Sunday, 23 September 2012

More on Ayn Rand - It's a Little Scary

Just in time (perhaps a day late)  National Post columnist Terence Corcoran (a longtime libertarian) has written a piece on the  influence of Ayn Rand's ideas. In the spirit of hearing all sides, here it is.

Terence Corcoran: Ayn Rand — still the most dangerous woman in America

Veteran American libertarian author and activist Jerome Tuccille once wrote a book titled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Not true in my case. For me it all began with Walt Whitman, the 19th-century mystic whose mesmerizing American poetry helped turn me into a free market individualist. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…” But that’s another story.
These days, I find what began with Walt Whitman is usually fired up in me now by leftist economists who promote big government, Occupy activists who attack corporate greed and politicians who cravenly exploit class warfare over allegedly expanding inequality.
Which is how this piece began, last December, while I was driving home from the office, the radio tuned to a CBC interview with U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, prolific best-selling author, renowned statist, Columbia professor, United Nations sideman and an intellectual booster of Occupy Wall Street. For blood-boiling purposes, Mr. Sachs is perfect fuel, and during the CBC interview he delivered all the key words: U.S. politics is corrupt, Republicans and Democrats are complicit, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wall Street, a “veneer of democracy,” a system run by greedy Wall Street thugs and the rich who “don’t follow the law and don’t pay taxes.”
It was pure Occupyism. But then, unprovoked, Mr. Sachs spontaneously veered off the road into an attack on somebody called Ayn Rand. “The Tea Party, the leaders of it, follow Ayn Rand,” he said. “I don’t know how many people here have read this awful woman [much laughter from audience]. Absolutely one of the most pathetic personalities. Really! If you read her biography, she was a sad, sad, lonely, nasty woman, because she preached … antagonism to compassion.”
Mr. Sachs, who was promoting his new book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, said he had broken out into a “cold sweat” after reading a section of Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, a notorious 100-page speech by one of her characters, John Galt.
“It’s so ugly. Ugly, I’m telling you. It says if you as much as give a smile to a poor person, you’re degrading yourself, you’re making yourself a slave of this person. If you give them the pennies that they want, you’re setting the road on the path of destruction.”
Weird, I thought. Why would a world-famous economist, followed by millions, advisor to UN officials and presidents, launch into a personal attack on a novelist who’s been dead more than 30 years by citing one of her novels and paraphrasing the words of one of her characters? How many people have even heard of Ayn Rand? And who the hell cares what one of her characters said in a novel published 60 years ago?
Lots of people, it appears. Ayn Rand may be long dead, but she seems to have been resurrected as the most dangerous woman in America. Judging by the barrage of attacks and references in the media, one can only conclude that Ayn Rand is a pervasive and increasingly powerful force in U.S. politics, possibly on the brink of toppling the prevailing orthodoxies of modern American liberalism.
Media references to Ayn Rand have skyrocketed over the last year, many of them elaborate putdowns. Her name is dropped like a hand grenade into articles and commentaries, as if readers will instantly recognize the menace. Her name has become an explosive device — like Karl Marx’s or Chairman Mao’s —apparently enough to rankle and send shivers down spines.
Major U.S. columnists — Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan — have all dabbled in Rand in the last few months, none favourably. Just last week, in The New Yorker, Steven Coll shoehorned Rand into the context of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention. The president, said Coll, offered “a powerful response to the dystopian individualism of the Ayn Rand-influenced Republicans and their leader, Paul Ryan, the Vice-Presidential nominee, by invoking ‘citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.’”
Much of the recent Randophobia — including the Sachs attack — came even before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice-presidential running mate
I’m not going to spend any time reviewing Rand’s ideas. Whether fictional John Galt really said what Jeffrey Sachs describes isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter when it comes to observing the phenomenon of Ayn Rand as leftist/liberal ideological nightmare.
Looking out over the economic and ideological landscape of America today — a land of big government, massive debt, pervasive regulation, fiscal cliffs — there is scant evidence that Ayn Rand has had much influence on the political life of the country. But today Randophobia appears to be reaching new highs. MSNBC’s talk socialist Lawrence O’Donnell recently devoted much of one show to Ayn Rand’s views as a greed worshipper. “That’s right,” said O’Donnell, “Ayn Rand worshipped greed!”
Rand is everywhere, even the sports pages. Commenting on the NHL lockout, a Globe and Mail sports writer exposed the evil heart of the conflict. Some of the NHL owners, wrote Sean Gordon, “subscribe to a stoutly capitalist and virulently anti-union philosophy. That is to say they’re Randians — adherents to the beliefs of the late polemicist and novelist Ayn Rand — or at very least have strong libertarian sympathies.”
In Newsweek last week, the worldly novelist and stand-up intellectual Martin Amis, analyzing the Republican convention in Tampa, went after Ryan and fellow Republican Ron Paul as “anti-abortion libertarians who have managed to distill a few predatory slogans from Ayn Rand’s unreadable novel, Atlas Shrugged (and if young Paul is blessed with another daughter, he will surely christen her Ayn Ryan—to match Ron’s Rand Paul).” Such wit.
Much of the recent Randophobia — including the Sachs attack — came even before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice-presidential running mate. Ryan claimed to be an avid Rand follower, or at least he apparently had been until he became the vice-presidential candidate and busily began distancing himself from the most dangerous woman in America. “If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he said shortly after his selection by Romney — Thomas Aquinas being the 13th century Catholic philosopher who brought reason to the Church’s otherwise irrational worldview. Rand was an atheist, Ryan declared. She was also a hardline pro-choicer, which would not sit well with Ryan the Catholic. Various Catholic organizations also denounced Ryan for having “put the teachings of ultra-capitalist Ayn Rand … before the teachings of Jesus and the Church…”
Not all of Rand’s critics are categorical in their condemnation. Christopher Hitchens, by my reading, had a soft spot for Rand, a fellow atheist
Village Voice columnist Victoria Bekiempis immediately attacked Paul Ryan’s Randian apostasy and his quick retreat into the arms of Aquinas. “Of course, this is complete bullshit. He hasn’t abandoned his interpretation of Rand’s economic policies. More importantly, though, there’s no way Ryan could read Aquinas — and adhere to his beliefs — without lying to himself and/or doing some serious mental gymnastics. And that’s because Aquinas would have f—— hated Ryan’s capitalism.”
Possibly, although it’s doubtful Aquinas would have put it that way. In any case, Rand (who was herself a fan of Aquinas up to a point) would also likely have hated Ryan’s version of capitalism. She certainly had no time for conservatism, whose unprincipled power seeking she saw as more dangerous than liberalism. At least liberals stood for something. “Today ‘conservatives’ are futile, impotent and, culturally, dead,” she once wrote. “They have nothing to offer and can achieve nothing. They can only help to destroy intellectual standards, to disintegrate thought, to discredit capitalism, and to accelerate this country’s uncontested collapse into despair and dictatorship.”
Not all of Rand’s critics are categorical in their condemnation. Christopher Hitchens, by my reading, had a soft spot for Rand, a fellow atheist. He did call her novels “transcendentally awful,” and in a 2008 column, he said that Rand and Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Science founder, were “two of the battiest females every to have infested the American scene.” But he also, in a 2009 lecture, said he has “some respect” for one of Rand’s non-fiction works, The Virtue of Selfishness, even though he said he doubted there was “any need for essays advocating selfishness among human beings,” since “some things require no further reinforcement.”
In New York magazine’s fall preview issue a few weeks ago, the back-of-the-book featurette called “The Approval Matrix” placed a reference to Rand in the “highbrow despicable” quadrant. “Are we really going to spend the next three months talking about Ayn Rand?”
Could be. On Tuesday this week, the Ayn Rand Institute in Los Angeles launched a new book that could spell continuing election-year trouble for liberals and conservatives. Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, written by Institute executive Yaron Brook and associate Don Watkins, is a smooth, readable and easy-to-digest summary of Randian theory plugged into current political and economic developments. This is no John Galt marathon of dense theory in a fictional setting. Section headings alone will cause heads to explode left and right: The Right’s Crusade for Big Government; The 2008 Housing Meltdown: The Crisis That Government Built; Rethinking Selfishness; The Immoral Entitlement State; Why Only Rational Selfishness Will Do; You Are Not Your Brother’s Health Care Provider.
Steve Forbes, in a blurb for the new book, said Free Market Revolution will raise the ire of every statist, socialist and crony capitalist. Rand understood — as do the authors of this too timely book — that free markets are, indeed, moral while Big Government is manifestly not.”
On Thursday, in New York, the Ayn Rand Institute held a fundraiser at the St. Regis Hotel under the banner: The Atlas Shrugged Revolution. Speakers included Brook, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore, and John Allison, a member of the board of the Rand Institute.
It’s hard to tell today who has more to gain or lose from the seeming resurrection of Ayn Rand as an ideological enemy of the statists
Rand’s supporters appear to be moving in on Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian bastion long headed by Ed Crane but now presided over by John Allison, the Ayn Rand Institute board member. Allison, a former banker from North Carolina, with funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, themselves characters out of Occupy/liberal nightmares, has said he aims to reshape Cato along Randian lines.
This is war. Rand condemned liberals and conservatives, but had even stronger views about libertarians. In a 2009 biography of Rand, author Jennifer Burns records that during Rand’s public speeches, she called libertarians “scum,” “intellectual cranks” and “plagiarists.”
It’s hard to tell today who has more to gain or lose from the seeming resurrection of Ayn Rand as an ideological enemy of the statists. She had no time for most other worldviews, right, left or libertarian. She would have fought the Cato Institute, she would have rejected the Tea Party movement, and she would have sought to demolish the Jeffrey Sachs of the world.
Whether all the recent attacks are signs of a real surge in Ayn Rand and her radical outlook I cannot tell. She’s still in the news, particularly in the wake of Mitt Romney’s video reference to the 47% of Americans who pay no tax and receive government funds. Critics quickly pounced, accusing Romney of talking about “moochers,” a Randian phrase. On Wednesday, Open Salon blogger and former Republican speechwriter Ted Frier said he thought Romney had exposed his “inner Ayn Rand” and that she was “enjoying a comeback in plutocratic circles.”
If Ayn Rand were really making a comeback, nobody would be safe. And everybody seems to know it.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Ayn Rand vs. Rachel Carson

