Conscious Choice

How Google Earth Is Helping to Save the Real Earth

The map didn't make sense. It was one of those grainy, black-and-white topographical maps, the kind of 8 ½ x 11 photocopy you get in the mail to inform you of an upcoming construction project near your home. The kind you turn this way and that until you give up trying to figure out what it corresponds to in the real world and just toss it into the trash instead.

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What the World Might Look Like When the Millennials Run It

If you can't remember a time when the world was not wired, you are a member of the Millennial Generation -- the 33 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. You are special. You are different. The fate of the planet is on your shoulders. No pressure.

Before your arrival, the largest, richest and most influential generation in American history were your parents -- the Baby Boom Generation -- the some 78 million Americans born to G.I. Dads and Lindy-hopping Moms in the years after the end of World War II. Succeeding them, born between 1964 and 1977, was Generation X, clocking in much smaller, at 37 million. But with over 80 million Americans born after 1977, Generation Y is the new large and in charge generation. Gen Y includes Echo Boomers (loosely defined as the children of the Boomers born after 1977), and Millennials, (those born after 1982). Like their Boomer parents before them, the opposite ends of the Gen Y/Echo/Millennial generation are vastly different from each other. And Millennials, say experts, "are unlike any other youths in living memory: More numerous, more affluent, better educated and more ethnically diverse than those who came before." Those words from William Strauss and Neil Howe, social scientists who coined the term "millennial" in their book Millennials and the Pop Culture (LifeCourse Associates, March '06).

Perhaps the most outstanding detail that distinguishes this generation -- from even those born just a couple of years earlier -- is their level of media consumption, particularly online. Today, the average teenager spends more than 72 hours a week using electronic media -- cell phones, internet, television, music and video games -- according to a 2006 study.

"There's an intense focus on openness, sharing information, as both an ideal and a practical strategy to get things done," explained Mark Zuckerberg, 23-year-old Millennial wüunderkind and founder and CEO of Facebook, in a recent interview with Fast Company. On, students log in daily to chat, flirt and connect -- the average user frittering away eight hours a month on the site.

All that time spent social networking has indoctrinated Millennials into the cult of groupthink, refashioning them into the most collaborative and team-oriented generation the world has seen in many a decade. This manifests in "a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct," say Strauss and Howe.

Millennials spend 16 hours a week on the Internet -- and that's not including emailing. Recent research from the Pew Internet and American life project shows nearly 80 percent of the 28 and younger set regularly read blogs, compared with just 30 percent of adults 29 to 40. And roughly 40 percent of teenage and 20-something Internet users have created their own blog, as compared to just a sliver of 30-somethings -- a mere 9 percent.

Thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur and youth-marketing guru Anastasia Goodstein turned her fascination with the evolving Internet habits of Millennials' into a book, Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are REALLY Doing Online (St. Martin's Griffon, March '07). She calls Millennials the "mash up generation," because they're constantly taking bits and pieces of popular culture and then remixing them -- essentially creating their own tailored subcultures.

Out of Myspace and Into the World

But with personally-crafted online networks right at their fingertips, Millennials are confronting some harsh realities when they step outside their virtual world. Julia Dossett, a 25-year-old Marketing Associate for the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, observes this phenomenon in the numbers of her peers who seem to resist engagement in a personal and professional commitment because "they are waiting around for the ideal to come along." This can breed apathy, resentment and a sense of entitlement.

"None of these will help my generation actually reach the potential we were encouraged to achieve as children so long ago," Dossett laments. "We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted and be anything we wanted, and that nothing was out of reach. But now that we are young adults living away from our parents -- I think we sometimes find the choices overwhelming."

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable than Ever Before (Free Press, March '07), blames much of Millennial angst on the over indulgences of boomer parents. "They were raised by 'helicopter' parents who constantly hovered over them -- providing unending praise, support and, perhaps, unrealistic expectations that the world was their oyster," says Twenge. This group is highly optimistic -- they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. The misery is produced, says Twenge, when these overly confident youngsters hit a stressed-out work place rife with uncertainty.

"Many people reaching their twenties find that their jobs do not provide the fulfillment and excitement they had anticipated," Twenge continues. "And their salary isn't enough to afford even a small house."

Millennial dissatisfaction in the workplace has not gone unnoticed by employers. Anastasia Goodstein recounts a recent Wall Street Journal article about a company that hired a praise consultant to help assuage the egos of young employees. "This is a generation used to veneration and attention and getting a pat on the back," Goodstein explains. But still, Goodstein wonders what kind of praise the consultant might offer. "Maybe 'Great job, you showed up today!' "

On, 20-something bloggers Ryan Paugh and Ryan Healy hope to "create an anonymous dialogue between our generation and the corporations struggling to understand our attitudes about work." In a recent post entitled "Where Should a Millennial Draw the Line?," Paugh writes, "Part of being an entry-level worker is just waiting for something big to come your way. In the meantime, you bite your lip and act busy. Preceding generations say it's normal. I say it sucks. If what our elders say is true, we're supposed to keep on truckin'. Eventually we'll have some real responsibility and the downtime will be nothing less than treasured. The problem is, I don't live my life on blind faith."

Richard Florida, best-selling author of Rise of the Creative Class, gets Paugh's message loud and clear. "This generation values intrinsic rewards more so than salary and benefits," says Florida. "A culture which fosters tolerance and learning is one they will seek out and thrive in. The organizations that do this best will be the ones that prosper in the creative age."

Political Scenesters

Smart, savvy and civically engaged, there is no doubt Millennials will affect profound change on the political level. When they start occupying elective offices, expect new initiatives to protect children, promote literacy and safety and reform dysfunctional educational systems. Experts also anticipate this generation will affect profound political change on a consumer level, especially concerning where and why they open their pocket books. Their loyalty will lie with socially responsible business practices.

In fact, they're dedicating their time to efforts they care about more than ever before. In 2003, 83 percent of college freshman were volunteering -- up from about 66 percent in 1990 (a side effect of increasingly competitive college acceptance rates perhaps, but nice nonetheless).

And for those dismayed by the general public's apparent distrust of smart politicians, here's a great sign: Eight in ten teens now say it's "cool to be smart." Test scores are up, and 73 percent of high school students say they want a four-year college degree.

"Two things represent my generation," concludes Chris Hales, 25-year-old CEO of Anti-Matter Media a Chicago-based multimedia company. "Technology and the 'Do-It-Yourself' aesthetic. With the increase of technology, opportunities for networking with others seem endless, enabling us to turn out more authors, films, record labels and artists than previous generations. When you put the two together you have the recipe for a generation that is willing to go out and make stuff happen on their own."

Five Eco-Diets Get Put to the Test

I am your run-of-the mill vegetarian. I started up after a college cafeteria gave me dry Salisbury steak with a side of food poisoning, kept it going for a girl, then firmed up a deepening veggie philosophy with some essential reading. I stuck with it from there because I’m healthy as hell, think there is little more appealing than fresh arugula salad, and, really, who would doubt a diet promoted by Einstein?

But these days, regular old vegetarianism -- which 10 percent of Americans claim to be, by the way -- is just one jumping point for molding a healthy dietary conscience. As meals today come complete with a carbon footprint, more of us are eating with the health of the watershed, soil and sustainable farming in mind. Everyone’s favorite (albeit omnivorous) food guru Michael Pollan said it best with his sage advice for healthy eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Still, like any new dietary trend, sustainable diets are subject to extremes, as well as their own fair share of loopholes and problems (think Atkins and a bunless triple-cheeseburger with bacon). I decided to see for myself what’s on the menu for the vegan, for the 100-mile-dieter, for the raw foodist, the slow food advocate, and the strictly organic consumer, noting how these diets hold up beyond theory and in surreptitious practice (i.e. is that really organic?). To aid my assessment of each diet’s feasibility, sustainability, health and strain on the wallet, I attempted to practice each method for one week.

Don’t Panic, It’s Organic

Since J.I. Rodale began promoting organic farming in the 1940s, “organic” has come to mean opposition to the practices of industrial farming. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has now officially defined “organic” as, in short, food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge, free from irradiation, genetic modification or -- for animal-products -- growth hormones or antibiotics. A USDA organic seal has been in existence under five years, but the time-consuming process of certification has limited the amount of farmers whose products carry the seal -- even if many (often smaller) farmers are practicing organic methods. This is bad news for me since I’m limiting my diet to USDA approved organics. Let the search begin…

Price: Quite pricey. Add $0.50 to $1.00 per item if you want to upgrade to organic. My grocery bill for the week went up a whopping $30.00.

Prep Time: Factor in conscientious label-reading, asking questions and spending quality time with a Sharpie, crossing off bogus terms like “all natural” from labels. Here’s a cheat sheet: “USDA Organic” is made with 100 percent organic ingredients, just “Organic” means ingredients are 95 percent organic and “made with organic ingredients” must be over 70 percent organic. “All natural” means absolutely nothing.

Health: Organics guarantee no pesticides or harsh, petrol-based fertilizers, with a growing finding of health benefits.

Sustainability: When farmers are held to organic standards, the surrounding environment benefits. Still, a simple meal could log a hefty carbon footprint. My organic enchilada recipe went on one heck of Spring Break before arriving on my plate -- including Mexico, Chile and Argentina. When local farmers nearby have fresh tomatoes, it’s going to be hard to argue that those hundreds of gallons of jet fuel are worth the guarantee of a pesticide-free salsa.

In the Garden of Vegan

The sustainable vegan diet focuses a critical eye on the conventional raising of livestock, a practice that is unsustainable and, many vegans believe, antiquated and cruel. The ecological problems stem from animal feedlot operations (AFOs). “By definition,” reads a passage on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, “AFOs produce large amounts of waste in small areas. For example, a single dairy cow produces approximately 120 pounds of wet manure per day. The waste produced per day by one dairy cow is equal to that of 20-40 people.” Meat and other animal products require gads of energy and water to produce. Mass-production of these products includes antibiotics and questionable feed practices, and leaves us with a whole lot of waste to contaminate the rest of our food chain. The vegan’s answer? Cut out the animal products.

