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May 29, 2009

Laureates Throw Down the Gauntlet

A group of Nobel Laureates wants to tell you something:
World carbon emissions must start to decline in only six years if humanity is to stand a chance of preventing dangerous global warming, a group of 20 Nobel prize-winning scientists, economists and writers declared today.

The United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December must agree to halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 to stop temperatures from increasing by more than 2C (3.6F), the St James's Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium concluded.
Got that? And mind you, 2C is nothing to sneeze at. We'll still be looking at a significant sea-level rise (and even more for us here on the northeast US coast thanks to Greenland's melting glaciers), the disappearance of many Pacific island nations, persistent drought, disruptions to agriculture worldwide and, if Kofi Annan's new foundation is right, up to 500,000 deaths caused directly by warming every year. And, apparently, we'll count ourselves lucky. Because if we get beyond 2C of warming, we'll face, say the laureates, "unmanageable climate risks." Given that the best case scenario looks pretty bad, I would say this group might be understating things when they use the term "unmanageable." To put this whole thing in perspective, they compare the threat we face now to the Cold War-era threat of nuclear armageddon. Not good.

I have two observations about this. First, someone explain to me how a no vote on the Waxman/Markey climate bill brings us closer to halving worldwide emissions by 2050. It's late enough in the game that the quibbling on all sides has to go out the window and everyone needs to sign on to cutting emissions. It's fair to say that we've reached the point where, if you can't support something as "modest" as Waxman/Markey, then you fundamentally don't believe climate change is an existential threat. Period. Note to journalists: can you get politicians on the record with a reaction to this letter? Do they agree with the St. James statement? An unqualified yes or no, please. Thanks.

And second, I would like to point out the interesting fact that, according to the St. James Symposium website, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is a signatory of the letter (having attended the symposium). This is good. But if Chu and his boss can't even manage to get a bill as watered down as Waxman/Markey through Congress, all the symposia and statements in the world won't help us.

h/t Climate Progress

Photo by papadont used under a CC license

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The Fight to Save Universal Feeding

The outcry over the USDA's announced end to Philly's excellent Universal Feeding program--a program that automatically enrolls poor children in the federal free school meal program and which I wrote about the other day--is getting louder. And the ironies are coming faster, as well. From today's Inquirer:

Sen. Arlen Specter and Gov. Rendell are protesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to end Universal Feeding here - a program wanted by New York and Los Angeles - and go with a plan that would cost the district $1 million more annually in paperwork and likely deprive meals to thousands of children.

Along with scrapping Universal Feeding, hailed as a success, the USDA wants Philadelphia to adopt the federal plan used in New York City, which school officials there say is unworkable.

"I do not understand this," Specter (D., Pa.) said in an interview this week. "You'd think it'd be pretty hard to be against motherhood, milk, and children."

This is the kind of bureaucracy we thought we'd left behind. Out of a misplaced sense of justice -- the embarrassing Janey Thornton, head of the Federal Nutrition Service, has said the program "isn't fair" -- the USDA insists on canceling a successful program to replace it with an unworkable, more expensive one that will feed fewer kids. Shameful stuff.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST ON GRIST.ORG...

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May 28, 2009

King Corn, Meet Big Oil

oil rig/corn fieldDrilling for oil in a corn field: will Big Oil squeeze out King Corn?Back in March, Tom Philpott flagged some moves from Shell Oil and Valero Energy (the largest U.S. oil refiner) that indicated Big Oil was falling for biofuels. Now, the NYT shows Tom had it right with a piece detailing the increasing amount of money Big Oil is spreading around to biofuel startups. This comes despite Big Oil's historical hostility to the ethanol industry. In fact, their objections to conventional ethanol might sound strangely familiar:

For decades, the big oil companies and the farm lobby have been fighting about ethanol, with the farmers pushing to produce more of it and the refiners arguing it was a boondoggle that would do little to solve the country's energy problems.

Oil companies still dislike corn ethanol, dubbing it corrosive and inefficient. Instead, their new investments are in second generation biofuels that use non-food crops, waste wood, and garbage as feedstocks.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST ON GRIST.ORG...