They were born just two years apart but grew up and were educated in very different countries and cultures, Ayn Rand in Russia, Rachel Carson in America.  They were smart capable women who both ended up living and working in the United States during the 1940's, '50's, and '60's. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, Rand  lived into her late 70's and died in 1982. The two women cared about very different things, and both continue to have a profound impact on how people look at the world. There's probably no simpler test of someone's world view, even values, than to ask which author you have on the bookshelf at home.  Anyone who's read this blog will know which one I like, but I have tried to at least understand the underpinnings of Rand's rational/ethical egoism. Perhaps she at least had the courage to boldly state what fundamentally drives capitalism, much like Gordon Gekko's famous speech on greed in Oliver Stone's Wall Street.  The U.S. election of course has provided a backdrop to this sharp debate on the role government should play in the economy and people's lives, and we will have a similar discussion here in Canada now that the NDP is settling in as the official opposition. Polls show that Canadians are at least kicking the tires.

Nowhere is this debate more lively than in agriculture policy. Just this week: livestock farmers are in financial trouble because of soaring feedgrain prices, should government help or let the market do its work? ADL is closing its small abattoir in Summerside, is it the government's responsibility to keep it open?   Many Islanders want to see environment inspectors be much more aggressive on controlling  land use issues and pesticide spraying, while farmers say they're the ones who have to determine how to farm. The Federal government has just announced it's cutting back the income support levels for farmers when markets collapse, leaving Canadian farmers more exposed to international and environmental  forces, and of course many farmers don't like it.  The on-going debate about supply management. The list could go on.

 I do think that Rachel Carson is misunderstood by many. She is the godmother of  modern environmentalism, forcing us all to see the complex links in nature, but she was also a hard headed realist.  Yes she warned about the risks of DDT, and eventually led to its being banned, but she wasn't a pesticide purist. Listen to this:

Carson says she's not opposed to the use of pesticides, but the indiscriminate use of pesticides by people who aren't properly trained. I think that's something that most people could support, and we see some of that reflected in better pesticide training and licensing, the ban on cosmetic use of pesticides in many urban areas.

Here's a longer piece on Rachel Carson, someone who certainly inspires me.

How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement

On June 4, 1963, less than a year after the controversial environmental classic “Silent Spring” was published, its author, Rachel Carson, testified before a Senate subcommittee on pesticides. She was 56 and dying of breast cancer. She told almost no one. She’d already survived a radical mastectomy. Her pelvis was so riddled with fractures that it was nearly impossible for her to walk to her seat at the wooden table before the Congressional panel. To hide her baldness, she wore a dark brown wig.
“Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history,” Senator Ernest Gruen­ing, a Democrat from Alaska, told Carson at the time.
“Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago this month. Though she did not set out to do so, Carson influenced the environmental movement as no one had since the 19th century’s most celebrated hermit, Henry David Thoreau, wrote about Walden Pond. “Silent Spring” presents a view of nature compromised by synthetic pesticides, especially DDT. Once these pesticides entered the biosphere, Carson argued, they not only killed bugs but also made their way up the food chain to threaten bird and fish populations and could eventually sicken children. Much of the data and case studies that Carson drew from weren’t new; the scientific community had known of these findings for some time, but Carson was the first to put them all together for the general public and to draw stark and far-reaching conclusions. In doing so, Carson, the citizen-scientist, spawned a revolution.
“Silent Spring,” which has sold more than two million copies, made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would in turn poison humankind. “Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,” she told the subcommittee. We still see the effects of unfettered human intervention through Carson’s eyes: she popularized modern ecology.
If anything, environmental issues have grown larger — and more urgent — since Carson’s day. Yet no single work has had the impact of “Silent Spring.” It is not that we lack eloquent and impassioned environmental advocates with the capacity to reach a broad audience on issues like climate change. Bill McKibben was the first to make a compelling case, in 1989, for the crisis of global warming in “The End of Nature.” Elizabeth Kolbert followed with “Field Notes From a Catastrophe.” Al Gore sounded the alarm with “An Inconvenient Truth,” and was awarded the Nobel Prize. They are widely considered responsible for shaping our view of global warming, but none was able to galvanize a nation into demanding concrete change in quite the way that Carson did.
What was it that allowed Carson to capture the public imagination and to forge America’s environmental consciousness?
Saint Rachel, “the nun of nature,” as she is called, is frequently invoked in the name of one environmental cause or another, but few know much about her life and work. “People think she came out of nowhere to deliver this Jeremiad of ‘Silent Spring,’ but she had three massive best sellers about the sea before that,” McKibben says. “She was Jacques Cousteau before there was Jacques Cousteau.”
The sea held an immense appeal to a woman who grew up landlocked and poor as Carson did. She was born in 1907 in the boom of the Industrial Age about 18 miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, in the town of Springdale. From her bedroom window, she could see smoke billow from the stacks of the American Glue Factory, which slaughtered horses. The factory, the junkyard of its time, was located less than a mile away, down the gently sloping riverbank from the Carsons’ four-room log cabin. Passers-by could watch old horses file up a covered wooden ramp to their death. The smell of tankage, fertilizer made from horse parts, was so rank that, along with the mosquitoes that bred in the swampland near the riverbank called the Bottoms, it prevented Springdale’s 1,200 residents from sitting on their porches in the evening.