Price: Plenty of room to price shop on this diet, and by definition you sidestep some of the pricier parts of an “average” diet -- meat and dairy.

Prep Time: No time added.

Health: Moderate. As with any nutritional regimen, eating healthy on a vegan diet still requires making smart choices. While vegans substitute most major sources of fat and cholesterol like eggs, meat, cheese and milk with heart-healthier alternatives like soy, beans and nuts, a vegan diet isn’t necessarily all health heaven. French fries, a can of coke and a sugary slice of vegan carrot cake for dessert are all still fair game.

Sustainability: Good. For every hunk of beef, slice of cheese and glass of milk you replace, you are giving a nod to the veggie farmer and shying away from problems plaguing the animal products industries: run-off, overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones. Still, there are no limits on your food’s carbon footprint (grapes from Australia, anyone?).

A Raw Deal

While sticking to foods prepared under temperatures less than 118 F makes for meals packed with nutrients, consuming only fruits, vegetables and nuts in caloric quantities equivalent to your average carb-heavy cooked diet can take some getting used to. Just three days into this diet and I had a daylong headache, my stomach was in knots, and the rest of my digestive system wasn’t so happy. I caved and headed to a favorite vegan restaurant for a hot meal.

But this wasn’t necessarily a sign of the diet’s failing -- it just shows that eating uncooked, unprocessed food is a radically different take on preparing chow. Raw foodists believe that heating and processing ingredients kills important enzymes, those unseen creatures in our meal that break down the food, molecule-by-molecule, and aid in digestion. Less enzymes, claim raw foodists, makes for more toxicity in the body -- leading to lethargy, obesity and generally bad health.

After recovering from the initial shock of going raw, I got back in the saddle with one of the best meals of all the diets combined: raw lasagna (zucchini, squash, pine-nut ricotta and basil pistachio pesto) at New York City raw restaurant, Pure Food and Wine. Afterwards, I felt like a million bucks -- sated, energized and just plain healthy. Maybe raw foodists are on to something after all.

Price: Moderately high. Many raw foodists eat organic (understandably, as they are only rinsing their food), and favor exotic and costlier ingredients like cacao, cold pressed oils and tropical fruits.

Prep Time: You’d think time would be saved since you need not turn the stove on. But after slaving over a food processor and blender (simultaneously), triple washing, slicing, dicing, mincing and soaking food for hours -- think again. Expect to add up to an extra hour of prep time.

Health: Raw food dieters believe that cooking food destroys important enzymes, bacteria and micronutrients that aid the immune system and general health. The marriage of fire and food may kill many nutrients and good bacteria, but it also kills dangerous bacteria and helps make food easier to digest (although many raw dieters note the cleansing properties of the diet).

Sustainability: Strong. On par with an organic, vegan diet.

Livin’ Like a Locavore

The “100-mile diet” began in 2005 at the home of Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon in Vancouver, British Columbia. Inspired by a vacation in a new cabin where they ate off the land for a few weeks, the duo staged a year-long experiment of only eating food grown within 100 miles of their home. In part, Smith and MacKinnon’s 100-mile diet was a reaction to the growing organic movement. “The original ideals of the organic movement included local,” said Smith in a radio interview. “[And that’s] the system to shoot for… Organics will follow.” The “real crisis in the food system is a crisis of transparency,” added MacKinnon. Eating locally puts knowledge of the health and safety of the food supply back into the hands of the consumer.

Price: Farmers markets, co-ops and CSAs are usually cheaper than your average grocery story.

Prep time: Much creativity is required for preparation -- you’ll have to do a bunch of gardening if you don’t live near a great farmers market -- and you’re stuck with what’s in season, which means learning to cook that cardoon, celeriac and oyster root soup.

Health: The health concerns of the 100-mile diet are readily apparent. Your diet is limited to what is growing. This may mean milk and potatoes for days on end. Don’t live near olive trees? You’ll have to use local butter to cook your food. Bread shouldn’t be a problem, unless the wheat fields are just beyond 100 miles. Still, MacKinnon cites the benefit that local food is usually harvested at its peak, which means that it has developed to its nutritional max. And eating what’s in season breaks repetitive eating patterns (you can’t fall back on spaghetti and marinara sauce if it’s not tomato season), thus introducing a wider range of nutrients into your diet.

Sustainability: Shining. Eating locally counters the bulk of the carbon footprint created by the average diet, and promotes diverse -- and therefore more sustainable -- farming.

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Slow Food begins with gastronomy, the science of good eating. “There isn’t a ‘Slow Food Diet’ per se,” says Jerusha Klemperer, of Slow Food, USA. “We basically consider Slow Food to be food that is good (in that it tastes delicious and is clean), produced in a way that is ecologically sustainable, and is fair (produced in a way that fairly compensates),” he says. Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini says the goal is to “bring gastronomy in service of the environment.” Petrini believes this happens when people stop, (or slow down) and think about what they eat and where it comes from. But “ultimately,” says Klemperer, “Slow Food is about reviving the pleasures of the table, eating your meal in a communal setting -- not at your desk, not in front of the TV, but at a table, with other people.” Slow Food is an approach to diet as philosophy rather than regimen -- which comes as quite a relief to me, after all this dieting.

Price: To ascribe to the Slow Food movement, first and foremost you must “buy good food.” This means organic and local, fresh and unprocessed. Petrini says that the average person must get used to paying more than double what they pay now for food.

Prep time: To truly eat slow takes effort -- and is decidedly not conducive to a 50+ hour workweek. With full meals extending up to six hours to prepare and eat, a slow meal once a week -- as an event -- is probably the way to go.

Health: “Welcome to a society where we spend more money to lose weight than to eat,” says Petrini. Putting more time and thought into food, he believes, is a good way to reverse this backward way of looking at nutrition.

Sustainability: Excellent. Slow Food is based on the marriage of a good diet and smart ecology.

My Diet, Myself

If you haven’t seen the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, you should rent it -- if only to witness the intriguingly gruesome health collapse of the protagonist, who attempts to subsist on a diet of 100 percent fast food. But the shock doc’s main point is not that McDonald’s is bad for you -- because, well, duh -- but rather that the average American thinks so little about the quality and history of the food they put into their body.

The sustainable diets I’ve explored have one unifying priority -- they aim to return thought back into diet. But, once the rules become unthinking habit, loopholes appear. Sure going raw can be healthy, but eating three Chilean avocados a day could leave you with high cholesterol and a hefty carbon footprint. The trick to eating with a conscience is to mix and match ideologies to create meals that are healthiest for you and the planet. After this experiment, I’ve signed up for a share from a local farm, put a number of raw recipes on heavy rotation, bought more organic (but only when there’s no local choice), and thought twice before buying processed foods. I’m no longer following the set rules of any sustainable vegetarian diet in particular. Instead, I like to think that I have graduated from “run of the mill” to fully sustainable vegetarian.

The New Rules of Food

What if you knew the story behind everything you ate, such as where the food came from, who grew it and how? Imagine the landscape from which it came, perhaps a thriving collection of family farms. What if you knew the people that grew the food, knew that they got a fair price for it and that they actively worked to protect the landscape?

How differently would we eat if we got to know our food better?

Basic knowledge of where food comes from and how it is produced is lost on many Americans today and with it a trust in the food supply that sustains us.

With the rise of a highly industrialized society, an industrial farming system has developed along with it. Farms have become ever more mechanized, specialized and distant from most of the population. The federal government has contributed to the trend through legislation, with consecutive farm bills that favor big concentrated commodity growers -- sometimes known as "factory farms" -- while nearly ignoring local growers with smaller operations, sometimes collectively called "family farmers."

Now, when you walk into your local grocery, you see shelves chock full of all the marvels of our food system, with colorful packaging and displays. But do you know where it comes from? Do you trust it? In most cases, there is no information beyond the basic government approvals and ingredient lists. But for a growing number of people, particularly in the age of food safety scares, the lack of information is unacceptable. Many Americans want to get to know their food, and the story behind it, better.

A new food movement is growing out of these concerns. Concerned citizens, farmers and others are starting to work on a new set of rules for the food system. These rules or standards would ensure sufficient incomes for family farmers, fair treatment of farm workers, proper care of farm animals and conservation of the environment. While some are working on the specific rules, others are figuring out how to communicate about the issue and efforts to others. They're devising ways to convey the stories behind food, so grocery shoppers know more about a cut of meat or a bag of beans and can use this information to make better choices.

This food and farming conversation is gathering force, appropriately, in the Midwest. Many leading thinkers are gathering in March at the Family Farmed Expo (, a two-day event in Chicago that contains events for the general public. Local experts on the subject will be on hand as well.

"When national organic food standards were adopted in the early 90s, there was a choice," says Jim Slama of Sustain USA, a Chicago-based non-profit that works on food and farming issues. "At that time, the feds chose to emphasize environmental standards in the strictest sense, to certify whether the food production system avoided artificial fertilizers and chemicals. But they chose to ignore other values related to producing and selling food, values that many people care about."

Slama and his colleagues are at the forefront of a "food convergence." Previously, food-related issues were addressed separately as individual groups focused on organics, local production, fair trade or family farm issues. Today, these groups are coming together to look at food from all angles with the belief that collectively, they can have far greater impact.

Four key topics of discussion include certifying family farms; fair trade standards; organics and beyond; and local food and flavor.

Certifying Family Farms

Fred Kirschenmann has watched with alarm as the number of independent family farms decline across the Midwest. The North Dakota farmer and senior fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture noted that this tragic disappearance was occurring even as demand was growing for specialty food products.

"New markets are opening," says Kirschenmann. "In many cases, markets for organic foods, but they really take organic to another level. They come from peoples' rising desire to buy food that protects the land and animals, supports farm families and farm workers. These markets demand food products that independent family farmers can, by their very nature, best provide."

This new demand for food can be summed up in three things food must convey: memory, story and relationship. People want food that carries the land's qualities and nutrients to their tables -- that's its memory. They want to know where it came from and follow it to its source -- that's its story. And they want to enjoy a trusting relationship through real communication with the producer.

