Feeding a monster: how aquaculture is stealing food from West African communities

Working with Changing Markets and Greenpeace Africa, Ecostorm contributed key supply chain investigations and data to a major report uncovering how each year, over half a million tonnes of wild-caught fish are taken out of the oceans around West Africa and ground down into fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO) to feed farmed fish and animals in Europe and Asia.

The fish could instead provide essential protein to over 33 million people in the region each year – more than the combined populations of The Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal. In Mauritania – the country with the largest number of FMFO factories (39 factories) – over 600,000 people were forecast to be in crisis in terms of food insecurity, or worse, during the lean season in 2020.

Based on data and investigations the report reveals how West African production of FMFO has grown more than ten-fold in the past decade and highlights how Europe is a major market for West African fish oil to feed its fast-growing aquaculture sector.

Companies involved in the production and trade of West African FMFO are selling to the big European aquafeed giants, which have supply chain links to major European retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Rewe, Aldi, Lidl, Carrefour, E.Leclerc and Mercadona. European food producers, traders and retailers can no longer ignore this major human rights and environmental issue.

The report calls on these companies to immediately stop sourcing FMFO from West Africa and set policies to rapidly phase out the use of wild-caught fish in farmed fish and other farmed animals. It is also calling on governments in West Africa to prioritise fish for local direct human consumption.

For more information click here.

Cargill: the company feeding the world and helping destroy the planet

When it comes to explaining the impact of America’s second biggest private company on your life, no one puts it better than the company itself.

“We are the flour in your bread,” says one of Cargill’s corporate brochures, “the wheat in your noodles, the salt on your fries. We are the corn in your tortillas, the chocolate in your dessert, the sweetener in your soft drink. We are the oil in your salad dressing and the beef, pork or chicken you eat for dinner. We are the cotton in your clothing, the backing on your carpet and the fertiliser in your field.’”

Photo: Greenpeace

In its 155 years, Cargill has insinuated itself into almost every aspect of global agribusiness, transforming the way human beings produce and consume food. It has made its owners into billionaires. And its ascent has played out to a steady backdrop of controversy, most recently the revelation that its supply chain has been linked with vast deforestation – related to extensive fires – in Brazil’s crucial Cerrado region. It is the latest in a string of scandals affecting Cargill including fatal food poisonings, deforestation, agricultural pollution and allegations of child enslaved labour.

Cargill is as controversial as it is enormous – and yet you have almost certainly never heard of it. How, then, has this corporate juggernaut managed to keep such a low profile? And what has it been doing while the rest of us have been looking elsewhere?

Ecostorm’s Lucy Michaels and Pat Thomas contributed research and reporting to this major TBIJ investigation into one of the world’s biggest food companies.

Dirty secrets of American food: Dispatches

Ecostorm contributed footage and information to a major Channel 4 Dispatches documentary examining how US food and farming methods could soon be arriving in the UK.

The programme – amongst other things – revealed how American pork is up to six times more likely to contain salmonella than British pork.

Around 13 per cent of pork samples tested for salmonella in US retail meat were positive for the bacteria, which can cause diarrhoea and vomiting.

E. coli, another potentially harmful bacterium, was also found in 60 per cent of pork, 70 per cent of beef, 80 per cent of chicken and 90 per cent of turkey products destined for American shops and supermarkets.

For more information and to watch the film click here

15 years undercover on the trail of the global meat industry

Some 70 billion land animals are produced globally for food each year, an estimated two thirds of them reared in intensive conditions. Ecostorm co-founder and food journalist Andrew Wasley has spent the past decade and a half probing the multiple impacts of this kind of industrial farming.

His journey has taken him to farms of all sizes, from traditional smallholdings to huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) run by some of the world’s biggest food conglomerates. It’s also led him into abattoirs and meat processing plants, livestock markets, ports and food factories in numerous countries.

Many of the issues he’s covered – food safety, antibiotic resistance and superbugs, animal welfare, exploitation of workers, pollution, deforestation – were probably more marginal concerns just twenty or thirty years ago. Today they have jumped up the global agenda and now command the attention of a concerned public as well as politicians.

The Covid-19 crisis has also prompted a renewed interest in the links between animal and human disease, public health, and in farming and food production more widely.

It was this that finally prompted him to write the inside story of the fifteen years he’s spent reporting on the global meat machine.

Photo: We Animals Media

Investigating “Big Ag” isn’t easy. In common with other globalised sectors, it’s dominated by huge but little known corporations where big money and vested interests prevail, along with a culture of secrecy and a widespread lack of accountability. Shining a light on the industry’s murkier corners often requires months of research, sourcing secret or suppressed data and documents, working with whistleblowers and undercover filming.

