Meatless Mondays can be patriotic, too

By Nancy Scola
August 10, 2012

Recently, the Texas commissioner of agriculture reacted with outrage to the fact that employees of the United States Department of Agriculture would dare suggest, in an internal newsletter on “greening” the Washington headquarters, that co-workers might consider practicing “Meatless Mondays” to reduce the environmental impact of their diet. “Last I checked,” blogged Commissioner Todd Staples, “USDA had a very specific duty to promote and champion American agriculture. Imagine Ford or Chevy discouraging the purchase of their pickup trucks. Anyone else see the absurdity? How about the betrayal?”

Staples went on to call the suggestion to forgo meat once in a while ”treasonous.” L’état, c’est boeuf. But there’s a bigger question: Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purpose, indeed, simply to promote the consumption of American commodities in the same way Ford tries to sell F-150s? Or is it instead to help agriculture work for the American public at large?

Staples’s response to Meatless Mondays captures a pervasive way of thinking in the world of modern American agriculture. Some of the soft spots in Staples’s argument are immediately obvious. For one thing, agriculture includes fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy, too. “We’re not saying ‘don’t eat,’” counters Bob Martin, a food policy expert at Johns Hopkins and an adviser to the Meatless Mondays campaign. “So we’re not anti-agriculture.”

As a branch of the United States government, the USDA was created in the mid-1800s to collect and distribute the best farming knowledge. Farmers were, as President Abraham Lincoln phrased it, “the most numerous class” in a young, largely agrarian nation. But the 16th president saw that it was a class that would bring the country better benefit if equipped with the best scientific and technological knowledge. In 1862, Congress passed a bill establishing a Department of Agriculture. Its mission was “to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word.” That knowledge-centric founding vision is reflected in the USDA’s stated mission today: “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.”

In the interim, though, there’s inarguably been a shift toward production for the sake of production. “After World War Two was when it really started to change,” says Johns Hopkins’s Martin, “and it became a chest-thumping, ‘best agricultural system in the world,’ ‘let’s produce more and export it – don’t worry about it’ sort of thing.” One important era: the reign of Earl Butz, who served as agriculture secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford until he was drummed out of the latter’s cabinet in 1976 over an especially crude racist joke. High food prices had become a political issue for Nixon, and in part to help drive them down Butz encouraged American farmers to plant “from fencerow to fencerow.” In the years that followed, laws were passed creating industrywide promotional programs on agricultural commodities overseen by USDA and funded by producer fees, such as the Beef Board, which was paid for by dollar-per-head fees and brought us “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” (Similarly, there’s “Pork. The Other White Meat” and “The Incredible, Edible Egg.”) “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers. And today, big industrial livestock producers, scaled-up corporate farms and powerful industry groups have become the image of the American agricultural system.

In our early years, we were a hungry nation. It made sense to ramp up both production and consumption. But now we’re, well, overfed. “There was a time when the nation producing more food wasn’t contrary to its nutritional needs,” says Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Undernutrition was a problem. Obesity wasn’t. But the situation has changed.”

And indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has long tried to figure out how to help Americans be better eaters. Since the 1980s, the USDA has issued dietary guidelines – think back to that food pyramid. (Meatless Mondays advocates point out that eating something other than meat for a day fits quite comfortably with what the USDA says about how we should be eating.) The department also administers the food stamp program, which shapes the way 46 million Americans eat.

But those two goals of promoting what American big agriculture produces and disseminating what science says about how Americans should eat “not infrequently come into conflict,” says Yale’s Brownell. “The Meatless Monday thing would be pretty uncontroversial among nutritional experts, so the fact that industry was able to turn it around” – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded by agreeing that the posting was a mistake that would be erased – ”shows which of these competing missions usually wins.”

Usually. But from the perspective of large-scale agricultural interests, lately it hasn’t been enough. There’s no avoiding the political here; “food politics” in the United States is very much about both food and politics. And frankly, big producers are feeling a little unloved in Washington.

