Will this get Big Chicken to clean up its act?

Civil Eats | January 26, 2016

cooked chicken on gingham tablecloth

Cooked chicken. Photo credit: Hannah Downes via Wikimedia Commons

Americans eat a lot of chicken—around 60 pounds of it per person, at last count.

Meeting that demand has come at a price along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, one of the most concentrated areas for industrial chicken farming in the U.S. Here, farmers often raise tens of thousands of birds at a time, and spread their manure on the surrounding land in quantities the land cannot possibly absorb. As a result, over 200,000 tons of excess manure seeps into nearby waterways every year, and from there it washes into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. These high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff can stimulate algae blooms, starving the water of oxygen, and killing fish and shellfish. The “dead zones” left behind also pose health risks to humans exposed to the contaminated water.

“We’re raising too many animals in a small geographic area and don’t have the cropland to use [the manure],” said Michele Merkel, co-director of the legal arm of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy group. “So farmers end up dumping it on the land because there’s nowhere else for it to go.”

Companies like Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire contract with farmers across the U.S. to grow their broilers—an estimated 300 million per year are raised in Maryland alone. These companies retain ownership of the chickens and expect farmers to take on debt for upgrades to chicken houses and equipment. As a result they are left with few resources to help get rid of the manure responsibly.

Taxpayers have often helped foot the bill, through state programs such as one that can help pay for transporting it. But, as Merkel and other advocates see it, “The [big chicken] companies have walked away from responsibility.”

Now, that could change. The Poultry Litter Management Act (which is expected to be introduced by Senator Richard Madaleno in the Maryland state legislature in the coming week) would absolve contract farmers of their disposal responsibilities—and pass on that requirement to the chicken companies. The legislation would follow new state regulations that went into effect in June, which barred the disposal of phosphorus on soil that has the greatest risk of runoff.

If passed, the Act would be the first U.S. state legislation to require companies to take responsibility for the waste caused by the farms they work with, according to Merkel.

The local trade association for the group is opposed to the Act. “If the chicken companies become the owners through state action, hundreds of chicken growers could have a loss of income or could be forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars for fertilizers,” Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. director Bill Satterfield told DelawareOnline last week.

Carole Morison, the Maryland chicken farmer who became known for showing the world her contract growing operations for Perdue in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., says that the expected proposed legislation is especially timely. Morison, who now runs a pasture-based farm, says she has seen a recent rise in extra large chicken production facilities along the Delmarva Peninsula, where she lives.

“Right now we are just barely getting a handle on what needs to be done [for] runoff from the poultry industry, yet 200 more chicken houses are slated [to be built] this year,” she told Civil Eats. “We have people coming in, buying up prime farmland, and building up huge warehouses—and they live elsewhere.”

The new houses, she says, will hold 60,000 birds each—more than two times the capacity of her houses back when she was a contract grower from 1987 to 2008.

Farmland on Chesapeake Bay

Farmland on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

This burst of development is paralleling the rise in global chicken consumption. In 2014, the U.S. produced over 38,000 million pounds of broiler chicken, according to the National Chicken Council. This year, the industry group expects that it will rise to almost 41,000 million pounds. And in less than 10 years, chicken is expected to become the world’s most consumed meat, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But residents along the Delmarva Peninsula who have had these mega chicken houses sprout up in their neighborhood have reported ill effects of the facilities, including the smell of ammonia and a dusty haze. In North Carolina, where large chicken houses are being built increasingly close to residential areas, neighbors have also encountering harmful gas emissions.

Regulations for the industry issued by county officials have allowed the houses to be built anywhere between 200 and 600 feet away from the road.

Residents and environmental groups have gathered at forums to figure out how to respond to the proliferation of industrial chicken farms. And they have asked for a moratorium on the farms until the government has completely phased in the tool that will show farmers which soil is at greatest risk for phosphorus runoff.

“It’s sad, because the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure,” said Morison. “But the people who live nearby [the large chicken houses] can’t enjoy it. They can’t go outside because it smells so bad, and they can’t open their windows.”

