When did vegetarianism become passe? | Grist

When did vegetarianism become passe? 46

31 Jan 2012 10:31 AM
man with "100% vegetarian" T-shirt

Out of fashion and proud of it. (Photo by KayVee.INC)

It used to be that when I told a fellow progressive I’m a vegetarian, I would get one of three reactions: (1) an enthusiastic “me too!,” (2) a slightly guilty admission of falling off the veg wagon, or (3) a voracious defense of the glories of steak.

These days, there’s another increasingly common reaction: People look at me with a mix of pity and confusion, like I’m some holdover from the ’90s wearing a baby-doll dress with chunky shoes and babbling on about No Doubt. I can see what they’re thinking: “You’re still a vegetarian?”

At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock starbutchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “greenchocolate bars and “sustainableice cream.

All of which has led some vegetarians to give up their plant-based ways. But food fads aside, vegetarianism still has its place and deserves its due respect.

Let me state, for the record, that I wholeheartedly support the shift from factory farming to more sustainable meat production. Treating animals humanely, letting them eat what they’re naturally inclined to eat, raising them without antibiotics and hormones, incorporating them into holistic farms Joel Salatin-style, and, once they’re slaughtered, eating every last bit of them, nose to tail — that’s all good stuff.

But let’s get real. Only a teeny-tiny fraction of meat in the U.S. is actually produced in any way that could conceivably be described as “sustainable” — less than 1 percent, according to the group Farm Forward — and only a teeny-tiny fraction of that is raised in the super-duper-über-conscientious Salatin style. Most of the meat raised even by those trying to do it right comes with serious environmental impacts, from high water consumption to large land footprints to excessive methane emissions.

So it really gets my goat (ahem) when people claim it’s more responsible to eat supposedly sustainable meat than to abstain from it — like the author of this facile article from Food & Wine, who pats herself on the back for convincing her husband to give up his vegetarianism:

For Andrew and about a dozen people in our circle who have recently converted from vegetarianism, eating sustainable meat purchased from small farmers is a new form of activism — a way of striking a blow against the factory farming of livestock that books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma describe so damningly.

Oh come on. You’re not striking any more of a blow against Big Meat by buying your sustainable sausage at the farmers market than I am by buying my dried beans at the farmers market.

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

Yes, vegetarians can do better too. Just as most meat-eaters, even green-leaning ones, consume at least some less-than-exemplary meat, most vegetarians eat some highly processed, GMO-tainted, decidedly non-local soy products that wouldn’t win any sustainability awards. And just as omnivores can focus on eating better meat, vegetarians can focus on eating better sources of protein. When vegetarians do aim higher, it’s hard to beat them on the sustainability front — a non-soy-based, non-heavily-processed, local-focused veg diet is the definition of low impact.

In the end, vegetarianism — eating lower on the food chain, gobbling up fewer resources and less water — is still an ethical, environmentally friendly choice, just like it was in the ’90s. Maybe even more so now, if you consider how our environmental, energy, and food challenges have compounded in the last two decades.

So, meat hipsters, drop that smug sanctimony. Sometime soon, bacon-spiked dessert will look just as outmoded as lentil loaf and baby-doll dresses — and vegetarianism will still be a good choice for my health, society at large, and our global environment.

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist. You can follow her on Twitter and Google+

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Monsanto’s new seeds could be a tech dead end | Grist

Monsanto’s new seeds could be a tech dead end 20


30 Jan 2012 9:02 AM
planting corn

This is how corn is planted on industrial-sized farms. (Photo by Minnemom.)

When I wrote recently about the next generation of genetically engineered seeds, I was in truth referring to the next next generation. The fact is that the next actual generation of seeds is already out of the lab and poised for approval by the USDA.

And I’m not talking about Monsanto’s recently approved “drought-tolerant” seeds, which the USDA itself has observed are no more drought-tolerant than existing conventional hybrids.

No, the “exciting” new seeds are simply resistant to more than one kind of pesticide. Rather than resisting Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup alone, they will now also be resistant to Dow AgroScience’s pesticide 2,4-D .

