Saturday, September 29, 2007
As a calculator, it's pretty standard (and, indeed, I got what's more or less my standard result: If everyone lived like you, we would need 2.5 Earths...). It's far more high-tech and visual than most, though (you even make an entirely irrelevant avatar!). It also collects some demographic data, and allows you to compare your scores, not only with U.S. and world averages, but with various subgroups of your choice (I use a little more electricity than most low-income people, but drive far less than most Democrats).
As usual, I'm surprised by how minimally things like transportation and garbage figure in to my lower-than-average-but-still-too-high score. Those are the elements we're accustomed to thinking about, to feeling guilty about and adjusting. But if I took the bus everywhere and recycled every bit of my garbage (man, I miss composting), it wouldn't change the fact that housing and food are my main problems. This despite the fact that I live in a small apartment in a 30-unit building, and eat a diet that is majority local and/or organic with only a little bit (I estimated 2%) of meat.
Electricity (I'm running, mainly, the usual fridge and electric range, a laptop, a handful of light bulbs-- some of which are fluorescent). Food. When these are one's most serious sources of wastefulness, despite real moderation, it serves as a reminder that large structural changes (in power generation, in food production and distribution) can be far more effective in reducing one's "footprint" than adjusting one's personal habits. Of course, the latter is essential too.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Finally! I admit the August recess (and yes, I'm aware it's September 25) caused me to take my eye off this ball. It's time for a whirlwind reorientation:
First of all, timing. A lot of other things have been on the Senate’s plate this month, including the post-surge
Another thing that’s unclear is whether a major personnel shift will cause delays or change dynamics. Mike Johanns stepped down last week as Secretary of Agriculture in order to run for Sen. Chuck Hagel’s seat in
‘‘For the secretary to walk away in the middle of a farm bill borders on irresponsible,’’ said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. His remarks were echoed by Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of
However, Tom Harkin complimented Johanns’ past work, and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the House Agriculture Committee chairman so influential in the House version of the farm bill passed in July, expressed doubt that the replacement would matter much.
‘‘Chuck Conner has been running the show behind the scenes on the USDA’s farm bill agenda, so not much will change now that he’s been named acting secretary,’’ Peterson said.
I kind of hate the idea of the acting secretary of agriculture being a past president of the Corn Refiners Association (member companies: Archer Daniels Midland! Cargill! National Starch and Chemical Company! and more!), but there’s no reason I should be surprised. Read their most recent annual corn publication, Corn - Part of a Sustainable Environment. …Seriously, browse the site. It’ll make you as queasy as a Big Gulp full of high-fructose corn syrup.
This is what’s “running the show behind the scenes.”
Another key behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding over funding. Of course, the limited funding available for food and farm programs constrains what is possible: we can’t have farm subsidies at current levels, and strengthen food stamp benefits, and fund every desirable conservation program, and invest in community food programs, and create new departments at the USDA, and provide insurance and disaster relief for farmers, and so on. Well, we can’t unless we, for instance, get out of
So Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT—that would be my guy), who’s on the Agriculture Committee but is also chair of the Finance Committee, has pledged to find an additional $10 billion or so in funding for farm bill programs. The hitch is, this situation gives Baucus a tremendous amount of power to determine how that extra money is spent. While Harkin is looking to locate funding for existing conservation programs snubbed by the House bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is pushing for the discretionary funds allocated to Community Food Projects to be made mandatory, and anti-poverty advocates still hunger for a stronger Nutrition Title… Baucus has different priorities. Along with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA, and incidentally ranking Republican member of the Finance Committee), Baucus would like to spend at least half that extra money for a permanent USDA-run disaster relief program to protect farmers against losses from drought, floods, and storms.
An excellent article on Harkin’s, Conrad’s, and Baucus’ role in these proceedings, by Steve Kopperud of Brownfield, is here.
Enter emerging co-star Sen. Max Baucus (D, MT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who plays the role of the money man in this drama. As when House Ways & Means Committee Chair Charlie Rangel (D, NY) had to conjure up over $4 billion to pay for Speaker Pelosi's desire to expand the food stamp program, all Senators with Farm Bill plans and programs are seeking an audience with Baucus, many on bended knee, in hopes of an offset to pay for their programs.
