Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change

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Friday, November 18, 2022

When he arrived in the United States from Guatemala in 2012, Efrain got a job at a dairy farm in Vermont. There, he slept on a wooden pallet on the floor of the calf barn because his employer didn’t provide housing. Two years later, when he slipped and injured his back on the icy steps at another dairy, he worked the remaining six hours of his shift, afraid of what would happen if he stopped. Injured and Invisible: Our InvestigationRead all the stories in our series: Animal Agriculture Is Dangerous Work. The People Who Do It Have Few Protections. Federal OSHA protections don’t apply to 96 percent of the animal agriculture operations that hire workers in America. When people die on the job, the federal agency doesn’t respond 85 percent of the time. ‘I Was Coughing So Hard I Would Throw Up’ Workers at the tens of thousands of hog, chicken, and cow CAFOs in the US face severe respiratory health burdens. The corporate response is risk management. Biogas Expansion May Compound Worker Risks Government incentives are driving larger, more crowded CAFOs—while protections for the workers inside lag behind. Tyson Says Its Nurses Help Workers. Critics Charge They Stymie OSHA. The company’s on-site care system is emblematic of risk-management practices that disadvantage workers farther down the supply chain. During his first few years in the country, Efrain, who has asked that we not use his last name for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities, never felt completely safe or secure in his job. That changed in 2018 when his current employer, a medium-sized Vermont dairy, joined Milk with Dignity, a program that sets worker-developed standards for wages, safety, housing, and scheduling, among other things. Now, the 30-year-old works alongside a few other hired workers. He is paid more, his schedule is stable, he has a full day off every week, and he can take paid time off when he’s sick. The whole feeling of work is different now, he said. He feels safe, comfortable, and supported. “Beforehand, they didn’t care about the conditions; you just had to get the work done however you could. There was nobody checking to see if you could do it safely,” Efrain said through a translator. “Now, it’s very different. They have to give you protective equipment, and if there’s not, you speak up and they provide it. They take measures to make sure we can work safely.” “I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry. It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?” This a bright spot. In animal agriculture, where a budget rider exempts 96 percent of the operations that hire workers from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections, innovative programs like Milk with Dignity—as well as a few states’ efforts to pass worker-centered legislation—are signaling that change is possible. They’re also proving it can be affordable for farms, too. While advocates have pushed to improve federal protections for years with only limited success, those worker-driven programs, as well as state-level innovations, have blanketed the nation in a patchwork of fixes. Even as federal changes lag behind, smaller-scale efforts are gaining momentum. “I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry,” said Alex Blanchette, a professor of anthropology at Tufts University who worked in pork production to write the book Porkopolis. “It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?” A Worker-Developed Standard After years of pursuing protections for dairy workers in Vermont and New York, the immigrant-led organization Migrant Justice created Milk with Dignity, taking inspiration from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the tomato pickers from south-central Florida who developed the worker-driven Fair Food Program. Through Milk with Dignity, dairy farms can receive a premium for milk in exchange for complying with a code of conduct developed by workers. The Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) monitors compliance, audits dairies annually, and leads corrective action when needed. If working conditions aren’t up to standard—workers can report concerns without fear of retaliation. “This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners.’” Ben & Jerry’s became the first buyer to sign on to Milk with Dignity in 2014 after three years of negotiation and campaigning by workers, signaling the impact that corporate buy-in to worker initiatives can have. By last year, 51 dairy farms in Vermont and New York employed more than 200 workers to cover 100 percent of Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy supply chain—all protected by Milk with Dignity standards. Participating farms are required to collaborate with workers on developing site-specific health and safety processes. Those include practices around maintaining and operating heavy machinery, avoiding repetitive stress and musculoskeletal disorders, handling needles and chemicals, managing animals, ensuring proper ventilation, weathering extreme temperatures, communicating during emergencies, and accessing safety data sheets. Additionally, farms are required to offer new employees paid training and provide them with personal protective equipment. “This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners—you’re signing a contract with them, where in essence, you are ceding power to them to determine the conditions in the supply chain,’” said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice. A farmworker education session led by Migrant Justice. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice) Tom Fritzsche, the MDSC executive director, noted that almost none of the farmers in the program had ever had their working conditions monitored before. “It can be uncomfortable to welcome an inspection and interviews with employees when that type of thing hasn’t happened before,” he said. The result has been big improvements. Since 2019, the program has conducted hundreds of education sessions and farm audits and developed 1,340 corrective action plans—all of which were agreed to by farmers. The 24/7 worker support line has also received more than a thousand inquiries from farmers and workers. Efrain feels fortunate to have landed at a farm where the human rights-focused program sets the standard. He no longer works 16-hour shifts, sleeps on the floor, or works for a supervisor who drinks and is difficult, like one of his first jobs. Now he is paid $875 a week, about double a prior wage. And where before, “There was no rest,” he’s now guaranteed a full day off every week. State-Level Innovation Many experts see the removal of the OSHA budget rider as key to protecting workers in animal agriculture from both short- and long-term dangers. But they aren’t optimistic its elimination will come soon. “You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] under regulatory oversight,” said Robert Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. In the absence of federal change, it isn’t just programs like Milk with Dignity that serve as models for innovation. Some states are also testing ideas and retooling worker safety protections—and showing what is possible. “Federal labor standards are abysmal in a lot of ways, but we do see more promise with states kind of leading the charge to improve conditions for workers,” said Jessica Maxwell, the executive director of the Workers’ Center of New York. “You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs under regulatory oversight.” States can choose to adopt stricter standards than those set by the federal government, and some do. Thirteen of the 22 states and territories that run their own State Plan OSHA offices—including California, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Maryland, and Puerto Rico—do not observe the federal “small farm” exemption created by the OSHA budget rider. Because they allow OSHA oversight of farm operations that employ 10 or fewer non-family employees, they’re able to more closely supervise animal-ag workers. Additionally, 14 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin—have passed legislation guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for farmworkers. And some states—including California, Colorado, New York, Oregon, and Washington—have passed laws that give agricultural workers more protections than federal standards, addressing issues such as overtime pay, minimum wage, meal breaks, and rest periods. In 2019, for example, New York passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which took effect in January 2020. It grants farm workers overtime pay after 60 hours, a full day of rest each week, and disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, as well as unemployment benefits and other labor protections. “We hear from workers all the time who used to work seven days a week who now do get that day off, that day of rest,” Maxwell said. And while the Workers’ Center still hears about workarounds—like farmers paying their workers in cash once they get over 60 hours to avoid the increased wage—she said, “in general, it’s had a big impact in terms of starting a shift. And that speaks again to why we need regulation, because that does start to create change on a bigger level.” Photo credit: Vera Chang Two states have also expanded OSHA’s powers through Local Emphasis Programs that extend OSHA’s authority in industry-specific ways. The programs began addressing worker safety in dairies beyond the federal standard in Wisconsin in 2011 and in New York in 2014. Both allow the agency to make random, unannounced compliance inspections. A study found they raised producers’ awareness of the workplace hazards and ways to mitigate them. “We certainly heard from workers at the time that they were getting training that they’ve never gotten before, that they were getting equipment that they’ve never had before—whether it was more appropriate length gloves, or boots, or even something as simple as an eye washing station in case of exposure to chemicals,” said Maggie Gray, a political science professor at Adelphi University in New York who studies low-wage, immigrant agriculture workers. To increase worker safety, she said, “Other states could also push for Local Emphasis Programs.” A Culture of Safety—What Farmers Say Has Worked As individual states enact worker protections, industry pushback often follows. “What you hear all the time is ‘You can’t do it, you’re going to kill the industry,’” said Maxwell of increased worker protections. But that isn’t true, she said. For example, while the U.S. Farm Bureau Federation and other industry players said lowering the overtime threshold in New York to 40 hours would devastate the industry, California’s success in implementing a similar threshold reduction proved the opposite. In a round of hearings in New York in January, California’s success “allowed us to make the argument of, ‘Look, the agricultural industry did not collapse. We don’t see a huge shuttering of farms; we haven’t seen a big layoff of workers,’” she said. “States moving on worker protection allows other states to show proof that the industry will not collapse when you provide worker protection like the ag lobby says it will.” Farmers and workers inside the Milk with Dignity program provide key insights into why worker-centered changes have worked. Matt Maxwell, who operates Maxwell’s Neighborhood Farm, a third-generation dairy in Newport, Vermont, enrolled his operation in the Milk with Dignity program as soon as it was offered in 2018. Before joining, the farm treated its workers well, he said. But he reported in the program’s first biennial report in 2020 that in adhering to the industry standard, the farm had unintentionally paid low wages and offered substandard housing. Milk with Dignity positioned the farm to increase its wages—and improved “both the business and employee sides of the operation,” he said. “Since joining Milk with Dignity, our farm has maintained an 85 percent employee retention rate,” Maxwell noted in the report. “Less turnover has led to higher morale and greater workplace continuity.” Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice. He said the program also enabled his farm to make huge strides in communication with its employees. “Where before we may have had a company-wide meeting once a month, now they are held weekly,” Maxwell said. “The increased interaction has been a benefit to us both. Problems are identified earlier and corrections made where necessary.” In addition to more open lines of communication, “everyone has a job description and has been trained on safety and procedural protocols.” Clement Gervais of the large, three-generation Gervais Family Farm in Franklin County, Vermont said the program helped his farm respond to COVID and better address safety issues, according to the 2022 Milk with Dignity report. In addition to coordinating employee vaccinations during the COVID outbreak, Milk with Dignity also helped create safety protocols, bilingual safety posters, and pamphlets for new employees. Like the Maxwell farm, the Gervais farm credits Milk with Dignity for improving its communication with workers. “That can be bridging the language barrier, or helping both sides negotiate conflicts if they arise,” Gervais said in the report. Overall, “Milk with Dignity has been a very positive program helping immigrant workers on my farm.” For workers, the energy at dairies just feels different in the Milk with Dignity program. “The bosses have more trust in our work; they aren’t always looking over our shoulders,” Efrain said. “I don’t know exactly what the Milk with Dignity people told them, but it’s really changed their mindset, whatever it is,” he said. “Now, I feel freer, I feel calmer, I feel safer at work.” Efrain explained the improved safety response. On a snowy morning before the Milk with Dignity program existed, he was leading cows in from a corral to be milked when he slipped on the icy steps of the milking parlor. “I didn’t feel anything other than the pain when I landed, just excruciating pain on my left side,” he said. He let his bosses know about his fall, he said, “but they didn’t really care.” Because there was no one else to fill in for him, Efrain felt he had no other option but to continue milking the cows. “To be honest, at that time, we all worked with the fear that if you couldn’t do your work, you would just get fired,” he said. “I couldn’t bend over, and I couldn’t turn to one side or the other,” he said. For the next month, he worked in a back brace—and finally started feeling some relief when a man came to his house to adjust his spine. When a broken metal gate fell on his foot at his current workplace, however, he was able to tend to his injury. His employer provided a first aid kit—and then paid time off to recover. “The protocols farms follow aren’t not cheap or easy, but farms are able to afford the changes through premiums paid on the milk.” Still, getting animal-agriculture companies to sign onto worker-safety programs has proven difficult, because human rights often fall at the bottom of companies’ priority lists. “We see focus on organic and environmental practices,” Jessica Maxwell said, “and workers’ rights have really lagged in terms of getting the attention that it deserves in sustainable agriculture. “Even Ben and Jerry’s, which is a progressive company, it’s not like they went out and created or supported a version of this program—workers did it,” she said. “We see it over and over again, that corporations consistently resist this sort of change.” Milk with Dignity is currently applying similar pressure to Hannaford Supermarkets to get the New England and New York grocery chain to sign onto the program for its store-brand milk. Although companies resist, the program has proven that farms are capable of complying with regulations when forced to, said Fritzsche of the MDSC. “The protocols that farms follow as a consumer protection measure are strict. They’re not cheap or easy to follow,” he said, adding the premiums farms receive through the program help them afford the changes. Changes at the Federal Level A concern among worker advocates about the state-centered approach is that it doesn’t reach workers in less progressive states. “At some point, we need that to shift to a federal level,” Jessica Maxwell said. Though most experts are also not optimistic that federal change will come soon, Martin of the Center for a Livable Future said the Biden administration’s approach to monopolies—including those that control the meat and poultry industries and promote an anti-regulatory agenda—is encouraging. “The source of most of the dysfunction in the animal ag industry is the concentrated economic and political power of the companies,” he said. “So, when Joe Biden says he’s going to look at antitrust and price fixing of the companies, that’s a good thing to do.” Martin believes there OSHA should meanwhile step up inspections and enforcement to make sure existing rules are followed until additional legislation to protect workers can be passed. This includes providing training and instructions for personal protective equipment in the languages that workers actually speak, not just in English, he said. “I don’t think any state is allocating enough financial and human resources to CAFO oversight,” Martin said. “It’s an across-the-board lack of oversight of these operations . . . [resulting in] a mistreatment of workers and the broader community.” A 2020 report on the agency in the American Journal of Public Health suggested OSHA can also benefit from more standards-writing staff and a nimbler process by which to update its health and safety standards. Many OSHA safety standards, created in the 1970s, don’t reflect the present, industrial conditions of animal agriculture. For example, 90 percent of the chemical exposure limits don’t account for the majority of the chemicals in the present-day workplace. Building Momentum, Pushing Forward Jessica Maxwell stressed that for improved regulations to be meaningful, however, the animal-agriculture industry needs to overhaul—and slow down—the way it operates, putting less emphasis on peak speed and efficiency. “Some of the ways we do our agriculture have become so unsustainable that it’s like we’re putting Band-Aids on,” she said. “We need more systemic change.” Dr. Athena Ramos, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and principal author of a 2018 study of swine confinement workers in Missouri, hopes that as systemic changes take hold, researchers can collaborate with willing producers to fine-tune solutions to safety issues, including workers’ chronic respiratory problems. Ramos and her collaborators recommend baseline health screening to assess respiratory health as people are hired, for example, so that workers could be assigned to job sites that don’t exacerbate preexisting health conditions, she said. Follow-up screenings throughout a worker’s tenure can help detect changes in health and further inform assignments. At right, Efrain, with his brother Ervin (at left), who works at the same dairy. Also pictured are Ervin’s wife and daughter. She also proposed farms conduct regular safety audits to check whether workers are using available personal protective equipment and donning it properly. And safety training—or safety messaging—should be offered throughout a worker’s tenure, in their primary language, by a qualified and trained professional—not just someone who happens to speak the language. “It’s about developing a culture of safety where worker health is prioritized at the same level as the animal health and well-being,” Ramos said. “Contract growers face tremendous pressures. But we’ve got to find a way that we can balance the productivity and the bottom line with worker health and safety.” For now, workers like Efrain take solace in their gains. Since the Milk with Dignity program increased his pay and days off, Efrain has been able to start enjoying his life more. His brother Ervin got a job at the same dairy a few years after he did, and Ervin’s wife was able to join him. The two recently had their first child. “Vermont has been a beautiful place to live, and every year has been different and new,” Efrain said. In the spring, “all the wildflowers come out, and you’re surrounded by flowers. It’s a very happy and pleasant area.” He recently bought a car and can now leave the farm with friends to play soccer. “I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.” As workers realize success—at the state and local levels, and through industry-focused programs—momentum builds. “Workers see that they’re able to make changes, and then able to benefit from those changes,” Maxwell said. “And that creates momentum and empowerment to continue pushing forward and doing more.” “I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.” Such worker empowerment is one of the most important levers for creating change, she said. “The most protected worker is an informed and educated worker who feels like they have the support to speak out and advocate for themselves,” said Maxwell. Another key is educating lawmakers—and consumers—about the conditions under which animal agriculture workers work. Changes come from people caring about the treatment of the workers behind their food and applying pressure to elected officials, according to Martin. “Politicians see the light when they begin to feel the heat,” he said, and, in this case, “the heat comes from political activity and organization.” Read the entire series here, our methodology here, and check back here for our follow-up reporting. Gosia Wozniacka contributed reporting to this story. The post Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change appeared first on Civil Eats.