Over at the USDA, Vilsack is seen as having given them the cold shoulder during his tenure. Over at the White House, you’ve got Michelle Obama talking about going organic. And things are little better in Congress. The House of Representatives is wrangling over the Farm Bill, as Congress does every five years, and consensus is hard to find. With hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, Republican leaders seem to be less worried about backing their colleagues from farm districts than they were about getting on the wrong side of Tea Party members and others who aren’t eager to sign off on such federal government spending. Blue Dog Democrats, traditionally backers of agricultural spending, have seen their ranks severely reduced in recent years. And big agricultural producers are seeing their political power dwindle at a time that much of the U.S. is suffering through a rather epic drought.

Big producers and their industry groups are feeling “unmoored,” says Neil Conklin, president of Farm Foundation and a veteran of the USDA, “and when people get unmoored they get touchier.” In that environment, any suggestion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks it’s fine if some of your three squares aren’t meat-based is enough to cause a conflagration.

Back to that drought. Despite Commissioner Staples’s argument that it’s proof that now is not the time for the USDA to hype vegetables, the drought is also a chance for the USDA to once again use science to improve the state of agriculture. The best research we know shows that producing meat is highly water- (not to mention fossil fuel-) intensive. “Resource use is something we should be talking about,” says Martin of Johns Hopkins. “This is the perfect time to talk about how we’re going to raise our food.”

At its core, the United States Department of Agriculture’s mission has always been to sustain the American way of life through food. Vegetables and fruits are food, too. Yes, tofu teriyaki is perfectly good food, too; not for nothing do American farms lead the world in the production of soybeans. For that matter, beef, pork and chicken produced on small, environmentally friendly farms and distributed to consumers through local networks are very much food, too. The outrage of Commissioner Staples and others aside, asking how the USDA could use the best knowledge out there to create a sustainable vision for a healthy, well-fed 21st century U.S. wouldn’t be veering off course or an abrogation of its mission. It would be – dare I say it – a perfectly organic next step.

PHOTO: A worker arranges slaughtered cattle in the freezing room in the Marfrig Group slaughter house in Promissao, 500 km northwest of Sao Paulo. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker



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What sense does it make to promote smallness and less production at a time when people are worrying if there’s going to be enough grain to export abroad? The real question is how is there going to be enough production to feed everyone that’s going to be on the planet in the foreseeable future?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

The problem with liberal/environmentalist/green groups is they want to force their quasi-religious lifestyle on everyone else whether it makes sense or not, which is wrong — especially when they succeed in manipulating the government into doing it for them.

The point of the article is NOT about food or eating healthy, but about a fringe minority attempting to force their chosen lifestyle — or, in many cases, it is really “do as I say, not as I do” — on everyone else, which is an infringement on the civil rights of the majority.

They have already gained a significant foothold in our schools, thus hitting our children hard with outright lies or half-truths when they are the most vulnerable.

“Meatless Mondays” will eventually become no meat at all because it is bad for you (which IS their ultimate stated goal).

This is really not a movement that wants to encourage people to think for themselves. Instead, they want you to agree without thinking.

It is really the type of thinking normally associated with religious doctrine, dogma or cults, and THAT is actually what these people are — religious extremists.

Those who disagree are called “deniers” (or worse) and the whole movement is characterized in terms of morality, NOT common sense or real science.

What is frightening is that human history is filled with people preaching morality of one sort or another, but underneath is the unyielding oppression of a religious zealot who is NOT willing to tolerate ANY dissent.

These people are dangerous.

My advice is don’t drink their “Kool Aid”.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive


So there’s infinite resources for infinite production is there? If we’re talking about grain exports well from who’s perspective? Do you suddenly care about the global population? Farm subsidies in rich countries (US, EU) depress market prices for farm products and induce poor countries in India (thousands of farmer suicides) Africa and elsewhere to import food that local farmers could otherwise produce more efficiently. Farmers in poor countries are rightly concerned about the effects of the subsidies. It hurts them tremendously.