Featured photo of broiler chicken farm by Oikeutta Eläimille courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr.

Does eating organic reduce pesticide exposure?

Kale at Pescadero Farmer's Market

Veggies for sale at the Pescadero Farmer’s Market. (Photo credit: Kristine Wong)

Civil Eats | Nov. 3, 2015

When parents spend the extra money to feed their children organic food, it’s often in hope of keeping the overall amount of pesticides in their bodies to a minimum. (If you’ve seen this popular video of the Swedish family that made the switch, you know what we’re talking about.) But a new study by a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that diet is only part of the equation, especially for kids who might be exposed to insecticides at home or pesticides from agricultural fields nearby.

Researchers fed 40 Mexican-American children in Salinas (a rural agricultural area) and in Oakland, California a diet of conventional fruits and vegetables for four days. Then they fed the kids (between the ages of three and six and 20 in each group) a week-long diet of organic produce before returning them to a conventional diet for the last five days. The researchers tested the children’s urine daily for the presence of insecticides and herbicides.

Overall, the results showed that the presence of two kinds of pesticides (organophosphate insecticides and the herbicide 2,4-D) in the children’s bodies decreased after eating organic produce (by 40 and 49 percent in the insecticides and by 25 percent in the herbicide).

But researchers didn’t detect any decrease in the levels of other pesticides (such as pyrethroid insecticides like home bug sprays), according to the paper published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“That could mean that the diet wasn’t an important source of exposure for those pesticides,” Asa Bradman, a researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health who led the study, told Civil Eats.

The study results, he emphasized, point to the importance of considering the cumulative amount of pesticide exposure levels in children from other sources when considering the greater health risks (such as lower IQs or delayed development) to this population—especially those living in areas where pesticides could be applied to farm fields or to areas nearby their schools or homes.

“The Salinas children generally had higher concentrations of pesticides than those living in Oakland,” said Bradman.

Pesticide use near California schools could be a significant factor, as documented by a state health department report last year. It found that Latino children were 46 percent more likely to attend schools with “pesticides of concern” applied nearby than other kids in the state.

Bradman’s previous research found that because several farmworker families often live together in one apartment or house, crowding occurs that can lead to pest infestations and increased pesticide use at home.

The Berkeley study is the first to look at the effects of an organic diet among a Mexican immigrant population and test the effect on insecticide levels. Other studies at Harvard looked at the effect of an organic diet on organophosphate pesticide exposure and found similar results.

“Any results like this are really valuable because there’s so little known when it comes to dietary exposure and pesticide residues,” said Emily Marquez, a scientist at the nonprofit advocacy group Pesticide Action Network. “We also don’t know about how exposure changes due to cultural differences in diet.”

While the Centers for Disease Control asks a sample of the U.S. population about exposure to chemicals in the environment ever year, Marquez says, it’s not clear whether respondents live in urban or agricultural areas. And though FDA and USDA test pesticide levels in food annually, she added, much of the focus is on imported produce.

California is the only state in the U.S. that requires the reporting of pesticide use (though the island of Kauai in Hawaii has a voluntary reporting system that could be expanded statewide later this year). Now the state is moving forward to regulate the application of pesticides near schools. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which gathered input this past summer from the public on how it might approach setting these limits, is planning to release draft regulations in December.

Parents and community groups are pushing for a one-mile buffer zone around schools, as well as two-day notice before any pesticides are applied, the Los Angeles Times reports.

And in Iowa, a coalition of farmers and the Pesticide Action Network are trying to get laws introduced that would improve reporting and regulations around pesticide drift.

Despite all of the talk regarding children’s health and safety when it comes to pesticide exposure, both Bradman and Marquez are quick to say that they don’t want to discourage children from eating conventional produce if their families can’t afford organic fruits and vegetables.

“When considering risk from exposure, I wouldn’t say that conventional foods are unsafe,” he added. “If you look at the American diet, there’s definitely great need for more fruits and vegetables and less refined carbohydrates.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reducing pesticide exposure overall. And Marquez says her organization is working toward that end.