Kirschenmann joined like-minded rural advocates and food activists to form the Association of Family Farms (AFF). The organization's goal is to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by forming cooperatives and creating their own unique brands, which they will certify with a special seal.

Like the ubiquitous "UL" (Underwriters Laboratories) label on household goods, the AFF seal will appear on food products from meat to wheat. It will certify food in three ways: 1) environmental stewardship on the farm; 2) social standards, such as fair treatment of farm workers; and 3) fair business practices including fair compensation for family farmers.

AFF is composed of farmers from local marketing organizations and co-ops and is gradually expanding through regional committees. In addition to the AFF seal, Kirschenmann foresees an interactive website that will provide detailed information about the food, and the farmers and practices used to produce it.

Fair Trade Standards

For AFF to work, it needs solid rules and agreed-upon standards by which to judge whether a food item deserves the seal. The group is drawing upon the Portland-based Food Alliance, whose certification programs support sustainable agriculture. Their standards are comprehensive and touch on every aspect of the farm economy and call upon farmers and ranchers for the following:

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One Great Big Plastic Hassle

In the seminal 1967 film, The Graduate, baby-faced Dustin Hoffman was told the wave of the future -- "Plastics." The lucrative career tip slipped on the QT to young Benjamin the day of his graduation bore no cautionary message about the veritable Pandora's Box the petrochemical plastics industry had opened in the post-war era some twenty years before the film's setting. The overzealous Plastic Man knew the only thing he needed to know: The world would always be hungry for plastic.

That celluloid prediction has proved right on target. Cheap, durable and convenient, plastic has been the country's chosen miracle-material since World War II. When added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the petroleum-based industrial chemicals in plastic -- chief among them plasticizers such as phthalates (THAHL-ates) -- make our upholstery comfier and our pipes more flexible. To keep up with the world's affection for all things plasticized, the U.S. produces a billion pounds of phthalates a year.

Today, phthalates are one of the top offenders in a group of 70 suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that we spray in our homes and yards and use in our makeup, nail polish, detergents, flame retardants, plastic bottles, metal food cans and even children's toys.

When we're done with these products, we flush them down our sinks or burn them in our incinerators, where their runoff filters into our national waterways. Even if you eschew plasticized products in your personal lives, it's impossible to avoid contamination; EDCs are in the bodies of every man, woman, child and fetus in the U.S.

A scan of the usual green media suspects turns up a lot of material on this silent phenomenon. Beyond EDCs, public waterways are contaminated with growth hormones and antibiotics from cattle feed, residual hormones from birth control products and other medicines, waste chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These substances can pass intact into the water supply through conventional sewage treatment facilities, dumps and landfills, or wash off into surface water and even percolate into ground water from animal waste fertilizers contaminated with traces of such compounds. And yet the subject remains largely under the public radar.

Pioneer zoologist Theo Colborn began following the chemical trail early on. In her landmark book, Our Stolen Future (Dutton, 1996; Plume 1997 paperback), Colborn reported countless examples of reproductive disorders among wildlife -- from sterility in bald eagles to small genitalia in male alligators. After tracing the animals' disorders to chemical exposure, Colborn suggested that EDCs profoundly affect one of the body's main communication networks -- the endocrine system -- by either mimicking natural hormones or blocking their uptake to the body's receptor sites.

Short-circuiting hormones can disturb everything from human development and behavior to reproduction and immunity. And scientists believe even the tiniest hormone variation at certain critical points in fetal development can have a profound effect on a child's future health.

Disturbing public health trends are bearing out these grim theories. Maida Galvez, M.D., a New York-based pediatrician, often talks to parents concerned by the accelerated rate of their daughters' sexual development. "I've seen the onset of breast budding as early as the age of six," Dr. Galvez says, noting that normal breast development begins to occur around ages ten to 11.

To date there has been little research in the area of "precocious puberty," as it's called, but Galvez is currently part of a multicenter study of 1,200 adolescent girls to determine if exposure to the hormone disruptor family of phthalates is behind the trend.

A much-publicized 2005 study was the first to show the connection between phthalate exposure and incomplete genital development. Dr. Shanna Swan's study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (August, 2005), showed that pregnant women with higher urine concentrations of some phthalates were more likely to give birth to sons with "phthalate syndrome" -- incomplete male genital development -- a disorder previously seen only in lab rats. Swan's findings support the hypothesis that prenatal phthalate exposure to levels found in the general U.S. population can adversely affect the reproductive tract in male infants.

Environmental exposure to EDCs is the suspected cause of declining male testosterone levels over the past two decades, as well as the declining male birth rates in industrial areas such as Seveso, Italy, and the Dow Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario.

Last September, Vicki Blazer, a fish pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that more than 80 percent of male small mouth bass in the Potomac were growing eggs. She'd seen the problem a few years earlier in a pristine area of West Virginia.

Blazer believes the fault may lie with us. "We're all putting things into the environment. Hopefully people will think twice whether it's important not to have dandelions in the lawn and dump pharmaceuticals down the toilet," says Blazer.

The publication of Colborn's Our Stolen Future concerned Congress enough that it ordered the EPA to create a screening system for endocrine disruptors. The resulting 1996 Food Quality Protection Act was the most ambitious toxicology program ever conceived. Yet so far, the EPA hasn't conducted a single test.

"Clearly they've fallen down on the job," says Erik Olsen, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The EPA, citing technical difficulties and facing a proposed budget cut, predicts it will be 2009 before it establishes a testing protocol.

Meanwhile, the agency approves about 700 new chemicals a year, relying on the manufacturer's assurances for safety.

Facing government inaction, consumers have taken the lead in protecting themselves from EDC exposure. When the CDC found in 2000 that exposure to the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate (DBP) was more than 20 times greater for women of childbearing age than for the average person, a consumer group began its detective work.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 72 name-brand beauty products for industrial chemical ingredients. Their report, "Not Too Pretty" (2002), found that nearly three quarters of commercial products contain phthalates, used to keep mascara from running and polished nails from chipping.

The grassroots consumer action resulting from the report was enough to pressure OPI (the major supplier of products to nail salons) as well as manufacturer Sally Hansen into agreeing to reformulate their products in late 2006.

Avalon Organics, supplier to Whole Foods, jumped onboard, becoming one of 450 signatories to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics campaign, an industry pledge to follow the European Union's lead in removing carcinogens, mutagens (chemicals which mutate the DNA of an organism), and reproductive toxicants (which adversely effect puberty, behavior and reproduction) from products, replacing them with safer alternatives.

Today if you screen the ingredients lists of most body care products for phthalates you'll find them on nail polish labels, but not in shampoo and other beauty products, where they are often masked as "fragrance." Stacy Malkan of Health Care Without Harm says that's changed her buying habits. "Now I won't buy products with fragrance on the label." (For more better buying habits, see sidebar).

Overwhelmed? Don't be says Gina Solomon of the NRDC. "People freak out with 85,000 chemicals out there, but in reality it will probably turn out to be a relative handful that are the real problem we need to deal with."

In December 2006, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to answer this charge when it banned baby products containing any level of BPA (plastic #7) and certain levels of phthalates. San Francisco officials based the ban on the European Union model that requires about 30 thousand chemicals be tested prior to their approval.

But single-city bans, while bold, are not going to stem the toxic tide. "What we need is chemical policy reform from the ground up," says Dr. Solomon. As it stands now, most chemicals released in recent decades are given a blanket assumption of safety. "The innocent-until-proven-guilty attitude in the U.S. is backwards," she counsels.

As scientists continue to tackle testing our chem-saturated environment, EDC damage to human health is likely to rank up with cancer as the environmentally induced medical concern of our time. Meanwhile, you can take action by pressuring your local officials, and -- like Benjamin in The Graduate -- reject the plastic world in favor of the real deal.

Can We Create A World Without Waste?

Aside from Oscar the Grouch, few people would argue that trash is a good thing. In addition to being stinky, ugly and a pain to lug out to the curb, the detritus of modern life causes problems on a far grander scale. Landfills and incinerators have been linked to a host of human health issues, and as for the environment -- you don't have to be an ecologist to know that lingering piles of plastic, metal and toxic goo are bad news all around.

Yet, we continue to throw things away -- and how could we not? What else would we do with that annoying cellophane packaging? The to-go boxes? The packing peanuts? The after-dinner scraps that even the dog won't touch?

Part of the solution is as simple as a blue bin. Curbside recycling is still an incredibly effective way to save energy and divert tons of plastics, cans and glass away from landfills. Another answer is composting, which would address more than 60 percent of what ends up in residential dumpsters.

But in addition to getting the word out about these tried and true solutions, a new movement is taking a more holistic approach. Rather than focusing solely on what to do with existing waste, the "Zero Waste" movement looks at a product's entire life cycle -- and redirects the conversation toward usable options for every step along the way. The ultimate goal is to eliminate waste as a concept entirely -- a lofty aspiration indeed. But Zero Wasters say loftiness is part of the point -- after all, creating a trash-free world is going to take nothing short of revolution.

Starting from Zero

The idea behind Zero Waste is simple: basically, nothing with a second use should be thrown away. And if something doesn't have a second use, it shouldn't exist. The Berkeley Ecology Center, a West Coast leader in the Zero Waste movement, puts it this way, "If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production."

While Zero Waste depends on careful attention to what we do or don't toss in our home trashcans, its ultimate task is to take a bigger view of how waste is handled on an industrial level. According to the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), an international Zero Waste advocacy group, "The goal applies to the whole production and consumption cycle -- raw material extraction, product design, production processes, how products are sold and delivered, how consumers choose products and more."

It's one thing to tell consumers to stop throwing banana peels in the trash bin, but quite a larger task to convince industry to adopt Zero Waste. Still, Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Zero Waste-oriented non-profit based in Boulder, Colo., says that industry is more amenable to the concept than you'd think. "Waste is money, and industry gets that better than anyone," he explains. In addition to offering various recycling services, Eco-Cycle consults businesses on how to reduce their overall waste. That means spending time peering into the dumpster, where they'll notice trashed items that could have been avoided through smarter purchasing decisions. "We'll agree to pick up those hard-to-recycle items like computers and plastic bags and shoes," he says, "and then what's left? Mostly junk plastics. That's when we talk with the people who do the purchasing to stop buying the things that end up in the dumpster."

