Saturday, 21 December 2013

What Do Oil, Potatoes, and Lobster Have in Common?

It's always been the most imporant part of being a reporter, but it's gotten much harder. The business/political world is full of PR, spin, and manipulation, and reporters have to somehow sort it out. The number of communications experts being hired by industry and governments is soaring, while journalist numbers everywhere continue to fall.  It's no longer a fair fight. 

Pipelines, and all of the financial, environmental and political risk that goes with them are a good example of what can happen. Remember last summer when Mike Duffy (when he was still Stephen Harper's guy on PEI) told all who would listen that the West to East pipeline would bring cheaper oil to the Maritimes. Even Frank McKenna (who should know better) joined the chorus It was widely reported. And today, well before new pipelines are built, it's true.   It's what's driving the rail transportation of North Dakota Bakken oil to the Irving refinery now (it was one of these shipments that led to the tragic loss of life in Lac Megantic).   It's cheaper than what the Irvings would have to pay for Middle Eastern or Venesualan crude brought to St John by water, but bought at the higher world price. 

The reason Canadian and Northern U.S. oil producers get less than the world price is strait forward and familiar to lobster and potato producers here on PEI, too much supply. The oil gets bottle-necked in Oklahoma. The existing pipelines just aren't numerous enough to handle the growing supply from shale gas fields, and increased tar sands production from Alberta.  It's why the oil industry and the Federal Government are so anxious to get new pipelines built, to remove this bottleneck. A good summation of the problem here:

With this week's announcement by the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel giving the go ahead to the Northern Gateway project to carry Alberta tar sands to Kitimat B.C. and on to Asia by tanker, the real agenda is again before the public: not a "made in Canada" cheaper price to help our Maritime brethren as we heard last summer, but every expectation that this and other pipelines will finally deliver a world price to Canadian producers.   (We had a "made in Canada" price with Trudeau, the older one, back in the '70's, and you can remember how much that was supported in Alberta.)

So if and when these new pipelines are built, that will be the very reason oil prices will go up, not down. Even U.S. president Obama sees the connection when commenting on the XL pipeline:      “...... oil is going to be piped down to the Gulf to be sold on the world oil markets, so it does not bring down gas prices here in the United States. In fact, it might actually cause some gas prices in the Midwest to go up where currently they can’t ship some of that oil to world markets.”

 Some excellent discussion on the NEB decision with former Islander journalist  Jim Brown here:

As for who to believe?  Simple for some, hard for others.  A fascinating interview with Christophe de Margerie, the head of the big French oil company Total, by Stephen Sachur, the take no prisoners BBC Hard Talk interviewer here:

Absolutely no shame in looking for oil, supplying the demand, making money for the company. Climate change? Not my problem. 

For Canadians, there may be an incredible irony at play. Stephen Harper has gutted science both in Environment Canada, and DFO. He's weakened regulations and the regulatory bodies that were in place to oversee sensitive projects like the pipelines. Now just when he needs to win the confidence of British Columbians,  First Nations leaders, and other skeptical Canadians,  he doesn't have the regulatory credibility to do it. It  allows journalists like Chris Turner to take a hard run at the project:

Scenic Photos the High Point of Panel's Report on Enbridge's Northern Gateway Oil Pipeline Proposal

