When it comes to problems with our food system, we've got a chicken and egg problem on our hands. Enormous corporations sell most of our food and they use environmentally harmful methods to produce it and put unhealthy ingredients in it - much of which is legal (and sometimes when something is illegal, the law isn't enforced). The obvious solution would be changing the law, except these same corporations lobby politicians NOT to change the law (and too often, the politicians obey the lobbists). Currently, Congress has a few bills that would ban BPA - a harmful chemical found in can linings and some types of plastic - but a powerful BPA lobby that includes aluminum can makers, soda companies, and other food companies has thus far succeeded in keeping any of those bills from passing. Then there's the climate change bill, which specifically excluded agriculture from emissions caps even though agriculture is responsible for quite a bit of greenhouse gas emissions. And there's the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization, which governs school lunch and other federal nutrition programs. Every single food industry wants to make sure that their products are allowed to be sold in schools, so their lobbyists are working on that. And, of course, there's the commonsense Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which simply says that you cannot drug livestock with classes of antibiotics important in human medicine if the animal is not sick. Sick animals would still get the care they need. The goal is to avoid creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, a problem that is already documented in livestock operations in the U.S. The bill was introduced by Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist, yet the livestock industry is lobbying hard against it and so far they are winning. So - if we have bad food because our laws are too lax, but we can't get better laws because food companies lobby the government, what can we do? I believe that the single biggest thing we can do right now is to try to break up agriculture corporations that violate our nation's antitrust laws. We need fair competition, and that's something we don't currently have. Farm Aid recently posted a graph of consolidation in a number of agricultural industries and that says it all. In each industry within food and agriculture, only a few companies control most of the market. And, quite often, they also have a considerable amount of influence over the government as well. Fortunately, Obama's antitrust czar, Christine Varney, stated in her confirmation hearings that she would look into anticompetitive behavior in agriculture, and she's keeping her promise. The Department of Justice recently began an investigation of Monsanto and filed a suit against dairy giant Dean Foods. Monsanto's in trouble over its soybeans. The issue is a particularly disturbing one because it involves not just the buying and selling of seeds but ownership and patenting of life itself. Seed companies don't just own seeds - they own traits (and the DNA that governs those traits). Monsanto licenses other companies to sell seeds made with traits they own. Over the years, they've written licensing agreements in a way that makes it very hard for their competitors to compete with them. Either they were shrewd businessmen or they were breaking the law - that's what the DOJ is trying to find out. (Find more information on this here.) The suit against Dean Foods seeks to undo their acquisition of two companies, but it won't be enough to fix the dairy industry. This past year, dairy farmers suffered the hardest times since the Great Depression. Farmers received prices as low as $10 or $11 per hundred pounds of milk even though it cost them about $18 to produce it. They lost money with each gallon of milk they sold, and many dairy farmers lost their farms altogether. Prices are beginning to go up, but the dairy farmers I know have felt for a long time that a few powerful players in the industry have been manipulating prices. They went to the Senate about this a few years ago and several Senators asked the Government Accountability Office to begin an investigation, which it did. Then the investigation got a little too close to friends of Bush, and the investigation was called off altogether. The two actions taken by the Dept of Justice are necessary but they are a drop in the bucket. Fortunately, the Department of Justice has been accepting comments about antitrust issues in agriculture (the deadline was a month ago) and they are holding a series of public workshops on the topic as well. I look forward to these workshops, and I hope that the DOJ continues and expands its action to promote fair competition in food and agriculture.
Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, so it's no small problem that pollinators are dying. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has gotten quite a bit of publicity, but often in the context of "We don't know what's causing it!" However, there is strong evidence that we DO know what's causing it: a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. According to the Sierra Club:
At issue are the nicotinyl insecticides (also known as neonicotinoids) being used in a new way -- as seed coatings. For years, farmers have been spraying neonicotinoids onto their crops to stop insect infestation. Now huge agribusiness corporations have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids. These "neonics" are extremely persistent. They enter the plant and are present in pollen and on droplets of water on leaves.
As you might expect, insecticides kill insects. And bees are insects. Right now Sierra Club is urging us to do two things. First, check out the documentary Nicotine Bees. Second, contact the EPA at owens.steve at epa dot gov or call him at 1-202-5642902 to request a suspension of the neonicotinoid seed coatings until independent scientists verify safety. You can find more information about this on my blog or on the Sierra Club's site.
South Carolina is officially America's most embarrassing state. You've got Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford, Joe "You Lie" Wilson, Jim "Waterloo" DeMint, and now this... all from the same state. Here's what South Carolina's Lt. Governor, Andre Bauer, said about free and reduced cost lunch programs:
I can show you a bar graph where free and reduced lunch has the worst test scores in the state of South Carolina," adding, "You show me the school that has the highest free and reduced lunch, and I'll show you the worst test scores, folks. It's there, period.
He continued, saying:
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.
Wow. Talk about missing the point. School lunch is intended to help hungry children - who by no fault of their own were born into poverty - get a full belly so they can learn and hopefully work their way out of the bad situation they were born into. What's more American than that? As for concerns about poor people and teens "breeding," have you considered doing away with abstinence-only sex education and instead teaching about birth control? Or how about offering comprehensive reproductive health care to all women in your state? I'm not sure what South Carolina's track record is on this but I'm guessing it ain't good. Andre Bauer, if this is an issue that concerns you, maybe the thing to do is give a large donation to Planned Parenthood - not get rid of school lunch.