You Make It, You Buy It

Of course, industry interest in Zero Waste isn't generally motivated by goodness of heart. One of the principal tenets of the Zero Waste strategy is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which, although new to the United States, is already well established in Europe -- in part due to the pressing problem of limited landfill space. In an article for, Guy Crittenden explains, "True EPR connects producers with the downstream fate (and costs) of their products and packaging... [which] drives eco-efficiencies up the value chain, culminating in design for the environment."

The beginnings of an EPR policy in the US are visible in the growing number of landfill bans on toxic products, such as cathode ray tubes, large appliances, tires and electronics. In anticipation of future regulations on waste, some companies are voluntarily devising initiatives for reclaiming their waste, such as Sony's and Apple's takeback recycling programs. Of course, such programs also provide companies with that increasingly precious public relations commodity: green street cred.

At the very least, Zero Wasters are set on halting incentives to make waste. According to GRRN, "Markets today are heavily influenced by tax subsidies and incentives that favor extraction and wasteful industries." It's mainly for this reason -- and not for lack of the appropriate technology -- that waste has persisted, even in the wake of increasing environmental awareness. GRRN estimates that we have the existing technology to redirect 90 percent of what currently ends up in landfills.

Which begs the question: If we didn't send it to landfills, then where would it go? To recycling centers and municipal compost heaps, partly. But Zero Wasters say we shouldn't just be asking how to get rid of our waste. Just as fungi turn rotting logs into fertile growing material, we should be able to do better than piling up our waste and covering it with dirt.

And while it's fun to conceive of wackier and wackier recycled products -- corn husks turned into countertops! pencils made from recycled paper money! water bottles morphed into cozy fleece outerwear! -- Brenda Platt, of the DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), stresses the importance of finding the highest use for recyclables, to allay the energy wasted in production. In the case of glass bottles, for example, that would mean refilling them (such as with milk bottles), followed closely by turning them into new bottles, transforming them into art glass, and then maybe making "glassphalt," a material that has been used as an alternative to conventional asphalt since the '70s.

Such efforts can be facilitated by the existence of local "Resource Recovery Parks" where manufacturing and retail businesses share space, equipment and services, as well as reuse, recycling and composting facilities. In some cases, waste from one business becomes a resource for another business within such parks, creating a closed loop.

There's no doubt that Zero Waste is an idealistic -- if not near impossible -- goal. But whether or not it can be done in every instance, says Eric Lombardi, is really beside the point. "Being on the path to zero is the point," explains Lombardi. "Because once you have established zero as the goal -- you being the government, you being a CEO -- then you have a benchmark against which you can measure your future actions."

Perhaps one of those future actions will be recycling your trashcan.


Seven simple steps to trashing your trash

Let's face it -- we know better than to dispose when we should be Reusing, Reducing and Recycling. But we're busy, forgetful and, well, does it really make that big of a difference? You know the answer. So clip out these friendly reminders on how to bring your personal waste closer to zero. Just think: you'll never have to take out the trash again!

1. Feed the garden
Think like nature for a moment -- why would you throw away all those food scraps, when they could be transformed into beautiful, nourishing garden compost? Over 60 percent of municipal waste could be composted -- so find a more productive resting place for your banana peels.

2. Have bag, will shop
Of course, this one we know by heart. And it's still true. Carry canvas bags everywhere you go -- put them in your car, tie them to your bike -- and you'll have a final answer to the "paper or plastic" question.

3. Sort it out
Recycling rates have taken a downturn recently. Are we losing faith in the power of recycling? It still works! If you want your recyclables to be put to the highest possible use, sort them well. "Single stream" recyclables -- as opposed to glass bottles mixed with paper -- make for better recycled materials.

4. Think bulk
Brenda Platt of ILSR makes a point of buying groceries in bulk. Rather than buy single-serve applesauce cups for her kids, she opts for the big jar and scoops it into smaller containers herself. Simple? Yes. But simple is key.

5. Positive reinforcement
It's the same technique we use for supporting fair trade companies and organic farms. Support those companies that are making a point to reduce their waste -- and avoid the rest. Eric Lombardi, of Eco-Cycle, says we've got to "reward the recyclers. The clean companies must win the profits."

6. Shrink wrap
What better motivation to waste less than reducing the size of your trash receptacle at home? Substitute a small plastic grocery bag for your trashcan, and wiser purchasing habits will follow naturally.

7. Your Trash, Their Treasure
Repeat after me: there is no "junk," there's only useful stuff yet to find a home. Before you look to the landfill, consider giving your broken fridge or over-lounged loveseat a chance at a happier second life by posting it for giveaway on websites like or And will actually buy your spent ink-jets, conked-out laser cartridges and defunct cell phones for their recycle program, giving the money generated to charity.


Top Five Trash-free Towns

Searching for a waste-free world? Start looking for property in one of these enlightened locations. They've got big plans for creating less waste.

Berkeley, CA
In Berkeley, the birthplace of curbside recycling, the Berkeley Ecology Center's fleet of recycling trucks runs completely on biodiesel, and Urban Ore, a local for-profit "total recycling" center, rehabs and resells items that people would otherwise pay to send to the landfill.

Boulder, CO/Santa Monica, CA
You won't find trashcans at some weekly farmers' markets in these towns. Santa Monica's Main Street (Sundays only) and Boulder's Zero Waste farmers' markets offer patrons a choice between composting and recycling their waste -- an ultimatum that prompted vendors to offer compostable to-go materials and patrons to bring their own canvas bags.

Seattle, WA
The Wasteless in Seattle program includes bold new measures to reduce waste -- such as mandatory recycling with fines for violations -- and the Take-it-Back Network, which sent 600 tons of computer monitors and other components back to retail stores in 2004.

New Zealand
In 1999, the New Zealand government launched the Zero Waste New Zealand Trust, an initiative that offered $25,000 (NZ) funding to councils that adopted a Zero Waste resolution. Since then, 48 of 74 (66 percent) of all local councils have made the switch.

In response to a 1991 German packaging law requiring suppliers to take back and recycle up to 70 percent of their packaging, the Green Dot program was created, in which consumers deposit Green Dot-certified packaging refuse in specially designated bins. It then gets picked up and recycled -- all paid for by the manufacturers.

The FDA Eyes Your Garden

Even before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), released its final ruling on the herb ephedra, banning it for sale after April 12, the feeding frenzy had begun.

Many see the FDA's action to prohibit the sale of ephedra, or ma huang as it's also known, as the opening salvo of an attack on all supplements, especially botanicals, and the landmark law that protects them, 1994's Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). They fear that if the supplement act is overhauled or rescinded, millions of consumers may be denied access to what are mostly safe, effective and inexpensive wellness enhancers and alternatives to prescription drugs.

"We're not saying, 'don't sell them.' We're saying, 'don't sell them over the counter.' Regulate them as you regulate prescriptions." So said Rep. John Sweeney, (R-NY), at a Feb. 3 press conference announcing an initiative to extend the ephedra ban to what he and Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-NY) called 'copycat' formulations to ephedra. Rep. Sweeney said that "Congress made a mistake" when it passed DSHEA. Sen. Schumer added that if FDA fails to act, "We will move legislation in this regard."

While critics say that the products are unregulated or underregulated and pose untold risks to the health of a nation, another group, advocates of alternative and complementary medicine, sees supplements as the cornerstone of a rational and overdue approach to healthcare. The national healthcare system currently consumes 15 percent of the nation's overall spending -- higher than any other industrialized country. And even as insurance companies continue the upward spiral of annual rate increases, 40 percent of the citizens in the richest country on earth are without basic healthcare coverage.

Ephedra sinica. Love it or hate it, use it or not, no dietary supplement has raised the hackles of and polarized so many consumers, government officials, politicians, scientists and the industry that sells it. Additionally, no supplement has ever been so misrepresented, attacked and slandered in mainstream media. And while the door on ephedra is closing, the face-off in this complex and emotionally charged story continues.

Curiously, the ban on ephedra will not affect the sale of over-the-counter and prescription drugs containing the herb's synthetically derived active compound ephedrine, which is used in decongestants and other bronchial remedies such as Sudafed.

An Old Familiar Feeling

This situation looks strangely similar to the agency's 1990 banning of the amino acid L-tryptophan. This then-popular dietary supplement, used to relieve depression, anxiety and PMS, as well as to control pain and induce natural sleep, was implicated -- and then cleared -- in the deaths of a number of users in the U.S. in 1989. Investigators found that a faulty manufacturing process at a Showa Denko facility in Japan was responsible for a contamination of the product, which caused a deadly flu-like condition called Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS).

Surprisingly, L-tryptophan is still available by prescription, but at a much higher cost, and it has been used, uninterrupted, in baby formulas and animal feed since the 1989 incident. In fact, in 1993, a U.S. patent was issued to use L-tryptophan to treat and cure EMS, the same condition that prompted the FDA to take L-tryptophan off the market in the first place. Go figure.

Now, some observers are looking suspiciously at the 2002 FDA approval of Eli Lilly's drug, Strattera, a non-stimulant drug, which is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Psychiatrists, who have been increasingly diagnosing adults with ADHD, have typically treated them with stimulants. According to an article in the October 2002 issue of Current Psychology, stimulants produce significant improvement in 30 percent of patients and mixed results in another 40 percent. Ephedra, of course, is such a stimulant.

In its Feb. 6 ruling, FDA provided what it says is a blueprint for how the agency intends to regulate supplements in the future and remove from the market those that it considers "an unreasonable risk" to public safety. While it's too early to tell exactly how the agency will implement its new strategy (the final ruling was released right at press time), a few indicators don't bode well for the industry or consumers.