Baucus is playing it shrewdly, however, and unlike Rangel, he's already said he won't go for tax increases, which means the House scheme to tax the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies is pretty much dead. However, he's putting conditions on his largesse. He's known to be putting together an offset package for Farm Bill spending that reports say will "add billions to farm spending." But he'll likely dictate where that money will go and he's a big supporter of the really big permanent disaster program. This does not bode well for Harkin's effort to get an extra $6 billion for conservation, nutrition and specialty crop programs.
Also see this Sept. 6 article from Congressional Quarterly.
Now, besides the obvious problem of trade-offs, a disaster relief program is a good thing in and of itself, right? Who could oppose funds to aid those betrayed by the vagaries of weather? Apparently, however, the question is more complicated than that. The Des Moines Register notes that “Harkin has resisted establishing a disaster program. Critics of disaster aid argue that it encourages farmers to grow crops such as corn in marginal areas.” In fact, the GAO has just issued a report (.pdf summary here) concluding “that crop insurance, in particular, is motivating conversion by greatly limiting the risk of producing crops in areas that are marginal as cropland.” So, for example, a conservation program that compensated farmers for leaving marginal land as wildlife habitat would, in a sense, contradict on principle a program compensating farmers who elected to farm that marginal land and suffered financial loss as a consequence. It is difficult to consider these simply two complementary approaches.
But, from the same Des Moines Register article:
Grassley said earlier Tuesday that he would side with Baucus and favor funding the disaster program[…] Harkin is ‘going to have to make the choice: either less money, or do it the way we want it done,’ Grassley said.
Lovely; here’s hoping
Whatever happens, funding-wise, we can suspect that the Senate will not be following the House’s lead in trying to pay for stuff by closing corporate tax loopholes or any of that funny business. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), ranking Republican member of the Agriculture Committee, drafted a letter with five other senators warning against such erratic behavior. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s press release quotes the letter:
‘Since the Senate Finance Committee is the likely source of additional revenue, we wish to express our concern that any provisions to offset spending be carefully vetted and discussed with all members of the Agriculture Committee prior to markup…We wish to avoid a situation such as that occurred in the House which brought forth an unfortunate series of events, straining the farm bill’s long tradition of bipartisan and multi-regional support.'
A few other specific farm bill issues you might be following:
An editorial from AgriNews champions Tom Harkin’s Livestock Title (often referred to as the “Competition Title,” because it is a series of reforms designed to break the economic stranglehold of a handful of corporate meat companies over family farmers and ranchers). These reforms include defending farmers against mandatory arbitration contract provisions; passing the Captive Supply Reform Act S. 1017, which would “restore fair market competition for livestock contracts by requiring marketing contracts to have a fixed base price negotiated in an open public market”; and banning meatpacker ownership of livestock, as trends toward corporate-owned, vertically-integrated enterprises are pushing small producers right out of the industry.
I’m not usually someone with much to say on energy, but it sounds as though there may be some unexpected energy-related developments in the Senate farm bill, again due to Max Baucus’ influence. The Community Food Security Coalition cites CongressDaily of Sept. 18 (the latter is subscription-only) as reporting:
Sen. Baucus is reportedly planning on shifting some renewable energy and fuels production tax incentives from the Energy Bill to the Farm Bill. Sen. Baucus said that the agriculture tax package would include provisions to help farmers and ranchers by including tax incentives for the production of wind and other means of alternative energy. Also, Sen. Baucus announced that there would be tax incentives to encourage farmers to grow crops that are used to make ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels. Both the oil and renewable energy industries said that they are in the dark about whether the tax incentives affecting them would be in the Energy or Farm Bill and what exactly the incentives will look like.
Stay tuned, I guess.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Do you happen to know where your meat comes from?
Today I had occasion to buy some stew beef-- I wanted to make a borscht with some big beets from the CSA farm-- and it was (sorry, purists) more convenient to stop at my neighborhood market than to hit the coop for the good stuff. It's a pretty small, locally-owned place with its own butcher, so I thought there was a reasonable chance of finding Montana beef for sale there; I looked at the labels on the packages and the signage at the meat counter, but saw no indication of the beef's provenance. No matter; I was going to buy it anyway, and I did.
As the young checker wrapped up my beef in an extra plastic bag to prevent leakage, insisting on giving me excellent service whether I wanted it or not, I asked her, as diffidently as I could: "Do you happen to know where your meat comes from?"
"No!," she said, with an air of thoughtful surprise. "No, actually, I've never even thought about that before." Despite clearly finding the question odd, she also seemed intrigued. "Do you want me to ask for you?"
