Tag Archives: center for rural affairs

Humane Husbandry: Nebraska Tries to Blaze a Trail

“Nebraska leads the nation in organic livestock numbers and is one of the leading producers of grass-fed beef. In time we will lead the nation in producing and marketing humanely raised livestock.”

– Kevin Fulton, rancher

Out of the smoldering rhetorical and legislative rubble of recent years, a band of farmers – the Nebraska Farmers Union – has stepped forward in a joint venture with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in an effort to blaze new, cooperative market trails that lead to increased opportunities for small and mid-size farmers, as well as to more humane livestock care.

Photo © 2013 by Heather Blanchette

Photo © 2013 by Like a Cup of Tea

Most Americans eat meat of one kind or another (96% of us). Questions about where our meat came from, how the animals were treated when alive, and how they were killed and prepared for our tables, are fundamental. They matter a lot, and in a lot of ways. Thus this joint venture between two groups that might well stand in opposition to each other is a model of national and perhaps international significance.

Nine billion animals are raised for the table each year in the USA. The experience the animals live out on a farm or endure in mass, industrial confinement has economic, environmental, health and moral ramifications.

Meat has of late been engulfed in ferocious conflicts of law and rhetoric, pitting livestock producers head on with animal welfare and animal rights groups. As one of America’s premier meat-producing states, Nebraska is a critical forum for these debates to play out.

sowGestcrate1For over a decade HSUS had been waging a general campaign to get livestock and poultry producers to abandon various industrial-scale livestock management practices that they consider inhumane. In particular, HSUS helped push successful ballot measures in several states to restrict or prohibit sow gestation crates – enclosures that keep female pigs pregnant and all but immobile.

Pretty much all HSUS needed to do was show pictures of the sow gestation crates to the public. The pictures told the story, no narrative necessary. People did not like what they saw. Thus, ballot initiatives prohibiting sow gestation crates were being enacted into law in states around the nation. This engendered rancor among many livestock producers. They felt the crates were safe and efficient, and that science and economics were on their side.

 “Our American Way of Life”

While HSUS was advancing legislatively and in the court of public opinion, industrial agriculture was, and is, coming on strong in state after state with so-called Ag Gag laws, which make it a crime to photograph or film how livestock is managed in industrial settings.

The moral stance of HSUS — the idea that it regards itself as working toward a civil society that “triumphs over ignorance, convenience, and archaic tradition” — was rubbing salt in the wounds of frustrated livestock industry movers and shakers.

Several years ago HSUS considered Nebraska as a possible state for another effort to render sow gestation crates illegal. Because HSUS already had a winning track record in other states, the Nebraska animal agriculture establishment was on red alert. Several large producer and insurance organizations formed a trade organization, We Support Agriculture, to promote their point of view and – pointedly — to thwart HSUS initiatives.

A November 2010 town hall meeting in the capital city of Lincoln to discuss animal welfare wound up as a heated confrontation that produced less than a wisp of understanding on the core issues around livestock-meat. Hot words continued to fly in the aftermath.

americanwayThen about 18 months ago things went nuclear when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R) blasted HSUS from a national stage near Washington, DC. He spoke before a conference of lawmakers who chair agriculture committees in their respective states. Heineman, a West Point graduate and a former Army Ranger, sought to rally the troops. He called on lawmakers from across the country to join him in fighting HSUS.

Echoing the position of We Support Agriculture, Heinemann said he did not trust the Humane Society. He described it as an organization bent on destruction of Nebraska’s top economic engine, agriculture.

Then he dropped a bomb: “This is about our American way of life,” he said, “and HSUS wants to destroy the American dream for America’s farmers and ranchers. This is about jobs for American families, and HSUS wants to destroy job opportunities for our sons and our daughters and our grandkids.”

In the aftermath of this verbal nuke, the state of affairs vis a vis livestock-animal welfare-meat appeared intractable, a heavily mined legal, economic, environmental and ethical battlefield. Matters seemed destined for an ugly finish. At just about that time, though, the market asserted itself in the debate.

The Market Speaks

Bowing to overwhelming public opinion many food industry giants — McDonald’s, Burger King, Krogers, Johnstown Sausages, ConAgra, Smithfield Foods, and leading Canadian retailers — began notifying their pork suppliers that they wanted sow gestation crates phased out. The market proved swifter, more powerful and more effective than any political resolution

As the market reality was emerging, HSUS abandoned any consideration of a ballot initiative in Nebraska, or elsewhere. The issue of sow gestation crates was becoming moot.

trailTrying to turn a negative into a positive, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) began to talk with HSUS about ways to collaborate, to look for a trail forward, and to develop new, profitable, consumer-driven markets for livestock producers, rather than pursuing various statewide ballot issues to regulate livestock production.

“Statewide ballot campaigns polarize the situation,” explained John K. Hansen, President of  NeFU. “The campaigns are designed to get a visceral reaction. When that happens, and people on both sides are getting hit in the gut, then folks are not open to changing their positions.”

Hansen has held the elected office of President since 1989. Although he encountered  resistance from fellow Union members in state and around the country, he stuck his neck out and agreed to sit down with HSUS and talk. After exploring the possibilities, together in a joint venture they created the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

In a phone interview, Hansen explained: “In other states HSUS was getting into bruising battles with groups representing ag producers. I called the Farmers Union presidents in all of the states that had dealt with ballot issues on livestock, and I talked with them about this. They told me it had been a very painful process for them and their states. The livestock debates were extremely polarizing and creating long-term damage in the industries that produce the various meats most Americans eat.