“A new pesticide,“ you say. “How exciting!” Except 2,4-D, despite its catchy name, has been around since World War II. Not only is it one of the most commonly used pesticides in the world, but it came to further prominence in certain circles when it was incorporated as a main ingredient in Agent Orange.

Indeed, as with research into new antibiotics, research into new — potentially safer — pesticides has come to a virtual standstill. Like the drug pipeline, the pesticide pipeline has run dry. Instead, biotech companies are going back to the older, more toxic chemicals, like 2,4-D, for inspiration.

And while you’d expect opposition to these new products from the likes of Tom Philpott of Mother Jones or Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one place you might not expect to see it is the pages of the influential, peer-reviewed journal BioScience.

And yet there it is! Led by David Mortensen, a team of scientists from Penn State, Montana State, and the University of New Hampshire published a paper that describes the effects on agriculture from an over-reliance on glyphosate and an overuse of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds. It also discusses at length the risks of using new seeds that “stack” resistance to various pesticides into one genetically engineered package.

In short, they say that you can’t believe Monsanto and Dow when they hype gyphosate resistance plus 2,4-D resistance as two great tastes that taste great together. The two companies are promising to eliminate the growing superweed menace — the one that has caused farmers to abandon thousands of acres of prime farmland and to return to older, more toxic pesticides to protect their crops.

What these scientists conclude is that with so many weeds resistant to glyphosate already, it won’t take long for them to develop resistance to 2,4-D as well.  According to the study’s authors, almost half of the nearly 40 species of weeds that are already resistant to two pesticides have arisen since 2005 (i.e. since the Roundup Ready era began). In short, the crisis Monsanto and Dow are promising to head off is already here.

There are other problems with 2,4-D, such as a strong link to cancer and a much greater tendency to drift on the wind (and thus contaminate nearby fields and waterways) — problems that the development of the less toxic, less volatile glyphosate was supposed to have “solved.” Yet now, thanks to Big Ag’s over-reliance on these genetically engineered one-hit wonders, which encouraged farmers to use too much glyphosate too often, we’re back to square one — or rather to square toxic.

There is, however, an alternative — and one that doesn’t require a total transition to organic agriculture (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Mortensen and his team describe in detail a practice called Integrated Weed Management (IWM). Like its sibling, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), IWM does involve the use of chemical pesticides. But it’s a judicious use that can act as a last resort rather than a first line of defense. As the paper states:

IWM integrates tactics, such as crop rotation, cover crops, competitive crop cultivars, the judicious use of tillage, and targeted herbicide application, to reduce weed populations and selection pressures that drive the evolution of resistant weeds.

It’s designed for production agriculture and would most likely increase farmer profits, since farmers would get the benefit of reduced seed and pesticide costs and no real loss of productivity. But, as with the climate-friendly agriculture I discussed the other day, you’re unlikely to see IWM embraced by Big Ag any time soon.

The USDA, along with the entire large-scale agriculture economy, is built around the profits of pesticide and biotech companies. You need only watch the USDA approve new genetically engineered products — which the agency admits represents a threat to other forms of agriculture — to see how deep in the tank to these companies our government is.

Tom Philpott observed that with this latest development, agriculture is at “a crossroads.” I disagree. I would say that if the USDA approves this new multiple pesticide-resistant GMO seed as it’s expected to, large-scale agriculture in the country will have reached a true dead end.

A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a founder and Executive Director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom’s long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him on Twitter.

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Honeybee problem nearing a ‘critical point’ | Grist

Honeybee problem nearing a ‘critical point’ 110

13 Jan 2012 7:39 PM

BeePhoto: Pesticide Action Network North AmericaAnyone who’s been stung by a bee knows they can inflict an outsized pain for such tiny insects. It makes a strange kind of sense, then, that their demise would create an outsized problem for the food system by placing the more than 70 crops they pollinate — from almonds to apples to blueberries — in peril.

Although news about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has died down, commercial beekeepers have seen average population losses of about 30 percent each year since 2006, said Paul Towers, of the Pesticide Action Network. Towers was one of the organizers of a conference that brought together beekeepers and environmental groups this week to tackle the challenges facing the beekeeping industry and the agricultural economy by proxy.

