Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The EPA’s recent ruling allows the biggest, grisliest factory farms to “self certify” that they are not discharging waste into U.S. waterways. A subsequent ruling also exempts CAFOs from reporting gaseous pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide to the federal government. Anyone familiar with CAFOs can tell you that these massive industrial farms perpetrate some of the biggest pollution crimes in the country.
Contempt for governance has been the hallmark of the Bush/Cheney Administration, and this latest ruling is no exception. EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin H. Grumbles spun the new rules as “a strong national standard for pollution prevention.”
But not everyone in Washington was buying it. Congressman Albert R. Wynn—chairman of the House subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials—labeled the changing regulations as a "gift from the Bush administration to big corporate animal feeding operations that denies the public of knowledge that serious contaminants are in the air."
We’ve witnessed how well Wall Street self-regulated over the last decade. How can we possibly trust operations with 1 million chickens or 10,000 hogs or 15,000 dairy cattle and waste volumes that approach mid-sized cities (but without sewage treatment plants) to tell us the truth about their manure emissions?
In reality, the EPA’s new “clean water rule” is code for “fecal matter in your drinking water.” And this is not the quaint manure of your grandparents’ generation. Modern CAFO manure is known to harbor all kinds of nasty substances, including arsenic, antibiotic medicines, hormones, heavy metals, and dioxins.
Just this summer, the town of Thief River Falls, Minnesota advised residents to evacuate because hydrogen sulfide emissions from a nearby dairy operation reached 200 times the standard allowed by state law. According to one report, the nauseous fumes were so pervasive, residents were literally puking in their driveways.
One has to wonder, what have we done to deserve this? How can our public officials play so fast and loose with our health? But wait a minute, it’s been this way for at least the past eight years. Wasn’t one of the Bush Administration’s first acts of environmental protection to raise the levels on how much arsenic is acceptable in drinking water?
According to Martha Noble, an attorney with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington D.C., the recent CAFO self-regulation rulings are the final act of “revolving door politics” in an out-going administration. Industry representatives that the Bush Administration put into positions of power are now returning to the private sector. As part of the pre-interview process, they are setting in place as many industry-friendly rules and policies as possible. An EPA staffed with industry hacks ensured that the corporate agenda would be taken care of at the public’s expense.
Noble fears that the recent CAFO rulings will not be easily undone. Under the Congressional Rule Act, Congress has 60 service days to review and amend this final rule. But it’s a cumbersome process. And these are just a few among many last minute exemptions to pave the way for destructive enterprises like oil and gas exploration, coal power production, and uranium mining. (For the full list, visit ProPublica’s webpage tracking all of the midnight rule changes.)
One of George W. Bush parting gifts to all Americans is a compromised food safety system. And, like the CAFO industry it protects, it will leave a long, lingering stench.
To learn about the “revolving door” politics of the EPA and USDA—in more juicy detail—come back to read part II of this posting.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
It's hard not to notice that--among all the reports of Obama's appointments and potential appointments--headline news of the next Secretary of Agriculture has been conspicuously absent. But behind the scenes, the president-elect's transition team has been doing its agricultural homework. Last week Dan participated in a conference call with the transition team and a group of food activists including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.
Dan is also among the original signers of a petition circulating to advocate for a progressive-minded Secretary of Agriculture appointment. If you haven’t yet, please visit the site, read the message, and consider signing the petition. The next Secretary could play a very big role in the future of food and agriculture in our country, not to mention health, climate change, energy, and so many more issues that are all tied together.
When you’re done, read the recent New York Times column in which Nicholas Kristof advocates for a renamed "Secretary of Food" position.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
"At first glance, the phrase “farming with the wild” may seem contradictory. Agriculture has been and remains the relentless process of selection and minimization, one that now blankets billions of the Earth’s acres with a mere handful of crops. Farming and ranching activities are consistently identified as the primary cause of wildlife habitat loss, the archenemy of the biodiversity crisis..." Read more.
You can pick up your own copy of Farming with the Wild and other Watershed Media books in our online store.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Of these three confinement systems, California’s egg industry will be the most severely affected. The Los Angeles Times estimates the size of the state’s flock of egg-laying hens at 20 million. Hog and veal operations are limited throughout the state, the nation’s largest agricultural producer. Throughout the campaign, conventional egg producers threatened to move their operations across state lines or even south of the border if Proposition 2 passed, sounding alarms that California’s egg supply could face food safety threats. With the passage of the law, egg producers who do choose to stay in business will have to shift their operations to free-range systems, a small but swiftly growing segment of the national market.
Proposition 2 was championed by the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, and the California Veterinary Medical Association, among many others. The opposition included egg and hog producers farmers both in and outside the state, as well as the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, who claimed the law would be economically disastrous for California egg producers and raise prices for consumers.
California has long considered a bellwether for political, economic, and cultural trends across the nation and the world. And for this reason the campaign was hard fought, with both sides raising $8.5 million for their effort, according to the Los Angeles Times. Both sides also see this as a sign of a national snowball against animal factory farms—perhaps not just on confinement systems, but on environmental and labor violations, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as grain subsidies that all together, have created a nightmarish and unsustainable meat, dairy, and egg production supply. (Also the subject of an upcoming Watershed Media book, The Animal Factory.)