Her father, Robert Carson, was a ne’er-do-well whose ventures inevitably failed; Carson’s elder sister, Marian, did shift work in the town’s coal-fired power plant. Carson’s mother, Maria, the ambitious and embittered daughter of a Presbyterian minister, had great hopes that her youngest daughter, Rachel, could be educated and would escape Springdale. Rachel won a scholarship to Pennsylvania College for Women, now known as Chatham University, in Pittsburgh. After graduation, she moved to Baltimore, where she attended graduate school for zoology at Johns Hopkins University and completed a master’s degree before dropping out to help support her family. The Carsons fared even worse during the Depression, and they fled Springdale, leaving heavy debts behind.
Carson became a science editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency founded under the New Deal. Eager to be a writer, she freelanced for The Atlantic and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. Driven by her love of the sea, she wrote on everything from where to go for summer vacation to what to do with the catch of the day to the life cycles of sea creatures. Carson believed that people would protect only what they loved, so she worked to establish a “sense of wonder” about nature. In her best-selling sea books — “The Sea Around Us,” “The Edge of the Sea” and “Under the Sea-Wind” — she used simple and sometimes sentimental narratives about the oceans to articulate sophisticated ideas about the inner workings of largely unseen things.
Carson was initially ambivalent about taking on what she referred to as “the poison book.” She didn’t see herself as an investigative reporter. By this time, she’d received the National Book Award for “The Sea Around Us” and established herself as the naturalist of her day. This was a much folksier and less controversial role than the one “the poison book” would put her in. Taking on some of the largest and most powerful industrial forces in the world would have been a daunting proposition for anyone, let alone a single woman of her generation. She tried to enlist other writers to tackle the dangers of pesticides. E.B. White, who was at The New Yorker, which serialized Carson’s major books, gently suggested that she investigate pesticides for The New Yorker herself. So she did.
“Silent Spring” begins with a myth, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” in which Carson describes “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Cognizant of connecting her ideal world to one that readers knew, Carson presents not a pristine wilderness but a town where people, roads and gutters coexist with nature — until a mysterious blight befalls this perfect place. “No witchcraft,” Carson writes, “no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
Carson knew that her target audience of popular readers included scores of housewives. She relied upon this ready army of concerned citizens both as sources who discovered robins and squirrels poisoned by pesticides outside their back doors and as readers to whom she had to appeal. Consider this indelible image of a squirrel: “The head and neck were outstretched, and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting that the dying animal had been biting at the ground.” Carson then asks her readers, “By acquiescing in an act that causes such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?”
Her willingness to pose the moral question led “Silent Spring” to be compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written nearly a century earlier. Both books reflected the mainstream Protestant thinking of their time, which demanded personal action to right the wrongs of society. Yet Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man. “She wanted us to understand that we were just a blip,” says Linda Lear, author of Carson’s definitive biography, “Witness for Nature.” “The control of nature was an arrogant idea, and Carson was against human arrogance.”

“Silent Spring” was more than a study of the effects of synthetic pesticides; it was an indictment of the late 1950s. Humans, Carson argued, should not seek to dominate nature through chemistry, in the name of progress. In Carson’s view, technological innovation could easily and irrevocably disrupt the natural system. “She was the very first person to knock some of the shine off modernity,” McKibben says. “She was the first to tap into an idea that other people were starting to feel.”
Carson’s was one of several moral calls to arms published at the start of the ’60s. Jane Jacobs’s “Death and Life of American Cities,” Michael Harrington’s “Other America,” Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” all captured a growing disillusionment with the status quo and exposed a system they believed disenfranchised people. But “Silent Spring,” more than the others, is stitched through with personal rage. In 1960, according to Carson’s assistant, after she found out that her breast cancer had metastasized, her tone sharpened toward the apocalyptic. “She was more hostile about what arrogant technology and blind science could do,” notes Lear, her biographer.
“No one,” says Carl Safina, an oceanographer and MacArthur fellow who has published several books on marine life, “had ever thought that humans could create something that could create harm all over the globe and come back and get in our bodies.” Safina took me out in his sea kayak around Lazy Point, an eastern spoke of Long Island, to see three kinds of terns, which zipped around us over the bay. We then crossed the point in his red Prius to visit thriving osprey, one species of bird that was beginning to die out when “Silent Spring” made public that DDT weakened their eggshells. As we peered through binoculars at a 40-foot-high nest woven from sticks, old mops and fishnets, a glossy black osprey returned to his mate and her chicks with a thrashing fish in his talons. Safina told me that he began to read “Silent Spring” when he was 14 years old, in the back seat of his parents’ sedan.
“I almost threw up,” he said. “I got physically ill when I learned that ospreys and peregrine falcons weren’t raising chicks because of what people were spraying on bugs at their farms and lawns. This was the first time I learned that humans could impact the environment with chemicals.” That a corporation would create a product that didn’t operate as advertised —“this was shocking in a way we weren’t inured to,” Safina said.
Though Carson talked about other pesticides, it was DDT — sprayed aerially over large areas of the United States to control mosquitoes and fire ants — that stood in for this excess. DDT was first synthesized in 1874 and discovered to kill insects in 1939 by Paul Hermann Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for this work. During World War II, DDT applied to the skin in powder form proved an effective means to control lice in soldiers. But it wasn’t just DDT’s effectiveness that led to its promotion, Carson maintained; it was a surfeit of product and labor. In her speeches, Carson claimed that after the war, out-of-work pilots and a glut of the product led the United States government and industry to seek new markets for DDT among American consumers.
By the time Carson began to be interested in pesticides, in the mid-1940s, concerns related to DDT were mounting among wildlife biologists at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Md., which was administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and elsewhere. Controversy over pesticides’ harmful effects on birds and plants led to high-profile lawsuits on the part of affected residents who wanted to stop the aerial spraying.

Carson used the era’s hysteria about radiation to snap her readers to attention, drawing a parallel between nuclear fallout and a new, invisible chemical threat of pesticides throughout “Silent Spring.” “We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation,” she wrote. “How then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”
Carson and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, knew that such comparisons would be explosive. They tried to control the response to the book by seeking support before publication. They sent galleys to the National Audubon Society for public endorsement.
The galleys landed on the desk of Audubon’s biologist, Roland Clement, for review. Clement, who will turn 100 in November, currently lives in a studio on the 17th floor of a retirement community in New Haven, about a mile from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where Carson’s papers are kept. “I knew of everything she wrote about,” he told me over lunch at his home this summer. “She had it right.”
The book, which was published on Sept. 27, 1962, flew off the shelves, owing largely to its three-part serialization in The New Yorker that summer. “Silent Spring” was also selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club, which delighted Carson. But nothing established Carson more effectively than her appearance on “CBS Reports,” an hourlong television news program hosted by a former war correspondent, Eric Sevareid. On camera, Carson’s careful way of speaking dispelled any notions that she was a shrew or some kind of zealot. Carson was so sick during filming at home in suburban Maryland that in the course of the interview, she propped her head on her hands. According to Lear as well as William Souder, author of a new biography of Carson, “On a Farther Shore,” Sevareid later said that he was afraid Carson wouldn’t survive to see the show broadcast.
The industry’s response to “Silent Spring” proved more aggressive than anyone anticipated. As Lear notes, Velsicol, a manufacturer of DDT, threatened to sue both Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. And it also tried to stop Audubon from excerpting the book in its magazine. Audubon went ahead and even included an editorial about the chemical industry’s reaction to the book. But after “Silent Spring” came out, the society declined to give it an official endorsement.
The personal attacks against Carson were stunning. She was accused of being a communist sympathizer and dismissed as a spinster with an affinity for cats. In one threatening letter to Houghton Mifflin, Velsicol’s general counsel insinuated that there were “sinister influences” in Carson’s work: she was some kind of agricultural propagandist in the employ of the Soviet Union, he implied, and her intention was to reduce Western countries’ ability to produce food, to achieve “east-curtain parity.”
But Carson also had powerful advocates, among them President John F. Kennedy, who established a presidential committee to investigate pesticides. Then, in June 1963, Carson made her appearance before the Senate subcommittee. In her testimony, Carson didn’t just highlight the problems that she identified in “Silent Spring”; she presented the policy recommendations she’d been working on for the past five years. When faced with a chance to do so, Carson didn’t call for a ban on pesticides. “I think chemicals do have a place,” she testified.
She argued vehemently against aerial spraying, which allowed the government to dump pesticides on people’s property without their permission. She cited dairy farmers in upstate New York, whose milk was banned from the market after their land was sprayed to eradicate gypsy moths. As Carson saw it, the federal government, when in industry’s thrall, was part of the problem. That’s one reason that she didn’t call for sweeping federal regulation. Instead, she argued that citizens had the right to know how pesticides were being used on their private property. She was reiterating a central tenet of “Silent Spring”: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.” She advocated for the birth of a grass-roots movement led by concerned citizens who would form nongovernmental groups that she called “citizen’s brigades.”