The final report of the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel landed in Calgary today with an authoritative thud. “After weighing the evidence,” it announced in outsized type, “we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project than without it.”
The report sprawls across two volumes — a 76-page summary entitled Connections, and a phone-book-thick 417-page volume of conditions and rationales called Considerations. Both are bound with bright green spines and back covers, and the front covers feature atmospheric photos of rugged Canadian wilderness, similar to the sort you’d find in a travel brochure.
I mention the cover images because they are among the report’s most significant environmental assessment features. Whatever else, the Joint Review Panel knows what a pristine environment looks like when it sees one. You want pictures of salmon spawning in streams and caribou peeking out from glades and humpbacks breaching majestically from Great Bear Rainforest bays? This report’s got ‘em.
On facing pages of the “residents and communities” section of Connections (Item 2.4 for those playing along at home), there are pictures of the Gitga’at village of Hartley Bay (which lies at the mouth of Douglas Channel, where supertankers would pass en route to and from Enbridge’s oil tanker terminal at Kitimat) and a tourist office with solar panels on its roof. They know what First Nations communities and low-carbon energy technologies look like too, those graphic design whizzes down at the National Energy Board.
But surely there’s more to the most hotly anticipated National Energy Board report in many moons, right? Surely the nation’s media did not gather eagerly in a conference room in the heart of downtown Calgary to look at a long-form travel ad for northern British Columbia? Surely all those numbers — 1,179 oral statements, 175,669 pages of evidence, 47 aboriginal groups and 884 hours of hearings — amounted to more than a sort of shrugging “seems pretty good to us, eh?”
Well, you tell me. Probably the most revealing passage of the report is the one entitled “What Was Outside Our Mandate?” (Item 2.2.2). Among the not-our-department issues were “both ‘upstream’ oil development effects and ‘downstream’ refining and use of the products shipped on the pipelines and tankers.” Got that? A report on the “public interest” involved in an oil pipeline decided that it was irrelevant where the oil came from or where it goes.
Skipping ahead to 2.4.1, “a large oil spill” was deemed “unlikely,” and in any case “the adverse effects would not be permanent and widespread.” Pipelines don’t, in and of themselves, emit greenhouse gases. And oil spills are basically spilled milk, not worth crying over. So check off the 209 conditions between the picture of the grizzly bear on the cover of Considerations and the Forest Stewardship Council logo on the back cover and you’re good to go!
(Incidentally, Item 4.3.6 concedes that eight grizzly bear populations would be affected “over the linear density threshold,” but this — and the negative impact on woodland caribou — were “found to be justified in the circumstances.” There is a picture of a grizzly with a salmon in its mouth on that very page of Connections. I have thus far resisted adding to my pristine copy a cartoon word bubble indicating an out-of-frame voice saying, “Suck it, fishface!”)
To be fair — I know, a little late in the game — the report does take some pains to indicate that it listened to a lot of dissenting voices. Why, Item 2.3 in Connections (“What were the public concerns?”) is a veritable litany of complaints and wrung hands. “People expressed concerns about the ‘catastrophic’ effects they believe a major pipeline rupture or tanker spill could have on salmon and other fish... People were concerned about the effect of tanker traffic... Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants said clean environments are crucial parts of traditional and present-day cultures.” Duly noted, y’all. We feel you.
I could go on, but there are two odd little logical hiccups I’d like to highlight from the report. They concern the two shrugging dismissals I’ve already mentioned: that upstream and downstream impacts were outside the mandate, and that large oil spills would cause damage limited in time and space.
Let’s start with upstream and downstream impacts. There are any number, but for the overwhelming majority of people not living along the length of the pipeline, the big one is climate change. This is broadly understood beyond the pages of Joint Review Panel reports on oil pipelines to be the absolute top concern regarding the extraction, refining and burning of the fossil fuels transported by such pipelines. It’s conspicuously absent from the report, aside from some passing references to “emissions.” Which — again to be fair — are created before and after the oil passes through the pipeline.
But perhaps you’d been led to believe — by Canada’s prime minister and natural resources minister and Alberta’s premier, among others — that the whole reason Northern Gateway was such a high-priority piece of infrastructure was because it would encourage new oilsands developments, thus creating new “Economic Action” in the field of “Responsible Resource Development,” as per maybe the most vociferously championed "Plan" in the nation’s history.
Well, hold it there, hoss. “We did not consider that there was a sufficiently direct connection between the project and any particular existing or proposed oil sands development or other oil production activities to warrant consideration of the effects of these activities.” Got that? Northern Gateway has no direct connection to Alberta’s oilsands! This must just be surprising the boots right off the feet of a great many CEOs in a great many Calgary boardrooms, but there you go.
And to their credit, the Joint Review panelists offer up “four factors” to explain this reasoning. (We’re back in that gem Item 2.2.2, by the way.) They’re all impressive, but I liked the third bullet point best. “Bruderheim Station” — the eastern terminus of the pipeline — “would not be located near oil sands developments and could receive oil from a variety of sources.” I wish I could report that those Joint Review Panel dreamers suggested a few other possible sources for the hundreds of thousands of barrels of diluted bitumen per day the pipeline is being built to transport, but alas they left us to wonder.
Anyway, point being this is a report that doesn’t consider such fussy “upstream” details. Except when it’s assessing the economic benefits of the very same pipeline, over in Item 3.1, which is rather inconveniently located just 12 pages further along in the very same report. “We have taken into consideration that Western Canadian crude oil supply and the demand for imported condensate are forecast to grow significantly over the life of the project.” So a cornerstone of the economic case for the pipeline is that oilsands supplies will increase, but those increases have no direct connection to the project being used to deliver them to new markets from an environmental perspective. Connections is nothing if not one seriously gutsy Joint Review Panel report.
There’s a similarly nifty trick going on in the oil spill risk assessment section, which as I’ve mentioned estimates the possibility of a major spill to be “unlikely,” with no “permanent” or “widespread” impact. Turn to Item 5.5 for some elaboration: “We found that, in rare circumstances, a localized population or species could potentially be permanently affected by an oil spill. Scientific research from a past spill indicates that this will not impact the recovery of functioning ecosystems.”
Sure aren’t a lot of specifics there, and to be fair (yet again!) you have to turn to a whole other page of the report to find the section where it says Northern Gateway is obliged to establish “a scientific advisory committee to study what happens to diluted bitumen when released into the environment.” So we don’t actually know how the oil would behave if it spilled, but we’re really quite sure the impacts won’t be too bad. Take our word for it or whatever.
This is a report that almost physically shrugs in your hands as you read it.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Fisheries and Oceans Canada told the Joint Review Panel many, many moons ago it lacked the capacity to provide a full environmental impact assessment. Or that First Nations along the route are already asserting their intention to refuse to let the pipeline be built on their land. Or that as a country we have just maybe the most incoherent climate and energy policies in the industrial world.
I really could go on, but I won’t for now. Heckuva job there, Joint Review Panel. Lovely photos.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A Half Step Forward

I've written previously, as have many many others, about the risks of non-theraputic use of antibiotics in livestock.  In other words using continued small doses of antibiotics when livestock are well in the hopes of preventing disease, and getting them up to market weight more quickly.  They're not as widely used in the Maritimes with smaller feedlots, but are important to large confined operations with a lot of animals crammed together.  It's something you'll often see on labels if you look for it "antiobiotc free". There's more information in the piece below on the huge health risks from this.  The news is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for the first time,  is acknowledging the risk, and beginning to police it (just beginning).  With regulators on both sides of the border also looking at the use of neonicotinoids, there are two major environmental/health issues at least acknowledged by government agencies that have been lead footed in responding to growing evidence.  A hopeful way end the year??

