Every year, a hefty dairy cow tucked away in a snug barn produces more than 20,000 pounds of milk, along with an impressive amount of manure and an array of gases. New modeling work by an Agricultural Research Service team in University Park, Pennsylvania, suggests that a dairy cow living year-round in the great outdoors may leave a markedly smaller ecological hoofprint than her more sheltered sisters.
Agricultural engineer Al Rotz led a team of scientists at the ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit through a modeling study that evaluated how different management systems on a typical 250-acre Pennsylvania dairy farm would affect the environment. “If we try to reduce one environmental factor in this complex production system, we can end up increasing others,” Rotz says. “So there’s a real need to look at all the environmental aspects together.”
Several environmental and public health groups filed suit against the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday to try to force the government to stop farmers from routinely adding antibiotics to livestock feed to help animals grow faster.
The groups say widespread agricultural antibiotic use and the FDA’s allowance of the practice are compounding a public health crisis: the increasing prevalence of “superbugs” that infect people and do not respond to antibiotics.
Stuart Levy once kept a flock of chickens on a farm in the rolling countryside west of Boston. No ordinary farmer, Levy is a professor of molecular biology and microbiology and of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. This was decades ago, and his chickens were taking part in a never-before-conducted study. Half the birds received feed laced with a low dose of antibiotics, which U.S. farmers routinely administer to healthy livestock -- not to cure illness, but merely to increase the animals' rates of growth. The other half of Levy's flock received drug-free food.
Results started showing up almost instantly. Within two days, the treated animals began excreting feces containing E. coli bacteria that were resistant to tetracycline, the antibiotic in their feed. (E. Coli, most of which are harmless, normally live in the guts of chickens and other warm-blooded animals, including humans.) After three months, the chickens were also excreting bacteria resistant to such potent antibiotics as ampicillin, streptomycin, carbenacillin, and sulfonamides. Even though Levy had added only tetracycline to the feed, his chickens had somehow developed what scientists now call "multi-drug resistance" to a host of antibiotics that play important roles in treating infections in people. More frightening, although none of the members of the farm family tending the flock were taking antibiotics, they, too, soon began excreting drug-resistant strains of E. coli.
The simple fact is that factory farms produce over 100 times more waste than all American humans produce combined. In the past, a pastured cow might disperse waste over an acre or more; how can farmers responsibly deal with the waste of 1,000, 5,000, or even 10,000 or more animals when they are crammed in tightly together? And, unfortunately for the farmers, they are often working under contract for major meat or dairy conglomerates who own the animals and leave the farmer with a tiny profit margin (or none at all) -- plus all of the liability, dead animals and manure. Therefore, in addition to simply disposing of manure responsibly, they also need to dispose of it cheaply if they are to stay in business.
Switching to organic produce could help you live longer as well as keeping you healthier and slimmer, say academics.
Fruit and vegetables grown without artificial fertilisers have significantly more key nutrients, including vitamin C. As a result, going organic can extend average lifespans, typically by 25 days for men and 17 days for women.
The case against genetically modified (GM) crops has been growing for years. While there are no long-term studies on the health effects of eating food from GM crops, even short-term studies have raised very troubling questions. For example, a panel of scientists in India recently reviewed studies that purported to show that GM crops modified to produce Bt were safe. The reviewers concluded that the studies did not meet international standards, did not accurately summarize the results, and “ignored toxic endpoints” that occurred in rats that were fed the GM grain for just 3 months. The rats suffered organ and system damage to ovaries, spleens, and the immune system, and demonstrated toxic effects to the liver [L. Gallagher, BT Brinjal Event EEa: The Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Toxicological Risk Assessment: Review of Oral Toxicity Studies in Rats (2010)]. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, namely that even a relatively short period of feeding GM foods to lab animals indicate serious potential health impacts.
Environmentally conscious small farms are key to creating global food sustainability. It’s as plain to see as the red raspberries ripening outside my door, and the prospect is every bit as delicious.
Imagine taking our current food system “out of the box,” reclaiming it from the mega-farm machines that pillage the earth just to produce mass amounts of substandard food. Picture a healthy and productive landscape dotted with small hands-on farms, each offering fresh goods to consumers for fair prices.
Now, take that vision even farther, to places where people are hungry and increasingly dependent on foreign aid. Instead of relying on genetic engineering to expand the world’s pantry, it’s time to steer efforts toward localized food production that works with natural resources. It’s time to find a system that taps into the human potential of every community to feed this planet and assure food security for the long haul.
A National Trust farm is to be run by online subscribers voting on which crops to grow and livestock to rear.
For a £30 annual fee, 10,000 farm followers will help manage Wimpole Home Farm, in Cambridgeshire.
The National Trust says its MyFarm project aims to reconnect people with where their food comes from.
It was partly inspired by the online Facebook game Farmville and follows the example of Ebbsfleet Football Club which is run on a similar basis.
Chemicals and additives found in the food supply and other consumer products are making headlines regularly as more and more groups raise concern over the safety of these substances. In a statement released this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asked for reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The group is particularly concerned about the effects these substances have on children and babies.
Last month, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) held hearings on the safety of food dyes but failed to make a definitive ruling. The most recent study on Bisphenol-A (BPA) added to growing doubts about its safety; but the FDA's stance on it remains ambiguous. Meanwhile, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported [PDF] that the FDA is not ensuring the safety of many chemicals.
Yet while the FDA stalls and hedges on the safety of these substances, Americans are exposed to untested combinations of food additives, dyes, preservatives, and chemicals on a daily basis. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans consuming industrial foods, a veritable chemical cocktail enters their bodies every day and according to the GAO report, "FDA is not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances."
Organic farming is often falsely represented as being unscientific. However, despite the popular assumption that it sprang full born from the delusions of 60s hippies, it has a more extensive, and scientifically respectable, provenance. If you look back at the first flush of notoriety in the 1940s, the names most often mentioned, Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, rather than being the initiators, were actually just popularizers of a groundswell of ideas that had begun to develop some 50 years earlier in the 1890s.
A growing coterie of farmers, landlords, scientists, and rural philosophers in both England and Germany had begun questioning the wisdom of the chemically based agriculture that had grown so prominent from its tiny beginning in the 1840s. Advances in biological sciences during the late 19th century, such as those that explained the workings of nitrogen fixation, mycorrhizal association, and soil microbial life supported their case. Those new sciences set the stage for a deeper understanding of natural processes, and offered inspiration as to how a modern biologically based agriculture might be formulated.