Category: Regulation

Trading Crops for a Fish?

While much of the country has spent the last six months dealing with unusually harsh weather and rarely seen precipitation, California has been mired in its worst drought in modern history. The state is currently drier than it has been since records began being kept over 100 years ago, with little hope of relief as winter snowpack sits at 12% of normal [i]. The U.S. Drought Monitor report estimates 95% of the state is in the Severe to Exceptional drought categories [ii] [a time lapse graphic on PolicyMic [iii] shows just how severe this drought is]. This is obviously an enormous concern for California and its residents, but should not be overlooked by the rest of the country. 


Satellite images showing lack of snow cover in the Sierra Nevadas and overall aeration of California’s central farm lands.

California has the largest agricultural economy in the country, responsible for $44.7 billion in agricultural products. The drought is already having a large affect on the industry, and food prices nationwide are expected to continually creep higher as California farmers are forced to put over 500,000 acres in fallow this year [iv]. The severe drought is obviously largely at fault for the agricultural issues, but other factors also come into play.

State and federal water management plans have long been in place to oversee water allocation between the northern and southern halves of the state. Northern California has historically been relied upon to provide water for the Central Valley and its agriculturally based economy. Because of this shared reliance on a common source, water rights have been a frequent cause of debate and court cases [v]. Most recently, in 2007, a Federal Judge ruled that more water had to remain in the wetlands north of San Francisco to protect the Delta smelt, a small fish on the Endangered Species List. This caused uproar amongst farmers and communities in the south who felt as if they were being treated as less important than a fish. This feeling resurfaced just last month as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a prior ruling, keeping the original policy intact to protect the Delta smelt [vi]. As the drought continues to worsen and farmers are unable to grow crops on their land, the battle between protecting a fish and a way of human life is only going to intensify.

Another contributing factor to the current drought is global climate change. History shows droughts are a natural occurrence, but many people including myself believe the severity of this particular drought is due to climate change. Extreme weather events have been intensifying around the globe over the last decade, and will likely worsen as climate change continues to impact the planet.

Because there are so many contributing factors to the issue, an integrated policy plan needs to be implemented by the California state and Federal governments. This plan needs to include immediate disaster relief such as is included in the $687 million drought relief package passed by the California government, but also long term solutions to climate change and water rights laws [vii].

The fact of the situation is that no matter how much water is pumped from Northern California into the central agriculture areas, there won’t be enough water for all the fields. The drought itself is the root of the problem as it has simply been too severe for too long. Government regulations have no doubt played a factor, but are too valuable to be thrown aside as emotions run high. Regulations protect not only the delta smelt, but also many other species of fish, as well as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a whole [viii].


Many central California farmers and residents blame the drought on more than just mother nature.

Farmers and many conservative politicians feel similarly to the above photo: that they are the victims of environmentally friendly liberals who care more about an endangered species than their livelihoods. At first, I even thought this was the case, but in fact the delta smelt being endangered likely saved the entire estuary ecosystem from being pumped dry to grow more and more crops. It is just one of the many warning signs that we must confront climate change and implement resource conservation practices before our impact on the earth becomes too large to handle. Mother nature has presented this challenge, which our actions have exacerbated. Don’t take it out on the fish to try and solve it.












With a Side of E. coli and 50 Gallons of Water

On egg farms where male chicks are useless, millions of birds are simply thrown away in dumpsters like the one above where they die under the weight of other birds. []

By Kerri Devine

As the winter holidays kick into full swing, we find our dining room tables disappearing beneath stockpiles of decadent dishes.  Grandma’s honey-glazed ham, Mom’s famous hot crab dip, and Aunt Pat’s prize-winning apple pie have all been trademarks of the holiday spread for years and will most likely stay on the menu for years to come.  We find comfort in the food we know and are oftentimes reluctant to make changes.  Occasionally, the appetizer menu will accept a new recipe and the task of preparing the main dish will rotate, but we are ultimately creatures of habit.  Should one relative refrain from eating animal products, she would be labeled the ‘hippie’ of the family.  And if she were to suggest that all meat be removed from the table entirely? Hogwash.


And yet, the choice may not be ours to make perhaps within the next generation if we continue to rely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to provide our meals.  The food we eat is entirely unsustainable, plagued with antibiotic resistant microbes, and fueling global warming.  There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way America feeds itself, and I do not subscribe to the belief that a cultural revolution will be the impetus for change.  Strong political leadership must step into action and help open the eyes of the American people to the dangers of our factory farm dependency.