Thank you for politicizing the issue as expected. The boogeyman is going to come and take all our meat away!

This kind of thinking is hilarious and reminds me of the American combination of hubris, arrogance towards big gas guzzling automobiles. That is until the reality of oil prices finally made them and the car industry wake up.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese. Childhood obesity and related diseases are on the rise. MORE than ONE THIRD.

America is FAT. Ridiculously FAT. Will Americans wake up to the idea that global resources are limited and that they shouldn’t be taking for granting the over stuffing of their mouths and huge fat stomachs? I doubt it.

It all fits well with the culture of excess, decadence, mindless consumption and ENTITLEMENT that is America.

Yes, please don’t drink the kool-aid.

Obesity in America is now adding an astounding $190 billion to the annual national healthcare price tag, exceeding smoking as public health enemy number one when it comes to cost.

The high cost of being significantly overweight manifests in a variety of ways, ranging from the increased insurance premiums we all pay to subsidize the added medical charges incurred by the obese to the surprisingly dramatic impact our collective pounds has on energy costs.

Also, the extra weight carried by vehicles as a result of obese and overweight Americans is responsible for almost one billion additional gallons of gasoline being burned each year by our automobiles—nearly 1 percent of our total gasoline usage.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

I inherited some drug stock from a very savvy family investor. The reluctance of a large percentage of Americans (I, too, am a reformed smoker) to do anything for their health insures that this part of my retirement savings is a secure one. Statins are a lifetime proposition for many. Adherence to a low saturated-fat diet can eliminate the need for them, and the added stroke risk to those who suffered TIA’s prior to taking them. Insulin can be eliminated from a diabetic’s routine through diet. I’m holding my drug stock for the time being, though. I have my doubts about both paid lobbyists and people’s willpower

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

“USDA had a very specific duty to promote and champion American agriculture.”

This only blatantly verifies the liberal viewpoint: industry sees the government as a tool for the manipulation of the populace for industry’s own benefit.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

It would be one thing if we had the IRS posting Tax Free Tuesday hmmmm. Please get off your liberal hippy soapbox and look at the USDA and all the political appointees and what a waste of money they are.

Posted by AFreeman6969 | Report as abusive


The reason for farmer suicides in India is the lack of modern agriculture, since this condition makes farmers subject to the whims of the weather. Sure, there’s room to criticize subsidies, but subsidies in America have helped to keep farmers in business, and farmers here are very productive. Without farmers in America, what we would see is mass starvation. And yes, there’s plenty of room for more production, in Africa and elsewhere. What African farmers need is more fertilizer, so they can grow more and better food.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

@ TheUSofA –

Thanks for proving my point.

Apparently, according to you, fat people are responsible for ALL our social problems.

If fact, now that you so “unemotionally” pointed it out to me, it’s amazing I never realized it before. How stupid of me not to have seen the obvious.

What do you suggest we do about the herds of fat people destroying our lives?

Perhaps we should put them in concentration camps and starve them until they are fit to become part of society again — with, of course, a large “F” for “fat person” branded into their forearms so everyone will know how inferior these disgusting fat people really are. And how much they are responsible for having destroyed our lives.

Thanks so much for enlightening me!


By the way my comment about don’t drink the “Kool-Aid” was not the drink itself, but a reference to a well-known mass poisoning by a religious cult leader named Jim Jones who poured cyanide poison into the Kool-Aid and had his followers drink it.

THAT is how dangerous I think you people really are.

From Wikipedia:

“Reverend James Warren “Jim” Jones (May 13, 1931 – November 18, 1978) was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which is best known for the November 18, 1978 mass suicide of 909 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana along with the killings of five other people at a nearby airstrip. Over 200 children were murdered at Jonestown, almost all of whom were forcibly made to ingest cyanide by the elite Temple members.”

