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Andrew Gunther

Andrew Gunther

Posted: November 24, 2010 03:40 PM

Recently John Stossel of FOX Business Channel has aired a number of segments disparaging sustainable agriculture. His issues have included the use of herbicides and pesticides, grainfed vs. grassfed beef, genetically modified food and food safety. Is Stossel going out of his way to be outrageously provocative? To what end? And for whose benefit? Certainly we are not the only ones to condemn these reports as being inaccurate, unbalanced and biased, as the many comments to the reports attest.

Stossel would no doubt accuse me (as program director of Animal Welfare Approved) of being unrealistic and only supporting small scale farms. However, the reality is that to keep the planet healthy and fed we will need to employ a wide range of solutions. Sadly, the last 40 years of "big ag's" version of the solution has shown chronic failure in the form of antibiotic resistance, tainted water and some of the largest food recalls in history. Too bad Stossel doesn't recognize that we have to stop using the planet -- a finite resource -- as "big ag's" test tube.

Let's take a look at Stossel's grassfed versus grainfed beef segment. Determining which of these methods of production is "best" is a complicated matter involving animal welfare, human health and environmental outcomes. It is unfortunate that as with the other topics in his series, Stossel appears to have taken a rather close-minded and biased approach to a very complex subject.

In making the claim about grassfed meat that "there's no evidence it's better for the environment or better for you," Stossel relies heavily on the evidence of Dr. Jude Capper, Assistant Professor of Dairy Sciences in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University. I have recently spent time with Dr. Capper and found her understanding of the greenhouse gas issue to be somewhat in harmony with my own. However, when it comes to solutions, our approaches are as different as night and day.

Dr. Capper states that a "whole-system approach" proves that intensive livestock systems -- in which meat or milk production is maximized per animal, per acre -- are less environmentally damaging than what she calls "inefficient" pasture or grass-based systems. Yet it is Dr. Capper who is not looking at the "whole system" -- or indeed the bigger picture we all face. In reality, the vast majority of scientists who are working on climate related issues contend that it is intensive agriculture -- with its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and other damaging environmental practices -- that is the real climate culprit. And in the face of the reality of climate change and ever-decreasing oil reserves, "business as usual" agriculture is just no longer an option.

One of the biggest problems is that any report which states that grassfed meat is less environmentally friendly than grainfed meat has ignored the environmental costs of all the inputs needed for the system. The true cost of feedlot beef has to consider the full environmental footprint caused by producing cattle feed -- all the way back to the destruction of vast tracts of rainforest in order to grow soy and corn fed to cattle confined to massive feedlots. This is before we start adding in the environmental pollution from feedlots and the greenhouse gas emissions from the stockpiled manure. On the side of grassfed beef, the positive influence of carbon sequestration that is specific to grazing grassfed animals must be considered.

Stossel sadly relied on only one source for his information on grassfed. He didn't take the time to understand both sides of the argument and, like a student with a poorly researched school paper, published his report without review or evidence. This lack of rigor appears to be the only way industrial agriculture and its mouthpieces can defend themselves.

Moving on to Stossel's report about herbicides and pesticides, here, too, he is off the mark. Atrazine is regularly found in water across the U.S. at levels above the designated "safe" maximum residue level. This pesticide has been banned in Europe for more than five years due to its toxicity and presence in water sources. I therefore wonder why Stossel feels we should subject America's children to this potentially dangerous chemical with no known antidote.

In 2002, two studies raised new concerns about the herbicide: one connecting extremely low levels of atrazine with sexual abnormalities in frogs, and another pointing to increased prostate cancer among workers at atrazine factories. Why do we have to keep using this when Syngenta (the manufacturer of atrazine) has an alternate product? Perhaps it's because atrazine is highly profitable so why worry that it makes people sick by polluting our water? As long as it has good shareholder return! Nice work, John, good to see you have the interests of the population at heart.

And finally, in Stossel's segment on genetically modified food, he takes a swipe at one of his guest's reference to the 2006 recall of spinach contaminated with E.coli. While debating the fine point of whether the spinach was from a field in organic conversion, Stossel ignored the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Where did the deadly E.coli O157:H7 pathogens come from in the first place? Certainly not organic spinach. Studies report that confinement feeding of grain to cattle and low dose antibiotics are the main culprits in the evolution of the E.coli O157:H7 at the core of the explosion in food poisoning outbreaks.

As disturbing as Stossel's lack of balanced reporting is, there is a real positive here. Clearly, someone has put huge sums of money and effort into trying to distort the truth. This tells those of us working with alternatives to the industrial agricultural model that we are making a difference and that our message is getting through. In the parlance of bomber pilots, you know you are near the target when the flak really starts to fly. Stossel's biased attacks should be a rallying cry to all of us to redouble our efforts... there's no stopping us now! We are getting the message out there and we will continue our rallying cry against "business as usual" agriculture.