Archive for the 'environment' Category

30
Jun
10

Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.

22
Jun
10

Futureless farming?

I imagine there must be a proverb or several somewhere about the farmer who travels in springtime, when a huge chunk of the year’s work has to get done.

This year, I had to travel not once but three times in the crucial spring months, and since returning have been scrambling to rescue my little farmstead from total chaos. Calves still coming in, new chickens to tend to, the beehives thriving but needing a lot of attention, weeds galore in the garden. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. WEEDS! (Did I mention weeds?)

But I think I’m getting there.

Which raises the question of “where is there”?

In general I’ve downplayed my farmerly ambitions by claiming only that I’m trying to feed my family better, and perhaps create a better sense of self-reliance. I do hold out a hope, not often expressed, that someday this farm will be our livelihood. Slowed food revolution, in this month’s American Prospect, makes me wonder how realistic that dream is.

The author, Heather Rogers,  offers a thorough look at the state of the American organic or alternative or sustainable farmer, seen from a policy perspective as well as through the eyes of Morse Pitts, who farms in the Hudson Valley and can charge what for me is a jaw-dropping price of $14 for a dozen eggs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. In spite of this, and the fact that he is hard-working and resourceful, he still has had enough with a life that promises (and delivers) so many rewards, save one—the ability to earn a steady and decent living.

… despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that’s not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure — bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market — holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who’ve gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

As he has done in so many other areas, the president raised hopes for progressive farmers to the sky, and then sent them crashing. An organic garden at the White House! Beehives! But not a heck of a lot of tangible things have been delivered to folks like us. And even modest things like the Know Your Farmer campaign have met with angry resistance. “In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. ‘American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.'” Which of course is a hugely disingenuous piece of cow dung. And then there’s the “urban locavore” dig—a “trendy food choice” by well-to-do foodie snobs doing their evil mischief again. You know, if it weren’t for Alice Waters, America could be made whole again.

It’s a really good article, if not particularly encouraging for me, or for any of the other kooks out there who want to eat real food that isn’t farmed in ways that are killing the earth. I recommend you read the whole thing….

10
May
10

Lions and tigers and superweeds … oh, my!

florence in the garden

Florence scours our overgrown garden for callaloo

Who could have seen THIS coming?

A recent New York Times article on the rapid growth of “superweeds” notices that some species have done exactly what Darwin noticed living things do: under herbicidal assault, they adapted.

Now Roundup, Monsanto’s crack for farmers, is having trouble killing pigweed, and the expensive herbicide/seed program  isn’t looking like such a good deal anymore. But the large-scale farmers have a lot invested in industrial farming,  so many are just layering new poisons onto the Roundup, and are even encouraged to do so by Monsanto, which, the Times reports, “is it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.”

Michael Pollan, one of the Room for Debate voices in a Times discussion on the subject, points out that this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.  “A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, ‘sustainable.’ Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.”

The Times parrots without comment the claim that no-till agriculture with “Roundup Ready” seeds is “environmentally friendly.” True, it reduces erosion and lessens runoff, but I don’t think everyone really understands what really goes on in this kind of agriculture. (Interested in the details of how glyphosate works? Check  out this fact sheet from beyondpesticides.org (pdf). “Environmentally friendly”? I’m not so sure.)

And here is where I would like to make a rather bold suggestion: Why not just call the superweed callaloo and eat it?

Pigweed is amaranth, after all, and amaranth is edible and nutritious, both as  leaves and seeds. When we first moved to Kentucky, Florence, our friend and one-time babysitter (from a past life when we were both had jobs and 401ks and benefits in New York), came to visit us. She looked into a field of what we called pigweed, and saw callaloo, a delicious green from her youth near Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She waded in, harvested a few large bags, trimmed it and cooked it up with lots of garlic and hot peppers and it was delicious.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to eat the pigweed laced through with Roundup of course. And I’m not sure the resistant palmer amaranth is the same variety of amaranth that we enjoyed. But if there are varieties of a “superweed” that are edible and nutritious, a smart farmer might take the hint from mother nature and grow the native plant that doesn’t need massive doses of chemicals to thrive.

Or not. Even if that farmer is dead-set on continuing with the commodity crop (and of course that’s where the (subsidy) money is), The redoubtable Rodale Institute has been  doing some great work with organic no-till methods.

10
Mar
10

Green thumbs up: Shopping malls into greenhouses

Been in the garden digging. Digging like Kevin Bacon. Have you ever seen Stir of Echoes, where Bacon’s character, post-hypnosis, starts tearing up his garden and even basement? “I’m supposed to dig,” is all he can say, except when he mutters, “Tools.”

That’s how I feel this time of year. Dig. Dirt. Tools.

And it puts me in a good mood, a good enough mood to post a link to a story that is not along my customary lines of  how we’re being boiled alive like a potful of oblivious frogs by a predatory militarist corporatist state. No, reader, this story is a happy one, or at least it features cause for optimism. It’s about one of the best simple ideas I’ve heard in a while: turning unused (or, in this case, underused) mall space into a greenhouse/farm stand.