A factory farm is defined as a large-scale farming enterprise in which hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in extremely close quarters.  The phenomenon was born out of the convenient alignment of the Green Revolution with the need to feed a booming population in the mid twentieth century.  Coupled with increasingly meat-rich diets, factory farms have blossomed.  Their prevalence is misleading however, as the problems associated with these operations are many.  Let’s have a look at the facts.


  • Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.
  • Livestock farming accounts for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector.
  • Livestock farming produces 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions (which are 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions).
  • Every 1 kg of meat produced on a CAFO requires an input of 90 bathtubs worth of water.


What’s more is that the industry is incredibly wasteful.  Despite labeling itself as an efficient and modern means of providing meat to the masses, there are many hidden costs associated with standard operation.  One large farm produces more raw waste than an entire U.S. city, with around a third of the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the country’s freshwaters coming from US livestock farming operations.  Pig slurry is 75 times more polluting than raw domestic sewage, and is often concentrated in extremely small areas near aquifers and groundwater supplies.  Overuse of antibacterials and hormones results in bioaccumulation.  According to a February 2011 FDA report, nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in 2009 for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic use for all farm animal species.

Those 29 million pounds of drugs end up in our food, our drinking water, and the land.  This heavy reliance and abuse of antibiotics is allowing for resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate through the food chain.  In the first nationwide studyof meat on supermarket shelves, it was found that 47% was infected with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, with more than half of those resistant to antibacterial drugs.

The facts are startling, and yet as consumers we tend to find ways to rationalize away anything that disturbs us.  For me, it was a simple choice to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, but then again- I was the kid who fed her chicken and steak to the dog under the table anyway.  My family, while supportive of my choice, has no interest in shying away from their chicken wings or prime rib.  They simply say, “Good for you, but I like meat too much.”  They have no interest in buying grass-fed meat or even organic food, which they label as a pricey scam.  Consumers subscribe to the mentality of “what I don’t know won’t kill me” and thus choose to eat their disease-ridden, drug-stuffed protein in ignorant bliss.

As a result, we need to take the choice away from the consumer.  Just as consumers can now no longer purchase products with CFCs as a result of protecting the ozone, consumers should no longer be able to buy factory-farmed meat in its current state.  There needs to be major reform of the industry if we want to continue eating meat for generations to come.  Very few industries enjoy the luxury of complete unregulated supply-and-demand enterprise from which CAFOs benefit.  The meat industry capitalizes on its many exemptions to abuse its resources and the animals it rears.  Despite that animal cruelty is illegal, most states have complete exemptions for animals meant for human consumption.  These exemptions need to go.  There needs to be more transparency from the industry, with explicit labels on food describing how the animal was reared, what drugs it received, and how it was killed.  Grocery stores that choose to buy from local, non-CAFO suppliers should receive government subsidies and incentives.  We need government support to enable sustainable farms to succeed and accelerate the inevitable destruction of CAFOs.

 As we take time this holiday season to share in family and food, it is important that we think twice about the food we pick up from the super market.  Do we really want to feed our loved ones global-warming causing soups of hormones and drugs? Support the local farms in your area in the spirit of the holidays, and help change the way America eats.

Electronic Waste Disposal

A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials for resale in Guiyu, south China’s Guangdong province, Friday 01 July 2005. Electronic waste, illegally imported here from developed countries, is causing severe environmental damage and exposing workers to highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Source: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Over the last decade, quality of life and owning electronics have become inextricably linked.  As a result, the production and sale of electronic goods has skyrocketed worldwide.  Due to rapid advances in technology, there is a much wider range of products available and new versions of existing goods are being launched constantly.  Therefore, the rate at which electronics are being discarded (and sheer volume of waste) has increased drastically as well.  This electronic waste, or e-waste, is being exported to developing countries where crude ‘recycling’ techniques expose both the workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.

So, How Much E-Waste is Actually out There?

In the United States, 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year.  Globally, e-waste generation is growing by 40 million tons per year (1).  This is equivalent to filling around 15,000 football fields six feet deep with waste!  As unimaginable huge as this figure already is, it is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2020, it is estimated that in China (which is currently the largest dumping ground), e-waste from computers will have jumped by 200-400% and mobile phones will increase by 700%.  In India, computer waste is predicted to rise by 500% and e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times higher than current levels (yes, that is an 1800% jump) (1).  While some state-of-the-art electronic recycling facilities do exist, the majority of this e-waste is being shipped (legally and illegally) to developing countries.

