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 GovTrack.us 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.