During his first few years in the country, Efrain, who has asked that we not use his last name for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities, never felt completely safe or secure in his job. That changed in 2018 when his current employer, a medium-sized Vermont dairy, joined Milk with Dignity, a program that sets […] The post Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change appeared first on Civil Eats.

When he arrived in the United States from Guatemala in 2012, Efrain got a job at a dairy farm in Vermont. There, he slept on a wooden pallet on the floor of the calf barn because his employer didn’t provide housing. Two years later, when he slipped and injured his back on the icy steps at another dairy, he worked the remaining six hours of his shift, afraid of what would happen if he stopped.

Injured and Invisible: Our Investigation

Read all the stories in our series:

During his first few years in the country, Efrain, who has asked that we not use his last name for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities, never felt completely safe or secure in his job. That changed in 2018 when his current employer, a medium-sized Vermont dairy, joined Milk with Dignity, a program that sets worker-developed standards for wages, safety, housing, and scheduling, among other things.

Now, the 30-year-old works alongside a few other hired workers. He is paid more, his schedule is stable, he has a full day off every week, and he can take paid time off when he’s sick. The whole feeling of work is different now, he said. He feels safe, comfortable, and supported.

“Beforehand, they didn’t care about the conditions; you just had to get the work done however you could. There was nobody checking to see if you could do it safely,” Efrain said through a translator. “Now, it’s very different. They have to give you protective equipment, and if there’s not, you speak up and they provide it. They take measures to make sure we can work safely.”

“I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry. It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?”

This a bright spot. In animal agriculture, where a budget rider exempts 96 percent of the operations that hire workers from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections, innovative programs like Milk with Dignity—as well as a few states’ efforts to pass worker-centered legislation—are signaling that change is possible. They’re also proving it can be affordable for farms, too.

While advocates have pushed to improve federal protections for years with only limited success, those worker-driven programs, as well as state-level innovations, have blanketed the nation in a patchwork of fixes. Even as federal changes lag behind, smaller-scale efforts are gaining momentum.

“I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry,” said Alex Blanchette, a professor of anthropology at Tufts University who worked in pork production to write the book Porkopolis. “It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?”

A Worker-Developed Standard

After years of pursuing protections for dairy workers in Vermont and New York, the immigrant-led organization Migrant Justice created Milk with Dignity, taking inspiration from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the tomato pickers from south-central Florida who developed the worker-driven Fair Food Program.

Through Milk with Dignity, dairy farms can receive a premium for milk in exchange for complying with a code of conduct developed by workers. The Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) monitors compliance, audits dairies annually, and leads corrective action when needed. If working conditions aren’t up to standard—workers can report concerns without fear of retaliation.

“This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners.’”

Ben & Jerry’s became the first buyer to sign on to Milk with Dignity in 2014 after three years of negotiation and campaigning by workers, signaling the impact that corporate buy-in to worker initiatives can have. By last year, 51 dairy farms in Vermont and New York employed more than 200 workers to cover 100 percent of Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy supply chain—all protected by Milk with Dignity standards.

Participating farms are required to collaborate with workers on developing site-specific health and safety processes. Those include practices around maintaining and operating heavy machinery, avoiding repetitive stress and musculoskeletal disorders, handling needles and chemicals, managing animals, ensuring proper ventilation, weathering extreme temperatures, communicating during emergencies, and accessing safety data sheets. Additionally, farms are required to offer new employees paid training and provide them with personal protective equipment.

“This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners—you’re signing a contract with them, where in essence, you are ceding power to them to determine the conditions in the supply chain,’” said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice.

A farmworker education session led by Migrant Justice. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

A farmworker education session led by Migrant Justice. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Tom Fritzsche, the MDSC executive director, noted that almost none of the farmers in the program had ever had their working conditions monitored before. “It can be uncomfortable to welcome an inspection and interviews with employees when that type of thing hasn’t happened before,” he said.

The result has been big improvements. Since 2019, the program has conducted hundreds of education sessions and farm audits and developed 1,340 corrective action plans—all of which were agreed to by farmers. The 24/7 worker support line has also received more than a thousand inquiries from farmers and workers.

Efrain feels fortunate to have landed at a farm where the human rights-focused program sets the standard. He no longer works 16-hour shifts, sleeps on the floor, or works for a supervisor who drinks and is difficult, like one of his first jobs. Now he is paid $875 a week, about double a prior wage. And where before, “There was no rest,” he’s now guaranteed a full day off every week.

State-Level Innovation

Many experts see the removal of the OSHA budget rider as key to protecting workers in animal agriculture from both short- and long-term dangers. But they aren’t optimistic its elimination will come soon.

“You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] under regulatory oversight,” said Robert Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

In the absence of federal change, it isn’t just programs like Milk with Dignity that serve as models for innovation. Some states are also testing ideas and retooling worker safety protections—and showing what is possible. “Federal labor standards are abysmal in a lot of ways, but we do see more promise with states kind of leading the charge to improve conditions for workers,” said Jessica Maxwell, the executive director of the Workers’ Center of New York.

“You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs under regulatory oversight.”