E-Waste in Developing Countries

Due to increased safety rules in Western countries, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to developing countries than it is to locally recycle (3).  Though some e-waste exportation is legal, a large portion is illegal.  Electronics exported under the category of ‘used’ or ‘second-hand’ goods are not subject to any restrictions, and numerous other loopholes, export schemes, and corrupt officials have been discovered (4).  In 2005, inspections of 18 European seaports found that approximately 47% of exported waste was illegal and that 23,000 metric tons of e-waste was illegally shipped from the United Kingdom (5).

Common e-waste destinations include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, and Brazil, just to name a few.  China is by far the most popular dumping ground and receives an estimated 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly (3).  The e-waste industry employs 150,000 people in Guiyu, China, while the scrap yards in Delhi boast 25,000 workers and 20,000 tons of yearly waste (5). These countries create a ‘perfect storm’ for e-waste dumping: cheap and desperate labor with no added cost for health or safety regulations.

Human Health and Environmental Issues

 It is an undeniable fact that e-waste in “backyard” recycling operations poses a major threat to both human health and the environment.  Valuable metals such as gold and copper can be extracted from electronics, but this recovery process is often done in the cheapest and most unsafe way.

Plastics, which contain heavy metals and flame retardants, are burned in open piles and release deadly dioxin and furans.  Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are broken with hammers to remove copper, a process that also releases toxic phosphor dust.  Circuit boards are literally cooked over open flames or in shallow pans, exposing workers to lead fumes.  Acid baths are used to extract gold from circuit board chips, spewing even more toxic gases into the air (6).  These processes release a wide variety of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury into the air, soil, and water (5).

Despite the obviously toxic nature of the most common ‘recycling’ techniques, over 90% of e-waste landfills or dumps have no environmental standards (3).  Unbelievably, Nigeria does not have a single legally licensed landfill despite having a population of 115 million and being a popular e-waste dumping ground (2).  The environmental impacts of unregulated ‘recycling’ sites are evident in polluted groundwater, extremely unsafe levels of lead and mercury in nearby rivers, and toxic emissions that contribute to global warming.

Workers at e-waste sites are usually migrants from extremely poor areas and are often children.  They have little to no access to gloves or face masks and are often too desperate for work or uniformed to care about the health risks.  Workers at e-waste sites are prone to skin rashes, cancer, weakening of the immune system, and respiratory, nerve, kidney, and brain damage (3).  In China’s Guiyu region, workers have extremely high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies and over 80% of the children already have lead poisoning.

What Can You do to Prevent E-Waste Dumping?

As with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and “backyard” recycling operations.  However, you can take measures to ensure that your e-waste is being properly disposed of.  Large consumer electronic stores such as Best Buy and Staples have in-store recycling programs.  You can also find out specific information on nearby certified e-waste recycling programs on your state government’s website.  A list of certified electronics recyclers can also be found through e-Stewards and R2 Solutions.








Plastic Bags: on the Verge of Extinction?

Every day millions of Americans can be seen buying groceries, visiting the pharmacy, or shopping for clothes.   They visit a variety of retailers for different purposes, but they all walk out with the same thing: plastic bags.  Plastic bags are so widespread that one may even consider them indispensable.  That’s why the next time you walk up to the check-out counter, you might be surprised to see that these customary items have disappeared.  That is exactly what is happening in more than 50 cities across the state of California.  This trend was inspired by a plastic bag ban that started two years ago, when Washington D.C. discovered that plastic bags account for about half of the waste that ends up in local streams.  Now cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco have taken up the cause.  These policies not only ban plastic bags, they also require customer to pay a 5-10 cent charge for every paper or compostable bag they receive with their purchase (Richtel 2012).  Local officials hope that these policies will encourage people to be more waste conscious.

Disposal Issues

You may be asking yourself, why this sudden attack on plastic bags?  What makes them so bad?  It all comes down to disposal.  Out of the approximately 500 billion plastic bags in distribution each year, less than 4% are recycled (Wagner 2012).  Those that are disposed as municipal waste are either burned or end up in landfills.  Both options have negative effects on the environment.  Plastic bags are made from petroleum and toxic chemicals.  These toxins are released into the atmosphere each time these bags are burned (“Why Ban” 2012).  But landfills aren’t the solution either.  Since plastic is not biodegradable, when it’s sent to a landfill, it stays there.  Unfortunately, these are not the only two ways that bags are disposed of.  Millions of plastic bags end up in the oceans, causing the deaths of marine mammals who mistake them for food (Wagner 2012).  If this problem isn’t resolved, it can have a considerable amount of impact on natural life.

