NYT Article Criticizing Organic Industry Ignites Major Controversy among Advocates
On July 8, The New York Times ran an article indicting the organic food industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculgture (USDA) for their involvement in advancing a number of standards, practices and decisions allowed under the organic label. The Times piece, “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?,” written by Stephanie Strom and featuring organic food industry critic and Chief Executive Officer of Eden Foods, Michael Potter, concentrated on the outsized role large corporations have assumed economically through organic market share, and politically through the decisions of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
While the article reinforces organic advocates’ ongoing call for public vigilance, there is general agreement that organic offers consumers the safest place to spend their food dollars, the best protection for the environment and those who farm, and the highest degree of public input into the standard setting process.
Beyond Pesticides’ Executive Director Jay Feldman, current NOSB member holding an environmentalist seat, wrote a response published in the New York Times article. He said:
“The article noted the involvement of big agriculture and food companies in establishing organic standards, as well as in several controversial decisions. But that discussion only diverts public attention from the urgent need to grow organic systems of any size, as defined by the Organic Foods Production Act. The best way to protect our planet is through the exponential, rapid growth of the organic sector, and by rejecting mainstream chemical-intensive agriculture. The nation’s organic law offers a unique opportunity for small farmers and others to ensure adherence to the core values and principles of the organics statute. But it all requires public involvement.”
The focus of the Times article on processed foods and allowed substances is important, but advocates point out that it represents only a small segment of the entire scope of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). An article in Mother Jones Magazine, “How the NY Times Went Too Far in Slamming Big Organic,” looks deeper into the issue and provides a more balanced assessment of the state of organic standards. The piece adds to the criticisms directed towards the USDA for appointing agriculture industry representatives to NOSB seats reserved by law for farmers and environmentalists. While raising the issue of organic integrity, it stops well short of calling organic production “mostly pure fantasy” as the Times piece does.
Grist also published a response to the Times article titled “The latest New York Times exposé won’t stop me from eating organic.” In it, author Twilight Greenaway gives credence to the charge that consumers should be concerned about the materials being approved in organic food, but also recognizes that this type of coverage could steer people away from organic certified products. Concerning the controversial issues of carrageenan and DHA she notes, “In the case of most conventional food, there is no discussion at all, let alone an intensive investigation.”
Some of the charges that the Times piece levels against the organic industry and organic regulators were recently highlighted by The Cornucopia Institute’s paper The Organic Watergate. The report provides an overview of some of the recent contentious issues and looks into the motivations behind industry representatives’ push to have questionable synthetics approved.
It is important that the USDA recognizes and addresses the criticisms of organic advocacy organizations, but consumers should not allow these controversies to overshadow the numerous benefits that come with organic certification. Certified organic production systems represent a striking contrast to conventionally produced foods in terms of both the environment and public health. OFPA was written with the intention of ensuring that organic food embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge or irradiation. All these destructive inputs are allowed in conventional farming. The end result of these practices are apparent from studies of disappearing pollinators, poisoned farmworkers, hypoxic “dead zones,” degraded soil and antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation and composting to produce healthy soil, increase biodiversity, prevent pest and disease problems and grow healthy food and fiber. The standards dictate that organic farmers must maintain or improve soil organic matter content, which decreases nutrient runoff and topsoil erosion, and eases the strain on aquatic ecosystems and our water supply. Moreover, the prohibition of petroleum-based fertilizers and increased carbon sequestration in soils rich in organic matter decreases overall contributions to global climate change.
In order to understand the importance of eating organic food, we need to look at the whole picture—from the farmworkers who do the valuable work of growing food, to the waterways from which we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat. Organic food offers a vision of a healthy future which doesn’t produce the toxic spillover effects of chemical agriculture. However, this vision cannot be realized without the input of vigilant and vocal consumers. In order to keep organic as a safe place free of harmful synthetic chemicals, we must all participate and join in its defense.
To this end, Beyond Pesticides encourages concerned citizens to become involved with the organic review process. The NOSB meets two times a year. At each meeting, the topics and materials up for discussion and review are open to public comment. The public comment process represents the best opportunity for consumers, as well as farmers and processors, to have a voice as these standards are debated and adopted by the NOSB. The fall meeting is scheduled to take place in Providence, R.I. on Oct. 15-18, 2012. The public can submit their comments online, or attend the meeting in person to voice their concerns. Individuals and organizations can also file their own petition to amend the National List of approved substances in organic production.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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