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May 26, 2009

Jatropha and the War on Drugs
With all the depressing talk about corn ethanol and how its allies may yet derail the Waxman/Markey climate change bill, I thought I'd throw out some more positive news on the biofuels front. One of the leading candidates for second generation feedstock is jatropha. It's basically a tree-like weed that grows quickly and doesn't need massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. To listen to experts describe it, jatropha sounds like the perfect biofuel feedstock:

The fuel emits almost no greenhouse gases, and the trees can capture four tons of carbon dioxide per acre. Jatropha takes almost no machinery to harvest

Now, jatropha is nothing new and is surrounded by as much controversy as other second gen feedstocks like switchgrass. As has been observed, any crop, food or not, can ultimately displace food crops and contribute to a negative land-use impact. As the UK Guardian points out, jatropha turns out not to do as well as advertised on marginal agricultural land without the use of fertilizers. There's no free lunch with biofuels, if you'll pardon the expression. But here's the twist, what if jatropha is explicitly introduced into particular regions of the world to displace narcotics crops? Two companies mentioned in this article -- one American and one Colombian -- are partnering in order to do exactly that.

Finding alternatives economic systems that can compete with the illicit drug trade is one of the greatest challenges for Colombia. I'm willing to consider jatropha and biofuels if the choice is narcotics and warlords. Now, of course, the two companies involved, Agrasun from the US and Live Systems Technology in Colombia, are very possibly practicing a bait-and-switch. They hold out the possibility of displacing drug crops but instead follow the same path as others and pick the low-hanging fruit of displacing food crops. Still, the notion of displacing coca with jatropha is an intriguing one. Let's hope they (and presumably the Colombian government) pursue this idea and don't just use it to sweeten their press releases.

Photo by R. K. Henning at www.Jatropha.org used under a CC license

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May 24, 2009

Killing Universal Feeding

There's a distressing story in the Philly Inquirer today about the cancellation of the "Universal Feeding" program in Philly schools. Here's the skinny:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting a Bush administration edict to end a well-regarded Philadelphia school breakfast and lunch program, according to a high-ranking USDA official.

Antihunger advocates are outraged, saying many poor children who normally get free lunch and breakfast may go without if the USDA ends the program, the only one of its kind in the country.

Known as Universal Feeding, the program allows more than 120,000 students in poor schools to eat free meals without having to fill out applications. Children and their families in poor communities don't always complete such forms. The USDA, however, is insisting that paperwork be used, which will result in fewer poor children eating, advocates say.

Advocates added that they may sue the USDA over the decision, which they said was especially puzzling given President Obama's vow to end childhood hunger by 2015.

In an interview last week, Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Janey Thornton said "it isn't fair" that Philadelphia is the only city with this program. She added, "We have to treat all districts in the country alike." She further cited problems she had with the program's statistical underpinnings, which she condemned as "no longer accurate" and "completely out of date."

The article goes on to explain the lengths to which the Philadelphia-area congressional delegation (as well as Sen. Bob Casey -- who sits on the Ag Committee) have gone to save the program. And it mentions that Ag Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin himself is a fan of Universal Feeding and has suggested it be made a national program. And it's unclear exactly when the USDA proposes to end the program -- some say this fall, others at the USDA have suggested it won't end until after the 2010-2011 school year. Looks like Vilsack hasn't quite worked out all the kinks at the People's Department. But all indications are the program will indeed be killed.

It's easy to overlook the hurdle that requiring paperwork and active enrollment in benefit programs represents to poor people. It's one of the greatest barriers to takeup of many anti-poverty programs in this country. And it was dropping that requirement that, according to the Inqy, that made the program work like a charm, "with the participation rate in the Universal Feeding sites almost twice the rate in non-Universal sites - 80 percent vs. 45 percent, according to state figures."