“We are inching our way toward a critical tipping point,” said Steve Ellis, secretary of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board (NHBAB) and a beekeeper for 35 years. Last year he had so many abnormal bee die-offs that he’ll qualify for disaster relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In addition to continued reports of CCD — a still somewhat mysterious phenomenon in which entire bee colonies literally disappear, alien-abduction style, leaving not even their dead bodies behind — bee populations are suffering poor health in general, and experiencing shorter life spans and diminished vitality. And while parasites, pathogens, and habitat loss can deal blows to bee health, research increasingly points to pesticides as the primary culprit.

“In the industry we believe pesticides play an important role in what’s going on,” said Dave Hackenberg, co-chair of the NHBAB and a beekeeper in Pennsylvania.

Of particular concern is a group of pesticides, chemically similar to nicotine, called neonicotinoids (neonics for short), and one in particular called clothianidin. Instead of being sprayed, neonics are used to treat seeds, so that they’re absorbed by the plant’s vascular system, and then end up attacking the central nervous systems of bees that come to collect pollen. Virtually all of today’s genetically engineered Bt corn is treated with neonics. The chemical industry alleges that bees don’t like to collect corn pollen, but new research shows that not only do bees indeed forage in corn, but they also have multiple other routes of exposure to neonics.

The Purdue University study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found high levels of clothianidin in planter exhaust spewed during the spring sowing of treated maize seed. It also found neonics in the soil of unplanted fields nearby those planted with Bt corn, on dandelions growing near those fields, in dead bees found near hive entrances, and in pollen stored in the hives.

Evidence already pointed to the presence of neonic-contaminated pollen as a factor in CCD. As Hackenberg explained, “The insects start taking [the pesticide] home, and it contaminates everywhere the insect came from.” These new revelations about the pervasiveness of neonics in bees’ habitats only strengthen the case against using the insecticides.

The irony, of course, is that farmers use these chemicals to protect their crops from destructive insects, but in so doing, they harm other insects essential to their crops’ production — a catch-22 that Hackenberg said speaks to the fact that “we have become a nation driven by the chemical industry.” In addition to beekeeping, he owns two farms, and even when crop analysts recommend spraying pesticides on his crops to kill an aphid population, for example, he knows that “if I spray, I’m going to kill all the beneficial insects.” But most farmers, lacking Hackenberg’s awareness of bee populations, follow the advice of the crop adviser — who, these days, is likely to be paid by the chemical industry, rather than by a state university or another independent entity.

Beekeepers have already teamed up with groups representing the almond and blueberry industries — both of which depend on honey bee pollination — to tackle the need for education among farmers. “A lot of [farm groups] are recognizing that we need more resources devoted to pollinator protection,” Ellis said. “We need that same level of commitment on a national basis, from our USDA and EPA and the agricultural chemical industry.”

Unfortunately, it was the EPA itself that green-lit clothianidin and other neonics for commercial use, despite its own scientists’ clear warnings about the chemicals’ effects on bees and other pollinators. That doesn’t bode well for the chances of getting neonics off the market now, even in light of the Purdue study’s findings.

“The agency has, in most cases, sided with pesticide manufacturers and worked to fast-track the approval of new products, and failed in cases when there’s clear evidence of harm to take those products off the market,” Towers said.

Since this is an election year — a time when no one wants to make Big Ag (and its money) mad — beekeepers may have to suffer another season of losses before there’s any hope of action on the EPA’s part. But when one out of every three bites of food on Americans’ plates results directly from honey bee pollination, there’s no question that the fate of these insects will determine our own as eaters.

Ellis, for his part, thinks that figuring out a way to solve the bee crisis could be a catalyst for larger reform within our agriculture system. “If we can protect that pollinator base, it’s going to have ripple effects … for wildlife, for human health,” he said. “It will bring up subjects that need to be looked at, of groundwater and surface water — all the connected subjects associated [with] chemical use and agriculture.”

Related action: Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) has a petition asking the EPA to ban Bayer’s toxic pesticide clothianidin.


Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist

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Monsanto’s man Taylor returns to FDA in food-czar role | Grist

Monsanto’s man Taylor returns to FDA in food-czar role 13

9 Jul 2009 1:04 AM

mike taylorMichael TaylorIn a Tuesday afternoon press release, the FDA announced that Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, had joined the agency as “senior advisor to the commissioner.” If the title is vague, the portfolio (pasted from the press release) is substantial–a kind of food czar of the Food and Drug Administration:

• Assess current food program challenges and opportunities
• Identify capacity needs and regulatory priorities
• Develop plans for allocating fiscal year 2010 resources
• Develop the FDA’s budget request for fiscal year 2011
• Plan implementation of new food safety legislation

Taylor’s new position isn’t his first in government. He’s a veteran apparatchik who has made an art of the role-swapping dance between the food industry and the agencies that regulate it. (The FDA’s press release highlights his government service while delicately omitting his Monsanto daliances.) In her 2002 book Food Politics, the nutritionist and food-industry critic Marion Nestle describes him like this (quote courtesy of La Vida Locavore):

Mr. Taylor is a lawyer who began his revolving door adventures as counsel to FDA. He then moved to King & Spalding, a private-sector law firm representing Monsanto, a leading agricultural biotechnology company. In 1991 he returned to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy, where he was part of the team that issued the agency’s decidedly industry-friendly policy on food biotechnology and that approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered growth hormone in dairy cows. His questionable role in these decisions led to an investigation by the federal General Accounting Office, which eventually exonerated him of all conflict-of-interest charges. In 1994, Mr. Taylor moved to USDA to become administrator of its Food Safety and Inspection Service … After another stint in private legal practice with King & Spalding, Mr. Taylor again joined Monsanto as Vice President for Public Policy in 1998.

“Vice president for public policy” means, of course, chief lobbyist. Monsanto had hired him to keep his former colleagues at USDA and FDA, as well as Congress folk, up to date on the wonders of patent-protected seed biotechnology.

“Since 2000,” the FDA press release informs us, “Taylor has worked in academic and research settings on the challenges facing the nation’s food safety system and ways to address them.”

Watchdog in flack’s clothing?

And somewhere along the away, according to his erstwhile critic Nestle, Taylor had a moment like Saul’s on the road to Damascus: the one-time company man suddenly became a valorous industry watchdog. In a surprising blog post Tuesday, Nestle declared Taylor “a good pick” for the FDA. “I say this in full knowledge of his history,” Nestle wrote. Here’s her rationale:

Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action. Whew. This took real courage.

Nestle goes on to report that Taylor, after serving a stint as Monsanto’s chief lobbyist, became a kind of food-safety intellectual, issuing wise papers on how the regulators should oversee food companies. She points us to an “excellent report” [PDF] co-written by Taylor, released this year.

That paper must be read carefully: Given Taylor’s new status, it–along with new guidelines released by the White House Food Safety Working on Tuesday–will likely serve as a kind of blueprint for the Obama FDA food oversight.

Two things jump out immediately from Taylor’s paper. First, it amounts to a forceful push to shift much more of the burden for funding food-safety operations to the state and local level. Its very title is “An Agenda for Strengthening State and Local Roles in the Nation’s Food Safety System.” The paper promotes a “Joint Funding Responsibility” between federal and local/state agencies.

Why is this a problem? For one, state and local budgets are parched dry, drained by the most severe economic downturn since the Depression. Is, say, California now going to fund a robust food-safety platform–with IOUs, perhaps?

Moreover, we’ve seen the sort of federal-state partnership Taylor promotes in action–and there have been spectacular failures. Remember the great peanut-butter calamity of 2008-’09, the one that killed at least seven people and sickened hundreds? In that case, the FDA had farmed out inspections of the ofending factory to Georgia authorities, who dutifully documented atrocious sanitary lapses even as tainted product got distributed nationwide.

The other immediate problem with Taylor’s blueprint relates to scale. A sane food-safety policy would do two things: 1) rein in the gigantic companies that routinely endanger millions with a single lapse at a single plant–say, a gigantic beef company that can send out 420,000 pounds of E. coli-tainted beef from a day’s processing; and 2) do so in a way that doesn’t harm the thousands of small-scale, community-oriented operations rising up in new alternative food systems.

