Well, well, well. It's about time. Kind of like when Fox News gave $1 million in campaign contributions to Republicans. It wasn't exactly a secret before, but now it's official. The Gates Foundation just bought a whopping 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock. Now, there's nothing wrong with buying stock. My parents hold lots of BP stock, and they are hardly guilty of dumping the 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. But this is one more step in a long line of actions by the Gates Foundation in which it is advocating policies and agricultural technologies that will directly benefit and profit Monsanto while screwing over the most vulnerable people on earth: hungry subsistence farmers in developing countries. I wrote a piece recently about what happens when American industrial agriculture collides with poor, uneducated subsistence farmers in the developing world and it ain't pretty. In fact, it's tragic. It's criminal. For a corporation to prey upon such a vulnerable population for its own gain, when the result is the starvation, continued impoverishment, or loss of land and lifestyle of the poor. Perhaps Gates thinks he is doing something good for the world with his advocacy of biotechnology and industrial agriculture. No doubt all of the executives from Monsanto and other biotech and chemical companies tell him that every day. He should instead listen to the 400 scientists who spent 3 years performing the most comprehensive study of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology in the history of the world, the IAASTD report. The report recommends agroecology - what many in the U.S. would refer to as "organics" (even though the term is more nuanced than that). See the press release from AGRA Watch here.
Mmm, fresh, red, plump, juicy strawberries. You know what tastes really great with them? It's a secret I learned as a kid. Dip them in sour cream and then dip them in brown sugar. Delish. Or dip them in homemade whipped cream, or chocolate, or both. Or, if they are fresh picked, just eat them plain. But you know what doesn't taste good with strawberries? Cancer. Today, the scientists at Pesticide Action Network released a document called Poison Gases in the Field: Pesticides put California families in danger. It's about tests done with a device called a Drift Catcher that monitors the air for fumigant pesticides. They gave it a try in the California town of Sisquoc to see how well local residents were protected from airborne, carcinogenic pesticides. The answer? Not well. You see, nature doesn't think much of commercially grown strawberries. That's because nature doesn't like monoculture - vast fields of a single species, year after year. So if you want to overcome nature by growing strawberries as a monoculture, you need some potent toxins to do so. And that begins with soil fumigation, a process that uses a deadly chemical to kill everything in the soil before you plant your strawberries. The test in this case was with a soil fumigant called chloropicrin. After a soil fumigation in which all of the application rules were followed and no equipment failure occurred, scientists measured levels of chloropicrin in the air. they found that "Average levels over the 19-day period were 23 to 151 times higher than acceptable cancer risks."
“What’s striking about these results is what they imply about fumigation in general,” says PANNA Staff Scientist Karl Tupper. “Sisquoc is not unique in terms of how close fumigated fields are to people’s homes. The application we monitored was typical as well—there were no blunders and the amount of chloropicrin used was not abnormally high.” “So if this is happening in Sisquoc, it’s surely happening in other California communities, and it will certainly happen with methyl iodide if it’s registered,” concludes Tupper.
Methyl iodide is another soil fumigant - and a potent carcinogen - that the state of California is currently considering allowing. Aside from cancer, soil fumigants are linked to headaches, vomiting, severe lung irritation, neurological effects, reduced fertility, birth defects and higher rates of miscarriage. So, if we do away with soil fumigants and we don't allow the use of methyl iodide, does that mean we can't grow any strawberries? Hardly. Sustainable farmers work WITH nature instead of trying to overcome it, nurturing soil life instead of killing it. And it's very possible to grow strawberries sustainably:
“Sustainable farming is all about building healthy soil,” says organic farmer Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm. “I’ve been growing strawberries for 25 years, and fumigant pesticides are the last thing I’d put in my soil."