States can choose to adopt stricter standards than those set by the federal government, and some do.

Thirteen of the 22 states and territories that run their own State Plan OSHA offices—including California, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Maryland, and Puerto Rico—do not observe the federal “small farm” exemption created by the OSHA budget rider. Because they allow OSHA oversight of farm operations that employ 10 or fewer non-family employees, they’re able to more closely supervise animal-ag workers.

Additionally, 14 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin—have passed legislation guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for farmworkers.

And some states—including California, Colorado, New York, Oregon, and Washington—have passed laws that give agricultural workers more protections than federal standards, addressing issues such as overtime pay, minimum wage, meal breaks, and rest periods.

In 2019, for example, New York passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which took effect in January 2020. It grants farm workers overtime pay after 60 hours, a full day of rest each week, and disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, as well as unemployment benefits and other labor protections.

“We hear from workers all the time who used to work seven days a week who now do get that day off, that day of rest,” Maxwell said. And while the Workers’ Center still hears about workarounds—like farmers paying their workers in cash once they get over 60 hours to avoid the increased wage—she said, “in general, it’s had a big impact in terms of starting a shift. And that speaks again to why we need regulation, because that does start to create change on a bigger level.”

A dairy worker pours milk for a young calf. Photo credit: Vera Chang

Photo credit: Vera Chang

Two states have also expanded OSHA’s powers through Local Emphasis Programs that extend OSHA’s authority in industry-specific ways. The programs began addressing worker safety in dairies beyond the federal standard in Wisconsin in 2011 and in New York in 2014. Both allow the agency to make random, unannounced compliance inspections. A study found they raised producers’ awareness of the workplace hazards and ways to mitigate them.

“We certainly heard from workers at the time that they were getting training that they’ve never gotten before, that they were getting equipment that they’ve never had before—whether it was more appropriate length gloves, or boots, or even something as simple as an eye washing station in case of exposure to chemicals,” said Maggie Gray, a political science professor at Adelphi University in New York who studies low-wage, immigrant agriculture workers. To increase worker safety, she said, “Other states could also push for Local Emphasis Programs.”

A Culture of Safety—What Farmers Say Has Worked

As individual states enact worker protections, industry pushback often follows. “What you hear all the time is ‘You can’t do it, you’re going to kill the industry,’” said Maxwell of increased worker protections. But that isn’t true, she said.

For example, while the U.S. Farm Bureau Federation and other industry players said lowering the overtime threshold in New York to 40 hours would devastate the industry, California’s success in implementing a similar threshold reduction proved the opposite.

In a round of hearings in New York in January, California’s success “allowed us to make the argument of, ‘Look, the agricultural industry did not collapse. We don’t see a huge shuttering of farms; we haven’t seen a big layoff of workers,’” she said. “States moving on worker protection allows other states to show proof that the industry will not collapse when you provide worker protection like the ag lobby says it will.”

Farmers and workers inside the Milk with Dignity program provide key insights into why worker-centered changes have worked.

Matt Maxwell, who operates Maxwell’s Neighborhood Farm, a third-generation dairy in Newport, Vermont, enrolled his operation in the Milk with Dignity program as soon as it was offered in 2018.

Before joining, the farm treated its workers well, he said. But he reported in the program’s first biennial report in 2020 that in adhering to the industry standard, the farm had unintentionally paid low wages and offered substandard housing. Milk with Dignity positioned the farm to increase its wages—and improved “both the business and employee sides of the operation,” he said.

“Since joining Milk with Dignity, our farm has maintained an 85 percent employee retention rate,” Maxwell noted in the report. “Less turnover has led to higher morale and greater workplace continuity.”

A worker milking cows while wearing a Milk with Dignity sweatshirt. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice.

He said the program also enabled his farm to make huge strides in communication with its employees. “Where before we may have had a company-wide meeting once a month, now they are held weekly,” Maxwell said. “The increased interaction has been a benefit to us both. Problems are identified earlier and corrections made where necessary.” In addition to more open lines of communication, “everyone has a job description and has been trained on safety and procedural protocols.”

Clement Gervais of the large, three-generation Gervais Family Farm in Franklin County, Vermont said the program helped his farm respond to COVID and better address safety issues, according to the 2022 Milk with Dignity report. In addition to coordinating employee vaccinations during the COVID outbreak, Milk with Dignity also helped create safety protocols, bilingual safety posters, and pamphlets for new employees.

Like the Maxwell farm, the Gervais farm credits Milk with Dignity for improving its communication with workers. “That can be bridging the language barrier, or helping both sides negotiate conflicts if they arise,” Gervais said in the report. Overall, “Milk with Dignity has been a very positive program helping immigrant workers on my farm.”

For workers, the energy at dairies just feels different in the Milk with Dignity program.

“The bosses have more trust in our work; they aren’t always looking over our shoulders,” Efrain said. “I don’t know exactly what the Milk with Dignity people told them, but it’s really changed their mindset, whatever it is,” he said. “Now, I feel freer, I feel calmer, I feel safer at work.”

Efrain explained the improved safety response. On a snowy morning before the Milk with Dignity program existed, he was leading cows in from a corral to be milked when he slipped on the icy steps of the milking parlor. “I didn’t feel anything other than the pain when I landed, just excruciating pain on my left side,” he said. He let his bosses know about his fall, he said, “but they didn’t really care.”

Because there was no one else to fill in for him, Efrain felt he had no other option but to continue milking the cows. “To be honest, at that time, we all worked with the fear that if you couldn’t do your work, you would just get fired,” he said.

“I couldn’t bend over, and I couldn’t turn to one side or the other,” he said. For the next month, he worked in a back brace—and finally started feeling some relief when a man came to his house to adjust his spine.

When a broken metal gate fell on his foot at his current workplace, however, he was able to tend to his injury. His employer provided a first aid kit—and then paid time off to recover.

“The protocols farms follow aren’t not cheap or easy, but farms are able to afford the changes through premiums paid on the milk.”

Still, getting animal-agriculture companies to sign onto worker-safety programs has proven difficult, because human rights often fall at the bottom of companies’ priority lists. “We see focus on organic and environmental practices,” Jessica Maxwell said, “and workers’ rights have really lagged in terms of getting the attention that it deserves in sustainable agriculture.

“Even Ben and Jerry’s, which is a progressive company, it’s not like they went out and created or supported a version of this program—workers did it,” she said. “We see it over and over again, that corporations consistently resist this sort of change.”

Milk with Dignity is currently applying similar pressure to Hannaford Supermarkets to get the New England and New York grocery chain to sign onto the program for its store-brand milk. Although companies resist, the program has proven that farms are capable of complying with regulations when forced to, said Fritzsche of the MDSC.

“The protocols that farms follow as a consumer protection measure are strict. They’re not cheap or easy to follow,” he said, adding the premiums farms receive through the program help them afford the changes.

Changes at the Federal Level

A concern among worker advocates about the state-centered approach is that it doesn’t reach workers in less progressive states. “At some point, we need that to shift to a federal level,” Jessica Maxwell said.

