The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), in a series of action alerts over the past month, has criticized the gradual erosion of organic standards by vested corporate interests in the organic products industry.
OCA, a nationwide watchdog organization set up to safeguard organic standards 16 years ago, and its allies in the organic community are calling for a crackdown on organic businesses that violate organic standards, such as poultry and egg operations that keep chickens confined indoors, as well as changes in National Organic Program (NOP) policies governing the temporary use of allowed synthetic chemicals or non-organic ingredients on the NOP’s “National List.” (The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies substances that may and may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. It also lists the substances that may be used in or on processed organic products).
Organic advocates are also calling for a ban on questionable practices such as allowing ingredients in organic products derived from “mutagenesis” (using chemicals or radiation to genetically mutate life forms), treating animals on organic farms with genetically engineered vaccines, the spraying of the antibiotic streptomycin on organic apples and pears, and the little-known loophole in organic standards allowing the injection of antibiotics into newborn chicks.
In order to understand these issues, let’s step back and look at the big picture. Why are organic food and production standards important anyway?
The short answer is that organic food and farming, once you look closely at the practices and hazards of so-called “conventional” food and farming, are literally matters of life or death.
Non-organic, chemical and GMO-intensive food (so-called “conventional” food) is the number one cause of deteriorating public health among adults and children, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, antibiotic resistant infections and heart disease.
By contrast, organic foods and products, especially raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils and grass-fed meat and animal products, are safer, healthier and more sustainable than the chemical-intensive, genetically engineered, highly processed (laced with sugar, salt and unhealthy fats) junk foods that make up the bulk of the U.S. diet.
Non-organic farming and factory farms are the largest sources of water pollution, soil erosion, wetlands destruction and greenhouse gas emissions. The stark reality is that either we move away from fossil fuel/CO2- intensive, methane-emitting, nitrous oxide-emitting chemical and GMO agriculture, or we face runaway global warming and climate catastrophe.
On the other hand, the exponentially increased photosynthesis on organic farms, ranches and rangelands are capable of naturally sequestering enough excess CO2 in the atmosphere to reverse global warming and restabilize the climate.
No wonder organic foods and products are the fastest-growing items in America's grocery carts, with more than $35 billion in annual sales, growing 15 percent per year, comprising approximately 5 percent of all grocery store purchases. Forty million U.S. households accounting for almost 100 million people are currently buying organic foods, clothing, body care products, supplements and pet food on a regular basis.
The majority of U.S consumers now say they prefer organic foods.
In addition to the $35 billion organic market, “natural” foods, nutritional supplements and other “natural” products account for $75 billion annually in sales, with the majority of consumers paying a premium price for these “natural” products in the belief (unfortunately in most cases not true) that products labeled as “natural” are “almost organic.”
In other words, consumers are now spending more than $100 billion dollars a year in the U.S.—over 15 percent of all grocery stores sales—for products they sincerely believe are healthier and better for the environment, animals, small farmers and the climate.
So let’s get more specific about organic standards and why you should care about them. Here are 10 reasons why millions of health and green-minded Americans are buying organic foods and products:
1. Organic foods are produced without the use of genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Consumers are understandably alarmed about untested and unlabeled genetically modified ingredients in foods commonly sold in supermarkets. Genetically engineered ingredients are now found in at least 75 percent of all non-organic U.S. processed foods, even in many products labeled or advertised as "natural" or “all natural.” And the overwhelming majority of non-organic meat, dairy and eggs are derived from animals reared on a steady diet of GM animal feed. Organic standards prohibit the use of GMOs in foods labeled as “organic.” To safeguard organic standards, OCA believes that genetically engineered animal vaccines, now temporarily allowed in organics, should be banned.
2. Organic farming prohibits the use of toxic pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and climate-destabilizing chemical fertilizers. Consumers worry about pesticide and drug residues routinely found in non-organic produce, processed foods and animal products. Recent studies indicate that an alarming percentage of U.S. meat contains dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. To safeguard organic standards, OCA believes that the loophole in organic poultry production, whereby one-day old chicks are injected with antibiotics, should be eliminated, along with the practice of spraying the antibiotic streptomycin on organic apples and pears.
3. Organic foods and farming are climate-friendly. People are increasingly concerned about climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas pollution, including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. Between 35-50 percent of these gasses in North America come from our energy-intensive, chemical-intensive food and farming system. Organic farms and ranches, on the other hand, use far less fossil fuel, emit far less methane and nitrous oxide, and can safely sequester large amounts of CO2 in the soil (up to 7,000 pounds of CO2 per acre per year, every year.) Twenty-four billion pounds of chemical fertilizers applied on non-organic farms in the U.S. every year not only pollute our drinking water and create enormous dead zones in the oceans, but they also release enormous amounts of nitrous oxide, a super potent, climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas.