In the next few weeks, we will likely see the passage of the food safety bill in the Senate. It's already passed the House so this is one of the last steps before it hits Obama's desk. It's also one of our last chances to influence the bill. In my view, the goals of the bill are two-fold: First, to make food safer; and second, to NOT harm small businesses and small farms that don't pose a threat to the safety of our larger food system. I think the bill does the first item very well. Admittedly, in many ways it is fighting the last battle, closing loopholes that were apparent problems in last year's peanut butter salmonella outbreak. But they are loopholes that should have been closed long ago. What the bill doesn't do is promote a more decentralized, regional food system in which people buy food directly from local farms or local businesses. While perhaps that is one of the best ways to improve food safety (because, for one thing, a small business is simply not capable of sickening hundreds or thousands of people across the country, resulting in the recall of nearly 4000 products, like the peanut butter outbreak did), it's not where U.S. politics are right now. Therefore, the best thing we can do for local food right now is to make sure the bill will not put small farms or small businesses out of business by burdening them with regulations that are not appropriate for farms or businesses of their size. Sen. Jon Tester, an organic farmer himself, has proposed two amendments that will do this. You can send a fax to your Senators asking them to vote for Tester's amendments here. First, he proposes an exemption for all farms selling a majority of their produce directly to consumers, restaurants, schools, etc, from a part of the bill requiring the FDA to set safe produce standards. While it may seem sensible to set safe produce standards, several previous attempts by government to do this have been unrealistic and even harmful, particularly to small farms. A major problem is that any sustainably run farm is teeming with microbes of all kinds - bacteria, fungi, nematodes, you name it - whereas the government seems to think that "safe" means "sterile." Spray whatever pesticide you want on it, but for god sakes, don't let a bacteria or bug anywhere near it! Sustainable farms rely on these microbes (as well as larger critters) to do all of the heavy lifting, from fertilizing the plants to preying on or competing with pest species. The second exemption goes to processing facilities, which may include farms that do processing (like making jam or sundried tomatoes). Any facility that grosses under $500,000 per year will be exempt from laws requiring them to write a food safety plan ("HACCP" plan) and to participate in a new traceability system. With regards to the traceability system, the will still have to keep records of one step forward and one step back in the supply chain (i.e. "I bought these tomatoes from Green Valley Farm and then sold my tomato paste to ABC Grocery"). As for the food safety plan, again, it may sound like a sensible idea. However, in practice it's quite a bit of work to carry out - work that is likely unnecessary for a business so small that it doesn't require a major analysis. Furthermore, the cost and time involved to the business to identify all potential hazards, document how to reduce their likelihood, and then measure to make sure the controls are working could be huge. Imagine a jam business. Making jam safely is a rather simple process. Follow the recipe exactly, make sure your jam is acidic enough by adding lemon juice if needed, and boil your jam for long enough to kill anything that may be in it. Do we really need a tiny Mom 'n Pop jam business to routinely send jam samples to a lab for analysis to make sure their process is working? The goal of this amendment isn't to say that all small businesses are inherently safe but rather, they pose relatively little threat to our larger food safety system compared to companies like Kraft, Nestle, and Kellogg's, and their suppliers. The small businesses often provide far more benefit to our economy and our food system than they do in risk. So let's focus on the big guys with this bill to make the vast majority of our food safer without putting small businesses out of business. Last, we have an illustration of how a food safety bill impacted small business and food safety in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1906 and it's widely credited as the impetus for the bill. However, canned foods were largely a new thing in America (they got their big launch in the Civil War some 40 years before) and many cans were chock full of wholesome ingredients like sawdust and food dye. Understandably, food safety concerns abounded. At first big business resisted any food safety reform. Then they came around... not because they were for safer food per se, but because they realized that the bill's effect would be putting their smaller competition out of business while reassuring the public that their products were safe. And they were right. Let's not have a replay of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. To take action, fax your Senators here.