“The battles were deeply destructive for everyone, especially livestock producers, and that’s not good. So that’s when Nebraska Farmer’s Union agreed to talk with the Humane Society to see if we could move things forward.”

Confab at the Cornhusker

Regarding livestock animal-welfare issues as crucial and Nebraska as pivotal, the President and CEO of HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, returned to the state a second time early this summer to represent his 11-million member organization, and to participate in a second public forum concerning HSUS’s joint venture with the Farmers Union — the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

chPacelle visited the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in the capital city of Lincoln, the night of June 27, 2013 to help articulate the ideas behind the initiative.

As noted by the Lincoln Journal-Star, when Pacelle made a public appearance in Lincoln three years ago “the mood was tense…” and the proceedings were contentious. This time, knowing the vehement opposition that had characterized Pacelle’s visit to Nebraska in 2010 a contingent of security guards was posted at the door. They warily inspected everyone approaching the conference room.

This time there was no opposition. Opponents chose, at least publically, to ignore the Nebraska Agriculture Council. Thus, the forum was quiet, orderly, sparsely attended.

With 6,200 farm families as members, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) is the largest family farm and ranch group in the state. The union was formed 100 years ago in 1913, when Nebraska farmers perceived that independently they were consistently at a disadvantage. They banded together to stand up against monopolies that controlled the railroads, agricultural processing, farm supplies, and large grocery businesses. Over the last century the Farmers Union helped found 436 farm cooperatives across Nebraska.

At the Cornhusker forum, after farmers and union members spoke, HSUS’s Pacelle took a turn at the podium. “The history of this country is an expanding sphere of moral consideration,” he declared. “That sphere is now expanding to include the animals who are part of our lives, and who so many of us depend upon for food.”

“We are here to celebrate forward-thinking farmers who make animal welfare a priority and to appeal to the increasing share of consumers concerned about the values of humane treatment and sustainability,” he said.

The Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS is the first of it’s kind in any state, but is a model that will be replicated elsewhere.

A Good Business Partnership

A Nebraska native, Farmers Union President John Hansen told the forum he wants to create opportunities for people to return to animal agriculture, and for family farmers to make a living. He said he wants to see farmers moving product through supply chains.

NeFU.logo“Instead of continuing a knock-down, drag-out fight, we have to find a way to move forward,” Hansen said. “We have to find a way to reward people in the market for improving their standards of livestock care. We want to create new opportunities for new producers. We want to do value-added to create a premium product that will reward farmers and ranchers in the market for the ethical treatment of their animals.”

“This is a good business partnership.” Hansen said. “American agriculture can produce quality products with high standards of livestock care, and then be rewarded in the marketplace. The key to this is being open and transparent. We believe the market will reward us for doing the right thing in the right way.”

“Before this approach came forward,” Hansen said, “we were basically in a shin-kicking contest, and those contests were tending to go in favor of the pet owners, who are in the majority. Two-thirds of Americans own pets – and that majority tends to apply their own pet ethics and pet standards to livestock.

“That’s where the trouble starts. The two – pets and livestock – are related but different. In these conflicts ag producers are going to lose most of time because they are outnumbered by consumers, and that’s not good. We need them to live and they need us to make a living.”

“It’s pretty clear what local consumers want,” Hansen said. “They want meat from animals that are free of growth hormones and non-essential antibiotics. They want animals that have been properly and respectfully cared for, and allowed to express their basic animal nature.”

Building a More Humane Economy

When he took his turn speaking at the Cornhusker forum, Kevin Fulton said “animal welfare” outranks “organic” and “local” as an issue of concern for consumers. Fulton is a founder of the new council, and also the operator of Fulton Farms in Litchfield, Nebraska, a 2,800-acre diverse, multispecies livestock grazing operation for grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured poultry.

“Farmers and ranchers should be at the forefront of the animal welfare issue, Fulton said. “Animals are not production units, but living creatures.”

Fulton cited a 2011 poll by the University of Nebraska. The poll shows that most rural Nebraskans (69%) agree that animal welfare means more than providing adequate food, water and shelter; but also includes adequate exercise, space and social activities for the animals.

As Fulton interprets the results, an overwhelming majority of people – these are rural Nebraska people, not seaboard city dwellers – are of the opinion that animals should be in an environment where they can express their natural behaviors.

“If they have legs they should at least be able to walk and turn around,” he said, “and if they have wings they should be able to flap them.”

Farm to Fitness

One component of the NAC marketing effort is a variation on the by now well-developed array of “farm-to” models. The US and farm2fitlogoCanada already have many farm-to-school, farm-to-church, farm-to-hospital, farm-to-office, programs, and more. As of late 2012, Farm to Fitness adds to the array of possibilities by using gyms as a focal point for connecting health-minded consumers with local producers of nutritious, humanely-raised meat, poultry and other foods to support their fitness goals.

According to Ben Gotschall, who hails from a cattle ranch in Nebraska’s Sand Hills and is Market Development Coordinator for the Nebraska Farmer’s Union: “The idea is for gyms to promote local livestock to their members, and to provide a distribution point for humanely raised and cooperatively purchased food orders.”

