Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — ‘Western’ diet puts pinch on black bears


Today is Tuesday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.  

Black bears who eat a lot of processed “human” foods have “far less diversity in the microbial ecosystems of their guts,” according to a recent study from North Carolina State.

“We know a ‘western’ diet can reduce microbial diversity in the guts of humans, mice and other species, which can have an adverse effect on their health,” study co-author Erin McKenney said in a statement. 

With humans — and our sugary foods — moving further into wildlands, “we want to know if the same is true for wildlife,” McKenney said. 

Their working hypothesis: simplified nutrients in processed food are causing a one-way extinction crisis inside bears’ guts, starving species that let them break down fibers — and potentially forcing them to keep eating our trash.

The loss in gut biodiversity “raises the possibility that it would be more difficult for bears to derive as much nutritional value from non-human foods if they return to a ‘wild’ diet,” McKenney added.  

Today we’ll look at human food processors themselves as we review an effort by the Biden administration to back startup slaughterhouses. Then we’ll turn to a multinational push to stave off the sleeper extinction event that hangs over us all: the threat of nuclear war.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.

Let’s get to it. 

Biden goes halfway in fighting meat-opolies


President Biden called out the nation’s Big Four meatpacking companies on Monday while laying out what the White House described as a broad series of federal initiatives to create ways for farmers and ranchers to access truly competitive markets.

But advocates for more competitive local agriculture argue that while the funding and shift in rhetoric is welcome, the federal initiative stops short of the real reforms that would make a difference in the lives of farmers and in prices for consumers. 

Administration effort: Biden was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Merrick Garland to promote administration’s plans.

They involve providing $1 billion to fund the creation of regional slaughterhouses outside the control of the Big Four while providing a pathway for the Department of Justice to investigate anti-competitive practices in the meat industry. 

“Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism,” Biden said in his remarks Monday. “It’s exploitation.”

How big a deal is this? “It’s a huge shift in policy for the Biden administration to recognize that over-concentration is a systemic problem driving the biggest economic and political challenges,” Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, told Equilibrium.

However: The measures prescribed are “only half of what we need,” Mitchell said, adding the entire current structure of the American meat industry is tilted against the long-term success of the very small slaughterhouses the administration is subsidizing.

“Those smaller scale processing facilities won’t survive over the long term unless we break up concentrated power and deal with the big structural issues” in meatpacking, Mitchell said. 

She noted that there’s “more demand for [investment in new slaughterhouses] from farmers and consumers than is being satisfied, because there’s not enough capital.” 

Another view: “This is like dumping a billion dollars on [defunct search-engine startup] Ask Jeeves and telling them ‘Good luck against Google,’” as Austin Frerick, deputy director of the Thurman Arnold project at Yale University, which focuses on competitive markets, told Equilibrium.


The telltale problems with the initiative are its failure to take obvious steps that are within the federal government’s current purview, Frerick said.

Like what? Biden spoke of updating the Packers and Stockyards Act, a set of anti-monopoly laws that held sway in the U.S. until their hollowing out in the 1990s — but didn’t actually have any new rules ready, Frerick said. 

For example, he said, it could have brought back “the cop on the beat” — GIPSA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) anti-monopoly regulator, which former President Trump removed in 2017, as Politico reported.  

Industry response: Though the Big Four registered record profits during the pandemic, meat industry trade groups like the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) blamed labor shortages — not collusion — for the rise in meat prices identified by Biden. 

“Using taxpayer dollars to establish government-sponsored packing and processing plants will not do anything to address the lack of labor at meat and poultry plants” and rising inflation, NAMI head Julie Anna Potts said in a statement.

Check out the full version of this story on The Hill’s Sustainability page. 

China at center of nuclear collab, clashes

Xi Jinping

China announced Tuesday it would continue to upgrade — but not expand — its nuclear arsenal.

The announcement came just one day after the country signed an international pledge to use nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only, the South China Morning Post reported. 

What Beijing is saying: “China will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal for reliability and safety issues,” said Fu Cong, director general of the department of arms control at the Chinese foreign ministry, as reported by the Post.  

Fu urged the U.S. and Russia to make the first cuts, as these two countries have far larger nuclear stockpile than China does, the Post noted.