Again and again, we’ve seen regulations designed to rein in big players actually consolidate their market power by wiping out small players. As a recent Food & Water Watch report showed, regulations that make sense for industrial slaughterhouses can spell the end for community- and regional-scale ones. The Taylor report only addresses this critical point once in its 80 pages: “Due regard should be given to making the traceback requirement feasible for small businesses.” Clearly, the small-scale producer issue isn’t a priority for Monsanto’s man at FDA.

A technocrat’s tinkering

With the widely respected Marion Nestle throwing her support behind the Taylor pick, I went looking for other perspectives. I asked Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, for her take. FWW has been actively working to promote a scale-appropriate food-safety regime that checks Big Food without crushing small producers.

Lovera does not share Nestle’s enthusiasm. “Taylor basically promotes a risk-based approach, and we don’t think that’s adequate,” she told me. Lovera explained that in a risk-based approach, regulators focus limited resources on areas of the food system that pose the most risk. Sounds logical, she said, but it’s proven difficult to predict where risk factors really lie. I asked her if the peanut-butter debacle was a good example. Who would have foreseen multiple deaths from a factory that produces peanut paste for processed food manufacturers? She concurred. She added that the USDA’s FSIS program, which oversees meat safety, has largely failed in a 10-year effort to identify the riskiest parts of the meat-production process.

Then there’s the emphasis on what Nestle praised in her blog post as “science-based HACCP systems.” HACCP stands for “hazard analysis and critical control point.” In an HACCP system, you identify the points in a process that pose the most risk and “fix” the problem.

“That approach is really geared to techno fixes,” Lovera told me–stuff like ammonia washes, irradiation, etc. These procedures don’t seek to, say, keep salmonella-tainted peanut butter out of cookies, but rather to make salmonella-exposed cookies safe to eat. Moreover, the HACCP approach “hasn’t proven friendly to small producers,” she adds. To see the Obama FDA appear to embrace it, she told me, “makes us cringe.” In the end, the food safety system doesn’t just need to tinker with the use of scarce resources, leveraged by increasing the burden on states and localities. It needs to devote more resources to actual inspections.

As for Taylor, here’s my take: Despite massive marketing budgets, the food industry has become widely distrusted over the last several years, with high-profile outbreaks a major reason. “Consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores,” declares a recent study. “And their confidence in–and trust of–food retailers, manufacturers and grocers is declining.”

The industry knows it needs an improved safety system; technocrats like Taylor can deliver a marginally improved food safety system while preserving profit margins and market share.

Perhaps the FDA’s new food czar can save some lives–I hope he does. It’s abominable when people die from eating pre-fab peanut butter cookie or salad from a bag. Taylor’s tinkerings could well reduce such disasters.

But what we really need is a food safety system that takes the shit out of industrial meat and the salmonella out of peanut butter, without dumping on small producers. And I don’t think Taylor will deliver that–or even try.

Tom Philpott was Grist’s senior food writer until May 2011. He now writes for Mother Jones.

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The Secret Power Of Introverts: A Quiet Revolution - YouTube

McDonald's Will Stop Using Pink Goop Beef in Its Burgers

McDonald’s Will Stop Using Pink Goop Beef in Its Burgers

Chef Jamie Oliver calls it pink slime. We feel it's more like pink goop. Either way, the ammonium hydroxide soaked pink crap beef is vomit inducing. Thankfully, you won't have to eat it anymore! Kind of. McDonald's has finally caved to the pressure and will ditch the use of the pink goop beef in its burgers.

What's gross about the pink goop beef, made by Beef Products Inc (BPI), is that it's actually made of of "beef trimmings" which are the undesirable, leftover crap of a cow that's better fit for dogs than humans. Taking it one step further, the beef trimmings are then processed and soaked in ammonium hydroxide and churned into ground beef. Agh, it's disgusting to even think about. This pink goop beef actually makes up 70% of America's ground beef too!

It's taken a while but McDonald's has finally decided to step up its standards in the US (it never used pink goop meat in the UK) and will no longer use the pink BPI meat in the US of A. It might taste fine but pink goop meat is so bad that US Department of Agriculture microbiologist Geral Zirnstein doesn't even consider "the stuff to be ground beef" and considers "allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling." Oof. And we enjoy this madness!