As I said above, don’t drink their “Kool-Aid”.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Ms. Scola,

It is WRONG for the US government in any way, shape or form to attempt to dictate to the American people what they should eat or drink.

And that especially includes “sin taxes” supposedly designed to curb “bad” behavior, but which are simply another source of revenue for the state, who really doesn’t want people to stop their bad behavior because it would hurt their revenue base.

Your article is a travesty in that you are clearly setting yourself up as some sort of quasi-expert on the subject, when I see NOTHING in your background to suggest such expertise.

You are nothing more than a shill for the inanities of the quasi-religious nuts who would force us to live as they choose, not as we choose.

This is a clear misuse of our right of free speech!

Free speech, when it becomes a propaganda tool designed to undermine the rights of the people is no longer free speech, and should be eliminated.

Put another way, you and people like you are in effect shouting “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, which is NOT free speech — it is a criminal act.

People who indulge in your kind of pathetic hyperbole should be held legally liable for what they are saying.

It is a “fatal flaw” in the US Constitution that it allows speech that is designed to undermine free speech.

Unfortunately, the liberal/environmental/green groups have realized this weakness and are very efficiently and effectively exploiting it, especially through the US court system, to the ultimate detriment of this nation.

The misguided misanthropic legal maneuvering of the liberal/environmental/green groups is the MAJOR reason why American society has become so socially fractured, why we have to deal with increasingly intrusive government controls in our lives, and why the US is in economic trouble today.

These people are dedicated to destroying the American way of life, which they see as abhorrent.

Unfortunately, these zealots have made massive progress towards that goal to the detriment of everyone else.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Ms. Scola,

If you want to crusade for a legitimate cause, how about lobbying to force ALL food advertising to be banned from television programs. That would be a good start.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive


That’s what kool-aid means?? You’re kidding! Golly, gee here I was thinking you were talking about the actual drink! How silly of me!

Thank you for sharing your grand sense of entitlement which gets wrapped around the flag. No one is taking your meat away. Adults are trying to simply have a rational discussion. Of course the usual knee-jerk, trite stereotypes can’t be helped.

Remember it was the ‘liberal/environment/green groups’ that were calling for greater efficiency of automobiles.

“Apparently, according to you, fat people are responsible for ALL our social problems.”

No Gordon, that’s what you just did. You tried to put words in my mouth. I gave you facts about obesity and how they affect health care costs and you completely ignored them, twisted the discussion to suit your needs.

Then again who wants to discuss things like facts and context when you’ve got knee-jerk diatribe and rhetoric?

As America’s waistline expands, costs soar 0/us-obesity-idUSBRE83T0C820120430

U.S. hospitals are ripping out wall-mounted toilets and replacing them with floor models to better support obese patients. The Federal Transit Administration wants buses to be tested for the impact of heavier riders on steering and braking. Cars are burning nearly a billion gallons of gasoline more a year than if passengers weighed what they did in 1960.

Many of those costs have dollar signs in front of them, such as the higher health insurance premiums everyone pays to cover those extra medical costs. Other changes, often cost-neutral, are coming to the built environment in the form of wider seats in public places from sports stadiums to bus stops.

The startling economic costs of obesity, often borne by the non-obese, could become the epidemic’s second-hand smoke. Only when scientists discovered that nonsmokers were developing lung cancer and other diseases from breathing smoke-filled air did policymakers get serious about fighting the habit, in particular by establishing nonsmoking zones. The costs that smoking added to Medicaid also spurred action. Now, as economists put a price tag on sky-high body mass indexes (BMIs), policymakers as well as the private sector are mobilizing to find solutions to the obesity epidemic.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive


Farm subsidies in advanced nations tend exploit their own consumers and taxpayers.

On cotton:

“The US government continues to subsidise its cotton farmers – $24bn over the past 10 years – despite the World Trade Organisation ruling some of these subsidies illegal. And when the WTO backed Brazil’s case that the subsidies were damaging, the US government simply offered to pay subsidies to Brazilian farmers too.

