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Falling into the loopholes

After recently learning that USDA approved a final rule (at least until October 21, 2014) allowing organic apple and pear growers to use antibiotics when “natural methods are insufficient to address critical issues of production”, it made me wonder what other loopholes the USDA has created for the farmers to take advantage of.  I did an analysis of the main food categories: meat, fruits and vegetables, and dairy and here is what I learned:


The amount of space or time outdoor and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated for any animals.  Some producers have a small outside space added on the buildings that house tens of thousands of chickens, but only a few birds can access it.  Access to outdoors, does not require that animals actually spend time outdoors which the free-range/free-roaming label implies.  Access may be insufficient relative to the number of animals needing access.  Outdoor access and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated. Chickens may be severely crowded and still labeled as “cage-free.”

Chickens raised for meat may be kept in continuous lighting, which does not allow rest and promotes excessive eating.  This creates a sick and stressed animal that then gets labeled “organic“.  Because the USDA does not permit the use of antibiotics sick animals may not receive needed treatment because they will lose this certification and will either be slaughtered for meat in their sick state or left to die.

Grass-fed is also a fun label full of loopholes.  Cows may be confined, yet grass-fed.  The label does not equate to grazing in a pasture.  The label may include in small print “grain-finished,” indicating that the cow spent some time confined in feedlots.

In products from birds or pigs, the label “no antibiotics” is misleading as hormones are already outlawed.

At last, with the certified humane label, there is no requirement that pigs or chickens have access to the outdoors.  Chickens may be debeaked and pigs may have their tails docked (cut off without painkillers) and still be labeled certified humane.

Fruits & Vegetables

Organic standards require that produce be grown from organic seeds, which means they are not genetically modified (GM), unless the organic seeds are not commercially available, then the conventional seeds are allowed (non-GM).

National regulations require that organic produce be grown for three years without synthetic pesticides.  Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries go through at least one rotation as non-fruiting plants, but virtually all plants — whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides, including methyl bromide, a soil sterilizer and pesticide known to be depleting the ozone layer.

In 2007, the USDA released a list of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be allowed into organic packaged/processed foods and still be labeled 100% Organic.  The list includes hops, which allows Anheuser-Busch to market its Wild Hop lager as “organic,” even though the hops are grown with pesticides.

The loopholes for fruits and vegetables are rather serious and because many people cannot buy organic all the time, the chart above will help you decide on when it is important to choose organic based on the pesticide content.


In 2010, the USDA closed a loophole in their organic regulations, so all organic dairy cattle must now spend much of the year grazing in open pastures, as opposed to feed lots or indoor feeding pens.  There will also be an increasing the number of unannounced inspections conducted by certifiers without any prior notice.  This is probably the biggest move towards transparency in the organic market.  With all my research on the loopholes of dairy, I feel like I can honestly say that organic dairy regulation is the most transparent and trustworthy out of all other food categories.


Reading about these issues made me realize that most, if not all, big organic producers should be denied an organic label because most of them use loopholes.  Specifically, Horizon (Dean Food’s), Cascadian Farms (General Mills), Kashi and GoLean (Kellogg’s)…

The following chart graphically focuses on the organic brands with ties to the top 30 food processors in North America and I would avoid them like the plague:

On a good note, the next two charts show major independently owned and private organic brands, respectively, which are more or less reputable:

Disreputable meat producers take advantage of the loopholes that allow inhumane practices; disreputable organic fruit and vegetable growers take advantage of the loopholes which allow for the use of pesticides; and only organic milk has become what it was supposed to be from the beginning.  In my point of view, fruits and vegetables regulations are the most disturbing because of the frankness of the law which openly allows pesticide use and will still be labeled organic.  What can we, Consumers, do?  Many things!

  1. Buy from meat, fruits and vegetables from local farms where you can check the quality of organic produce or from private and independent farmers.
  2. Support pending state laws to label Genetically Engineered Foods or tell President Obama yourself.
  3. Sign up to Cornucopia Institute‘s and Organic Consumer’s Association website where you can keep track of new developments in the organic industry, support pending laws, and check the score cards on its organic for different produce.


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The wonderful and the glorious Keystone XL pipeline

The Keystone XL pipeline has been the topic in many conversations at my place of work, especially at our Greener Club, where people discuss their environmental anxieties and offer therapy-like support to one another to help cope with distress caused by coworkers that don’t recycle, office policy against double-sided printing, and constant use of Styrofoam cups at employee arrival and departure events.   Like most of the controversial issues here in US, there are proponents eagerly arguing for prosperity of corporations and independence from oil and there are opponents, who desperately defend the environment and the future of green energy.  So, what have you heard about the Keystone XL pipeline?  Maybe that it is one of the ways we can reduce our dependency on foreign oil, maybe that it will provide jobs and boost our economy, maybe that it is not environmentally harmful as some say…  But before an individual can decide whether (s)he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, it is important to look at both sides of the equation.  For those of you who are not familiar with the history of this expansion project, here is a little sketch of how it all began.