Joining McDonald's in the pink crap ban is Burger King and Taco Bell which means we can breathe a sigh of relief as we won't be eating ammonium hydroxide soaked beef and beef trimmings fit for dogs when we want to eat crappy fast food. Quality you can't taste! [CBS News, Daily Mail Image Credit: VIPDesignUSA/Shutterstock]

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2012/01/31 DARPA researchers design eye-enhancing virtual reality contact lenses

DARPA researchers design eye-enhancing virtual reality contact lenses

January 31, 2012


Currently being developed by DARPA researchers at Washington-based Innovega iOptiks are contact lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without the need for bulky apparatus.  Instead of oversized virtual reality helmets, digital images are projected onto tiny full-color displays that are very near the eye.  These novel contact lenses allow users to focus simultaneously on objects that are close up and far away.  This could improve ability to use tiny portable displays while sill interacting with the surrounding environment.

Developed as part of DARPA’s Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) program, SCENICC’s objective is to eliminate the ISR capability gap that exists at the individual Soldier level.  The program seeks to develop novel computational imaging capabilities and explore joint design of hardware and software that give warfighters access to systems that greatly enhance their awareness, security and survivability.

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OWS: Tim Pool's Attacker, Agent Provocateur, WeAreChange Almost Gets Arrested - YouTube

Bill Gates on GM foods, vaccines and Monsanto Nwo Puppet - YouTube


Cuts force domestic violence refuges to turn victims away | Society | The Guardian

Cuts force domestic violence refuges to turn victims away

Charities say funding cuts mean it is increasingly difficult to find beds for vulnerable women

Young woman sitting inthe corner of a room, head in arms
Victims of domestic violence at risk of further abuse are being advised to sleep in Occupy camps, in police stations and accident and emergency departments. Photograph: Getty Images/DK Stock

Victims of domestic violence at risk of further abuse are being advised to sleep in Occupy camps, in police stations and accident and emergency departments because of sweeping cuts across the sector, according to domestic violence charities.

On an average day last year 230 women were turned away by Women's Aid, around 9% of those seeking refuge, because of a lack of space, the organisation has revealed.

And as further cuts begin to bite more women are likely to be put in danger, said Nicola Harwin, chief executive of Women's Aid, the largest national organisation for domestic and sexual violence services.

Freedom of information requests released in a major new report revealed that 31% of funding to the sector was cut by local authorities between 2010/11 and 2011/12, a reduction from £7.8m to £5.4m.

Harwin, who has worked in refuge provision since the 70s, said there was a real risk that four decades of progress in the sector could be lost. "We were one of the first countries in the world to create refuges, we built up those blocks gradually and they are being taken down," she said. "There is enormous determination, resilience and passion in this sector but the pressure on services to meet these women's very complex needs is huge."

Heather Harvey, research and development manager at Eaves, a London-based domestic violence charity, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to find a bed for vulnerable women. "We used to have a situation where we couldn't quickly place someone in emergency accommodation perhaps once a month. Now it's happening two to three times a week," she said.

Support workers were forced to suggest places for women to sleep outside, such as the Occupy camps, accident and emergency departments or night buses, she added. "All you can say to some of them if you sleep on the street, here are some ways of staying safe – but of course there have been reports of rape at an Occupy camp, . And you are only displacing the burden, someone has to pick up the human and economic cost further down the line."

The situation was reaching crisis point, she said. "Women are literally having to find a way of staying safe on the streets, or staying in violent relationships where they could end up dead. And the ultimate costs of that are huge – to the police, the NHS, the courts – it's a total false economy."

The effect on local services is both "dramatic and uneven across localities", according to the report commissioned by Trust for London and the Northern Rock Foundation. Specialist services are being particularly hardest hit, with organisations with local authority funding of less than £20,000 suffering an average cut of 70%, compared with 29% for those receiving more than £100,000. Imkaan, who run refuges for minority women, were forced to close two of their six refuges, losing local authority funding for two more.

