Sunday, April 27, 2008

Big Food Crisis Links Roundup

The past couple of months, we are suddenly hearing a great deal of panic over rising worldwide food prices and the spectre of global scarcity. Here is a collection of worthwhile reading material on the subject, from a variety of angles.

March 6:

Jon Markman at MSN Money explains why "it's a good time to invest in agricultural stocks."

Most unusual about this phenomenon, according to BMO Financial Group strategist Don Coxe, is that until now, food crises in world history were regional concerns that arose from crop failures, war or pests. Once global trade of grains got going in the 19th century in a major way, food shortages in one country were ameliorated by imports, he said. What's happening now is a lack of supply everywhere at once.

Markman blames urbanization, income growth leading to increased meat consumption, and increased ethanol production... and recommends buying stock in Monsanto.

March 11:

The BBC covers rising food prices in Egypt.

March 14:

Rising wheat prices and their effect on one Kansas bakery, via The Ethicurean.

March 19:

Tom Philpott at Grist warns of a potential fungal disaster: wheat stem rust.

March 20:

Blog Food and Fuel America points out that, while input costs are increasing for the big food-processing corporations such as General Mills, somehow their profits are managing to rise significantly. How can this be? (I’ve read in several places that Cargill’s profits are up by more than 80% also.)


The AP's Katherine Corcoran, covering rising world food prices, assures us:

In the long term, prices are expected to stabilize. Farmers will grow more grain for both fuel and food and eventually bring prices down. Already this is happening with wheat, with more crops to be planted in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the coming year.

Of course, this supply-will-adjust-to-demand argument assumes an infinite wealth of available land. For now, she does not deny the situation is dire.

Food costs worldwide spiked 23 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the FAO. Grains went up 42 percent, oils 50 percent and dairy 80 percent.

Economists say that for the short term, government bailouts will have to be part of the answer to keep unrest at a minimum. In recent weeks, rising food prices sparked riots in the West African nations of Burkina Faso, where mobs torched buildings, and Cameroon, where at least four people died.

March 21:

Tom Philpott takes on the financial and food crises together and gets seriously sensible:

The first thing I'd do is end the government's absurd, expensive, and myriad biofuel subsidies, which are jacking up food prices while providing little if any environmental benefit. According to one reckoning, the federal government has committed $92 billion between 2006 and 2012 to prop up biofuel production. Attracted by this government-guaranteed market, the very same investment banks and hedge funds that brought us the mortgage debacle are now buying and selling corn and soy futures, snatching profits while consumers gape at the price of grocery staples.

Pulling the plug would cause grain and soy prices to drop, bringing down food prices but hurting farmers. To limit the latter effect, the government could step in and buy excess grain and hold it, replenishing stocks that have fallen to all-time lows. That would keep farmers in business while also improving food security.

With the massive savings that would result, the government should invest in local and regional food-production infrastructure, which has been systematically dismantled by agribusiness over the past half-century. Such a program would not only provide consumers with a ready alternative to industrial food, but would also re-establish food as an engine for building wealth within communities -- and lessen its ecological footprint.

April 9:

David Streitfeld at the NYT reports that high grain prices are motivating farmers to pull millions of acres of land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave uncultivated habitat for birds and other wildlife.

“We’re in a crisis here. Do we want to eat, or do we want to worry about the birds?” asked JR Paterakis, a Baltimore baker who said he was so distressed at a meeting last month with Edward T. Schafer, the agriculture secretary, that he stood up and started speaking “vehemently.”

The Guardian covers potential risks to global stability posed by soaring food prices.

April 16:

John Vidal of The Guardian writes an excellent short piece summarizing the new International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [IAASTD] report and its relevance for the current food crisis.

Sixty countries backed by the World Bank and most UN bodies yesterday called for radical changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems.

But in a move that has led to the US, UK, Australia and Canada not yet endorsing the report, the authors said GM technology was not a quick fix to feed the world's poor and argued that growing biofuel crops for automobiles threatened to increase worldwide malnutrition.

April 18:

Gretchen Gordon at Food First points the finger at deregulation for the food system crisis. Another terrific piece.

The impact of all this deregulation was to replace local market access for the majority of small producers with global market access for a few global producers. Thanks to non-existent anti-trust enforcement and rampant vertical integration, we’ve reached a level of concentration in our global agriculture system that would make Standard Oil blush. Three companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge—control the vast majority of global grain trading, while Monsanto controls more than one-fifth of the global market in seeds. Consumers from Sioux City to Soweto are more and more dependent on fewer and fewer producers. By eliminating the breadth and diversity of the system, we’ve eliminated its ability to withstand shock or manipulation.

April 21:

From the NYT business section… biotech takes advantage of growing desperation.

In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that “all resistance” to [GE] crops “be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production.”


Take-home message? Industrial agriculture and the unregulated free market, dominated by a few big food corporations, have created the dire emergency that some of us have long anticipated. There's an opportunity here: the public, even in relatively wealthy countries, is suddenly paying attention to the food system, and may be open to new ideas and structures. But there's also a very great danger that the big players will convince a fearful populace that they must place their trust in the hands of "the experts" or face famine, and use the crisis merely to ramp up their own profits and wreak more destruction. Let us come down firmly and loudly in favor of opportunity.