4. Organic food certification prohibits nuclear irradiation. Consumers are justifiably alarmed about irradiating food with nuclear waste or electron beams, which destroy vitamins and nutrients and produce cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde. OCA believes that “mutagenesis,” a process that involves irradiating seeds and microorganisms in order to induce mutation, should be banned from organics.
5. Consumers worry about rampant e-coli, salmonella, campylobacter, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and fecal contamination in animal products coming out of the nation's inhumane and filthy slaughterhouses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admit that millions of Americans suffer from food poisoning every year. Very few cases of food poisoning have ever been linked to organic farms or food processors.
6. Consumers are concerned about billions of pounds of toxic municipal sewage sludge dumped as "fertilizer" on 140,000 of America's chemical farms. Scientific evidence has confirmed that municipal sewage sludge contains hundreds of dangerous pathogens, toxic heavy metals, flame-retardants, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, pharmaceutical drugs and other hazardous chemicals coming from residential drains, stormwater runoff, hospitals and industrial plants. Organic standards categorically prohibit the use of sewage sludge on organic farms and ranches.
7. Consumers worry about the routine practice of grinding up slaughterhouse waste and feeding this offal (the parts of a butchered animal that are considered inedible by human beings) and blood back to other animals, a practice that has given rise to a form of human mad-cow disease called CJD, often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's disease. Animals on organic farms cannot be fed slaughterhouse waste, manure or blood—offal that is routinely fed to animals on America's factory farms. OCA believes that the current loophole allowing organic sausage casings to be made from the intestines of non-organic animals (most of whom no doubt were fed slaughterhouse waste) should be eliminated.
8. Consumers care about the humane treatment of animals. Organic farming, by law, prohibits intensive confinement of farm animals. In addition to the cruelty and unhealthy confinement of animals on factory farms, scientists warn that these CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) produce enormous volumes of manure and urine, which not only pollute surface and groundwater, but also emit large quantities of methane, a powerful climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas. OCA believes that the National Organic Program should crack down on large organic poultry and dairy operations where the animals are intensely confined, with little or no opportunity to go outdoors. To date, the USDA has ignored the pleas of organic stakeholders, consumers and ethical family farmers, to crack down on the scofflaws milking as many as 10,000 cows on “organic” farms and confining as many as 100,000 “organic” birds to a henhouse.
9. Consumers are concerned about purchasing foods with high nutritional value and as few as possible synthetic or non-organic ingredients. Organic foods are nutritionally dense compared to foods produced with toxic chemicals, chemical fertilizers and GMO seeds. Studies show that organic foods contain more vitamins, cancer-fighting antioxidants, and important trace minerals. Traditionally the “National List” of non-organic ingredients allowed in certified organic products was relatively short, with a “sunset clause” designed to phase these non-organic ingredients out as quickly as possible.
In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under pressure from corporate interests represented by the Organic Trade Association, without any input from the public, changed the way the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) decides which non-organic materials are allowed in certified organic. Prior to the change, industry needed 10 of 15 votes in order keep a non-organic material on the National List of allowed substances in organic, or the material would automatically be dropped, or “sunsetted,” after a five-year period. Under the new rules, non-organic materials automatically remain on the list, unless 10 board members vote to remove them from the list. The rule change now all but guarantees that when the NOSB (now comprised of a majority of industry representatives as opposed to organic consumer or organic farmer representatives) meets every six months, the list of non-organic and synthetic materials allowed in organic will get longer and longer.
10. Consumers care about preserving America's family farms, they care about world hunger, and the plight of the world's two billion small farmers. Just about the only small farmers who stand a chance of making a decent living these days are organic farmers, who get a better price for their products. In addition, study after study has shown that small organic farms in the developing world produce twice as much food per acre as chemical and GMO farms, while using far less fossil fuel and sequestering large amounts of excess CO2 in the soil. Yields on organic farms in the industrialized world are comparable to the yields on chemical and GMO farms, with the important qualification that organic farms far out-produce chemical farms under extreme weather conditions of drought or torrential rains. Given accelerated climate change, extreme weather is fast becoming the norm.
For all these reasons, millions of American consumers are turning to organic foods and other organic items, including clothing and body care products. It’s part of an overall movement toward healthy living, preserving the environment and reversing global warming. But to move this Great Organic Transition forward we need to safeguard and strengthen organic stands, not weaken them.
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By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.