As well as telling some of the behind-the-scenes stories behind the headlines, he’s highlighted some of the many environmental impacts connected to industrial meat production. Soy, for example, is a staple in animal feed, with up to 90% of the global crop used to feed livestock. But it has been linked to deforestation and human rights abuses in places such as Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

Other feed inputs are sourced from the marine environment, including fishmeal. Although prized for its nutritional value – it contains omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial to humans and animals – the fishmeal trade has been responsible for a host of environmental and social problems, including pollution, health issues, overfishing, and impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, in Peru and elsewhere.

It’s here, and in other equally remote places, away from the spotlight and the scrutiny, that many of the real costs of the global appetite for intensively farmed meat are felt. Lives and livelihoods ruined, environments trashed and futures blighted. And it’s often invisible to the outside world.

Read the full piece here on Medium and in The Guardian.

Revealed: critically important antibiotics in use on UK pig farms

Ecostorm contributed to a major new investigation that has uncovered how antibiotics classed as being critically important to human health are still being used on UK pig farms.

The overuse of antibiotics in farms contributes to antibiotic resistance and helps to create the conditions for superbugs to emerge, posing a threat to human health. The World Health Organisation recommends that antibiotics of highest critical importance to humans should not be used in farming.

The investigation, which also documented a number of welfare concerns, follows a series of stories Ecostorm has worked on in recent years highlighting the links between intensive farming and the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs.

Previously, working with Guardian Films, Ecostorm highlighted how pork sold by several leading British supermarkets was found to be contaminated with a strain of the superbug MRSA linked to the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

Livestock-associated MRSA CC398, which originates in animals, was found in pork products sold in Sainsbury’s, Asda, the Co-operative and Tesco. Of the 100 packets of pork chops, bacon and gammon tested in the investigation, nine – eight Danish and one Irish – were found to have been infected with CC398.

CC398 in meat, which poses little risk to the British public, can be transmitted by touching infected meat products or coming into contact with contaminated livestock or people, although it can be killed through cooking.

Many people carry the bacteria without any signs of illness, but some have developed skin complaints, and the bug can cause life-threatening infections, including pneumonia and blood poisoning. Experts warn that the superbug has emerged as a result of antibiotic use in intensive farming and there is evidence that the UK could be at risk of a wider health crisis unless the issue is tackled by the authorities.

Moves to ban antibiotic pollution from pharma factories

The Indian government is to limit the amount of antibiotic residue permitted in wastewater released by drug factories, after a series of investigations by Changing Markets and Ecostorm, and related stories by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

draft bill published in January introduced limits on the concentrations of antibiotics found in the waste discharged by pharmaceutical factories into rivers and the surrounding environment. Experts believe anything above these limits fuels the creation of drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs.

The growth in superbugs is one of the biggest public health crises facing the world today. Nearly 60,000 newborns a year die from superbug infections in India. If resistance keeps rising people could once again die from common infections, while procedures such as Caesareans, hip replacements and chemotherapy could become impossible to carry out.

Most of the world’s antibiotics are made in factories in India and China, but for over a decade studies have repeatedly shown that these facilities leak antibiotic waste, known as effluent, into the environment. Until now there have been no regulations to curb poor production methods.

TBIJ published a series of stories on drug manufacturers releasing antibiotic wastewater into the environment in 2016 and 2017, published with the Wire in India and The Times and the i newspapers in the UK. We also showed that NHS trusts were buying drugs from factories leaking antibiotic effluent.

In 2016, on-the-ground research by Ecostorm, and subsequent analysis of water samples under the supervision of Dr. Mark Holmes from the University of Cambridge, found high levels of drug-resistant bacteria at sites in three Indian cities: Hyderabad, New Delhi and Chennai.

Out of 34 sites tested, 16 were found to be harbouring bacteria resistant to antibiotics. At four of the sites, resistance to three major classes of antibiotics was detected, including antibiotics of ‘last resort’, those used to treat infections that fail to respond to all other medicines.

Read more here

Is Cargill the ‘worst company in the world’?

US environmental group Mighty Earth announced this month that it had named Minnesota-based Cargill as the “Worst Company in the World” due to its alleged unscrupulous business practices, links to environmental destruction, and repeated incidents of standing in the way of global progress on sustainability. Mighty Earth’s new report – which draws on a series of major Ecostorm investigations, footage and photography – documents decades of apparent bad acts by the company and highlights the need for urgent action.

Ecostorm, working with Mighty Earth, has carried out major field investigations and reporting in South America in recent years, resulting in global coverage, including the New York Times .