From Fast Company:

Shopping malls, those bastions of American consumerism, have not been immune to the recent economic downturn. In a recent piece by our own Greg Lindsay, we looked at the impending decline of the mall, which is part of the “single-use environment” category of real estate development that will slowly disappear over the next thirty years, according to one developer. But what will replace these environments, and more importantly, what will happen to the massive malls of today?

One possible solution can be seen in Cleveland’s Galleria mall. The mall lost many of its retail shops over the past few years, leaving gaping holes in the greenhouse-like space. So employees of the Galleria came up with the idea for the Gardens Under Glass project, a so-called urban ecovillage inside the mall that features carts of fruits and vegetables grown on-site. The project was recently given a $30,000 start-up grant from Cleveland’s Civic Innovation Lab.

In the past I’ve written about Detroit and its gradual, if not exactly planned, transition from urban back to rural. Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz notices the same thing:

We can see it now: the malls of today turned into the suburban (and urban) farming powerhouses of tomorrow. And while we’re at it, why not turn entire economically depressed cities into agricultural centers as well? It’s already happening in Detroit, where entrepreneurs are turning vacant lots into factory-side farms. And if Cleveland’s mall farm works out, maybe New Jersey can become the next big agricultural innovator–the state has the most malls per square mile in the country.

Re-ruralization. It’s already happening. Cool.

04
Mar
10

Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

02
Mar
10

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

22
Feb
10

GMO vaporware in Africa

african corn farmer

In the conventional wisdom, Billl Gates has gone from geek, to megalomaniac software mogul bent on world domination, to a man so rich he can SAVE THE WORLD WITH HIS MONEY!

I cannot argue with his decision to dedicate his life to making things better through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but sometimes trying to make things better makes things worse. And that’s if your intentions are pure to start with. Mix in a partner who might have other motives, and well, you see where this is going….

This Grist article by Tom Laskawy discusses a recent venture by the Gates Foundation that sounds great on its face. The goal: to feed Africa. The method: GMO seed technology from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Laskawy quotes a DesMoines Register news item, which mentions that DuPont rival Monsanto is involved in a simliar venture:

Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.

The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.

… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.

Lawkawy is skeptical.  And the not-so-fine print shows he has reason to be:

As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.

From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.

And of course the irony here is that a non-GMO solution exists, the development of seed varieties by local, African researchers such as the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee, who “developed the [improved] varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.”

Wouldn’t it be simpler, and cheaper, wonders Laskawy, to just spend some foundation money (most likely a fraction of what goes to DuPont) on getting locally adapted seeds into local farmers’ hands?

_____________________________________

Note: You can find a good summary of objections to Gates’ faith in GMO technology here.

17
Feb
10

more on “cows the climate solution?”

cow image

I feel terrible that Seth Itzkan’s articulate response to a post of mine has languished in the WordPress spam queue for 6 weeks now.

The post in question, Cows the climate solution?, discussed Adam Sacks’ bold claim that well managed cattle grazing could solve all of our climate problems by the middle of the century! Seth’s very persuasive comment makes me think, Well, just maybe….

Thanks for your post which I found because I monitor Google Alerts for “Holistic Management”.  Actually, Adam Sacks is a colleague / friend of mine, and we’ve discussed these topics at length.  It’s nice to see that the word is getting out.

You are correct that Adam and George’s comments are not mutually exclusive because they are discussing different things.  As Adam states in his follow up, the issue isn’t about “cows” (although that’s the catch – I guess it worked!), the issue is about restoring grassland ecosystems – which are by far the largest stores of terrestrial carbon on the earth. Grasslands co-evolved with grazing mammals that moved in concentrated herds.  This herding action was caused by predation (wolves, lions and such).  The devastation of the world’s grasslands and is due largely to the removal of large mammals – not over grazing.  Too little grazing is as bad as too much.  Either way the grass dies.  This is the discovery of Alan Savory and the findings of the process of “Holistic Management”.  Please see http://www.holisticmanagement.org.  The more large animals are removed from their natural grassland ecosystems, the faster the grassland dies. Imagine that?  They actually need each other.

The problem today is that we have no sense of what a natural grassland ecosystem is.  When Louis and Clarke traveled across the Midwest they were walking over thousands of square miles of the riches soils on the planet, in many place over 10 feet deep with grasses just as high. Those soils, of course, are organic matter, which is, largely carbon, sequestered by plants that were kept alive by the “pulsed” animal impact. There were billions of tons carbon stored in those soils, most of which has run off into the oceans as topsoil loss.  The rest has been oxidized and become CO2 through burning and tilling.  At the time, there were 100 million buffalo, 100 million elk, and billions of prairie dogs, all eating, aerating, and recycling nutrients.  Gee, how did the grasslands survive with all that chomping? Heaven forbid. To restore those soils requires animal impact of the nature they evolved in – herd action, intense and short spurts or “pulses”.  The idyllic grazing that we see of a
few cows lounging around in short grass and mud is a modern, unnatural and unsustainable solution.  That’s *not* what we’re talking.

Environmentalist are correct in citing the damage that cattle do in their artificially maintained and poorly managed environments.  Of course.  No one is arguing for more of that. What Savory, and Adam are talking about is a new method of managing cows in a fashion that simulates the natural herd behavior that the grassland evolved this.  This takes the form of tightly packed groups of cows called “paddacks” that are moved frequently.  The process is known as Holistic Management.  The results are unequivocal.  Tens of millions of degraded soils have been restored this way, and small scales herders are viable now because of it.  It cost far less than traditional herding and greater “stocking levels” can be sustaining while improving the ecosystem.  In fact, as Savory says, this is the only method that will restore grassland soil.  No other method will work.  Grassland soils will not return without the animal impact that they evolved in.  It won’t happen.  The grassland will turn to
desert and their carbon sequestering potential will be lost.  The good news is that this process can be reversed.

Again, it isn’t about “cows”.  It’s about grazing mammals.  Cows can be managed in a way that mimics behavior that is beneficial to the soil.  We don’t give a flying hoot if it’s cows or bison, or elk, or giraffes, or elephants.  The action is similar.  Each is a grazing mammal that evolved in a grassland / savanna ecosystem.  When the animals are removed, the grassland ecosystem dies. We need millions more grazing animals moving about as natural herds, or in managed paddacks that replicate the herd behavior.  Seeing as so many people depend on cows, they may as well be managed in a fashion that is environmentally restorative – doing this sequesters, carbon, replenishes water tables, and creates viable enterprise for small rangers and herders.

Regarding methane.  Here is another case where the anti-cow environmentalists are missing the point. Miracle of miracle, the methane levels were less in the atmosphere when there were 100s of millions more grazing mammals on the earth than there are now – all of them eating grass and flatulating. How was that possible?  Because the animals were part of an ecosystem that was sequestering far more methane than they could ever produce.  It doesn’t matter how much gas the cows emit.  What matter is whether the soil ecosystem is being restored.  If it is, then methane is being sequestered at factors that are orders of magnitude greater than what the cow emits.  Cows are not an island.  We have a fragmented view of the problem.  Yes, grass fed cows in a feedlot may fart more than grain fed cows in a feedlot.  But, what’s the point of the comparison?  Both are unsustainable and deadly.

The more germane question is if the cows are part of a system that is environmentally restorative.  If they are being managed properly, they will be restoring the soil which will be sequestering methane, as well as CO2.  Cows (and all grazing mammals), are just a part of the system.  Recent studies have shown that a healthy grassland ecosystem will sequester 1000 times the methane produced by a cow on a space of soil adequate for that’s cows sustenance – repeat, 1000 times.  This is possible because of the methane eating microbes that are in the soil far outnumber the methane producing microbes in the cows stomach.  Methane digestion is an aerobic process. In a healthy soil (i.e. aerated), the methane eating microbes will dominate.  Where the soils are many feet deep, you are talking about thousands of cubic meters of methane eating soils compared to a few square feet of a cows stomach that is an anaerobic environment – thus produces methane.  In healthy soils, the methane eating
potential will always exceed the methane producing potential of the animals on it.  Again, it’s not about the cows.  It’s about the ecosystem. An aerated ecosystem will sequester methane.  Get the cows on the land, moving in a fashion that natures expects them to, and the methane problem will work itself out.

Restoring grassland soils is one of our most powerful tools in the fight against climate change.  Animal impact is essential to this process.  We need a deeper understanding of this process and it’s potential.  Thank you again for further considering it on your blog.

12
Feb
10

“it will take 2 million angry moms to change school food”

free for all“It will take 2 million angry moms to change school food,” says Susan Coombs, former Texas Agriculture Secretary, who is quoted in Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

I’ve only just read a review of the book, and want this dad’s name added to the list of angry moms.

This happens to be a week I am also digesting  a full-hour interview with Michael Pollan on Democracy Now, as well as my third viewing of Food Inc., which is the best single document to introduce the unaware into the batshit crazy place that is America’s food system.

It’s a convoluted contraption, with a few big winners and lots and lots of losers.

Those profiting (mightily) from our national food dysfunction include executives and shareholders of the various Big Ag corporations–Monsanto, ConAgra, ADM, Cargill,  Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue– and the large farms that receive the bulk of subsidy payments for growing massive surpluses of corn and soybeans.

The losers are just about everyone else. The victims who suffer the most include small farmers; the abused cattle, pigs, and chickens who are treated like mechanical cogs, not living beings; the horribly stressed and underpaid factory farm workers who are treated only marginally better than the animals;  and … and … our children, who, via the school lunch program, are the last stop for the last bits of that surplus production that no one else wants.  Pollan calls it “a dispose-all system for surplus agricultural commodities.”

Here is a summary of the problem, and Poppendieck’s proposed radical solution, via Mark Winne on Civil Eats:

Why, for instance, have we developed three different ways to pay the lunch lady–one for the poor students, one for the nearly poor, and one for those who supposedly are being driven in BMWs to school? The logical answer might be because that’s fair; the rich kids should pay more and the government should subsidize the cost of feeding lower income children, as it does currently to the tune of $11 billion annually. But as Poppendieck peels back the layers of the onion, we find the issue has always been less about compassion for needy children and more about accommodating political and commercial interests. Harry Truman (school lunch is good for national security), Ronald Reagan (ketchup is a vegetable), nutritionists and nutritionism (its nutrients that count, not the quality and taste of food), and various agricultural lobbies wanting to unload their farm surpluses are just a sampling of what has driven the school food agenda. Somewhere low on the totem pole you’ll find concern for the health and well-being of boys and girls.

Poppendieck’s jargon-free narrative takes us step-by-step through the deals, concessions, and compromises that have bureaucratized the school food process while simultaneously dumbing down the food. Why is so much processed food used to prepare school meals? Because it’s cheaper and “cooking from scratch” kitchens have been removed from the schools. Why does it have to be cheaper when we’re talking about feeding our children? Because the federal government (or anyone else for that matter) will not provide enough funding to enable schools to buy fresh, whole ingredients. (And by the way, taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to subsidize corn and soybeans, the prime ingredients in processed food.) Why do we have so many junk food items sold “a la carte” in our schools? Well, in addition to using a French culinary phrase to disguise what is otherwise crappy food, schools must sell these items to those with discretionary cash–supposedly the ones in the BMWs–to compensate for the low reimbursements they receive for meals that meet mandated USDA standards. And on it goes.

Poppendieck has a solution that is as elegant as it will be hard to achieve–universal free meals for all students K through 12. She acknowledges the cost, an additional $12 billion per year (our present wars, please note, are costing about the same amount each month) that would not only feed all students for free, but also improve the quality of the food.

If the arguments for universal school meals–efficiency, equity, no one excluded–sound eerily familiar, then you’ve probably been paying attention to the arguments for universal health care. If nothing else, it’s certainly ironic to consider the consequences of removing each system’s respective middlemen: processed food purveyors for school food, and private health insurers for health care. Might we all be healthier as a result?

This food and kids thing is a big battle in our house. I work hard to have good food around: we raise our own meat and veggies (in season), but we’re always battling peer pressure, fast food and (this one really kills me) all the free toys the kids get when they eat fast food.

In spite of all my efforts, my kids ingest more than their fair share of sugary cereal, pizza, and chicken nuggets– both at school and (sadly) at home. I have to weigh the risk of alienating them from good food altogether (if I push too hard) against the ill effects of the crap they prefer. It ain’t easy. I like to hope that the exposure to real food will at some future point mutate into a desire to eat it, but I can’t be sure.

I’m not exactly optimistic that Congress and the White House will find the $12 billion to give free, nutritious school lunches for all of our kids. That’s putting it mildly. It’s not going to happen with the current crew. But we have to start demanding it.

01
Feb
10

Cows the climate solution?

sacred cow

In “The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Adam Sacks says well managed cattle grazing could solve all our climate problems by the middle of the century.

With proper care of ruined grasslands, variously called managed grazing, holistic management, or carbon farming, we can restore billions of acres of the world’s soils.  Along the way we can pull all the excess carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground where it belongs – in forty years or less.  We can return to our long-gone preindustrial atmospheric concentrations of 280 ppm, the atmosphere that made the climate that made the planet very friendly to humans and many other creatures.  It’s a climate strategy where we have the world to benefit, at minimal cost and very low risk

Wow. That’s an optimistic and bold claim.

The particulars are as follows:

* We can begin doing it right away (in fact, we already are), with or without government and/or corporate support.
* It costs nothing or less in the scheme of things. For your local third-world family farmer, for your 100,000-acre rancher, and for everyone in between it will probably turn a profit.
* It requires no expensive and toxic fossil fuel inputs – fertilizers, pesticides – in fact, they will ruin it.
* It is so low-tech that it is mostly pre-tech (but a little bit of low tech can make it easier in some circumstances). As a result, the risks of unintended consequences are minimal.
* While there’s still a lot to learn, as always, we already know how to do this very well.
* Children will love it (they love animals and nature).
* It will feed millions or more people on sustainably harvested animal protein, animals that have been treated humanely throughout their lives, and it will maybe even put an end to the despicable practice of factory farming.
* It will heal billions of acres of land that industrial humans have ravaged and destroyed, restoring vital soil flora and fauna, and re-establish plant and animal diversity as well crucial hydrological cycles including groundwater replenishment, flood control, and patterns of rainfall.
* We don’t have to waste resources on nonsensical and dangerous geo-engineering schemes, nor do we have to keep hoping for miracles.

Not surprisingly, there are objections to this scenario. George Werthner’s recent Counterpunch article, Why grass-fed beef won’t save the planet attempts to throw a wet blanket over Sacks’ claims, stating that “cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.” That is probably true of the cattle business as currently constituted. But I think Werthner and Sacks might be talking about two different things. One, cattle production as it is, the other cattle production as it might be. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic, given that I am at present one of these holistic managers of my pastures.

There are a lot of competing claims floating around right now. The anti-grassfed argument has many components, but the one that has attracted the most attention is a recent study showing that grass-fed cows actually produce more methane than feedlot cows. It is indeed a counterintuitive finding, but I think it’s incredible that this one factoid gets ripped out of context and paraded around in major media outlets. See? Those crazy grass-fed hippies don’t know what they’re talking about. Leave raising cows to the professionals!

Dare I suggest that PR firms retained by the powerful beef lobby have helped to nudge this story along?

To me, this is another faux-contrarian argument emerging from the FUD-osphere (FUD standing for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), which has been described as a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

Because really, it’s only one part of the big picture. And the big picture, no matter what your perspective, is that the feedlot model of raising cattle is an absolute abomination, and it has to change.

From the Discovery News article I quoted above:

“There’s a lot of range of what the [methane] emissions are from beef, and that is real variability,” agreed Rita Schenck, Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Research & Education in Vashon, Wash., who has also studied this question.

“It is different in different places. It is different in different growing regimes. It’s just different. I think the numbers are really close,” she said, so the scales can tip one way or another depending on the specific circumstances.

“To some extent, all of this bickering about carbon footprint is missing the forest for the trees,” Weber [Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University], is that accurately quantifying how much soil carbon contributes is difficult, and it can vary dramatically from place to place — even in locations just a few feet away said. “”In terms of air pollution, water pollution and odor, concentrated feedlots are a disaster. In terms of other environmental impact, there is no question that grass fed is better. My problem is that people really play on the carbon footprint angle, when it’s really not clear. “

22
Jan
10

Keeping America safe … from foodies

Grass-finished beef. I KNOW where this has been. Photo by yours truly.

Updated below.

As I was sayin’, there’s something a little fishy about all these contrarian takes on conventional wisdom, by writers who style themselves as brave iconoclastic thinkers but really are just defenders of the status quo.

Here’s another one, on a subject dear to my heart, the merits of grass-fed (and -finished) over “conventionally raised” beef.  In the ominously titled Beware the myth of grass-fed beef at Slate, Dr. James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University, scores yet another high-profile national opinion place. Previously, he had posted pieces on the New York Times‘ “Freakanomics” blog with provocative titles like “Are Farmer’s Markets that Good for Us?” Last April he snared the prime real estate of the Times opinion page with Free-range trichonosis, in which he argued that free-range pork could be more dangerous that the pork that comes from factory farms.

About that particular 0p-ed. It was published April 9. On April 14, this disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the piece:

An Op-Ed article last Friday, about pork, neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.

(Oops. Maybe someone on the Times‘ opinion staff might have thought to ask about that before running it in the paper of record. Or maybe they did. Nobody reads the retractions….)

And McWilliams is also called out in this (generally favorable) Publishers Weekly review:

At times, McWilliams shortchanges his own arguments by failing to disclose the financial or institutional backing of his sources (including various talking heads, esoteric-sounding think tanks, and scientific journals), leaving readers to comb extensive footnotes and web links to determine how the evidence stacks up.

If  McWilliams’ goal has been to ruffle the feathers of alternative agriculture advocates everywhere, he has succeeded admirably.  Mr. Google turns up many angry responses to his sometimes shady polemics.

This one, by Tom Laskowy, pegs McWilliams as as a willing participant in the FUDosphere (FUD standing for Fear Uncertainty Doubt), a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

The FUD-osphere includes doctors who perform industry-funded research to demonstrate the safety of new drugs (Vioxx, anyone?). It includes crackpot scientists and historians, like James McWilliams, who has an op-ed in the NYT in defense of factory-farmed pork—shown to be fiction by Marion Nestle and and Civil Eats. McWilliams has a history with this kind of thing—he authored a deeply flawed article in Slate —debunked here—accusing organic agriculture of responsibility for the presence of heavy metals in soil. Meanwhile, he has written a forthcoming book about the evils and dangers of local food. Really.

In a review of his Just Food, also in Grist, Stephanie Ogburn identifies McWilliams’ modus operandi:

Again and again, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that McWilliams creates fanatical straw men in order to make his own presentation of facts seem like a rational alternative. “The problems that I have with organic agriculture have less to do with how it is currently practiced than with the inflated claim that it’s the only alternative to today’s wasteful conventional production,” he writes. But do any serious proponents seeking more sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture claim this?

OK. To the subject at hand, the “myth” of grass-fed beef. McWilliams’ point is not wrong. It just does not merit being treated as a sensational revelation.
The news peg is pretty dramatic: one particular strain of E. coli bacteria, O157:H7, has been present in several massive recalls of beef, most recently Monday’s recall of 864,000 pounds of ground beef by California’s Huntington Meat Packing.
McWilliams accepts that the acidic stomach of grain-fed cattle is capable of spawning up to a million times more acid-resistant E. coli than grass-fed cattle, as studies at the beginning of the decade demonstrated.  However, he points out that more recent studies have shown “that grass-fed cows … become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle.” This is not an unimportant fact (though  it ignores the important context of cleanliness at slaughter–see below).   But McWilliams takes it as earth-shattering, and  as an opportunity to deliver a knockout blow to his favorite straw man:
The point in dredging up these studies … [is]  a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be dangerous.
Here comes the giant leap in logic: a loose claim by a purveyor of grass-fed beef  “offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster.”Ah, the foodie, “the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people” of Caitlin Flanagan’s fevered dreams. Wealthy, trendy, elitist, and ultimately dangerous. Honestly, I am not always nuts about the pretentiousness of foodie culture. But there is nothing monolithic about it. Certainly, not everyone opting out of industrial agriculture can be tarred with the foodie brush either. Quite simply, there is no foodie orthodoxy, or dogma.
And that is the case with regard to the dangers, or potential dangers, of eating any kind of food. I know there are risks of salmonella even with my free-range poached eggs, but I still like them  a little runny. Just because I raise my own beef doesn’t mean there are no food safety issues to consider when serving it rare or bleu. I’ll take my chances. We all will.
At this point, those of us who are choosing alternatives are doing it not because we think we have hit on the final solution to the world’s food problems. Opting out is also in large part a protest, a refusal to buy into an industrial food system that is cruel, inefficient, unsustainable and in many ways toxic. So we still have to be careful regarding E. coli. Thank you. We knew that.
Facts are facts, and I’m sure Dr. McWilliams only toils in the service of the Truth, but one wonders how loud a splash an associate professor from Texas State would have made if his edgy, contrarian posturing wasn’t so reassuring to the corporations and trade associations that control industrial agriculture today.
Update: Another important point from eatwild.com:

Whether or not grass-feeding reduces the number and acidity of E. coli in the digestive tract of cattle, there is another undisputed reason that eating grass-fed beef may be safer. Cattle raised on pasture are cleaner at the time of slaughter.

E. coli contamination takes place in the slaughterhouse when manure from an animal comes in contact with meat. The less manure on an animal when it enters the slaughter house, the less likely the meat will become contaminated.

It is difficult to remove all the fecal contamination from feedlot cattle because they stand all day long in dirt and manure. In a recent article in the magazine Meat Marketing and Technology, the associate editor stated that pasture-raised animals were much easier to clean “because they come from small herds raised in relatively clean pastures.” Most U.S. cattle, he said, “are raised in far larger numbers in congested and typically less sanitary feed lots.” (“The Future of Food Safety,” by Joshua Lipsky. Meat Marketing and Technology, April 2001.)

18
Jan
10

Not so secret history of Haiti: dive-bombers, occupations, deforestation

President Obama has once again demonstrated, in the pages of Newsweek, that he’s capable of uplifting but ultimately empty rhetoric, this time on behalf of “the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history.” Which would be nice, but…. Obama doesn’t once mention our government’s role in that tragic history.

In “No, Mister! You cannot share my pain!” Jamaican columnist John Maxwell offers a brief lesson in the history of Haiti from a perspective we’re unaccustomed to hearing.

Besides offering a withering account of Aristide’s disgraceful 2004 ouster, Maxwell offers some eye-opening angles about earlier Haitian-American relations. The first was that Haiti, along with Nicaragua, was a crucial testing ground for U.S. bombers between the first and second world wars.

Long before Franco bombed Guernica, exciting the horror and revulsion of civilised people, the Americans perfected their dive-bombing techniques against unarmed Haitian peasants, many of whom had never seen aircraft before.

Might I suggest this as a thesis subject for a grad student in history: the role of the people of colonized nations as target practice? The Brits, for example, favored “experimental” bombing of their subject nations. Just one of the myriad revelations in A History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist’s masterpiece, was that Churchill  himself was an early and eager advocate of the bombing of savages in Iraq. He saw it as a “cheaper form of control” and declared himself to be “strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” Man of the Century? That’s about right.

The second interesting angle: the central role played by war hero-turned-antiwar-crusader General Smedley Butler in Haiti, who looked back late in his life to describe his activities in uniform thus:

“I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half-a-dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long….. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. … My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical in the military service.” [That’s a pretty good line!]

Butler was a fascinating character, who in 1934 claimed that he was approached by a cabal of businessmen to lead a Fascist march and to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Congressional committees looked into the allegations, found they were credible … and did nothing. I have always wondered why left-leaning wealthy young actors with clout–Affleck, Damon, Cusack, Penn–haven’t produced a biopic of the life of Smedley….

The third angle Maxwell explores, the purposeful deforestation of Haiti, featured FDR in another role. Under the Dessalines constitution, written in the early years of the 19th century, “only officially certified ‘blacks’ could own land in Haiti.” That inconvenient rule was deleted from the new constitution written for the Haitians by the occupying American regime who had swept in during World War I. Opening up Haiti to foreign ownership was …. drum roll … FDR himself, who was then assistant secretary of the Navy. After FDR opened the door, “the lumberjacks [became] busy, felling old growth Mahogany and Caribbean Pine for carved doors for the rich and mahogany speedboats, boardroom tables seating 40, etc. The devastated land was put to produce rubber, sisal for ropes and all sorts of pie in the sky plantations.”

And let’s not forget religion. Maxwell quotes Haitian performer Marguerite Laurent’s vivid description of Catholic Church collaboration with colonial terror. It evokes echoes of Avatar:

“Don’t expect to learn how a people with a Vodun culture that reveres nature and especially the Mapou (oak-like or ceiba pendantra/bombax) trees, and other such big trees as the abode of living entities and therefore as sacred things, were forced to watch the Catholic Church, during Rejete – the violent anti-Vodun crusade – gather whole communities at gunpoint into public squares, and forced them to watch their agents burn Haitian trees in order to teach Haitians their Vodun Gods were not in nature, that the trees were the “houses of Satan”.

Yup, that kinda stuff doesn’t just happen to blue people on distant planets.

13
Jan
10

Alice Waters: she-devil in the garden

alice and the gardeners

Save these children from this woman!

If only Alice Waters and do-gooder school administrators would stop destroying our country!

Contrary is good. I’m all about the contrary. Received wisdom is often really, really wrong. But something happened to the concept of contrary in the oughts, to the point where being contrarian became pretty much synonymous with railing against the sacred cows of liberals or, as they are known on Fox News,  the “politically correct.”

Here is a catalog of some of the hits and near-misses of contrarian (or counter-intuitive) thinking, through the past decade, as compiled by Alex Pareene, then of New York magazine:

Boys are the biggest victims of sex discrimination.
Breast-feeding is not worth the trouble.
Bush’s second term will be good for liberals.
Car seats are unsafe.
Consumption isn’t just good for the economy, it’s good for the soul.
Conventional wisdom is right.
Corporate fraud should not be punished.
The Iraq War was a success.

Gosh. Do you see a pattern here? Writes Pareene: “In the aughts, the shocking hidden side of everything became the only side of anything worthy of magazine covers and book deals. Social scientists applied their techniques to the problem of climate change; liberals who wanted to be taken seriously had to come up with arguments for conservative policies and vice versa.”

I’m not too sure about the vice versa part. Please feel free to enlighten me about conservatives coming up with arguments for liberal policies in the oughts, or aughts, or whatever that decade was called. In fact, I would argue that nearly every contrarian take in major media was a snooty, arch, convoluted defense of … exactly the way things were. The stock market’s rocking [this is pre-2008]; we, the high-end journalists, are doing awfully well; and what WERE we thinking during Vietnam? The military is so cool! NAVY SEALS! Watch, we’ll win these wars yet, and you stupid hippies will be sorry! Global warming? NOT SO FAST. There are many unanswered questions about it, you know…..

Last fall, the Economist had an article titled “Contrarianism’s end?” which featured this spot-on definition of contrarianism: “a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) the status quo.”

So now. Contrarianism’s moment has passed, but Caitlin Flanagan didn’t get the memo. In Cultivating Failure, Flanagan (“the rich lady who’s made a career of telling you what a bad wife and mother you are for needing to work”) launches a by-the-numbers hatchet job on Alice Waters (“dowager queen of the grown-locally movement”) and her diabolical introduction of gardens into the curriculum of California schools.

Flanagan plays the concern troll to perfection. She really only has the well-being of an imaginary child of Mexican immigrants in mind, whose family has risked everything to come north for a better life. A “cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child [!] by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might other wise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).”

These poor Mexican children come to America with aspirations to a nice job in a cubicle somehere. But, irony of ironies, these pobrecitos, they are forced to pick lettuce in school!  Just like the parents (although just MAYBE with slightly better work conditions).

“Wresting sustenance from dirt” is so NOT the American way! And that Alice Waters! She’s “the founder of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, an eatery where the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included.”

“Yes we can”-baiting? “Public-option-supporting”-baiting? ACORN-baiting? (speaking of Fox News whipping boys!) ACORN?????? In the venerable pages of the Atlantic Monthly? (Well, it need hardly be said that this is not the same institution that published Mark Twain and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

Flanagan proceeds to doggedly erect and knock down a number of straw men, including the statement made by “a pro-Waters friend” (maybe, I’m just guessing, soon to be ex-friend) that “There’s only 7-Eleven in the hood.”

Au contraire.  Brave Caitlin drives to Compton to discover a Superior Super Warehouse, a shining “example of capitalism doing what it does best: locating a market need (in this case, poor people living in an American inner city who desire a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and who are willing to devote their time and money to acquiring them) and filling it.”

Also, she finds time to visit with the “founder and CEO” of charter schools in Los Angeles, who reminds her, high-mindedly, that “[t]he only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”

For Flanagan, school gardens represent nothing less than a potential “act of theft that will not only contribute to the creation of a permanent, uneducated underclass but will rob that group of the very force necessary to change its fate.”  Does she mention any other factors that figure in the creation of this underclass? Nope. Any delving into the upside of the school garden program, or mention of the only slightly problematic industrial food system in America? No, not really. Basically, Get back into the classroom, kids. No need to grow your own food! Let capitalism do what it does best, and by the way, maybe it’d be best to leave education to privatizing charter school CEOs.

What’s become of the Atlantic Monthly? This is just kind of sad.

12
Jan
10

Pirates be good for fish, arrrrrr

somali pirates
The Somali pirate hysteria of last spring equated the pirates with terrorists, and that was that. It was basically Case Closed in the public mind.

You would have had to seek out non-mainstream media outlets (Democracy Now, for instance) to see any real attempt to explain the pirates’ motivation. For most Americans, it was simple: inexplicable malice. EEE-VUHL. Just like the terrorists.

But if you paid attention to the Democracy Now reports, you would have known that the pirates originally emerged as a response to illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste.

Not defending pirates, you understand, but there has been an upside to all of this.  Thanks to pirate paranoia, the fishing off the east coast of Africa appears to have improved. According to an AP report:

In past years, illegal commercial trawlers parked off Somalia’s coast and scooped up the ocean’s contents. Now, fishermen on the northern coast of neighboring Kenya say, the trawlers are not coming because of pirates.

“There is a lot of fish now, there is plenty of fish. There is more fish than people can actually use because the international fishermen have been scared away by the pirates,” said Athman Seif, the director of the Malindi Marine Association.

… Before the pirates came out in big numbers, fishing longliners roamed the coasts, Lawrence Brown said, laying out miles (kilometers) of line.

“They kill everything from the bottom of the ocean to the boat. They run at 22 knots. They can lay their lines for 24 hours, pick them up and get out of there,” he said…..

With at least one famously apocalyptic estimate from a few years back seeing countless marine species in danger of collapse by 2048, and with giant jellyfish crowding out other marine life in the sea of Japan, drastic measures might be called for to restore the world’s fish populations. We might have just stumbled onto a good thing.

06
Jan
10

Cryopreservation: Swine of the times

surgery on a sheep

Sheep surgery at the SVF Foundation. photo: New York Times

Is it quibbling to question  the New York Times’ decision to run Rare Breeds, Frozen in Time in the Dining and Wine section, instead of the Science Times?

The story is about the SVF Foundation, a livestock preservation farm/lab that freezes and stores the sperm and embryos of heritage breeds. The writer, Barry Estabrook, does a good job in sketching out the potential catastrophe underlying current industrial livestock techniques, which (in)breeds so aggressively for value-adding uniform characteristics that it weakens the genetic makeup of popular lines. Holsteins, for example, “make up 93 percent of America’s dairy herd. Fewer than 20 champion bulls are responsible for half the genes,” according to the Holstein Association USA.

“Think of this as a safety valve program,” said Dr. George Saperstein, the [SVF] foundation’s chief scientific adviser, who is chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “If there was a disaster, if something like the potato famine of livestock ever hit, these frozen embryos [of selected heritage breeds] would be made available, and in one generation we would be back in business.”

Peter Borden, SVF’s executive director, explains the obvious advantages heritage breeds present. They “have not been continuously ‘improved’ by humans…. They have been shaped by natural survival-of-the-fittest forces and can get along without human intervention.”

What a concept. An animal unimproved by man! This is in marked contrast to the modern “standardized”  factory hog as portrayed in Nathaneal Johnson’s terrific 2006 Harper’s article Swine of the times: The making of the modern pig. (Such a good title. Couldn’t resist stealing it.)

The goal of modern factory livestock farming is the same for pork, beef, chicken, whatever. The business model, based as it is on efficiency and massive scale, finds it desirable to have “standardized” animals that grow at predictable rates and produce predictably uniform meat. The uniformity is necessary for, among other things, the slaughterhouse assembly line, one of the highest expressions of the deranged genius of industrial agriculture.  Writes Johnson, “As swine carcasses move down the conveyor belt, at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota, packing plant, they hit a curved knife, which slices the cylindrical loin from the inside of the body cavity. If the animals aren’t just the right proportions, the knife will hit the wrong spot, wasting meat or cutting into bone.”

That dystopian assembly line was the single image that stayed with me, and creeped me out, since I first read Johnson’s article.  Of course there are no tradeoffs for this uniformity, right? Wellllllll….. Writes Johnson:

The modern pig is so susceptible to disease that producers must take extreme measures to transform their barns into pathogen-free bubbles. The pigs are vulnerable because they live in close quarters; and because they are genetically uniform, a bug that breaches the defenses of one pig’s immune system can hop to the next. A bacterium stowing away between a traveling boar’s toes could wipe out half a herd.

Johnson paints the most vivid and frightening picture of modern industrial agriculture I’ve come across. It would give PETA-sympathetic folks conniptions.

In just a little more than a decade, the modern hog industry has produced a tower of efficiency-maximizing products, one stacked atop the next, each innovation fixing the problem the last fix created. It is a monumental if somewhat haphazard structure, composed of slatted floors and aluminum crates, automatic sorting scales and mechanized wet-dry feeders. It is constructed of Genepacker sows, Tylan antibiotic feed, Agro-Clean liquid detergent, Argus salmonella vaccine, Goldenpig foam-tipped disposable AI catheters, CL Sow Re-placer milk substitute, and Matrix estrus synchronizer.

Brilliant system, right? What could go wrong?

Sorry, I digressed a bit as I revisited “Swine of the times.” (Really a must-read, and it’s not behind the famous Harper’s firewall, for all you cheapskates who don’t subscribe to the world’s best magazine). Back to the Times article. It’s well worth a look, and the companion slide show is good too.  I just found it a little odd that the emphasis at the top of the article went on about “cutting-edge restaurants”* and “the next food trend” when much bigger issues, like the precariousness of the  food supply, are really what’s at stake here.

___________

* and speaking of “cutting-edge restaurants”: when did it become conventional to prepend the chef/proprietor’s name to every mention? “David Schuttenberg’s Cabrito in the West Village, Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago and Tom Douglas’s Lola.” Annoying! I take off my hat to the restaurant PR flacks who made this a matter of journalistic policy at the Times.

dystopian



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