The results of her efforts were mixed, and even her allies have different opinions of what Carson’s legacy actually means. Carson is widely credited with banning DDT, by both her supporters and her detractors. The truth is a little more complicated. When “Silent Spring” was published, DDT production was nearing its peak; in 1963, U.S. companies manufactured about 90,000 tons. But by the following year, DDT production in America was already on the wane. Despite the pesticide manufacturers’ aggression toward Carson and her book, there was mounting evidence that some insects were increasingly resistant to DDT, as Carson claimed. After Roland Clement testified before the Senate subcommittee, he says, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, the Democrat from Connecticut who was chairman of the committee, pulled him aside. “He told me that the chemical companies were willing to stop domestic use of DDT,” Clement says, but only if they could strike a bargain: as long as Carson and Clement would accept the companies’ continued export of DDT to foreign countries, the companies would consider the end of domestic use. Their message was clear, Clement says: “Don’t mess with the boys and their business.”
Though Clement was a supporter of Carson’s, he believes that she got both too much credit and too much blame after “Silent Spring” came out. “It’s a fabrication to say that she’s the founder of the environmental movement,” Clement says. “She stirred the pot. That’s all.” It wasn’t until 1972, eight years after Carson’s death, that the United States banned the domestic sale of DDT, except where public health concerns warranted its use. American companies continued to export the pesticide until the mid-1980s. (China stopped manufacturing DDT in 2007. In 2009, India, the only country to produce the pesticide at the time, made 3,653 tons.)
The early activists of the new environmental movement had several successes attributed to Carson — from the Clean Air and Water Acts to the establishment of Earth Day to President Nixon’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. But if “Silent Spring” can be credited with launching a movement, it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
The well-financed counterreaction to Carson’s book was a prototype for the brand of attack now regularly made by super-PACs in everything from debates about carbon emissions to new energy sources. “As soon as ‘Silent Spring’ is serialized, the chemical companies circle the wagons and build up a war chest,” Souder says. “This is how the environment became such a bitter partisan battle.”
In a move worthy of Citizens United, the chemical industry undertook an expensive negative P.R. campaign, which included circulating “The Desolate Year,” a parody of “A Fable for Tomorrow” that mocked its woeful tone. The parody, which was sent out to newspapers around the country along with a five-page fact sheet, argued that without pesticides, America would be overrun by insects and Americans would not be able to grow enough food to survive.
One reason that today no single book on, say, climate change could have the influence that “Silent Spring” did, Souder argues, is the five decades of political fracturing that followed its publication. “The politicized and partisan reaction created by ‘Silent Spring’ has hardened over the past 50 years,” Souder says. Carson may have regarded “Silent Spring” and stewardship of the environment as a unifying issue for humankind, but a result has been an increasingly factionalized arena.
Carson was among the first environmentalists of the modern era to be charged with using “soft science” and with cherry-picking studies to suit her ideology. Fifty years later, the attacks on Carson continue. Her opponents hold her responsible for the death of millions of African children from malaria; in Michael Crichton’s novel “State of Fear,” one character says that “banning DDT killed more people than Hitler,” a sentiment Crichton publicly agreed with. The Web site, which is run by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group based in Washington, makes a similar charge: “Today, millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.”

But much of Carson’s science was accurate and forward-looking. Dr. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst and co-author of a 1996 book, “Our Stolen Future,” about endocrine disrupters — the chemicals that can interfere with the body’s hormone system — points out that Carson was on the cutting edge of the science of her day. “If Rachel had lived,” she said, “we might have actually found out about endocrine disruption two generations ago.”
Today, from Rachel Carson’s old bedroom window in Springdale, you can see the smokestacks of the Cheswick coal-fired power plant less than a mile away: an older red-and-white, candy-striped stack and a newer one, called a scrubber, installed in 2010 to remove sulfur dioxide. It later needed repairs, but with the approval of the Allegheny County Health Department, it stayed open, and the plant operated for three months without full emission controls. The plants says it is in compliance with current E.P.A. emissions standards for coal-fired plants, though new ones will take full effect in 2016.
Springdale’s board of supervisors supports the plant’s business. As David Finley, president of Springdale Borough put it, the noise from the plant used to bother a handful of residents, but it “sounds like money” to many others. The plant buys fresh water from an underground river that runs through the borough and has paid for things like Little League uniforms and repairs to the municipal swimming pool. Springdale has been nicknamed “Power City” since the days Carson lived there. The high-school sports teams are called the Dynamos; their mascot is Reddy Kilowatt, the cartoon character of the electricity lobby.
A few months ago, two citizens in Springdale volunteered to be representatives in a class-action suit, which charges that the coal-fired plant “installed limited technology” to control emissions that they claim are damaging 1,500 households. One of the plaintiffs, Kristie Bell, is a 33-year-old health care employee who lives in a two-story yellow-brick house with a broad front porch, a few blocks from Carson’s childhood home. Bell said it was “Silent Spring” that encouraged her to step forward. “Rachel Carson is a huge influence,” Bell said, sitting at her kitchen table after work on a sultry evening last summer. “She’s a motivator.” For Bell, Carson’s message is a call to mothers to stand up against industry to protect the health of their families.
Detractors have argued that the lawsuit is the creation of personal-injury attorneys. (Because of the difficulty of making a clear health case, the plaintiffs are claiming property damage caused by corrosive ash.) But Bell said that it’s not about money. “I never sit outside on my front porch because I don’t know what’s coming out of that smokestack,” she said. One hundred years ago, when Carson was a child, residents of Springdale had the same concern — one that informed Carson’s worldview. “When we start messing around with Mother Nature,” Bell said, “bad things happen.”

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Higher Costs at the Supermarket and the Farm

Headlines are supposed to grab your attention. This one from Thursday's UK Guardian certainly grabbed mine:

Mass slaughter of farm animals set to push food prices up 14%
Farmers who cannot afford feed 'liquidating' pig and cattle herds will drive food inflation to record high, says Rabobank report

There's a lot going on here. Higher food prices are normally good for farmers, but for every soybean and grain farmer who's smiling, there's a livestock producer who's very worried about the next few months.  The drought in the heart of North America's breadbasket this summer is the lynchpin of all of this,  leading to smaller harvests and much higher prices. The first to feel the impact are the hog and cattle farmers who buy corn and grain, and then hope they can recover the costs when the animals are sent to slaughter months later. Two of Canada's largest hog operations in Manitoba have already filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming they're losing $50 on every hog they're shipping. For Maritime pork producers a lot will depend on whether they grow or buy their feed, but even on farms where feed is grown there must be a lot of head scratching: sell the grain at a guaranteed hefty profit, or feed it to pigs and hope the eventual sale price is profitable.  There's already been a huge drop in the number of hog farmers in this region, really only the hearty few survive, but for how much longer?

It's a slightly different story on cattle farms, and in a perverse way this might create an opportunity to push the Maritime beef industry in a new direction.  I've written a fair bit (a search box at the bottom), and most will have heard about "grass-fed" beef.  Essentially this brings cattle back to the role they traditionally played on farms before the development of feedlots, and marbled beef after the second world war.  It used to be that cattle would  eat off pastures  on poorer farmland during the summer, and then hay stored for the winter.  The downside, steers take months longer to get to market weight, so farmers need a higher price, and depending on the genetics, the beef won't be as tender.  Now there's no question that grain-fed, feedlot beef creates low cost meat that feeds a lot of families. The McDonalds, Burgerkings, etc. of the world  dominate the urban landscape for a reason, but there are environmental and health costs in all of this: the overuse of  antibiotics in feed, huge concentrations of cattle waste.

There are a handful of farmers in the Maritimes producing grass-fed beef, and there is some discussion at the  Albany Beef plant of marketing  the product. Right now cattle producers here have a hard time competing with beef producers elsewhere with access to cheaper feedgrain.  The fact is that  farmers here can grow grass and silage as cheaply as anywhere else. The grass-fed beef would also give the beef plant a possible niche market that might help its bottom line too.

There is a big but of course:  grass-fed beef will be seen as an up-scale product that will be more expensive for consumers, and will be tagged as elitist.  Right now it is, but if the predictions of much higher feedgrain costs and beef prices hold true, then maybe this is the moment to think about doing something different. If the alternative is to get out of the business because grain prices are too high, then putting cattle back on grass and trusting that there will be enough consumers willing to pay a bit more I think is the better choice.

Here's the rest of that scary article, and notice how food speculators once more see a windfall.

Mass slaughter of farm animals set to push food prices up 14%
Farmers who cannot afford feed 'liquidating' pig and cattle herds will drive food inflation to record high, says Rabobank report

    by Rupert Neate, Josephine Moulds
    Sept. 19, 2012

The mass slaughter of millions of farm animals across the world is expected to push food prices to their highest ever levels.

As well as hitting consumers' pockets, the predicted 14% jump in food prices will also dash the Bank of England's hopes of pushing inflation down to 2% by next year.

Farmers across the world have begun a mass slaughter of their pig and cattle herds because they cannot afford the cost of feed, which has soared following the worst US drought in living memory, according to a report published on Wednesday.