A rare consensus: China’s declaration comes a day after the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain and France — released a joint statement stressing that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  

That statement also echoed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by calling for an eventual “world without nuclear weapons” while curbing the spread of such weapons in the meantime, according to the Post.  

Coming together amid tension: Such an agreement on a global security issue has become an anomaly as tensions continue to increase among China, Russia and Western countries, The Guardian reported.

“With Moscow threatening to invade Ukraine and China signaling its readiness to use military force against Taiwan, the joint statement represents a renewed commitment to prevent any confrontation turning into a nuclear catastrophe,” according to The Guardian.

The wording of the pledge was finalized at meetings among the five permanent Security Council members over several months, a senior U.S. State Department official told The Guardian.

What’s in China’s stockpile? The Pentagon’s annual report about China’s military, released in November, forecast that the country would have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030, the Post reported. The U.S., meanwhile, has 3,750 nuclear weapons.  



Fu, from China’s foreign ministry, stressed that “assertions made by the U.S. that China is vastly increasing its nuclear capabilities” are “untrue,” according to the Post.

“China has always adopted a no-first use policy and we maintain our nuclear capabilities at the minimal level required for our national security,” he added.  

China prepares: Fu said that China must take steps needs to ensure that its nuclear arsenal is sufficient due to a shifting security environment in Asia, The Associated Press reported.

He referred to potential U.S. plans to deploy intermediate-range non-nuclear missiles in the region, as well as the fact that both neighboring India and Pakistan have nuclear stockpiles, according to the AP.  

Neighbors react: India’s English media widely covered both China’s comments and the Security Council pledge.

One piece in New Delhi-based WION News homed in on tensions between Beijing and Washington over “China’s intentions to take Taiwan,” stressing that China’s “saber-rattling towards Taiwan has reached new heights.”  

Despite those tensions, Fu from the Chinese foreign ministry dismissed speculation about the potential deployment of nuclear weapons near the Taiwan Strait, WION reported.   

The India-Pakistan relationship: The two countries exchanged lists of nuclear installations over the weekend, in the 31st such consecutive exchange since 1992, the India Times reported.

Pakistan, which like India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has five operable reactors with another unit under construction, which the India Times noted is occurring “with China’s help.”

Last words: “Pakistan is largely excluded from trade in nuclear plants or materials, which hinders its development of civil nuclear energy,” the India Times piece asserted. “Amid this, China is positively cooperating with Pakistan’s nuclear ambition.” 


Tech Tuesday 

Vanishing EV subsidies, battery independence and a resurrection plan for lithium.

China to reduce subsidies available to electric vehicle buyers

  • China, which has become “a massive market for electric vehicles,” is about to slash subsidies that make those cars more affordable for would-be buyers, Road Show by CNET reported.
  • China will initially reduce subsidies by 30 percent in 2022, phasing them out entirely by the end of the year, according to CNET. The reduction, the outlet reported, is “at odds with the government’s plans to have [electric vehicles] make up 20 percent of all auto sales by 2025.”

GM, Volkswagen, Stellantis to bolster EV battery supply chains

  • In a move aimed at gaining control over more of the electric vehicle supply chain, automakers General Motors, Volkswagen and Stellantis are amping up their in-house battery production ventures, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Tesla was among the first car companies to insource more of its battery production, but in recent weeks Volkswagen and Stellantis announced deals to secure supplies of lithium, an essential electric battery component, according to the Journal. GM, meanwhile, is investing in a new North American factory with a Korean partner to produce cathode materials while Volkswagen has similar plans with a Belgian partner.

Bringing lithium batteries back from the ‘dead’

  • Scientists from Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are working on a way to revitalize old rechargeable lithium batteries — a capability that could increase the range of electric vehicles and extend battery life, TechXplore reported.
  • During a lithium battery’s lifecycle, small pockets of inactive lithium build up in spots cut off from the battery’s electrodes, thereby decreasing its capacity for storage, according to TechXplore. But the researchers figured out how to make this “dead” lithium worm its way toward one of the electrodes until it reconnects and boost battery life by nearly 30 percent.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Wednesday.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Merrick Garland Tom Vilsack

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