2010: the year of food politics

A roundup of changes in the agricultural arena

  • Ari LeVaux


2010 was quite a year in food, among other things. Some will honor it as the year homemade sausage finally came of age, or the year the school-garden movement exploded. Others will remember 2010 as the year KFC's Double Down sandwich made its glorious debut. Given the variety of food preferences in the country, you can hardly make an end-of-year food list to please everyone, so let's start with what a cross section of America thinks -- and eats.

A market research firm called Wakefield surveyed 1,000 Americans on what they felt was "the most significant food story of 2010." The top three stories all involved threats to food safety: the impact of the BP oil spill on seafood, the nationwide recall of eggs, and another recall of 35,000 pounds of beef after E. coli was detected at a Southern California distributor. This public perception made a food-safety bill especially timely, and after some procedural delays, Congress finally passed the bill Dec. 21. Its passage came on the heels of the landmark Child Nutrition Act, which had suffered no snags on its way to President Obama's desk.

Another important policy change occurred last February, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture modified its organic standards for beef and dairy. The new "Access to Pasture" rule, named after an infamous longstanding loophole in the organic standards, finally specified a minimum number of days per year that organic cattle must spend outdoors to qualify as organic. The requirement raises the bar most dramatically for the largest producers, forcing them to more truly live up to organic principles. For small milk and meat producers, and the consumers who are willing to pay a little extra for their product, this clarity is welcome.

In other bovine-product related developments, the USDA has apparently gotten serious about investigating the many ways that unregulated pharmaceuticals are getting into our meat and dairy. An April report by the USDA's Office of the Inspector General called out its own agency for its near total lack of oversight in recent, um, decades, and made recommendations for reform.

The Food and Drug Administration also finally released estimates in December -- for the first time ever -- of total antibiotic use in the nation's livestock industry. In 2009, that figure was 29 million pounds, most of it for non-therapeutic use such as spurring weight gain in animals. This is partly why there's an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant staph, or MRSA, in feedlots. The report expresses FDA's newfound intention to curb antibiotic use in agriculture.

Amid this climate of agency self-examination, my pick for the sleeper story of the year was broken by Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald. Concerned about an abnormal 40 percent annual loss in his colonies, he began to suspect an agricultural chemical called clothianidin that was used in area cornfields. The Bayer-patented neurotoxin has been used in seed coatings since 2003, though Bayer's permission to market it was granted conditionally, dependent on the submission of evidence that it was safe for bees.

Theobald tracked down a lengthy correspondence between Bayer and the Environmental Protection Agency, in which Bayer repeatedly stalled and the EPA granted numerous extensions until Bayer finally conducted a study. That study was never released, and lay buried for years until Theobald, who was just trying to figure out what happened to his bees, finally found it online. The study, it turns out, was done in Canada (against agency rules) and was conducted so poorly that the results could not be considered conclusive, or even indicative, that clothianidin used on corn is safe for local bees.

Theobald wrote about this saga in Bee Culture in July of this year, and soon afterward received a phone call from the EPA saying his article had led to an internal investigation. That inquiry lead to a Nov. 2 memo in which the agency acknowledged the tragedy of errors that led to the permitted use of clothianidin, and admitted that scientists inside the EPA expressed concerns regarding bees as early as 2003,  partly because a similar pesticide had recently caused bee die-offs in Europe.

Perhaps beekeepers could borrow from the playbook of the Center for Food Safety, which has used the National Environmental Policy Act to stop the planting of genetically modified crops in places where they endanger the livelihoods of local farmers. In one case, Monsanto appealed its way to the Supreme Court, each time losing to the argument that selling its experimental genetically modified alfalfa before the completion of an environmental impact study would endanger the rights of farmers to grow non-genetically modified alfalfa. In June, the Supreme Court demanded more USDA oversight and said that an environmental impact statement would have to be completed before the alfalfa could be commercialized.

Then this December, a federal judge ordered Monsanto's sugar beet division to destroy 258 acres of genetically modified sugar beets that were intended to produce seeds for 2012. Currently, 95 percent of the nation's sugar beets are grown from Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds, popular because they save farmers the expense and hassle of spraying chemicals on the crop. Monsanto produces its sugar beet seeds on several properties in Oregon's Willamette valley, where the risk of wind-borne gene contamination is great. In his decision, Judge Jeffrey White ruled that Monsanto was endangering neighboring farmers who grow non-genetically modified seed.

On Dec. 21, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered another hearing to decide whether the genetically modified seeds should be destroyed. All victories, it seems, may be temporary.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food from Las Placitas, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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