I can’t be alone in spotting the irony of the world’s greatest free-trader continuing to violate the system so blatantly.

America’s payments to its farmers are designed to shield them from the volatility of cotton prices. But they also enable the US to export cheaply, depressing the price for other cotton producers in some of the poorest regions of the world and leaving them unable to compete with their richer American counterparts.

The voices of African farmers and others in developing countries are being ignored. In 2008, a group of African leaders tabled specific proposals to which the US has so far failed to respond.

It is now nearly 10 years since the WTO Doha Round talks first began. In 2001 there was a clear objective – to lower trade barriers around the world and help facilitate the increase of global trade. But the promise to make the Round deliver for development has clearly failed and the talks are now on the brink of collapse.

The world needs to focus on rebuilding faith in the multilateral trading system and also respond to the concerns raised time and time again by governments across Africa. An immediate commitment by the US to implement the WTO’s ruling and to cut cotton subsidies further would be a good place to start.

Taking this action would send a clear message to farmers in developing countries that the world is serious about its commitment to trade reform.”

Consider cotton. The United States spends some $2.5 billion a year and the European Union about $700 million in subsidies to cotton farmers. The historically low cotton prices are wreaking havoc for domestic producers in poor countries.1 Cotton subsidies in Mississippi drive cotton farmers in West Africa out of business. African countries pleaded unsuccessfully with the WTO to end all cotton subsidies, but they are only the tip of the agricultural-subsidy iceberg.

U.S. farmers annually receive more than $20 billion from the government, and EU subsidies are even larger—45 billion euros a year.2 These payments for beef, cotton, wheat, and other products spur production, depress product prices on world markets, and make it more difficult for farmers in developing countries to compete. American farmers produce twice as much wheat as the country uses, but federal subsidies help protect them from world market-price signals. Washington then uses food aid and other export programs as a safety valve to cope with overproduction.

Both the EU and the United States maintain programs to directly subsidize exports of farm products. The EU spends about $3.3 billion per year doing this. That gives EU goods an artificial advantage in international markets and works against the interests of producers in poor countries.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Harvesting Cash
How to Spend an Extra $15 Billion

In the past five years alone, the U.S. government has handed out more than $95 billion in agricultural subsidies. Post reporters criss-crossed the country in 2006, identifying more than $15 billion in wasteful, unnecessary and redundant spending.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

The sense of entitlement runs deep in human beings, especially in Americans who then wrap that sense of entitlement with the flag.

Sustainability has to be the meme of the future. There is no such thing as infinite resources or infinite production.

If it wasn’t for the green and environmental groups pushing for change, the hubris of Americans would leave us stagnating when we should be constantly preparing for the future.

Farming In a Drier Future

The July issue of Harper’s magazine has Wil Hylton’s piece, “Broken Heartland, The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains.” Here are a few excerpts:

“Sprawling beneath eight states and more than 100 million acres, the Ogallala Aquifer is the kind of hydrological behemoth that lends itself to rhapsody and hubris. Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth – by a factor of five.”

“It wasn’t until the 1940s, when a variety of new technologies coalesced on the plains, that large-scale irrigation sprang up for the first time – but from there, the transformation was quick. Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable. Land that had been marginal became dependable; land that was dependable became bountiful…

“No one worried about the aquifer. To farmers it seemed a bottomless reserve, generating the same outlandish volume no matter how many straws went in. Soon there were hundreds of thousands of wells producing the same reliable flow, year after year, without any evident stress.

“Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely.”

“…For complex reasons involving wind, weather and soil composition, the Ogallala does not recharge in the way one might expect. In fact, of the eight states above the aquifer, only Nebraska, with its sandhill dunes, is permeable enough to contribute any serious replenishment.”

Almost a quarter of the reservoir is now down to less than 30-feet of water remaining. By 2030 most if not all of the rest will be in the same state. With crop irrigation draining the reservoir between five to eight feet a year, the math is ugly.