"That's all right, I was just curious," I said. "You can ask later, if you want, just to find out for yourself..."
She turned to another woman who was stocking shelves, a middle-aged person who's worked there for years. "Do you know where our meat comes from?"
It was this woman-- I will add, a woman I like and respect fine-- who gave the answer, "It comes from the truck."
"Sorry?" I said. "It comes from the truck?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard right.
"Yeah, it comes on the truck... then the guys cut it. I have no idea where it comes from."
"That's okay, I was just curious," I said again. "Thanks." And I went out. I didn't want to cause more consternation.
So, if you don't mind feeling a bit like a space alien, I think it is not bad to raise this question. It plants a seed, even if you don't get an answer; the girl who said she'd never even thought about it before has now thought about it. Both these women may, at slow moments of the shift, idly ask a fellow employee: "hey, this lady came in and she asked me where our meat came from... do you know where it comes from?" Until maybe, someday, somebody will turn out to know.
Please, though, be kind to the grocery workers. It's not their fault our food system is fucked.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Mr. Keats came to appreciate the potential impact of arts and entertainment on non-human audiences while choreographing ballet for honeybees at Chico State University last year.Well, huh.
In the “things that remind me of my fish” department: Hunter of Daily Kos’s post on the care and feeding of Congress.*
I've been working-- semi-working-- for three days on a post summarizing the current status of the farm bill. You wouldn't think it would be that hard. I hereby make a promise (!) that it'll be up tomorrow, provided I don't get all agitated about anything in the interim. Sigh.
Happy first day of fall, everybody. Count me one who's not grieving over the unleaving.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
OrangeClouds115 puts into simple, convincing terms the argument against allocating EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) funds to help factory farms build manure lagoons.
And A. Siegel provides an introduction to the idea of vertical farming, ranging from rooftop gardens to diversified agricultural enterprises housed in skyscrapers.
Me, I'm excited, because no more waiting at the library for Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle-- a friend awaited me at my daughter's school this morning bearing a copy for me to borrow. Hooray!
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
There's an excellent discussion of so-far-failed USDA attempts to define and regulate the term "grass-fed"; for those new to the terminology, it's important to realize that these words alone mean little. As Glenn Elzinga says, "if they want to know how the beef is actually raised, they will have to do a bit of investigating."
In the same vein, Elzinga repeatedly emphasizes the importance of keeping the business small enough to cultivate diversity and attention to detail. The corporate "grass-fed beef" that may take advantage of the trend will not be the same product:
...the implementation of the system is very unlike finishing cattle in a feedlot. For example, sometimes we move our cattle 3 times a day—other times we move them once every three days. It all depends on weather, grass quality, and the condition of the animals. Excellent grass fed beef is truly an artisanal product. Every two weeks, we handpick several head as ‘ready’ from our yearling herd, carefully evaluating each steer for the right amount of finish. The genetic diversity of our herd prevents us from categorically shipping a large number of animals off to the processor at any one time. Each animal responds to grass differently. One animal may finish in 14 months, another may take as long as 20. In the industrial model of the feedlot, it is important to strive for uniformity, both through genetics and feeding regimes, so that animals grow very rapidly and entire pens of cattle finish at the same time, often in 13 to 15 months.
What most large grass fed producers have done is put their cattle in a feedlot, feeding them a consistent forage-based ration during the last 60 days of life to eliminate the inconsistency of their products. This feedlot-finishing, however, creates many of the same problems that are associated with the current system of finishing animals in confinement on a grain-based diet. Most people interested in organics are interested in the whole picture of how their food is produced, a picture that includes humane treatment of animals, elimination of concentrations of waste that cause pollution problems, reduction of E.coli contamination, and support of small family farms.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Friday, September 14, 2007
[update]: A couple of links for cornfed and anyone else.
Pepperberg's 2002 book, The Alex Studies
Alex with Irene and Alan Alda on PBS' Scientific American Frontiers
Madeleine L'Engle also died last week. A real obituary will likely come later, as I owe her many thanks. For now, I'll just say that Mr. Jenkins One is one of the great characters of modern literature. And goodbye, to one of the most fearless persons we've had the privilege to know.