Experts at investment bank Rabobank warn that the mass "herd liquidation" will contribute to a 14% jump in the price of the average basket of food by next summer.

On Tuesday, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) said lower food prices had help bring inflation down to 2.5% in August.

That brings it closer to the Bank's 2% target and should help consumers who have seen their spending power shrink as wages fail to match inflation. The Bank expects inflation to ease below the 2% target by early next year, but that could be scuppered by rising food, oil and commodity prices.

Rabobank said the slaughter of millions of pigs has already led to a 31% increase in the price of pork and the costs of other meats are also expected to soar as "US livestock herds are likely to be liquidated at an accelerating pace in the first half of 2013".

Nicholas Higgins, a Rabobank commodities analyst and author of the report, said: "There will be an initial glut in meat availability as people slaughter their animals to reduce their feed bills. But by next year herds will be so reduced that there won't be enough animals to meet expected demand and prices will soar."

US farmers, who are suffering from the worst drought since the 1930s, have already reduced their cattle herd to the smallest since 1973.

While all meat lovers will be affected by the record-breaking price rises, Higgins said bacon butty fans may suffer the biggest increases because it is easier for farmers to slash and rebuild pig herds that cattle.

"Farmers cut back pigs because they can rebuild them the quickest. Replacement cattle take a lot longer to breed – a year and a half compared to six months for pigs," he said.

The report said the mass slaughter of pigs had led to a steep decline in the price of pork for delivery next month, but a 31% increase for pork delivered in July 2013.

Because meat and dairy products already account for 52% of the cost of the average global basket of food Rabobank predicts the overall price of the basket will soar to a record 243 on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) index next summer.

If Higgins' prediction is correct it will be the highest the index has ever reached and 175% higher than it was in 2000.

Higgins said he did not expect a repeat of the 2007-8 food riots in developing countries across the world because most meat is consumed in the west.

"People are less likely to be irate over meat prices when they can switch back to staples – an option not available in 07/08 due to severe shortages of wheat and rice," he said. "The risk [of riots and social unrest] is still there but it is not as high as 07-08. The prices will hurt here [in the west] more."

But he said western consumers are unlikely to significantly change their diets or become vegetarian in response to price rises.

Higgins said the major danger to global stability was the threat of countries stockpiling supplies. "We've already seen the first indications of that, with Indonesia hinting it is going to increase corn stock pile levels, South Korea considering a domestic purchasing regime and very strong wheat purchases in Iran disproportionately higher than in its past history."

While the food price spike is likely to lead to an increase in starvation and malnutrition across the world, global food traders are expecting bumper profits. The multimillionaire head of Glencore has said the US drought will be "good" for the commodities trader because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

This Really Matters (I think)

This will sound like it comes from one of my "back to the land" pals in Eastern PEI who's been testing the harvest, but it's serious research done by very sober scientists, and in my mind represents the best chance for sustainable food production in the long run.  It will feel risky because in order to work it means first not doing what we're doing now,  applying increasingly costly  non-renewable resources like potash and nitrogen produced from natural gas, and even worse trusting in all kinds of microscopic activity in the soil where we can't see it. This research is precisely the opposite of what I heard often during  my time covering agriculture for CBC, that the soil is the source of "trouble" for plants, viruses, fungal diseases, bacteria, that in a perfect world soil would be a substrate to hold roots, and farmers could feed plants exactly what they need. 

This is definitely one of these values issues that's easy to think about when you've got a full stomach. It will require a lot of good evidence before being widely accepted, and in the end most consumers obviously just want food on the shelves, how it gets there may not be that important.  Regardless, I think this is something that matters.

Soil Microorganisms Are at the Heart of the New Green Revolution
An interview with researcher Chantal Hamel

Chantal Hamel, a soil microbiologist who works at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), is clear: "We must innovate. The nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers is derived from expensive processes. Reserves of phosphorus are measured in decades; the mines will be empty someday.  In addition, the cultivation of biofuels is now competing with food crops and mobilizing soils and inputs. And there will be 8 billion people on Earth in fifteen years!" The alternative is to develop farming practices based on the properties and activities of soil microorganisms to allow crops to feed effectively.

The concept behind Hamel’s work is simple. It is based on the association of soil fungi and bacteria with plants to ensure their mutual survival. The plant captures carbon from the air to produce energy, in the form of sugars, through photosynthesis. Fungi and bacteria, which cannot photosynthesize, need this energy. So, they settle on the roots of plants, absorbing sugars provided by the plant in exchange for minerals that they draw out of the air and soil. This process is free, natural, requires no human intervention and allows both the plants and microorganisms to gain access to the materials that they need to survive.

"The nitrogen supplied by microorganisms does not cost anything, while it is very expensive to industrially capture nitrogen from the air in the form available to plants,” says Hamel.  The Haber-Bosch process, used to fix nitrogen from using extreme pressure applied at very high temperatures is very energy intensive. The energy required for this operation represents 70% of the cost of the generated nitrogen fertilizer. Yet, soil microorganisms can perform this role for free, and merit closer examination than what they currently enjoy.

Chantal Hamel became interested in mushrooms, a larger fungus than those she currently studies, while walking in the countryside of Rivière à Pierre, north of Quebec City where, as a child, she spent the summer at the cottage of her grandparents.  More attracted by the beauty of the natural world than by mathematics in the academic setting, she headed towards the 'big city' of Montreal. After several years on the job market, she resumed her studies, this time in agronomy at McGill, allowing her to pursue her interest in nature and the food needs of the planet. Her first session was a challenge: she had to learn the language of Shakespeare along with the basics of agronomy, but she prevailed.  She then enthusiastically began a Master’s degree on mycorrhizal fungi with a grant from the Research Council Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). This was the beginning of a long scientific quest to discover more about the role of fungi in the soil, those tiny microbes that are difficult to count and often associated with disease rather than soil health. Her subsequent doctoral thesis dealt with the transfer of nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing legumes and associated grasses with mycorrhizal fungi.

Unlike animals, plants do not have the ability to move to survive. Instead, their strategy is to change their environment, attracting beneficial organisms such as rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi with which they partner. This symbiosis is very effective: the plant is an almost infinite source of energy as it feeds on the sun's rays, all the while nourishing the fungi and rhizobia housed in its roots that continuously extract nutrients from the soil and air to support their host.  But, this symbiosis does not develop when high amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizers are applied to the soil. With a plentiful supply of nutrients, the plant does not need to depend on this symbiosis and so represses it. The result: the plant loses the benefits of this association, and the now free beneficial soil fungi do not grow and may even disappear.

Organic farming relies heavily on the development of a rich soil to ensure fertility. The living soil is home to billions of microorganisms that live in symbiosis with plants. Chantal Hamel has a research project with the Organic Science Cluster, the goal of which is to define “Predictive tools for characterizing mycorrhizal contributions to phosphorus uptake by organic crops”. She explains the project: "You start at the base and identify fungi in the soils of wheat fields on different sites (SK, NS, MB, AB, ON). The goal is to understand what is growing in organic soils. We need the cooperation of producers to gather information about the farming methods that are used. Since organic farmers keep extensive records as part of their organic certification, we used the directory of organic farmers and seed producers to choose our sample sites, distributing the sampling on various types of soil whose description was already documented in the federal databases. We then study the fungi content of these soil types and models are made to predict the likely contribution of fungi in a given site based on indicators."

Knowing what's in a field is expensive, because the biotrophic fungi do not grow in laboratory dishes, only on live plants. They are microscopic and hard to identify. Samples will be screened, centrifuged, separated according to the weight of the constituents and examined microscopically. Analysis of nucleic DNA to identify fungal species is not possible, due to the numerous copies of unique genes inside fungi.  Instead, researchers examine mitrochondrial DNA, which is unique.
Some rhizobia bacteria, associated with nitrogen fixation, are also very interesting and valuable, as they stimulate plant growth. Research will confirm the potential of these bacteria as legume inoculants and will help in selecting the most rewarding legumes for the soil and crops.

The fungus-plant symbiosis is essential for organic production, where plants feed naturally in the absence of the ecological imbalances that may result when synthetic fertilizers are applied. "It remains to convince industry to invest in this type of research. There is a lot of outreach to do to promote innovative projects whose scope is the medium to long term," says Chantal Hamel, observing the current prevalence of short-term views in many programs.