April 27:

Grasshopper Planet by Devilstower at Daily Kos.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Crisis in Organic Dairy Prices

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) issued a substantial press release in March, complaining that milk prices paid by big companies such as Stonyfield Farm are too low to support organic dairy farmers at current fuel and feed costs.
“There is a very serious situation going on right now and some of our very best farmers are looking at bankruptcy,” says Darlene Coehoorn, Wisconsin farmer, Organic Valley member-owner and President of the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (MODPA), “and we need Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm, HP Hood, and Horizon Organic to recognize that our families are suffering. While the major brands are signing on new farmers with bonuses and incentives, they need to take care of their farmer-owners and farm partners by paying us a price for our milk that allows us to support our families and pay our farm bills.”
Shortly thereafter, Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield published a reply at Grist, basically arguing that market pressures currently prevent Stonyfield from raising the cost of its products enough to pay farmers more profitably, and that the company has been extremely supportive of organic dairy in general. Ed Maltby of NODPA responded once again. Grist's Tom Philpott summed up his own thoughts on the matter here.

If you'd like to hear more, Boston's WBZ radio interviewed both Maltby and Hirschberg on April 22. Listen via the NODPA site.

Quick Links, 4/26/08

Mmmm... test tube meat. I really can't think of much less respectful of animal life than growing lumps of senseless flesh in a laboratory for consumption. PETA needs to take a good hard think here.

The Farm Bill is extended for another week, until May 2.

The package currently still includes Sen. Baucus' disaster relief program as well as significant boosts to nutrition programs. Funding offsets include raising Customs user fees and lowering a tax credit for ethanol processors. has much, much more.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Once Again... the Farm Bill

Still the Farm Bill limps along, one short extension at a time, while lawmakers try desperately in conference to hammer out something which will satisfy the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, House leadership, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the obstructionist White House. Among other people.

House conferees are here.
Senate conferees here.

The latest 1-week extension has been signed with a great show of reluctance by President Bush, giving the Conference Committee until next Friday, April 25, to come up with a workable bill. (If that successfully comes to fruition, an additional 2-week or so extension will be arranged in order to get the bill passed through the House and the Senate and-- hopefully-- signed by the President.)

If funding for the Farm Bill were unlimited, few sticking points would remain, but pay-as-you-go rules demand a bill whose funding sources are carefully delineated. This means there are two major areas of conflict: 1) with a limited budget, the powerful players are struggling over whose pet program(s) will see short shrift, and 2) even when the congressional players are in agreement about finding additional funding for a program, the Bush White House usually takes issue with the proposed offsets and threatens a veto of the entire bill.

I don’t use the word “obstructionist” lightly: rather than standing on some particular principle, the White House seems determined to keep throwing wrenches in the works of the Farm Bill.

Negotiations are in disarray as lawmakers from the House and Senate are squabbling over how to pay for the legislation. House and Senate negotiators have suggested a number of different ways to come up with an extra $10 billion needed for the bill, including some ideas the White House has backed previously. But administration officials have rejected most of their ideas, saying they would rather use the money for other priorities.

As for the programs at issue in the Conference Committee, controversy is focusing on a priority of my own Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee as well as sitting on the Agriculture Committee, has had tremendous power in negotiations so far. Sen. Baucus insists on the inclusion of a $4-billion disaster relief program for farmers (in Montana, for instance, “disaster” might come in the form of drought), a price tag at which the House has balked. (The Environmental Working Group points out that “[b]ased on their historical share of ad hoc disaster spending, of the twenty states represented on the Senate Finance Committee, just four stand to gain over half (55 percent) of the committee’s allocation of disaster aid expenditures under a permanent fund: North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa and Montana.”) The House is also reluctant to come up with offsets for the Senate-proposed $2.5-billion bundle of agriculture-related tax cuts championed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). (Speaker Pelosi, in particular, feels strongly that – even should an additional $2.5 billion be located—such funds would be better used for beefing up nutrition and food stamp programs.)


At a farm bill meeting in Rangel's office Thursday, shouting could be heard behind closed doors. Several senators, including Baucus, left angrily.

"Let's just say it wasn't good," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said afterward.

Reuters cites Tom Harkin on the set of possible outcomes:

If there is no breakthrough, said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, he will order votes on Tuesday to settle the matter. Harkin is in charge of the talks.

"We'll see if people really want to bring the farm bill down to have a tax package," said Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "At some point, it has to end."

By the end of next week, Harkin told reporters, the farm bill will be wrapped up or there will be a decision to either extend the 2002 farm law or to let the farm program revert to 1949 law, with land controls and high grain subsidy rates.

As an aside, the entire amount of the disputed funding—disaster relief plus tax cuts-- is worth about the cost of a week and a half in Iraq.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some Old Business

I keep thinking someday I'll be more than an intermittent blogger, but will life ever stop kicking my ass on a more-or-less regular basis? Not likely. Anyhow, the loads of things I'd wanted to write about are piling up in the meanwhile, and a thoughtful piece on each and every one is just not going to happen. So I'll start throwing out some important links that have come my way in March, in acceptance of the fact that they're already beginning to moulder.