But what I found most distressing were the comments by the USDA's Janey Thornton -- head of the Food and Nutrition Service and the person in charge of all federal nutrition programs. Yes, there's a fairness issue, but the answer is not to kill a successful program. And nowhere does she mention any belief in the value of the program. Meanwhile her utter dismissiveness of the crucial role "automatic opt-in" plays is startling. Here she is responding to the objection that adding paperwork will cause some to drop out of the program:
Thornton said, "You are likely to lose a few. You might. It will be difficult the first year to get parents to understand they are going to have to fill out applications, but we need to be able to answer to other school districts who say, 'How come Philadelphia gets to do this and we can't? I have no answer for that. And 17 years is a long, long time for a pilot program."
If the figures above are any indication, it's possible you might "lose" almost half of the participants. That could be thousands of kids not getting fed -- and for all the legitimate complaints about food quality, there's no question that the federal school lunch program provides food to hungry kids. As for the "statistical underpinnings" of the program being out-of-date, experts are quoted in the article saying that Thornton's claim is a load of hooey. And even if losing half the kids is an overstatement, there's a difference between requiring further study before a program's renewal and canceling a program without further study. She talks like the worst kind of government bureaucrat and does not sound AT ALL like a reform-minded one. One of the knocks on her when she was appointed was that she came from a small, suburban district. Well, in her first decision concerning an urban, high-poverty district, she comes off sounding frankly out of her depth.

Curiously, the Universal Feeding program's signature feature is the kind of no-paperwork, automatic enrollment style of government benefit that OMB chief Peter Orszag and his deputy Cass Sunstein are supposed to be championing these days. So it's hard to believe this USDA decision really represents the administration's view on how to reform nutrition or that it was carefully vetted before being announced. I'm curious to hear more from Vilsack, who reportedly met with Philly reps before word came out of the program's demise. It's also possible that this is all a terrible mixup, that the Philly program -- possibly one of the longest "pilot programs" the federal government has ever run -- will live on in national form once the federal nutrition programs are reauthorized later this year. Still, at a minimum, Janey Thornton has some more explaining to do.

Photo by chalkdog used under a CC license

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May 21, 2009

The House Aghghghghg! Committee
This narrative hasn't really broken through to the MSM yet, but Tom Philpott has picked up on several stories that indicate Rep. Collin Peterson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is prepared to kill the Waxman-Markey climate change bill if his committee isn't able to perform a full "mark-up" (i.e. make alterations and amendments) to the bill.

Declaring "We've thrown a pitchfork in the sand," Peterson wants "wants a full markup to alter what he and other [ag] committee Democrats think are inadequate provisions on everything from fuel standards to renewable energy definitions to regulations governing the trading of carbon derivatives created through a cap-and-trade system," The Hill reports.

Mind you, it isn't as though Waxman and Markey ever intended for their bill to penalize industrial ag for it GHG emissions; ag has been exempted from penalty since the start of the debate. It's just that Peterson wants to ensure that, for the foreseeable future, any cap-and-trade scheme will reward industrial ag for spectral GHG sequestration, and not penalize it for its all-too-real GHD emissions. And the federal government's massive and wide-ranging support for corn ethanol, treated by the Minnesota rep as if Moses had decreed it as the Eleventh Commandment, must never be questioned, greenhouse gas footprint be damned. Peterson is blatantly and publicly trying to rig the game before it starts.

This is a fairly significant power grab. There is justification, of course. The Ag Committee does have a role in energy policy thanks to the biofuel boondoggle and it does have explicit jurisdiction over commodities markets, under which the new carbon trading system would technically fall. Plus, he's got a nice collection of vulnerable Housemembers on his committee, either because they are freshman or in thrall to Big Ag for campaign cash. We're reaping the whirlwind now for the mess that is the House Agriculture Committee.

To let that bunch loose on Waxman-Markey would be a disaster -- I can't imagine that Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Henry Waxman, or Speaker Pelosi for that matter, would allow it. One of two things will happen, in my view. Either Pelosi will threaten Peterson and/or his committee-members or she'll count votes and realize she won't need the votes of the 26 Dems who sit on Ag -- though that one's hard to believe, or she'll let Peterson have his way and water down the bill even further, which could give wavering green groups more ammunition to oppose it. This could turn out to be a significant test of Pelosi's strength. And given how unhinged Peterson has sounded of late, this doesn't seem like something that can be defused with a few minor tweaks. Sadly, it was just this sort of interest-group inspired nickel-and-diming that was predicted to doom climate change legislation.

Stay tuned.

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Vilsack Speaks!
Well, okay, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack isn't exactly a shrinking violet. But he just sat down with the Washingon Post for a lengthy interview. Let's call it Tom Vilsack: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

The Good: Vilsack came out strong for a government role in addressing the obesity epidemic and once again noted that obesity and hunger in this country are two sides of the same bum nickel:
We have too many children who are hungry and too many children who are obese and overweight, and we have to address both problems, and they're actually twins. ...In many ways, they stem from the same set of issues and circumstances.