What we are witnessing here is the emergence of ethics and food production issues not just in a state referendum but in what could soon be a national policy dialog. There is little time to celebrate, however. While Californians passed this step toward humane farming, the Bush Administration eased restrictions on feedlots and Confinement Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Under just issued EPA requirements, large livestock facilities (whose waste flows often exceed those of small cities) can avoid obtaining pollution permits as long as they claim they will not harmfully discharge into nearby waterways.
And while Californians voted in favor of the first African American president, for more humane treatment for animals, and in support of a high-speed passenger rail system, we also voted for a restriction of marriage between a man and a woman.
Obviously, there are still more miles to travel and mountains to climb and not a moment to lose. As my classics professor said to me upon my completion of undergraduate work, “Go forth and be frustrated.” But don’t forget the hope for a better world delivered in the 2008 election.
For a sense of the potential ripple effect of California's Humane Farming Act, check out this article in the Des Moines Register
LA Times article
Text of Proposition 2
Bush Administration's new CAFO law
(photo credit: Humane Society)
Saturday, September 20, 2008
But we haven’t heard much about the need to put healthy food on our tables. We haven’t heard a candidate stand up and say, “It’s the food system, stupid.”
There are presently 800 million people in the world who go hungry each day, and ironically, one billion who qualify as overweight or obese. Food riots have erupted in cities and communities across the globe. Some key food producing regions have been gripped by drought, others have experienced catastrophic floods. Fingers are being pointed at the rapidly expanding agrofuel industry, which is taking valuable arable acreage away from food and grain production to fill gas tanks. Prices of productive farmland are soaring from Argentina to Iowa to the Ukraine. Suddenly, the world seems to be bumping up against limited resources—limits to soils, to fresh water, to food.
Yet in the eyes of our political establishment, the world food crisis seems somehow a distant threat. We have become such a global food commodity powerhouse over the last century, that it would be almost un-American to connect those dots. Except for the nearly 40 million people who suffer “food insecurity” in the United States, (the USDA’s official term for hunger.) Nearly half of those people are children. This says nothing of the two out of three Americans who are either overweight or clinically obese, a trend that could be greatly abated with a focused and sound nutrition policy. There’s just one small problem with that. To tackle issues of nutrition, you have to deal with the food and farming system.
Among the many issues that must surface to the top of the stack on the next president’s desk is that of changing our nation’s food and agriculture policy. If we look carefully at the great number of challenges we face as people, as nations, and as a world today—peak oil, climate change, biodiversity loss, and military conflict come to mind—we have to consider the vast impacts of industrial agriculture and food production. Our soils are being depleted at remarkable rates due to excessive plowing. Fresh water systems are in decline as they are overwhelmed by chemicals and agricultural wastes. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s 20 billion domestic livestock generate nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gases—that’s more than all global transportation impacts combined. The dominant 20th century method of intensive animal food production, the CAFO (confined animal feedlot operation), where animals are jammed into concentration-like factories, fed antibiotics and hormones, and generate unimaginable amounts of toxic waste, was recently deemed “unsustainable” by a three-year Pew Commission study (“Putting Meat on the Table”).
Ending the CAFO would mean the end of the all American meal. That of course might not be a bad thing, because we can’t simply continue eating or farming the way we have been.
As we contemplate a world with less fossil fuels, we can also contemplate a food system that is far more regionally and locally adapted. As we consider a world worth passing on to our kids, we can also imagine starting them out with a sound sense of where food comes from, how it is produced, and the difference between sound nutrition and excessive calories. In fact, we can imagine a healthy agriculture sector, producing an abundance and diversity of good foods as being the very foundation of a secure society, where people are not rioting on the streets, and where once productive farming valleys are not being converted into barren deserts.
But there is a hitch. And this is where the next president and administration comes in. While incredible work is being done at the grassroots at various levels around the country to build a new 21st century locally-oriented food system, it can’t be accomplished without a food and farm policy that allows it to flourish. Somehow, food and its just, humane, and ecologically sound production and distribution must be understood and addressed for what it is: one of the urgent issues of our time.
There are lots of intervention points along the way in which federal policy plays a defining role: 1) the Farm Bill, which sets land use policies and pumps tens of billions of dollars into the food and farming sectors every year; 2) the Child Nutrition Act, which spends nowhere nearly enough money on our school lunch program; 3) the medical establishment, which has yet to stand up and champion a sound nutrition policy as one of our best and most economically effective preventive health care strategies. There are dozens more. All must be explored.
Many seasoned veterans of federal policy caution that food policy is at best a creature that can only be changed incrementally around the edges. If you’re looking for revolution, don’t mess with the halls of Congress. The best way ahead, they argue, is at the local level without government assistance. This would be all well and good if the next administration decided to go out of the food and farming business altogether by abandoning its massive subsidy and tax programs. If Uncle Sam actually got out of the way there might be a fair playing field for the smaller scale producers. (It’s an idea that should be seriously considered—at least in a line item fashion.)