Hannana Siddiqui, of Southall Black Sisters, which provides support for black and ethnic minority (BME) victims of domestic violence and is in danger of losing up to half its staff next year, said specialist services were too small to compete in new commissioning models that demand budget services.

As a result minority organisations were having to close or be absorbed by a larger group, she said: "But we have built up the expertise to meet the needs of hard-to-reach BME women. And if you reduce the quality and quantity of provision that has serious implications. More women are turned away, there are more suicides, more homicides, more forced marriages."

A perfect storm of statutory cuts to police, welfare, housing and legal aid was also putting pressure on the sector, with little being done to measure the impact on women's services, said Harwin.

Changes in commissioning meant local authorities were increasingly choosing low-budget services from non-specialist providers, she said. "Every area is being hit, and if all routes to safety are being cut back I believe we will see more tragedies, more homicides and lots more women and children living in violent situations," she said.

Cuts to Supporting People, a government programme for vulnerable people with housing needs, and legal aid were expected to disproportionately impact women, while other specialised expertise including domestic abuse officers, a unit on female genital mutilation and domestic violence courts had also been lost, according to the report.

In other examples, Refuge, a charity which provides emergency accommodation for women and children, reported cuts to 50% of their contracts, Respect, a charity with works with perpetrators of domestic violence, reported 44% of services had lost specific projects, while research from the Women's Resource Centre found that one in five women's organisations have closed (pdf), and 25% of those questioned believed funding cuts would lead to the closure of their organisation.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the combination of pressures around commissioning, and cuts to funding and statutory organisations motivated her to launch a commission on women's safety, spearheaded by the former solicitor general, Vera Baird.

"These figures that show such a steep cut in such a short period of time are shocking," she said. "I am deeply concerned about this - it is putting women and children in danger and we risk turning back the clock on the important work that has been done to prevent women being put in life-threatening situations."

She called on the government to urgently assess the impact of cuts, and ensure every area had sufficient services for vulnerable women.

Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office minister for equality, who will speak at the Women's Aid AGM on Wednesday, said the coalition had demonstrated that ending violence against women and girls was an "absolute priority", publishing an action plan to end violence against women and girls, ring-fencing £28m for domestic violence services, and allocating £10.5m for rape crisis services, and £900,000 for domestic violence helplines.

Featherstone called on local authorities not to make disproportionate cuts or look at the women's sector as a "soft target" for cuts.

"These are tough times and everyone is dealing with cuts, but this coalition government has sent out a very clear message about the importance and value it places on this sector. I would rebut very firmly that the sector is in crisis, this government is putting it's best foot forward and is committed to ending violence against women and girls," she said.

Case study

Eaves recently struggled to help 29-year-old Linda and her 11-month-old baby. She fled to her mother's house after being physically abused by her partner, but when she refused to return to him she was thrown out and left homeless.

The homeless people's unit (HPU) of her local authority decided she was not a "priority" case and only provided last-minute B&B accomodation for two consecutive nights. Linda and her baby lingered in fast food restaurants and internet cafes to keep warm. With her bags clearly visible in the pushchair she felt vulnerable, and described the experience as "really frightening".

"This was nothing short of the most horrible and terrible time of my life," she said. "When I was at my most vulnerable, I was pushed away in the coldest manner by the HPU who told me that they had "bigger priorities".

Only when threatened with a judicial review did the council agreed to provide temporary accommodation – in a hostel – "while they conducted an investigation".

Support worker Lorena Fuentes said: "Obviously she was a priority - a young mother with a baby under a year old and fleeing a violent situation – so we were stunned when the local HPU turned her away.

"Quite frankly, I don't think this would have happened a year ago. All this trying to dodge responsibility, quite apart from being hugely stressful to the mother and baby, is a pointless waste of everybody's time and money."

Linda said without the help of the Scarlet Centre, a drop-in centre for women who have experienced domestic violence, she would have been completely lost.

"It makes me feel uncomfortable talking about it even now, and I have a sick feeling in my stomach that won't go away. The feeling of the stress and uncertainty of what was going to happen to me and my baby made me feel beyond desperate. I would hate to think where we would be without them."

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