Oh, and I have every intention of a full blog design update, but when on earth is that going to happen?

Here are the first couple of stories, and then I must rush off again.


From the March 1 NYT, Free Lunch Isn't Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry:

Lunchtime “is the best time to impress your peers,” said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a subsidized meal, he said, “lowers your status.”

San Francisco school officials are looking at ways to encourage more poor students to accept government-financed meals, including the possibility of introducing cashless cafeterias where all students are offered the same food choices and use debit cards or punch in codes on a keypad so that all students check out at the cashier in the same manner.


Also from March 1 NYT... My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables):

Farmer Jack Hedin explains some of the bureaucratic barriers to converting commodity cropland to fruit and vegetable production.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)


The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not even the rain has such small hands

Those of us with school-aged children probably respond especially strongly to stories about child laborers around the world, children much like ours but without the protections of law or economic security against exploitation, abuse, and exhaustion. My six-year-old daughter has terrific manual dexterity and loves sewing and crafts. Right now she fits these pursuits into her limited free time between school and activities, comfortable regular meals and bedtimes. Under other circumstances, she might be putting in 16-hour days making beaded clothing for a pittance. It’s an unbearable thought.

The March 10 Forbes has an extensive article on child labor, mostly in agriculture, and in particular detailing the problems of the GE cottonseed industry, undertaken by Indian farmers contracted to companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. According to the article, there are between 12 and 50 million children under the age of 14 working in India.

Cottonseed farmer Talari Babu is a slim, wiry man dressed, when a reporter visited him, in black for a Hindu fast. "Children have small fingers, and so they can remove the buds very quickly," he says, while insisting that he no longer employs the underage. "They worked fast, much faster than the adults, and put in longer hours and didn't demand long breaks. Plus, I could shout at them and beat or threaten them if need be to get more work out of them." He could also tempt them with candy and cookies and movies at night. Babu says that pressure from Monsanto and the MV Foundation, an NGO in Andhra Pradesh backed by the Dutch nonprofit Hivos, forced him to quit using child labor.

But many farmers still use children for this delicate and dangerous work.

The pollination work lasts for 70 to 100 days and is followed by cotton-picking staggered over several months. Children's hands are ideal for the delicate work with stamens and pistils. Their bodies are no better at withstanding the poisons. At least once a week, says Davuluri Venkateshwarlu, head of Glocal, farmers spray the fields with pesticides like Nuvacron, banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and endosulfan, methomyl and Metasystox, considered by the EPA to be highly toxic. Venkateshwarlu ticks off the effects of overexposure: diarrhea, nausea, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, headaches and depression.

In other parts of India, children are producing GM tomato, eggplant, okra and chili seeds for the American market, again under heavy pesticide regimens, and earning 5 to 10 cents per hour. Other young kids are doing dangerous stone work in quarries, turning out decorative stones and cobbles for American yards and gardens. The garment industry, of course, is a familiar offender, as well as producers of handmade carpets and decorative items. Here’s one group of very young boys who live together in a tiny Delhi room room making sparkly picture frames with sequins and bits of glass:

In one such room, where the only piece of furniture is a low workbench, 10-year-old Akbar sits on the floor and mixes two powders into a doughy adhesive, his fingers blackened by the chemicals. Another boy spreads a thin layer of the mixture on a photo frame and a third, seated on his haunches, starts pasting tiny pieces of mirrors and sequins along the border. He sways back and forth, a habit most kids have developed to keep the blood flowing through their limbs as they sit for several hours. Decorating one 5-by-5-inch frame consumes six child-hours. The boys, who all live in the room and cook their own food here, typically work from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. for $76 a month. Many have teeth stained from cigarettes they smoke and tobacco they chew to relieve the tedium.

The whole article is worth reading.

While India has passed some limited child labor laws, they are only loosely enforced. Likewise, the many familiar corporations mentioned in the article—not only Monsanto and Syngenta, and Bayer, but the Gap, Lowe’s, Target, Ikea, Bloomingdale’s, and other importers of goods-- have policies against buying from contractors who exploit child labor. Clearly, having a policy on the books does not constitute sufficient oversight.

In the seed industry in particular, it is important to remember that a plant grown in the U.S. may still spring from seed harvested across the world by very young laborers, on behalf of companies who reap giant profits from the transaction.

One of many reasons to know where your food comes from.

Monday, March 10, 2008

At Large

I figured it was time to educate myself on the state of the MT-AL House race, a seat held for the past 4 terms by mediocre Republican Denny Rehberg, whose most recent legislative accomplishment according to the Library of Congress was introducing a resolution to recognize the 125th birthday of Billings. It was referred to committee nearly a year ago.

More about Rehberg as a Very Serious Person, in a Daily Kos diary I’d previously missed, here. What an ass.

Montana, besides having a popular Democratic governor, is also (since the election of Jon Tester in 2006) represented by two Democratic U.S. senators. Sen. Max Baucus (often mentioned here, due to his degree of influence in agricultural policy) should coast to an easy reelection. The time is right to focus on targeting Rehberg this November.

As of February 12, we have a declared Democratic opponent for Rehberg: consumer and personal injury attorney Jim Hunt of Helena.