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline filed an application in 2008 to build and operate the Keystone XL Project (expanding the previously approved Keystone pipeline) which would consist of a 1,700-mile crude oil pipeline and related facilities to transport crude oil from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta, Canada to Oklahoma and Texas.  It was estimated to cost $7 billion and could potentially transport up to 830,000 barrels per day till at least 2030.[1]  To fully fathom how much oil this is, here is a little break down.  A barrel of crude oil converts to about 41.8 US gallons.  Refineries in the USA are yielding about 49% gasoline from a barrel (about 20.5 gallons) from the mix of crudes they process (2004 data).  An average non-hybrid sedan gets around 35.7 miles per gallon (mpg) city and highway combined.[2]  Therefore, on average, a car would be able to drive 606,902,142 miles per day or 505,752 sedans driving all day at 50 miles per hour![3]  This should convince us to have our pen ready to sign, right?  Let’s look further…

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline argue that it will create 20,000 jobs in the US, strengthen US energy independence from sources in unstable and unfriendly regions of the world, and will not have a drastic effect on the environment.[4]  Yet, just thinking logically, after the pipeline is finally built those workers will no longer be needed, so those 20,000 jobs are temporary (the state department now estimates that the pipeline will only create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs in actual construction).[5]  Also, when TransCanada’s president was asked whether he would support a legislation that required this Canadian oil and products refined from it to only be sold in United States, he responded by a blunt “No”.[6]  To me this shows a definite plan for the company to sell the oil where profitable, not only in US; and although this is a totally plausible strategy for a corporation, it invalidates the argument that US energy independence will strengthen since there is no guarantee that we will be the buyers of that oil.  Now, to the effects on the environment.

The Keystone XL pipeline project proposes to transport extracted tar sands oil from Canada all the way down to Texas.  Tar sands extraction in Canada destroys Boreal forests and wetlands, causes high levels of greenhouse gas pollution, and leaves behind immense lakes of toxic waste.[7]   Although the Keystone XL pipeline is not proposing to extract, only to transport, it is by definition supporting this type of dirty energy and it does have the potential to pollute its route to Texas.  This is the reason the original route in Nebraska was rerouted – it crossed Nebraskan Sandhills, a large ecosystem, and one of the largest water reserves in the world.  If there is a small leak of any kind in a pipeline, it can affect the ecosystem around its route.  And the leaks can happen from outside forces like excavators and earthquakes, which are common in that area; they can happen from faulty valves; and even human errors and corrosion.  And because the pipeline carries diluted bitumen, there is a risk of a highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate spilling in communities and ecosystems.[8]  Only in May 2011, 21,000 gallons of oil leaked in North Dakota…[9]  Some researchers even argue that this pipeline will increase costs of fuel!  Let us now go into every opposing argument to understand whether any of them hold water.

Extracting oil from tar sands is a long and gruesome process.  Just to make things a little clearer, I found this great visual diagram:

Canada’s oil sands are developed using open-pit mines and processing plants that spew carbon, which lay waste to millions of acres of the Boreal forest.[10]  If Keystone XL pipeline is approved, tar sand oil extraction by open-pit mining will expand because this will be their route to export the oil from Alberta, Canada, and their incentive to extract more.  Pipeline construction itself is also vicious – cutting through indigenous communities of Canada, trenching the Bakken Shale in parts of Montana and western North Dakota, ripping through private lands in Texas.[11]  And the company is proposing to use thinner steel and pump at higher pressures than normal, which means there is even more risks of leaks![12]

Now you’re probably asking, how is it possible that this pipeline will raise the cost of fuel?  The line would create a new way to carry Canadian imports outside the Midwest and reduce an oil surplus that’s depressing prices in the central US  Canadian producers will also be able to charge more for their oil after Keystone XL is built.  So completing the entire pipeline would raise prices at the pump in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains 10 to 20 cents a gallon.[13]

Now as I step away from this heart wrenching topic, I realize something…  Wouldn’t it be better to invest in greener infrastructure and greener transportation locally and nationally?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for people to invest more in green energy?  Rather than building a pipeline, build wind farms or solar farms on those routes instead, invest in green research…  This is where our money is needed most and this is what will make US become the leader in innovation and an example for developing nations.  And if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, we will be paying for it one way or another, either in taxes or higher prices, so why not invest in something that will keep paying off into our country’s future and not until we destroy the Canadian forests and suck out all the oil possible.  Our job as US citizens is to speak out against detrimental and irreversible damage that this dirty fuel represents and speak for what makes sense.