And a shout out to organic dairy. I've generally supported (bought) organic stuff not so much because of health worries, but more because of the much stronger soil management practiced by  organic farmers. Healthy soils matters to them, and there's a lot more effort put into finding the environmentally safest way to manage pests and diseases, brains and experience trumping something bought off the shelf.  But I did see a piece about different kinds (healthier) fats being found in organic milk because of the grass based diet.  I still think a forage based livestock industry (as opposed to corn/soybean/grain) is something PEI farmers should consider. We can grow grass here as well if not better than anywhere else.

Think of farmers (and hopefully you'll know who they are) as you sit down to feast during the upcoming days.  Yes we can do better, but these are  moments for all of us to remember how lucky we are.

The F.D.A.’s Not-Really-Such-Good-News

That “good” news you may have read last week about the Food and Drug Administration’s curbing antibiotics in animal feed may not be so good after all. In fact, it appears that the F.D.A. has once again refused to do all it could to protect public health.
For those who missed it, the agency requested (and “requested” is the right word) that the pharmaceutical industry make a labeling change that, the F.D.A. says, will reduce the routine use of antibiotics in animal production. I’d happily be proven wrong, but I don’t think it will. Rather, I think we’re looking at an industry-friendly response to the public health emergency of diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resistance that is bred in industrially raised animals.
You may know that around 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given (fed, mostly) to animals. Why? Because the terrible conditions in which most of our animals are grown foster illness; give them antibiotics and illness is less likely. There is also a belief that “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics help animals grow faster. So most “farmers” who raise animals by the tens or hundreds of thousands find it easier to feed them antibiotics than to raise them in ways that allow antibiotics to be reserved for actual illness. (And yes, there are alternatives, even in industrial settings. Denmark raises as many hogs as Iowa and does it with far fewer antibiotics.)
You may also know that this overuse of antibiotics is leading to increasing bacterial resistance, that we’re breeding an army of supergerms. This isn’t theoretical: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 Americans died of illnesses related to antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. Another two million were sickened. (Some experts say that these numbers are low.) This makes resistant bacteria a greater health threat than AIDS, and there is talk by the C.D.C. of a post-antibiotic era.
The only solution, say most experts, is to stop the prophylactic use of antibiotics and use the drugs only to treat animals that are actually sick. (This is not news: Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, feared microbial resistance and discussed it in his Nobel Prize speech of 1945.) Preventing this is an ostensible goal of the F.D.A., which itself predicted — in 1977 — the very scenario in which overuse of antibiotics would lead to superbugs and, at that time, proposed to limit their use. But Congress got in the way and in the intervening years the agency appears to have been infiltrated by industry-friendly administrators who publicly write that “Using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided,” yet manage to avoid enforcing these pronouncements.
The story of the last 36 years is one of inaction. The F.D.A. is already under a federal court order to “ensure the safety and effectiveness of all drugs sold in interstate commerce,” and to withdraw drugs demonstrated to be unsafe — a court order the agency has appealed twice. One could see the new guidelines as little more than an attempt to convince the court to set aside its ruling.
Technically, reducing antibiotic use is simple. The science tells us it is the thing to do, the meat industry has the capability of designing animal-growing facilities that would foster less disease and, perhaps most important, the F.D.A. has the power to rule — not suggest — a complete ban of the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in livestock.
This last statement is contentious. (If you want to make your own judgment about the F.D.A.'s legal power, have at it.) Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine (and — just in case you think the notion that there is a revolving door between the F.D.A. and the food industry is hyperbole — a former vice president for public policy at Monsanto), told me, “The approval of a new animal drug for specific indication is like the granting of a license; it applies to that company. There’s a prescribed process for withdrawing that license … a very formal administrative process. We can’t just issue a rule of general applicability that extinguishes their due process rights.
“We don’t feel we have the legal authority,” he continued, to do “what might be great to do from a public health policy standpoint. You’d have to show product by product that each is contributing” to a resistance problem. “This is a strategy to drive this to closure in the quickest way possible. We expect and hope folks will watch us closely.”
We are talking about 287 different drugs, and Taylor says it might take “three or four years” to go through the process for each one. These guidelines, he says — which were developed with the cooperation of the industry (uh-huh) — will work faster.
But there are other ways of looking at the F.D.A.'s ability to regulate. These drugs fall into seven categories; nothing was preventing the agency, three or four years ago, from picking a drug from each category and beginning what Taylor calls “a very formal” process. Nothing prevents them from doing it now — simultaneously with their new guidelines — except, I would suggest, a desire to maintain a noncontentious relationship with Big Pharma and Big Food. As each drug, or category, was demonstrated to be unsafe, the process would become less cumbersome and something “great” might actually be done for public health.
It’s not just me saying this.
Margaret Mellon, a lawyer and a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said to me, “The agency can legally withdraw the label claims approvals if it can show that uses under the label circumstances are no longer safe in terms of resistance.”
When I asked Representative Louise Slaughter — who happens to be a microbiologist, and is among the few in Congress with both the knowledge and spine to call out the F.D.A. — whether the agency had the authority to ban antibiotics for any use except direct treatment, she barely let me finish my question before exclaiming, “Of course they do.”
