Articles in Industrial

A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.

For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.

I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.

So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.

1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.

2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.

4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.

6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.

7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.

8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.

9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.

10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?

This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.

I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?

Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock —  is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at

Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

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Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.

The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.

Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.

After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price  than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.

According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of  its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.

Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production  allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.

Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers

Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.

While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.

The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.

Look for small, local providers

However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.

Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.

And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.

Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

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Before his death, Roger Ebert wrote a review of the new Ramin Bahrani film, “At Any Price,” and said, “This is a brave, layered film that challenges the wisdom of victory at any price.”

Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”

“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory,  films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.

Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.

This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he  expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.

Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.

On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.

Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.

In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”

Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’

‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”

The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.

The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.

Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani

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Andrew Gunter and Animal Welfare food label. Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.

As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.

Meaningless claims

While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.

The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would  display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.

Nothing natural about it

Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.

“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.

When food labels that say organic aren’t

Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet  an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute  investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.

There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.

So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.

Top photo composite:

Andrew Gunther and Animal Welfare Approved label. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

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Natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her Weaverville, N.C., apiary. Credit: Sarah Kahn

And before food, there was pollination. The hum of bees heralds the presence of pollen and nectar entering the apiary, and that means the bees enable good and required plant sex. Healthy plant sex is essential, says Debra Roberts, a master natural beekeeper based in the Appalachian Mountains in the town of Weaverville, N.C., not far from Asheville. She considers herself “a kept woman of sorts” — by her bees, that is. “I am a bee-loving hussy,” she saucily declares. She has even designed bee-loving hussy postcards.

Art adorns the apiary of master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts. Credit: Sarah Khan

Art adorns the apiary of master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts. Credit: Sarah Khan

Roberts often refers to the many “Bee Illuminati” who teach or guest lecture for the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville, a community of beekeepers where she contributes to and learns much  about natural beekeeping. Since 2006, there has been a dramatic decrease in managed honeybees of approximately 33% yearly. A third of that decrease is attributed to colony collapse disorder, or CCD. That one in every three bites of food is thanks to a honeybee pollinator resonates with many across Asheville and the nation, so much so that beekeepers from Asheville as well as from Buncombe and adjoining counties are determined more than ever to help the honeybee (Apis mellifera) and her pollinator cousins through education, celebration and collaboration with the city.

What is colony collapse disorder (CCD)?

As defined by Agricultural Research Services, colony collapse disorder includes the following characteristics:

  • Disappearance of most, if not all, of the adult honey bees in a colony.
  • Leaving behind honey and brood but no dead bee bodies.
  • Low levels of Varroa mite and other pathogens, such as Nosema, as probable contributing factors.

Statistics about U.S. beekeepers and beekeeping

  • There are an estimated 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the U.S.
  • The majority are considered hobbyists with less than 25 hives.
  • Commercial beekeepers are defined as those with 300 hives or more.
  • Most commercial beekeepers migrate their colonies to provide pollination services to farmers.
  • Bee pollination is estimated at $15 billion a year in increased crop value.
  • Commercial crops that are dependent on bee pollination include almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, sunflowers, cucumbers, kiwis, melons and vegetables.

Source: National Honey Board

California almond production statistics

  • California has about 740,000 acres bearing almond trees.
  • California produces about 80% of the world’s almonds.
  • About 70% of California almonds are exported.
  • Almonds are California’s largest-value agricultural export.
  • Almonds are California’s largest user of pollination services.
  • It is estimated that 60% of all U.S. bee colonies are used to pollinate California almonds.
  • After the almond bloom, hives are moved to pollinate other crops typically two to three times during the season.

Source: Carman, H. 2011. "The Estimated Impact of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder on Almond Pollination Fees." ARE Update 14(5): 9-11.University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.

On June 26, as a result of their hard work, bee appreciators and keepers celebrated the Asheville City Council’s unanimous approval of a resolution making the city the nation’s first Bee City USA. Council members want to encourage and advance backyard beekeepers. Beekeeping is not only vital to the production of many of the foods we eat but it is also essential to the well being of the planet and individual health, Roberts says.

Debates heat up when one compares commercial versus noncommercial beekeeping. And those debates parallel the same issues when one compares agribusiness versus the merits of organic and sustainable agriculture. Roberts’ approach and experience fall squarely in the natural and no chemicals camp, so to speak.

Roberts is a storehouse of practical wisdom based on years of backyard beekeeping that’s unique to her location in the Appalachian Mountains. Bees, the environment and the human body, says Roberts, are susceptible to diseases when compromised. Roberts asserts that “any beekeeper I know worth their salt (pollen) will tell you that diseases come in when the immune systems of the bees are compromised.” Roberts says often the evidence about colony collapse disorder is in front of us but ignored: Bees are dying in large numbers; pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are overused and, in some instances, the accumulated non-lethal doses of pesticides negatively impact bees; and environmental degradation and climate change impact not only the environment but also the bees’ immune system. Yet the official research and findings can be complex, narrow and sometimes funded by corporate interests.  Most often, though, the conclusion is that we just cannot make a definitive conclusion. Yet many of the beekeepers Roberts’ knows are not uncertain at all.