“I think this partnership is progress in the right direction,” Gotschall said. “Legislation can only get you so far. If you try to legislate problems away you run into other problems. The arguments we were having were not really getting anyone anywhere. The fight was demonizing producers and villainizing HSUS in the eyes of the agricultural community, and not really changing the way animals are treated in industrial systems.

“Taking a market approach is more constructive. That’s the nature of the problem anyway, because the marketplace dictates the system. Now with the new technologies, the market has the potential to take livestock care in a different direction, to make it better for animals, producers and consumers.”

“There is consumer demand, for sure, but that’s not a market,” Gotschall said. “You need a market system with production, processing, distribution, and so forth. That’s all been destroyed in the last 30 to 40 years. There is no way to go back to how it was. But that’s OK. It’s a different time and a different world.”

“We need to create a better world. Small-scale and mid-size farmers and ranchers now have the Internet, smartphones, and other information tools. The whole concept of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from is a lot more nuanced. It’s not the same as a first-person visit to the farm and farmers, but it is a connection and it works. We have many exciting new technologies.” Those technologies make it simpler for people in a supply chain to communicate and do business.”

Local, sustainable, value-added producers have the facts on their side, Gotschall asserted. “The research shows their product is healthier for people,” he said. To support his claim, he emailed me an Excel spreadsheet listing 58 relevant studies, including this sample.

Moral Evolution

Nebraska’s Governor proffered some incendiary rhetoric when he identified the matters of livestock and meat as a core issue, and then condemned the Humane Society as attempting to destroy the American way of life. Yet the “American way” the Governor so ferociously attempted to defend has, alas, long ago been generally overwhelmed.

Farmer’s Union President John Hansen laid out the familiar, grim facts: “Because of vertical integration and consolidation, in the years since 1980 we have lost 91% of independent hog producers, 80% of all dairy producers, and 40% of all beef producers. That is a massive shift. It shoved a lot of farm people out the door. They didn’t want to go. They were pushed out. No wonder we now are down to just 1% of the population farming today.”

“No animal welfare group drove these farm families out of business. It was, rather, a market dominated by vertically integrated multinational food corporations with mass industrial approaches, and little if any transparency about what they are actually doing.”

The population and character of Nebraska — and many other places in rural America — began altering markedly in the shadow of the relentlessly efficient advance of industrial models of food production and livestock management.

Even before the Governor’s damning words about HSUS ceased reverberating, his premise about the “American way of life” was further assaulted. Shuanghui International, a colossal Chinese conglomerate, surged forward in 2013 in an effort to purchase Smithfield, the world’s largest hog producer and pork packer. With three large ham and sausage plants in Nebraska, Smithfield is a major-league player.

Meanwhile, JBS Swift & Company, which also has a substantial presence in Nebraska, has for years been a wholly owned subsidiary of another multinational, a corporation based in Brazil.

Neither of these foreign entities – or the other multinational corporations behind industrial feedlots and confinement operations across America – necessarily match the down-home, patriotic profile conjured by the Governor’s volley. They are, for better or for worse, global institutions in an era of global commerce and communication. Multinational corporations, with their pluses and minuses, are but the latest permutation of the very forces that have so profoundly impacted, and continue to impact Nebraska and American farm families.

Governor Heinemann’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

the-thinker-224x300Through a sophisticated focus on efficiency and profit, large operations tend to spawn coldly rational mechanistic systems and dynamics that are well suited to machines, but not — as HSUS sees it — to living beings such as cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and turkeys. Here lies an enormous philosophical divide.

“What we are seeing is a major consumer reaction that was predicted back in the 1960s,” Hansen explained in our phone interview. “It was known even back then that when the corporations took over the farms, as has happened, that then the system would become less competitive and more homogenous. All of this stuff, it was known. They are reaping the harvest of what they sowed.”

“As I see it all of the things the Humane Society has been responding to are directly tied into the vertically integrated, industrialized corporate agriculture,” Hansen said. “It all comes out of this. The corporate takeover of livestock production has resulted in these conditions.

“The reason HSUS has influence in the debate,” Hansen said, “is because they are giving voice to legitimate consumer concerns. What do consumers want? You have to listen to that and respond. How do we create a value-added market that responds to this desire and expands the possibilities? The answers to those questions are the way forward.”

Leading a ‘Hungry Army’ along a Market Trail

It appears in the aftermath of the rhetorical battles and tectonic market shifts that have taken place around animal welfare, the troops that rose up in response to the Nebraska Governor’s call to arms included not just legislators wielding meat cleavers on the public’s right to know, but also consumers wielding forks, knives and authentic marketplace clout.

As the Lincoln Journal Star put it in an editorial, the “hungry army” that has been aroused is a growing network of consumers who want meat that is more humanely raised, that does not pollute the environment, that is healthy, and that is free of synthetic hormones, and chemicals.

humane,logoNext that “hungry army” may march on growth hormones, or excessive antibiotics, or any number of industrial practices that hold the stage as issues of common concern. Most citizens feel that the basic right of knowledge and choice is theirs and should remain theirs, an essential element of the American and Nebraskan democratic tradition.

