The USDA Is Being Sued for Delaying New Organic Standards
By Dan Nosowitz
When you think of "free-range" chicken, what exactly comes to mind? That question, amazingly enough, is now central to a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government.
This debate centers around the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. It is essentially an updated and more precise list of rules about how exactly meat, poultry and eggs will be produced if they are to score the coveted "organic" label—and the price increase that comes along with it. But the rule has been delayed and questioned so often in the eight months since it was officially introduced that the Organic Trade Association has resorted to the nuclear option: sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Back in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act established a baseline for organic requirements and established the National Organic Standards Board to regulate it. But as with lots of groundbreaking laws, the Organic Foods Production Act wasn't perfect; some of its rules were vague, and as organic food became a $47 billion industry, those ambiguities became a problem. Not surprising: Organic food is more expensive to both produce and purchase than conventional, but if a seller can work the rules to improve their margins, well, that's just more money for them.
One of those vague rules that's central one in this current debate involves egg-laying hens: Specifically, what qualifies their eggs as "organic." As of May 2017, around 14.6 million hens—nearly 5 percent of all egg-laying hens—are in that group. According to the original rules from 1990, organic hens must have year-round access to the outdoors. But the rules don't go further than that. What does "access" really mean?
(Quick note: there are different rules for chickens raised for their meat ("broilers") and chickens raised to lay eggs. What we're talking about here are egg-laying hens).
Many large companies, like Herbruck's Poultry Ranch and Cal-Maine Foods—the two largest organic egg producers in the U.S., according to NPR—have interpreted "access to the outdoors" to include what are called porches. These porches, as a Washington Post story showed, are often barely different from a conventional barn; they have a roof, walls and hard floors. The only difference? A section of those walls is screened. They're far from the bucolic ideal of chickens running through pasture, pecking at the dirt, squinting in the sun and stretching their wings (for more on that, see "This Ad Calls "Bullsh*t" on Cage-Free Eggs, So Let's Talk About Egg Labeling"), but technically, eggs from these hens qualify as organic. Those who use these porches sometimes defend the porches as protecting the chickens from the elements, like rain and predators. Those who do not use these porches are mostly annoyed that anyone would think a house with a screen in the wall counts as "access to the outdoors."
Over the past 14 years, with input from farmers, scientists, government policymakers and economists, the National Organic Program crafted new legislation that would close those loopholes. That legislation is the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, and it was finalized on Jan. 19. It requires minimum indoor and outdoor space per animal, and sets many more specifics for animal healthcare and even slaughter. It also gave a set amount of time for companies to change their operations to adhere to the new standards without losing their organic certification. (Five years, in the case of eggs). The USDA approved these rules, and the Obama administration signed off on them. These rules don't need congressional approval; they are done.
But on Jan. 20, the new Trump administration froze all new and pending legislation until it could be reviewed. This particular rule was delayed for four months. When those four months were just about up, the USDA delayed them for another six months, and opened up a 30-day comment period. During that comment period, anyone could write in and comment with their thoughts, including a recommendation for whether to implement, delay, change or outright cancel the now-finalized rules. This essentially gave those who were opposed to the new rules a sneaky, lousy weapon: they can just delay implementation indefinitely, keep insisting that the time isn't right to pass them, or that more research is needed, and then the rules never get passed.
The identity of those opposed to the new rules is fairly obvious; there's the Trump administration, which has delighted in slashing anything that was created during Obama's tenure. There are the huge organic companies, which will have to spend like crazy to actually provide access to the outdoors, assuming it's even possible; some producers, unable to purchase enough land to fulfill the new space requirements, will simply lose their organic certification—and their nice profit margins.
And then there are the government representatives who have accepted donations from those companies. Herbruck's and Cal-Maine have donated tens of thousands of dollars to the United Egg Assn. or EGGPAC, which in turn has given campaign contributions to many of the politicians who have expressed a desire for a delay or cancellation of the new rules. (Here's a list of politicians who have accepted contributions from EGGPAC, in case you're interested. You'll notice a pretty substantial overlap with the list of senators who "raised concerns" about the new rule).
Frustrated with the logjam and delays with implementing the new rule, the Organic Trade Association declared that enough has been enough. The newly filed lawsuit alleges that the delays have violated some parts of the Administrative Procedure Act, a law designed to stop politicians from screwing with the political process by, in part, infinitely delaying laws. The lawsuit also alleges that Trump's cessation of new regulation shouldn't have applied to this rule in the first place; organic regulations are voluntary, in that nobody needs to follow these rules; they're simply in place for anyone who wants the benefits of the organic label.
Basically, the lawsuit says that the delays of a piece of voluntary regulation that endured 14 years for its creation have been illegal. The Organic Trade Association wants to reverse any delays and requests for comment on the rule, which would make the rule effective immediately.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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