What’s hurting the bee population

When it comes to the commercial pollination industry, Roberts states unequivocally: “The demands of annual almond pollination in California are debilitating for the bees. After traveling long distances (and often through many states) to get to California, they join millions of fellow bees in holding yards where they are exposed to each others’ diseases, pathogens and viruses. They are fed high fructose corn syrup to trick them into thinking it is spring so the queens start laying early. The bees are then ready in greater numbers for the almond bloom around Valentine’s Day. Once they begin the pollination circuit, they have to endure months of mono-food sources, the stress of further travel and sustained exposure to more pesticides. Everything the bees collect, including diseases and pesticides, can come back home in the hive.”

Bees, like so many other species, are bellwethers. Buzzing for some recognition, buzzing to death. Yet, Roberts actively chooses to remain positive and gains sustenance from her daily beekeeping practices. “When I tend to my bees,” Roberts reflects, “when I mindfully lift a hive box, move a frame up or down, when I move gently and respectfully in and out of my hives … I am filled with hope in doing these small sacred things for these remarkable beings. It is what I choose to do as a human being to make the world a better place.” Perhaps Roberts’ actions allow some bees in the Appalachian Mountains to flutter just a bit more and have those flutters turn into ripples, and then those ripples into waves. We can only hope and act.

In her video and extended audio interview below, you can watch and hear Roberts discuss her firsthand knowledge about backyard beekeeping, how beekeeping has helped her and others and how it has the potential to heal the planet, if we just listen to the bees.

Watch a short video of Roberts in her apiary.

Listen to Roberts in this audio interview for a more detailed exploration of natural beekeeping, what the bees teach her, and the how bees have healed others.

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Top photo: Master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her apiary in Weaverville, N.C. Credit: Sarah Kahn

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A latex-gloved hand hold wheat seeds in blue light. Credit:

“Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” This frightening fact is pointed out in “Bitter Seeds,” the third documentary in “The Globalization Trilogy” directed by Micha Peled. The 12-year project aims to generate debate about public policy and consumer choices in some complex issues relevant to all of us. Peled is the founder of the nonprofit Teddy Bear Films, which he created to make issue-oriented films such as “Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin?” and “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town.”

“Bitter Seeds” follows a season in a village in India from planting to harvest. There are three important stories in this film, each revolving around the multinational corporate takeover of India’s seed market and the effect it has on farmers and farming all over India and the world.

Like most of his neighbors, the protagonist in the film, Ram Krishna, must engage a money-lender to pay for the mounting costs of modern farming; he puts his land up as collateral.

The only seeds available in India now are GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which require farmers to pay an annual royalty each time they are replanted. The GMOs need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward, more insecticides and pesticides. The soil in which these seeds are planted requires more water. All of which means more and more money for the farmer to lay out.

As Krishna’s story moves forward, his cotton is attacked by mealy worms, which threaten to destroy his entire crop. His daughter has reached marrying age and Krishna must find money for her dowry.

Farmers devastated by GMO seeds

Another story weaving in and out of the film is that of a neighboring girl in college who has recently lost her father to suicide, an end claiming lives all over India’s farmlands. She wants to tell his story, along with the stories of all the other suicide victims in the area. Her research and intuition have shown her that at the root of these suicides are GMO seeds. Her family is not behind her desire to become a journalist or to expose the family story, but this young woman moves ahead, interviewing her neighbors.

In the film we also meet a seed salesman who argues that GMO seeds are better than the seeds the farmers previously used, and Vandana Shiva, an activist who speaks strongly about the damage the GMO seeds have done to the agricultural system throughout India and the world.

“Bitter Seeds,” like “Food, Inc.,” shows how much we don’t know about genetically modified seeds, their hidden costs and health effects. The GMO industry vigorously fights in the United States as well as in other countries to prevent mandatory listing of GMO foods on product ingredient labels. This should at the very least raise our concern.

The recent announcement by BASF (the world’s leading chemical company) that it is abandoning its production of GMO crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance: Europe does not like genetically modified crops.

The GMO labeling debate

Although there is a strong and organized movement pushing for labeling in the United States, why does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration think it’s OK to consider genetically modified seeds harmless until proven otherwise? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why is our health not being protected unless and until GMO seeds can be shown to be totally safe?

Earth Open Source is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global system. In June 2012, it published “GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops” by Michael Antoniou of Kings College London School of Medicine in the U.K.; Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source; and John Fagan, an early voice in the scientific debate on genetic engineering. In the report, the authors explain how genetic engineering poses special risks, claiming that GMO foods can be toxic or allergenic; how GMO feed affects the health of animals; how GMO seeds do not increase crop yield potential; how studies claiming the safety of GMO crops are generally industry-linked and therefore biased. Anyone interested in the “other side of the story” from that fed to citizens by the industry should read this report.