During a speech at the University of Mississippi in January, FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said: "We will be doing more work in the coming months to more closely evaluate the potential safety risk of these products, and we could take further action to remove unsafe dietary supplements from the market." On the hit list: bitter orange, aristolochic acid and usnic acid -- all used for weight loss, and chaparral, comfrey, willow bark and wormwood. No one knows what might be next.

The ban of ephedra marks the first time the agency has removed a dietary supplement under DSHEA, passed by Congress after many years of contentious, often hostile clashes from the two opposing sides of the supplements issue. Through the spirited actions of citizen-based advocacy groups, industry companies and health food store retailers, hundreds of thousands of consumers communicated with their congressional representatives in the early '90s demanding continued, unfettered access to dietary supplements. The outpouring was unprecedented at the time, eclipsing everything but commentary over the Vietnam War years earlier.

In passing the DSHEA, Congress stated that there may be a positive relationship between sound dietary practice and good health, and although further scientific research is needed, there may be a connection between dietary supplement use, reduced healthcare expenses and disease prevention.

At the time of its passage, President Clinton said about DSHEA (pronounced "da-shay" for shorthand): "After several years of intense efforts, manufacturers, experts in nutrition, and legislators, acting in a conscientious alliance with consumers at the grassroots level, have moved successfully to bring common sense to the treatment of dietary supplements under regulation and law."

The legislation, in essence, amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to alter the way dietary supplements are regulated and labeled. DSHEA, for the first time, created a legal definition for dietary supplements as foods and not drugs. The law also allowed specific, science-based structure/function claims on supplement labels, which enabled manufacturers (for the first time) to educate consumers about the health benefits of the products as they related to particular health conditions.

The passage of DSHEA was to mark the beginning of a golden era for supplements and natural health. Ten years later, that dream has crumbled.

Risks and Benefits

In trying to understand the heated and often contentious debate on ephedra, supplements in general and the viability of DSHEA, one must understand what everyone involved refers to as the "benefit-to-risk ratio" of consumer products as they relate to public health policy. In the case of ephedra, FDA determined that the herb, traditionally used to help alleviate allergy and asthma symptoms for more than 5,000 years, but now used mostly for weight loss, energy and performance enhancement, had no health benefits and created grave risks to public health -- primarily increased blood pressure that could lead to heart failure and disease.

At a news conference announcing the upcoming ephedra ban, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said government scientists had concluded ephedra-based supplements "are simply too risky to be used."

By comparison, the agency's stand on pharmaceutical drugs is that the benefits outweigh the risks because of all of the supposed safety research that is required before drugs are released for public consumption. That hasn't stopped the agency from releasing, and then recalling, a number of these purported "proven" substances.

A report commissioned by FDA in 2003 and cited in its final ruling found that only five deaths could be directly attributed to the use of ephedra. Yet, media reports and supplements opponents, including the New York legislators mentioned above, quote the number of deaths attributed to ephedra use at 155. According to a report from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), 12 million to 17 million people in 1999 consumed approximately 3 billion servings of ephedra products.

On the other hand, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, overmedication and adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs in hospitals killed 106,000 people in 1994. And this doesn't include the number killed outside of hospitals or those deaths that went unreported. It is estimated that aspirin kills 1,000 people per year. And last year, allergic reactions to peanuts killed nearly 100. Apparently, the benefit-to-risk ratio of these products, both the domain of FDA, is OK.

Contrary to FDA's contention in its final ruling, a good amount of scientific research shows that if taken according to label directions and strict dosage limitations (a maximum of 90-100 mg per day), ephedra is safe. As Mike Fillon, author of Ephedra Fact & Fiction (Woodland Publishing, 2003), points out, many of the deaths popularly attributed to the herb involved significant additional factors, making it unlikely ephedra was the main culprit.

It's true that not all products are safe for everyone. Just as all human beings are distinctly unique, with different physical and mental attributes, their physiologies differ, too. Some people are allergic to or can't tolerate certain foods, such as nuts, dairy or corn, to name but a few. This is also true of some drugs and dietary supplements. It's a no-brainer that consumers who are pregnant or have a history of high blood pressure or heart attacks should not take ephedra. And responsible supplements companies have indicated this on their labels for years.

"Ephedra is symbolic of a bigger issue, and that is how we look at the 'assured benefit' vs. the 'acceptable risk,'" says Jim Turner, a Washington-based attorney, who is chair of the board of consumer-advocacy group Citizens For Health (CFH) and the Campaign for Better Health, a project of CFH. "The government has come in with a no benefit/high risk position and is now trying to spread that position to other supplements -- it's guilt by association. This is bad public policy from the consumer point of view.

"The problem is that there is no way to divide the world of products that are safe and effective and unsafe and ineffective for everyone," Turner adds. "Every product will have some positives and some negatives."

Turner says a better approach would be a post-marketing, post-approval surveillance system for both pharmaceuticals and supplements to get the highest benefit-to-risk ratios at a reasonable cost. Such a system would create an early warning system, he says, that would quickly weed out problem products. Failure to implement some workable system will ultimately bankrupt the country, as according to estimates Turner quotes, at the current pace, 40 percent of the country's gross spending will be on healthcare by 2050.

A Biased Media

Adding yet more fuel to the fire in this debate is mainstream media, which has overwhelmingly taken an anti-supplement stance in its coverage of ephedra. Repeated claims in media outlets such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Associated Press and others that the industry or a particular supplement product is "unregulated" by FDA are simply false. FDA has always had the power to remove unsafe products from the market.

Not that certain members of Congress have heard the message. At least five bills are currently floating around the hallowed halls of Congress that would severely impact the viability of DSHEA. The most onerous of them, inappropriately named The Dietary Supplement Safety Act (S 722), introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-IL), could restrict access to whole classes of supplements because of only one adverse event report, without proof that a dietary supplement was the cause of the adverse event (remember L-tryptophan?). In addition, the legislation would essentially halt investment in scientific research to prove the health benefits of supplements.

The good news is that Washington insiders report that Durbin's bill has no chance of passage in this session of Congress. But there's always next year, and the year after that.

Both FDA Commissioner McClellan and his boss, HHS Secretary Thompson, have made it clear that DSHEA is not sacrosanct. At the December 30 news conference announcing the impending ephedra ban, McClellan said: "I do think that when FDA reaches a conclusion like this, we ought to be able to carry it out to provide the protection that Americans need. And we will be doing our best to defend this in court. And if that's not sufficient, it may be time to re-examine the act."

And Thompson said in response to a question, "I've already indicated that I would like to see the law changed,"

Not everyone thinks DSHEA needs to be altered, however. Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-UT), a staunch supplements supporter and a key sponsor of the original DSHEA legislation, last year introduced -- with fellow supplements advocate and DSHEA sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-IA) -- The DSHEA Full Implementation Act (S 1538). This legislation would give FDA the federal funding it says it needs to fully implement and enforce DSHEA, specifically, an adverse event reporting system, improved health claims analysis and the ability to enforce good manufacturing practices.

"DSHEA is a strong law that properly implemented will protect the interests of consumers," Hatch told a Senate committee in October. "The law gives the FDA abundant tools to remove products that are unsafe from the market.

"In the nine-plus years since DSHEA was enacted, there has been too much talk that the law handcuffs FDA and too little effort to apply the law. It is impossible for this law to protect consumers if it is not enforced," Hatch added.

With ephedra, it appears that FDA is finally enforcing the law -- at least its version of the law. The rest could well be up to the courts, as lawsuits and legal challenges are likely. And like most legal matters, it's all in the interpretation.

Meanwhile, the supplements industry and millions of consumers are collectively holding their breath waiting to see how FDA will use its legal authority to regulate supplements in the future. The fate of many products may hang in the balance. "If it's based on sound scientific principles and based on law, we'll support it," said Michael McGuffin, president of AHPA, just a few days before the final ruling was released.

Ana Micka, president and CEO of CFH and the Campaign for Better Health presents yet another viewpoint: "In spite of the high usage of supplements (more than 30 percent of the population) and alternative health (more than 40 percent) in the U.S., it's not a visible community and not a block of voters.

"There are definitely competing voices in politics, and right now we're not a loud, dominant voice. We have to do a lot of work as a community to organize and present our views for new health and wellness solutions in this country."

This story originally appeared in the March issues of the Dragonfly Media publications (

Clothes with a Conscience

I thought it only fair to begin an article on responsible clothing with a little personal audit. Let's see -- my Kookai jacket doesn't say where it was made, but the label's Chinese characters are a dead giveaway. My British Karen Millen pants -- purchased in a jet-lagged delusion before remembering one dollar does not equal one pound -- say "Made in Cyprus." My "Silver Woman" cowboy-inspired shirt was a Goodwill purchase and doesn't seem to have a label; and my tattered cotton tank-top's label is long since gone.

So, am I wearing sweatshop-made clothes? Probably. But how can I know for sure?

I set out to ask folks who made "Kathie Lee Gifford" and "sweatshop" household words a simple question -- or what I thought would be a simple question: Whose clothes should we buy? With over 80 percent of consumers now saying they are willing to pay more for products made under "good" conditions, my sense is a lot of people would like to know the answer.

Turning that desire into action seems more pressing than ever. The garment industry, spreading across 200 countries, employs as many as 10 million people and is renowned for labor rights abuses and workplace injuries. In the U.S., the industry is not necessarily much better. The Department of Labor itself estimates that roughly 65 percent of the 5,000 garment shops in Los Angeles do not comply with U.S. labor laws.

Unfortunately, unlike "fair-trade certified" products, we have no one-stop label to be sure our clothes are made "sweat-free." Today, we can buy fair-trade certified coffee (or tea, bananas, or chocolate) and know we are supporting democratically run cooperatives and ensuring farmers get a fair price. But clothes, which cost more than our morning lattes, have no equivalent guarantee. The Fair Labor Association -- a nonprofit monitoring organization -- is developing a certification process, but even its certification will only ensure that a 5 percent random sampling of a company's factories audited are "sweat-free."

A big obstacle is the structure of the industry. Difficult to automate, clothing manufacturing still relies almost entirely on the human touch: hands at machines sewing fabric. Because clothing is often made piecemeal -- a sleeve here, a zipper there -- the work is also mostly subcontracted and mobile, further confounding monitors and human rights advocates.