We need to work very closely with schools, both in terms of the quality of their school breakfast and school lunch programs and the availability of those programs, removing the stigma from participating in those programs, and also taking a look at what's in the vending machines, making sure particularly at the elementary and middle school that what we are providing, both in portion size and in terms of calorie intake are appropriate, and we need to do a better job of locating grocery stores in both inner-city and rural communities and the food deserts.

That's all good stuff -- especially regarding an increased federal role in addressing food deserts. And this is a nice bit, too:

I talked to the Grocers Association today about that issue. I think that many grocers are prepared to help begin to try to figure out why we have so many convenience stores and fast-food locations in urban centers and rural communities, but we can't have a grocery store.

So we end up with poor people spending more money for food and food that may be not as nutritious as they could if they had access to fresh fruits and vegetables...

Whoa. Did he just say what I think he said? Well, I'm sure Big Food will remind him that he didn't really mean to suggest its products are less nutritious. But here's the quote that will thrill some hearts in the progressive food movement.

We need to continue to expand farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, because that is how you link those locally grown fruits and vegetables, and those entrepreneurs I talked about earlier, to consumers locally.

The USDA has some decent farmers markets programs but, you know what they say, any time the Secretary of Agriculture talks about local food, an angel gets its wings. Oh, and those entrepreneurs he was talking about? Those were the growing ranks of small and organic farmers. In response to a question on whether organic or "homegrown" farming can replace industrial ag, Vilsack said this:

[T]he Census that was done recently of U.S. Agriculture... showed 108,000 new initiatives and new entrepreneurial opportunities starting n the country. These are small farmers, probably selling a couple thousand dollars' worth of product.

It is a growth opportunity for agriculture. It's a way in which we can re-populate rural communities. It's a way in which USDA can be engaged by promoting community-supported agriculture, by promoting farmers' markets and a new take to rural development, which is important, and we'd like to see those small operations migrate into a mid-sized operation. So we're going to look for ways to link them up with local consumers and institutional buyers.

Now whether or not these farms are all organic, they are certainly not monoculture-based, pesticide and synthetic fertilizer-intensive operations. If the USDA sees fit to "repopulate" rural communities by encouraging small farms through an improved distribution infrastructure that's going to go a long way toward encouraging commodity crop farmers, whose only buyer is the local grain elevator, to shift towards higher value crops like fruits and veg. Good stuff for sure! Unless, of course, the USDA just sends out extension agents to these small farms to explain how to expand through the liberal application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That would suck.

Oh, and Vilsack also declared his love for organic practices generally.
USDA has... to be supportive of all types of agriculture. Asking me to choose between organic and production agriculture is sort of like asking me which of my two boys I love the most. I love them both.
Well, shucks! Of course, I can hear Monsanto, and probably the American Farm Bureau, gnashing their teeth -- they might want to throw a few more million bucks into the Hand that Feed U.S...

Let me finish off this section with the proud words Tom Vilsack offered in response to a question about Iowa's gay marriage ruling:

...I'm very proud of the Iowa Supreme Court. I should have to say that because I had a direct hand in appointing four of the seven justices of the Supreme Court.... I think they did the right thing, and they made the right decision.

Right on.

Now for the Bad: Biofuels and exports. He can't get enough of either -- I'll spare you the quotes since there wasn't much of substance in them. If there was a silver lining on ethanol, it's that Vilsack was long on talk of "second generation" biofuels that use non-food feedstocks with nary a mention of corn or of raising the ethanol blend-wall in gasoline, a development that's looking less and less likely anyway.

And the export issue is a complicated one. Part of Vilsack's job is shilling for Big Ag abroad (which is why it becomes so easy to shill for Big Ag at home as well). But what's good for exports of both agricultural outputs and inputs -- like a national system for tracking disease outbreaks in meat, advocating for greater biotech investments and encouraging massive over-production of meat, grain and dairy products -- isn't necessarily good for the domestic market (just ask the dairy farmers) or for the environment. But it's his job, so he does it.