“We can change the agricultural system so that it’s no longer dependent on pesticides,” she said. “One way to do this would be to subsidize farmers to help them convert their land—by improving biodiversity and creating a conservation wetland, for example. That will help them begin to transition away from pesticides.”

Coal barge sinks in world’s largest mangrove forest

TakePart/Participant Media | Oct. 30, 2015

Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh

The mangrove forest in Bangladesh’s portion of the Sundarbans. (Photo credit: Amio James Ascension/courtesy of Creative Commons)

A cargo barge carrying 570 tons of coal in Bangladesh has sunk in the world’s largest mangrove forest.

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to endangered species such as the Bengal tiger, the Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins, sea turtles, and the estuarine crocodile.

Tuesday night’s incident, which took place on the Poshur River, is the third spill in a year in the Sundarbans, which straddles the border with India. Last December, a ship spilled nearly 93,000 gallons of oil into a river in the Sundarbans after colliding with a cargo vessel, an incident that the Bangladeshi government called an ecological catastrophe. In May, a cargo loaded with fertilizer capsized in another river in the Sundarbans.

“In a worst-case scenario, it can cause fish kills and impact endangered fish species,” Donna Lisenby, a staffer with the international environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, said of the coal spill. “When a ship or barge loaded with coal sinks, it has big diesel fuel tanks that power the engines, batteries containing lead acid, and hydraulic fluids that all go underwater.”

She noted that coal contains heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury that can contaminate the river.

Local news outlets have reported that the ship’s captain and nine sailors were rescued.

Lisenby said local Waterkeeper affiliates who arrived at the scene the morning after the incident told her they did not witness any action taken by the Bangladeshi government or by the company that owns the ship.

“They were there throughout most of the day on Wednesday and didn’t see any buoys or lights to warn other vessels where the ship had sunk,” she said. “They didn’t see any cleanup or any oil response vessels either.”

One media outlet has reported that the government has formed a committee to investigate what happened and assess the incident’s impact on the mangrove forest.

It’s not clear what caused the ship to sink.

Lisenby said the incident underscores the need to fight the Bangladeshi government’s plans to build a 1,320-megawatt coal-fired power plant at the edge of the Sundarbans.

“If the proposed Rampal coal plant is not stopped, it will result in an exponential increase in coal barge traffic through the Sundarbans,” Sharif Jamil, a leader of BAPA, Bangladesh’s largest environmental organization, said in a statement. “This incident shows that current safety precautions governing boat traffic through the Sundarbans are not sufficient to prevent accidents that put tons of fossil fuel pollutants in the water.”

Lisenby, who visited the Sundarbans in May, said that more than 4.7 million tons of coal needed to fuel the power plant annually would have to be transferred by hand from large barges to smaller boats, because the rivers leading north to the proposed project site are too shallow to handle larger vessels.

Bangladesh, which signed an agreement with the Indian government to build the power plant three years ago, released an environmental impact assessment for the project in 2013. Lisenby said that although the assessment contained more than 30 issues that needed to be addressed, the government has moved forward with the project.

Three companies submitted bids for the power plant’s construction. Last month, the Bangladeshi government told the Dhaka Tribune that it plans to award the contract in January 2016.

Waterkeeper Alliance wants UNESCO to place Sundarbans on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

“The government responsible for protecting it isn’t doing its job,” Lisenby said.

Carbon standard aims to benefit women worldwide

GreenBiz | April 18, 2013 | Original headline: How a new carbon standard seeks to benefit women worldwide

Laotian woman using biogas to cook

Using a biodigester means that women (here, in Laos) can use biogas as fuel for cooking and prevent their exposure to pollutant-emitting cookstoves. Photo: SNV

Women are the majority of the world’s farmers, yet carbon mitigation projects in agriculture and forestry are rarely designed in ways that benefit their economic and social status.

So says Jeannette Gurung, a Bangkok-based women’s development advocate whose group WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management) is trying to change that through the Women’s Carbon Standard. According to Gurung, no such standard currently exists for carbon projects or any other type of project that specifically addresses women.