The agriculture industry group We Support Agriculture apparently remains distrustful of HSUS. They did not respond to a request for comment. According to press releases on their website, they remain convinced that  animal welfare groups intend ultimately to terminate all livestock husbandry, and to convert everyone to vegetarianism.

In talking with members of the Nebraska Agriculture Council, I heard no one speak about eliminating animal agriculture. They spoke rather about creating more opportunities for small and mid-size farmers. I heard them speak, also, about their cooperative effort to pioneer a way forward with healthy, local humane husbandry using a robust and sophisticated network of 21st century technologies to help blaze the trail.

Jocelyn Nickerson, HSUS state director for Nebraska, had this to say: “This is all about protecting family farms, and that extends well beyond Nebraska. Nebraska is a tough state, but we’ve made strides in relationship building, in getting our message out about protecting family farms, and in improving conditions for animals on the farms. That’s a good thing, no two ways about it.

“Our ultimate goal is not to stop livestock production, but to promote humanely and sustainably raised products. We’re doing it because it’s important, because it’s the right thing to do, and because that’s what consumers are demanding.”

end –

Author’s Note: Along with several producer coops, Open Harvest consumer coop grocery in Lincoln is a partner in the newly formed Nebraska Agriculture Council. I serve on the Board for Open Harvest, which does business with over 110 Nebraska farms. I’m also on the Advisory Board for Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska, and a member of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.

Overheard at the County Fair

Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) faced a heaping dose of raw voter intensity last week, as news accounts told the tale. At a town meeting in the capital city of Lincoln on Monday, August 8, he heard from a variegated crop of angry Nebraskans venting from the right and the left about America’s dizzily declining economic prospects and the political ploys in Washington that provoked the most recent twists and downturns.

But when Johanns arrived at the Lancaster County Fair later that afternoon, the scene was serious and generally sedate. He came to the fairgrounds to talk about the farming outlook for the nation and for Nebraska. Because he is a former Secretary of the USDA (2005-07), and current member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, his words have potential for resonance. But he didn’t say much. He was smooth, polished, and adroit at skirting potential triggers of controversy. His main points of information:

  • The downgrading of USA debt rating, and the wobbly economy, mean the USDA budget will be drastically diminished. When he was Secretary, he said, about 63% of the USDA budget went to nutrition programs like SNAP and school meals; but now that figure is up to about 83% leaving only about 17% for actual farm programs. “Be prepared for further downgrades,” Johanns said. “The weak economy will inevitably have a huge influence on the next ag bill.”
  • “There will be no sacred cows,” Johanns said in reference to impending budget cuts. The USDA ethanol subsidies that have aided and abetted the spread of GMO corn across the Heartland is all but certain to be cut. “There just aren’t votes for it,” said Johanns, who has been a big supporter of the subsidies in the past. Undoubtedly the decline of support among other Senators is the basic realization that it takes more energy and money to produce a gallon of ethanol that you can get from it. It’s a losing proposition.
  • The 2012 Farm Bill is on its way, Johanns also noted, but he expects that nothing much will happen this year (2011). As he sees it, there is no momentum for action in either the Senate or the House. The key areas of debate for the 2012 farm bill will be around crop insurance, the safety net for farmers.

The meeting soon gave way to questions. Chuck Hassebrook stood to ask Johanns to take a good look at the Grassley Johnson Rural America Preservation Act. Proposed by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IN) and Tim Johnson (D-SD), the act could close loopholes and make the existing subsidy limits real.

Hassebrook, who is not only executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs but also a Regent for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a major land-grant institution, said that it’s time to put an end to mega subsidies for mega farms.

He said we need to put effective and meaningful caps on payments to the nation’s largest farms because we cannot afford them, and they harm rural America since the payments are often used to drive smaller operations out of business.

In the late August afternoon at the county fair, though, the most heartfelt and insightful message came from Nancy Packard of Lincoln. She attended the listening session with her elderly mother. Ms. Packard introduced herself as a Nebraskan with deep roots. She noted the Heartland farming efforts of her father, her grandfather, and her great grandfather.

“It takes 10,000 years to make a prairie,” Ms. Packard said, “I know that because I have been working on re-establishing the prairie on a piece of our land for 20 years. It’s not easy…Now we are using this resource, this ancient beautiful prairie soil not to grow food but to grow GMO corn with toxic chemicals to supplement fuel for motor vehicle fuel. It’s very, very wrong.

“We need to go back to smaller, family scale farms,” she told Senator Johanns. “And we need to stop ripping up and destroying the earth for energy. We need to draw our strength from the land and our energy from the Sun.”

Latter-Day Luther Nails Troubling Thesis to GM Farm & Food Cathedrals

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Don M. Huber, Ph.D.

After trucking across the high plains for five hours, and casting my eyes over perhaps 100,000 acres or more of winter’s still deathly gray industrial farmland, I came face to face with the newly famous Dr. Don M. Huber in the cave-dark meeting room of the Black Horse Inn just outside the American Heartland village of Creighton, Nebraska.

On the morning of March 24, along with about 80 farmers and Extension agents, I listened as Huber discoursed with erudition and eloquence upon industrial farming practices that may be impacting nearly every morsel of food produced on the planet, and that subsequently may also be having staggeringly serious health consequences for plants, animals, and human beings.