Today I have a piece up about marketing food to kids. This issue became VERY personal when I moved in with my boyfriend and his two young kids. In fact, the article opens with a paragraph or two about my boyfriend and his oldest daughter. I wrote about them not to criticize his parenting but to point out how tricky the marketers are, operating in ways that the parents just don't suspect. Even wonderful, loving, involved, intelligent parents like my boyfriend. Every so often, the kids come home with a new toy. When I ask where they got it, my boyfriend will say, "You won't like the answer." That means: It came from a Happy Meal. He does this rarely now, but the McDonald's trips were much more frequent before I came into the picture. At my suggestion, he's at least transitioned over to In N Out Burger when his kids really start begging for fast food. Things have changed since I've been around. I assume that he let his ex-wife (and the kids themselves) take the lead on a lot of things, perhaps because as a guy, he figured that they knew best what girls wanted. When it comes down to it, my boyfriend is incredibly loving and that's the most important thing any parent can do. And he also notes that he and I set a good example by eating well in front of the kids. But that doesn't give him a free pass on other things - like paying attention to marketing to his own kids. When we've talked about marketing, my boyfriend noted that his generation was exposed to marketing too and he came out fine. Which is true. Except marketers are so much more sophisticated now that parents who assume that just have NO IDEA what their kids are being exposed to. It's not just the food, but toys too. And while the issues I write about are all food-related, as a step-parent, I can't ignore toys. I was very grateful that this article forced me to reach out to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, because their work is excellent. I read through several pages of their site and they effectively state what I have observed but often haven't been able to put into words. All of the marketing these days can zap a kid's creativity. Our little one likes to play pretend, but very often that means just recreating scenes from Disney movies, word for word. She's got Cinderella's official dress AND glass slippers. I've been the wicked stepmother (ironic, huh?), the stepsisters, and the prince. She's ALWAYS Cinderella. It's so cute when she does this (although I HATE participating) but there's very little creativity involved because the story and the script are already written for her. I noticed on my own that a lot of the marketing trains children as consumers from a young age. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Webkinz toys, which our older daughter LOVES. She's got about $600 worth of these stupid stuffed animals, and she logs each one into the Webkinz website and gives it a gender and a name. Then she plays games on the site to win fake money, which she can use to buy stuff for her Webkinz virtual world. The entire goal of the game is the needless accumulation of stuff. But Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood points out an even MORE disturbing point. Marketing teaches children that you need to always have newer, bigger, better, and more. What you have now is never enough. Buddhism teaches that pain comes from desire, and by ending desire, one can end pain. In other words, be happy with what you have. And certainly sometimes people have legitimate needs, and it's nice to get a new present or treat once in a while. But does one child need 40 stuffed animals or more? (And yes, she wants more.) This mentality creates unhappiness, as there is always something more to buy and what you have is never enough.
Apparently Americans are transfixed by the reality show Undercover Boss, a show in which a boss goes "undercover" to find out what average employees' lives are like on the job. In one show, a boss finds out that a woman who works on a garbage truck has to pee in a cup because the job doesn't allow for any breaks - not even to pee! As I heard this, I realized something. I've long wished more people would read the book Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, which tells of her experiences trying to make a living by working minimum wage jobs. But if you really want the American people to pay attention to something, I guess you have to turn it into a reality TV show. No doubt they are getting a good taste of what Ehrenreich says in her book as they watch Undercover Boss. With this in mind, here are a few shows I'd like to see in the near future: Farm Swap: Where an unsustainable farmer trades farms with a sustainable farmer. Imagine what would happen when a guy who farms 2000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa (and maybe owns a nice hog confinement with about 8000 hogs to go with it) trades farms for a week with someone who grows 40 acres of organic veggies and raises chickens on pasture. Undercover Farmworker: In which people who eat foods go undercover and work in the fields alongside migrant workers picking tomatoes or strawberries. A spin-off version of this show could also feature international locations in which consumers go undercover among coffee and cocoa growers. Sadly, it would probably be illegal to have American children who love chocolate go undercover among child slaves on cacao plantations in Africa. Ultimate School Lunch Makeover: In each episode, a school cafeteria that serves vile, unhealthy food will get a makeover to serve healthy, delicious, sustainable food to the kids. Trading Lobbyists: In this show, two opposing sides of an issue will trade lobbyists (and lobbying budgets) for one week. Biotech and pesticide companies will find themselves stuck with no money and nothing more than a few homemade websites and blogs, while sustainable food advocates will suddenly find themselves armed with millions of dollars, corporate jets, the best PR firms in the nation, a full team of skilled lobbyists, access to powerful politicians, and front groups through which they can coordinate their campaigns.