Friday, September 7, 2007
My daughter and I have both been very excited to discover the American Girl books. My much younger half-sister had been a fan of the series as a child, but I'd always been skeptical: they were, after all, associated with the sale of some very expensive dolls and other products, and I didn't have very high expectations for the quality of the books themselves. (There are eight individual series of six books; each series focuses on a fictional little girl representative of a particular time period and cultural group in American history.) My daughter, however, chose to check one out of the public library (it was the first book about Addy, a little girl who escapes from slavery and begins life in the North during the Civil War), and we were both instantly hooked.
The fact is, the Addy books are extremely well-written and emotionally gripping; and they're furthermore highly informative historically. For a six-year-old girl with little sense of American history and virtually no sense of our country's legacy of racial injustice, they've introduced a number of new topics of thinking and questioning: about war, about slavery, about prejudice, about class, about how culture changes over time. Kids this age have a keen sense of justice, and it's a perfect time to expand their concern for playground and at-home fairness into an awareness of imbalances in the wider world. At the same time, the stories communicate historical themes mainly through the daily life of a single girl, stirring kid empathy by focusing on familiar commonalities: feelings about family members, school experiences and social frustrations, games and meals.
We've finished the Addy stories and moved on to Felicity, a Revolutionary-War-era girl living in Williamsburg, Virginia. Because the themes in the Felicity books-- so far, anyway-- are not so urgently life-or-death, I don't find them quite as absorbing. In the first Addy book, Addy leaves three family members behind and risks her own life trying to escape north with her mother. In the first Felicity book, Felicity rescues a horse from an abusive owner. I guess that was pretty life-or-death for the horse.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Sy Montgomery's The Good Good Pig
I've only just begun this, so no comment yet.
I've been reading Barack Obama's book for the past... almost two months, perhaps. I'm not sure why I'm finding it so difficult to get through, since it is extremely well-written for this type of political memoir/policy outline. Plus, he's funny. My favorite bit is still this, from the second chapter, where Obama describes meeting President Bush at a social gathering on the day of his swearing in to the U.S. Senate (just after hungrily stuffing his face with hors d'oeuvres) :
"Obama!" the President said, shaking my hand. "Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours-- that's one impressive lady."That's really what I like best about Obama: that quiet irreverence that sees the humanity in everybody regardless of position.
"We both got better than we deserve, Mr. President," I said, shaking the First Lady's hand and hoping that I'd wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the President's hand.
"Want some?" the President asked. "Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds."
Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.
[Update]: And the way he talks about his wife is so sweet you'll have tears in your eyes. After reading the section on foreign policy, though... I'm finally starting to accept that he may not be my primary candidate. Damn.
[Update 2]: He wants to be president... but can he handle the goody bags?
It is left to Michelle to coordinate all the children's activities, which she does with a general's efficiency. When I can, I volunteer to help, which Michelle appreciates, although she is careful to limit my responsibilities. The day before Sasha's birthday party this past June, I was told to procure twenty balloons, enough cheese pizza to feed twenty kids, and ice. This seemed manageable, so when Michelle told me that she was going to get goody bags to hand out at the end of the party, I suggested that I do that as well. She laughed.My dearly cherished hope is that my next book will be Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle... if only everybody else would hurry up with it at the public library.
"You can't handle goody bags," she said. "Let me explain the goody bag thing. You have to go into the party store and choose the bags. Then you have to choose what to put in the bags, and what is in the boys' bags has to be different from what is in the girls' bags. You'd walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode."
Monday, September 3, 2007
The benefits of the Farm to School concept are many:
- The school system becomes a reliable market for local farm products, providing some measure of security to existing growers and increasing overall demand for agricultural activity locally.
- The school, in turn, has reliable sources of healthy, nutritious, top-quality foods with which to feed kids, reducing reliance on prepackaged items and junk foods, allowing the inclusion of more fresh fruits and vegetables, minimizing dependence on USDA commodity foods (largely beef and dairy), and arriving at a more appetizing result.
- The children eat healthier, learn better nutrition habits in the long term, and often spend time learning about local and sustainable agriculture. The program can simply introduce the idea that it's possible-- even interesting-- to know where your lunch comes from.
- As with all local, seasonal eating, the environmental benefits of all that food not grown according to a giant corporate model, and not shipped across the continent or further, are substantial.