As for the Ugly, I give you only this:

ROMANO: Let's talk about swine flu a little bit. I know that's also--

SECRETARY VILSACK: Oh, we're not going to talk about swine flu.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, it's part of your portfolio.

SECRETARY VILSACK: No, that's not the name of it. If you want to talk about H1N1, I'd be happy to talk about that.

Oh, Tom. Smithfield got your tongue? That exchange plus his recent full-throated defense of livestock CAFOs doesn't suggest we'll see a crackdown on the industries' worst practices any times soon. And thus does the Vilsack Sustainability Two-Step continue...

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May 20, 2009

Dr. Shah and the Quest for the Magic Seed
I ran across this bit of puffery about the USDA's new chief scientist, Raj Shah, the former director of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, who starts work June 2. Being puffery, it doesn't provide all that much insight into the kinds of science Shah will pursue at the USDA. But what little is there, isn't promising. On the one hand, he believes that science must show demonstrable results and that "sustainable development and preservation of the environment" are crucial elements in his worldview. But when asked to explain "what science can contribute to sustainability," he pointed to the Gates Foundation's work "to develop stress-tolerant strains of rice that can survive in drought conditions and saline soils."

Sigh. Again with the Magic Seed. It'd be one thing if this was stuff that actually existed. But no. The Gates Foundation web site expects to have it by 2018 while the group actually creating this Franken-rice, the International Rice Research Institute, declares it to be project destined to take "a decade or more." How's THAT for results?

It would be nice if Dr. Shah's message was instead something like "I don't care about promises. I want to figure out what works right now." If he was that kind of scientist, you might soon see the USDA paying more attention to places like the Rodale Institute (or the UN, for that matter), with its 20-year-long yield studies that have organic techniques beating conventional GMO-based agriculture. I am mystified as to why perfectly good science can be so easily dismissed. I suppose the siren song of the Magic Seed is too powerful for most scientists -- once you've been promised the moon, it's apparently hard to accept anything else.

Photo courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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May 14, 2009

Tomorrow's Greenhouse Today!

Via Natasha Chart at change.org we get this glimpse in the LA Times of a potential future for sustainable ag -- the closed-loop greenhouse:
Rising out of verdant acres of strawberries and artichokes between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County are two mammoth, high-tech greenhouses.

...The facility generates its own renewable power. It hoards rainwater. It hosts its own bumblebees for pollination. And it requires a fraction of the chemicals used in neighboring fields to coax plants to produce like champions.

...Virtually nothing is wasted in this ecosystem. Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation. Fertilizer use has been reduced by half. There are no herbicides and almost no pesticides, and there is no dust.

Five-acres of photovoltaic solar cells supply much of the electricity to run pumps and climate controls. Thermal systems collect solar heat and warehouse refrigeration exhaust to warm the greenhouses on cool evenings. Together, the two systems generate 2.1 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,500 homes.
This all sounds very high-tech and exciting. But despite the legitimate hoopla and the shiny, state-of-the-art solar PV cells, this facility has a long line of predecessors (and I'm not talking about Biosphere 2). Indeed, Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic yogurt king Stonyfield Farms, started his career decades ago as an ecologist working at the New Alchemy Institute, a research facility studying "renewable energy, agriculture, aquaculture, housing and landscapes" on Cape Cod. This Mother Earth News article from 1980 describes the Institute's so-called "bioshelters:"
Inside, the best of ten years' worth of ideas have come incredibly close to producing an energy-balanced shelter. Within the translucent walls, enough vegetables can be grown -- using wholistic [sic] methods -- to feed a family of four with greens all year round. A half-dozen tilapia ponds collect the heat of the sun and provide a regular supply of protein. And -- between the solar ponds and the ark's rock storage bed—an adequate reserve of sun heat is stashed away to maintain comfortable temperatures through New England's infamous inclement periods.
Year-round food production on Cape Cod back in the 70s? Not bad. And while the LAT article does suggest the future of urban farming may be found in this style of closed-loop hothouse production, it also tries to maintain the fiction that even with all these advances, year-round food production in northern climates is impossible.

Someone really needs to tell that to Will Allen of Growing Power whose Milwaukee and Chicago-based urban farms (relatively low-tech at that) already grow vegetables and fish year round in greenhouses warmed by compost. This is stuff we know how to do.