Alternatively, instead of shutting down the USDA, the next administration could take a 21st century view of food and farm policy and see it for what it can and should be: the basis of a “Make America Healthier” platform. This would include health in all its aspects: diversity of regionally adapted crops, fair prices and markets for all producers, practices that protect and conserve important resources, dignity for workers, a conservation ethic that respects all species, optimized local food systems region by region, and so on an on.
Since we won’t hear much about this in debates and on the campaign trail, we’re going to have to demand it ourselves. Because the health and wealth and well-being of our country is at stake. That is the task before us.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Personally, I think outrage is the only sane response to the bill passed in May after nearly two years of deliberations and public input. The tag team of the corporate agribusiness lobby in cahoots with the hunger and food stamp lobby fought long and hard to ensure that the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 remains a lot like the Food, Security, and Rural Energy Act of 2002. Sure there are some much needed programs included in the bill. But the payouts to millionaire agribusiness actually increased this time.
The skinny (or the fat, as it were).
The show of hands.
Why the status quo?
Largest taxpayer insult.
New Player at the Table.
The best played hand.
Most absent constituency.
Most obvious glaring need.
Biggest stumbling block.
Where to go from here.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Welcome to the 21st Century.
These crises no longer seem like isolated incidents, but more like strands of interwoven trends that are settling in for the longer term. In his recent conclusion for the Pew Commission report on industrial farm animal production, “Putting Meat on the Table,”* farmer and philosopher Fred Kirschenmann suggests three troubling issues facing the U.S industrial food and agriculture system in the years ahead: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate. “These changes,” writes Kirschenmann, “will be especially challenging because America’s successful industrial economy of the past century was based on the availability of cheap energy, a relatively stable climate, and abundant fresh water, and current methods have assumed the continued availability of these resources.” The only way ahead, cautions Kirschenmann, is the creation of a postindustrial food and farming system in which operations become localized and harmonized with the natural systems that support them.
The events of 2008 suggest that we inhabit a changed world. A great deal of the challenges we face in the 21st century no doubt arise directly as a result of the way we have conducted our lives and managed our societies over the course of the last 100 years. There really is no place to hide. No matter where we are, we can pick up a local or national newspaper and read about these issues of energy, water, and climate not as abstract concepts or far-off lumbering threats, but as harsh realities being brought right down to a human level. Here are just a few salient issues.
Feed versus Biofuels
More than 25 percent of the nation’s corn crop is now being used for ethanol production, despite the fact that it provides just a fraction of our overall liquid fuel consumption. This includes 10 million additional acres of corn than had been planted just a few years ago. Planting more corn means we have less acreage devoted to soybeans and wheat, and less acreage preserved through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollments. Using corn for ethanol directly affects the cost of animal products, because the feedstock used for ethanol is starchy yellow processing corn, not the edible white varieties. And as wheat or rice acreage is lost in favor of expanded corn production, the price of food staples rises.
Food as Speculation
With the recent crisis in financial markets, capital has swiftly shifted toward tangible commodities, including food, also contributing to rising food prices. Governments are stockpiling foodstuffs. The value of arable farmland is soaring. Futures traders are hedging their bets on ever scarcer supplies of basic grains and oilseeds. Meanwhile, citizens around the globe feel the sting of rising food prices. Money is amassed by the powerful; others are starving. The ethics of feeding the world, not just with daily calories but with sound nutrition as well, along with generating surpluses to compensate for crop shortages, will increasingly come into conflict with the larger forces that dominate food production and distribution across the globe.
Escalating fuel costs
Imagine our contemporary food system without its massive machinery and billions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, its energy and water inputs, all directly dependent upon fossil fuels. Consider that $200 per barrel oil prices are predicted to arrive perhaps as early as the end of this year. Now take your favorite food item and double its current price. Wipe the slate clean and begin to envision alternative ways to produce foods in your respective regions, communities, and backyards, in new ways that somehow deviate from our behavior patterns of the past, when we have literally been eating oil.
Climate challenges and droughts
The failure of the 2008 Australian harvest due to extreme drought sent a shock wave across world rice markets. Ripple effects have been felt everywhere. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Just this week, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a sobering assessment on the impacts of climate change on the country’s bioregions. Hold on to your hats, this is a government agency document forecasting that: 1) unpredictable precipitation and weather patterns will disrupt crop performance an ongoing basis; 2) broad and potentially radical changes will transform some of the country’s most valued landscapes.
Food versus Wild Nature
As food becomes more precious, and food crop agriculture competes with an emerging agrofuels industry for scarce soil and water resources, the threats to wildlife and threatened habitats will escalate. Already we are seeing this unfold in the Salinas Valley, as the leafy green industry attempts to regain consumer confidence after industrial spinach became contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. Never mind that wildlife probably had nothing to do with the E. coli contamination of spinach. The science now suggests that the most likely source of the pathogenic batcteria was from feedlot manure transported by windborne dust. Yet in response to marketing orders from the leafy greens industry—not on the ground biology—miles of Salinas Valley riparian habitat have been bulldozed, fences erected, and wildlife baited and poisoned in the name of making the food system safe and secure. Conventional agriculture continues to miss the point. Our fate will ultimately be determined by how well we learn to coexist with other species, not by our efforts to obliterate them.