And Robert Martin, a program director at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins and a former director of the widely respected Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, told me, “They have the authority to make these guidelines mandatory; the problem is that it’s regulation by the consent of the regulated.”
I could go on.
This in part explains why millions more are doomed to be sickened by the F.D.A.'s failures. You can blame Congress for inaction, too — shocking, I know. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act would require the F.D.A. to review its approvals of antibiotics and cancel them for antibiotics that help breed resistant bacteria; in fact it would put the burden of proof back on the companies, alleviating the workload and contentiousness Taylor seems intent on avoiding. (In fact, if the F.D.A. were truly interested in public health it would be out there lobbying for the passage of PAMTA.) Slaughter has introduced this act four times since 2007, and it’s supported by almost everyone, but it hasn’t passed. One wonders, though, since the F.D.A. is already under court order to do pretty much the same thing, whether even PAMTA would spur them on.
Instead, the F.D.A. has created a “road map for animal pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily revise the F.D.A.-approved use conditions on the labels of these products to remove production indications.” No obligation. And no problem labeling those same drugs as disease-prevention vehicles, as long as those uses are “judicious and appropriate,” says Taylor. Whether you call it growth promotion or disease prevention, the effects are likely to be on labels only, not on public health. (It seems to me that if you prevent disease you promote growth, and vice versa. It also seems to me that if you prevent disease by having healthy growing conditions you don’t need to prevent it with antibiotics.)
And drug companies are O.K. with this new “guidance,” because it’s so benign it won’t affect their bottom lines. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Jeff Simmons, the president of Eli Lilly’s “animal-health division,” was quoted as saying, “We do not see this announcement being a material event.”
The F.D.A. says it “is asking animal pharmaceutical companies to notify the agency of their intent to sign on to the strategy within the next three months.” (There are no provisions for noncooperation.) “These companies would then have a three-year transition process.” In other words, drug companies have three months to “comply” with a voluntary plan to marginally change their labeling, and three years to implement that. Again, if they don’t … sorry, there’s no plan.
Strenuous oversight, huh? During which time industry can figure out how to increase the amount of antibiotics they sell, as long as they don’t label them as growth-promoting. Yet Taylor insists that “this will make a difference for resistance.”
In those three years, something like 69,000 Americans will have died from antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases; many subsequent deaths may be preventable if rampant use of antibiotics is curbed now. But when insiders talk about the expected percentage decline in antibiotic use as a result of the F.D.A. recommendations, the smart money is on “zero.” And when I asked Taylor, “How much do you anticipate routine antibiotic use declining in the next few years?” he answered, “It’s a fair question but I don’t have an answer for you — we need to work on that.”
It’s depressing. I root for the F.D.A. to do its job, but the power of industry and its anti-regulatory lobby adds up to an apparent unwillingness to put public health above all else. And by phasing this in over three years (by which time we’ll have a new and possibly less supportive president), the agency has bought itself and the industry more time before bowing to the inevitable change in our horrific animal production system.
In fact, the worst thing about the new guidelines may be that they’re seen as a first step, and as such rule out a more meaningful one. (Center for a Livable Future’s Martin said to me, “My fear is now we won’t see anything new for a decade.”) It’s bad news masquerading as good news. The F.D.A. is claiming, “We’re controlling the use of antibiotics in animal production!” But it’s more like Congress declaring, “We’re raising the minimum wage!” and then appending “ 10 cents an hour. And we’ll review the impact of this monumental change in three years!”
I should point out that some of my favorite antibiotic-overuse critics are more optimistic, among them the former F.D.A. head David Kessler, who was quoted in these pages as saying, “This is the first significant step in dealing with this important public health concern in 20 years,” and Laura Rogers, a director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, who told me, “These criteria represent a meaningful shift in the agency’s public policy, and bode well for future action.” (“That said,” Rogers added, “we are concerned that antibiotics will still be used for disease prevention, possibly in place of growth promotion.”)
Rogers is admirably diplomatic, but I agree more closely with Representative Slaughter, who wrote, “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the F.D.A. has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed.”
It’s also worth noting that the F.D.A. has drafted (that means it’s not even yet a recommendation) a “directive” that would require that veterinarians supervise antibiotic use. Make that final and make that mandatory — as the agency is threatening to do if these voluntary guidelines don’t work — and we might be getting somewhere. But the best-case scenario is that within three years some or even all growth-promotion claims will have been dropped and the use of antibiotics will be approved by veterinarians — many of whom have jobs that will depend on approving just such uses. I see no reason to be encouraged. It may truly be worse than nothing, or it may simply be a delay we can ill afford.
Public safety is the F.D.A.'s job, and they’re doing it badly. What’s needed here is a drastic reduction in the use of antibiotics, now, and few people think these recommendations are going to do that. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Mellon said to me, “This recommendation involves voluntarily giving up making money in the interest of public safety. Who does that in the United States? No one.”
What can we do? Push for labeling, for one thing: “Raised without antibiotics” (period) is a label we could pay more attention to. And push our markets to carry more truly antibiotic-free meat, and buy it. Organic meat is another obvious solution. I’ll get to strategies like these in another column. But as Slaughter said, “I’m persuaded now that the only thing we can do is get an outcry from the public.” Make some noise, people.

Bees deaths: Pros and cons of pesticide ban paid out in submissions to regulator

December 12 is the last day for public comment on whether a controversial pesticide is harming the country’s bee population.
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has been seeking public input since September on recommendations meant to “mitigate risks to pollinators, related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed,” the agency’s notice of intent reads.
The PMRA is responsible for monitoring and regulating the use of pesticides in Canada.
With the deadline fast approaching, a number of industry groups – including the Ontario Beekeepers Association and CropLife Canada –  have already submitted their written comments on the PMRA’s recommendations.
In their 15-page long submission, Pierre Patelle, vice-president chemistry, and Maria Trainer, managing director regulatory affairs, said CropLife Canada agreed with the PMRA’s recommendations “in principle.”
“CropLife Canada and our member companies are strongly supportive of the measures outlined in the Notice of Intent,” the submission reads. “We have already taken significant steps to address many of the requirements.”
Those steps, CropLife writes, include the development of best management practices to reduce dust, improving planting technology and changes to seed bag labels.
CropLife Canada represents companies who develop and produce pesticides like neonicotinoids.
However, the group’s detailed submission goes on to say seed treatments, like the ones found on corn and soybeans, are essential tools for farmers because they help boost crop yields. ”Without these products, we would lose a significant percentage of our crops to pests and diseases,” the documents said.
Beekeepers disagree. In his report to the PMRA, Ontario Beekeepers Association President Dan Davidson argued seed treatments in Canada are “generally applied prophylactically regardless of whether pests are present in a particular field or at levels that will lead to economic losses.”
“Numerous studies indicate that preventive treatments like seed coatings may not result in yield benefits and can be less cost effective than other control measures,” the OBA added. As for labelling changes, the beekeepers argue current labels already state the chemicals are toxic and environmental harmful.
“And yet, bees are still dying by the millions,” Davidson submission reads. For now, he adds, the only way to protect the country’s bees is to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides until we understand how to manage the risks posed by these products to honey bees and other pollinators.”
The PMRA’s request for public comment comes after the agency determined the popular seed treatment (used on corn, canola and soybean seeds) were killing pollinators like bees. The crisis – which government agency has said is concentrated to Ontario and Quebec – showed current agriculture practices were unsustainable, the agency said.
“There is a clear problem here that needs to be addressed as soon as possible so we are taking action on this issue right now,” Scott Kirby, director of environmental assessment directorate for the PMRA, told iPolitics during a Sept. 16 interview.
That action comes in the form of a series of PMRA recommendations including data collection and label changes on seed bags, changes to how farmers prepare for planting and enforcing the use of new dust-reducing seed flow lubricants, which help seeds from getting stuck in the seeder.
Controlling dust during planting is essential because the PMRA believes the dust produced by seeds treated with neonicotinoids is what’s largely impacting bee health. Seeds coated with pesticides produce toxic dust, which then coats the bees who then carry it to their hives.
The dust can also contaminate the bee’s water supply, poisoning the bees when they drink.
In 2012, 40 beekeepers – and more than 200 bee yards – in Southern Ontario reported record losses to the PMRA. One Quebec beekeeper also reported losses, according to an agency report release in April. Of these, the PMRA determined 70 percent of the deaths were caused by direct contact with dust contaminated with neonicotinoids.
In 2013, a national survey by the Canadian Association for Professional Apiarists found colony mortality in Canada has nearly doubled from 15 per cent to 29 per cent. Bee mortality was even higher in Ontario and Manitoba, with losses ranging from 38 to 46 per cent respectively. Beekeepers have repeatedly said these losses are not sustainable.

Organic milk proves higher in healthy fats

The long-simmering debate over whether organically grown food packs more nutritional punch than conventional has a new data point. In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed PLOS-One, a research team led by Washington State University's Charles Benbrook found that organic milk delivers significantly healthier fats than its non-organic counterpart.
The team took samples of organic and non-organic whole milk taken from 14 commercial milk processors across the United States over the course of 18 months and analyzed their fat content. They found that organic milk delivered on average 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, and 25 percent fewer omega-6 fatty acids.
Both types are essential in the human diet, but a growing consensus holds that Americans on average don't get enough omega-3s, which have been associated with protection against heart disease and stroke, potentially cancer, and autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, according to Frank Sacks, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health. The science is more cloudy on our omega-6s, which are abundant in the vegetable oils that have grown popular in recent decades. Some scientists believe that Americans over-consume them; others, including Harvard's Sacks, disagree.
The PLOS-One study attributes the higher omega-3 content in organic milk to the cows' diets—according to USDA certification standards, organically raised cows have to spend at least four months per year on pasture, chomping on omega-3 rich grasses, while conventionally raised cows tend to eat omega-6-rich corn year-round.
Interestingly, in one region, organic and conventional milk samples showed similar, omega-3 rich fat profiles: northern California's Humboldt County. There, the researchers say, "both types of dairy farms graze cattle for over 250 days per year." The highest divergence in fat profiles between organic and conventional showed up in the Mid-Atlantic region, they report.
Another factor pointing to diet, and specifically grass, as the key: organic milk had 55 percent higher levels of the beneficial fatty acid CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, in the pasture-rich summer months than in winter. For conventional milk cows, who tend to get little access to grass year-round, CLA levels clocked in only 12 percent higher in summer.
It's important to note that Organic Valley, the farmer-owned organic dairy cooperative, donated $45,000 to fund the research, and Maged A. Latif, director of research and quality at Organic Valley, is one of the paper's co-authors.
But the paper's publication in PLOS-One, one of the nation's premier refereed science journals, lends it credibility. And it has been well-received in fat-research circles, reports The New York Times.
Nor is it the first study to document fatty-acid advantages in organic milk. In this 2010 paper, UK researchers found similar differences in that country's organic and conventional milk. (I wrote about it here.) As in the US study, access to pasture emerged as the driver of the nutritional difference.
The takeaway seems to be: milk from grass-fed cows seems to have more healthy fats then conventional milk. And for consumers, the organic label is a good shorthand way to find milk from cows eating the good stuff.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Losing Importance Bit by Bit, Day by Day

We're hanging on by our fingernails here on PEI, but nationally and internationally you see signs everywhere: a growing lack of interest in rural issues. That's bad enough, but it's now being replaced with disbelief and derision.   This week mocking headlines for a UK export deal with China:

"British Prime Minister David Cameron was in China for the past three days for a trip that has seen some controversial moments. However, there’s at least one clear success: The United Kingdom has signed a deal to export porcine semen to China that will net British farmers a reported £45-million ($73-million) a year.
Yes, pig sperm."

The news, then the mock.  

The CBC has chipped away at its interest and reporting in rural issues. At one time there were national agriculture reporters in both radio and tv.  George Price was the Parliament Hill reporter on farm issues and reported daily to Radio Noons across the country. Country Canada was a Sunday afternoon staple on television, the Food Show just as popular Sunday morning on CBC Radio.  CBC Radio did have Tooth and Claw this summer which at least explored the idea that the food we eat is alive and goes through "something" to get to the dinner plate, and that even in nature (outside of Walt Disney)  there is death leading to survival.  These were interesting shows.

Few noticed but when CBC bought up a cable channel called Country Canada, it promised to program for rural communities.  First it moved curling on the channel creating storms of protest from curling fans and players across the country forced now to pay to watch. Then (without CRTC approval) it turned Country Canada into Bold, an arts channel. It sold Bold earlier this year, and, even in news stories on the sale, the fiction of catering to rural communities continued:

"Bold carries a broad range of different programming that it describes as "focusing on the lives of rural Canadians."
Some of the series that airs on its channel include repeats of Party Down, a comedy about a catering company, and Skins, a dramatic series following a group of British teenagers dealing with a culture of sex, drugs, school and friends."

I understand why this happens. Rural communities are declining and aging, and not a demographic of much interest to anyone trying to make a buck.   The lack of interest is one thing, but it leads to something else more pernicious in the media(something it share with First Nation stories). It only gets attention when there's trouble, so the general public only hears farmers who are angry, scared, or defensive.  As stories became shorter it was always the emotional clip that would make the cut, anything that would provide context, or turn the person into a more real human being was left out. I did it myself for years.

I think we saw this lack of interest in rural issues last week with the release of Horace Carver's report on the Land's Protection Act  This had many of the same elements as the debate over the fixed link,  and Plan B: let's call it  "economic and industrial progress vs. conservation at all costs",  "responding to the competitiveness of the marketplace vs. wishing the environment didn't have to pay a price so people could stay in business" or something like that. These are very real PEI issues that have dogged the province since the development plan in the 1960's.  Throw in people having to leave in order find a better life (as they have for generations btw) and the conversation gets even more interesting.  I'm not saying either side is right, I'm saying that the discussion is an important one, the tension between the two ideas matters to our future, and there was a lost opportunity to have it. 

We're a little, broke, vulnerable province surrounded by powerful political and economic forces.   I'd love to live retired in a rural Disneyland but know we have to find ways to pay the bills (healthcare costs alone will continue to be crippling).  It's finding the right way to do things, offering the right incentives, but having some sticks to bring out when needed.  These won't be right unless we talk about them. Horace Carver made an honest effort to get at these issues in his public hearings, and in his report. He deserved more attention.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Carver Report on Land Ownership: A Good Job

It will disappoint some, but the Carver report has a lot of common sense,  is inspired in places, and should be easy for the government to support.  He drew a line in the red soil right at the beginning:

 "In the end, is this not the primary question: “What’s best for the land?”"

This will sound quaint to many, but in a Canada where resource exploitation, and deferring to corporate interests has become standard operating procedure, this is refreshing (and for some right). I can certainly hear echos of the late Angus MacLean, a former neighbour of mine, and Carver's old boss.

Now it may be easy for a well established lawyer with a government pension (and me) to  argue that trying to preserve what's left of  the top ten inches of soil is more important than the economic imperatives of bigger and cheaper at all costs, but  Carver asked many times  during the hearings: Where's the evidence that bigger farms improve the bottom line?   He says he never heard it. The evidence he did see is that soil health (measured by the percentage of organic matter) is getting worse:

"... the evidence shows that as farms have gotten bigger, soil quality has generally declined. This is a
most serious situation."
 Carver isn't ignoring the financial pressures facing farmers, or the economic logic of growing more with the capital and equipment on hand,  but argues improving soil quality (preventing erosion, raising organic levels) will increase yields and quality and that that's a better way to improve incomes rather than simply producing more.   He cops out a bit saying the province needs new agricultural policies to deal with no changes to  the lands protection act, and maybe (just maybe) starting to enforce crop rotation regulations., but farmers struggling financially wasn't his mandate to begin with. And Carver does (finally) establish the idea that land unsuitable for cropping should NOT be considered part of aggregate land holdings. And just as important there shouldn't be a lot of red tape to establish these lands.  The government will have to decide if buffer zones are part of this mix given that some farmers have lost a lot of land around waterways. And getting the leased in, leased out provisions to make more sense is an improvement too.
Perhaps the most important thing Carver did was to establish a series of values that should govern the act, the spirit of the regulations so to speak. It was an exercise to get the Federation of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union to agree on the way forward. They got close, but in the end still had differences, but these values brought them as close as they've been in decades. 