Hunt is a fourth-generation Montanan and retired lieutenant colonel in the Montana National Guard. The Missoula Independent explained why he’s likely immune to some traditional stereotypes that work against Democrats:

Born on the Hi-line in Chester, Hunt doesn’t need to do any phony acting to come across as a genuine Montanan. He’s a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, an avid sportsman, a true conservationist, and a Chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Taken together, that background deflects about 90 percent of what Republicans have traditionally shot at their Democrat challengers. No, Hunt isn’t going to take your guns away, and yes, he does know how to use them—and he won’t be posing like John Kerry if he shows up in goose-hunting gear. Moreover, he realizes the value of maintaining a clean and healthy environment—just like our state promises—and not just for hunting and fishing, but for all the myriad reasons the drafters found it necessary to include such a groundbreaking provision in our 1972 Montana Constitution.

A little on his law practice:

We represent clients all types of personal injury, wrongful death, and related accident cases including Auto and Truck Accidents, Medical Malpractice, Brain Injuries, Slip & Fall Accidents, Construction Site Accidents, Work-Related Accidents, Semi-Truck Accidents, Dog Bites & Animal Attacks, Dangerous & Defective Products, Motorcycle Accidents, Premises Liability, Nursing Home Negligence & Elder Abuse. We do not represent businesses, corporations or insurance companies in Montana. We represent real people with real physical, emotional and financial problems caused by an injury or death.

Spokesmen for Rehberg distance him from the damaged Republican party, saying that he “votes for Montana's interests, regardless of whether a proposal is supported by the president, Republicans or Democrats.” However, in the 110th Congress, Rehberg voted with his party 92% of the time, putting him well above average for party loyalty among Republicans, and characterizes him as a “rank-and-file Republican.” Hunt could get some real traction with civil liberties issues: Montanans have a strongly libertarian streak, and Rehberg’s alignment with Bush administration surveillance priorities could hurt him. From yesterday’s Great Falls Tribune:

Hunt also criticized Rehberg's support of a bill that would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that aided the Bush administration in spying on Americans with warrantless wire taps.

"He and I dramatically split on that," Hunt said. "Montanans don't want people tapping into their phone records, getting into their medical records, getting into their gun records. Montanans are private people."

Hunt is also critical of Rehberg’s support of the Administration on Iraq.

"Rehberg has voted with Bush ... right down the line on the war to the point where he said, 'it's not my job to second-guess the president on the Iraq War,'" Hunt said. "It is absolutely the job of Congress to second guess the executive branch on those types of issues. He's dead wrong on that approach."

Jim Hunt’s issues page.

You can contribute here.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Pig-headed Presidency Meets the Farm Bill

From Peter Shinn at Brownfield Network, writing last Sunday, Feb. 24:
An extension of the 2002 farm law through at least the end of 2009 is looking increasingly inevitable as negotiations on the next farm law drag on toward the March 15th expiry of the current extension of the 2002 measure. That’s the word from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, who put the blame squarely upon the Bush administration for the current farm bill stalemate.
Harkin notes that the Senate version of the Farm Bill passed by 79 votes, and would have passed by 83, except "'four people were out running for President.'"

The stalemate, at least officially, is mostly over the total cost and funding sources of the bill.
Harkin added that the Bush administration’s intransigence has come despite his view that the Senate has offered repeated concessions on cost. Harkin also noted that the Senate version of the farm bill would raise revenue using methods suggested by the Bush administration itself in its current and prior budget requests. That’s why Harkin is now of the opinion that a new farm bill won’t get done during the current congressional session.
The 2002 farm bill extension is set to expire on March 15. Nancy Pelosi has said House conferees will not be appointed until the bill's financing and budget have been agreed upon.

Five days after this story was published, little appeared to have changed.

If a deal is not reached by March 15, either the 2002 farm bill will be extended again or the law will automatically revert to the Agricultural Act of 1949. The USDA and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer don't think much of either idea, but the former is almost certainly more acceptable to them than the latter. From the USDA paper published Friday (download Word doc) regarding reversion to 1949 law:
Often described as a reversion to “permanent law,” such a result would dramatically narrow the universe of producers who receive support, and would do so in a way that most producers will view as irrational. For instance, those wheat producers who happen to have historical acreage allocations would receive dramatically increased benefits, while all other wheat producers would become ineligible.

The second part of this memorandum focuses on the effects on other programs that are administered by USDA, explaining that many conservation, energy, trade, nutrition, and other programs would be eliminated or substantially curtailed.
The threat of neither passing nor extending a farm bill by March 15 is therefore a serious bargaining chip for Congress with the administration; most suggest, however, that such an outcome is unlikely.


A side note on commensal relationships:

my fish, which is still miraculously fine despite
requiring water of a more tropical temperature than that of my Montana apartment in winter, is being kept comfortably warm by my DSL modem.

