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We Need Food and Farming Regulation NOW!

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Message Will Allen

Taxpayers are demanding that government enforce existing regulations and create more stringent rules to limit the excess and greed in banking, insurance, housing, and on Wall Street. But, in the rush to regulate, we can’t forget to oversee industrial agriculture. It is one of our most polluting and dangerous industries. Like the financial sectors, its practices have not been well regulated for the last thirty years. Let me run down a few of the major problems that have developed because of our poorly regulated U.S. agriculture.

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Carbon Foot Print: The U.S. EPA estimated in 2007 that agriculture in the U.S. was responsible for about 18% of our carbon footprint, which is huge because the U.S. is the largest polluter in the world.1 This should include (but doesn’t) the manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilizers, fuel and oil for tractors, equipment, trucking and shipping, electricity for lighting, cooling, and heating, and emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other green house gases. Unfortunately, the EPA estimate of 18% still doesn’t include a large portion of the fuel, the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, some of the nitrous oxide, all of the CFCs and bromines, and most of the transport emissions. When they are counted, agriculture’s share of the U.S. carbon footprint will be at least 25 to 30%.

Oftentimes we see all greenhouse gasses as being equivalent to carbon dioxide (CO2). But, methane emissions are 21 times and nitrous oxides 310 times more damaging as greenhouse gasses than CO2. Since agriculture is one of the largest producers of methane and nitrous oxide, the extent of the agricultural impact is staggering. Unless we change our bad habits of food production and long distance delivery, we will not be able to deal with climate change.

Fertilizer Pollution/Dead Zones: Factory farming is polluting the ground, river, and ocean water with high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other fertilizers. High levels of nitrates and nitrites were found in twenty-five thousand community wells that provided drinking water to two thirds of the nation’s population. More than fifteen million people in two hundred eighty communities are drinking water with phosphorous or phosphates which mostly come from industrial farming operations.2

 Dead zone image from NASA/ Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Nitrate and phosphorous fertilizer runoff flow into the rivers and ultimately end up in the ocean.  The river water rides up over the heavier salt water when it reaches the ocean and algae blooms develop on the fertilizer rich water. When the algae die, the bacteria use up all of the oxygen in decomposing them. This creates an oxygen dead (or hypoxic) zone. In 1995, scientists identified 60 dead zones around the world.

Recent results published in 2008 identified 405 oceanic dead zones.3 The prime cause for dead zones is the use of highly soluble synthetic fertilizers, which are overused to obtain maximum yields. The government regulations on the total maximum daily load (tmdl) of synthetic nitrogen, or phosphorous fertilizer coming off of farms were established under the Clean Water Act. But those statutes are routinely not enforced. There are exceptions, but in general the regulators have been in a thirty-year coma.

Pesticides in Water: In addition to fertilizer pollution of our food and water, high amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are also in the food, soil, water, and air. More than twelve thousand wells that provide water to 100 million people have arsenic or lead concentrations above the health based limits established by the U.S.EPA. Arsenic has been used on crops in the U.S. since 1867 and lead-arsenic since 1890. Arsenic is still widely used today on turf crops, corn, soy, and cotton as an herbicide or defoliant. The EPA, FDA, USDA and almost all state agencies, however, do not even keep good track of arsenic use. It is hard to regulate when you don’t know how much is being used.

While we don’t know how much was used, we do know that nearly 30 million people in the U.S. are drinking water contaminated with Atrazine, Simazine, Telone II, 2,4-D, or 2,4,5-T. All of these chemicals are related to DDT and were first sold in the 1940s, after they were developed in World War II. Simazine and 2,4,5-T had their EPA registrations cancelled more than twenty years ago because they were so deadly; yet millions of people in the U.S. still drink water contaminated with these two terrible war toys.  All these DDT relatives caused cancer and multiple birth defects in tests on laboratory animals. They continue today to greatly damage bird populations in farm country.

Two of these war materials, 2,4-D, and 2,4,5-T along with Dioxin were the poisons in Agent Orange, the defoliant that killed and crippled so many Vietnamese and American soldiers and turned jungle into denuded ghost lands.  Somehow, the officials at EPA and FDA seem to think that it is OK for millions of U.S. citizens to have these two killer chemicals in their drinking water.4

Excessive Pesticide Use Today: Factory farms continue to use enormous quantities of the most toxic poisons.5 In 2006, four of the six most used farm pesticides in California were among the most dangerous chemicals in the world. Farmers applied more than 35.7 million pounds of four pesticides: Metam sodium, Methyl bromide, Telone II, and Chloropicrin.

Metam sodium, the third most used California pesticide in 2006, is closely related to the chemical gas that escaped in Bhopal India in 1984 and killed 30,000 people and injured 200,000. Fourteen million, eight hundred thousand pounds were used in California in 2006. Metam sodium is a biocide, causes multiple birth defects, farmworker injuries, and is very toxic to birds and fish.

In 2006, California farmers used seven million pounds of Methyl bromide, the fourth most used farm pesticide in the state, and the notorious destroyer of the ozone. The EPA registration for Methyl bromide was scheduled for cancellation in 1995 as a result of Montreal Protocol agreements. But, wealthy and politically connected California strawberry, fruit, and carrot farmers found their way around those restrictions and still were allowed to apply 7 million pounds in 2006 (the last year for which we have records). Methyl bromide causes birth defects, cardiac arrest, nervous system damage, and is responsible for many thousands of deaths since 1936.

The fifth most used chemical in California in 2006 was Telone II (1,3-Dichloropropene). Telone II is a cancer and birth defect-causing fumigant that has been very deadly and dangerous to farmers, farmworkers, school kids, and rural residents since the 1940s. When it first came out it was called 666. This is supposedly “The Mark of the Devil.” Telone II has lived up to that name, killing and injuring untold thousands. Its California registration was due to be cancelled in 1995 because it was a cancer causing air pollutant. But, with the pending loss of methyl bromide, it was reregistered for limited use. They didn’t apply real strict limitations, hovever, because California farmers used about 7 million pounds in 2006.

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Will Allen grew up on a small farm in southern California and served in the Marine Corps between the Korean and Vietnam wars. He received a PhD in Anthropology (focused on Peruvian tropical forest agriculture) and taught at the University of (more...)
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