* Click here to read "Putting Meat on the Table"
Friday, April 25, 2008
After all, we only get to vote once a year or even every few years for the handful of people who ultimately call the shots in politics, and by extension, the corporatocracy. Only so many of us are cut out to be congressmen, agribusiness CEOs, or fast food barons. But if we really thought long and hard about the state of our country and the challenges ahead of us—about our squandered resources and mismanaged opportunities for leadership—most of us would be out on the street engaging in nonviolent protest twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Which brings us back to food. It’s something tangible we can do something about. It’s something delicious that we can get passionate about. Eating is an act that grounds us to the present, to the future, to the land, to each other.
And it’s true, over the past fifty years the global food system has assumed Weapons of Mass Destruction-like propensities all its own. Fields are pumped with explosives-grade fertilizers. Wild areas have been devastated by the voracious planting of corn and soybean and wheat and rice and cotton and sugar cane monocultures. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots unable to contain their toxic manure have driven people out of rural areas because they can’t breathe, can’t drink the water, can’t tolerate the countryside, can’t eat the fish, and can’t coexist with the flies. There are over 150 Dead Zones in waterways around the world. These are bays and gulfs and aquatic environs where agricultural nutrient contamination causes algae blooms that suck the life sustaining capacity out of the water. Fisheries collapse. Nothing survives. It’s eerily like nuclear fallout.
The maraschino cherry on top of all this is the obesity crisis. That economic disaster is just waiting to bankrupt state treasuries across the nation in the form of lost work days, drug prescriptions, doctors appointments, heart by-pass surgery and diabetes treatments, joint replacements, and hundreds of billions of dollars in other insured and uninsured annual medical bills.
But maybe there is a way out. “Eating,” wrote the Kentucky philosopher Wendell Berry, “is an agricultural act.” By that he meant that our food comes from the land, and that land is ultimately affected by the everyday choices and purchases of eaters. Berry might also have said that eating is an existential act. By this, I mean existential not in the I eat therefore I am sense, but in a more philosophical, why are we here? what makes us human? big picture kind of sense. Surely we eat to live. But how we accomplish this most basic and gracious and potentially spiritual act also says a lot about us as people—defines us actually—as a culture, as a species. Perhaps we don’t have to eat our way down to the last wild Chinook salmon, or reduce the Earth’s magnificent biological diversity to just a handful of species that satisfy our encroaching global culinary autism.
Something has to change. We simply can’t keep eating this way. We need to act, to start eating like activists: at the dinner table, at farmers’ markets, at our pre-schools and soccer games. How can our food choices influence the world we would like to live in, a world we would feel okay about passing on to our children and grandchildren? Here are a few rough compass points.
Wage your own personal battle against single-use disposable food and beverage containers. By this I mean plastic and paper packaging that will be used once, but is then destined to spend eternity afloat at sea, squashed in a landfill, or wasting away loathingly on the landscape. You can do this by shopping with your own reusable bags, staying in restaurants and cafes rather than taking out, buying food in bulk rather than single servings, making alternatives to bottled water and other disposable beverage containers.
Develop familiarity with the people who grow your food. Organic produce eaten out of season and shipped around the globe doesn’t count as activist eating. Buying food locally or regionally from farmers you know and whose farm practices you are familiar with is a good basis for a food ethic. Eco labels such as organically certified, shade grown, and biodynamic can help you identify good practices on items produced faraway—coffee, wine, grains might come to mind. But ultimately, familiarity with producers is the highest form of certification.
Help to dismantle the Industrial Animal Factory Complex. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots that house tens of thousands of cows, chickens, and hogs in a single complex have become barbaric, unhealthy, and unecological modes of food production. Learn what you can about what goes on inside these massive operations, then do what you can to alter your diet accordingly. Maybe you’ll start with the industrial breakfast by reconsidering eggs produced by hens in crammed battery cages or bacon from hogs reared on cement-floored confinement sheds. These industrial production methods essentially thwart the animal’s every natural instinct. A healthy breakfast can lead to a whole day of sound choices around animal products.
Vote with your fork. Get political. Learn about the importance of the Farm Bill that is reauthorized by Congress every five to seven years. Meet your representatives and ask them if they have a “Post Cheap Oil Plan” to maximize a renewable farming system based on organic methods, and regional food production and distribution where you live.
Connect your eating and cooking habits with climate change. A recent University of Chicago study showed that eating a more vegetarian diet may be more influential in reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, even more than the car you drive. One main reason? The tens of billions of livestock living in confined animal factories produce nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This issue is not, however, entirely black and white. Livestock raised locally on a grass-fed diet may compare favorably, and organic produce shipped half way around the world, could arrive with a large CO2 price tag.