(This is not my fish, but looks a little like her.)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Brief News & Links, 3/1/08


The Global Seed Vault was opened on February 26 in Svalbard, Norway.
Bored into the middle of a snow-topped Arctic mountain, the seed vault has as its goal the storing of every kind of seed from every collection on the planet. While the original seeds will remain in ordinary seed banks, the seed vault's stacked gray boxes will form a backup in case natural disaster or human error erase the seeds from the outside world.
Spain-based nonprofit GRAIN warns against overreliance on seed banks for conserving diversity while the world's farmers plant an increasingly uniform set of crops.
...relying solely on burying seeds in freezers is no answer. The world currently has 1,500 ex situ genebanks that are failing to save and preserve crop diversity. Thousands of accessions have died in storage, as many have been rendered useless for lack of basic information about the seeds, and countless others have lost their unique characteristics or have been genetically contaminated during periodic grow-outs. [...]

The deeper problem with the single focus on ex situ seed storage, that the Svalbard Vault reinforces, is that it is fundamentally unjust. It takes seeds of unique plant varieties away from the farmers and communities who originally created, selected, protected and shared those seeds and makes them inaccessible to them. [...] the system operates under the assumption that once the farmers' seeds enter a storage facility, they belong to someone else and negotiating intellectual property and other rights over them is the business of governments and the seed industry itself.

Action item:

The EPA has proposed a rule change eliminating required reporting of airborne ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions by factory farms. While manure pit emissions can cause respiratory and nervous system effects, the EPA has apparently come to the conclusion that reporting is "not useful."

See EPA page here.

The public comment period for this rule change ends March 28 (leave a comment here). Mine:
It is appropriate for airborne toxic emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which have been shown to potentially cause respiratory and nervous system health effects, to be reported regardless of which industry is the source. Reporting of emissions is not an undue "burden on farmers," where farms are of the size likely to endanger air quality. The reporting requirements in this matter should not be eased, and doing so would be both a threat to public health and an unnecessary giveaway to factory farms, which must be held responsible for their environmental and community impacts.


The Cornell Small Farms Program is offering a $200 online course for beginning farmers.

If we are ever to reclaim our country's tradition of small-scale farming, we will have to find innovative ways to educate a new generation of farmers in their work. Currently, the average age of U.S. farmers is 55, and only 6% are under 35.


Debt relief for (very) small farmers:

India's latest national budget will completely cancel the farm loan debt of all farmers with less than 2 hectares of land, at a cost of $15 billion. While some farm groups feel the land-size cut-off is too small, 80 percent of Indian farmers work less than 1 hectare of land, and the farm sector employs more than 60 percent of the labor force.

On the other hand, farmers have to have had access to credit in the first place for debt forgiveness to be helpful.

More on the Beef Recall

Conflicts of interest:

Christopher Cook writes on "Meat Roulette" in the L.A. Times, highlighting the fact that Hallmark/Westland was engaging in its abuses while supposedly operating under full USDA oversight:
Ultimately, what needs fixing goes far beyond recalling 143 million pounds of meat. We need to greatly expand the number and the role of food-safety inspectors; erect a stronger firewall between inspection and promotion, so the agency that sets line speeds and promotes productivity is not also charged with evaluating food safety; give the government full authority to require meat recalls and to identify where tainted meat has been shipped and sold; and slow the production line to enable more accurate inspection and greater care in handling the meat, which would also reduce the high worker injury rates. Finally, the extreme consolidation into a few corporate hands must be checked, to break the meat industry's stranglehold on regulatory policy.
Lame cows:

One likely reason for the "downer" status of the cows: laminitis. "Hallmark principally slaughters "spent" dairy cows for the Westland Meat Co.," says the Humane Society of the U.S.. High-producing dairy cows (commonly treated with rBGH to increase output, then-- spent early-- slaughtered for beef) often develop this painful inflammation of the hoof lining, limiting their ability to stand or walk. (The reasons appear complex, and to be linked to inappropriate diet, other inflammations like mastitis, and environmental conditions such as concrete flooring and restricted movement, among other factors.) Some of the downed cows in the Humane Society video do appear actually injured or deformed, as opposed to merely weak or sick.

The wrong answer:

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and, usually, proponent of progressive farm policy), says that the Westland recall justifies support for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Harkin's premise is that, under NAIS-- which would track individual animals or lots throughout the food system-- the beef recall could have been much smaller and more targeted.
...we would have known what lot and what animals were involved in the meat and where the meat went," Harkin said. "As it was, they had to recall all of this meat because they didn't know."
Senator Harkin, with all due respect, you are sweeping aside the implications of the documented abuses. You are suggesting that we pour our resources into building the capacity to track down and eliminate the specific meat from the specific animals whose "downer" status happened to be filmed by an undercover spy for the Humane Society.

That plant was USDA-inspected, and yet the flouting of regulations appears to have been routine. How many animals entered the food chain over the weeks or years whose treatment and condition went undocumented? At how many other companies are such practices common? I suggest we use our resources to improve federal inspection and regulatory compliance on the part of the meatpackers, rather than pushing an invasive, unnecessary program that carries substantial and disproportionate burdens for small livestock farmers.

Friday, February 29, 2008

What Is Local?

Saying you're going to "eat local" is all well and good, but what counts as local? In a large, semi-arid state with few population centers, I have to figure out how widely to cast my net. No matter where you live, this matter of arriving at an appropriate definition is crucial and must vary from place to place, depending on the productivity of local land and the activity of the local economy.