"It is challenging to find out where the factories are, let alone to regulate them," Dara O'Rourke told me from his offices at U.C. Berkeley, where he researches the labor and environmental practices of companies producing garments, footwear, electronics, and more. Global companies like The Gap, he explained, typically subcontract with as many as 5,000 factories in 50 countries.

"It is the structure of the business," O'Rourke explained, "that is driving conditions downward. Even firms with reputations as good corporate citizens, or environmentally sound," O'Rourke said, "often disclose nothing about where or how their goods are produced. The vast majority refuse to publish the names or locations of their factories or allow independent groups to look into them," O'Rourke told me. "Right now it's virtually impossible for me to say whether one company is a "good" company or not."

If you don't mind point-and-click shopping, a few new companies do offer union-made or "sweat-free" guarantees: Maggie's Functional Organics, SweatX, American Apparel, and to name a few. You can also choose to shop local where you know who you're buying from personally.

With these few exceptions, being a responsible shopper goes beyond a "do buy" list. It's not just about our shopping choices; it's using our power as citizens to transform a flawed system -- making conscious choices together. Thankfully, the ways to do so have never been clearer.

Hey Harvard, Who Made Your Boxers?

First, we can take a lesson from the kids...$3 billion a year, that's the annual sales in collegiate apparel. Sure, it's only a fraction of the global industry, but it's still, well, $3 billion! Since the mid-1990s, students in the U.S. and Canada have been pushing their universities to support fair labor through their purchases of everything with a school logo, from baseball caps to boxers. Founded in 1998, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) already has 350 affiliate campuses and has signed on 120 schools with their monitoring partner, the Worker Rights Consortium.

Today almost every campus has a "code of conduct" for its garment production, for which USAS takes much credit. And it has now expanded its efforts to support living wage campaigns and union drives across the globe.

"The anti-sweatshop student movement has changed the climate around these issues," says Tom Hayden, past California assemblyman and state senator. "We ought to take advantage of that climate to make changes on the policy level." And that's exactly what Hayden and thousands of others are doing around the country.

The Power of Procurement

In a landmark measure just before Arnie won the recall, California Governor Gray Davis signed SB 578, a law prohibiting the state of California from buying anything that was produced under sweatshop conditions. "It's essentially saying that California expenditures reflect our state labor policy," says Sophia Heller, legislative aid in State Senator Richard Alarcón's office. "It's putting our money where our mouth is."

If you think school buying is big, imagine the scale of government purchasing. This law applies to all state purchases -- from highway patrol uniforms to office furniture and computers. And there's ongoing citizen power enlisted in this bill's enforcement: A state-sponsored website will list pending bids for contracts so organizations like Sweatshop Watch and other community groups can alert the agency when a bidder or a sub-contractor is a known sweatshop.

But don't think this is just a kooky California fad. Popping up across the country are parallel purchasing policies. Dan Hennefeld, director of Uniform Procurement at UNITE, the union representing apparel, textile, and related industry workers, told me similar laws have passed in New York City, Boston, and Milwaukee and the states of New Jersey and Maine all within the last few years.

Unions: The Anti-Sweatshop Guarantee

Procurement policy is one way to change the system. I asked Adam Neiman, CEO of, a union-made apparel company, what would be another crucial mechanism, his answer was clear: unions. "Not that many generations ago, garment workers here in our country sent their workers to college," Neiman said. "The U.S. and Europe got very wealthy, and we wouldn't have done it without unions. Maybe that's exactly what's needed in the developing world -- what worked here." When I suggested some socially responsible businesses argue they don't need unions, they live their values, Neiman responded: "This is business. There should be a contract, not a handshake. If you're so righteous, put it in writing."

Supporting unions is also key, because they're contagious. Neiman explained: "If you just have a great factory run by a great manager, all workers elsewhere can hope for is that a job opens there for them." If you have a union, it can inspire workers in neighboring factories to form their own.

One of the best examples is the recent success of the Korean-owned Kukdong factory in Atlixco, Mexico. In 2001, workers there submitted a complaint to the Workers' Rights Consortium about egregious rights violations. With the help of the U.S. student movement and activists at organizations like Sweatshop Watch, the 1,200 workers at Kukdong, producing for Nike and Reebok among other brand names, organized and formed one of the first independent unions for garment workers in Mexico. Those workers have already won their second contract and are helping organize workers in the same state.

Fairly Grown, Fairly Made

Shopping with the whole world in mind means we think not only about how our clothes were made -- but what they're made of. As Chris Treter of Organic Consumers Association (OCA) says, "There are sweatshops in the factories and the fields."

Treter directs the "Clothes for a Change" campaign at OCA, a nonprofit public interest organization with 90,000 volunteers on its rolls. The campaign has already signed on American Apparel, a sweatshop-free clothing company with a factory in downtown Los Angeles which has launched a "sustainable edition" that includes six different styles made from 100 percent certified organic cotton. The campaign is also a big supporter of Maggie's Functional Organics whose 100 percent organic products are produced by a women-run cooperative in Nicaragua.

Bena Burdna, the CEO of Maggie's, says buying organic cotton is particularly important because it's the second most pesticide-dependent crop in the world (tobacco is first), accounting for 10 percent of global pesticide use and 25 percent of insecticides.

The impact of choosing organic clothing goes well beyond the environmental benefits -- it's a matter of life and death. According to Treter, in the U.S. alone, 10,000 farm workers and people in surrounding communities die every year from pesticide exposure.

So why hasn't organic clothing taken off? "Consumer demand isn't there...yet," Treter said. I wonder if that would be true if all of us knew what Treter knows: To make just one cotton T-shirt uses one-third of a pound of agricultural chemicals. I think about what Burdna said: "Your skin is your biggest organ and it breathes." I look at my cotton tank-top with new eyes.

We Have the Power

In the face of global supply chains and distant decision makers, any one of us can feel like such a tiny piece of the puzzle. But people who are seeing real change -- Kukdong workers, anti-sweatshop students, organic activists -- remind us of our power. And more of us are doing something. In one recent study, half of Americans reported that they "punished" a company in the last year for "bad social performance." Nikki Bas from Sweatshop Watch has seen the impact firsthand. "We were involved for almost four years in the Saipan campaign [against The Gap]. A lot of what we asked consumers to do was write letters and protest, and the company eventually settled."

"There is no question that if you write a letter, send an e-mail, make a phone call," Bjorn Skorpen Claeson from SweatFree Communities, a national network of local anti-sweatshop campaigns, echoed, "[the companies] know there are hundreds more like you out there. It's really important that you tell yourself you make a difference and not bury your conscience."

I think back to my personal clothing audit. I'm definitely not a poster child for sweatshop-free clothes. But I now see ways to be part of changing the norms, values, and structures so that someday the question of what companies we should buy from will be irrelevant as all clothes will be sweatshop-free.

Anna Lappé is the co-author of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. This story originally published by Dragonfly Media.

Could Marijuana Be Legal in Illinois?

"I'm hoping they never do this again to anyone. Because if someone else was as sick as I was, and has been through what I've been through, they might not have been able to live through it. I knew inside of me that for the sake of my health, I had a right to do what I did."

-- Brenda Kratovil, on her arrest for marijuana possession

I am sitting across the kitchen table from Brenda Kratovil in her Beach Park home just a few miles north of Waukegan. It's early in the afternoon and Kratovil and her husband have just returned from the nearby Lake County Courthouse. There, in a preliminary hearing, a judge has just ruled that she could not introduce medical necessity into her defense on charges of marijuana possession.

When we meet for the first time after the hearing, Kratovil is quiet. I'm not sure if she is more upset and angry or just sad. I imagine perhaps all these emotions are with her. But now, back at her home as she begins to tell me her story, I also understand that I am speaking with a woman whose spirit remains strong, despite her current legal difficulties. I suspect Brenda's many health challenges have steeled her to life's harder edges.

Brenda Kratovil tells me she has had glaucoma for over 20 years. Legally blind, she was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 15 years ago, and has been on disability since the age of 18. What now has the Beach Park mother of two in so much trouble is the fact that she uses marijuana to relieve her symptoms. Kratovil, who hopes to eventually be able to legally use medical marijuana -- under a little-known Illinois statute -- first got the idea of trying the drug to relieve her eye pain from a specialist she saw in Arizona shortly after she was diagnosed. The physician couldn't prescribe marijuana but suggested the drug might lower the intra-ocular pressure that was causing her so much discomfort.

He was right. When she smoked marijuana, Kratovil had less pain. Her vision also improved. The plant may also have provided some relief for her. Ms. Kratovil has used marijuana since to manage her symptoms.

None of this mattered much on Sept. 4, 2001, however. That's the day the Metropolitan Enforcement Group (MEG) of Lake County, a police task force, raided the home Kratovil shares with her husband and two teenage children. Apparently, a neighbor had seen some small marijuana plants growing in the back yard and called police. For several hours, police ransacked the family's residence in a search for more drugs or information on local dealers.

Notably, police did not arrest Kratovil at the time. That happened about three months later, when they returned and, in front of family and neighbors, Kratovil was handcuffed and taken to jail. But her ordeal was not quite over yet. Six months after the first raid, the MEG crew returned and, with their guns and dogs, embarked on one more intrusive romp through the family's home.

It was, not surprisingly, a highly traumatic experience. Both searches left the house in complete disarray, says Kratovil, with beds turned upside down, drawers emptied onto the floor, and the children's things scattered helter skelter. According to Kratovil's lawyer, David Stepanich of Vernon Hills, $300 in cash was also taken from the home, forfeited as alleged "drug money." The first search was also conducted without a warrant after police warned Kratovil that it would only get worse for her if they had to return later with the required warrant.

In the aftermath of the raids, the family has endured ostracism from neighbors and repeated visits from local police whenever minor incidents of vandalism or other crimes happen to occur in their area of town. The stress of it all has also taken a toll on Kratovil's health and for several months following the MEG raids she struggled with flare-ups of her symptoms. "When I watched my daughter crying with one of the officers telling her he could take me to jail and put her in Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), I felt so bad," says Kratovil, "I thought, this isn't fair."

