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12.29.10

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Phaedra
Photograph by Dave Hamilton
BZZZZZZZZZZZZ: Colony collapse disorder continued to be an issue in 2010 with leaked correspondence spurring the EPA to action.

Farm Laws and Seed Scraps

The year in food safety and legislation

By Ari LeVaux


Some will argue that 2010 was the year that 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. With so many food preferences and priorities, one can hardly make an end-of-year food list to please everyone, so lets start with what the people think. Some of them, anyway.

A market research firm called Wakefield surveyed 1,000 Americans on what they felt was "the most significant food story of 2010." Interestingly, the top three stories were threats to food safety: the impact of the BP oil spill on the seafood industry; the nationwide egg recall; and the recall of 35,000 pounds of beef when E. coli was detected at a Southern California distributor.

This public perception makes SB 510, the food safety bill, especially timely. The bill finally got though Congress before being sent back on a technicality as part of a Republican endgame on tax cuts. The procedural snag could have delayed the legislation into 2011, but last week, it passed through Congress with 10 Republicans in favor. Closely preceding the food safety bill, the landmark Child Nutrition Act was signed by Obama earlier this month.

Another important policy move went down in February, when the USDA modified its organic standards for beef and dairy. The new "Access to Pasture" rule, named after a longstanding loophole in organic standards, finally specified a minimum number of days per year that organic cattle must spend on pasture to qualify as organic. The requirement raises the bar especially for large producers trying to qualify as organic, 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 in the law is welcome.

In other bovine-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 decades and made recommendations for reform. In related news, the FDA finally released estimates, 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 nontherapeutic use, to expedite weight gain, for instance. Such use is partly why there's an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant staph, or MRSA, in feedlots, and the report expresses the 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 a Colorado beekeeper named Tom Theobald. Concerned about annual losses in his colonies that had grown to 40 percent, he began to suspect an agricultural chemical called clothianidin that's used in area corn fields. 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 EPA in which Bayer repeatedly stalled and EPA granted numerous extensions until Bayer finally conducted a study. That study was never released, and lay buried for years until Theobald, simply trying to figure out what happened to his bees, finally found it online. The study 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 resulted in a Nov. 2 memo in which the EPA acknowledged the tragedy of errors that led to the continued permitted use of clothianidin, and acknowledged that scientists inside the EPA expressed bee-related concerns as early as 2003, partly because a similar pesticide had recently caused bee die-offs in Europe. Bees help pollinate about one-third of the food grown in the United States. Theobald says he's hardly the only beekeeper on the verge of having to fold the tent, because you can't sustain that kind of colony loss for too long.

Perhaps the beekeepers and their allies could use a few pages 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 local environment and the livelihoods that depend on it. In one case, Monsanto appealed its way to the Supreme Court, each time losing to the argument that selling genetically modified alfalfa before the completion of an environmental impact study would endanger the rights of farmers to grow nongenetically modified alfalfa. In June, the Supreme Court demanded more USDA oversight and the completion of an environmental impact study before allowing the crop to be commercialized.

Then in December, a federal judge took some sweetness out of Monsanto's sugar beet division by ordering that 258 very important acres of genetically modified sugar beets be destroyed. Currently, 95 percent of the nation's sugar beets are grown from Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds. Monsanto produces its sugar beet seeds on several properties in Oregon's Willamette Valley. This happens to be the worst place in the entire country for that crop, because the risk of gene contamination there is so great. Judge Jeffrey White ruled that Monsanto was endangering neighboring, nongenetically modified seed industries by letting its genetically modified beets go to seed in the valley.

How appropriate that seeds are the final topic of this year's recap. Because when we reconvene on the other side of the calendar, it will be time to think about spring planting. Prepare your tea and seed catalogues!


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