Though most experts are also not optimistic that federal change will come soon, Martin of the Center for a Livable Future said the Biden administration’s approach to monopolies—including those that control the meat and poultry industries and promote an anti-regulatory agenda—is encouraging.

“The source of most of the dysfunction in the animal ag industry is the concentrated economic and political power of the companies,” he said. “So, when Joe Biden says he’s going to look at antitrust and price fixing of the companies, that’s a good thing to do.”

Martin believes there OSHA should meanwhile step up inspections and enforcement to make sure existing rules are followed until additional legislation to protect workers can be passed. This includes providing training and instructions for personal protective equipment in the languages that workers actually speak, not just in English, he said.

“I don’t think any state is allocating enough financial and human resources to CAFO oversight,” Martin said. “It’s an across-the-board lack of oversight of these operations . . . [resulting in] a mistreatment of workers and the broader community.”

A 2020 report on the agency in the American Journal of Public Health suggested OSHA can also benefit from more standards-writing staff and a nimbler process by which to update its health and safety standards. Many OSHA safety standards, created in the 1970s, don’t reflect the present, industrial conditions of animal agriculture. For example, 90 percent of the chemical exposure limits don’t account for the majority of the chemicals in the present-day workplace.

Building Momentum, Pushing Forward

Jessica Maxwell stressed that for improved regulations to be meaningful, however, the animal-agriculture industry needs to overhaul—and slow down—the way it operates, putting less emphasis on peak speed and efficiency. “Some of the ways we do our agriculture have become so unsustainable that it’s like we’re putting Band-Aids on,” she said. “We need more systemic change.”

Dr. Athena Ramos, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and principal author of a 2018 study of swine confinement workers in Missouri, hopes that as systemic changes take hold, researchers can collaborate with willing producers to fine-tune solutions to safety issues, including workers’ chronic respiratory problems.

Ramos and her collaborators recommend baseline health screening to assess respiratory health as people are hired, for example, so that workers could be assigned to job sites that don’t exacerbate preexisting health conditions, she said. Follow-up screenings throughout a worker’s tenure can help detect changes in health and further inform assignments.

At right, Efrain, with his brother Ervin (at left), who works at the same dairy. Also pictured are Ervin's wife and daughter.

At right, Efrain, with his brother Ervin (at left), who works at the same dairy. Also pictured are Ervin’s wife and daughter.

She also proposed farms conduct regular safety audits to check whether workers are using available personal protective equipment and donning it properly. And safety training—or safety messaging—should be offered throughout a worker’s tenure, in their primary language, by a qualified and trained professional—not just someone who happens to speak the language.

“It’s about developing a culture of safety where worker health is prioritized at the same level as the animal health and well-being,” Ramos said. “Contract growers face tremendous pressures. But we’ve got to find a way that we can balance the productivity and the bottom line with worker health and safety.”

For now, workers like Efrain take solace in their gains. Since the Milk with Dignity program increased his pay and days off, Efrain has been able to start enjoying his life more. His brother Ervin got a job at the same dairy a few years after he did, and Ervin’s wife was able to join him. The two recently had their first child.

“Vermont has been a beautiful place to live, and every year has been different and new,” Efrain said. In the spring, “all the wildflowers come out, and you’re surrounded by flowers. It’s a very happy and pleasant area.”

He recently bought a car and can now leave the farm with friends to play soccer. “I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.”

As workers realize success—at the state and local levels, and through industry-focused programs—momentum builds. “Workers see that they’re able to make changes, and then able to benefit from those changes,” Maxwell said. “And that creates momentum and empowerment to continue pushing forward and doing more.”

“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.”

Such worker empowerment is one of the most important levers for creating change, she said. “The most protected worker is an informed and educated worker who feels like they have the support to speak out and advocate for themselves,” said Maxwell.

Another key is educating lawmakers—and consumers—about the conditions under which animal agriculture workers work. Changes come from people caring about the treatment of the workers behind their food and applying pressure to elected officials, according to Martin.

“Politicians see the light when they begin to feel the heat,” he said, and, in this case, “the heat comes from political activity and organization.”

Read the entire series hereour methodology here, and check back here for our follow-up reporting.

Gosia Wozniacka contributed reporting to this story.

The post Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change appeared first on Civil Eats.

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System to protect threatened species from development ‘more or less worthless’, study finds

Environment ministers’ decisions spanning 15 years made no difference to amount of habitat destroyed, researchers sayGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastDecisions by environment ministers spanning 15 years to either wave through projects or impose stricter conditions to protect threatened species made no actual difference to the amount of habitat destroyed, according to a new study.More than half of habitat cleared to build infrastructure, mines, urban developments and for agriculture came after a minister had decided projects would have a “non-significant” impact on species and habitat, the study says.Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundupThe term “significant impact” was too vague and the criteria around it was ambiguous, leading to subjective decisions.Developers intentionally minimise the potential impacts of a project and governments relied too much on reports from consultants paid by proponents.Social and economic factors were too often placed above environmental risks when decisions are made. Continue reading...

Environment ministers’ decisions spanning 15 years made no difference to amount of habitat destroyed, researchers sayGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastDecisions by environment ministers spanning 15 years to either wave through projects or impose stricter conditions to protect threatened species made no actual difference to the amount of habitat destroyed, according to a new study.More than half of habitat cleared to build infrastructure, mines, urban developments and for agriculture came after a minister had decided projects would have a “non-significant” impact on species and habitat, the study says.Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundupThe term “significant impact” was too vague and the criteria around it was ambiguous, leading to subjective decisions.Developers intentionally minimise the potential impacts of a project and governments relied too much on reports from consultants paid by proponents.Social and economic factors were too often placed above environmental risks when decisions are made. Continue reading...

19 Reader Views on Lab-Grown Meat

“Given the choice between cruelty and kindness, I believe most humans will choose kindness.”

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.Last week I asked, “What do you think about meat grown in a lab? Would you eat it? Will your grandchildren?”Matt expects a species-defining shift: Evolutionary leaps in our development have been marked by the development of tools, farming, domesticated animals, and sadly and tragically, industrial farming and food processing. Lab-grown meat is the next evolution of our meat consumption as a species.   I.S. is excited.“Heck yes, I’ll eat it!” she wrote. “If it tastes like the real deal and is safe, absolutely! I stopped eating factory-farmed meat two years ago, and I miss it so much! Especially bacon. Oh boy, do I miss bacon!”   Meredith believes the technology will be widely embraced: I stopped eating meat after being profoundly moved by an article in The Atlantic about nonhuman species having consciousness (“A Journey Into the Animal Mind,” by Ross Andersen). Meat grown in a lab is, so far as I can tell, ethical and humane. It can be produced in a more sanitary environment and saves animals and meat-production workers from the horror of meat slaughter. That is likely to encourage skeptics to try it. Given the choice between cruelty and kindness, I believe most humans will choose kindness. Ruth reminds us that some vegetarians won’t want to consume lab-grown meat: Lab-grown meat is a wonderful idea if it can prevent billions of animals being brought into existence merely to be tortured and die. I would not eat it. I am a vegetarian and I do not like the taste and texture of flesh or of substances that try to imitate flesh. I’m sorry to find that many restaurants have replaced their veggie and bean burgers with the Beyond Burger that I find repulsive. However, all of these substitutes are great for people who like the taste and texture of flesh. I applaud it and hope it succeeds worldwide. Victoria expects her own attitude to change: Would I eat lab-grown meat? Right now, I might, in the way I’ve eaten escargot: skeptically. I suspect there is something lost in the bland sameness of a petri dish, and nothing can capture the nuances of diet and environment that impact an animal’s growth. But I also expect it will become commonplace and I’ll eat it without a second thought, because anyone with the slightest conscience can see that flooding animals with hormones to get them to grow unnaturally large—while keeping them in tiny cages and filthy, crowded conditions—is cruel. John is a skeptic: My spidey senses are telling me this is much ado about nothing. I doubt that the human population of Earth can be supported by lab-grown meat. If it tastes like chicken and costs a similar price, yes, I would eat it. But generally, I think putting our food in the hands of engineers, chemists, and industrialists is a bad, if unavoidable, plan. I’ve always been jealous of my friend who feeds his family with wild harvested game. Just last night, I made dinner from fish I caught. I’d have to spend a lot more time outdoors to pull that off in my household, but I could do it. And animals would live their lives free and wild, not confined to cages barely bigger than their oversize, genetically engineered bodies. Factory farms are a moral catastrophe, but feeding this many people practically requires [them]. Lavina opposes lab-grown meat: The promise of lab-grown meat rings hollow. It will lead to new problems. It ignores the concept that food is life and replaces the normal processing of food with fake, lab-created food. Our food is not a commodity; it is not “stuff” put together mechanically and artificially in labs and factories. Fake meat ignores the diversity and cultural aspects of food. Its use of genetically modified ingredients to give it that “fake meat taste” will lead to disease and alter the gut biome. Why would we continue in this direction when diseases and poor health are at an all-time high? Instead of finding ways to improve our biodiversity and ecosystems by using regenerative farming techniques to improve climate change, the goal is to force people to consume fake meat and fake food products under the guise of [fighting] climate change regardless of local cultures, climates, and ecosystems. It is about control and profits. These fake foods are being promoted by billionaires who have no knowledge or consciousness of how food satisfies the soul and connects people. I heard from several readers who believed that lab-grown meat was something billionaires wanted to foist on everyone else––and from many non-billionaire readers who are enthusiastic about lab-grown meat to spare animals or in hopes that it would be better for the planet.J. doubts that nature can be improved upon: Chickens are precisely optimized by evolution to make more chickens efficiently. Every part needed to make another chicken from cheap feed is right there. Growing chicken-muscle cells in an expensive, controlled artificial environment is destined to be inefficient by comparison. Using lab-grown meat won’t free up cropland used for animal feed; we will be increasing demand for the same foods, only now they will be fed to cells in the lab. It’s like charging an electric vehicle with a coal power plant, then claiming it’s a zero-emissions car. Anything can look green if you close your eyes tightly enough. Zachary wants to hasten the arrival of lab-grown meat: We need a Project Manhattan–level commitment toward getting the clean-meat industry past its growing pains and up to scale as soon as possible. This would solve a massive contributor to climate change. Most people will never become vegans. The world’s middle class is swelling, and with it, a demand to eat meat that the market will try to meet one way or another. A Project Meathattan is also politically palatable as it would demand no personal sacrifice from people. It’s a win-win for virtually everyone but the industrial livestock industry. I think once clean meat is at a competitive price point and taste, our culture’s attitude will flip like a switch overnight and it will become regarded as significantly more unethical to eat slaughtered meat. We will ask ourselves why we didn’t try to get this technology up to scale even sooner once we see it was possible. Mark doesn’t want lab-grown meat forced on him: People already eat highly processed food. This is usually not healthy. Artificial meat is another processed food. If people want to eat artificial meat, let them eat it. Just don’t create legislation that forces me to eat what you’ve decided is best for you. It’s not all-or-nothing. Not everyone has to eat the same thing. I’m going to keep eating what I have evolved to eat over the last million years. I’m going to continue to eat fresh vegetables, meat from chickens, cows, etc., and grains preferably grown in the United States. MC anticipates a class divide: Lab-grown meat is a trend most of us will participate in, perhaps unknowingly. Similarly to the GMO debate, I imagine a scenario where we’ll see restaurants priding themselves on being “lab-free.” The scalability of the industry seems likely to move lab-grown meat into fast food. Again, we will have another class demarcation. McDonald’s and Taco Bell will be able to fatten margins (as long as it scales) by replacing farm-grown meat with lab meat. Those on the lower echelons of society will be the mass market for “new meat.” Until it gets out of the Uncanny Valley, lab-grown meat will be a fad. But eventually it’ll be common. I don’t imagine future generations will care whether their Big Mac is real or not. Just if it tastes right. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone likes to see the sausage being made. Our industrial food complex feeds the world, and fewer people suffer due to technology. We have to improve, or the future will starve. Mina can’t imagine killing animals if there is a real-meat alternative: This is one of the most exciting discoveries man has made. I have always been a person who hates the idea of sentient creatures being slaughtered to please our tastes. Hypocritically, I have continued to eat meat after multiple attempts to stop. The substitutes at that time bore no resemblance to the real thing, by taste or texture. I couldn’t stand them. I’m not sure if people can grasp what a game changer this would be for our planet. Between the environmental blessings of no more livestock destroying lands, water, and air with their living by-products, we can have a more respectful and peaceful approach to living creatures (which studies have shown leads to more positive feelings for others, both human and animals). No matter how hardened they might be to meat production, the workers in slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities have high rates of family dysfunction and substance abuse, and also live mostly poverty-stricken lives. Imagine the toll this would take on you, to kill these animals one after another while they scream and fight to get away … I’ve seen it up close, and it is a sight you never get over. I can’t wait for the day when I can finally access this new meat and live without guilt. Would I ever eat meat from living creatures again? Absolutely not. What would be the reasoning, when you have the same product on your plate without taking lives in the process? Carolyn believes that “cultivated meat is critical to our global fight against climate change.” She writes: I was raised vegetarian, so I’ve never knowingly eaten meat or understood the desire for it, but I’ve grown to understand that meat is deeply visceral, emotional, and cultural for billions of people. Despite telling folks how bad meat is for the planet, for animal welfare, for slaughterhouse workers, and for their health, global meat consumption is at an all-time high. Instead of focusing on changing people’s ingrained behaviors and habits, we should focus on changing meat itself. While I’m content eating tofu and chickpeas, for most people, nothing can beat the taste of meat except for, well, meat. And that’s what cultivated meat is. I ate cultivated chicken from GOOD Meat (which currently sells it in Singapore) at COP27 in Egypt late last year. While l can’t tell you that it “tasted like chicken” (because I have no idea what chicken tastes like), it was fleshy and kind of grossed me out—so I’m thinking we’re on the right track? Plus, the meat eaters at my table fully approved. I think we are a ways off from cultivated meat going mainstream, but I am hopeful that what I tasted that day is part of the future and that the next generation looks back at the way we raised and slaughtered animals and thinks, Why did they do it that way? Patrick runs a commercial cattle ranch with his family on the central coast of California. He writes: Commercial cattle ranches focus on cattle headed for consumption. I grew up on the ranch then moved away for about 15 years to work in engineering. About six years ago I moved back to the area with my family to get more involved in the ranch. Since I’ve come back, I’ve been surprised to discover that the Meat Utopia is here. The United States is producing more beef than ever, with fewer cattle, and at a higher quality. I see these changes both in the national numbers and also in the way we do business on our own ranch. The reasons are myriad. Genetic testing and performance monitoring has helped producers select for better-performing animals. Improvements in vaccination have reduced waste, illness, and death. A greater percentage of cattle have higher-quality carcasses. And North American cattle markets are optimizing international trade to match the desired cuts to the appropriate markets. These advancements have real-world implications to reduce the environmental impact of beef while improving the consumer product and keeping costs down. And by acreage, nearly all of the grazing is done on so-called marginal lands: land that is too arid or too steep to support farming. Erin is in the same business: My husband and I are cattle producers on a farm in rural west Alabama. Pretty obviously, I do not have moral qualms about eating meat. I’m an omnivore. I am biologically designed to convert meat into the vitamins, minerals, and proteins that sustain me. And I like it. Even so, I can envision a day when vat-grown meat is a primary source of protein. It will have to be ramped up to scale and it will have to get a lot cheaper, but it will be a significant source of protein for a growing world population. That doesn’t mean there will not be a niche market for the uber-wealthy to purchase beef. For the record, there are a lot of misconceptions about animal agriculture. Cows spend all but the last six weeks of their lives eating grass. They may get mineral supplements as well, especially in winter, but very little grain, if any. Cattle can convert grass to protein. Humans cannot. We cannot digest cellulose. Perhaps in the rain forests of Brazil, the pastures could, and should, be restored to forest. But you are not going to grow a forest just anywhere. There will not be forests in west Texas or even in Kansas. There is a lot of land in the world not suited for crops or forests that will grow grass. And one of the most efficient converters of grass into usable protein is a cow. Cows provide more than meat. There are hundreds of products produced from cattle: marshmallows, leather, gelatin, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, and more. Just Google “products made from cattle” and you will be astounded. Vat-grown meat? It’s coming, but not in my lifetime. We’ll keep on growing cattle like we have for 40 years. And that is all I have time to say, because I need to move hay out of the barn for the cows before the rain comes. Kathleen hopes lab-grown pork is delicious: The only meat I will consume comes from local hunters, whose practices I know—quick, clean kill, full harvest and usage. The animal has had a full and healthy and natural life. And as my dear husband told me years ago, “Honey, nothing in nature dies of old age.” I would buy lab-grown meat in a heartbeat, as soon as it became available and was proven to be environmentally healthy and healthy for human consumption. My primary motivation for [this] is animal cruelty. Breeding, raising, transporting, and slaughtering “food” animals is monstrous. In Canada, there are the farm lobbies, fishing-and-hunting lobbies, and vendor lobbies—all with massive clout—opposing any significant change. Seeing covert videos taken within animal “businesses” did it for me. And there’s the hideous environmental damage and the damage to human health caused by this “industry.” Altogether, inexcusable. I’m already buying and consuming “artificial” meat but would greatly welcome more variety. (I REALLY miss pork, and there are no pork substitutes available where I live … yet, I hope.) Claire feels queasy about lab-grown meat: I tend to be wary of chemically simulated foodstuffs …… so “chicken” fashioned from a sort of ooze during a process that the company prefers not to describe and that was also described as “gray” and “stringy” sounds atrocious. I’m unsure I would be brave enough to try that, nor would I serve it to an enemy. I hope restauranteurs in Singapore at least place an asterisk next to chicken on menus, with a corresponding footnote. Marketing euphemisms seem more likely: “ethically derived chicken,” etc. In spite of the “Utopia” marketing angle, I wonder if the cost to simulate chicken would be a net positive or if it would better serve Singapore to allocate some land for agricultural purposes. Skya thinks artificial meat has promise for feeding pets: Personally, I am a vegan and will remain so for health reasons. My cats, on the other hand … While humans are dragging their feet for various reasons, all the domesticated animals of the world could be eating laboratory meat right now, making a large dent in the damage that our passion for pets and other captive carnivores causes to the planet. Karl gives two cheers for lab-grown meat … but not three: I’ve been a vegan for ethical reasons since the end of college, so I welcome any developments that help usher in a future where we slaughter fewer animals just because their taste makes us happy. Based on animal-welfare laws (which largely protect animals such as cats and dogs), it’s clear that, collectively, we believe that animals should be treated humanely and their suffering should be minimized. However, we generally don’t extend these protections to the billions of farm animals living today. So reducing their consumption reduces their numbers and thus reduces their collective suffering. I think the reduction of suffering should be an easy position to support. The environmental benefits have the potential to be incredible as well. A transition away from the inefficient practice of raising animals for food would lower our carbon footprint, reduce our water consumption, and save millions of acres of natural land from destruction. But I wouldn’t suddenly change my diet to match the 200-plus lbs of meat the average American consumes each year, regardless of the ethics. In the developed world, our level of meat consumption is unhealthy and is an immense contributor to disease burden. This is in terms of mortality, morbidity, health-related quality of life, and cost. Maybe we could all eat occasional lab-grown meat. It does taste good. But I don’t think it should be a regular thing. We should all cut back on our meat consumption.

Honey bees are not in peril. These bees are.

Matt Dunne/Vox Want to save the bees? First, throw out most of what you know about them. What do you know about bees? That they produce honey? That they live in a hive? That they swarm? Well, I have news: These characteristics don’t actually describe most bees in the US. Of the roughly 4,000 native species, not a single one produces true honey. Not one! Most of them live alone. Most of them have no queen. The bees that many people are familiar with are honey bees, Apis mellifera, a nonnative species that Americans brought over from Europe centuries ago. Beekeepers manage them like any other farm animal, to produce honey and pollinate crops. European honey bees are arguably the world’s most famous insect. They’re honey bees! Fuzzy, buzzing, honey-making honey bees! And they deserve at least some of this attention. About one-third of the food we eat comes from plants that honey bees pollinate, and they face several threats, which has fueled a national campaign to “save the bees.” But all of that attention on honey bees has, some ecologists argue, overshadowed their native counterparts: the wild bees. They’re an incredible bunch, found in all sorts of colors and sizes, and they’re important pollinators, too — better, by some measures, than honey bees. On the whole, native bees are also at a much greater risk of extinction, in part, because of the proliferation of European honey bees. Honey bees are ultimately not at risk of disappearing. So perhaps, then, all this time we’ve been saving the wrong bees. “People are devoting a lot of their love and attention and funding to honey bees,” said Hollis Woodard, a bee researcher at the University of California Riverside. “That can be detrimental to wild bees. If we really want to say, ‘Save the bees,’ I think we need to get some facts straight about who’s who and what’s what.” The rise of the honey bee The bee that many Americans adore was carried here on wooden ships 400 years ago. At the time, US farms were small and pollinated by wild insects. Settlers used the new bees (newbies?) for candle wax and, of course, honey. But in the following centuries, as farms spread and native pollinators declined, honey bees became big business as commercial pollinators. Conveniently, the bees pollinate a wide range of crops and they live in colonies that can be trucked across the country, arriving at farms when plants are in bloom. Today, the US has nearly 3 million colonies of honey bees, amounting to tens of billions of bees. They pollinate roughly $15 billion worth of crops each year, from California almonds to zucchini. Teresa Short/Getty Images European honey bees on an artificial hive in California. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images Honey bee hives in an almond orchard in Dixon, California, on February 17, 2022. Honey bees became popular because they help produce our food. What turned them into environmental icons, however, was a somewhat misleading narrative around “the decline of bees” that emerged in the aughts. Around 2006, beekeepers started reporting huge losses of honey bee colonies. “That rang alarm bells,” said James Cane, a bee expert and researcher emeritus at USDA. “The business of bee keeping was under threat,” he said, and calls to “save the bees” circulated. This threat was, and still is, very real. On top of pesticides and the loss of habitats, parasitic mites were spreading rapidly among hives in the 2000s and causing colonies to collapse, which is still a concern today. But the decline of bees, as most of the public understands it, was always about managed, nonnative honey bees, not wild bees. This distinction is important because European honey bees have a whole industry working to sustain them — to treat sick colonies — whereas wild bees don’t. Even at the height of the bee declines, there were still more than 2 million colonies in the US. Globally, meanwhile, honey bee colonies are now up more than 80 percent since the 1960s. “There are likely more honey bees on the planet now than there ever have been in history,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit that advocates for pollinator conservation. “There’s not a conservation concern.” The same can’t be said for native bees. Many native bees are at risk of extinction If native bees aren’t like honey bees, what are they like? Most of them are solitary and nest in the ground. Most don’t have queens. They don’t do dances to find honey. And none of them produce the kind of honey we eat (bumblebees do make a honey-like substance from nectar, though in much smaller quantities). They’re also a diverse bunch. Some are just a couple of millimeters long and look like gnats, while others — bumblebees and carpenter bees, for example — are longer than an inch. Many bees consume nectar and pollen, like honey bees; others eat oil! The images below show just a handful of them, from the small, metallic sweat bee (which will, indeed, drink human sweat) to the furry, and even cute, American bumblebee. Steve Lenz/Getty Images/iStockphoto A type of sweat bee with a metallic green thorax on an echinacea flower. Jim Rivers Osmia lignaria, the blue orchard bee, a type of mason bee found in North America. Cappi Thompson/Getty Images An American bumblebee in Dummer, New Hampshire. Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images A squash bee pollinates the flower of a butternut squash plant. As a group, wild bees are considered incredibly important pollinators, especially for home gardens and crops that honey bees can’t pollinate. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, for example, require “buzz pollination;” bees have to vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen free — a behavior that honey bees can’t do (bumblebees and some other native species can). Yet these free services native bees provide are dwindling. While wild bees are, as a group, understudied, existing research suggests that many species are threatened with extinction, including more than a quarter of North American bumblebees. “From a conservationist’s point of view, native bees are the ones in more dire need of support,” Alison McAfee, a bee researcher at the University of British Columbia, has written. These include species that are already federally endangered — like the rusty patched bumblebee — and a pipeline of others that are “marching towards the Endangered Species List,” Woodard said. Joel Page/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images A rusty patched bumblebee specimen at the Maine State Museum Archives in Hallowell, Maine. The main threat is the same one facing nearly all wildlife: the destruction of natural habitats, such as grasslands. “Native bees have been in retreat to the extent that wildland habitat has been in retreat,” Cane said. He used Iowa as an example: Over the last two centuries, the state has lost more than 99 percent of its tall-grass prairie, mostly to industrial agriculture. So has Illinois. Prairies are full of wildflowers and an incredibly important landscape for bees, including the rusty patched bumblebee. Pesticides and fungicides are a problem, too, especially a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids designed to kill agricultural pests. “We have just shown time and time again that neonics are bad,” Woodard said. “They get taken up in the pollen in nectar; they hurt bees in many different ways.” As Vox has previously reported, US pesticide regulation is often behind the science on how these agrochemicals harm bees and other pollinators. (Neonicotinoids are mostly banned in Europe but remain legal in nearly all of the US.) More and more, research also points to yet another, somewhat paradoxical threat. How honey bees might hurt wild bees Honey bees are highly skilled foragers. A single colony can collect about 22 pounds of pollen pellets (pollen mixed with some nectar) over three summer months, according to a 2016 study led by Cane. That’s enough to feed the offspring of 110,000 solitary bees, the study found. “Honey bees are exceptionally good at removing pollen from landscapes,” Woodard said. And that can be a problem for native bees. In certain landscapes, where flowering plants are limited, native insects compete with honey bees for pollen and nectar. As a result, they may have to travel farther to forage and ultimately gather less food for their young. Plus, some native bees only collect pollen from one or a handful of flowers; unlike honey bees, these species can’t easily switch from one source of food to another as pollen runs low. Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images A swarm of honey bees on a tree in Reading, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 2020. “You can’t have a finite resource, add a domesticated animal that consumes it, and expect that everything is hunky dory afterwards,” Cane said. (A growing body of research shows that competition with honey bees is bad for native bees.) Commercial beekeepers often let their bees forage in natural ecosystems when the insects are not working on a farm, Cane said. In Utah, where he’s based, managed honey bee apiaries are sometimes parked on public lands, and each one might have 30 or even 60 colonies. It’s like a city of people hungry for food, ready to pillage the countryside, he said. There are also colonies of “feral” honey bees — those that aren’t managed by humans — across the country. Competition isn’t the only concern. Dense colonies of honey bees can also be reservoirs for viruses and other microbes that can cause wildlife diseases, McAfee told Vox. Experts like her fear that those viruses could spill over to the native bee populations, though there are still plenty of unknowns. “We don’t know to what extent those viruses cause true disease and sickness in the native bees,” McAfee said. What’s clear, she said, is that scientists need to better understand and eradicate disease in managed honey bee colonies to stop potential deadly spillover. To protect wild bees, however, scientists will need solutions that go beyond the honey bee. How you can help save the bees Barring wholesale changes to our food system, we’ll still need honey bees. But we need wild bees, too. Farms rely on them, including those with commercial crops (native bees enhance crop yields even on farms that deploy honey bees) and home gardens. If there are flowers growing in your yard — sunflowers, maybe, or echinacea — bees likely pollinate them. That brings us to what is perhaps the easiest way that individuals can help native bees: Plant flowers! Especially native ones that bloom at different times of year. Groups like Xerces Society make this easy by providing planting guides for each region. Native bees (and lots of other critters) also benefit from a bit of mess, Woodard said. Don’t rake up every leaf. Leave a fallen branch in place. “We need a sea change in how we think about the spaces around us, and what is a ‘pretty space,’ and what does it mean to be a good steward,” Woodard said. “Keep things wild, leave things a little less manicured.” What you definitely shouldn’t do, experts say, is buy a honey bee colony. “That’s definitely not helping,” McAfee said. Instead, she said, “people should think about making native bees want to come to them.”

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