“As one of the largest companies in the world, Cargill has a responsibility to address its outsized impact,” Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz said. “Mighty Earth runs campaigns around the globe to advocate for sustainable business practices, and Cargill kept showing up when our investigations identified bad actors. Whether we were working on palm oil in Southeast Asia, cocoa farming in West Africa, or soy cultivation in South America, Cargill was always there, ready to thwart progress and impede joint conservation efforts. Given their ubiquity and obstinance, we decided it was time to take a closer look at their checkered past.”

For months, Mighty Earth has engaged in discussions with Cargill, including at the CEO level, to address the report’s findings and seek long-term solutions. Mighty Earth has served as a key convener for other sectors – including rubber, chocolate, and palm oil – as those companies sought to improve their environmental standards and impacts. However, Cargill has refused, time and time again, to substantively address the problems Mighty Earth identified. Instead, Cargill continues to prioritize the deforesters in its supply chains over the climate or their customers’ sustainability demands.

The release of Mighty Earth’s groundbreaking report kicks-off a multimillion-dollar, multi-year campaign targeting Cargill and its customers that will urge the agribusiness giant to eliminate deforestation and human rights abuses from its supply chain. To launch the campaign, local Mighty Earth activists and allies including Minnesota Clean Water Action honoured Cargill for its dubious distinction with a rally outside Cargill headquarters in Minnesota at which it awarded the company a “thumbs down” placard.

Full story here

Meet the world’s biggest meat company you’ve never heard of

Ecostorm contributed research and reporting to a major new investigation into the world’s biggest meat company – JBS. A collaboration between the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Guardian and Reporter Brasil, the series highlighted how the company’s beef supply chain has been linked to deforestation.

If you eat meat, you probably buy products made by one Brazilian company. A company with such power it can openly admit to having bribed more than 1,000 politicians and continue to grow despite scandal after scandal. And you’ve probably never heard of it.

Meat is now the new commodity, controlled by just a handful of gigantic firms which together wield unprecedented control over global food production. The Bureau has been investigating the biggest of all: JBS, a Brazilian company which slaughters a staggering 13 million animals every single day and has annual revenue of $50bn.

When it comes to scandals, you can take your pick — during its rapid rise to become the world’s biggest meatpacker, JBS and its network of subsidiaries have been linked to allegations of high-level corruption, modern-day “slave labour” practices, illegal deforestation, animal welfare violations and major hygiene breaches. In 2017 its holding company agreed to pay one of the biggest fines in global corporate history — $3.2bn — after admitting bribing hundreds of politicians. Yet the company’s products remain on supermarket shelves across the world, and its global dominance only looks set to grow further.

In a two-part investigation published this month, the Bureau revealed in partnership with the Guardian and Repórter Brasil that Amazon deforestation and dirty meat are very much part of how JBS has done business. Today we lift the lid on the company itself, and ask: what is the true cost of cheap meat?

Uncovering Europe’s “fish feedlots”

This year saw Ecostorm continue its global investigations into industrial farming, with undercover investigators gathering video and other evidence that was subsequently used by UK NGO Compassion in World Farming to highlight conditions on fish farms across Europe. The group said what we discovered – related to species sea bass, sea bream and trout -highlighted how farmed fish can be kept in appalling conditions.

CIWF reported: “Confined to concrete tanks on land or in floating ocean nets by the thousands, these fish spend their short, miserable lives swimming in cramped waters where disease and parasites can thrive. Dead fish were found floating in tanks as live ones swam around them.”

“Equally shocking is the cruel way fish are killed. Sea bass and sea bream are commonly dumped into large buckets of ice slurry, where they thrash about, fighting for their lives, as ice gets lodged in their gills and they struggle to breathe. They can remain conscious throughout this ordeal, and many are still alive when they are packaged for sale.”

“Our team also witnessed trout flailing about in pools of bloody water after having their throats cut, a clear sign that the stunning system wasn’t working properly. This kind of suffering is illegal according to European law, which mandates animals should not suffer unnecessarily while being killed.”

“Not all European countries farm sea bass, sea bream and trout, but these fish are found on supermarket shelves across the continent. There are producers, like some in the UK and Netherlands, who are using more humane slaughter methods for fish but these practices need to be written into national legislation and cover all species.”

Footage reveals spread of UK intensive beef farming

Ecostorm obtained dramatic drone footage and other video evidence central to a major new investigation by the Guardian that highlighted the spread of industrial scale beef production across the UK. 

