LABS VERSUS FARMS
In January, the Guardian published an article by famed environmentalist George Monbiot entitled “Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming—and save the planet.” Monbiot’s core message can be summarized in this quote from the article: “We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories. I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.”
He goes on to compare the laboratory food to the conventional agriculture system. He correctly points to the water shortages, the devastating loss of topsoil and fertility, water and air pollution, and the destruction of valuable habitats and wildlife resources that have been caused by so-called modern agriculture. Monbiot touts the new fermentation approach as providing immense energy and water savings, as well as the reduced need for land. But he skips several vital points in his analysis.
First, what will be the nutritional quality of the resulting food, beyond simply providing calories? What will be the cost, in human health and welfare, from eating laboratory-grown foods produced by genetically engineered bacteria? As is typical in the conventional system, Monbiot appears to focus solely on protein, carbs and fats as categories, without concern for nutrient density.
Second, what is the true life-cycle cost of the labs, both in resources and the resulting impacts? How much concrete, steel and energy will be used in building and maintaining these factories?
And remember that not all resources are the same. The labs will be run entirely with what is known as “blue water”—water pulled from aquifers or reservoirs. In contrast, pasture-based farms use “green water”—water that comes as rainfall or snowpack, as part of the natural cycle. Green water usage is far more sustainable than blue water. And that’s just one example of the sort of logical gaps in arguing that lab-based foods are sustainably raised.
Which brings us to the point that the comparisons are largely based on a false dichotomy between conventional agriculture and labs. There is another alternative: regenerative agriculture. It massively reduces the water needed for agriculture, affirmatively cleans air and water through natural processes, rebuilds topsoil—and provides high-quality food that can improve human health and reduce our existing health crisis.
Yet Monbiot’s article claims that this alternative is not sustainable. He cites a study in Nature that looked at what they term “extensive farming” (as opposed to “intensive farming,” namely feedlots and confined operations). He points to a single study, which claims that extensive farming is even more harmful for the environment than intensive—not only using more land (which is the common critique of pasture-based systems), but somehow creating greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphorous pollution.
That sounds bizarre to anyone familiar with pasture-based farming. But it all makes sense when you read the study and realize that the example of “extensive farming” was done on cleared forest land in the Amazon, using only cows, and no mention of rotational grazing.
This isn’t evidence for Monbiot’s conclusion that if we all ate pasture-raised meats, we’d need several more planets. Instead, it’s proof that we need diverse farms that are managed based on their unique ecosystems, rather than a single answer imposed on every system.
It’s disturbing to see a renowned environmentalist fall into the techno-trap, seeking answers to our problems in the world of high-tech, with its big profits for large companies that will exert ever-increasing control over the food system. While Monbiot recognizes that danger and calls for a decentralized system for these new laboratories, it is inevitable that such a resource-intensive, high-tech approach will continue the cycle of consolidation of economic (and with it, political) power.
We don’t need the false promise of biotechnology and fake food. We have the solution to all the crises Monbiot identifies, and that is in local, regenerative agriculture that preserves genetic diversity and traditional foods while healing the soil, stewarding our vital water resources and supporting rural communities and real people.
REGULATING MEAT: IS THE PRIORITY FOOD SAFETY OR PUBLIC IMAGE?
Unfortunately, farmers face often unnecessary challenges in providing high-quality pasture-based meats to consumers, particularly when it comes to finding processing plants. I recently attended a roundtable discussion with top officials from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS), which regulates meat processing. The three-hour discussion consisted primarily of the USDA officials explaining the status of recent proposals and policies under consideration to a group of small-scale processors and the producers who rely on them.
While there was some back-and-forth with the processors in attendance on topics relating to humane animal welfare and labeling, the topic that generated the most discussion and heat was the salmonella “performance standard” for poultry processors. This USDA policy has already caused many small-scale poultry processors around the country to shut down.
To provide some background: The USDA-FSIS has a protocol that requires a series of tests for salmonella at poultry processing plants. Because salmonella is not an “adulterant” under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, these tests aren’t designed to identify meat that would make people sick from these bacteria. Instead, the tests seek to identify the presence of the bacteria, even if it is too low or of the wrong type to cause human illness. If the bacteria are detected, FSIS treats that as proof that the processing facility’s “process controls” are inadequate.
This testing regime was implemented a while ago, and over the years the agency has changed the type of test being used. At this point, the testing looks for the DNA of these bacteria. That means that a processor may get a positive test even if there isn’t a single live bacterium on the chicken—just the DNA showing that, at some point, there had been! One of the few ways to consistently avoid positive test results is to soak the chickens in a high-chlorine bath (which degrades the DNA), something that most small-scale farmers oppose doing and that is inconsistent with most consumers’ desires.
What happens when the tests detect DNA from salmonella? FSIS inspectors come in and demand that the facility change its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to address the perceived flaw.
Large scale-facilities have entire departments of lawyers and consultants to deal with the agency demands. They may make some changes to their processes, but they can stonewall any attempt to make the significant changes necessary to truly improve food safety.
What happens to a small plant? They don’t have lawyers and experts on retainer, and they quickly find themselves buried in paperwork and impossible agency demands—even if the salmonella detected was at such a low level or of a type that posed no real health risk. In the end, many small processors will be driven out of business, “HACCP’d to death.”
Two small-scale poultry processors raised this issue at the listening session with FSIS, and the resulting discussion was both interesting and disturbing.
I pointed out that it would be a better use of both the agency’s and the processors’ resources if the tests were changed to focus on where there was an actual human health risk—that is, test for the main strains that cause the most illnesses, and set a standard based on when there is enough salmonella present to make someone sick. Notably, the agency staff did not disagree with the logic of that approach. Instead, the staff raised concerns about “perception” and the blowback the agency would receive if it was viewed as “lowering standards.”