I'm not suggesting that cities will grow all their own food in the future and I'm thrilled that California producers are experimenting with this kind of sustainable model. But let's not pretend that this is something largescale American producers are developing whole cloth or even are rushing to embrace. The operation behind the California greenhouse is, ironically, Canadian -- with a Dutch pedigree (the Dutch being experts at hothouse agriculture). If and when this style of greenhouse agriculture goes mainstream, the growers who adopt it will be standing on the shoulders of hippies, the Dutch, and people of color. Let's not forget that.

Photo by jeffcouturier used under a CC license

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May 12, 2009

The Inqy Did What?
The struggling Philadelphia Inquirer, its finger so firmly on the pulse of this overwhelmingly Democratic city, just made Bush torture policy architect John Yoo a monthly columnist. Will Bunch, of the Philly Daily News, lashes out:
Yoo was known as the author of the infamous "torture memos" that in 2002 and 2003 gave the Bush and Cheney the legal cover to violate the human rights of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, based on the now mostly ridiculed claim that international and U.S. laws against such torture practices did not apply. Working closely with Dick Cheney, Cheney's staff and others, Yoo set into motion the brutal actions that left a deep, indelible stain on the American soul.

Yet none of that was enough to prevent my colleagues upstairs at the Philadelphia Inquirer -- with none of the fanfare that might normally accompany such a move -- to sign a contract with Yoo in late 2008 to give him a regular monthly column. The Inquirer thus handed Yoo a loud megaphone on what was once a hallowed piece of real estate in American journalism -- to write on the very subjects that have now led Justice Department investigators to reportedly recommend disbarment proceedings against Yoo and has led international prosecutors as well as millions of politically engaged Americans to consider the Episcopal Academy graduate worthy of charging with war crimes.

The move smacks of utter desperation. Isn't it enough that they publish dreck written by former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum? What could possibly have convinced the editors to do this? Bunch offers the Inqy's letter of self-defense written by editorial page editor Harold Jackson. It's pathetic:

John Yoo has written freelance commentaries for The Inquirer since 2005, however he entered into a contract to write a monthly column in late 2008. I won't discuss the compensation of anyone who writes for us. Of course, we know more about Mr. Yoo's actions in the Justice Department now than we did at the time we contracted him. But we did not blindly enter into our agreement. He's a Philadelphian, and very knowledgeable about the legal subjects he discusses in his commentaries. Our readers have been able to get directly from Mr. Yoo his thoughts on a number of subjects concerning law and the courts, including measures taken by the White House post-9/11. That has promoted further discourse, which is the objective of newspaper commentary.

Any thought I might've had to lend a hand to my hometown paper is out the window. Who wants to help underwrite a paycheck to John Yoo?

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May 11, 2009

Monopoly at Risk?

Christine Varney, newly minted head of antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department, announced in a speech at the Center for American Progress today that monopolies are in fact illegal. You wouldn't have known it under the Bush administration which, aside from failing to bring a SINGLE antitrust case during its two terms, published a formal report last year that made even the prospect of antitrust enforcement all but impossible. The Bush policy relied on market competition to "correct" any anti-competitive practices, which has the elegance of being both morally wrong and internally contradictory. Those Bushies sure knew how to craft policy.

Anyway, that's all history now. As the NYT reported on its front page this morning, Varney "is expected to explicitly warn judges and litigants in antitrust lawsuits not involving the government to ignore the Bush administration's policies." Translation: a new sheriff is in town.

Interestingly, Varney considers agriculture to be among those industries that should explicitly take note of the administration's new commitment to antitrust enforcement. This is a good thing, given the accelerating consolidation that has occured recently in all aspects of food production -- from meat to milk to seeds -- where a handful of companies already have near-monopoly status.

And as the NYT points out, several major antitrust cases began with small companies' complaints to the Justice Department of anti-competitive behavior. One can only imagine that the protesting dairy farmers might be the first to take up Varney's new open door policy. And probably those farmers who get sued by Monsanto when the wind blows GM seed pollen into their fields might want to give Varney a call. Or maybe the small livestock farmers who've been put out of business by Smithfield's massive hog operations will want to chime in. And then there's my pipe dream of taking down ADM and Cargill, the monopolists' monopolists, which control almost the entire market in commodity grains... Hey. A guy can dream.