What's Going On Here?

Unfortunately, what happened to Brenda Kratovil was not only unfair, it was not an isolated occurrence. Last September, in another more highly publicized incident, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in northern Santa Cruz County, about 65 miles south of San Francisco. The group grows marijuana for use by registered members, who suffer from cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. The group was also not breaking any local or state ordinances, as Santa Cruz County residents had voted 10 years before to legalize the use of medical marijuana. Statewide, California voters had approved a similar measure in 1996.

In fact, eight other states -- Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Colorado, and Maine -- have all, in recent years, passed laws with provisions for the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The justice department, however, remains unequivocal in its opposition to marijuana use in any form, continuing to classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, effectively banning its use except under the strictest research conditions. Consequently, the Bush administration has given the go-ahead for the DEA and other law enforcement to step up prosecutions.

Clearly, some states and local municipalities are at loggerheads with the federal government over the issue. In the Santa Cruz incident, the mayor and local police sharply rebuked the DEA's action. But what's behind the sharpening jurisdictional crosscurrents are not only the medical arguments of a small, activist minority but the shifting winds of public sentiment. A recent Time/CNN poll finds 80 percent of Americans now support the use of marijuana for legitimate medical reasons. Other estimates point to as many as 76-million Americans who have tried marijuana. Many of them also cannot help but reject from their own experience the propaganda of zealots like White House "Drug Czar" John Walters, for whom marijuana remains a sinister "gateway drug" to other, harder evils like heroin.

Unfortunately for the drug war crusaders, the issue of marijuana's possible medicinal benefits is not going away. There is today a small but growing registry of nearly 2,500 individuals using marijuana under state or local provisions, according to a recent Government Accounting Office report. Ironically, a few patients -- invoking an obscure federal program -- receive their marijuana directly from the government. To be sure, there is a persuasive body of clinical evidence that marijuana is useful in treating the symptoms of a number of health conditions and drug side effects.

But why should any of this be surprising? Marijuana is a plant, and medicine derived from plants is hardly a novel concept. In fact, marijuana's primary active constituent, D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has undergone controlled study and is already approved for clinical use. Notably, the Scientific Council of the American Medical Association in June 2001 called for "continued research into marijuana's potential therapeutic effects," citing its possible value in aspects of HIV care, treating cancer pain and the effects of chemotherapy, chronic pain, insomnia and other conditions. A similar endorsement and call for wide-scale clinical trials came in a 1999 report, "Marijuana as Medicine: Assessing the Science Base," issued by the Institute of Medicine.

In the treatment of glaucoma, the anecdotal evidence is also there that marijuana helps. "There's no question that the data is very well established that marijuana does lower eye pressure," says Michael Savitt, M.D., an ophthalmologist who has treated Kratovil at the North Shore Glaucoma Center in Libertyville, IL. Dr. Savitt says he believes prescription eye drops work better than marijuana, but acknowledges that some patients, like Kratovil, do not tolerate the drops well and have not benefited from laser surgery. "In those few patients, especially for whom the disease is painful, marijuana could be used to help in control of their pressures," notes Dr. Savitt. "For Brenda, I know she feels that it helps her and makes her more comfortable."

Avoiding the Issue, Lake County-Style

If none of this mattered much to the MEG folks, it also didn't factor in at Kratovil's pre-trial hearing last December. That's when a Lake County judge denied her lawyer permission to introduce the medical necessity defense at trial. Curiously, the judge cited Kratovil's failure to formally apply under Section 11 of the Illinois Cannabis Control Act for permission to use marijuana for medical reasons. The Illinois statute, which was passed in 1971, allows physicians to apply for written approval from the state police to use marijuana for research purposes in a treatment setting.

But it appears that the judge was engaged in specious reasoning, since, for years the state program has, essentially, been put on ice. "The Illinois program has been effectively unenforced since 1984," says Bryan Brickner, director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It's a victim -- along with many other state programs -- of the 'War on Drugs' launched by the Reagan Administration." Back then, authority for the Section 11 provisions was transferred to the Illinois Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Brickner adds that the move was inherently political, as all medical-related aspects of marijuana research now fell under the rubric of "substance abuse." In other words, it was a way of burying the law. Apparently that move was effective because as far as Brickner or Kratovil's attorney, David Stepanich, are aware, Illinois' medical marijuana statute has never been exercised.

In response to the pre-trial ruling, NORML is now formally requesting that Kratovil be allowed to apply for inclusion in the state program, under Dr. Savitt's supervision. The outcome of her application could prove to be a test case for the future of medical marijuana in Illinois. But however Kratovil's case is eventually resolved, her legal troubles highlight the trenchant absurdity of so much of the so-called war on drugs. Classifying marijuana as a Class 1 drug, in other words, a highly dangerous substance and of no redeeming medical use -- worse even than the most potent opiates and narcotics -- is more than a scientific stretch. Actually, it is a mentality in serious need of thought reform.

The dogged refusal of the federal government to reclassify marijuana's medical status would seem inexplicable were it not for the plant's unique cultural history and notoriety. The drug war evangelists have long seen in every puff of a joint the implicit vapors of impending moral decay, as if marijuana and marijuana alone imperils Western Civilization in ways mysteriously elusive of alcohol or nicotine. It's a hysteria that goes back to the 1930s, when Harry Anslinger, a former prohibition agent turned U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, led the drive to make marijuana illegal (before 1937 there were no laws banning its use). Anslinger managed to persuade Congress to outlaw it with lurid descriptions of marijuana users as "Negroes and entertainers," lovers of "Satanic music" like jazz, and just your basic all-around degenerates.

Unfortunately, such "Reefer Madness" stupidities never quite seem to go away; they just reinvent themselves to suit the times. Now we are told that using marijuana gives support to terrorists -- as government-sponsored commercials declared (with Orwellian flair) in their debut during 2002's Super Bowl game. Such claims might otherwise be laughable were it not also for the reality that the prisons are packed with drug offenders.

According to NORML's Brickner, as many as 26 percent of state prisoners in Illinois are convicted of drug-related crimes, with arrest rates for all drug offenses having risen dramatically over the last ten years. Nationally, there were more than 500,000 marijuana-related arrests between January and September of last year. Of course, while most arrests today for marijuana possession in small amounts are not likely to result in imprisonment, NORML receives many reports of cases where arrested individuals subsequently find their employment in jeopardy.

A Cruel and Brutal Ignorance

If legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use remains unlikely in the near future (several recent, more far-reaching decriminalization initiatives were defeated in last fall's state elections), the trade winds are destined eventually to steer us toward the shores of more rational, humane drug policies. In 1999, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that medical necessity was a legitimate defense in the manufacture and distribution of marijuana. It proved to be a short-lived victory, however, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2001. But the mere fact that a circuit court was willing to rule as it did shows that the medical marijuana issue has come a long way, no matter the twists and turns of a legal battle that may play itself out for some time.

As for Brenda Kratovil, she deserves our compassion, not hard-nosed, letter-of-the-law vigilance by prosecutors, judges, and police. When measured against the hardships of her life, such a stance amounts to nothing short of a cruel and brutal ignorance. The pros or cons of marijuana use belong in the realm of a public health debate, not a criminal or moral crusade whose front lines consist of gangs of cops given free rein to terrorize and run roughshod over people's lives.

Marijuana use per se is also not the same thing as drug abuse. Actually, when used for legitimate medical reasons, it is the opposite.

Mark Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL.

A Test Case for Medical Marijuana

As we go to press, Brenda Kratovil waits to go on trial for felony marijuana possession. Her lawyer, David Stepanich of Vernon Hills, IL., tells us that he plans to ask the court to reconsider a motion on her medical necessity defense. Stepanich admits that without earlier precedent in Illinois case law, the medical necessity defense is an uphill argument. Nonetheless, he insists it's vital to raise the issue.

"The courts and cops and prosecutors will do whatever they can to keep the debate narrow-minded and conclusory [shut out further evidence]," says Stepanich. "But we want to go to the heart of what this case is really about. This is also a case where the lack of a search warrant and the threats by the cops to tear-up Brenda Kratovil's home were rewarded, not punished by the court, which so far has acceded to every whim of the police."

Still, Stepanich remains hopeful that while Kratovil's application to use medical marijuana under Section 11 of the Illinois Cannabis Control Act is pursued, the court will, in the interests of compassion, agree to a negotiated plea that will spare his client jail time or a felony conviction. Bryan Brickner, Illinois NORML spokesperson, adds that the courts should consider that Kratovil now has a physician willing to formally sponsor marijuana research in treating her condition. But whether the courts actually will do so remains to be seen.

Read it For Yourself!

Illinois Cannabis Control Act, Section 11

(Selected applicable excerpts)

Statute #720 ILCS 550/11

Sec. 11. (a) The Department, with the written approval of the Department of State Police, may authorize the possession, production, manufacture and delivery of substances containing cannabis by persons engaged in research and when such authorization is requested by a physician licensed to practice medicine in all its branches, such authorization shall issue without unnecessary delay where the Department finds that such physician licensed to practice medicine in all its branches has certified that such possession, production, manufacture or delivery of such substance is necessary for the treatment of glaucoma, the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy in cancer patients or such other procedure certified to be medically necessary; such authorization shall be, upon such terms and conditions as may be consistent with the public health and safety. To the extent of the applicable authorization, persons are exempt from prosecution in this State for possession, production, manufacture or delivery of cannabis.

(b) Persons registered under Federal law to conduct research with cannabis may conduct research with cannabis including, but not limited to treatment by a physician licensed to practice medicine in all its branches for glaucoma, the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy in cancer patients or such other procedure which is medically necessary within this State upon furnishing evidence of that Federal registration and notification of the scope and purpose of such research to the Department and to the Department of State Police of that Federal registration.

(Source: Public Act 84-25.)