My community food coop, for instance, defines their "local" product label to mean that the food is produced within 300 miles. That seems a bit far to me-- perhaps more "regional" than "local"-- but not absolutely absurd given the landscape I live in, and the fact that it's around 100-200 miles between cities here. There is at least one direction (east) in which I can drive 300 miles and still be in the same state.

View Larger Map

On the other hand, in the Northeast, where I come from originally, 300 miles would be a ridiculously long distance to consider local. Is Boston-to-Philadelphia "local"? Yet it is only a few miles farther than Bozeman-to-Miles City.


Here's a great post from the Wedge Natural Foods Coop in Minneapolis, struggling with the same issue. Writer Barth Anderson considers and rejects a number of problematic definitions of "local" eating, including the "100-mile diet," simply in-state, and within a day's round-trip drive, before settling on a very broad criterion: "any local food company or local grower located in Minnesota or a state bordering ours" (so that would be Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin-- and what about Manitoba and Ontario?). Note also that "local food company or local grower" includes foods that are processed locally out of ingredients that may not be local-- another problem requiring a decision.

Then Anderson goes on to remark that, for him, "Cargill is local," a troubling complication. What if you live near a Coca-Cola bottling plant? Does that count? The fact is, "local," however it is defined, only goes so far as a food ethic.

The Farm-to-Dartmouth project also notes how difficult it is to define local, but here's what they came up with for their purposes:

For many people, local food is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is. Local food, by this classification, is not mass-produced food shipped from distant regions at the expense of taste and nutrition. Often equated with greater nutritional, social, and ecological benefits, local food is simply that which is produced by farmers living in a region geographically intimate enough to be called a community. For the sake of this project, the definition of local is that approximately 80% of the food is produced in the 69 towns of the Greater Upper Valley using ingredients produced in that same area, and the remaining 20% is produced in the bi-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire.


The Wikipedia page on the local food movement raises more problems:

Where local food is determined by the distance it has traveled, the wholesale distribution system can confuse the calculations. Fresh food that is grown very near to where it will be purchased, may still travel hundreds of miles out of the area through the industrial system before arriving back at a local store. [...]

Often, products are grown in one area and processed in another, which may cause complications in the purchasing of local foods. In the international wine industry, much "bulk wine" is shipped to other regions or continents, to be blended with wine from other locales. It may even be marketed quite misleadingly as a product of the bottling country.

Finally, this final section of a report from the Hartman Group, a market research group that looks at underlying motives and trends in consumer behavior, should serve as a warning that big corporations are already seeking to play on our desire to “buy local.”

In the industry, there is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn't necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well. There are a lot of ways for a big brand to be local by having limited edition and/or seasonal products. A nutrition bar, for example, could have a nut in it that is grown in a certain area that gives it better taste perceptions.

It is important for manufacturers, marketers and retailers to understand that quality markers, such as use of local ingredients and narratives of local production and origin, are factors that resonate most strongly with consumers when it comes to determining what is authentically local.

As local continues to evolve in sophistication as a marketing concept, the ultimate success of the "buy local" message (e.g., selling more products, increased revenues, higher profit margins, improved quality image, repeat purchases, etc.) and its sustainability over time depends on any number of cultural, societal and lifestyle factors, all covered by this overarching principle: you can’t fake authenticity.

Taste perceptions”???

More and better definitions:

Gary Paul Nabhan, whose tremendous 2001 book Coming Home to Eat detailed his own local-eating experiment (within 200 miles of his home in Flagstaff, AZ), writes in his blog post "Deepening Our Sense of What Is Local and Regional Food" that-- now that "eat local" is becoming a popular concept and catchphrase-- "It is time that we deepen our sense of what we mean by local and regional, offer others better reasons as to why these concerns matter, and steadfastly resist any pressure to endorse simplistic formulas such as a 100-mile diet or an in-state diet."

His own list of what it means to promote local eating includes:

1. Local means from a farm, ranch or fishing boat that is locally-owned and operated, using the management skills and the labor of local community members. [...]

2. A regional food is one that has been tied to the traditions of a particular landscape or seascape and its cultures for decades if not for centuries. [...] Yes it may be produced five miles from your home and thereby reduce food miles, but its seeds are not saved and adapted to local or regional conditions, they are bought from afar every year.

3. The miles a food travels (“food miles”) must be placed in the size and volume of the mode of transport, its source of fuel, and its frequency of travel. Using biodiesel in a larger truck may be more efficient, and leave less of a carbon footprint than using leaded gas in an old clunker.[...]

4. On-farm energy and water use matter. [...]

5. Other on-farm inputs matter just as much. Where are the sources of hay for livestock, compost for garden crops or nitrogen for field crops? They should be locally if not regionally-sourced. [...]

6. Fair-trade with other cultures, localities and regions is fair game. Circumvent the globalized economy for the items you truly need from other regions by establishing fair-trade exchanges. [...]

7. Invest in the foods unique to your region that cannot or should not be grown anywhere else.

Sure, some of the above are a tall order to fill. But remembering that we're choosing local foods for reasons beyond simply saving fuel is important. Nabhan's list provides a number of reasons why Cargill, no matter where you live, is not local.