Wash your own heads of lettuce and other leafy greens. In the United States, more than half of all pre-washed, pre-cut leafy greens are grown in the nation’s Salad Bowl, the Salinas Valley. Unsafe production conditions there have resulted in isolated incidences of Salmonella, E.coli 0157 , and other pathogens entering the food system primarily through convenience-oriented pre-washed and bagged leafy greens. Industry has responded by waging a war on habitat and wild animals in that area, even though the most probable origin of the lethal E. coli 0157 was cows being fed a corn-intensive diet in the area.
Don’t be afraid to be radical. Newsweek recently highlighted a new group who call themselves the Freegans because they eat only free (surplus) vegan food. That’s pretty hardcore. But, hey, we can all start somewhere. Try growing some of your own food. Tear out some of your lawn and build a garden that becomes your hobby and your workout gym. Become a food artisan. Make your own bread and wine and vinegar and canned tomato sauce. Raise some laying hens in the backyard. There are a lot less worthy things to do with your time.
Make a place in your life for native bees. Three out of every four bites of the food we eat require some sort of pollinator to arrive at our tables. Most of this work is presently done by domesticated honeybees, but those bee colonies are on the verge of a precipitous collapse in agricultural areas all over the world. Native bees that have co-evolved with native plants (and their own sources of pollen and nectar) are our best insurance policy against a potential catastrophe and are best preserved with areas of healthy wild habitat.
When it comes to food, perhaps a word like revolution doesn’t have to seem ominous or pretentious or threatening. There is certainly plenty to be angry about—especially if you live anywhere near a 20,000 cow dairy or mega-feedlot, or follow U.S. Farm Bill politics. But there is also plenty to get excited about. The local food revolution starts at home. It can start right away and offer whole new ways of seeing the world and our rightful place at the table.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Historically, cheap irrigation water has been part of the equation, but there is another common denominator. It's a massive federal legislation package passed every five years known as the farm bill, which House and Senate members are scrambling to reauthorize by an April 25 deadline. Over the last decade, the farm bill has allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shower tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on the nation's cotton and rice farmers (along with corn, soybean, wheat, sugar and milk producers). These subsidies flow whether growers need them or not. They flow even as they damage the environment and our nutritional well-being. They flow, all the while enabling the biggest farms to consolidate into mega-farms.
It wasn't always this way. The farm bill emerged during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a temporary financial safety net for family farmers. It included programs to promote soil conservation and distribute food surpluses to the needy. In the seven decades since that genie was let out of the bottle, however, the farm bill has become a high-stakes game of political horse-trading that has changed how we farm and what we eat. Today, more than a third of the budget goes to an elite group of commodity farms that grow grains and oilseed crops, mainly for feeding livestock and making processed foods (and now, fuels).
When current farm bill negotiations started in 2006, a proverbial food fight erupted. An array of nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam, Bread for the World and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, pushed for a bill that would emphasize farming livelihoods, more effective environmental protection and better nutrition. Prices on nearly all commodities, except cotton, have been soaring. Average 2008 farm household income is anticipated to reach $90,000 -- nearly 20% above the national average. Meantime, commodity farmers were set to receive $13 billion in direct and indirect payments, disaster bailouts, crop insurance and (some worthy) conservation incentives in 2008 alone. Surely, reformers argued, this was the right time to stop throwing money at giant farming operations already making hay in current markets.
They lobbied for a $250,000-per-farm subsidy cap, but that got struck down by a status-quo Senate. They pushed for more locally grown produce in public school cafeterias, a noble effort but minimally successful. The efforts to cut cotton farming subsidies -- which distort global trade -- fell short. They fought for full funding for the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers for good land stewardship -- reducing use of chemicals, diversifying crops, saving water, etc. Here, reformers won a large increase, but the fund remains vulnerable; year-to-year, it often gets robbed to fund commodity programs.
A few worthy new programs also were added: much needed boosts to nutrition spending and conservation incentives; funds for organic farming research and to help pay organic certification fees; an expansion of local farmers markets; assistance for beginning farmers; and support for "specialty crop" producers, who for decades have been locked out of the subsidy game. (Specialty crops is farm bill-speak for crops that are actually edible, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables, which many California farmers supply to the nation.)
But, by and large, the farm bill song remains the same: commodity agribusiness gets the lion's share; reformers get table scraps. Absent a more vocal public outcry, the agribusiness lobby, which spent $80 million in 2007, again holds the winning hand.
What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law? Federally subsidized feed -- corn, soybeans and cottonseed -- for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.) The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products. And more federally backed exports of California's water -- in the form of cotton and rice, much of it sold overseas.
But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains. The brainchild of Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, this is essentially a trust fund to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands -- lands prone to drought and erosion -- to plant corn and wheat. Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.
No final bill has been passed, and President Bush, who signed the extravagant 2002 farm bill, has threatened a veto if considerable reforms aren't made to commodity programs. There is still time to let everyone in Congress know that they should vote on the farm bill as if the nation's very health, future and security is at stake. Because it is. And we deserve better.
Note: This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2008.