Today, Alternet published a piece I wrote about San Francisco giving gardeners sewage sludge under the guise of free "organic compost." This piece has a particularly personal significance to me as a gardener and as an unofficial stepmother. Our garden is our food supply, but it's also a play area and learning environment for my boyfriend's two young kids. One day while we were outside preparing a bed for planting, his youngest daughter discovered that water plus dirt equals mud. Within minutes she was naked, playing in the mud for the rest of the afternoon. As noted in my piece on San Francisco, all of the samples tested from their free "organic compost" contained PBDE, a flame retardant. The CDC says that children should not play in dirt contaminated with PBDE. If we had used San Francisco's sludge in our garden, that's exactly what our toddler would have done as she played in the mud that day. And that's one out of thousands of chemicals that go into sewage sludge, entirely unregulated by the government. It's horrifying to think what we and our kids would have been exposed to if we were one of the families in San Francisco who took the free sludge compost.
Over 100 groups are now urging the Senate to reject the nomination of top pesticide/biotech lobbyist Islam A. Siddiqui as Chief Agricultural Negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The Senate could, in all likelihood, gather the votes to confirm him and yet - they haven't. One thing is holding him back, and that one thing is Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning. Bunning, who is famous for erratic and seemingly irrational behavior (like his one man stand against extending unemployment benefits this past week), is blocking Siddiqui's confirmation. My hunch is that it's a matter of time before he gives in and Siddiqui gets confirmed, but in the meantime, groups opposed to Siddiqui are using the extra time to express their utter horror at the thought of a CropLife lobbyist as a top U.S. official in an open letter to the Senate. I never thought the day would come when Sen. Bunning and I were on the same side of an issue.
Want to know what's in your meat and/or poultry? The government's got a new 40-page PDF document with a complete list of allowed additives. And, to help you decipher the list, they also provide a Glossary of Commonly Used Meat and Poultry Additives and Terms. Here's a sampling of what you'll find in meat & poultry. By the way, many of these chemicals do not need to be labeled on the products you purchase. Honestly, some of these things might be harmless. Even water can sound like a dangerous chemical if you refer to it as dihydrogen oxide. But the sheer length of this list as well as the fact that consumers are in the dark about most of them makes me very glad that I'm a vegetarian and that what little meat I've eaten in the past several years came directly from farmers I know. Acidifiers: Ammonium hydroxide, an aqueous solution of acidic calcium sulfate, an aqueous solution of hydrochloric and acetic acid, an aqueous solution of citric and hydrochloric acid, an aqueous solution of citric acid, hydrochloric acid, and phosphoric acid, an aqueous solution of sulfuric acid, citric acid, and phosphoric acid, sodium bisulfate, and sulfuric acid. Anticoagulants: Sodium tripolyphosphate Antimicrobials: An aqueous solution of sodium diacetate (4%), lactic acid, (4%), pectin (2%), and acetic acid (0.5%); an aqueous solution of sodium octanoate or octanoic acid and either glycerin and/or propylene glycol andor a Polysorbate surface active agent (quantity sufficient to achieve the technical effect of octanoic acid emulsification) adjusted to a final solution pH of 1.5 to 4.0 using sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or an acceptable GRAS [generally regarded as safe] acid;... (the list goes on for many pages and includes such gems as anhydrous ammonia and chlorine gas) Antioxidants: BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) Binders: A mix of sodium alginate, calcium sulfate, glucono deltalactone, and sodium pyrophosphate; a mixture of carrageenan, whey, protein concentrate, and xantham gum; beef collagen; binders listed in 9 CFR 424.21(c) for use in cured pork products and poultry products; carboxymethyl cellulose (cellulose gum); carrot fiber; cellulose, powdered conforming to the specifications in the Food Chemicals Codex 5th Edition; guar powder, micronized; hydroxypropyl methylcellulose; inulin; konjac flour; methylcellulose; oat hull fiber; oat fiber; orange pulp, dried; orange pulp, dried and orange pulp, dried with guar gum; partially hydrolyzed proteins; pectin; pork collagen; pork skin proteins; rice bran; rice starch; sodium alginate; "(species) protein" (e.g., chicken protein); transgultaminase enzyme; trehalose, xanthaM gum (purified by recovery with ethyl alcohol) Colorings: Carmine (cochineal) Curing Accelerators (must be used only in combination with curing agents): Potassium erythorbate Denuding agents (may be used in combination. Must be removed from tripe by rinsing with potable water.): Calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium hydroxide, potassium carbonate, potassium citrate, potassium hydroxide, tricalcium phosphate, tropotassium phosphate That's just the first 24 pages or so. The list goes on with film forming agents, flavoring agents, "Miscellaneous," packaging systems, poultry scald agents, and tenderizing agents. Yum!

In a whitepaper and an accompanying presentation, Elanco - a division of Eli Lilly - refers to its drug Paylean by saying:
"Use of an FDA-approved feed additive for swine can reduce manure production in pigs by 8 percent."
"an FDA-approved swine feed additive could enable the U.S. to maintain pork production levels while raising 11 million fewer hogs. This would also reduce demand for cropland used to grow feed grains by more than 2 million acres."
These are offered as reasons why Elanco's products are "green." They aren't just smart for a farmer's bottom line - they are good for the earth! But that's not the whole picture. A new expose by Alternet shows that Ractopamine (a.k.a. Paylean) is unsafe for humans and cruel to animals. This drug is administered in the last stage of the animal's life, and up to 20 percent of it remains in the animal's tissue at slaughter. This is a drug labeled "Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask." That's not something I'd want to eat. Alternet also says:
Where was mention of the farmer phone calls to Elanco reporting, "hyperactivity," "dying animals," "downer pigs" and "tying up" and "stress" syndromes, asks the FDA letter. Where was the log of phone calls that included farmers saying, "animals are down and shaking," and "pig vomiting after eating feed with Paylean"?
Wow. No wonder the President of Elanco refers to this drug anonymously when he presents on how sustainable and fantastic his company is. If he told people what he was selling, they'd know how full of it he is. This drug is banned in 160 countries, so why is it legal here?
Earlier today, I reported on my blog about a bill banning junk food in schools that passed the Massachusetts House. The ban, which only applies to so-called "competitive foods," covers "sugary" sodas, cookies, candy bars, and some chips and sports drinks. Instead, schools are encouraged to sell non-fried fruits and vegetables, whole grains, non-fat or low-fat dairy, non-carbonated water, and 100% juice. Competitive foods are the a la carte items sold outside of the National School Lunch Program. Nationally, the National School Lunch Program has federal nutrition standards, but competitive foods do not. Since my original post about this bill, I've learned more - and the news is all good! First, the House vote was nearly unanimous and the Senate is expected to pass the bill as well. Second, in addition to getting the junk out of schools, the bill attempts to put produce from local farms into schools. Massachusetts has a vibrant agricultural sector and more food is sold directly from farmer to consumer in Massachusetts than nearly any other state (they are second to Rhode Island). An amendment to the bill calls for research on available local food as well as what foods the schools are interested in. According to The MetroWest Daily News:
A report would be done with the hope that the findings would increase cooperation among the Department of Agriculture, local farms and public schools. The bill seeks to "develop a mechanism and process by which schools interested in purchasing Massachusetts' farm products may notify farms."
According to Rep. Peter Koutoujian, the sponsor of the bill, 63 percent of Massachusetts public school students currently eat local food in their lunches. He said last year 205 Massachusetts school districts purchased local foods, compared to only 32 school districts in 2006.