So, the question remains, of course: how should I define "local"? And should I define it at all, or simply follow my instincts towards the best available choices?

I am open to suggestions.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Let the Locavory Begin

I've mentioned this to several people now. But I'd yet to make a public commitment. Here goes:

My daughter and I are “eating local” (with a couple exceptions), for a year, starting June 3 with the opening of the first of two local farmer’s markets.

In this, as many will recognize, we are inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful and immensely popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I also raved about here.

It’s also the case that, as my shopping habits have changed over the past few years, I have naturally increased my use of local products. The majority of my vegetables this year have come from a farm called Gallatin Valley Botanical, where I have a CSA share; I ate them fresh during the summer, and froze some for winter (I’m still eating them now, at the end of February). My bread and flour, and my milk and cream and eggs and butter, have long come from local or regional producers. I don’t buy much meat, but we have excellent local beef, buffalo, and other meats in Montana, and I try to choose grassfed products from nearby ranches. In various seasons, I can and do get local apples, dried beans, vegetable oil, honey, and other products.

But I’ve always approached food shopping with list in hand, the question of what do I need/want? having been considered ahead of time, and the choice amounting to which version to purchase (local? organic? cheapest? etc.). Because, in our American market environment (with the exception of certain “food desert” areas), everything on the list is virtually certain to be available. Years ago, when I did a lot of exotic cooking, yet thought little of seasonality or food transportation distance, I’d be flummoxed on the rare occasion when some fresh produce item demanded in a recipe was not to be found in any of my several nearby supermarkets. It was scandalous, because anomalous, when nobody happened to have lemongrass, or Belgian endive.

The real problem, as Kingsolver and others have made clear, is not that it is difficult to adequately feed oneself on mostly local products. The challenge is to change one’s mental habits so that one embraces the food available, then figures out how to best and most deliciously use it. This requires abandoning the idea, I think, pushed by many American personal-budget gurus, that meal planning must come before shopping. When endeavoring to eat locally, we need to take an approach that should come more naturally to us as a formerly foraging species: go out and gather what there is, whether from our own garden, a nearby farm, or a market. If we live in an area with a cold season, then we have to gather more than we immediately need; avoiding waste means preserving the excess, not shopping according to a rigorous plan.

After all, which gives me more joy? Buying a jar of spaghetti sauce, a bag of pasta, and a pie slice of parmesan cheese in preparation for a dinner when we will surely have spaghetti (again)? Or receiving those unsolicited boxes of tomatoes, or root vegetables, or apples, that our elderly neighbors used to leave on our doorstep, overflow from their productive back yard, and musing over “how to use them up”? Even leaving aside all questions of sustainability, the first task is simple, carefully-delineated, impersonal, and more or less the same from week to week; the second is creative, complex, invokes a neighborly relationship, and never failed to give me a feeling of abundance and satisfaction. Potatoes, carrots or apples, yes, I did always have a use for them.

I am positively looking forward to what feels almost like a luxury: instead of budgeting some precise weekly amount for food, if I find something wonderful at the farmer’s market, I will buy it. (Maybe a lot of it, because we only get fresh foods, here in Montana, from about June to October.) I will give myself leave to explore the really good stuff that’s out there, instead of always maintaining a carefully balanced larder of peanut butter and breakfast cereal and salsa and rice and frozen juice concentrate and spaghetti sauce. I will enthusiastically take my friend up on her offer of sharing her yard’s yield of apples and rhubarb and raspberries, in exchange for picking labor and some vacation garden-watering. (Fruit is a northern-climate luxury: YES, I’m interested.)

I bet I’ll eat better than I do now, though I may have to give up peanut butter (honestly, I don’t really care). I’ll be motivated for the first time to fully explore what foods are produced in my area. And you know what’ll be fun? Travelling. When I go to Austin in July, it’ll be exciting, because there will be different local foods there.

There are a few things I can’t give up. Coffee—it’ll be locally-roasted, but I have to have it. Spices and salt—but these are dry goods used in small quantities, and I don’t feel too badly about their transport. The same would probably go for things like leavening. The idea is not to suffer deprivation, but to investigate and enjoy what is available, and to relearn some more traditional ways of food use and preservation.

And, if I’m at your house, of course I’ll eat anything you serve me.

As we are living this project, I expect there will be many follow-up posts about various details.

Wolves to be delisted; How do your Congressional members stack up on environment?

Gray wolves
will be removed from the Endangered Species List unless litigation from a number of environmental groups delays delisting. After reintroduction to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem 13 years ago, wolves have had impressive success at reproducing and dispersing, winning some enemies in the process. Management of the wolves would fall to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and would likely allow hunting; each state, however, has committed to maintaining its own population of 150 wolves, including at least 15 mating pairs.

While some groups (including NRDC, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice) are disputing the decision, other environmentalists and biologists believe the gray wolf is truly an example of successful species recovery and that delisting is appropriate. The original goal was
a stable Northern Rockies population of 300 wolves; current population exceeds 1500.