Friday, April 04, 2008
Another fairly obvious point. There is a crystal clear answer to the paper or plastic conundrum: neither. Bring your own reusable bags with you wherever you go. If you want to choose between paper—the clearcutting of forests, grinding of logs into chips, pulping with harsh chemicals and boundless amounts of electricity—or plastic—the production of ultra-thin films made from petroleum or natural gas, then you'll always be choosing between the lesser of two evils. But it doesn't have to be that way. The humble reusable bag, preferably made of fabric scraps or organic cloth or something durable, will easily take the burden off your hands.
Early in 2008, China announced that it was outlawing the distribution and production of disposable plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are known as "white pollution" in China. That's because they're used by the billions and blow around the landscape like albino tumbleweeds. Just two decades ago plastic bags barely existed in that country. A billion people did all their shopping on a daily basis and carried things around in cloth sacks and bicycle baskets. China now joins South Africa, Ireland, Bangladesh, Taiwan, the city of San Francisco, and a growing number of countries, municipalities, and corporations attempting to do something about the single-use disposable bag dilemma.
This sentiment is not universal. There are people, corporate conspirators actually, who don't want you to use your reusable canvas sacks, handy totes, folded up paper bags, and carefully washed produce bags. They call themselves by a number of names: the Progressive Bag Alliance and the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. In essence, they are an industry trade group made up of plastic bag manufacturers, chemical producers, large retailers, and grocery chains who want us to continue buying plastic bags by the billions. For the sake of this essay, let's just call them The Friends of Plastic Bags. Their main argument is that plastic bags are "recyclable" and therefore "good for the environment."
That one single word—recyclable—is insidiously deceiving. It's true, theoretically, plastic bags are capable of being recycled. They can be melted into plastic decking (because we no longer have decent logs to harvest). They can be remanufactured into other bags too. But a plastic tote doesn't beget a new bag the way, say, an aluminum can or glass bottle so easily does. It is said that once recycled, an aluminum can returns to the shelf as a brand new can within two months. Or that an aluminum can tossed away in Brazil never touches the ground, so adept and prolific are that nation's trash recyclers, (and so coveted is that material). In contrast, worldwide just one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Most municipalities aren't set up to collect or sort them. And currently, there is no real manufacturing infrastructure for their reuse. For people dealing with municipal trash and the protection of wildlife, plastic bags are a number one pain in the ass.
Plastic bags are produced each year by the trillions. They are the world's top consumer item. Ninety-eight percent or more of the 100 billion polyethylene bags Americans use each year are simply tossed away after a single outing. (California alone is responsible for 19 billion.) They float into trees, clog storm drains, harm wildlife in waterways, and entwine themselves in the rollers at recycling facilities. The truth is we don't need them nearly as much as we may think we do or the Friends of Plastic Bags would like us to believe we do.
The Friends of Plastic Bags have deep pockets, a cadre of lawyers, and more than their fair share of lobbyists. This makes for a formidable and mean-spirited opponent. They not only want to ensure that plastic bags are here to stay permanently (because by design, they are). They want to take aim at the very democratic process itself. In order to maintain their market share, they have adopted an aggressive strategy known as "pre-emption." In California, lobbyists successfully introduced State Law AB 2449 which prohibits local governments from assessing a fee on plastic shopping bags. This means that even if a city government or town council wanted to assess a fee on shopping bags to reduce litter, encourage resourcefulness, or just get hip to the environmental realities of the 21st century, it is no longer an option. Plastic bags now enjoy a protected status within the Golden State. Sort of like the bald eagle or peregrine falcon.
This is why in April 2007 the city of San Francisco—burdened by white pollution problems of its own—had to choose the next best avenue. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors determined that all supermarket and chain drugstore checkout bags be durable, reusable, recyclable paper, or compostable plastic by November 2007. A year earlier, San Francisco's Department of the Environment had actually recommended that a 17-cent fee be levied on plastic bags to deal with the costs of recycling and cleanup. Studies show that economic incentives (or penalties) are among the most effective ways to shift consumer behavior. But the pre-emption on fees on plastic bags made that action impossible.
After decades of hard work, the city has developed one of the country's most advanced waste collection and recovery programs, including kitchen scraps and yard waste. The compostable bio-bags now required will also fit into the kitchen compost buckets most residents keep beside their sinks. This may help assuage "the ick factor" that many residents complain about household composting.
Cities up and down the West Coast had been waiting for San Francisco to make the first move on plastic bags. Many insiders expected cities to fall like dominoes, rolling out plastic bag bans from one side of the country to the other. As soon as the city issued their ordinance, the City of Oakland followed suit by adopting an almost identical ordinance. So did the town of Fairfax at the base of Mount Tamalpais. In Sonoma County, the town of Healdsburg took up the issue as well.
The Friends of Plastic Bags promptly filed a law suit against the city of Oakland for failing to properly complete a California Environmental Quality Act assessment before passing their ordinance. Fairfax received a similar legal complaint. Even before anything had been decided upon, Healdsburg city council members received letters threatening legal challenges.
Fairfax quickly repealed its ordinance. Apparently it only has a few large retailers and they were already complying with the change voluntarily. San Francisco and Oakland are moving ahead regardless. Healdsburg joined other Sonoma County municipalities and initiated a 6-month trial plastic bag curbside pick-up program and has launched a Promote the Tote campaign to vastly increase the local pool of available reusable bags in the community. Meanwhile, don't be surprised to find out that The Friends of Plastic Bags have successfully passed laws pre-empting local governments from taking such decisive action in a state near you.
