of course, by the meat lobby and its allies.

Public health — arguably among the most important reasons for society’s existence in the first place — has somehow become a “liberal” cause and therefore unfashionable. But if the origin of these illnesses were bio-terrorism, money would be no object and even politics might be shunted aside. The fact is that a huge and powerful lobby would rather see a few thousand annual underreported deaths and the occasional high-visibility outbreak than submit to further regulation and smaller profits. Especially if that outbreak is in Germany, a world away. But next time it might not be.

Spain rejects €150m payout offer for farms hit by E coli fears
by Peter Walker  •  June 7, 2011 •

The European commission on Tuesday promised to pay more than €150m (£134m) to farmers hit by the E coli2 crisis, following robust lobbying by Spain3 and France.

The agriculture commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, proposed sharing out to farmers affected by falling sales amid the public health panic the sum of €150m, equating to payments worth about 30% of the average market price for the unsold crops.

But at the meeting of agriculture ministers in Luxembourg, representatives from several member states demanded more help.

Spain immediately warned the €150m would not be enough. Spain has suffered disproportionately from the economic impact of the outbreak, in part because it grows a significant share of Europe's salad produce but also because blame for the bacteria outbreak at first was attributed to its cucumber crop.

"No, Spain does not see €150m as sufficient," the country's agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, said. She was backed by her French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire.

Ciolos then said he would "come back tomorrow with an improved proposal", but warned that Spanish demands for compensation of 90% or even 100% of market price were unrealistic. "We have to bear in mind that this is public money, and we have to account for its use," he said.

The outbreak, of a newly identified and especially virulent strain of the E Coli bacterium has killed 23 people, all either in, or recently returned, from northern Germany, according to figures compiled by the European Centre for Disease Control.

More than 4,200 people have become ill, almost 700 of whom have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome, a serious complication that affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system.

The rate of cases is now slowing. Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks, the health minister for Hamburg, the city thought to be at the centre of the outbreak, said medical staff believed the situation was gradually improving. "We are seeing the first patients discharged, others are getting much better, so the first glimmers of hope are on the horizon."

However, scientists appear to be no closer to establishing the source of the outbreak. After Spanish cucumbers were ruled out, German officials confidently named a bean-sprout farm in Lower Saxony as the likely culprit, only for bacteriological tests to come back negative.

German ministers had said there were "strong and clear indications" that bean sprouts from the Gärtenhof organic farm, 40 miles from Hamburg, had spread the E coli bacteria. However, more tests have failed to link the farm to the outbreak. The confusion has seen many Europeans stop buying a range of products, while Russia has banned all EU vegetable imports.

EU farming6 representatives said the sector's losses had exceeded €400m. Spain has been at the forefront of calls for Germany to pay the bulk of the compensation, a move ruled out by Ciolos, who said it would come from central budgets. At a press conference he refused to speculate on the total bill, saying only that it would be increased, the revised offer to be approved within the next few days.

The EU's health commissioner, John Dalli, has criticised Germany for its "premature conclusions" on the source of the outbreak. "I would like to stress it is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection which is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears in the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers selling products," he said before the farm ministers' meeting.

He added: "While such intensive investigations are ongoing, we must be careful not to make premature conclusions."

He said the outbreak had been contained to a relatively small area. He told the European parliament: "I stress that the outbreak is limited geographically to the area surrounding the city of Hamburg, so there is no reason to take action on a European level. [EU-wide] measures against any product are disproportionate."

Scientists say the longer the wait for a definite source, the more likely it is that none will ever be identified. "If we don't know the likely culprit in a week's time, we may never know the cause," said Dr Guénaël Rodier, an infectious diseases expert at the UN's World Health Organisation.

Corn a big question mark in global food stock equation

The latest culprit under surveillance for its role in driving up global grain prices is U.S.-grown corn.