There'll be more to say on this topic later; I can attest, however, that my daughter absolutely raved about the lunch on the first day of school. Besides the Farm to School effort, the school is also making general changes to the menu in order to apply for a Gold Award in the USDA HealthierUS School challenge, changes that include:
- more fruits and vegetables
- more whole-grain foods and fiber
- low-fat dairy items
- more homemade entrees
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Per my previously-expressed intention to enhance Feliz's happiness via some more natural perks, my daughter and I did two things. First, we went to Petsmart and bought a real plant (a java fern) to replace the more unpleasant of the two plastic ones. Feliz instantly loved the plant; she was tremendously curious to explore it, sidling through all its nooks and crannies, and grazing its leaves with her body. Clearly this was an appreciated improvement.
Second, we took another kid friend and a little net and went out to the creek-- the same one they'd dammed last month-- to catch live food for Feliz. It was quite an outing, involving multiple pickle jars-- we got into catching and looking at stuff for fun, and ended up with somewhat more than a small fish could comfortably consume in a couple of days (which turned out to be the longest our stream creatures could survive in a room temperature, low-dissolved-oxygen pickle jar). Nevertheless, Feliz seemed to enjoy the wriggling treats: midge larvae being popular, as well as a very small leech which was slurped into her upturned mouth with apparent gusto.
I felt a little funny about the leech-- was that good for her?-- but she seemed to like it so much that I was reassured.
A couple of days later, Feliz started to languish. First she hovered, fairly still, near the water surface all day long, leading me to imagine her water needed changing (I try to pay attention to signs of reduced activity). I changed it. She got worse. Soon she was lying on the bottom of the tank, on her side, just gilling, not wanting to eat or to swim. Since my answer to everything is more internet research, I searched large numbers of betta care sites (there are surprisingly many) for clues. The results of my quest: 1) Feliz probably had an impaired swim bladder. If you don't know what a swim bladder is, here is a link. (I tried to explain it to my mother and she thought I had bought a little external flotation device to attach to my fish. Hi mom.) In any case, without good buoyancy control, swimming had become a lot more work for Feliz. 2) The most likely reason for the impairment was...constipation. Oh, dear. Was this my fault? The sites said this turn of events could be fatal. All my good intentions, and maybe I'd killed her.
I imagined that little shape-changing leech stretching itself out in her gut, blocking all passage.
The betta fanciers recommended feeding the fish bits of green pea as a therapy for this condition, and I resolved to secure a bag of frozen peas as soon as possible.
But by the time I'd arrived home that evening with the peas, Feliz had miraculously recovered. "She must have pooped!" my daughter and I exclaimed in wonder and delight. The degree of relief I felt was beyond what I ever would have expected a few weeks before. I love this damn fish. It's just a freaking fish. And I work with fish in my job, and they die routinely, and I, most of the time, hardly care.
Feliz has been full of energy and personality ever since; she's fine, though I'm looking into buying her a tiny lamp to heat her bowl as the weather cools. The newest development is that she'll literally eat out of our hands. But no more leeches; it's prefab betta pellets she's seizing off my finger with her funny mouth.
Saturday, September 1, 2007
eph89 at Daily Kos writes about discovering Community-Supported Agriculture (CSAs). I too am a huge fan of this model, and am enjoying my second season of weekly vegetable boxes from Matt and Jacy Rothschiller's farm.
By way of example, I fronted something like $360 or $380 (I forget exactly) back in March; in exchange, I get a big box of goodies, plenty for me to use plus freeze a little and share a little, every week from mid-June to mid-October. That represents a
- 1 bunch of cilantro
- a considerable bag of baby lettuce mix (perfectly fresh, little need to sort through it like the supermarket stuff)
- 2 yellow and 1 green summer squash
- 2 ugly-but-tasty tomatoes
- 3 red onions
- a bunch of small carrots, mixed purple, orange, and yellow ones
- 2 long, curvy cucumbers
- a “SunJewel” melon (yellow and oblong, tastes like honeydew)
Other parts of the season I’ll get different things: lots of greens and herbs the first couple of weeks, tons of my beloved beets in June and July, winter squashes as the autumn progresses. Every week is somewhat different, and I get to have absolutely fresh, good-quality produce that supports a local farm family, is grown according to sustainable techniques, and requires little fuel to transport it to the pick-up spot. Every week I am excited to get my box and look inside, and to right away go home and make myself the biggest, most luxurious salad I can put together.
There is also an option, in my CSA, to trade half a day of farm labor per week during the growing season for a reduced-price subscription; while doing so is not sensible or efficient from an hourly-wage point of view (it comes out to about $3/hour), I’m considering trying it next summer for the experience.
If you want to know more about CSAs and their benefits, do check out eph89’s great diary.