The investigation highlighted how thousands of British cattle reared for supermarket beef are being fattened in industrial-scale units where livestock have little or no access to pasture. Research by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has established that the UK is now home to a number of industrial-scale fattening units with herds of up to 3,000 cattle at a time being held in grassless pens for extended periods rather than being grazed or barn-reared.

Intensive beef farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are commonplace in the US. But the practice of intensive beef farming in the UK has not previously been widely acknowledged – and the findings have sparked the latest clash over the future of British farming

The beef industry says that the scale of operations involved enables farmers to rear cattle efficiently and profitably, and ensure high welfare standards. But critics say there are welfare and environmental concerns around this style of farming, and believe that the farms are evidence of a wider intensification of the UK’s livestock sector which is not being sufficiently debated, and which may have an impact on small farmers.

In contrast to large intensive pig and poultry farms, industrial beef units do not require a government permit, and there are no official records held by DEFRA on how many intensive beef units are in operation. But the Guardian and the Bureau has identified nearly a dozen operating across England, including at sites in Kent, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The largest farms fatten up to 6,000 cattle a year.

Read the full report here

The real cost of green energy – Dispatches

Ecostorm produced and directed this month’s major Dispatches investigation into ‘green energy’.  We worked with reporter Antony Barnett to investigate a subsidised renewable energy industry that turns trees into fuel, and asked whether burning wood instead of coal is really an environmentally friendly answer to climate change.

In the Channel 4 programme, we travelled to the forestlands of the south-eastern United States to find one source of this controversial ‘carbon-neutral’ fuel, and the biodiverse wetlands of Virginia and North Carolina, where millions of tonnes of wood are harvested and processed into pellets, which are burnt in one of Britain’s largest power stations. 

More info here
To read an Ecologist article on the programme see here

Deforestation linked to “green” biodiesel – investigation

A new investigation, “Burned: Deception, Deforestation, and America’s Biodiesel Policy” by the organizations Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA has found that biodiesel is not the environmentally friendly, “green” fuel claimed by industry producers. On-the-ground investigators from Ecostorm documented bulldozing, burning and the recent clearance of 30,000 acres of forest to plant new soy fields in northern Argentina, which supply some of the same companies producing soy biodiesel for export to the United States.

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates increasing biofuel consumption through 2022, and has driven Argentina to increase soy-based biodiesel production for U.S. export. In 2016, Argentina provided over one-fifth of biodiesel consumed in the United States. The RFS is also contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the algal blooms in Lake Erie and other waterways and nitrate pollution across the Midwest, through increased crop production for biofuels in the United States.

“This isn’t the used cooking oil biodiesel powering Willie Nelson’s tour bus,” said Rose Garr, policy director at Mighty Earth. “The RFS was intended to clean up our transportation sector, but instead it’s subsidizing fuels that are even dirtier than oil.”

As the largest supplier of biodiesel imports, Argentina is currently a global hotspot of deforestation, caused primarily by soy production. The report also found significant quantities of biodiesel made from Indonesian palm oil being imported into the United States; palm oil has been Indonesia’s leading driver of deforestation, linked to habitat destruction of highly endangered species including orangutans and Sumatran elephants.

Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA sent a field team to Argentina’s Chaco forest to investigate the scope of this destruction. The team visited ten sites in the Chaco that are undergoing rapid deforestation for soy production, which it documented both on the ground and through aerial drones. They found new soybean fields carved into the middle of what were recently intact forests, and massive fires set to clear land for soy production. Although the Renewable Fuel Standard requires that biodiesel not be produced on recently cleared land, the report found evidence that major biodiesel producers like Cargill and Bunge were continuing to expand their overall soy operations into areas with significant deforestation.

“This appears to be a case where the left-hand claims to be clean while the right is in it up to its elbow,” said Garr.

In addition to the environmental impacts of this production, members of local communities are reporting serious health impacts connected to the expanded soy production incentivized by biofuels. Many families reported poisonings from the pesticides associated with this production, including glyphosate, which is sometimes sprayed aerially.

“The big agribusiness companies want you to believe they’re feeding the world. But they’re not. Kids are getting sick, local people are being forced off their land and animals are being killed, all to produce soybean oil that’s being shipped to the U.S. and burned as fuel for our cars and trucks,” said Kelly Stone, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA. “Localizing food production and reforming our agriculture policies is an important part of tackling climate change. People’s rights to own and farm land and their right to a clean environment must not be sacrificed to feed the thirst of a broken Congressional policy.”

Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA’s report comes as the RFS is poised to be a key legislative fight in 2018. The organizations recommend that the United States ends or dramatically lowers mandates and subsidies for food-based biodiesel and other food-based biofuels. In addition, the agricultural traders and biodiesel producers who control the industry should adopt and fully enforce “No Deforestation, No Exploitation” commitments throughout their entire global supply chains in order to ensure that the soy and other commodities they sell is not produced through deforestation.

Although the recent decision by the Commerce Department to impose countervailing duties on Argentine and Indonesian biodiesel will likely curtail near-term imports, the massive environmental destruction in Argentina should serve as a cautionary tale. Because the RFS mandates remain in place, new biodiesel production will have to come on-line elsewhere, which poses risk to wildlife, people, and the climate.

“This problem won’t be solved by countervailing duties alone. If Congress does not end mandates for food-based biodiesel and other biofuels, this same destructive cycle could be replicated both at home and in other areas of the world,” said Garr.


Read the report here. 

Sign the petition here.

Pension funds invest nearly £600m in controversial baby milk producers

Pension funds investing on behalf of thousands of doctors, nurses and midwifes are pouring vast sums into companies producing baby milk products which it is claimed are being aggressively marketed abroad “without clear scientific rationale”, an Ecostorm investigation with the i newspaper has found.

The findings come as a new report has accused the four largest manufacturers of baby milk substitutes (BMS) – Swiss-based Nestle, France’s Danone, and American companies Mead Johnson Nutrition and Abbott Laboratories – of differentiating their products across markets based on consumer research rather than hard science.

The Milking It study, led by British-based campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation, found that families in some parts of the world are paying huge premiums compared to parents in places such as the UK in a global market now worth some £36bn a year. In Britain, feeding a two to three-month-old baby with BMS costs up to three per cent of the average salary.

Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/news/public-sector-pension-funds-invest-nearly-600m-baby-milk-producers/

UK now has nearly 800 megafarms – investigation

Ecostorm footage and research was used to show nearly every county in England now has at least one industrial-scale livestock farm, with close to 800 US-style mega farms operating across the UK, new research reveals.

The increase in mega farms – which critics describe as “cruel and unnecessary” – is part of a 26% rise in intensive factory farming in six years, a shift that is transforming the British countryside. Only 12 counties in the UK now host no pig or poultry farms classified as intensive by the Environment Agency. To be classed as intensive, a farm must have warehouses with more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows.

Herefordshire has more than 16 million factory-farmed animals, mainly poultry – which means the county has 88 times more factory-farmed animals than it does humans. Shropshire and Norfolk follow closely, with more than 15 million and 12 million animals respectively. Nearly every county in England and Northern Ireland has at least one mega farm, and they are also scattered across Scotland and Wales.

The march of US-style mega farms – defined in the US as facilities housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle – has been revealed in an investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Most of these farms have gone unnoticed, despite their size and the controversy surrounding them, in part because many farmers have expanded existing facilities rather than seeking new sites.

Mega farms and industrial-scale farms (that count as intensive, but not “mega” under the US definition) have previously attracted attention because of concerns raised by local residents, over smells, noise and the potential for pollution or disease outbreaks, and by animal welfare campaigners, who argue that factory-style farming in which livestock are rarely or never permitted outdoors prevents animals from expressing their natural behaviour. They also worry that mega farms are pushing smaller farmers out of business, leading to the takeover of the countryside by large agribusinesses, with the loss of traditional family-run units.

Their defenders say that the close controls on industrial-scale farms mean that disease, pollution and the carbon footprint can be kept to a minimum. Such farms also produce for consumers at a lower cost than small-scale farms.

Read the full report here

Dirty fashion: uncovering pollution in the textile supply chain


Ecostorm has contributed to a major new investigation into the production of viscose, a man-made fibre widely used in the textile supply chain, that has uncovered evidence of the impact of dangerous chemicals and noxious gases being generated by polluting factories across Asia.

Evidence gathered by the Changing Markets Foundation at locations in Indonesia, China and India found that viscose factories are dumping highly toxic wastewater into local waterways, destroying marine life and exposing workers and local populations to harmful chemicals.

The report, titled ‘Dirty Fashion: How pollution in the global textiles supply chain is making viscose toxic’, reveals links between the polluting factories and major European and North American fashion brands.

The viscose staple fibre market – which is projected to grow from $13.45 billion in 2016 to $16.78 billion per year by 2021 – is highly concentrated, with 11 companies controlling 75 per cent of global viscose production, so a concerted effort on the part of retailers could achieve dramatic change.

The report also highlights that new viscose production methods already exist, which do not rely on the abundant use of toxic chemicals and bring manufacturing into a ‘closed loop’ so that the chemicals which are used do not escape into the environment.