If you are curious about a U.S. House or Senate member's environmental record, the League of Conservation Voters gives a quick, easy-to-use
environmental scorecard.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Downer Cattle Update: Now It's Recalled

So, as you all may remember, we were supposed to feel reassured when state and local officials reminded us that Westland beef had not been recalled, despite serious concerns about sick "downer cows" having entered the food supply.

Because, if it's not recalled, it must be OK. It's when they recall it that you should be really concerned.

Tonight from the AP:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sunday ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse, the subject of an animal-abuse investigation, that provided meat to school lunch programs.

Officials said it was the largest beef recall in the United States, surpassing a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. [...]

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.


Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some links, 2-16-08: bats, beets, and budgets

A widespread affliction is threatening bat populations in the Northeast.
The disease was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in January 2007 and was soon found in three more within 7 miles. In March, officials at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation determined that as many as 11,000 bats had died from the disease, dubbed "white nose syndrome" because of a flaky white fungus on the nose of many of the sick and dead bats.


Scientists say they are extraordinarily concerned because the disease is already affecting four species - including the Indiana bat, recognized by the federal government as an endangered species - and mortality has reached as high as 97 percent in some caves. In one New York cave, the population crashed from 1,300 bats several years ago to 38 this year.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has asked the public to stay out of caves, mines, and other bat havens in the Northeast, for fear that humans may be serving as a vector of disease spread.

Bats are important in insect control, and diminished populations could have a negative impact on area crops.


The Jew and the Carrot covers this year's big new GMO story: Roundup Ready sugar beets. Like Monsanto's other Roundup Ready products, the GE sugar beets will revel in the application of herbicides; the EPA has increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on beetroots by 5000% in a remarkably accommodating gesture. There are other problems, too. Read the post, by a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety.


The new Bush budget for 2009 proposes to cut public funding for agriculture research at land-grant schools by nearly 1/3. Without public funding, our research institutions are dependent on corporate dollars to determine research priorities. As Nancy Scola writes at Alternet,
When it comes to how industry-university relations shape academic research, UCLA's Andrew Neighbour is the person to talk to. While an administrator at Washington University in St. Louis, Neighbour managed the school's landmark multiyear and multimillion-dollar relationship with Monsanto. (Note: WashU is a private institution.) "There's no question that industry money comes with strings," Neighbour admits. "It limits what you can do, when you can do it, who it has to be approved by."

And so the issue at hand becomes one of the questions that are being asked at public land-grant schools. While Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, et al., are paying the bills, are agricultural researchers going to pursue such lines of scientific inquiry as "How will this new corn variety impact the independent New York farmer?" Or, "Will this new tomato make eaters healthier?"
This is a fairly long and complex piece, which is definitely worth a read.

Please Weigh to Be Seated

While word has it it isn't going anywhere, this crazy-ass bill has actually been introduced in the Mississippi legislature:
Are you effin' kidding me? (Apparently not.)

That is all.

Our New Oceans

We have mentioned, before, the vast floating wasteland of plastic debris-- fairly recently described as "twice the size of Texas"-- that has accumulated in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. I still encourage anyone to read the long Best Life Magazine article at that link, but not if you're already at the edge of despair today.

Turns out, not surprisingly, that our ocean garbage dump has continued to grow since that article was published. It's now twice the size of the United States, as also blogged at Daily Kos by FishOutofWater. From the Independent article linked above:

About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

The garbage soup, which floats in a becalmed area of ocean normally avoided by boats, was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, an oceanographer and heir to a large oil fortune who “subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist.”

The research vessel “Alguita” is currently exploring the Garbage Patch, and keeping a frequently-updated blog of their observations. From Feb. 10’s post:

Clear skies and gentle seas made debris watch a much more appealing activity, and drew the crew with nets, cameras, and binoculars to the bow. For a solid two hours, we fished as fast as we could, pulling up floats, toothbrushes, plastic and glass bottles, a golf ball, a billiard ball, an unused glue stick for a hot glue gun, and several rope boluses filled with crabs and tiny striped fish - But most appalling was the plastic confetti. An endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface. This, remarked Charlie, is indicative of the gyre, “where the trash comes home to roost and degrade…..”. A school of cavorting dolphins lightened the mood - the first Charles has spotted in his 10 years of visiting the gyre.

Our Manta sample mirrored what we observed – a bowl full of plastic, with almost zero evidence of life. We wouldn't be surprised if the plastic to plankton ratio here was 100 to 1. The contrast between this “clean” sample and the mass of zooplankton from the other day was remarkable, illustrating the dramatic range in biological productivity throughout the ocean.


In more bad ocean news, yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reports on growing “dead zones” off Oregon and Washington, likely a result of climate changes that in turn affect winds and currents.

Peering into the murky depths, Jane Lubchenco searched for sea life, but all she saw were signs of death.

Video images scanned from the seafloor revealed a boneyard of crab skeletons, dead fish and other marine life smothered under a white mat of bacteria. At times, the camera's unblinking eye revealed nothing at all -- a barren undersea desert in waters renowned for their bounty of Dungeness crabs and fat rockfish.

"We couldn't believe our eyes," Lubchenco said, recalling her initial impression of the carnage brought about by oxygen-starved waters. "It was so overwhelming and depressing. It appeared that everything that couldn't swim or scuttle away had died."