Hamel also observes that many people do not make the connection between the meals they eat and agriculture. Food in grocery stores is almost all imported from California, China or New Zealand, a tendency which cannot be described as sustainable consumption. Canola has become the second most prevalent cultivated crop in Saskatchewan, where Hamel works, second only to wheat.  This prevalence is due in large part to the rising demand for canola oil.  Low crop diversification has resulted.  Canola is a plant that does not "mycorrhize", or form associations with soil fungi.  As a result, canola production becomes increasingly dependent on synthetic fertilizers.  Without active fungi that access and alter soil phosphorus, which is characteristically poorly soluble and slowly available, the soil's ability to provide phosphorus is reduced. Soil fungi solubilize phosphorus and make it available to allow targeted, clean and efficient use of this precious resource, which is why they are necessary to maintain the biodiversity of soils.

In the summer, Chantal admires the flowers in her native plant garden that requires no care. She observes the minks, ducks and pelicans during her morning jog along the river when getting to work, and finds that life in Swift Current is very nice. The morning of her interview, she discovered an effective biochemical marker for quantifying mycorrhizal fungi, a marker so perfect that she felt much emotion. "Sometimes we find!" she says happily.

This article was written by Nicole Boudreau, Organic Federation of Canada, on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners. For more information: or 902-893-7256.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Paying for Fast Food

I admire good writers who aren't afraid to dig into difficult issues, and if warranted, come up with uncomfortable conclusions. Months ago a friend Erin Moore suggested a British columnist writing about the terrible earthquake and tsunami  in Japan, and I've come to look forward to his work, even though it can be very discouraging.  I like George Monbiot because, as you'll read in this latest piece, he's not afraid to go to a library and work through original research. He footnotes to give readers a chance to do their own discovery. It's not just opinions he's throwing around, but well-researched conclusions.  This one will probably get you cooking supper at home.

The Mind Thieves

The evidence linking Alzheimer’s disease to the food industry is strong and growing.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 11th September 2012
When you raise the subject of over-eating and obesity, you often see people at their worst. The comment threads discussing these issues reveal a legion of bullies, who appear to delight in other people’s problems.
When alcoholism and drug addiction are discussed, the tone tends to be sympathetic. When obesity is discussed, the conversation is dominated by mockery and blame, though the evidence suggests that it can be driven by similar forms of addiction(1,2,3,4). I suspect that much of this mockery is a coded form of snobbery: the strong association between poor diets and poverty allows people to use this issue as a cipher for something else they want to say, which is less socially acceptable.
But this problem belongs to all of us. Even if you can detach yourself from the suffering caused by diseases arising from bad diets, you will carry the cost, as a growing proportion of the health budget will be used to address them. The cost – measured in both human suffering and money – could be far greater than we imagined. A large body of evidence now suggests that Alzheimer’s is primarily a metabolic disease. Some scientists have gone so far as to rename it. They call it diabetes type 3.
New Scientist carried this story on its cover last week(5): since then I’ve been sitting in the library trying to discover whether it stands up. I’ve now read dozens of papers on the subject, testing my cognitive powers to the limit as I’ve tried to get to grips with brain chemistry. While the story is by no means complete, the evidence so far is compelling.
Around 35 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease worldwide(6); current projections, based on the rate at which the population ages, suggest that this will rise to 100 million by 2050(7). But if, as many scientists now believe, it is caused largely by the brain’s impaired response to insulin, the numbers could rise much further. In the US, the percentage of the population with diabetes type 2, which is strongly linked to obesity, has almost trebled in 30 years(8). If Alzheimer’s, or “diabetes type 3”, goes the same way, the potential for human suffering is incalculable.
Insulin is the hormone which prompts the liver, muscles and fat to absorb sugar from the blood. Diabetes 2 is caused by excessive blood glucose, resulting either from a deficiency of insulin produced by the pancreas, or resistance to its signals by the organs which would usually take up the glucose.
The association between Alzheimer’s and diabetes 2 is long-established: type 2 sufferers are two to three times more likely to be struck by this dementia than the general population(9). There are also associations between Alzheimer’s and obesity(10) and Alzheimer’s and metabolic syndrome (a complex of diet-related pathologies)(11).
Researchers first proposed that Alzheimer’s was another form of diabetes in 2005. The authors of the original paper investigated the brains of 54 corpses, 28 of which belonged to people who had died of the disease(12). They found that the levels of both insulin and insulin-like growth factors in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients were sharply reduced by comparison to those in the brains of people who had died of other causes. Levels were lowest in the parts of the brain most affected by the disease.
Their work led them to conclude that insulin and insulin-like growth factor are produced not only in the pancreas but also in the brain. Insulin in the brain has a host of functions: as well as glucose metabolism, it helps to regulate the transmission of signals from one nerve cell to another, and affects their growth, plasticity and survival(13,14).
Experiments conducted since then appear to support the link between diet and dementia(15,16,17,18), and researchers have begun to propose potential mechanisms. In common with all brain chemistry, these tend to be fantastically complex, involving, among other impacts, inflammation, stress caused by oxidation, the accumulation of one kind of brain protein and the transformation of another(19,20,21,22). I would need the next six pages of this paper even to begin to explain them, and would doubtless get it wrong (if you’re interested, please follow the links on my website).
Plenty of research still needs to be done. But if the current indications are correct, Alzheimer’s disease could be another catastrophic impact of the junk food industry, and the worst discovered so far. Our governments, as they are in the face of all our major crises, appear to be incapable of responding.
In this country as in many others, the government’s answer to the multiple disasters caused by the consumption of too much sugar and fat is to call on both companies and consumers to regulate themselves. Before he was replaced by someone even worse, the former health secretary, Andrew Lansley, handed much of the responsibility for improving the nation’s diet to food and drinks companies: a strategy that would work only if they volunteered to abandon much of their business(23,24).
A scarcely-regulated food industry can engineer its products – loading them with fat, salt, sugar and high fructose corn syrup – to bypass the neurological signals which would otherwise prompt people to stop eating(25). It can bombard both adults and children with advertising. It can (as we discovered yesterday) use the freedoms granted to academy schools to sell the chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks now banned from sale in maintained schools(26). It can kill the only effective system (the traffic light label) for informing people how much fat, sugar and salt their food contains. Then it can turn to the government and blame consumers for eating the products it sells. This is class war: a war against the poor fought by the executive class in government and industry.
We cannot yet state unequivocally that poor diet is a leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease, though we can say that the evidence is strong and growing. But if ever there was a case for the precautionary principle, here it is. It’s not as if we lose anything by eating less rubbish. Averting a possible epidemic of this devastating disease means taking on the bullies: those who mock people for their pathologies and those who spread the pathologies by peddling a lethal diet.
1. Caroline Davis et al, 2011. Evidence that ‘food addiction’ is a valid phenotype of obesity. Appetite Vol. 57, pp711–717. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.08.017
2. Paul J. Kenny, November 2011. Common cellular and molecular mechanisms in obesity and drug addiction. Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 12, pp 638-651. doi:10.1038/nrn3105
3. Joseph Frascella et al, 2010. Shared brain vulnerabilities open the way for nonsubstance addictions: Carving addiction
at a new joint? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1187, pp294–315.
doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05420.x
4. Ashley N. Gearhardt et al, 2010. Can food be addictive? Public health and policy implications. Addiction, 106, 1208–1212. ad. d_3301 1208..1212
5. Bijal Trivedi, 1st September 2012. Eat Your Way to Dementia. New Scientist.
6. Sónia C. Correia et al, 2011. Insulin-resistant brain state: The culprit in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease? Ageing Research Reviews Vol. 10, 264–273. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2011.01.001
7. Fabio Copped`e et al, 2012. Nutrition and Dementia. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, Vol. 2012, pp1-3.
8. See the graph in Bijal Trivedi, 1st September 2012. Eat Your Way to Dementia. New Scientist.
9. Johanna Zemva and Markus Schubert, September 2011. Central Insulin and Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 Signaling – Implications for Diabetes Associated Dementia. Current Diabetes Reviews, Vol.7, No.5, pp356-366.
10. Eg Weili Xu et al, 2011. Midlife overweight and obesity increase late life dementia risk: a population-based twin study. Neurology, Vol. 76, no. 18, pp.1568–1574.
11. M. Vanhanen et al, 2006. Association of metabolic syndrome with Alzheimer disease: A population-based study. Neurology, vol. 67, pp.843–847.
12. Eric Steen et al, 2005. Impaired insulin and insulin-like growth factor expression and signaling mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease – is this type 3 diabetes?.
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Vol. 7, pp.63–80.
13. Konrad Talbot et al, 2012. Demonstrated brain insulin resistance in Alzheimer’s disease patients is associated with IGF-1 resistance, IRS-1 dysregulation, and cognitive decline. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Vol.122, No.4, pp.1316–1338. doi:10.1172/JCI59903.
14. Naoki Yamamoto et al, 2012. Brain insulin resistance accelerates Aβ fibrillogenesis by inducing GM1 ganglioside clustering in the presynaptic membranes. Journal of Neurochemistry, Vol. 121, 619–628. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-4159.2012.07668.x
15. Eg:
Wei-Qin Zhao and Matthew Townsend, 2009. Insulin resistance and amyloidogenesis as common molecular foundation for type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, Vol.1792, pp.482–496.,
16. Sónia C. Correia et al, 2011. Insulin-resistant brain state: The culprit in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease? Ageing Research Reviews Vol. 10, 264–273. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2011.01.001
17. T. Ohara et al, 2011. Glucose tolerance status and risk of dementia in the community, the Hisayama study. Neurology, Vol. 77, pp.1126–1134.
18. Karen Neumann et al, 2008. Insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease: molecular links & clinical implications. Current Alzheimer Research, Vol.5, no.5, pp438–447.
19. Eg: Lap Ho et al, 2012. Insulin Receptor Expression and Activity in the Brains of
Nondiabetic Sporadic Alzheimer’s Disease Cases. International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/321280
20. Suzanne M. de la Monte, 2012. Contributions of Brain Insulin Resistance and Deficiency in Amyloid-Related Neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s Disease. Drugs, Vol. 72, no.1, pp. 49-66. doi: 10.2165/11597760
21. Ying Liu et al, 2011. Deficient brain insulin signalling pathway in Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. Journal of Pathology, Vol. 225, pp.54–62. doi: 0.1002/path.2912
22. Konrad Talbot et al, 2012. Demonstrated brain insulin resistance in Alzheimer’s disease patients is associated with IGF-1 resistance, IRS-1 dysregulation, and cognitive decline. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Vol.122, No.4, pp.1316–1338. doi:10.1172/JCI59903.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Organic Politics