Photo by mtsofan used under a CC license

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May 8, 2009

Regulation with a Side of Regulation
Dave Roberts tackles an important issue regarding climate change legislation -- why isn't cap-and-trade enough? Why do we need regulations that mandate utilities produce a certain amount of renewable energy in addition to a "market" price for carbon?
The answer is that unpriced carbon is not the only market failure. In fact, there are dozens, hundreds of such failures. If you sought to address them all with a carbon price -- a fairly blunt tool -- you'd need a very, very high price, and that's not going to happen. A politically realistic price on carbon, likely to be low at least for the first decade or two, will not address or overcome most of those failures.
He goes on to detail the reasons that utilities in particular require further regulation in order to move toward renewable energy (the short answer: the current regulatory regime incentivizes them to focus on the most capital-intensive solutions, like nuclear power or coal with carbon capture). The same is true, by the way, for vehicles. Cap-and-trade on its own isn't going to remake transportation in this country. We're still going to need new, much higher mileage requirements, huge investments in mass transit and, oh yeah, a non-joke "cash for clunkers" program would be nice, too. Anyway, everyone knows the answer to all our transportation problems is the anti-matter powered Warp Drive.

The important point here is that the ongoing debate over market forces vs. regulation is entirely misplaced. The government runs markets in this country. It's that simple. There's really no economic transaction of any significance, even in the laissez-faire US of A, that hasn't been shaped by reams of regulation and legislation. The simple act of going down to the corner store to buy a gallon of milk is informed by a long legislative process that runs from agricultural policy (setting the price of milk) to zoning law (determining the location of commercial enterprises) -- A to Z, nice huh?

To suggest that we can transition to a low-carbon economy via a single, "simple" solution, as proponents of a carbon tax do, is frankly unserious. It demonstrates, at best, a misunderstanding about markets and, at worst, a lack of interest in the entire low-carbon enterprise.

The same is true in our attempts to address food and agricultural policy. As I've discussed before, attempts to "reintroduce" the free market into agriculture is just code for "regulations that favor our interests" -- whether that's environmental subsidies for factory farms or crop subsidies that cause prices to drop below the cost of production and thus aid food processors from ADM or General Mills (couldn't think of a 'Z' company). If we were serious about getting healthy food to people who need it, we would quit screwing around and have the federal government mandate (and presumably fund) the presence of produce markets based on population density. No more fretting about food deserts then. The profit motive and price signals can't do it all by themselves, whether we're talking about climate change, food and agriculture or health care. Until we admit that fact and let government get into the re-regulation business, we're never going to be able to solve any of the problems we face.

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May 7, 2009

WHO Says Infected Pork Not Safe

Really. They did, via Reuters:
Meat from pigs infected with the new H1N1 virus shouldn't be used for human consumption, the World Health Organisation cautioned on Wednesday, adding it was drawing up guidelines to protect workers handling pigs.

"Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead should not be processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances," Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases.
  • Flu viruses can survive freezing, be present on thawed meat
  • Blood of H1N1 infected pigs may contain virus
  • Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead must not be consumed
The idea that the flu virus can survive on packed pork is implicit in the CDC guidelines:
Can people catch swine flu from eating pork?
No. Swine influenza viruses are not transmitted by food. You can not get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork and pork products is safe. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F kills the swine flu virus as it does other bacteria and viruses.
While the CDC claims that you can't get H1N1 from EATING pork, even they don't say you can't get it from HANDLING pork. And they feel the need to observe that properly cooking pork will kill swine flu, which suggests they admit the possibility that the flu virus could indeed be on the meat.

But now the WHO is coming out and actually saying infected meat isn't fit for human consumption at any temperature. Luckily you can tell infected meat just by looking at it. Wait. How exactly are you supposed to recognize infected meat? Hmmmm... I wonder what USDA Chief Tom Vilsack and CEO Larry Pope of Smithfield have to say about this.

Photo by Mark Busse used under a CC license

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May 6, 2009

Organic Growth

How about a bit of good news? The Organic Trade Association announced the other day that organic food sales were up almost 16% last year boosting organic food's market share to 3.5% (while organic non-food items like personal care and pet food products grew at a stunning 39%). Note that last year's impressive growth isn't far off the organic industry's recent annual average of 20%. And this during a severe recession. Given that many retailers saw sales fall off a cliff at the end of last year, it makes the results look even better.