In other words, we have a system that doesn’t work to stop the sale of tainted meat, but that is penalizing small producers who aren’t selling dangerous products. And they can’t change it because it would look bad.
Lots of people get sick from salmonella, and the agency wants to look like it’s doing something and being as strict as possible. The current tests are not only super-sensitive, but they are quicker than tests that look for specific strains or quantify the levels of bacteria present.
And the situation is evolving. The USDA staff noted a new factor in their considerations: a petition filed by Bill Marler, the Seattle lawyer who represented hundreds of victims in the Jack in the Box food poisoning case in the 1990s. Two decades ago, Marler courted the media to get the E. coli bacteria on the agenda of policymakers, and he played a key role in getting USDA to outlaw the most virulent strains of E. coli in meat. He was a major player in the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and his ability to influence legislators and agency officials should not be underestimated.
Marler recently submitted a petition to USDA to label thirty-one different strains of salmonella as “adulterants,” with a zero-tolerance approach. Previous petitions have taken a more reasonable stance, focusing on the three or four strains that truly cause the most problems. (USDA rejected the most recent one in 2018.) In contrast, Marler’s petition includes every strain of salmonella that has made anyone sick in the last two decades. And it fails to recognize that, unlike E. coli, salmonella can be in the animal’s lymph nodes, and thus can be found on the meat even if there was no fecal contamination.
The petition seeks to have these thirty-one strains of salmonella declared adulterants in any type of meat, so it impacts all livestock farmers and their processors.
There are several possible outcomes of this petition. USDA may simply reject it (as it has with previous petitions). USDA may identify a handful of strains as adulterants—which would impose significant burdens on the plants that have those strains present. Arguably, if the USDA also stopped the pointless performance tests for all strains, this could be a good outcome overall. But the USDA may also identify some strains as adulterants and continue with the performance testing, which would be the worst of both worlds.
FARMER WINS LAWSUIT AGAINST BAYER
Shifting attention to the plant side of agriculture, there is some encouraging news. In mid- February, a jury found that the agrichemical corporations Bayer and BASF should pay two hundred fifty million dollars in punitive damages and fifteen million dollars in compensatory damages to farmer Bill Bader.
Bader is a peach farmer in Campbell, Missouri, who sued the companies after more than thirty thousand of his trees were damaged due to drifting of dicamba, an herbicide developed by BASF and Monsanto (purchased by Bayer in 2018). After dicamba damaged the Bader Farms trees, the peach harvest dropped from an average of one hundred sixty-two thousand bushels in the early 2000s to twelve thousand bushels in 2018—a loss of more than 92 percent!
Dicamba is an herbicide used to kill weeds in corn, soybeans and other food crops. By the end of 2020, the EPA must determine whether to renew the two-year extension it gave in 2018, allowing farmers to continue its use.
Monsanto developed dicamba-resistant seeds called Xtend to be planted in conjunction with the use of the dicamba formulation Xtendimax. From the beginning, the Xtend crop system has caused problems for all kinds of farmers. Famers growing both organic and conventional (not genetically-modified) soybean and cotton have suffered losses. And “specialty crop” farmers, raising peaches, grapes and broccoli, have faced a crisis.
Dicamba simply doesn’t stay put, no matter how it’s applied. Farmers have known this for years. And although the EPA has imposed label restrictions (such as limits on how and when dicamba can be applied), the complaints of off-target damage have only increased as more acres are planted in GMO dicamba-resistant crops. No label restrictions will change the tendency of dicamba products to volatilize (change from a liquid to a gas) and travel long distances, nor how toxic they are to native and domestic vegetation, even in very low concentrations.
And the evidence presented at the trial showed that Bayer and BASF not only knew that fact but banked on it. The companies predicted that dicamba drift would cause losses and planned that as a marketing tool, using it to sell their genetically-modified seeds to farmers as a “defensive” measure.
So, farmers who don’t use the Xtend system suffer damages to their crops, while Bayer and BASF make even more profits thanks to the farmers who switch to buying their GMO seeds to protect themselves. It’s reminiscent of the old gang protection rackets.
Bader’s lawyers recommended that the jury award punitive damages of two hundred million dollars, equal to 2.5 percent of Bayer’s net worth, to deter the corporation from continued behavior that hurts farmers while they collect profits. This comes on the heels of juries awarding over two billion dollars in damages to plaintiffs in several lawsuits over another harmful Bayer product—glyphosate.
There are about thirty-five more cases filed against the company by farmers in Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and other states. Bader Farms’ victory in this case opens opportunities for more farmers to hold Bayer and BASF legally accountable for the dicamba drift crisis that these companies created in their push for profits.
Which brings me full circle to the first topic in this article: high-tech farming systems. Technology is a wonderful tool, useful for many, many things. But relying on it to be the answer to how to provide food for humanity is unscientific. It ignores all the data we have from the real-world experiments over the last fifty years. The high-tech approach to agriculture has created multiple serious crises: loss of topsoil, contamination of water supplies, nutrient-deficient foods that have contributed to an epidemic of chronic disease, and corporate control of a fundamental human need. The idea that the next technological breakthrough will somehow be different isn’t logical or data-driven. Rather, it’s fueled by the interests of large companies that want to amass profits at the expense of everyone else.
Lawsuits like Bader’s are part of the process of cracking the veneer of corporate “solutions.” The suit would probably never have happened but for the activism of nonprofits and individuals fighting the approval of the genetically engineered dicamba-resistant crops. And in turn, the jury finding in Bader’s case can help fuel further grassroots efforts to fight back against GMOs, educating both farmers and consumers as to the importance of protecting non-GMO crops and food sources.
To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020