It would have been hard to miss the headlines and discussion on organic food this week. Essentially a very large study said there is no difference in nutrition or safety between organic and non-organic food. Because consumers often pay more for organic it gave pundits a great opportunity to mock those who take organic food seriously,  but organic supporters did fight back.

We used to talk/argue about this a lot when I worked at CBC. My position for what it's worth was that nutrition was probably a wash given that most organic produce sold in Canada is harvested early and travels long distances just like conventional, that no pesticide residues is probably better for you, but most importantly  land use by organic farmers (longer rotations, cover crops, etc) makes it a more sustainable choice.  I'm fortunate enough to grow a fair percentage of the produce we eat and yes I do it organically, but again it's at a scale that I can.

Here's a couple of pieces with different viewpoints.  No one said this would be easy.

September 6, 2012
The Organic Fable

LONDON — At some point — perhaps it was gazing at a Le Pain Quotidien menu offering an “organic baker’s basket served with organic butter, organic jam and organic spread” as well as seasonally organic orange juice — I found I just could not stomach the “O” word or what it stood for any longer.

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.

An effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition, “organic” has oozed over the menus, markets and malls of the world’s upscale neighborhood at a remarkable pace. In 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and drink sales totaled $26.7 billion in the United States, or about 4 percent of the overall market, having grown steadily since 2000. The British organic market is also large; menus like to mention that bacon comes from pampered pigs at the Happy Hog farm down the road.

In the midst of the fad few questions have been asked. But the fact is that buying organic baby food, a growing sector, is like paying to send your child to private school: It is a class-driven decision that demonstrates how much you love your offspring but whose overall impact on society is debatable.

So I cheered this week when Stanford University concluded, after examining four decades of research, that fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts. The study also found that organic meats offered no obvious health advantages. And it found that organic food was not less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E.coli.

The takeaway from the study could be summed up in two words: Organic, schmorganic. That’s been my feeling for a while.

Now let me say three nice things about the organic phenomenon. The first is that it reflects a growing awareness about diet that has spurred quality, small-scale local farming that had been at risk of disappearance.

The second is that even if it’s not better for you, organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals (although of course, without fertilizers, you have to use more land to grow the same amount of produce or feed the same amount of livestock.) So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.

The third is that the word organic — unlike other feel-good descriptions of food like “natural” — actually means something. Certification procedures in both the United States and Britain are strict. In the United States, organic food must meet standards ensuring that genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers, sewage and irradiation were not used in the food’s production. It must also be produced using methods that, according to the Department of Agriculture, “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”

Still, the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype. There is a niche for it, if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but the future is nonorganic.

To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.

Logically, the organic movement should favor genetically modified produce. If you cannot use pesticides or fertilizers, you might at least want to modify your crops so they are more resilient and plentiful. But that would go against the ideology and romance of a movement that says: We are for nature, everyone else is against nature.

I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed. I’d rather be serious about the world’s needs. And I trust the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.

Martin Orbach, the co-founder and program director of the Abergavenny Food Festival in Britain, owns a company called Shepherds that produces a superb sheep’s milk ice-cream sold at a store in Hay-on-Wye. It has a cult following at the Hay literary festival and beyond. Journalists, Orbach told me, regularly report that they have eaten an “organic sheep’s milk ice cream.”

The only catch is this is not true. “We have never said it’s organic because it would be illegal for us to do so,” Orbach said. “But it fits with the story of a small sheep’s milk ice-cream maker.”

Organic is a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting. Now, thanks to Stanford researchers, we know just how replete with myth the “O” fable is.

5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short

    by Tom Philpott

Indiana Public Media/Flickr

Is organic food little more than a trumped-up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? A just-released paper by Stanford University researchers—and the reaction to it by the media—suggests as much. (Abstract here; I have a copy of the full study, but can't upload it for copyright reasons.)

"Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," declared a New York Times headline. "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests," announced CBS News. "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it's key reason consumers buy," the Washington Post grumbled.

In reality, though, the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what's known among academics as a "meta-analysis"—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn't meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results. 

In another post I'll get to the question of nutritional benefits—the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks.

In short, the authors' findings confirm what the Environmental Working Group, crunching USDA data, has been telling us for years: that organic fruits and vegetables harbor significantly fewer pesticide residues than their chemically grown peers. Summing up the evidence of the studies they looked at, the Stanford researchers find what they call a 30 percent "risk difference" between organic and conventional food—which to the mind not trained in statistics, sounds like organic foods carry 30 percent less risk of exposing you to pesticides. And they immediately undercut that finding by noting that the pesticide traces found in both organic and conventional food tend to be at levels lower than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum allowed limits. Takeaway: Conventional produce carries trivially small levels of pesticides, and you might as well save your money and forget organic.

What's wrong with this comforting picture?

1. Conventional produce is much worse than organic on the pesticide-exposure question than the 30 percent number suggests. That's what Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University' Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, shows in a detailed critique of the study. To get the 30 percent number, the authors used an odd statistical construct they call "risk difference." By their method, if 5 percent of organic vegetables contain at least one pesticide trace and 35 percent of conventional vegetables contain at least one trace, then the "risk difference" is 30 percent (35 minus 5). But that's a silly way of thinking about it, because there's a much greater difference between those numbers than "30 percent" suggests. Crunching the authors' own raw data, Benbrook finds "an overall 81% lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples."

But even that doesn't get to the full extent of the study's underestimation, since:

2. To arrive at their "risk difference" metric, the authors didn't distinguish between a single pesticide trace and multiple traces; or between light traces and heavier traces. For their purposes, an organic apple carrying a tiny residue of a relatively innocuous pesticide is equivalent to a conventional apple containing a cocktail of several relatively toxic pesticides. Here's Benbrook on why that's silly:

    a) most residues in organic food occur at much lower levels than in conventional food, b) residues are not as likely in organic foods, c) multiple residues in a single sample are rare in organic food but common in conventional produce, and d) high-­risk pesticides rarely appear as residues in organic food, and when they do, the levels are usually much lower than those found in conventional food (especially the levels in imported produce).