The number of farmers markets in this country has more than doubled in the last three years. Locavorism has become more than a buzzword, it’s an accepted way of eating. People want to know who their farmers are and how they are growing the food. Is it sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic? What seeds were used? People throughout the world are demanding that anything grown with GMO seeds at the very least be labeled. Until there is word that crops grown from GMO seeds are as good for us as their unmodified counterparts, perhaps it is best to avoid them.

Photo: Wheat seeds. Credit: mishooo /

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Christopher Barden

Everyone eats. All of us go to the store and purchase groceries. And yet, how many of us understand the food production system that we rely upon? Most of the people I know have very strong opinions about food, not only about the types of food they prefer but also how that food is made and gets to them.

Many folks have a romantic notion of a family farmer getting up when the rooster crows at the crack of dawn, and starting the day with a huge breakfast — made with food from the property — before heading out to ride about on a tractor. I know family farmers who live their lives close to this idyllic notion.

On the other side of the fence are those whose scenario of the family farm is one corrupted by mega-conglomerates out to reap huge profits from unwitting consumers. I know many corporate farmers. The difference between them and their idealized colleagues is really very little.

A family farmer’s daily juggle

The family farmers I’m acquainted with indeed rise very early, often well before sun-up. But, there the romantic notion fades. These hard workers get out of the house first thing to check on the welfare of their crops and/or their animals. They often put in a few hours of farm work before breakfast, a meal followed by office work — responding to emails, purchasing supplies, checking up on sales, evaluating market prognostications and looking at weather forecasts. Then it’s back to more farming tasks, and maybe a drive into town to pick up the supplies they ordered. These farmers’ days are filled with a high degree of physical labor along with tactical decision-making, all the while keeping in mind their strategic goals — usually increasing yields and decreasing costs.

A California dairy farmer explained to me that he was currently wrestling with signing a contract locking in a specified amount for his milk for five years to come. He told me that the offer was a good one, but, he was balancing it with two other long-term contracts to purchase fertilizers and petroleum. To make these decisions he was studying the tensions in the Middle East and the effect that situation might have on future petroleum prices.

Many farmers tell me they long for days in the tractor or combine to just think. Family farmers spend their waking hours solving the inevitable crises of the moment: capturing an enterprising pig that got through fencing and chomped on a neighbors’ crops, or something more dire, like a storm on the horizon at the very moment wheat is being cut. 

Growing product is just the start

In the late afternoon or evening there is usually more time spent in the office, to review the latest batch of emails, return phone calls, place orders and sell product. Some farmers, generally commodities farmers producing grain or animals in abundance, have prices locked in ahead of harvest. However, vegetable producers and those with niche markets (like high-end organic meats, or produce sold directly to restaurants) often spend a great amount of time dealing directly with their buyers. Many do not use wholesalers or even co-ops. This means creating personal relationships and maintaining them, and may require investing time in social media and going to farmers markets.

I asked a local berry producer in California to describe her average market day to me. She said she was up at 3 a.m. and out with her crew picking berries under lights. Then it was back to the warehouse where the fruit was cleaned before being packaged. She had to load up her van, drive two hours to the market, set up her booth, and be ready to sell her berries before 8:30 a.m. “Oh yeah,” she added, “and I have to make sure that I have a few hundred dollars in change because everyone arrives with $20 bills.”

Growing locally requires thinking globally

The large-scale corporate farm owner usually has hired hands to take care of daily tasks. Often the CEOs of their companies, these farmers are more tightly tied to their desks, Internet and email. Success or failure rests upon their business savvy and understanding of the global agricultural marketplace. During a meeting with one not long ago, I noticed he spent the entire time we talked going through résumés for a position that he desperately needed to fill. He didn’t consider anyone with less than six years at their previous job and looked for someone with a diverse mix of skills that included physical work and decision-making acumen. “Folks who work for me,” he said, “must have the ability to make a decision and see it through.”

Americans tend to forget that the family farmer and the large-scale corporate farmer are business people. Too often the belief is that farmers are just cogs in the machine, played like marionettes by seed, fertilizer and petroleum companies, and everyone else we refer to as “The Man.”

Farmers cannot afford to make bad decisions that jeopardize their livelihood and the success of their farms. I have never met an American farmer who did not want his farm to be sustainable. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about pollution, water quality and soil management. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about the welfare of their animals and who did not care for them deeply. Certainly there are businesses that squeeze the most out of an animal that they can, but, in my estimation they are few and far between. Most farmers I know get sentimental, and even cry, when their animals head to market.

So the next time you grab an ear of corn at the supermarket, eye the piles of freshly picked eggplants, cherries or artichokes at a farm stand or find yourself staring at the possibilities in the butcher’s case, take a moment to consider what went into getting these products to you. Back-breaking physical labor, intense business acumen and world politics are all juggled — with a prayer that the vagaries of Mother Nature won’t devastate the finely honed calculations — to bring each harvest to fruition, each animal to maturity. Whether they have corporate or family run operations, farmers put their lives and businesses on the line every day to get the best food they can on your table. Not one bite should be taken for granted.

Photo: Christopher Barden.  Credit: Maureen Ladley

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