Ban Faces Resistance

Since plastic bags seem to cause so many problems, you might expect there to be an overwhelming support for these bans.  But that isn’t the case.  There are people who are skeptical about how much of an effect this ban will have on the environment.  They wonder whether these benefits are enough to overcome the costs.  Although a 10 cent charge per bag might not seem like a lot, for a working class family living paycheck to paycheck, it certainly takes a toll.  And it isn’t just customers who are upset; some retailers are also speaking out against these policies.  “Higher-end” stores have complained that it seems ridiculous to charge someone 10 cents for a bag, after they just spent hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a product (Richtel 2012).  But the ban is not optional.  Retailers and customers alike are required to comply.

Reusable is the Way to Go

Clearly the ban on plastic bags has stirred up some controversy, but if we weigh the costs and the benefits it seems that this policy is for the best.  The challenge will be to get people to adopt new habits.  Plastic bags are mostly for convenience sake and it will take some time for us to get used to not having this commodity.  But just like with all change, it will eventually blend into the status quo and we won’t see it as a burden.  Nevertheless, the plastic bag ban policies can be further improved.  Although paper bags pose less harm than plastic ones, they aren’t free of repercussions.  After all, it takes a lot of trees and energy to manufacture them.  For now, it seems that the best option is reusable.  So on your next trip to the supermarket, save yourself a few cents and remember to bring along a reusable bag.


Trouble with an Invasive Species? Make it an Entrée.

Photo by Carl Safina for the NYT Opinion Pages

written by Joshua De Santiago

When the Caribbean and Gulf skies cleared after Hurricane Isaac, fishermen set out to reap a harvest from the reefs with the blessing of ocean biologists and seafood chefs. The fishermen are actually doing a much-needed service to the tropical reefs by whittling at the prolific and venomous lionfish, an invasive species that poses a serious risk to the fragile ecosystem, and restaurants are serving up lionfish with gusto. As a native Floridian, I endorse this unusual method of environmental stewardship – as long as the fishing is kept in check to protect the other reef wildlife. But how did this peculiar way of species control appear?

The Invasion

The lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) arrived in the American East Coast sometime in the early 1990’s, speculated to have been released by well-meaning aquarium owners no longer willing to deal with the fish’s poisonous and painful spiky fin rays. A native of the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, the lionfish has few natural predators in the Atlantic and its voracious appetite has made it a grave threat to tropical reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the East Coast. The worst case scenario according to a study from Oregon State University’s Department of Zoology and the NOAA’s  National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is that the lionfish outcompetes the ecologically and environmentally important snapper and grouper populations and eats the coral reef ecosystem into demise. The lionfish’s population could prove to be too great of a stressor on reefs that are already subject to overfishing.


Open Season

In 2010, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary opened up its waters to fishermen with a license to catch as many lionfish as they can in a day in an attempt to reel in the lionfish’s growth. These “lionfish derbys” are now sponsored by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and occur several times a year. Cash prizes are awarded to boats with the biggest hauls and scientists take samples of the captured fish in order to learn more about them. Meanwhile, the majority of the fish are sold to restaurants and chefs on shore who cook them in a variety of ways for the crowds that gathered for the fun activities that form part of the lionfish derby. I can tell you from experience that these derbys bring in a huge haul – the biggest usually tally around 1000 lionfish – and each and every one is delicious. Though even a light prick from the spines can produce an intense pain, it is usually not fatal to humans. The venom denatures when cooked and the flesh has no venom concentrations.

Moving Forward

Lad Akins of REEF confirms that diving fishermen are effective at keeping down the population of lionfish at the sites they frequent, though there are still upwards of 300,000 fishin the Florida Keys alone. The Oregon State Zoologists suggest that the most effective method of management is actually limiting fishing of and providing marine reserves to the few species that can feed on the lionfish. I believe a combination of both of these methods would protect the reefs best. The presiding Floridian fishing authorities should work with the REEF and NCCOS centers to create permits that allow for a greater number of fishermen to bring in lionfish. Additionally, restrictions should be developed on fishing species that predate upon the lionfish and the fish that compete with lionfish for food. Though humans may be as voracious as the lionfish, we will need to develop new policies to keep their population in control and protect our reefs.