Now, the authors might reply that all of this is trivial, because the traces that researchers find on produce, whether conventional or organic, almost always come in at levels below the EPA's safety threshold. But:

3. This ignores a growing body of research that pregnant women's fetuses can be harmed at low exposures of organophosphate pesticides, as can young children.

And what's more:

4. The authors—like the EPA itself—ignore the "cocktail effect" of exposure to several pesticides, say, from a single apple. As Environmental Working Group's analysis of USDA data shows, conventional produce like apples, blueberries, and bell peppers often carry traces of many pesticides. The EPA regulates pesticide traces only on an individual basis, disregarding possible synergistic effects. The European Commission is starting to take them more seriously. Here's a report commissioned by the European Commission in 2009:

    There is a consensus in the field of mixture toxicology that the customary chemical-by-chemical approach to risk assessment might be too simplistic. It is in danger of underestimating the risk of chemicals to human health and to the environment.

Which brings us to the fifth point:

5. We probably know more about how exposure to low levels of multiple pesticides affect amphibians than we do about how they affect people—and what our amphibious friends are telling us isn't pretty.

In short, the Stanford study seriously underplays the benefit of going organic to avoid pesticide traces, especially for vulnerable populations like pregnant women and kids. In a future post, I'll show why it does the same for exposure to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in meat, and doesn't give organic its due with regard to nutritional benefits.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Antibiotics in Livestock Feed: Risks and Rewards

I  occasionally get asked to speak to larger groups of professionals, and always face a bit of a dilemma. I don't do funny or clever very well, so I usually end up talking about something pretty serious, boring some, but hopefully leaving a few with something to think about. In the late 1990's I was asked to speak to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association which was meeting in Charlottetown and, being the serious reporter, I decided to take on the topic of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock feed.  Back in the 1940's, for reasons no one quite understands, the addition of small amounts of antibiotics to the feed of healthy animals caused them to gain weight more quickly. It was seen as a huge boon in the post war years as farming become more intensive. It was the beginning of  "cheap food", and the ability of small numbers of people to feed the rest.

 I had read a lot about the issue, and tried to sound authoritative in the speech. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that antibiotic use in feed led to a safer, cheaper meat supply, but there were  a few voices who cautioned that the overuse of antibiotics would eventually lead to resistant bacteria strains, and that's the cautionary tale I tried to tell, including the responsibility veterinarians had to warn the public, and their farmer clients.  Some of the vets said if they did the media would blow the whole issue out of proportion.  There wasn't enthusiastic applause at the end, but no one threw buns either. 

It's now fifteen years later, and the issue is gaining more attention, although little has changed.  Here's an astounding figure:  in the United States eighty percent (yes that's 80%)of the antibiotics sold go into feed for poultry, hogs, cattle and other livestock. (It's hard to find comparable statistics in Canada, and I know there are a lot of livestock producers in the Maritimes and on PEI who don't use any antibiotics unless an animal is sick. It's one of the advantages of smaller beef feedlots, and disease free breeding stock in pigs. Consumers can certainly find meat from farmers who don't use antibiotics by looking at labels and asking questions)

Public health and environmental groups in the United States are using the courts to force the Food and Drug Administration to restrict antibiotic use. In Canada, the Canadian Medical Association has recommended that antibiotics only be made available for livestock with a veterinarian's prescription.

Today  a piece in the New York Times.  Feels like watching Bill Murray's Groundhog Day.  The livestock industry is clearly trying to protect it's bottom line and worries that consumers won't be willing to pay more if their costs go up, and big drug companies laugh all the way to the bank as usual. This is something I think that will change eventually, but it will probably take a public health scare first (a bit like climate change).

Farm Use of Antibiotics Defies Scrutiny

The numbers released quietly by the federal government this year were alarming. A ferocious germ resistant to many types of antibiotics had increased tenfold on chicken breasts, the most commonly eaten meat on the nation’s dinner tables.
But instead of a learning from a broad national inquiry into a troubling trend, scientists said they were stymied by a lack of the most basic element of research: solid data.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States goes to chicken, pigs, cows and other animals that people eat, yet producers of meat and poultry are not required to report how they use the drugs — which ones, on what types of animal, and in what quantities. This dearth of information makes it difficult to document the precise relationship between routine antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistant infections in people, scientists say.
Advocates contend that there is already overwhelming epidemiological evidence linking the two, something that even the Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged, and that further study, while useful for science, is not essential for decision making. “At some point the available science can be used in making policy decisions,” said Gail Hansen, an epidemiologist who works for Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates against overuse of antibiotics.
But scientists say the blank spots in data collection are a serious handicap in taking on powerful producers of poultry and meat who claim the link does not exist.
“It’s like facing off against a major public health crisis with one hand tied behind our backs,” said Keeve Nachman, an environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which does research on food systems.
Antibiotics are considered the crown jewels of modern medicine. They have transformed health by stopping infections since they went into broad use after World War II. But many scientists say that their effectiveness is being eroded by indiscriminate use, both to treat infections in people and to encourage growth in chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs.
Whatever the cause, resistant bacteria pose significant public health risks. Routine infections once treated with penicillin pills now require hospitalizations and intravenous drip antibiotics, said Cecilia Di Pentima, director of clinical services at the Infectious Diseases Division at Vanderbilt University’s Department of Pediatrics. Infections from such strains of bacteria are believed to cause thousands of deaths a year.
“The single biggest problem we face in infectious disease today is the rapid growth of resistance to antibiotics,” said Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “Human use contributes to that, but use in animals clearly has a part too.”
The Food and Drug Administration has tried in fits and starts to regulate the use of antibiotics in animals sold for food. Most recently it restricted the use of cephalosporins in animals — the most common antibiotics prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat and urinary tract infections in people.
But advocates say the agency is afraid to use its authority. In 1977, the F.D.A. announced that it would begin banning some agricultural uses of antibiotics. The House and Senate appropriations committees — dominated by agricultural interests — passed resolutions against any such bans, and the agency retreated.
Antibiotic use in people can be closely monitored through the vast infrastructure of the nation’s health care system, but there is no equivalent for animals, making it harder to track use on farms and ranches, said William Flynn, the deputy director for science policy at the F.D.A. Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Many drugs are sold freely over the counter through feed suppliers, something the agency is trying to curb. In April, it proposed eliminating the use of certain antibiotics to stimulate growth in animals, and requiring meat and poultry producers to obtain a prescription before giving certain antibiotics to their animals. The agency just finished taking public comments to update the requirement. The scale of the problem became clear in 2010 when the F.D.A. began publishing total pharmaceutical company sales of antibiotics for use in animals raised for human consumption. It turned out that an overwhelming majority of antibiotics produced went to animals, not people. But there is still a glaring lack of information about how the drugs are used, scientists say.

The one set of data that is regularly released — a measure of antibiotic-resistant bacteria carried by meat and poultry — contains such small samples that most scientists say they are reluctant to rely on it.
The dramatic rise in the presence of salmonella on chicken breasts that was resistant to five or more classes of antibiotics, for example, was based on samples from just 171 breasts, an infinitesimal fraction of the more than eight billion birds raised and sold as food in the United States every year.
Another problem is that regulatory responsibility is fractured. The F.D.A. regulates drugs, but agriculture is the purview of the federal Department of Agriculture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a role.
“There’s nobody in charge,” said Dr. Morris, who worked in the agriculture department during the Clinton administration. “And when no one’s in charge, it doesn’t get done.”
John Glisson, the director of research programs at the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, an industry group, said in an e-mail reply to questions that poultry feed mills “keep detailed records of antibiotic usage in the feed they manufacture.” The F.D.A. “has the authority to inspect and audit these records,” he said, adding that the agency “can have access to these records anytime.”
But regulators say that in reality, access is not easy. While they may have authority to look at the records from any food manufacturer, they cannot collect or publish the data.
Indeed, in July the National Pork Producers Council argued that its members should not be required to report on antibiotic prescriptions for their animals because it would add complexity.
Regulators say it is difficult even to check for compliance with existing rules. They have to look for the residue of misused or banned drugs in samples of meat from slaughterhouses and grocery stores, rather than directly monitoring use of antibiotics on farms. “We have all these producers saying, ‘Yes, of course we are following the law,’ but we have no way to verify that,” said Dr. Hansen, of Pew Charitable Trusts.
Dr. Flynn, the F.D.A. official, said the agency was moving as fast as it could to make sure antibiotics are used judiciously in farm animals. He called the plan to require animal producers to get prescriptions for certain antibiotics “an important shift.”