Farm organizations and the Commission
believe it is important to present these shared
values to government and to all Islanders to
let them know where these two farm
organizations stand in agreement:
The land is a public trust and, because of
this, all Islanders have an interest in its
The water, the soil and the air are also
public trusts, and all who own land have a
responsibility to protect them;
The stated purpose of the
Protection Act
is still relevant today, and
there is a continuing need for this type of
Some form of government-supported land
banking system is needed to enable more
individuals to get into farming;
Environmentally-sensitive lands ought not
to be farmed, and they must be excluded
from the aggregate land limits under the
Lands Protection Act
Farmers must be encouraged to adopt
better crop rotation practices, through
technical and financial assistance and
better enforcement of the
Crop Rotation Act
New ideas are needed to deal with the
difficult succession issues which farmers
and farm corporations routinely
The rural vistas and viewscapes which
Islanders and visitors enjoy must be
protected and preserved;
Large-scale purchase of land, also known
as ‘land grabbing’, would be harmful to
the interests of Prince Edward Island and
must be guarded against; and
Farmers need to educate non-farmers on
why farming is essential to our everyday
lives and to life itself.

It's certainly not surprising that Horace Carver wants to maintain the Act. He played such an essential role in the early 1980's to keep property rights out of the Canadian constitution to give PEI the legislative ability to do this. He wasn't going to squander that legacy, and the Ghiz Liberals knew this when they appointed him.  
Carver's report did get front page treatment in the Guardian, but was virtually ignored by the CBC which is disappointing. I would have argued  if I were still there (and no doubt lost) that this Act makes PEI a complete outlier in Canada, going completely against the political and economic forces at play in the country. Whether this is the right thing to do would have made for an interesting discussion, but we'll never hear it.  Too bad.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Where's the Beef?

I'm a social media luddite. For years I've resisted Facebook and Twitter and all of the other Google+ like offers. I do have opinions, like to share them with others, and this blog has satisfied that, and the fact that people actually read it is even better.   Two weeks ago, partially for work reasons, and definitely out of curiosity, I joined Twitter, and it's been very interesting.  I'm careful about who I'm following (basically all journalists I respect), and I've only "tweeted" a couple of times and just to re tweet other material.  Still too insecure to get in on the tweeting action, but looking for an opportunity. Can I say something meaningful in 140 characters? Not really my style.

What I have found interesting is that it's like being back in a newsroom, with all of the BS and opinions you'll hear behind the scenes, very different from the columns or reports that get written, edited, and presented to the public at the end of the day.  And when you get obviously controversial stuff like the Senate scandal, or Ford, the opinions run hard. You can see journalists egging each other on. disagreeing, arguing. Does it make the journalism better, the public better informed?  I think it does.

There's incredible sharing of information which I think is a good thing. Journalists like nothing better than to break a story, have an "exclusive", but that takes either very good luck, or lots of time, and most journalists have neither these days.  (And don't forget the trouble the British  tabloids got into demanding exclusives from their reporters.)  On Twitter some of the highest profile and smartest journalists in the country haggle through the day over what's new, what matters. There are definitely egos at work, people trying to push readers to their columns or reports,  and yes journalism is a business too.

I'd still like CTV's Robert Fife to tell us where he got the story about Nigel Wright and the $90 thousand dollar Duffy cheque. I'm really interested in what motivated the source. Is it another Christopher Montgomery trying to do the right thing, or a foe of Harper, or Mike Duffy blabbing away to pals over a drink, all of the above?

So I'm still more comfortable with 144 words, (and I don't have a smart phone) but Twitter has been stimulating (and it must be a nightmare for anyone in politics or business trying to control a message, stuff is out there in a heartbeat).

Back to basics. I have written a few times about the possibilities of grass-fed beef raised here on PEI.  PEI has excellent forage, and there appears to be growing demand for non-feedlot beef. I've read a couple of good pieces on the subject, one looking at the pluses and the minuses (always like that, but difficult to do in 144 characters).  I like the first one because it explains the important role forage (hay essentially) can play in preventing soil erosion and sucking up carbon. There have been moments when carbon trading has been proposed (know it's a bad word right now) that would actually have paid farmers to keep fields in forage as a carbon sink.

Why we don't eat beef for Thanksgiving

Should we only eat meat when it's in season?

Cow hiding behind trees
It's almost time to bid farewell to tomatoes. The stiff, tasteless orbs found in even California supermarkets come winter don't do the fruit justice, so I'll gorge myself now and then settle in for eight months of canned goods. But it's not just produce that's best at a seasonal peak: Farm animals also respond to temperature and light. In fact, some food experts believe that we should wait for the right season to eat fresh meat.
This isn't exactly a new idea. Cultures throughout history have slaughtered animals at certain times of year, and many of our traditional holiday meals—think Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham—came from this practice. Steak also was once an autumn delicacy: After the first frost, ranchers would flood the market with steers fattened on summer's pastures. But that changed after World War II, when farmers—buoyed by a large new trove of government-subsidized corn and soy—found profit in confining cattle and selling meat year-round, and most turned to "finishing" cattle on grain, breaking beef's tie to grass growth cycles. The tender meat produced this way made "corn-fed" a compliment, but by now the downsides have also become apparent: Today upwards of 97 percent of US beef is grain-fed, and livestock consume more than 50 percent of the corn produced in the United States, requiring a system of massive monoculture, heavy pesticide applications, and overtilled soils. On the other hand, well-managed permanent pasture, where grasses are dense and root systems maintained, can improve the soil, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon.
So lately, grass-fed meat has been enjoying a renaissance among both foodies and ranchers, with everyone from Whole Foods to fast-food chain Elevation Burger peddling pastured beef and lamb. But there's a catch: In order to sell their product all year long, farmers finish their grass-fed animals with hay and dry forage in the winter months. Those stored feeds are lower in fatty acids and precursors for antioxidants such as omega-3s—which make grass-fed beef healthier in the first place, says Cynthia Daley, an agriculture professor at California State University-Chico. "To optimize these antioxidants," she says, "cattle need to be finished off grass."
That's why Bill Niman, the founder and former CEO of Niman Ranch, sells his pasture-finished Black Angus beef only from early summer to fall—to take advantage of prime Northern California grazing time, which begins in spring. (The timing would be different in other climates; in Vermont, where grass remains lush through the summer, the meat would be best later.) Chefs at premier restaurants—like California's Chez Panisse and New York's Blue Hill—say Niman's rich steaks are worth the wait.
Even nongrazing animals traditionally were prepared at particular times: Farmers slaughtered hogs in the fall, after the barrows had gorged on acorns. Sausages were made when workers were finished in the fields and had time to help in the packing houses. Hams were cured all winter and ready in time for Easter. Meat birds also have a prime season: Turkeys that are allowed to forage outdoors feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter. "There's a reason why turkey was the Thanksgiving bird," says Kansas heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese. "That's when it was ready."
But buying seasonal meat at its peak isn't cheap. Niman's ribeyes, sold as BN Beef, ring in at $21.99 a pound at one San Francisco market, compared to around $12.50 per pound for the average boneless ribeye. Frank Reese's heritage turkeys cost around $9.50 a pound; supermarket turkeys go for $1.68 per pound. "Grass-fed costs a lot more because it costs the rancher a lot more to make it," says University of California-Davis livestock specialist Jim Oltjen. And the consolidation of slaughterhouses hasn't made it easier for ranchers trying to buck the system: A lot of them would prefer to process meat seasonally, but industrial abattoirs run year-round, and they don't let ranchers choose when to bring their animals in. One recent University of California study found that small-scale beef ranchers in California's Mendocino County were "hampered by significant scheduling problems" at the few USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the area.
Consumer demand could help tip the scales in favor of these small farmers. "We started with a very small group of people who cared about the seasonality of tomatoes, and that group has grown," says Maisie Greenawalt, a strategist for a large sustainable-food-focused catering company. Seasonal seafood is gaining popularity too, she says—eating wild salmon only during the summer run, for example. "There's a possibility for meat to follow that same pattern."
And what happens in February when you're hankering for a burger? "The great thing about meat is you can freeze it," Oltjen says. "It does fine." So if you're one of the growing number of omnivores adding pasture-raised meat to your diet, it might be time to invest in a chest freezer—or kiss that cheeseburger goodbye for a few months.

The Truth About Grassfed Beef

A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots, and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals.  One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”
Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly.  Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S.  Now there are thousands.
How much difference does it make?  Is grassfed really better?  If so, in what ways, and how much?

If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better.  But then, almost anything would be.  Putting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.
Cattle (like sheep, deer and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.
In today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that human can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat.  Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in.  It’s a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.
Feedlot Reality
How has a system that is so wasteful come to be?  Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces.  They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.
From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion.  This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been.  Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.
Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area.  Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place.  If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today.  But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill.  Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.
Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down.  Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.
Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster.  Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.
All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa.  But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain.  You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass.  That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system.  It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.
Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:
“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”
Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh. Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
Further, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.
It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene.  It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S.  Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.
Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment.  As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach.  But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed.  It is now nearly as acidic as our own.  In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us.  As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
Which is more nutritious?
Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.
Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues.  A grassfed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grainfed steak.
In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
What about taste?
The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost.  These differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”
Even the people who market grassfed beef say this is true.  Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”
Unlike cows in a feedlot, animals on a pasture move around.  This exercise creates muscle tone, and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many people prefer.  Grassfed beef doesn’t provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come to prefer.
What about the environment?
As well as its nutritional advantages, there are also environmental benefits to grassfed beef. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy. Growing the corn used to feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting. The animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’ wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.
Less misery on the menu?
From a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond. Pastured livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming. They are not cooped up in cages barely larger than their own bodies, or packed together like sardines for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.
Grassfed or organic?
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free.  These products come from animals who were fed organically grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots.  The sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold in the U.S. today comes from feedlots.
Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.
And then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing.  A case in point is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County, California.  Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in health food stores west of the Rockies.  The company says it is “at the forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural beef.”
But even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is meaningless.  Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a 100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley.  And the feed is not organically grown.  The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed.  Despite the marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed.  (Harris Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)
Is grassfed beef the answer?
Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do.
There is a dark side even to grassfed beef.  It takes a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the current meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger. Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population. But in a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.
What would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef? It’s been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental nightmare of epic proportions.  In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global deforestation, which is in turn responsible for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.  Even Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd, acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation.  Much of the remaining 20 percent is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu.  It is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Trendy consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef.  But grassfed and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change.  They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases:  methane and nitrous oxide.
Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis.  The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each cow produces methane emissions for a longer time.
Meanwhile, producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the slower weight gain, even more.  These emissions are not only fueling global warming.  They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
The sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a tremendous toll on the environment.  Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle spending much of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”
Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.
The USDA’s taxpayer-funded Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”
In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”
But the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.
All told, Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and who pay almost nothing for the privilege.
The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate. Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985
Not the Stiffest Competition
Grassfed beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and may be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be an improvement.
I am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound like a hamburger was truly a health food.
The competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of Coke.
Comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, far more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a modest scale.  Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat meat, dairy products or eggs, then that’s the best way to do it.
But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They are still high on the food chain, and so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins.
While grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat, or even none. If as a society we ate less, the world would indeed be a brighter and more beautiful place.  Consider, for example, the impact on global warming.  Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20 percent.  Such a change would decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars and trucks for Priuses.
If we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as ecosystems.
And there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like you to hold. And there is some truth to it.
But it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse.
The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, as indeed most of them are, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.