Wheat was the star of last year’s global food price run, set off by a drought in Russia that decimated a chunk of the country’s crop and prompted officials to slam the borders shut to exports; prices shot up by 50 per cent; food riots broke out in Africa and the Middle East; and France, as leader of this year’s G20 meetings, vowed to assemble agriculture ministers to tackle market volatility.

With two weeks to go before the ministers convene, markets are bracing for the release of an influential U.S. agriculture report on Thursday that is expected to shed light on the status of global food stocks and forecast supply and demand for the crucial growing months.

Analysts warn that if the outlook for U.S. corn, which feeds two-thirds of the global market, is anything less than glowing, traders’ reaction to the report could tip off a new period of market volatility.

The explanation for this starts with unusually wet weather in the U.S. corn belt that forced long delays in planting this spring. Although prices dropped this week after a U.S. Department of Agriculture report outlined progress in the field – at least 94 per cent of the world’s largest corn crop has been seeded –worries remain that the delays will translate into lower yields by the end of the season.

The timing is bad: Corn stocks this year have hovered around record lows, and demand for corn to make biofuels is keeping prices high. In April, the USDA said it expected corn stocks to shrink to 18 days’ worth of supply, the tightest spot in more than a decade. The announcement came at a time of a global hunger for more market certainty after last year’s frenzy.

“If we have problems with the corn crop … prices will go up. And that will spill over into wheat,” said Philip Abbott, an agricultural economist at Indiana’s Purdue University. “Wheat would not be as high as it is now were it not for the fact that corn is so high.”

Making matters worse is a drought in Britain, Germany and France – Europe’s largest wheat producers – that is threatening this year’s crop. Although world wheat stocks are in good shape and global production is on pace for a slight increase, “another year of poor production in wheat would certainly be problematic,” Mr. Abbott said.

Not everyone is convinced of the grim outlook. Errol Anderson, a grain and livestock analyst with ProMarket Wire in Calgary, believes corn and wheat are both hovering on the top end of their trading range now. Strong production forecasts for the year and predictions that crude oil prices will sink are bolstering his certainty.

“The world as we see it, because of the slowing economies, runs a risk of deflation by the end of the year,” he said.

However, Mr. Anderson represents a minority. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said on Tuesday that high and volatile prices are likely to prevail for the rest of the year and into 2012 despite a modest price drop in May.

While high prices are tough to stomach, particularly among the least developed countries, increasing volatility in food commodities has proven tougher for them to withstand over the past year as global food prices reached highs not seen since the infamous shocks of 2008.

The prospect of dampening that volatility set off a world-wide discussion on what, if any, measures should be implemented. G20 agriculture ministers are expected to tackle the subject later this month. The most controversial possibilities include actions to rein in speculative trading in commodity markets and the possible creation of an international agricultural information system to increase transparency around global production, supply and demand.

“Countries have to go through that market and, on a given day, buy their grain,” said Sophia Murphy, a B.C.-based senior adviser for the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy. “There’s a lot of things affecting the prices they have to pay ... and many of them have little to do with whether there’s a real supply and demand issue,” she said.

Ms. Murphy said she’s encouraged by the prospect of the G20 discussions, but concerned that politics will get in the way of making a real dent in market volatility.

“If countries are being asked to rely on international markets for food security, they need to have some security that food is available,” she said. “All the mechanisms coming out of the G20 are about money. That’s all very well if there’s something to buy. But you can’t use money when the shelves are empty.”

U.S. corn crop

81 million

Approximate acres worth of corn harvested in the United States last year, the largest portion of which was used in livestock feed.


Total value of the U.S. crop in 2010.

Percentage of the crop that is exported.

50 million

Tonnes of corn the United States placed on the export market in the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

16 million

Tonnes of corn produced for the foreign market by Argentina, the next-largest exporter, in the same year.

15.9 million

Tonnes of the grain bought by Japan, the world’s largest importer.

Percentage of total corn grown in the world that U.S. production represents.

China, Brazil, Mexico

Other top producers.

More than 30

Percentage of the U.S. corn crop that is used for making ethanol.

Starch, cooking oil, flour, Bourbon whisky

Other products made with the grain.

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