“By and large, gender issues are not considered important to most climate change mitigation projects,” Gurung said at the standard’s launch on Wednesday in San Francisco. “There are a number of projects out there — for example, improved cookstoves — [developed] without even a thought about how to improve women’s [status]. We wanted to see if we could use the carbon markets to benefit them.”

The Women’s Carbon Standard aims to boost project benefits in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time. It requires that a portion of the profits from carbon offset sales be channeled back to the women’s community where the offset is based.

But despite its name, it’s really a social standard designed to measure outcomes benefiting women who participate in carbon mitigation projects.

“We call it ‘carbon’ because we feel like there’s a market around carbon,” Gurung said,“but it can be used on all sorts of activities.”

The mitigation project must exhibit certain indicators in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time before it can achieve third-party verification. For example, has the project increased access to education and improved air quality? What about water quality? Has it increased community funds under women’s control?

Christiana Figueres, the head and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), expressed support. “This approach to set up a carbon standard that measures in six different categories the very concrete impact that mitigation projects can have is a very good way of making sure that those projects are really making a difference in the quality of life for women,” Figueres said at the launch event.

To illustrate how the standard would apply to improve women’s lives, Gurung said that the choice to install a biodigester to provide energy for a gas cookstove makes a big difference. Just the one decision to use a biodigester, she said, will result in a number of improved outcomes for women’s well-being alone – not just reduce carbon emissions.

By stirring the contents of the biodigester a few times a day, gas is released up a pipeline to a kitchen stove.

“There’s no more smoke, there’s no more walking to the forest,” she said. “It relieves all those women from the drudgery of the fuel wood collection – something we see all over most of Africa and most of South Asia … The dependence on fuel wood for women means long work hours for women and health problems – respiratory problems and eye problems for those who have to work in smoky kitchens.”

And less kitchen time means more free time for women to pursue education, community leadership or entrepreneurial activities. In some cases, men have started cooking once the household has access to biogas, according to Gurung — an action representing a shift in traditional gender roles.

Figueres spoke about the need for women to be involved in the design and building of cookstoves used to replace open fire. When her daughter worked on a Clean Development Mechanism project in Guatemala, Figueres said, her daughter discovered that the first thing that needed to be done was “to get the women to be the builders of the stoves, and teach them how to maintain the stoves.” If the stoves didn’t work, she said, the stoves would be placed outside and open fire would return.

“If these women are given the entrepreneurial training to figure out how to build as a business, then now we have a very different type of leadership,” Figueres added.

The Women’s Carbon Standard was field tested in Western Kenya at an agroforestry project funded by SIDA, Sweden’s international development agency. WOCAN is also getting ready to launch three pilot projects using the standard in Laos (an improved cookstoves project), Cambodia (biodigester) and Vietnam (waste treatment) funded by the Asian Development Bank.

Gurung started developing the standard two years ago as a way to address the funding gaps she observed throughout her three decades of international development work with organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, CARE and the Peace Corps.

Gurung immersed herself in learning everything she could about the carbon market. She emerged determined that it could serve as an alternative system to provide social benefits and revenue to women around the world.

“After decades of attempts in influencing how those international aid allocations were made, it was high time to look for alternative ways to attend to the needs of those women,” she said.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have expressed interest in using the Women’s Carbon Standard, according to Gurung.

“The IMF told me all of the investors that they deal with are calling for green investments, and if we can give them green plus women, we don’t have a single investor who won’t jump on that,” Gurung said.

Business has also expressed interest in using the standard.

“We’ve had interest in companies we can’t name — a company who flies your documents around the world and is offsetting your carbon,” she said. “We’ve also heard indications of interest from pension funds who use corporate social responsibility guidelines to make guidelines about who they buy their offsets from.”

WOCAN has not determined which company will provide third-party verification services, but Gurung reported that she has already met with energy and sustainability company DNV KEMA in regards to this task.

View the original story.

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