Here is where you can speak your voice against tar sands oil extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline:

You can also call the White House and urge Pres. Obama to reject the pipeline. It’s best to call during regular business hours (M – F, 9 am – 5 pm EST). Click below for a number and a script to call:

And if you are in Washington, D.C. for a few days between August 20th – September 3rd, consider joining the historic sit-in outside the White House, and risking arrest in peaceful protest, to make sure we have President Obama’s attention. Learn more and sign up to become a part of the sit-in here:

[3] 830,000bbl * 41.8gal * 49% * 35.7mpg = 606,902,142mi

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Grass roots of conservation

When people think of environmental issues, they typically imagine something an individual cannot control, like an oil spill in the gulf, or smogs in LA, or global warming hovering over our planet like a spaceship – things that are very ambiguous to an individual.  But there are some issues which are more connected to our individual choices, which are typically disregarded as trivial.  Recycling is one of them.  It is all around us:  at our jobs, in our neighborhood, maybe even in parks, yet it is not everywhere like it is supposed to be…  It exists in signs, in Earth Day events, in those crazy environmentalists, but unfortunately it does not live in our American mindset.  Just look in the recycling bins at your job – how many items in there are properly recycled?  What about the trash?  To really understand the anatomy of trash, we have to look at the causes, consequences, and solutions.

 Have you heard of the “trash island” that lives in the Pacific Ocean?  Well, it is made up of mostly plastic that has been trapped in the currents of the oceans and is estimated to be between 270,000 to more than 5,800,000 square miles.    Back in the 1950’s, when present day plastic was just discovered, it was supposed to be our environmental savior, replacing ivory and wood.  But the low-cost and availability created a monster, rather than a savior.  Nurdles, from which all plastics are made of and which make up most of the trash island, are tiny pre-plastic pellets that kill large numbers of fish and birds that mistake them for food. These nurdles are everywhere, moving up the food chain until they reach us.

The sources of that trash, which make up the island, are considered diverse.  Yet according to the EPA, US is the biggest waste producer in the world, followed by other leading industrial nations, accumulating at least 236 million tons per year of municipal solid waste alone.2  So what does this mean for us and our country?  Waste production is a sign of prosperity and waste generation decreases considerably during economic downturns.3  In India, for example, waste pickers in slums collect trash for recycling use, reducing the average waste generation to 1.3 pounds per person per day, compared to 4.6 pounds in US.4  Looking at prosperity through trash, makes recessions look a lot nicer.

But not all is in dire straits… Some landfills, including Puente Hills near Los Angeles, manufacture energy from the methane gas that is produced during trash’s decomposition process.  Puente Hills landfill is 500 feet tall and is a high point in the south end of Los Angeles.  (This reminds me of the movie “Idiocracy” which is not so far-fetched as it once seemed.)  “There is so much trash in this landfill that it generates enough electricity to power 70,000 homes,” says Edward Humes, the author of “Garbology:  Our dirty love affair with trash”.  Humes says capturing the methane gas to make energy is better than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it is the most efficient way to make energy.5  Manufacturing those landfill products uses more energy, than the landfill generates.

China is taking advantage of the US production of paper waste.  They buy the paper waste, shipping it immense distances with enormous environmental impact, manufacture new products, and ship it back into US.6  It might be more economical in monetary terms, but environmentally, it is rather disappointing.

The story of Harrisburg, PA is also worth noting.  If you haven’t heard,Harrisburg claimed bankruptcy this year and it all has to do with waste management.  In the 1970’s, an incinerator was built in Harrisburg as the region’s answer to its waste.  It was supposed to convert trash to steam and electricity, which the city would sell, generating revenue.  But since the beginning, it never worked quite right.  The city kept taking out loans to repair the incinerator, hoping that it will finally work properly and create wealth for the city.  After 40 years, Harrisburg is sitting on $300 million of debt and its residents pay $200 a ton to dispose of their own waste at a facility within city limits, one of the highest trash rates in the country.  At that rate, it would be more prudent to start composting and recycling.

So where do we go from here and what does the future hold for us?  The answer lies in a person’s view of the future and their comprehension of how significant the environmental issues are in forming that future.  Any form of conservation is considerable and it can begin with recycling.

Tree People ❤


Links to great ideas of recycling, reusing, and upcycling:

Where to recycle anything!


Necklaces out of an old t-shirt

Cat bed from a monitor

Make a water jug

Planter from lamp

And more…

[1] Moore, Charles. “What’s a Nurdle?”  Greenpeace.  7 November 2006.  Web.  27 April 2012.  <;

[2] Malone, Robert.  “World’s Worst Waste.”  24 May 2006.  Web. 27 April 2012.  <;

[3] “Municipal Solid Waste in The United States.”  Environmental Protection Agency.  November 2008.  Web.  April 2012. <;

[4] Look, Marie.  “Trash Planet:  India.” 3 August 2009.  Web.  27 April 2012.  <;

[5] “Following Garbage’s Long Journey Around The Earth.”  National Public Radio.  26 April 2012.  Web.  27 April 2012.  <;

[6] “Waste Paper Destined for China.” July 2009.  Web.  27 April 2012.  <;