The clock is ticking. Waste continues to mount, species are disappearing in record numbers, Antarctic ice sheets are breaking off in chunks the size of small countries, and corporations are waging legal battles to prevent citizens and officials from doing anything about it. China—in the mean time—has taken leadership on this issue.
It's time to decide which side you are on: The Friends of Plastic Bags or The Friends of Neither. And then roll up your sleeves and do something about it. Because if we can't find an elegant and universal solution to an issue like single-use disposable shopping bags, we don't stand a chance against more serious problems lurking right around the corner.
Thursday, April 03, 2008
These are troubling times in the nation's Salad Bowl. Nearly half of all the lettuce and three-quarters of all the spinach purchased in the United Sates originates in the Salinas Valley. Outbreaks of food poisoning and fatalities traced to a lethal strain of E. coli 0157 transported though bagged spinaches and lettuces grown in the Salinas Valley have shined a light on the human health risks associated with industrial-scale produce farming. In a desperate attempt to recover consumer confidence, shippers and buyers of leafy greens have issued new production standards (a.k.a. "metrics" and "super-metrics") pressuring growers to "clean up" their acts.
Clean farming means sterilizing their operations from seed planting to ice-packed, pre-washed salad mix. As well-intentioned as these efforts may have been, many observers argue that they have not been based on the best available science nor on sound food safety measures. In fact, these metrics could set off a domino effect of environmental degradation and human health risks in the Salad Bowl and farming regions around the country.
Who's At Fault
We may never discover the real source of the E. coli 0157 that contaminated the 2006 Dole spinach or the 2007 Taco Bell lettuce shipments. But there is no shortage of suspects. Standing at the top of the list—knee-deep in their own muck—are grain-fattened, antibiotic and hormone injected dairy and beef cattle, in whose over-acidified stomachs this particular strain of bacteria is thought to have originated as far back as 1982. Cattle grazing on pasture, particularly calves and adults stressed in warmer weather, can also harbor E. coli 0157. But this specialized bacteria tends to prefer the more acidic rumen of factory confined cows fed an unnatural diet of industrial corn.
Secondly there is the Salinas Valley groundwater, used for both crop irrigation and post-harvest processing. Runoff form manure in neighboring dairies or feedlots could have found its way into the water table, then into creeks, wells, and eventually into irrigation systems and processing pipelines. Leafy greens washed by mega-processors such as Natural Selection Foods, Fresh Pack, and others are commingled in these huge facilities—making it, literally, a giant salad bowl—heightening the odds of contamination. Studies from the University of California at Davis have shown, however, that even a small vegetated grass buffer can effectively filter toxins and keep them from the groundwater, including E. coli.
Finally, there is nature itself. Wildlife, including deer, feral pigs, and frogs have been suspected vectors, accused of tracking tainted cow manure across the agricultural landscape. Along with small rodents, these animals have also been charged as sources of the pathogen E. coli as well.
A War on Nature
Despite the unknowns, a few things are certain. In search of an immediate scapegoat, the leafy green industry quickly settled on nature as its primary culprit. Rather than attempting to restrict the most probable source of the E.coli 0157—manure from large confinement animal feedlot operations—the industry is directly targeting wildlife and the natural habitat that remains in the leafy green producing areas of the Salinas Valley. Strong-armed by distributors, farmers are removing vegetation buffers that once effectively filtered water and other contaminants flowing off fields. Chain link fences are being erected around tens of thousands of acres of owned and rented fields. Field margins are being scraped bare and denuded with herbicides. Small mammals and reptiles are being trapped and baited with poisons.
Driving this farm sterilization campaign are the metrics, or "best practices," that growers must adhere to if they want to stay in the ever-competitive leafy green game. The first was California's Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), an alliance of large growers, shippers, and processors, that developed a set of grower guidelines—Good Agricultural Practices, or (GAP) metrics—to promote a safer form of leafy green production. These GAP metrics have since been superceded by a variety of other super-metrics, each more draconian than the last. Among other things, new best practices require: 450-foot bare earth buffers between crops and rivers or wildlife habitat and more than several hundred feet between crops and grazing lands. Even McDonalds and Wal-Mart are telling growers how to manage their lands by signing on to the Food Safety Leadership Council (FSLC) standards. These require the "reduction of the presence of reptiles, insects, birds, rodents," "a minimum of a quarter mile barrier between grazing lands adjacent growing fields," and that "surface water used for irrigation shall be free from weeds, trash, and foreign materials."
Bare Earth Bottom Line
Just six months after the 2006 spinach outbreak, a scorched earth policy was effectively underway in the Salad Bowl. A Monterey County Resource Conservation District survey indicated that growers managing 140,000 acres had adopted environmentally destructive measures in order to comply with food safety audit requirements and hold on to their eroding market share. Eighty-nine percent of growers responding reported actively eliminating conservation efforts to improve water quality or enhance wildlife habitat. Bare ground buffers, trapping, and poison bait stations emerged as common practice on over 90,000 acres. Nearly half the acreage was fenced.
