A Message from Maine: It’s Time to Get Serious About Sustainability

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As summer turns to fall, the Maine landscape is beautiful to behold. Lush forests stretch as far as the eye can see in a tapestry of green, yellow and crimson-colored leaves. Every few miles along a narrow roadway, restored wooden barns adjoin modest homes set on tidy acres where farm families coax food from the soil and tend to livestock.

I was fortunate to visit this northeastern farm state recently, spending time at the “Common Ground Country Fair” in Unity, Maine. Only about 2,000 people live in the tiny town, but an estimated 57,000 people jammed the single-lane roads to swarm this year’s three-day event in late September.

The fair was part celebration and part education – a festival of first-hand knowledge about how to produce food in ways that focus on enhancing, not endangering, human and environmental health. Young and old gathered in yellow-and-white striped tents to discuss such topics as the marketing of organic lowbush wild blueberries, how to develop “micro-dairies,” and science that shows healthy, chemical-free soils can better sequester carbon from the atmosphere as a mitigant to the climate crisis.

In a jangly parade running through the middle of the fairgrounds, children and adults dressed as honeybees, fresh vegetables, sunflowers and trees and carried colorful signs calling for protections from the threats posed by industrial agriculture. One small child carried a sign that read “No sprays on me.”

The messages carried through that parade and across the fairgrounds speak to the fact that alongside this jovial festival of food and farming are mounting concerns about a lack of leadership in Washington and federal promotion of the permissive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in farming; as well as the monoculture cropping practices that have become a mainstay of U.S. agriculture and are stripping away essential biodiversity.

This week, a group of state leaders cut the ribbon on a project to help address those concerns by promoting sustainable solutions in Maine that they intend as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

The Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union opened its doors Oct. 8 as the first U.S. member-owned financial institution focused solely on funding small farms and food businesses that engage in sustainable agricultural practices. The credit union aims to provide financing for endeavors that improve access to fresh, locally grown food and are environmentally protective. With roughly 40 percent of the state’s 7,600 farms run by men and women under the age of 40, there is an appetite for progressive strategies to improve food production systems, supporters say.

“We are not there to finance commodity agriculture. We are organized to serve a re-vitalized and re-localized food economy,” co-founder Sam May told me. “The modern food system has it all wrong. It is killing the planet, the soil, our personal health and putting our civilization at risk. We are doing what we are doing in Maine because it needs to be done and we can do it.”

The credit union founders, former veterans of Wall Street, have raised $2.4 million in capital that includes a $300,000 conservation innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The founders have garnered the support of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, emphasized the need for more of this type of support: “Our food economy is growing rapidly and financial support will be a big part of that continued growth going forward. I’m so pleased to see this first-in-the-country credit union that will support the unique needs of small farms and food businesses. I hope other states take note and help to close the gap between farmers and their financial institutions,” she said in a statement.

The work is not just admirable but urgent. In addition to scientific reports linking industrial agriculture and agrochemicals to water pollution, sterile soils, human diseases and reproductive problems, recently released research shows additional links to sharp declines in important bird and insect populations.

But rather than heed the warnings, the Trump Administration is racing to rollback regulatory protections at a rapid rate.

It seems fitting that it was here in Maine, more than 50 years ago, where author Rachel Carson kept a cottage and would sometimes retreat as she wrote about the dire consequences of a world awash in chemicals, a world where nature is sacrificed, and the sounds of song birds going silent.

To visit a country fair in the fall in Maine is to see what that long-ago call for action from Carson looks like in modern form. These are people who recognize that they must protect and build upon systems that sustain and nourish, not systems that destroy. These are people who hope their children and grandchildren will always be able to behold a landscape of lush forests and rich farmland as far as the eye can see.

It’s a lesson the rest of the country needs to learn. There is no time to waste.

Transforming the Food We Eat With DowDuPont

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Update 2/26/18: In a spinoff following the merger with Dow, DuPont Pioneer will change its name to Corteva Agriscience; based on a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.” Here’s our take.

By Stacy Malkan

The world’s largest pesticide and seed companies want you to believe they are on the side of science. High-tech foods are the future, they say, and people who raise concerns about their pesticides and genetically engineered seeds are “anti-science.”

The Atlantic magazine will provide a platform to those industry talking points in exchange for corporate cash at a Feb. 15 event titled, “Harvest: Transforming the Food We Eat” sponsored by DowDuPont.

The fluff agenda has “farmers, foodies, techies and tinkerers” discussing how the latest food technologies are transforming the way we cultivate crops and animals, and the implications for the future of food.

Will any of the participants ask why DowDuPont continues to push a dangerous pesticide despite strong scientific evidence that it harms children’s brains?

Will any of them ask why DuPont covered up the health risks of the Teflon chemical linked to birth defects, as it allowed the chemical to contaminate waterways across the globe?

Will they ask why – despite record profits – DowDupont has refused to help disaster victims or even clean up the chemical contamination caused by a 1984 pesticide plant accident in Bhopal?

Would The Atlantic host a “transforming climate” event with ExxonMobil?

What’s next? Will The Atlantic agree to host a “transforming health” event sponsored by Phillip Morris or a “transforming climate” event sponsored by ExxonMobil?

Maybe. In 2015, The Atlantic Food Summit was underwritten by Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly that makes ractopamine, a growth-promoting chemical used in meat production that is banned in 100 countries due to health concerns, but still used here.

As Tom Philpott reported in Mother Jones, Elanco’s President Jeff Simmons delivered a sponsored speech at the event, in which “he complained that a group he labeled the ‘fringe 1 percent,’ agitating for increased regulation on meat producers, is driving the national debate around food.”

Simmons’ 15-minute speech featured an emotional video of a mother who attended an Elanco/American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics program and learned about “the importance of protein” and eating more meat as a way to improve her family’s health.

Purchasing the Food Narrative

The Atlantic covered Dow/Union Carbide’s dirty past but is now providing cover for DowDuPont’s PR spin on the future.

With its rent-a-food-summit model, The Atlantic is helping corporations shape how we think about our food system. That is fundamentally incompatible with The Atlantic’s guiding commitment to “look for the truth.”

All the brands participating in this week’s “Transforming Food” event – Food Tank, Land O’Lakes and New Harvest, too – are giving DowDuPont cover to present themselves as champions of science while framing the food debate around the technologies they sell.

But the facts of history are important to any honest discussion about the future, and DowDuPont is no champion of science.

Both Dow and Dupont have long histories of covering up sciencesuppressing science, knowingly selling dangerous products, covering up health concerns, failing to clean up their messes, and engaging in other scandals, crimes and wrongdoings – whatever it took to protect the bottom line.

Protecting reliable profit streams, rather than innovating what’s best for people and the environment, will motivate these companies into the future, too.

 GMO Pesticide Profit Treadmill

To understand how DowDuPont and the other pesticide/seed mega-mergers are likely to impact the future of our food system, look to how these companies are deploying patented food technologies right now.

Most GMO foods on the market today are engineered for use with specific pesticides, which has led to increased use of those pesticides, the proliferation of weeds resistant to those pesticides, and an aggressive effort to sell more and worse pesticides that are damaging farmland across the Midwest.

To understand what needs to change to have a healthier food system, ask farmers, not DowDuPont. Ask the communities that are fighting for their health and their right to know about the pesticides they are drinking and breathing.

In Hawaii and Argentina, where genetically engineered crops are grown intensively, doctors are raising concerns about increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides. In Iowa, another leading GMO producer, water supplies have been polluted by chemical runoff from corn and animal farms.

The future of high-tech food, under the stewardship of companies like DowDuPont and Elanco, is easy to guess: more of what those companies are already selling – more seeds genetically engineered to survive pesticides, more pesticides, and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in crowded conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help.

Purchased media forums such as The Atlantic’s “transforming food,” and the articles and debates about the “future of food” that Syngenta was just caught buying in London, and other covert industry PR projects to reframe the GMO debate, are efforts to distract from the facts of history and the truth on the ground.

Consumers aren’t buying the spin. Demand for organic food continues to rise across all demographics of American society.

Changing consumer tastes are shrinking the big food companies like icebergs and splitting up the food industry lobby as “millennials and moms seek healthier and more transparent products.”

Let’s give them what they want: a food system that is healthy for people, farmers, the soil and the bees – a food system that prioritizes protecting our children’s brains over the profits of the pesticide industry.

That’s the discussion we need to have about transforming the food we eat.

See also:
Letter to The Atlantic from Anne Frederick director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action: “Our community has repeatedly attempted to enact common sense regulations at the county and state level, only to be thwarted by DowDuPont and the agrochemical industry … As a reader of your publication, it is unsettling to learn that The Atlantic would align its brand with an industry that has so recklessly endangered the health and safety of our communities. I hope you will reconsider DowDuPont’s sponsorship, and stand in solidarity with our communities who are living on the frontline of these environmental injustices.”

Want to know more secrets the food and chemical companies are hiding about our food? Sign up for the U.S. Right to Know newsletter here, and you can donate here to keep our investigations cooking.

Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam 

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