Huber is emeritus soil scientist of Purdue University, and a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served as an intelligence analyst, for 41 years, active and reserves. In Nebraska, he stood ramrod straight for three hours with no notes and spoke with an astonishing depth and range of knowledge on crucial, controversial matters of soil science, genetic engineering, and the profound impact of the widely used herbicide glyphosate upon soil and plants, and ultimately upon the health of animals and human beings.

Dressed in a conservative dark suit and tie, Huber set the stage for his presentation by observing that he has been married for 52 years, and has 11 children, 36 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. He then began his formal talk framed by a PowerPoint slide bearing a Biblical quote: “All flesh is grass.” – Isaiah 4:6. With this he emphasized the foundational reality that the biotech grains we eat, as well as the biotech grains eaten by cows, hogs, and chickens, are grown in vast herbicide-treated fields.

Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door.

For the domineering giants of industrial agriculture — multinational corporations, universities, and governments — Huber’s assertions about the impact of glyphosate, and the mounting scientific questions about GMO crops, may be as significant and disrupting as Martin Luther’s “heretical” act in 1517. That’s when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to challenge the systemic problems in the almighty institutions of his era.

Luther disputed the claim that spiritual forgiveness from sins could be legitimately sold for money. Huber and other researchers say they are accumulating evidence that — along with the 2010 report of the U.S. President’s Cancer panel which bluntly blames chemicals for the staggering prevalence of cancers — raises profoundly challenging questions about the chemical and genetic-engineering practices of industrial agriculture. The challenge, if it holds up, has implications not just for agricultural institutions, but also for the primary food chain serving the Earth’s population.

Not an altogether new controversy, the complex matters of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering and the far-flung use of herbicides have been exponentially accentuated in the last year by virtue of its ominous context: last summer’s epic oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation-ripping 9.0 earthquake in Japan earlier this month, with its subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown which is contaminating the nation’s water and food chain, in combination with the statistical reality that on our planet of nearly seven billion people, over a billion human beings — one of every six of us — is hungry.

All of this was brought into prominent public focus — both sharp and fuzzy — in January of this year by the unlikely matter of alfalfa.

Challenges to the Web of Life

The seminar with Dr. Huber, sponsored by Knox County Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs, commenced on a somber note. The moderator announced that Terry Gompert, 66, a veteran Extension educator and respected advocate for sustainable agriculture, and a man who had played a key role in organizing the conference, had just suffered a massive heart attack.  A moment of silence followed before Dr. Huber began his presentation. Mr. Gompert died on March 25, the day after the conference.

Dr. Huber discusses food and safety concerns at the Black Horse Inn, Creighton, Nebraska. (Photo by S. McFadden)

At the conference, Huber’s talk was highly technical, yet he had easy command of voluminous detail. For many in the audience, it must have sounded like an alien language as he spun out the esoteric terms: zwitterion, desorbtion, translocation, rhizosphere, meristemic, speudomanads, microbiocidae, bradyrhizobium, shikimate, and more.

Huber spoke about a range of key factors involved in plant growth, including sunlight, water, temperature, genetics, and nutrients taken up from the soil. “Any change in any of these factors impacts all the factors,” he said. “No one element acts alone, but all are part of a system.”

“When you change one thing,” he said, “everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.”

That brought him to the subject of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide around the world, and a chemical most commonly recognized in the product named Roundup®. Because it is so widely used, Huber said, it is having a profound impact upon mega millions of farm acres around the world. More than 155 million acres of cropland were treated with glyphosate during the 2008 growing season, and even more by now. Subsequently, Huber said, this chemical is having a sweeping impact on the food chain.

He asserted that glyphosate compromises plant defense mechanisms and thereby increases their susceptibility to disease. He said that it reduces the availability and uptake of essential nutrients, and that it increases the virulence of pathogens that attack plants. Ultimately, Huber said, all of these factors reduce crop vigor and yield  (Yield Drag).

Most dramatically, Huber reported on what he described as a newly discovered pathogen. While the pathogen is not new to the environment, Huber said, it is new to science. This  pathogen apparently increases in soil treated with glyphosate, he said, and is then taken up by plants, later transmitted to animals via their feed, and onward to human beings by the plants and meat they consume. The pathogen is extraordinarily small. It can be observed only via an electron microscope operating at 38,000 power of magnification. The pathogen has yet to be phenotyped (descrubed)  or named, though that work is almost complete, Huber said. He specified that all the research and data would be published in a matter of weeks.

Huber warned that ignoring these emerging realities may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious.  He said it could also, and apparently already is, compromising the health and well-being of animals and humans.

The Stratosphere of Controversy

Alfalafa

What propelled Huber, glyphosate and biotech crops into the stratosphere of public attention earlier this year was a pending decision on alfalfa (hay) by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the principal feedstock for the dairy industry. The USDA was being asked to approve unrestricted use of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, which could result in as many as 20 million more acres of land being sprayed with up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides each year.

Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that fly and cross-pollinate between fields many miles apart, the biotech crop will inevitably contaminate natural and organic alfalfa varieties.

Dr. Huber wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for a delay in making the decision, and for the resources to do further research. In his letter, Huber raised questions about the safety of glyphosate. Huber’s letter also warned of the new pathogen, apparently related to the use of glyphosate, which appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock fed these crops, and that they have experienced sterility, spontaneous abortions, and infertility.

“I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status,” Huber wrote. “In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.” Vilsack set Huber’s letter aside for later consideration, and on January 27 he authorized the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa. Immediately thereafter, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA, charging that the agency’s approval of genetically engineered alfalfa was unlawful.

While Huber’s letter of warning was not intended for public consumption, it was leaked and immediately went viral on the Internet. In a matter of days Huber became a lightning rod, attracting intense attention from both the scientific community, and the general public, which is  understandably concerned about the genetically engineered food it has never wanted and — since GM food is unlabeled — never been able to identify. The prospect of a new and virulent pathogen sweeping through the food chain was profoundly unsettling

Meanwhile, researchers were deeply upset that they were not first notified by Huber of the new pathogen — as is customary — before the matter became public knowledge. They felt they had been blindsided. Huber says that his letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack was leaked, and thus its publication was not his doing.

Huber became the focus of tremendous pushback. His message of urgent concern and the need for delay until more research was completed was unwelcome in many corporate and university citadels, and was deemed heresy by some vested in the multi-billion dollar industry of GMO crops.

The biggest beef researchers have with Huber — who is well known in his field as a member of the American Phytopathological Society and as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System —  is that he has not yet made data available for scientific scrutiny. Many researchers, including some at Purdue, say Huber’s data and hypotheses, when studied, are not likely to hold up to peer review, and that in general his allegations are exaggerated.

When contacted for comment on Huber’s concerns, Monsanto, maker of Roundup ® (glyphosate) and producer of Roundup Ready® seeds, had their press office send me a link to a web page with a compilation of  criticisms of Huber’s work. Monsanto also sent along a copy of their official corporate statement: “Independent field studies and lab tests by multiple U.S. universities and by Monsanto prior to, and in response to, these allegations,” the statement reads in part, “do not corroborate his claims.”

Consequences

Glyphosate is a particularly strong broad-spectrum toxin with the power to kill many kinds of plants that have been designated as weeds. As a chelator, or binder, glyphosate changes the physiology and thereby makes plants susceptible to plant pathogens. Roundup Ready® plants are tolerant of glyphosate because technology inserts a new gene. While the RR plants do not die after the toxic herbicide is sprayed over farm fields, the plants do suffer a reduced efficiency in some crucial regards, according to some researchers, changing the nutrient balance in plants. When that change occurs, all subsequent relationships — including the diet of livestock and humans — is changed.

The extensive use of glyphosate and the rapid, widespread use of GM crops resistant to it, have intensified the deficiencies of essential micronutrients, and some macronutrients. This is leading, Huber argues, to weaker and more disease-prone plants, animals, and people. In his presentation, he offered a list of about 40 diseases that, he says, tend to increase in farm fields where glyphosate is used. Those plant diseases include Sun Scald, Leaf Chlorosis, Tomato Wilt, Apple Canker, Barley Root Rot, Bean Root Rot, Wheat Take All, Wheat Head Scab, Wheat Glume, and Grape Black Goo.

Subsequently, he hypothesized, the decrease in nutrients and the increase in the new pathogen in food lead to empty calories, which likely explains increases in allergies, and chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The list of diseases that Huber suspects may be affected by glyphosate and the new pathogen is, he said, increasing as growers and pathologists recognize the cause-effect relationship:

  • Increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, tests, and skin melanomas.
  • Increase in allergic reactions in general, and an increase of up to 50% in soybean allergies in the USA in the last three years.
  • Increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps as much as 9,000% over the last 30 years. Specialists say they expect the incidence of Alzhiemer’s to spike far higher over the next four years.
  • Increase in the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, which researchers say, is being provoked in part by the factor of chemical pesticides.

What Has Changed?

As if it were a mantra, during his three-hour talk Dr. Huber often raised a rhetorical question: What has changed?  If all of these troubling conditions are on the rise for plants, animals and humans in recent years, then what has changed to bring it about?

The most apparent change, he answered, is that glyphosate and genetically engineered plants are out widely in the world. According to Huber, farm animals, including cattle, pigs, horses and chickens that are fed GM crops grown on glyphosate-treated fields have shown an alarming increase in sterility, spontaneous abortions, and stillbirths. By way of anecdotal evidence, he said he gets two to three communications a week from farmers and veterinarians about this troubling phenomenon. “We can no longer ignore the increase in livestock infertility, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions over the last three to four years,” he said.

GMO feed grown on glyphosate treated fields tends to irritate the stomach of livestock, such that many farm animals are fed daily rations of bicarbonate of soda in an attempt to sooth their stomach lining. Huber showed a slide bearing images of dissected hog stomachs; one from a hog fed GMO feed and the other conventional feed. The GMO hog had a rudely inflamed mass of stomach and intestinal tissue.

A handout from Dr. Huber that was made available at the Nebraska seminar cited 117 peer-reviewed scientific studies that raise serious questions about the impact of glyphosate. These studies have reached critical mass, Huber said, and they could no longer be discounted or ignored. Yet, there are also a substantial number of studies stating that glyphosate and GMO crops are safe and ought to be the cause of no concern.

What Is this Stuff?

Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the USA. Every year, 5 to 8 million pounds are used on lawns and yards, and another 85 to 90 million pounds are used in agriculture. It is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially weeds known to compete with crops grown widely across the Midwest. Initially sold by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name Roundup®, its U.S. patent expired in 2000, and thus glyphosate is now marketed in the U.S. and worldwide in different solution strengths under various trade names. Because these products may contain other ingredients, they may have different effects.

Glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme that is involved in the synthesis of amino acids in the plant.  Many fungi and bacteria also have this same pathway. Aromatic amino acids in plants are the building blocks for many of their defense compounds.

Some crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to it (i.e., Roundup Ready®). Such crops allow farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against both broadleaf and cereal weeds, but the development of similar resistance in some weed species is emerging as a costly problem.

Glyphosate kills plants by interfering with the synthesis of the amino acids which are used by the plant as building blocks in for growth and for defense against disease and insects. Plants that are genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate contain a gene that provides an alternative pathway for nutrients that is not blocked by the glyphosate herbicide. But this duplicate pathway requires energy from the plant that could be used for yield, thus many GMO crops experience Yield Drag – a reduction in yield.

Huber had several recommendations for growers, especially a much more judicious use of glyphosate, as small a dose as possible. He said farmers also need to provide supplementary nutrients to counteract its effects and thereby to restore plant resistance to toxins and diseases.

He mentioned that there are other herbicide products on the market, but they are more specific to particular weeds and degrade more swiftly, whereas glyphosate is broad spectrum and thus kills many types of weeds, and also endures for a longer span of time in the soil and plants.

“Slow down,” Huber said. “It takes time to restore soil biota if a field has been treated with glyphosate. We have 30 years of accumulated damage, so it may take some time to remediate all of this.”

“There are a lot of serious questions about the impacts of glyphosate that we need answers for in order to continue using this technology,” he continued. “I don’t believe we can ignore these questions any more if we want to ensure a safe, sustainable food supply and abundant crop production.”

Primary Realities

In his presentation at the Black Horse Inn Huber was convincing in his demeanor, encyclopedic in his knowledge, precise and eloquent in his delivery.  Late in the morning as he spoke of the fertility and yield issues, the complications for farmers, and the increased prevalence of disease, his eyes momentarily welled up with tears. Then as he concluded his talk he received a standing ovation from the assembly of about 80 Nebraska farmers and Extension staff.

Still, Huber’s personal integrity and his positive reception, at least at the Black Horse Inn, may be of small consequence in the face of a tsunami of criticism arising from the citadels of corporations and universities. None of that will be resolved until the data he and others have gathered passes peer review.

The primary realities in the GM and glyphosate debates are corporate avidity, scientific uncertainty, and overwhelming public disapproval. Many peer-reviewed articles suggest that biotech crops and foods are harmless; many suggest otherwise. The jury is still out. However, as Huber was arguing, the number of published articles showing that glyphosate and the biotech crops grown in its chemical soup cause harm to livestock is rising rapidly.

Studies showing the public has little taste for genetically engineered foods, and especially not for unlabeled  and thus unidentifiable genetically engineered foods,  remain convincing. According to reports from Food & Water Watch, 90% of Americans want GM foods labeled, and 91% say the FDA should not allow genetically modified pigs, chicken and cattle into the food supply. To date, the main parties keen about promoting unlabeled GM foods, and their herbicidal aides, are multinational corporations and their investors.

“Before we jump off the cliff,”  Huber said, “we need to have more research done. It takes a lot to reverse the problems.” Many observers would argue, convincingly, that we have already jumped off the cliff.

Huber sought just $25,000 to do sequencing to establish the phenotype of the newly identified pathogen, and then to name it. But no government, university, or corporation would provide that relatively paltry amount of money. Finally, a private individual came forward and made the money available. Then the lab that was originally keen to do the phenotyping backed out. The issue had become a hot potato and they did not want the controversy.  Still, Huber persevered, and he said they should have the phenotype established, and then be able to name the pathogen, in a matter of weeks.

“Let me emphasize that all of this is not a calamity,” Huber said, surprisingly, near the end of his talk. “Agriculture is the most critical infrastructure for any society. American agriculture has undergone a revolution and it will continue to progress.

“Still, I saw no reason to rush into the critical alfalfa decision and to thereby cause so many more acres to be treated with glyphosate,” he said. “Why take a chance until we get the answers? Research needs to be done…There is lots of new data that needs to be considered, lots of new studies that cannot be ignored.”

(Addendum – May 6, 2011 – Don Huber has written a second letter to the USDA with even further detail.

Waves of Change: Three Strategies for Millennial Agrarian Pioneers

Waves of change have irregularly swept through the realms of food and farms over the decades. By most reckonings, another massive wave is building toward a crest, driven by oil prices, climate change, market speculation, genetic experimentation, human health corruption, corporate interest, and consumer demand.

Chuck Hassebrook

In the context of these roiling factors, Chuck Hassebrook had a message for the audience at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s mid-February conference: “We can shape the next wave of change with sustainable agriculture.” But, he added, to do that we will need the same qualities of determination and perseverance as the pioneers.

Hassebrook is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA). He also serves on the Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska, a powerhouse among America’s agricultural academies, where he is one voice for sustainability in an institutional chorus determinedly advancing industrial approaches to farms and food.

In his talk, he picked up on the theme of change in the historical period starting after World War II when the wave was propelled by power equipment, petroleum-based chemical inputs, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Initially those innovations made farm work easier and more prosperous.  But now, 60 years later, we must ask ‘what hath we wrought?’

There is a new wave of change now, Hassebrook said, but if we want a better sustainable future, we are going to have to take responsibility for creating it. “Each person has a moral responsibility to leave the land in at least as good a condition as it was when it came under their caretaking, and possibly even better,” he said. Then he offered three strategies.

Three strategies

1. Sustainable agriculture needs to continue to check its authenticity and find ways to make it possible for small and mid-size farms to take a fair share of the market. Studies show consumers overwhelmingly trust family-size farms more than they trust the large corporate farms, especially when it comes to ethical treatment of human beings and animals.

We need to band together to market our products to get to a place where the majority of the people who do the work are also owners of the land. That’s what a family farm is.

In the era of the pioneers, the people who worked the land owned it. Not so much now. Instead, the corporations or people who own the land hire employees to work the land for them, and those employees are in the majority of cases poor.

Hassebrook’s observations put me in mind of Trauger Groh, my co-author for  Farms of Tomorrow (1990), and one of the founders of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. “If you work in nature with animals or with crops you have to take a deep personal interest in it,” Trauger said while I interviewed him for the The Call of the Land. “The hired person cannot do this. A salary is insufficient motivation. We need another way.

“We have no employees on our farm,” Trauger told me. “We have partners. At the Temple-Wilton Community Farm our principle has been to run the farm by a group of independent farmers in association with each other, not employees…Employment is the last outgrowth of slavery. If you are employed, you have to work on order. The employer sets the tone and says what you must do. People won’t want that in the future.”

2.  The second strategy Hassebrook offered involves the role of sustainable agriculture in addressing climate change. As studies show, organic soil absorbs lots of CO2 from the atmosphere and fixes it in the soil beneficially, thus helping stabilize climate in an era of wildly dramatic change.

“America and the world need our participation in the debate on climate change, not just in Washington, but also locally,” Hassebrook said. “We need to talk with our neighbors. Lots of rural folk continue their disbelief in climate change and think they are being conservative. But there is nothing conservative about that position. It is not a traditional value to put your head in the sand…If we continue to keep our heads in the sand, it may be too late to do anything about it. We need to take action now.”

In that regard the NSAS conference also heard from Abe Collins, an organic farmer who raises beef in St. Albans, Vermont, and is the founder of New Soil Matrix. His talk was titled Soil Formation as the Basis of Environmental Security and Economic Development.

“Everything good comes from the soil,” Collins said. “That’s our basic assumption. Increasing soil carbon is the key to our environmental security, and to both urban and rural development.

For many years, Collins said, the common-knowledge maxim has been that it takes 1,000 years to build one inch of topsoil. But that is no longer true. We now know how, he said, to build up to eight inches of topsoil a year to pull carbon out of the air and thereby to draw down dangerous CO2 levels in the atmosphere. “We can reduce CO2 levels substantially,” he said, “while enhancing our ecosystems and increasing profits.”

Collins encouraged land managers to enter The Soil Carbon Challenge, sometimes called the World Carbon Cup. It’s an international competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. The hope is that the competition will spur further innovation.

3. – Hassebrook’s third strategy was to rein in government subsidy of large farms so that small and mid-size farms can have a fair chance. The way it works now, he said, is the bigger you are the more government subsidy you get. As long as we keep the policies that support that approach we will not have the resources to invest in organic and sustainable approaches to the land.

In 2007, the Center for Rural Affairs analyzed farms in 13 leading farm states. They learned that in those states, just 260 of the largest farm operations received more money from USDA farm programs than all of the people and communities in all of the counties combined — a total of nearly 3 million people in over 1,400 municipalities. The reality of that gross imbalance shines a sharp light on the distortion government money has brought to the realm of food and farms, and shows why small farms struggle while huge, corporate farms prosper.

Woody Tasch of the Slow Money Alliance makes a similar point about lack of support for sustainable ag. He points out that only a tiny fraction of foundation assets are allocated to organic agriculture. “We have $500 billion of private foundation assets in the USA,” Tasch has written, “and less that 0.1 percent of that — just a few hundredths of a percent — goes to support sustainable agriculture.”

What it comes down to, Hassebrook told the NSAS conference, is a choice about the impending wave of change: “We have got to limit what the big farms get. Direct payments usually go to land that is owned by a landlord and worked by poorly paid employees. We need to stop subsidizing the biggest and most powerful, and instead use those resources to support family farms, and to invest in the future of rural communities and the millions of people who live there.

In closing, Hassebrook referred to an editorial he had read a while back in the Omaha World Herald. “We can draw inspiration from the pioneers,” he said, “for they were people just like us: good and bad, poor and rich, successful and unsuccessful. But in general the pioneers had some important qualities. They had perseverance. They were visionaries. They made sacrifices to realize their dreams. They cared about each other, about community, and about the future. They saw what could be and then they did not let challenges dissuade them. They faced reality, and they were open to new ideas.”

Those qualities and attitudes, Hassebrook said, are what modern-day pioneers of sustainable agriculture need now to shape the mounting waves of change in our farms and food.