Many farmers were conflicted by the challenges that these new food safety metrics posed to their own personal goals and approaches to farming and land stewardship. "Our experience," wrote one grower, "has been that the food safety auditors have been very strict about any vegetation that might provide habitat. We are very concerned about upsetting the natural balance, but we have to comply with out shipper's requests."
Hedgerows, streamside woodlands, and other natural habitats—many of them installed through taxpayer funded Farm Bill conservation programs—are crucial for healthy wildlife movement in a landscape already fragmented by agriculture. In the name of these food safety guidelines, the largely single-crop intensive landscape is being transformed into an industrial park. Growers are now reversing conservation gains which, in a bitter irony, could actually help protect the public from future pathogen E. coli 0157 outbreaks.
The Answer Might Be Blowing in the Wind
Research suggests another culprit on the loose, one overlooked by the initial scrutiny of industry and regulators. It is, in fact, a culprit that the LGMA's Gap Metrics and the other super-metrics might actually unleash on the landscape with a vengeance: dust. In January 2008, Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, reported that a more probable source of pathogen E. coil 0157 in the Dole spinach outbreak was airborne dust, blowing from a cattle pasture to the north of the spinach field. Scientists only settled on dust as a possible transporter of the pathogen after a process of elimination. No E. coli 0157 was found in irrigation or processing water, Benbrook reported. He also noted that evidence discounts the feral pig hypothesis. Because of the location of the field, runoff from cattle pastures was also an extremely unlikely source.
"Ironically, the GAP Metrics' bare earth policies to discourage animals from venturing into leafy green fields might actually increase the risk of future outbreaks because bare ground around fields will increase dust," Benbrook said in an interview.
Beyond Bagged Spinach
Responses to the leafy green crisis can and must take place on a variety of levels. Most alarming are policies being considered at the national level (even through a proposed 2008 Farm Bill amendment) that—if implemented—could model scorched earth farming in other regions of the country, from the Salad Bowl to the citrus and tomato farms of Florida, to the orchards and vineyards of the Pacific Northwest, to a farming community near you. The fate of countless species is at stake, species that know no ownership boundaries, and depend on habitat in and around farming areas. Representatives must be held accountable, with polices and decisions based upon sound science rather than marketing objectives.
Through the power of the marketplace, the consuming public can also take action, by choosing not to buy pre-washed, pre-cut salad greens, even when this might be a hard habit to break. This will mean seeing these processed products for what they really are: industrially produced, convenience items, packed in their own pietre dishes, a sometimes expedient environment in which opportunistic pathogen E. coli can thrive. Alternatives exist and do not require that much extra effort or imagination. Whole heads of lettuces (washed in your own sink), bunches of fresh cut spinach or salad mixes from local farms eaten within a few days or a week of purchase. Processors of leafy greens could be required to shorten expiration periods in order to decrease the chances of contamination, according to Chuck Benbrook.
One can easily imagine a proliferation of fresh cut lettuces being grown in backyard garden beds throughout the country, protected from winter winds and chill by simple, inexpensive cover systems. Upwards of ten million Americans visit farmers markets once a week. What could be a more secure source of greens not grown at the expense of wild nature than those of a farmer that you know and trust?
Still, the big unresolved issue of animal factory farms that can't safely contain and process their toxic manure hangs over the country like a dark ominous cloud. Food poisoning through meat contamination continues to affect hundreds of thousands of people each year. Pollution from manure runoff during heavy rainfall is a great health risk. Even the current corn ethanol gold rush may be exacerbating the problem. With the proliferation of ethanol distilleries in agricultural areas across the nation, feedlot cattle are increasingly fed cheap "distiller grains," the spent byproducts of fuel fermentation. Recent studies suggest that these pre-processed grains may actually increase the production of pathogen E.coli if they become a larger ration of the feedlot diet. In the absence of a more trustworthy government and industry response, each and every concerned citizen should consider some personal platform on industrial meat and dairy production.
We have always faced uncertainties with our food supply. But scorching the earth to save industrial leafy green production points to a widening separation of agriculture and wild nature. It yields to the logic of industry and manufacturing without minding the wisdom of ecology, centuries old natural systems, or even the most basic bacteriology. Wild habitats in agricultural areas not only keep down dust and filter runoff, they harbor insects and other species that perform the essential functions of pollination and pest control, provide nesting opportunities for birds, create windbreaks, and add beauty to farmscapes. Secure food systems in an era of escalating petroleum prices will demand more regionally diversified farms and less dependence on faraway industrial monocultures—lots less. Convenience-oriented products like pre-washed, pre-cut, leafy greens produced on industrial farms adjacent industrial feedlots should be seen for what they ultimately are—a game of edible Russian roulette.
We have reached an age of increasing consequences. Simple choices, such as where and how our salad greens are produced, all matter. The good news is that we can all do something about it.
Note: For a thorough investigation into and background on this issue, including detailed photos, please visit The Wild Farm Alliance website: