Linda Baker

An Out-of-Whack Food Chain

We always start out at the Zupan's pastry counter, where today free samples of cinnamon rolls and pound cake are on display. I give one of each to my 7-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter. Then we head to the produce section, where chunks of pineapple and orange beckon. While I bag lettuce and carrots, my children jostle over toothpicks and pieces of fruit, managing to gulp down two or three of each kind before we move on to the meat aisle. On top of the deli counter are plates of crackers and a bacon cheese dip. As it turns out, my kids love it. I dole out two slathered crackers each, while the woman behind the counter smiles indulgently.

For the past five years I've lived in inner city Portland, Oregon, a couple of blocks from both Zupan's, a gourmet grocery, and the Sunnyside Methodist Church soup kitchen. It was during one of our daily walks from home to school to grocery store that this revelation first came to me. My children are dumpster divers, albeit the type of dumpster divers who are sweet, adorable and irrefutably middle-class. In their lust for free samples (the calories consumed this way are not insignificant) my kids are the identical opposites of homeless people we see scrounging for discarded food in the garbage. Both reflect the twisted logic of a food supply that has less to do with scarcity than the twin specters of excess and waste.

For the past several years, Oregon has been the number one state in the country for hunger. According to a study released in 2002 by Brandeis University, 6 percent of Oregon households go hungry, compared with 3.3 percent nationwide. One in four children in Oregon lives in a household that is "food insecure," defined as having limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritionally adequate food. That translates into 193,000 kids in the state who are either skipping meals or fending off hunger by eating poor quality foods.

Theories about Oregon's high hunger ranking abound. Most revolve around the current economic downturn. The reason Oregon is suffering more than the rest of the country, says Nick McRee, a sociologist at the University of Portland, is because of problems associated with the unique transformation of the state's employment base.

"Many states experienced a high-tech boom in the 1990s," he says, "but Oregon experienced a decline in natural resource production at roughly the same time. "

The social costs linked to the economic dislocation of loggers, millworkers, fishermen, were masked by the growing affluence of high tech workers in the urbanized areas of the state, he says. "But this meant that Oregon was exceptionally vulnerable to any disruption in the high tech economy." When people are poor, adds McRee, they tend to cut back on food expenditures first, rather than reduce spending for inelastic measures such as housing.

Here's the syllogism. People who don't have money don't have enough to eat. People who have enough to eat are people with money. But make no mistake. In 21st century America, we're all catenating on an out-of-whack food chain.

Thus in my own household, the problem is that we waste enormous quantities of food and have unfettered access to more. On a recent Saturday morning I awoke to the sound of a crashing noise, squeals of laughter and one long "Mooommmy." I stumbled downstairs in my bathrobe, to find four children under 8 (two friends were spending the night) and a pool of Grapenuts and milk all over the dining room floor. It was a new box and a fresh carton. "All right," I sighed, "give me a minute and I'll run to the store."

Then there was the time my kids and I were at Whole Foods, arguably Portland's most expensive grocery store. We had come from Powell's Books across the street, and I wanted to pick up something for dinner. "Can I have a sample, mama?" the children ask. Fifteen minutes later, I take inventory of the free food each child consumed:

-three pieces of chicken jalapeno sausage
-two rice crackers and hummus
-two slices of grapefruit
-three slices of orange
-a cup of Martinelli's apple cider
-half each of a chocolate and apple soy protein bar four sweet potato fries.

It doesn't take a licensed nutritionist to verify this constitutes a full meal for a 5-year-old -- and a reasonably balanced and healthy one at that. Here's the catch. My kids had just eaten lunch and weren't at all hungry. There is more than one way to disrupt the natural relationship between hunger and eating. One is to starve; the other is to stuff. In the United States, these are two sides of the same coin.

As we exit Whole Foods, a man stands outside the door selling Street Roots, the homeless newspaper. I fumble in my purse, but have to decline. All I have is my debit card, no cash. I ask him if he ever shops at Whole Foods or has come in to eat the free samples. No, he says, when he buys food, he goes to Fred Meyer. (As my kids will tell you, Fred Meyer rarely has free samples; nor do Albertsons and other stores who cater to a less affluent, albeit hungrier, clientele.)

Ron Hill, a business professor at the University of Portland, is the author of "Surviving in a Material World: The Lived Experience of People in Poverty." "There are lots of ways in which people in poverty are ostracized from mainstream consumer establishments...and their benefits," he says. He gives me a shortlist: cafes that welcome well dressed loiterers but prevent homeless people from waiting out a temporary downpour, grocery stores that destroy foods to avoid (human) scavengers.

As Hill points out, hunger in the 21st century is rife with paradox. The growing number of "food insecure" households, for example, coincides with a skyrocketing increase in obesity and diabetes rates, as well as the supersizing of the American meal. "It's an oxymoron, that someone could be obese and not have money," he says. But two decades ago, observes Hill, the McDonalds Happy Meal weighed in at approximately 500 calories; today, its supersize analog is 1,500 calories. Although it's relatively cheap to buy these calories, he says, they are high in fat and of little nutritional value.

University of Portland Education professor Ellyn Harwood elaborates. Harwood, who has conducted research on students who try to learn while hungry, says that many kids in poverty get their only sustenance from fast food. "That's too much caffeine, preservatives, dyes, in an already fragile learning system," she says. She cites studies showing the brains of malnourished children to be two-third the size of a normal child the same age. "We also know that problems with a lack of iron can cause motor coordination, attention, and lack of intellectual development," she says.

The kids get hungrier, yet the demands for school accountability grow louder. Scarcity in a time/place of abundance is always about contradiction. According to Metro, the Tri-county region threw away an estimated $327 million in edible food in 2001, and spent over $12 million to truck it to the landfill. The majority of the food came from restaurants and grocery stores. That same year, over 500,000 people in Oregon received emergency food assistance from the Oregon Food Bank . Nearly half that went to children under 17 years of age.

"When people think of a stereotypical hungry person they think of a homeless wino Vietnam vet," says UP senior Katie King, who twice a week brings food from the UP commons to clients of transitional housing projects downtown. "Now, because of the lack of a living wage, we're seeing more and more families."

To keep food out of the garbage and back in the mouths of the hungry, several food service businesses have begun to participate in food donation programs. Between March 2002 and September 2002, for example, Whole Foods donated more than 60,000 pounds of leftover food to the Oregon Food Bank. In a model program now being replicated around the country, Mentor Graphics and Bon Appetit cafeterias make weekly donations of approximately 140 leftover meals to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

That's what happens to food after it has lost value as a commodity. As for free food that's consumed before it becomes a commodity, well, Genevieve Lynch, Whole Foods marketing and communications director puts it this way: "We have ample amount of money for free samples," she says. "It's a compliment to the products if they get eaten quickly." Brian Rohter, CEO of New Seasons Markets, concurs. "We have as comprehensive sampling program as any store in the city," says He doesn't reveal the dollar amount. "It's not material relative to the benefits we realize," he says.

Last month, I made my second visit to New Seasons in as many years. The samples were top notch. The kids ate free crepes with Nutella, tombo tuna with fresh pineapple salsa, and chunks of fresh fruit. It was getting late in the afternoon, and l wondered which of the store's perishable items would end up being trucked to the food bank, and which ones would end up in landfill and/or the dumpster.

Something is out of sync in Oregon, just like the increasing number of malformed fish and amphibians cropping up in our polluted waterways. Poverty-stricken children are both obese and malnourished. Rich kids feast on free samples of pork tenderloin and seared clams. Children of laid off high-tech workers wait in line at the food bank. We pay money to bury nutritious food in landfills.

As for me, I hardly ever eat the free samples, myself. Like most well-fed women in this country, I'm on a diet.

Linda Baker is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon.

The Real Magic Mushrooms

Once you've heard "renaissance mycologist" Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you'll never look at the world -- not to mention your backyard -- in the same way again. The author of two seminal textbooks, "The Mushroom Cultivator" and "Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms," Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. His convictions about the expanding role that mushrooms will play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms -- which he stores in several on- and off-site gene libraries.

Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms were largely ignored by the mainstream medical and environmental establishment. Or, as he puts it, "they suffered from biological racism." But Stamets is about to thrust these higher fungi into the 21st century. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of "mycoremediation" and "mycofiltration" technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein.

"Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration," says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry. "If we just stay at the crest of the mycelial wave, it will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications."

A former logger turned scanning-electron microscopist, Stamets is not your typical scientist -- a role he obviously relishes. "Some people think I'm a mycological heretic, some people think I'm a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I'm crazy," he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with wide-ranging -- and provocative -- mycological metaphors, among them his belief that "fungal intelligence" provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet.

In a recent interview, Stamets also spoke mysteriously of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the "life box," his plan for "regreening the planet" using fungi. "It's totally fun, totally revolutionary. It's going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children," he says. "And it's going to be the biggest story of the decade."

Statements like those make it tempting to dismiss Stamets as either chock-full of hubris or somewhat deluded. But while many academic mycologists tend to question both his style and his methods, Stamets' status as an innovative entrepreneur is hard to dispute. "Paul has a solid grounding in cultivation and has expanded from that base to show there are other ways of using and cultivating mushrooms than just for food," says Gary Lincoff, author of "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms." "These are relatively new ideas ... but Paul's got a large spread where he can have experiments going on under his control. And he's getting big-name people to back him."

An advisor and consultant to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and a 1998 recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute's Bioneers Award, Stamets has made converts out of more than one researcher in the mainstream medical and environmental communities.

"He's the most creative thinker I know," says Dr. Donald Abrams, the assistant director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams says he became interested in the medicinal properties of mushrooms after hearing one of Stamets' lectures. Stamets is now a co-investigator on a grant proposal Abrams is authoring on the anti-HIV properties of oyster mushrooms.

Jack Word, former manager of the marine science lab at Battelle Laboratories in Sequim, Wash., calls Stamets "a visionary." Stamets takes bigger, faster leaps than institutional science, acknowledges Word, who, along with Stamets and several other Battelle researchers, is an applicant on a pending mycoremediation patent. "But most of what Paul sees has eventually been accepted by outside groups. He definitely points us in the right direction."

Although mycoremediation sounds "Brave New World"-ish, the concept behind it is decidedly low tech: think home composting, not genetic engineering. Most gardeners know that a host of microorganisms convert organic material such as rotting vegetables, decaying leaves and coffee grounds into the nutrient-rich soil required for plant growth. Fungi play a key role in this process. In fact, one of their primary roles in the ecosystem is decomposition. (Hence the killer-fungus scenario of many a science fiction novel, not to mention the moldy bread and bath tiles that are the bane of modern existence.)

The same principle is at work in mycoremediation. "We just have a more targeted approach," says Stamets. "And choosing the species [of fungi] that are most effective is absolutely critical to the success of the project."

Fungal decomposition is the job of the mycelium, a vast network of underground cells that permeate the soil. (The mushroom itself is the fruit of the mycelium.) Now recognized as the largest biological entities on the planet, with some individual mycelial mats covering more than 20,000 acres, these fungal masses secrete extra cellular enzymes and acids that break down lignin and cellulose, the two main building blocks of plant fiber, which are formed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen.

As it turns out, such chains are similar enough to the base structure of all petroleum products, pesticides, and herbicides so as to make it possible for fungi to break them down as well. A couple of years ago Stamets partnered with Battelle, a major player in the bioremediation industry, on an experiment conducted on a site owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation in Bellingham. Diesel oil had contaminated the site, which the mycoremediation team inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia that Stamets had collected from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Two other bioremediation teams, one using bacteria, the other using engineered bacteria, were also given sections of the contaminated soil to test.

Lo and behold. After four weeks, oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed on the mycoremediated soil. After eight weeks, 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had broken down, and the soil was deemed nontoxic and suitable for use in WSDOT highway landscaping.

By contrast, neither of the bioremediated sites showed significant changes. "It's only hearsay," says Bill Hyde, Stamets' patent attorney, "but the bacterial remediation folks were crying because the [mycoremediation] worked so fast."

And that, says Stamets, was just the beginning of the end of the story. As the mushrooms rotted away, "fungus gnats" moved in to eat the spores. The gnats attracted other insects, which attracted birds, which brought in seeds.

Call it mycotopia.

"The fruit bodies become environmental plateaus for the attraction and succession of other biological communities," Stamets says. "Ours was the only site that became an oasis of life, leading to ecological restoration. That story is probably repeated all over the planet."

At Fungi Perfecti, a rural compound not far from Aberdeen, Wash., signs warn visitors not to enter without an appointment, and security cameras equipped with motion sensors guard several free-standing laboratories and a mushroom "grow" room. "My concerns are personal safety and commercial espionage," says Stamets, explaining that competitors and mycological hangers-on (not always a stable lot, apparently) have a tendency to show up unannounced.

Then there's the small problem of marketing a product associated in some people's minds with illegal substances. In the late 1970s, Stamets did pioneering research at Evergreen State College on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms; he later published a definitive identification guide: "Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World."

"I drew the line a long time ago," says Stamets. "But I'll never be an apologist for that work. Everything I did was covered by a DEA license."

Today, Stamets spends much of his time cloning wild mushrooms. One of his innovations has been identifying strains of mushrooms with the ability to decompose certain toxins and adapting them to new environments. With the benefit of computer clean-room technology, Stamets introduces samples of toxins to mycelia growing on agar culture, then screens the samples to see if the mycelia are actually metabolizing the toxin. You can actually train the mycelia to grow on different media, he says.

As reported in Jane's Defence Weekly, one of Stamets' strains was found to "completely and efficiently degrade" chemical surrogates of VX and sarin, the potent nerve gases Saddam Hussein loaded into his warheads.

"We have a fungal genome that is diverse and present in the old-growth forests," says Stamets. "Hussein does not. If you look on the fungal genome as being soldier candidates protecting the U.S. as our host defense, not only for the ecosystem but for our population ... we should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense."

Stamets recently collaborated with WSDOT on another mycoremediation project designed to prevent erosion on decommissioned logging roads, which channel silt and pollutants toward stream beds where salmon are reproducing. In a process Stamets terms "mycofiltration," bark and wood chips were placed onto road surfaces and inoculated with fungi. The mycelial networks not only helped to build and retain soil but also filtered out pollutants and sediments and thus mitigated negative impacts on the watershed.

Stamets envisions myriad uses of mycofiltration, one of which involves bridging the gap between ecological and human health. It's been more than 70 years since Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold fungus penicillium was effective against bacteria. And yet, complains Stamets, nobody has paid much attention to the antiviral and antibiotic properties of mushrooms -- partly because Americans, unlike Asian cultures, think mushrooms are meant to be eaten, not prescribed. But with the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistance in hospitals, says Stamets, "a new game is afoot. The cognoscenti of the pharmaceuticals are now actively, and some secretly, looking at mushrooms for novel medicines."

Based on a recent study documenting the ability of a mushroom, Polyporus umbellatus, to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria, Stamets has come up with a mycofiltration approach to combating the disease. "We know that these fungi use other microorganisms as food sources," he says. "We know they're producing extracellular antibiotics that are effective against a pantheon of disease microorganisms. We can establish sheet composting using fungi that are specific against the malarial parasites. We can then go far in working with developing countries, in articulating mycelial mats specific to the disease vectors in which these things are being bred."

Stamets is currently shopping this idea around to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a front-runner in the effort to provide vaccinations in developing nations.

Mycotechnology is part of a larger trend toward the use of living systems to solve environmental problems and restore ecosystems. One of the best-known examples is John Todd's "Living Machine," which uses estuary ecosystems powered by sunlight to purify wastewater. "The idea that a total community is more efficient against contaminants than a single Pac Man bug is gaining acceptance," says Jack Word, now with MEC Analytical Systems, an environmental consulting firm. The key challenge facing mycotechnologies, he says, is securing funding to demonstrate their large-scale commercial feasibility.

Stamets is the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms; he's spreading the gospel about the power of fungi to benefit the world. Issuing a call to mycological arms, Stamets urges gardeners to inoculate their backyards with mycorrhizae, fungi that enter into beneficial relationships with plant roots, and to grow shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, among the very best decomposers and builders of soil.

But Stamets' vision doesn't stop there. In the conference room at Fungi Perfecti, with a 2,000-year-old carved mushroom stone from Guatemala hovering, shamanlike, over him, he explains his far-reaching theory of mycelial structure.

"Life exists throughout the cosmos and is a consequence of matter in the universe," he says. "Given that premise, when you look at the consequence of matter, and the simple premise of cellular reproduction, which forms a string, which forms a web, which then cross-hatches, what do you have? You have a neurological landscape that looks like mycelium. It's no accident that brain neurons and astrocytes are similarly arranged. It's no accident that the computer Internet is similarly arranged."

"I believe the earth's natural Internet is the mycelial network," he says. "That is the way of nature. If there is any destruction of the neurological landscape, the mycelial network does not die; it's able to adapt, recover and change. That's the whole basis of the computer Internet. The whole design patterns something that has been reproduced through nature and has been evolutionarily successful over millions of years."

The day after being interviewed in late October, Stamets called to point out a New York Times article on self-replicating universes, an article, he suggested, that reinforced his ideas about matter creating life and the generative power of mycelium. In describing the way universes might multiply, the reporter used the following felicitous metaphor: "For some cosmologists, that means universes sprouting from one another in an endless geometric progression, like mushrooms upon mushrooms upon mushrooms."

Where is Stamets going with all this? "I have a strategy for creating ecological footprints on other planets," he says. "By using a consortium of fungi and seeds and other microorganisms, you could actually seed other planets with little plops. You could actually start keystone species and go to creating vegetation on planets."

"I think that's totally doable."

Linda Baker is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. This article originally appeared on, used with permission. Copyright Salon Media Group 2001.

The Not-So-Sweet Success of Organic Farming

Over the past two months, David Gould has inspected pumpkin farms and fertilizer companies in China, consulted for the world's only organic producer of Noni juice in Tahiti, and followed the trail of non-genetically modified livestock feed -- from farmers' auctions to port machinery -- in India.

Gould is a Portland, Ore.-based inspector and certifier of organic foods. For an eco-minded scientist-activist, Gould appears to have an ideal job: he gets to travel to far-flung places, work outside and help Third World countries implement environmentally friendly development strategies. Theoretically, he's a standard bearer for a new, more sustainable form of global food production, in which local communities produce food that is consumed locally, without the input of expensive and possibly unhealthy pesticides or genetically modified organisms.

But organic farming in the 21st century is turning out to be a little more complicated than its advocates originally expected. For example, there was the time a few years ago that Gould was sent by Eco-Cert, a German certification agency, to oversee the company's first certification project in Japan.

"I was inspecting a Japanese food processor who was importing soybeans from China to process into goods for export to Europe," said Gould. "I said to Eco-Cert: 'We're circling the globe with organic. Isn't this a little bizarre, a little ... unsustainable?'"

If anyone's living out the ironies of the post-utopian world of organic agriculture, it's Gould. An independent contractor and consultant who works for public and private certifying agencies, Gould buys most of his own groceries from local non-certified family farms. He refers to himself as simultaneously living both on the "ideal extreme" of the organic spectrum and as an "agent of the USDA." As such, Gould embodies the conflicted attitude many greener growers, processors and certifiers are taking toward the increasingly industrialized field of organic farming.

Once the lowly stepchild of conventional farming, organic is poised for a family takeover. In 2001, global sales of organic foods reached $26 billion; by 2008, that figure is expected to reach $80 billion. Leading the push toward organic is the European Union, where Belgium, the Netherlands and Wales have set government goals to make 10 percent of all arable land organic by the year 2010. (In Germany, that figure is 20 percent).

The U.S., which has set no such goals, has almost doubled its acres of organic farmland since 1997. And on Oct. 21, 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will implement the nation's first federal labeling standards for organically grown and processed foods. The new USDA seal will apply to U.S. growers who, for the most part, produce food without the use of genetic engineering, growth hormones or pesticides.

But dig a little deeper into this world where more crops are being rotated and fewer poisons are being used, and the contradictions begin to sprout. As Gould points out, there's something, well, ironic about using massive amounts of non-renewable energy to ship organically grown food -- not to mention the inspectors themselves -- halfway around the planet. That most organically grown food is packaged and processed -- "until it's a stretch to call it food, much less organic," he says -- further undercuts much vaunted organic claims to benefit human health and the environment. And then there's the nasty little problem that the very act of certification itself puts constraints on small farmers who want to push organic farming even further ahead.

The original vision of organic farming as ecologically sustainable agriculture practiced by small farmers is giving way to big business. Organic's success is sowing the seeds of its own co-optation. "Certification used to favor the small farmer," says Gould, who holds a life sciences degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and claims a lifelong interest in the ways communities form around food supplies. Now, he contends, the mass market is rewriting the grass-roots story, turning organically grown food into a global brand (the National Organic Program, notes Gould, is part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service) rather than a social, economic and ecological alternative to conventional farming.

"Organic is becoming one tool that people interested in sustainable production can use," he says. "But you don't have to be sustainable to use organic as a label." The real future of sustainability, he says, hinges on local production and support of local economies. "'Know your farmer,'" says Gould. "That was one of the keys of the organic mission that has been lost."

Twenty years ago, inspectors and certifiers of organic foods were part of a regional, insular profession characterized by a powerful streak of political activism and ethical conviction. Developed in 1982, the organic standards issued by Oregon Tilth, one of the country's original certifying organizations, were a one-page neo-hippie description of practices that would galvanize the earth and revitalize the link between food producers and consumers.

Today, the National Organic Rule is a bureaucratic product, a 63-page list of allowed and prohibited substances, land management practices, livestock standards, and labeling requirements for processed foods. (Destined to confuse even the most vigilant of consumers, product labels will read either "100 percent Organic," "Organic," for products that are 95 percent organic, or "Made with Organic," for products that are less than 95 percent organic).

As for Gould's job, it's become a combination of the exotic, the ecological and the administrative. He harvests allspice with the natives in the Guatemalan jungle, is feted by village elders in Mongolia (inspections of mungbean crops), and slogs through the massive amounts of paperwork involved in creating and maintaining macro-policies for food production and handling. There are now 56 countries that have implemented or initiated the drafting of organic regulations, each with its own spin on what it means to be organic. Gould's recent inspection of a fertilizer company in Northeastern China, for example, involved verifying that the manure came from non-factory farm chickens -- a European regulation that U.S. standards don't mention.

Gould's position in the global economy, working mostly for U.S. or European clients who want to import certified organic products from the developing world, embodies one of the central conundrums for the organic movement: How does an eco-friendly, community-based food movement reconcile the environmental costs of transporting massive amounts of food around the world? The fact that the global organic economy is reproducing neocolonial structures is, as it were, another pest in the corn. Currently, cheaper production costs mean that the bulk of organic production in developing countries is exported to Europe or the U.S. Imposed by the West, certification standards and processes often have little to do with the preservation of local practices -- another irony, Gould observes, since many traditional cultures had been farming organically for thousands of years until multinational corporations encroached upon them with agrochemicals and, now, GMOs.

"The key challenge facing developing countries," says Gould, "is building local awareness and domestic markets." Giving small farmers "value added" opportunities, says Gould, are ways he tries to grow the local along with the global -- in his case, helping small producers in China grow organic green tea and medicinal herbs, or their Tahitian counterparts market organic mango and star fruit to the foreign owned luxury hotels lining the lagoons. "But no one's figured out a way to make the global economy sustainable," he says, noting he would never buy organically grown fruits and vegetables that had to be flown in from the Southern Hemisphere. To unpack Gould's arguments about the disintegration of the organic ideal, go back ten or fifteen years, when organic farmers in the U.S. pushed for national organic standards to clarify the label, win recognition for organic as a viable, even superior kind of farming and gain access to land grant and extension office money and research funds. "Well, we got what we asked for," says Gould. Today, he says, the problem turns on the twin specters of government standardization and corporate consolidation.

In California, giant 7,000 acre farms control half of the nation's $400 million organic produce market. Horizon Organic, a publicly traded Colorado-based company, controls more than 70 percent of the nation's organic milk market. More than 30 percent of its milk is produced at two industrial-size dairies, one of which milks close to 5,000 cows. Corporate food giant General Mills now owns leading organic manufacturer Cascadian Farms, Kraft Foods owns Boca Burgers, and Heinz, reported the Wall Street Journal this June, is seeking to develop an organic ketchup to sell at Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the nation's biggest natural foods supermarkets.

"One of the grossest problems is the food distribution system is totally screwed up," says Gould. "If you want to supply the big supermarket, you have to have a lot of product." Coopted by big business, he says, the organic movement has shifted away from the small farmer -- and its corresponding focus on community food production -- toward the techniques and problems of conventional and factory farming: "Big companies like General Mills tend to process huge amounts of food, which results in huge demand for food," he says. "This puts small farmers at a disadvantage and results in the ecologically indefensible practice of monoculture ... because you need to feed this machinery at an insane rate."

Further derailing the organic mission, says Gould, are the increasing costs of certification, which disproportionately harm small growers, and the inherent conflict of interest that occurs in a system where certifiers are paid by the companies they certify. "It opens the door for certifiers to grant exceptions to standards, make things conditions for improvement, when really they should have stopped things in their tracks," he said.

Government subsidy of organic farming, he says would alleviate both of these problems. Gould also singles out a provision of the new USDA rule that prevents farmers who want to use the organic label from certifying to a more stringent standard than the federal government requires. This kind of unwavering standard, he says, favors corporate producers who can dominate the marketplace by buying and selling organic products cheaply and en masse. Prohibited from advertising higher ecological performance, smaller "best practice" farmers will be locked out of the competition. "It's unconscionable," he says. "It's a power play by the government."

Gould is not the only sustainable food advocate to express concern about the industrialization of organic production. "The current trend," says Robert Simmons, international team leader for the private certifying agency, Farm Verified Organic, "seems to be a race to the bottom for standards." Last month, for example, Fieldale Farms, a Georgia chicken processor that slaughters several hundred thousand organic chickens a month, sought a waiver from USDA regulations requiring organically grown chickens be fed 100 percent organically grown feed. Not enough organic feed was available to meet company demands, a Fieldale spokesperson told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

For Josh Volk, field manager for Sauvie Island Organics, a seven acre farm outside of Portland that sells its products directly to 200 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members (individual households that own a piece of the farm's production), the key to survival, of both the farm and the mission, is clear: don't get certified.

"When you're making less than minimum wage for long weeks it's difficult to justify spending the money on an organic label that will probably not make any difference in sales," he says. After the USDA law takes effect, the non-certified SIO won't be able to label its produce organic or even say they use organic practices. "But since we have direct contact with our customers every day," says Volk, "we can explain to people that we do not use synthetics and that we try to farm as sustainably as possible."

So here's the final paradox. Mass production and government standards mean more organic production and consumption, which means fewer chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are going into the air, soil, water, and, of course, our bodies. But just as U.S. regulations for certified organic foods are about to be put into place, the label "organic" may become obsolete -- or, at the very least, lose its cachet. This is why Gould, who grinds his own flour, sprouts his own sprouts and buys chicken from a non-certified Portland-area farmer, says the future of sustainability depends on linking producers and consumers via regional production and networks of farmers' markets, food coops, and CSAs.

"The story in this country is that wealth concentrates," he says. "That's unstable. We need smaller operations, local processors, more evenly spread out capitalism."

As for his own role in the system, it's telling that Gould -- the globetrotting inspector par excellence -- is now contemplating a career change. "I see my job as evolving toward more local work," he says. "And if that means getting out of the certification business, so be it."

Linda Baker is a freelance writer. This article was originally published on Reprinted with permission. Copyright Salon Media Group 2001.

Illegal CFC Smuggling Destroying Ozone Layer

In early August, Bert Ammons of Stuart, Florida pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Air Act when he attempted to smuggle ninety 30-pound cylinders of CFC-12, also known by its trade name, Freon, in false compartments on his 41-foot boat, Sierra. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, not only did Ammons plan to distribute the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to auto repair shops around Fort Lauderdale, but his ozone-depleting cargo also had a street value of approximately $68,000. If convicted, Ammons faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

With millions of dollars in evaded taxes and illegal contraband, not to mention multi-agency federal initiatives with names like "Operation Cool Breeze," it's a wonder no one has written a Hollywood thriller about refrigerant and fire-suppressant smugglers. But what illegal CFCs lack in cultural cachet, they make up for in volume and profitability. Between 1994 and 1997, 6,367 tons of CFC-12 and 24 tons of CFC-113 (used as a fire suppressant) were smuggled across the U.S. border. That comes to $43 million in attempted tax evasion alone.

According to an unnamed official in the EPA's Criminal Enforcement Division, illegal CFCs rank close to cocaine as some of the most profitable contraband coming across the U.S. border. The public may not be aware of it, but "black market CFC smuggling is considered a serious problem," says Jack McQuade, an officer with the U.S. Customs Service.

Over the past 10 years, 173 countries including the U.S. have signed the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, a global agreement to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. But the persistent trade in illegal CFCs is only one sign that ozone recovery is far from a sure thing. Recent scientific findings link global warming to ozone depletion, challenging prevailing assumptions that the ozone hole will begin to recover by the year 2050. In October, a major ozone hole opened for the first time over a populated city, Punta Arenas, Chile.

"Policy makers on down say: 'We solved the ozone layer problem. What's next?'" says Kert Davies, science policy director at Ozone Action, a Washington D.C.-based public interest group. "We did the easy thing: We got rid of the CFCs. But when you try to get people to talk about methyl bromide and ozone depletion, about global warming and ozone depletion, it's like pulling teeth."

Declaring Victory?

No one disputes that stratospheric ozone recovery is one of the environmental movement's great success stories. In the 1970s, scientists first discovered that CFCs and other chemicals could damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, which shields life on Earth from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These concerns were substantiated in the 1980s by the discovery of the "ozone hole," a thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica. Additional studies showed that ozone depletion and the corresponding increase in UV radiation hitting the Earth's surface, can have serious consequences for human health and the environment.

Incorporating science, technology and economics, the Montreal Protocol laid out timetables for every country to phase out production of CFCs. In the U.S., Congress amended the Clean Air Act to comply with treaty goals. The scientific community was also charged with re-evaluating the treaty and making amendments accordingly. In 1987, for example, the Protocol called only for a partial phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals. But re-evaluations in 1989 resulted in a total phase-out of CFCs. Additional assessments in the 1990s led to a dramatic acceleration of the phase-out of the new chemicals, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and methyl bromide.

"The ozone depletion issue is a good example of the no-net-harm principle combined with the precautionary principle -- acting on our knowledge when we have the presumption of a problem," says Davies. "We discovered this hole, we thought there was a link to CFCs and we started moving." The time it takes to get the ball rolling on an international treaty is so great, says Davies, that by the time the Protocol was in place, scientists knew even more about ozone depletion and were able to act accordingly.

At the beginning of the 21st century, experts agree that a world without the Montreal Protocol would be a horrendous one indeed. According to the Protocol's latest scientific assessment, the world in 2050, absent the global agreement, would look like this: Ozone depletion would be at least 50 percent at mid latitudes. Surface ultraviolet radiation would double at mid latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere and quadruple at mid latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere. By the year 2060, there would be 19 million more cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 1.5 million more cases of melanoma skin cancer. And then there would be the numerous unquantifiable effects, such as loss of immunity, lower productivity of crops and damage to aquatic ecosystems.

"The kind of global disaster we indescribable," says John Passacantando, the former executive director of Ozone Action, now head of Greenpeace USA. "Had we not phased out this stuff, there would be so much chlorine in the stratosphere it would be like the scene of a bad movie." But temporarily thwarting apocalypse, experts caution, is no cause for complacency. According to the World Meteorological Organization, in September 1998, the ozone hole over Antarctica was larger and deeper than ever before measured; at 27 million square miles, it covered a surface area larger than North America. The ozone hole over the Arctic also deepened this year, with potentially far more damaging effects on human health.

The continued threat to the ozone layer can be explained in both political and scientific terms. Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries have delayed timetables for ending production of ozone-depleting chemicals. Although industrialized countries were required to phase out CFCs by 1996 and methyl bromide by 2005, developing countries have until 2010 to phase out CFCs and until 2015 to phase out methyl bromide.

"The consumption of these chemicals in developing countries is still somewhere around 200,000 tons," says Dr. Omar El-Arini, chief officer of the United Nations Multilateral Fund Secretariat in Montreal, which was established in 1990 to help developing countries comply with terms of the Montreal Protocol. The ozone layer will not recover without the participation of developing nations, he says. "There is only one sky and one ozone layer, which cannot be partitioned. "

Psst, Wanna Buy Some Ozone?

Here's where the flourishing trade in illegal refrigerant comes in: CFC production not only continues in developing countries, it is dirt cheap to buy. Sources in the EPA's criminal enforcement division say that in Mexico and China (among other developing nations), CFC-12 can be bought for $1 or $2 a pound and resold in the U.S for $20 or $25 a pound. Why the huge domestic mark-up? It's a simple matter of supply and demand.

With some exceptions for medical use, and use in space shuttle equipment, the United States banned the import of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals in 1996. However, millions of pieces of equipment that use CFCs are still in service, including most automobiles built before 1994, air conditioners and other refrigeration equipment.

Although it's possible to retrofit much of this equipment to be serviced with ozone-friendly alternatives, costs can run anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Contributing to the problem, the U.S. and other industrialized countries allow the trade and use of recycled CFCs to maintain existing machinery. Because it's almost impossible to distinguish between new and recycled Freon, traders illegally bring CFCs into industrialized countries in the guise of recycled substances or exports to developing countries. A high excise tax on the sale or use of CFCs in the U.S. ($5.35 per pound) also abets the illegal trade.

EPA and Customs Service officers say it's impossible to estimate the quantity of illegal CFCs crossing the border. Nonetheless, the scope of the black market is startling. From Russia to Australia, federal officials paint a picture of worldwide CFC smuggling operations that run the gamut from small-time entrepreneurs to sophisticated money laundering conspiracies.

Since the launch of a nationwide CFC enforcement initiative in 1995, which involves the United States Customs Service, the EPA, the FBI and the IRS, over 100 individuals have been convicted for violation of customs law and the federal Clean Air Act. Defendants included Richard Schmolke, who was convicted last year for a scheme to illegally import 75,000 pounds of CFC-12 from Venezuela into Texas. Agents said that Schmolke was part of one of the largest Freon smuggling rings they had ever encountered.

Federal officials anticipate an increase in smuggling activity as the supply of legal CFCs is depleted by the end of this year, said Jack McQuade of the U.S. Customs Service. As of last July, a total of 5,438 pounds of CFC-12 had been seized along the southern border and 2,700 pounds of CFC-12 had been taken in the south Florida area, he says.

The reports sound like a parody of film noir. This past summer, the U.S. Customs Service regularly intercepted "frio banditos" coming across the Rio Grande, all with cylinders of CFCs strapped to their backs. Geographically, this is the frontline for new smuggling rings. "There are indications that consolidation of individually smuggled CFCs is now occurring along the U.S./Mexican border," says McQuade.

Until older cars get off the road, and until developing countries stop producing CFCs, say EPA officials, CFC smuggling will continue. A related problem, according to El-Arini, is that industrialized countries are dumping CFC-containing products and equipment on developing nations. This will further complicate efforts by developing countries to comply with the Montreal Protocol, he says.

Despite widespread "cheating" and smuggling, the global effort to restore the ozone layer is a remarkable achievement, especially when viewed from an international political perspective. The Multilateral Fund, for example, helped the majority of developing countries freeze production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances at 1999 levels -- the first Protocol obligation for these countries. Since 1991, the Fund has disbursed more than $1 billion to phase out the consumption of 142,000 tons of ozone-depleting chemicals in over 110 developing countries.

"This is the first real-life endeavor of mankind to join hands to solve environmental damage that threatens our common habitat, the Earth," says El-Arini. "It proves that once the political commitment is there, national borders can be crossed to overcome a problem of a global dimension."

Trouble at Home

Back at home, those familiar with the political scene aren't quite so sanguine. This year, the U.S. is headed for a showdown over methyl bromide, a toxic ozone-depleting chemical used in this country primarily by California strawberry and Florida tomato growers. Introduced last spring by California Congressman Richard Pombo, the un-ironically titled Methyl Bromide Fairness Act would push back the U.S. phase-out date to 2015 -- the year developing countries are required to stop production and consumption of the chemical.

Due to its acute toxicity, methyl bromide is already banned in several countries, including the Netherlands and Canada. For years, environmentalists and health officials in the U.S. (which uses 40 percent of the world's methyl bromide) have called for stricter regulation of the pesticide, especially in agricultural areas such as California's Ventura County, where children and farm workers are at risk. Since 1982, nearly 500 poisonings linked to methyl bromide have occurred in California, 19 of them fatal.

The best account of methyl bromide's tarnished history in American politics can be found in a report published by the Transnational Resource and Action Center (TRAC) and the Political Ecology Group (PEG) in 1997. Titled "Bromide Barons: Methyl Bromide, Corporate Power and Environmental Justice," the report meticulously documents how the Big Three methyl bromide corporations, Albemarle, Great Lakes Chemical and Dead Sea Bromine, as well as California-based TriCal, the largest applicator of methyl bromide in the state, have systematically worked to roll back environmental regulations that threaten profit margins.

"Through various industry groups," the report states, "including the Methyl Bromide Global Coalition and the Methyl Bromide Working Group, the bromide barons have hindered the development of alternatives to methyl bromide, cast doubt on the scientific consensus that methyl bromide contributes to ozone depletion, and influenced the political process through lobbying."

In 1998, industry-backed congressional representatives tried -- and failed -- to pass a bill that would push back the phase-out date of methyl bromide. With an environmental rider to the 1999 budget, they succeeded: the date was bumped four years to 2005. Now it's round three. At a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing last July on the Methyl Bromide Fairness Act (which now has more than 20 sponsors), efforts to undermine the methyl bromide ban were relentless.

"While methyl bromide has been placed in the position of public enemy number one by the radical environmental community, we have lost sight of the fact that this may truly be a silver bullet compound," excoriated Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Export Association. "The sky is not falling and agricultural methyl bromide is not the cause of the ozone hole."

Claims that methyl bromide has a negligible effect on ozone depletion are simply not true, counters Azadeh Tabazadeh, an atmospheric chemist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. "In fact, the bromine in methyl bromide is a much better catalyst for ozone destruction than chlorine," she says. "And just because we've reduced the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere doesn't mean that the level of bromine is also going down. That's why compounds like methyl bromide need to be regulated."

The government and scientific community agree. The EPA identifies methyl bromide as a Class I ozone-depleting substance that will be phased out under the Clean Air Act. A 1994 paper, co-authored by several federal agencies and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), warns that with the phase-out of CFCs underway, the elimination of methyl bromide emissions "from agricultural, structural, and industrial activities" is the single most important step that the world's governments can take to reduce future levels of ozone depletion.

Case studies listed by the EPA demonstrate that viable chemical and organic substitutes for methyl bromide do exist. "Farmers are reluctant to change because their crop production systems have been developed around methyl bromide, " says Bill Thomas of the EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division. "But a number of good alternatives to methyl bromide are now available, which should allow most growers to continue to produce their crops in a way they're used to."

Feeding the Loop

As U.S. special interests backpedal on methyl bromide, recent discoveries about ozone depletion in the Northern Hemisphere are forcing scientists to revise earlier claims that the ozone layer will begin to recover by 2050. Although satellites have detected an ozone "cavity" over the Arctic for several years, the phenomenon is growing worse. From November 1999 through March 2000, seasonal ozone concentrations in some parts of the Arctic declined as much as 60 percent.

From a human health perspective, Arctic ozone thinning is more worrisome than comparable reductions over Antarctica. This is because ozone-depleted air from the Arctic drifts south each spring toward highly populated areas in North America, Europe and Russia. Last year, a European Space Agency's satellite revealed that ozone levels in Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and Scandinavia were nearly as low as those normally found in the Antarctic.

There's another reason why the ozone hole over the Arctic is attracting attention. Scientists have known for some time that ozone lows are often associated with extremely low temperatures in the stratosphere and the presence of polar stratospheric clouds, which provide the template for the chemical reactions that destroy ozone. Polar clouds are also a common presence in the Antarctic, where temperatures are colder than the Arctic.

Here's the key finding: Over the past couple of decades, the Arctic has become more like the Antarctic; in other words, it's getting a lot colder. And as recent studies published in the journal Science suggest, global warming may be the culprit.

"It's ironic because people have always been confused about ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect -- the general public always thought they were intertwined," says Davies. "And now it turns out they are."

The feedback loop between global warming and ozone depletion works like this: The warming of the lower atmosphere known as the greenhouse effect traps warm air at the surface. This in turn leads to cooling in the upper atmosphere, which creates the conditions for ozone depletion to take place. CFCs, which deplete ozone, are also a culprit in global warming.

Scientists used to believe that as chlorine levels declined in the upper atmosphere, the ozone layer would start to recover, says Tabazadeh, who co-authored a recent study on the role polar clouds assume in ozone depletion. "That would be true only if the climate was persistently the same," she says. "But if the climate is getting colder due to surface warming, the upper atmosphere is primed for massive destruction of ozone. Things are going to get worse before they get better."

The discovery highlights yet another set of economic, environmental and political problems -- namely, what to do about hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs were originally introduced as an ozone-friendly alternative to CFCs; however, they are now recognized as a powerful greenhouse gas, with as much as 4,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2).

So far, the HFC issue has underscored tensions between groups concerned about global warming and groups working toward ozone recovery. For example, this year Coca-Cola announced plans to phase out the use of HFCs in its cold-drink equipment. The move was applauded by environmental groups like Greenpeace but criticized by industry groups such as the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, which said it would threaten the ozone layer as well as the economic competitiveness of companies that have invested millions in HFC technology.

The fight to protect the ozone layer has become a model for global environmental protection. But as the continuing battle over methyl bromide, the illegal trade in CFCs and now the controversy over HFCs suggest, environmental memory is not only short term -- it can also be short-circuited. Whether new scientific discoveries result in more holistic public policies remains to be seen.

"The atmosphere has the potential to be the big wake-up call on the environment," says Davies. "Because the more we look, the more we see that all these issues are connected. The atmosphere is the ultimate global commons."


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