I've always regarded urban ag fanatics as a strange species, to be dealt with carefully. These folks claim that urban farms, community gardens, and even backyard gardens will be our savior. I would look at my own life as an apartment dweller who had no idea how to garden and think that they must be crazy. I had tried growing herbs in pots a few times but it always resulted in utter failure. I would spend a lot of money on pots and soil and seeds and then... nothing. Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle made me wish I could garden, and even kind of ashamed that I couldn't. After my own book (Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It) came out, I joked in interviews that the only thing I grew was mold in my refrigerator. For somebody so passionate about sustainable, local food and the natural world, I was totally pathetic as a gardener. And if I - a college graduate and sustainable food and agriculture activist - couldn't figure out gardening - what are the chances that the rest of the nation could do it? As it turns out, I can do it. And so can a large percent of Americans. During World War II, victory gardens produced 40 percent of the nation's produce. Backyard and urban gardening probably account for nowhere near that today, but - whether due to the economy or the rise in sustainable food activism or both - seed companies have boasted record sales for each of the last two summers. No doubt some people don't have a yard (or even space on a patio for some pots), and some people just plain don't have time. But if you have those two things, you can garden. And - as a new and totally addicted gardener - I think gardening can be a major part of transforming our food system to a more sustainable, just, and healthy one. The gardening bug bit me a few months ago. I spent the second half of 2009 visiting farms and gardens around the country while on my book tour. I'd arrange for speaking gigs and book signings at night, reserving the days to visit farms and learn more about sustainable agriculture. When planning for a trip to Wisconsin, I reserved an entire day to make a pilgrimage to Milwaukee-based Growing Power, an urban farm so successful that even President Clinton took notice. Visiting Growing Power was nothing less than a transformative experience. They turn free inputs like food waste into healthy, sustainable food, all on a mere two acres - and they do it year round in Milwaukee's cold climate. Growing Power is Milwaukee's last remaining farm but cities with a glut of foreclosed, empty properties have an opportunity now to repurpose city land for growing food. In fact, Detroit, of all places, is gaining recognition as a hub of urban agriculture. Totally inspired by the Growing Power experience, I started up a worm bin when I got home. A few months later, my life changed drastically. I moved in with my boyfriend and his two kids - into a rented house with a yard. My worms made the move with me. After conversations with my boyfriend and his daughter's Girl Scout leader, we made plans to take the girls to a local, organic nursery and for me to teach them how to make a worm bin. The girls were unruly and I wonder how much they actually learned from the visit to the nursery, but the trip was a turning point for me. As we finished our nursery tour, the owner of the nursery let each Girl Scout plant a fava bean to take home. I planted a fava bean too, but I was incredulous that it would actually grow. It seemed too simple. I put this fava bean into this container of potting soil and it grows? Just like that? There's no special trick to it or magic spells I need to say to make it all work? I withheld my disbelieve and planted my bean. After lunch, the girls reconvened at the troop leader's house and we sat in a circle and talked about how to make a worm bin. It was much less organized than I expected - I was used to speaking to adults, not second graders - but the kids went absolutely crazy for the worms. Learning happened, even if it didn't happen in the linear fashion I had planned. Girl Scouts ran all over the yard, shredding newspaper and grabbing handfuls of dirt and worms. Many girls wanted to take the worms home as pets and give them names. They were jealous that our Girl Scout would get to keep the entire bin of worms, and they wanted to come to our house to visit the worms. My boyfriend's daughter was thrilled to be the center of attention, and she and her sister spent several days afterward carefully attempting to name each worm. When it was time to toss out the kitchen scraps, the girls each wanted a turn to feed the worms. Over time, the worms became less entertaining, but the girls still come and check out new discoveries when I find them in the worm bin (like worm eggs, sprouted squash seeds, and fungi). When their friends visit, they always ask to see the worms. For me, somehow, the adrenaline of a yard of screaming Girl Scouts felt much more powerful and moving than an entire book tour of speaking to adults. Don't get me wrong - I love speaking to adults - but the girls are hilarious when you tell them things like "Some chickens lay green eggs" or "We use worm poop as food for our plants." When I showed our youngest daughter worm eggs, she asked if she could eat them. In her mind, she ate chicken eggs, so eggs must be for eating. Getting back to the subject of gardening, the two fava beans we brought home grew. We planted them in the soil and they continued to grow. Nobody was more surprised than me. Then my boyfriend decided to plant some carrots - which we did as a family activity - and I planted some sugarsnap peas and two varieties of squash. All of a sudden, our yard became a garden. It hasn't been without a few bumps along the way, but it's addicting. In addition to the plants listed above, we've planted cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, scallions, garlic, several types of lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, lima beans, marigolds, figs, pomegranates, blackberries, dragonfruit, and herbs. It's a very powerful feeling to grow your own food, and I look forward to the convenience of picking our food just before dinnertime each day instead of trying to manage a fridge full of perishable fruits and veggies. Gardening, it turns out, is as easy as asking for advice and following simple directions. For the kids, gardening isn't as stimulating as worms. Our little one is eager to help with gardening but she wants to do it her way. She's basically playing (which is great) and we have a good day when she doesn't kill any of the plants. Our older daughter usually doesn't want to work in the garden but she surprised me this weekend when she asked to help me "plant stuff." Gardening opens up a world of possibilities to teach the children about biology, ecology, and conservation. Through this experience, I've become a believer that gardening can be and must be a major part of reforming our food system. And children absolutely must be part of the picture. I've often heard laments that agricultural and cooking knowledge can die out with just one generation. If that is true, then it must also be true that a society-wide effort can bring that knowledge back in one generation. By engaging the kids in gardening as a means to teach science and to interest them in healthy eating (it remains to be seen whether the kids will actually eat the broccoli they grew themselves), we can produce a generation of gardeners who will grow up to produce their own food and understand the difference between real food and the processed food-like substances often sold at supermarkets.