These Birds are Real Turkeys

Like other turkeys, the birds in the poultry pen at Blue Valley Gardens in southern Wisconsin are headed for the Thanksgiving platter. However, the feasts that Matthew Smith's hand-raised birds star in are more than a meal. They're the center of a national movement to save "remnant" strains of turkeys that may have graced the table of your grandmother's mother.

Smith's turkeys are legacy strains -- Narragansett, Bourbon Reds, Jersey Buffs and Standard Bronze turkeys. They carry the genes of Thanksgiving dinners past. Prized for their taste, they nearly disappeared under the Darwinian economics of modern agriculture that prizes high yield and low production cost -- a factory approach with little concern for the animals or food aesthetics.

But a taste conscious organization, Slow Food USA, has launched a campaign to save legacy turkeys. Around the country they've enlisted farmers like Smith, who practice sustainable agriculture at Blue Valley Gardens, 40 rolling acres about 20 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, to raise legacy strains. Nearly 5,000 birds -- more than 150 in Chicago -- were sold by Slow Food this year.

At $3.50 to $5 a pound, legacy turkeys are more expensive than the ubiquitous dollar-a-pound Butterball. That doesn't matter to Eva Wedel, a Crystal Lake music teacher, who says she'll pay the price for fresh, great tasting turkeys that were raised humanely and naturally. "I don't care how much it costs. That doesn't matter," says Wedel, who will prepare one of Smith's birds to celebrate the holiday with her relatives at their family farm in Argyle, Wisconsin. "What matters to me is that it's a legacy turkey. I'm certainly willing to pay for something like this that keeps many strains in circulation.

"This is putting your money where your mouth is. I'm interested in promoting small farms and organic foods, small businesses and healthy fisheries. There are people who are willing to put more of their disposable income into food [when] they agree with the philosophy."

Bucking the Trend of Broadbreasted Turkeys

It's big business philosophies that dominate the nation's turkey production. The eight-billion-dollar-a-year industry has grown the past 25 years -- buoyed by consumers seeking a source of low-fat protein. Between 1975 and 2000, per capita consumption of turkey grew from eight to 17.75 pounds, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Nearly all the 267 million turkeys Americans eat each year are Broadbreasted Whites. Through the tweaking of its genes by selective breeding, the Broadbreast provides the poultry industry with a quick-growing, meat-laden bird with an oversized breast that can be quickly and cleanly processed. While it may be the perfect bird for mass production, perfection takes its toll.

For the Broadbreasts, the tolls include a breast so unwieldy that males cannot mount females to reproduce. Hatcheries must artificially inseminate them to perpetuate the species and the industry. The large breast causes some birds to topple over when they walk by the time they mature in 15 to 18 weeks at 15 pounds for hens and 35 pounds for Toms. Their weight can cause leg problems and heart abnormalities.

A Broadbreast's home life is nothing to aspire to, either. To maximize profits, commercial birds are packed together by the thousands in sheds and buildings while they are being raised. Each bird has an average of three square feet of living space, according to the Web site The beaks of commercial birds are clipped so they don't peck each other in their tight quarters. The birds may receive antibiotics, but the National Turkey Federation dismisses concerns over potential drug residues, saying the drugs are out of the meat before it is on a supermarket shelf. Their diet consists of corn and soybean meal, water, vitamins and minerals.

Animal rights activists have protested not only the conditions under which livestock, such as the Broadbreasts, are raised, but many protest the act of meat eating altogether. Nonetheless, it is judicious meat eating that is the only way that legacy breeds will be saved. In other words, consumers need to buy these birds in order for the niche industry to survive.

Legacy breeds may find themselves on the wrong side of the commercial gene pool but they possess something factory birds don't: rich taste. Italian food critic Carlo Petrini was troubled that industrialization was standardizing food flavor and purging from the palate thousands of food varieties and flavors. In 1986, he founded Slow Food. In the U.S., turkeys are Slow Food's highest profile campaign. Slow Food has enlisted family farmers like Smith, who practice sustainable agriculture and humane livestock farming, to grow legacy birds, keeping the strains alive for flavor diversity while providing niche growers with a new profit center.

"They taste better," Martins of Slow Food USA says. "That's why we did it. History wouldn't have been enough to save them. And they were on the brink of extinction. We were on the verge of losing a part of our taste culture. "We hope that people will support this subversive movement to defend our right to taste."

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), a Pittsboro, North Carolina, non-profit working to save 100 livestock breeds from extinction, had three of the four Slow Food birds -- Narragansett, Jersey Buffs and Standard Bronzes -- on its critical list, meaning there were fewer than 500 breeding birds in North America. Bourbon Reds were listed as rare, with fewer than a thousand breeding birds.

Saving legacy breeds is critical because the Broadbreasted Whites have lost many of the traits that make turkeys, well, turkeys. They're genetically damaged, says the ALBC's Don Bixby, and the industry could be just a virus or disease away from wiping out the breeds. "We've only used Broadbreasted Whites commercially for 40 years and 40 generations of very narrow genetic selection," says Bixby. "It's what we call in-breeding. It's the issue of mono-cropping. Because they are genetically identical, they'll all be susceptible to whatever comes along."

Bixby says legacy birds provide Thanksgiving meals a whole different taste experience. "This is not your Butterball, canola-injected, processed-in-ice-water bird," he says. "The meat is much firmer. I discovered that I don't eat as much turkey because the gustatory experience is so different. The taste and texture is more pronounced. It's a much more satisfying experience."

The taste comes from the environment in which legacy strains are raised. "Putting turkeys back outdoors where they can exercise, be in fresh air, forage for food -- it's good for them, us, and the environment," Bixby says. He adds that the meat of legacy birds tend to be dryer than commercial birds so he tells people to find a pre-1940 cookbook for a recipe to prepare them.

North Americans have been fixing turkeys for thousands of years. Turkeys, one of the few types of livestock domesticated in North America, were tamed in Mexico around 100 A.D. The first birds arrived in Europe in the early 1500s with Spaniards -- some say Cortez brought them back -- who returned from their exploits in Mexico with turkeys tamed by the natives. Turkeys reached England in the 1520s.

While the popular belief is that the Pilgrims came to the New World and found forests filled with wild turkeys with which to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, the truth is that they brought domestic turkeys with them when they left England in 1620.

As with all livestock, farmers tinkered over the centuries with the birds, trying to develop varieties that looked better, resisted disease, grew faster, delivered more meat, had a better taste, or could make them more money. And legacy turkeys are no exception. They were bred for commerce.

In the U.S., gene tweakers developed the Narragansett turkey - named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. It's a cross between the native Eastern Wild Turkey and domestic birds brought back to North America by New World colonists, according to the ALBC. The Narragansett became the standard for New England's turkey industry.

The Jersey Buff made the scene in the 1870s but by the early 1900s was already a rare strain. It was difficult to produce birds that fit the standard color, which was of value because its white pinfeathers were hard to detect once the bird was processed. In Kentucky, breeders used the Jersey Buff to breed the Bourbon Red. The Bourbon Red's heavy breast and rich taste made it more salable and profitable than the Jersey Buff.

Another legacy strain, the Bronze, ironically helped launch the commercialized Broadbreasted strains. In the late 1920s, a Washington farmer crossed an English strain with an American Bronze and came up with a bird that grew to nearly 50 pounds. By the 1940s, the Broadbreasted Bronze -- another strain that needs artificial insemination to survive -- had displaced the Bronze as the bird of choice.

By the 1950s, processors that didn't want birds with dark pinfeathers -- because they looked unsightly on a naked Thanksgiving turkey -- were rewarded with the Broadbreasted White, a bird that yielded a lot of meat and was unmarred by pinfeather discoloration. It continues to reign as bird of the masses.

For 10 years, you could find the Broadbreasted Whites at Blue Valley Gardens, the farm that Smith, a University of Wisconsin horticulture graduate, bought in 1984. He lives there with his wife, Susan Lampert-Smith, their 14-year-old son Ben and 10-year-old daughter Lily.

Unlike frozen factory birds, Smith's Broadbreasts were raised in small flocks, hand-fed and ready for delivery to customers at Thanksgiving. "The hens would be in the low teens, 16 or 17 pounds, and the toms would dress out at 28 pounds. That was in 18 weeks," says Smith. "When people would pick their birds up some would ask me what you do with all of that turkey. I'd say, 'Eat a lot of leftovers.'"

Blue Valley Gardens brings about a dozen crops to market each year -- broiler chickens and eggs, strawberries, Shiitake and oyster mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, garlic and herbs. Smith is best know for his white asparagus, some of which ends up on the plates of guests at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago via an organic foods marketing group, Home Grown Wisconsin. About 75 percent of his produce is sold locally, much of it at Madison's famed Farmers' Market, the Saturday morning affair that brings thousands of buyers to the square around the Wisconsin Capitol from spring to fall.

Smith says that he saw a New York Times story on legacy turkeys last fall and knew his customers would buy them. "I went full bore into it," he says. He ordered three breeds -- Narragannsetts, Bourbon Reds, and Jersey Buffs -- from hatcheries. The first birds arrived in May, a full two months before he'd start raising the season's Broadbreasts. But the legacy birds grow slower, taking 10 weeks longer than the Whites to mature.

"They're more like wild turkeys," says Smith. "They're more into the greens and things like that and less into the grains. And of course they're not going to put on a lot of weight eating the greens."

Smith planned to raise the turkeys outside in a "free-range" environment, but great horned owls killed several of his birds. The 55 survivors are now housed in a 2,000-square-foot pen covered with a netting where they can roam outdoors, eating bugs, grass, melon rinds, corn husks and silk, cabbage, other greens and grain. They dig depressions in the ground and lay in the Wisconsin sunshine. They roost at night in a shed, off the ground, safe from owls, raccoons, coyotes and other predators.

Next year, Smith plans on expanding the poultry pen. And he says he's going to keep a male and female Narragannsett and try his hand at breeding. One of the flock will also be prepared for his family's Thanksgiving platter. "My vices are eating good food and drinking good beer," he jokes. "I don't raise any animals and vegetables that I don't care to eat."

Brian Leaf, a freelance writer based in Rockford, Illinois, writes stories about business and the environment. Contact him at


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