“…Although many cities on the plains have grown, rural communities across Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas have shrunk each decade since the Great Depression. In Kansas alone, more than 6,000 towns have vanished altogether. Nearly a million square miles of the American heartland currently meet the definition of ‘frontier’ used by the Census Bureau more than a century ago.”

What lies in store for America’s breadbasket? Vast tracts are being turned into windfarms. Once bountiful farmland is being returned to grassland for grazing. Experimental crops are being developed, perennial varieties of wheat and sorghum that will be self-seeding but without the high yield of conventional crops. Bison are making a comeback. Beyond that, no one seems to know.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Ms. Scola,

One final comment for you to consider.

Before attempting to write an article about a story that deserves public attention — and, yes, the problem of obesity does merit that kind of attention (just NOT from people like you who have anther agenda entirely) — you should first understand the subject matter at hand before trying to communicate it to the public.

Much/most of you article deals with the idea of production. According to you, “there’s inarguably been a shift toward production for the sake of production”, while I would argue from an economics viewpoint that production for the sake of production is economic nonsense. Anyone who engaged in that type of production activity would soon be out of business. However, it does make a great catch phrase for those who would like to see this nation’s economy collapse.

Which bring me to another catch phrase in your title. What, exactly, does “meatless Mondays” have to do with patriotism. Are you suggesting that some kinds of foods are more patriotic than others? How about Mom and Apple Pie? Wow! How patriotic is that?

My point is that what you are spewing out is absolute bullshit. Or to put it your way, “It would be – dare I say it – a perfectly organic next step.”

By the way, your accompanying picture of a slaughter house is a bit over the top in heavy-handedness. Also, do you realize the picture is actually from a slaughter house in BRAZIL, and has nothing whatsoever to do with US meat packing. Do you speak Portuguese by any chance? Maybe they would like to hear what you have to say in Brazil? Your message isn’t welcome here in the US.

You REALLY need to learn some subtlety, along with the basic principles of journalism. Don’t give up your day job, whatever that is — all I know it isn’t what you claim it is.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Why Mondays? Why not Wednesdays or Fridays?

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

@ TheUSofA –

One final issue you insist on bringing up as your (meaning the liberal/environmentalist/green groups) great contribution towards improving the fuel efficiency of cars for the benefit of society.

It’s a basic law of physics that the amount of energy required to move an object is directly related to its weight.

From the standpoint of forcing car manufacturers to use lighter weight materials, yes, you did improve the mileage of those vehicles.

HOWEVER, in performing this great benefit to society, you forced the car manufacturers to use far more expensive materials to build the vehicles, PLUS you forced them to attach pollution controls, which reduced the efficiency of the vehicles AND substantially increased their cost.

Not only that, but the materials used for their manufacture have a far greater unfavorable environmental impact than the older, heavier vehicles.

So the bottom line is the long-term damage to the planet is far worse than the pollution from using the older, much simpler to use vehicles, which incidentally also lasted longer, thus reducing the number of new vehicles required.

With “friends” like you people watching out for the good of society, we don’t need enemies.

Do everyone a favor.


Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@ Bob9999 –

Don’t be silly Bob9999, “meatless” doesn’t rhyme with any other day of the week except Monday, so it wouldn’t be nearly as “catchy” of a phrase to hit people over the head with.


Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@Gordon2352 That’s funny. I always thought it was the Bible-thumping patriarchs who were preaching one way of life. My mistake.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

It’s good to see an intelligently written article in Reuters for a change. Well done, Nancy Scola!

The sneering from other commentators is probably a result of ignorance.

Slaughterhouses in the US are not properly regulated: the animals are killed in a way which is so cruel that it would be illegal in most countries. Second, most of the animals raised in the US eat corn. Turning good quality plant protein into a very much smaller quantity of poor quality animal protein takes that food out of the mouths of the poorest and hungriest humans on the planet.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive