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Fracking Our Food Supply

Elizabeth Royte, The Nation

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an investigative reporting nonprofit focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health. 

In a Brooklyn winery on a sultry July evening, an elegant crowd sips rosé and nibbles trout plucked from the gin-clear streams of upstate New York. The diners are here, with their checkbooks, to support a group called Chefs for the Marcellus, which works to protect the foodshed upon which hundreds of regional farm-to-fork restaurants depend. The foodshed is coincident with the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation that arcs northeast from West Virginia through Pennsylvania and into New York State. As everyone invited here knows, the region is both agriculturally and energy rich, with vast quantities of natural gas sequestered deep below its fertile fields and forests.

In Pennsylvania, the oil and gas industry is already on a tear—drilling thousands of feet into ancient seabeds, then repeatedly fracturing (or “fracking”) these wells with millions of gallons of highly pressurized, chemically laced water, which shatters the surrounding shale and releases fossil fuels. New York, meanwhile, is on its own natural-resource tear, with hundreds of newly opened breweries, wineries, organic dairies and pastured livestock operations—all of them capitalizing on the metropolitan area’s hunger to localize its diet.

But there’s growing evidence that these two impulses, toward energy and food independence, may be at odds with each other.

Tonight’s guests have heard about residential drinking wells tainted by fracking fluids in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. They’ve read about lingering rashes, nosebleeds and respiratory trauma in oil-patch communities, which are mostly rural, undeveloped, and lacking in political influence and economic prospects. The trout nibblers in the winery sympathize with the suffering of those communities. But their main concern tonight is a more insidious matter: the potential for drilling and fracking operations to contaminate our food. The early evidence from heavily fracked regions, especially from ranchers, is not reassuring…

The relatively small number of animals reported sick or dead invites the question: If oil and gas operations are so risky, why aren’t there more cases? There likely are, but few scientists are looking for them. (“Who’s got the money to study this?” Colborn asks rhetorically.) Rural vets won’t speak up for fear of retaliation. And farmers aren’t talking for myriad reasons: some receive royalty checks from the energy companies (either by choice or because the previous landowner leased their farm’s mineral rights); some have signed nondisclosure agreements after receiving a financial settlement; and some are in active litigation. Some farmers fear retribution from community members with leases; 
others don’t want to fall afoul of “food disparagement” laws 
or get sued by an oil company for defamation (as happened with one Texan after video of his flame-spouting garden hose was posted on the Internet. The oil company won; the 
homeowner is appealing).

And many would simply rather not know what’s going on. “It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” says rancher Dennis Bauste, of Trenton Lake, North Dakota. “I’m gonna sell my calves, and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipeout, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.” Ceylon Feiring, an area vet, concurs. “We’re just waiting for a wreck to happen with someone’s cattle,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just one-offs”—a sick cow here and a dead goat there, easy for regulators, vets and even farmers to shrug off.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association takes no position on fracking, nor has it heard from members either concerned by or in favor of the process. And yet it’s ranchers and farmers—many of them industry-supporting conservatives—who are, increasingly, telling their stories to the media and risking all. These are the people who have watched helplessly as their livestock suffer and die. “It’s not our breeding or nutrition destroying these animals,” Schilke says, her voice rising in anger. “It’s the oilfield industry.”…

…Given the absence of studies on the impacts of drilling and fracking in plants and animals, as well as inadequate inspection and scant traceability in the food chain, it’s hard to know what level of risk consumers face when drinking milk or eating meat or vegetables produced in a frack zone. Unless, of course, you’re Jacki Schilke, and you feel marginally healthier when you quit eating the food that you produced downwind or downstream from drill rigs. But many consumers—those intensely interested in where and how their food is grown—aren’t waiting for hard data to tell them what is or isn’t safe. For them, the perception of pollution is just as bad as the real thing. Ken Jaffe, who raises grass-fed cattle in upstate New York, says, “My beef sells itself. My farm is pristine. But a restaurant doesn’t want to visit and see a drill pad on the horizon.”

Nor do the 16,200 members of the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, which buys one cow per week from Jaffe. “If hydrofracking is allowed in New York State, the co-op will have to stop buying from farms anywhere near the drilling because of fears of contamination,” says Joe Holtz, general manager of the co-op. That’s $4 million in direct sales, with economic multipliers up and down the local food chain, affecting seed houses, creameries, equipment manufacturers and so on.

Already, wary farmers in the Marcellus are seeking land away from the shale. The outward migration is simultaneously raising prices for good farmland in the Hudson River Valley, which lies outside the shale zone, and depressing the price of land over the Marcellus. According to John Bingham, an organic farmer in upstate New York who is involved in regional planning, lower prices entice absentee investors to buy up farmland and gain favorable “farm rate” tax breaks, even as they speculate on the gas boom. “Fracking is not a healthy development for food security in regions near fracking or away from it,” Bingham concludes….

Biofuels and the right to food: Time for the US to get its head out of the sand

Timothy wise, Triple Crisis

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently decided to keep the nation’s head buried deep in the sand when it comes to biofuels policy, refusing to waive the U.S. ethanol mandate in order to ease price pressures in corn and soybeans following the severe U.S. drought. Europe, the other major market feeding its cars at the expense of the world’s people, lifted its collective head from the depths long enough last month to reduce from 10% to 5% the mandated share of transportation fuel that can come from food sources. No such acknowledgment of reality here, where 40% of our corn crop goes to make ethanol.

The right to food, now recognized worldwide, demands action. So too does Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “It is imprudent to support, let alone to mandate, extra agrofuel production when food prices are high and volatile,” he wrote last month. Indeed, De Schutter has established himself as one of the world’s most passionate and effective advocates for decisive action on biofuels and a wide and impressive range of other issues he has taken on under his UN mandate.

The right to food emerged from efforts to define voluntary guidelines on the issue following the UN’s 1996 World Food Summit. The approach uses a human rights framework to assess the realization of full access to adequate food for everyone. The food price spikes of 2007-8 put the issue at the center of international policy-making. De Schutter was appointed to his position in 2008 and immediately argued for a more far-reaching response to the food crisis.

His small office has produced an astonishing array of influential reports, briefing notes, and policy interventions, while carrying out national assessments on the realization of the right to food. (Stay tuned: the United States will get such an assessment in the coming year.) He has taken the office well beyond safety-net policies and into some of the most important and contentious policy issues facing the international community.

His office has called for greater attention to agro-ecology, aggressive restrictions on commodity speculation, regulation of growing agribusiness concentration in the agri-food value chain, urgent attention to climate change and bioenergy, restrictions on land grabs, improved seed policies to support biodiversity, and changes to multilateral trade rules. Among many others. (Seriously, I know him and I don’t know how he and his small staff do it.)…

(27 November 2012)

Farming the city


CITIES is a research unit for urban observers and explorers around the world. Through events and exhibitions, research projects, publications and case studies, CITIES provides an open, independent and accessible platform for discussion, debate and action.

Phase one of Farming the City is complete in spring 2011 with the launch of a free online resource featuring and mapping a diverse range of city farming projects across Amsterdam. This is the first step towards the creation of a major new city asset for Amsterdam: a local food system. has been launched at the Amsterdam Architecture Center with an exhibition in March 2011, through a 6 weeks show. (For an overview of the exhibtion, please download our press pack) maps and showcases an initial 19 key city farming projects on an interactive online site. Case study information includes location, type of project (commercial, community, innovation), status (start-up, on-going, completed) and position within the developing local food system (sourcing, preparation, distribution, consumption).

From March 2011 onwards, groups and individuals will be able to upload information about their own projects to the database and map…

The Non-Controversy Surrounding Local Food

Maisie Greenawalt, The Huffington Post

A recent glut of books, studies and news articles aim to perpetuate the argument that local food is actually less environmentally friendly than its industrially raised counterpart. Claims range from "factory farms are better for the environment because they are more centralized" to "local farmers are not sophisticated enough to provide adequate food safety precautions."

The contentions that local food’s opponents are putting forth are actually founded largely on credible data, and this is in part why the "controversy" surrounding local food persists. However, examining why locavorism does or does not make sense in 21st Century America via only one or two specific data points is leading people to the wrong conclusions.

While authors, the media and the entities paying for some of these studies all have vested interest in stirring the pot — either selling books and magazines or maintaining their hold on our food system — I think the American public is smart enough to see through these one-dimensional arguments, to hold more than one idea in our mind when it comes to local food.

Most local food advocates now know that the notion of food miles (the distance food travels from farm to table) isn’t a proxy for sustainability, i.e., short distances don’t always equal less energy. And yes, transportation only accounts for a small percentage of the environmental impact of food production. That does not mean, however, that food grown on small-scale farms is not planet-friendly.

In fact, when you add in the issues that climate change is creating, local food’s practicality and environmental importance becomes even clearer. With this summer’s drought and the devastating hurricane Sandy nearly unanimously attributed in part to climate change, the need for localized food systems is increasing. They provide insurance against natural disasters happening thousands of miles away disrupting the food supply system where we live. Predictions of increased flooding, wildfire, drought and powerful storm systems signal increasing risk to the infrastructure that allows tomatoes to travel routinely from Florida to Ohio. Locally grown food provides a safety net in this increasingly unpredictable situation.

(26 November 2012)

Restrict developing quality farmland: Farmers Union

Desmond Devoy,

Food stamps that can be used only at farmers’ markets and development restrictions on “quality farmland,” are just two of the proposals put forward by a farmer’s union local last week.

“(We need to) consider development restrictions on quality farmland or even marginal farmland,” said Hilary Moore of Maple Lane Farm in Lanark, who is also president of the local chapter of the National Farmers’ Union, was speaking at a public meeting entitled “Our Resources, Our Future”. The meeting was held in the council chambers at Perth town hall on Wednesday, Nov. 14.

When Moore was working on an internship at an organization that helped “women in crisis,” in Massachusetts, following her graduation from Carleton University, she heard of a program in which women using the program were given special food stamps that could only be used at farmers’ markets in the Bay State. The farmers would then send the stamps in to the state government, and would be reimbursed, thereby helping not only the needy, but the state’s farmers too, and encouraging the purchase of locally-grown produce.

Moore also urged more community and school gardens, and noted that a packet of lettuce seeds retails for about $1.39 and can provide two years of lettuce in a backyard garden.

“We are only a generation away from being removed from out agrarian roots,” said Moore. “We need a systematic shift to make the local food movement no longer be a niche (movement), so that it is a part of our everyday language.”…

(28 November 2012)