Meanwhile, struggling chicken monolith Tyson Foods just reported a quarterly loss of $100 million while commodity monolith Archer-Daniels-Midland -- helped last year by high commodity prices -- saw sales drop 21% last quarter. Unsustainable indeed.

The noteworthy performance of organic food brings to mind something Natasha Chart at change.org recently pointed out: that organic farming remains almost entirely unsubsidized, certainly compared to the billions annually handed out, directly and indirectly, to conventional farmers. The GOP, along with conventional ag-loving Democrats, love to talk about unleashing so-called "market forces" into agriculture in order to drive down prices (although when they say that, they really mean supporting subsidies they like rather than subsidies they don't like). At the same time, they typically dismiss organic food as overpriced and offering no real value to consumers. Meanwhile, the masters of low-priced commodity food, Tyson and ADM (not to mention Smithfield, which was financially struggling well before the Swine Flu epidemic) are watching sales plummet along with their stock prices. I wonder what the GOP thinks the market is telling us now?

Photo by m kasahara used under a CC license

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May 4, 2009

WARNING: Truth Ahead
CivilEater alerted us that Broadcaster France 24's citizen-journalist site, the Observer, is now featuring photos by a resident of Veracruz, Mexico (originally posted here) of what purports to be the Granjas Carroll pig CAFO -- the factory farm near ground zero of the Mexican Swine Flu outbreak (whether the virus arose at the facility, of course, remains unresolved). Given the strenuous defense that Larry Pope CEO of Smithfield, the facility's co-owner, gave during his recent CNBC interview of his "biosecurity protocols" -- which included the interviewer's waving around of a hefty, bright red "biosecurity manual" to which all Smithfield CAFO's must faithfully adhere -- it may come as a surprise to learn that the Granjas Carroll farm is a putrid, fetid mess. Well, maybe it doesn't. Here are two of his photos. One shows a manure lagoon complete with broken and leaking pipe while the other features dead pigs casually tossed against a fence. I'm thinking this isn't exactly ripped from the pages of the Smithfield biosecurity manual.

The point of this isn't just to gross you out or even to suggest that the report confirms anything about the source of the current Swine Flu outbreak. But imagine the hundreds of thousands of pigs living in these conditions in the Mexican countryside and then imagine the tens of millions of pigs in the US (not to mention those in Europe and Asia) also living in CAFOS -- no small number of which may be in an identical condition -- and ask yourself if we can afford the risks that companies like Smithfield have thrust upon us. In an age when we've seen lethal viruses jump from pigs and birds into humans, when we know that the current swine flu strain DID arise in a CAFO (in North Carolina in 1998), when we're already seeing the H1N1 virus gain a resistence to existing anti-virus drugs like Tamiflu, how can we possibly allow this style of agriculture to continue?

Photos by Cesar Augusto Vazquez Chagoya

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May 1, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different
No, not Friday cat blogging. I'm a dog person, folks. But I thought I would pause from the Swine Flu coverage to pass on these interesting findings with uncertain implications from a pair of researchers, Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin (via the Monkey Cage) regarding public opinion and climate change. They found:
For each three degrees that local temperature rises above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is "solid evidence" that the earth is getting warmer.
I can't decide if this makes me feel better or worse about the politics of passing climate change legislation. On the one hand, I'm banking on a hot summer, which the study suggests would cause support for climate change legislation to rise and, if we're lucky, 60 votes would then magically appear in the Senate. On the other hand, I don't know if I like the thought of the prospects for passing Waxman/Markey resting substantially upon the weather.

On the other hand, Americans aren't exactly a scientifically-aware lot (if polls are to be believed) and it should come as no surprise that low-information voters -- which the study claims are the ones whose opinions are swayed in this way -- would base their opinions on the outside temperature. I suppose the main upside is that even low-information voters bring a certain kind of common sense to the debate. The GOP may be able to lie and obfuscate on the policy details and on cap-and-trade's cost to consumers, but it's pretty hard to convince people in a sauna that they're not feeling the heat.

Chart by Egan and Mullin via the Monkey Cage

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