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September 29, 2009

Women in Agriculture: A Farmer's Perspective
This post was written by Nicole Sugerman who farms at the "Henry Got Crops" CSA, a joint project of the Weavers Way Co-op Farm and Philadelphia's W. B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences and one of the first high school-based CSAs in the country. The article originally appeared in the Weavers Way Shuttle.


It feels kind of like the elephant in the room. It's not that we don't talk or think about it around here -- indeed, we do both, rather frequently. But rarely do we discuss it with others. For some reason, it's not the kind of subject that is discussed all that openly. Instead, it's alluded to subtly, in a manner that just confuses me at first, until I remember that this is a little unusual.

"You don't look like a farmer," people say when I tell them my profession.

"What do you mean?" I reply, never able to let an issue go,

"Oh, I don't know," they reply. "You're just little. You don't look like you ride a tractor."

It still takes me a minute to put it together. (Why do you have to be "big" to ride a tractor? Why do you have to ride a tractor all the time to be a farmer? What does it mean to not "look" like someone who does ride a tractor?) Until I realize, oh, they mean because I am a young woman. At this point, I never know quite what to say. "I ride a tractor sometimes," or, "Yep, well, I am." The subject changes. But I am constantly reminded that to be a female farmer is something a little out-of-the-ordinary, to work at a farm site staffed almost entirely by women, even more so. So I decided to express my thoughts about some of the intricacies of women in agriculture.

Lately, I hear a lot about female farmers as a "new trend." According to the 2007 census, one or two out of ten farms is now operated by a woman. However, the "trend" part is hard to track, and seems to me to obscure some history of women who have always been involved in farming. Female farmers have been historically under-reported and under-recognized. The U.S. census records only one operator per farm, the deed holder. As the majority of land is officially owned by men, this renders invisible all female partners who manage farms with their husbands or families. As I learned from this episode of the radio series Making Contact, worldwide, between 65 and 75 percent of all food is grown by women, who own only one percent of the world's land. Mainly operating as subsistence growers, this food production is often conceptualized as "domestic work," obscuring recognition of these female farmers worldwide. Still, the visibility of female farmers, at least within the U.S., is growing. For all its limitations, the census has recorded a more than doubling of farms operated by women between 1978 and 2005, from 100,000 to 250,000.

As the country's farmers age, a new "back to the land" movement, fueled partly by desires to put personal politics into action and an increasing disillusionment with the job market and traditional concept of careerism for young people, is encouraging a new crop of farmers, many of them women. We new farmers often farm under nontraditional arrangements -- co-farmers are often platonic managing partners instead of the heterosexual husband-wife team of the past -- meaning women are more often recognized as farm owners or principle managers.

Additionally, as farmers age, their land is more often being taken over by wives, daughters, or other female family members. Interestingly, as making a living as a farmer becomes ever more difficult, it becomes women's work. At a farmer's market I frequent, one of the farms is a hundred-acre conventional New Jersey farm that sells corn, tomatoes, squash, and tree fruit. The farm is run by two middle-aged sisters who recently took over management of the farm from their 80-year-old father. I was excited to see a farm run by women of a slightly older generation, so I asked them their thoughts. "Most of the time, other farmers treat us okay," they told me, "although if we do something wrong, it's, 'oh those girls.' We bring along [our brother] to market sometimes; he doesn't know a thing about farming, but people just want to talk to 'the man in charge.'" They took over the farm, they told me, because their husbands and brothers had to get "better" jobs that brought in more money. Without the expectation of being primary breadwinners, they were left as the ones who could keep the family farm alive.

In both conversation and personal thought about females and farming, I want to be careful to avoid gender essentialism. I do not want to make generalizations like, "women make good farmers because they like to nurture the earth," or, "men are better with machines." Gender expression, I believe, is a complex combination of socialization, culture, and genetics. Not being able to divorce these things from each other, I find it frustrating and counterproductive to base ideas or logic on what men or women are "naturally" like or good at doing.

That said, I acknowledge my shortcomings, like a lack of confidence with machines and power tools. Part of this is completely personal, gender aside; I happen to not be good with power tools, whereas I know many women who are. However, there is a gendered aspect to power-tool-confidence. My sister recently visited me in Philadelphia, and came to work with me on the farm. When I asked her what she wanted to work on, she replied, "anything with power tools," explaining that she recently volunteered recycling old doors for a green-deconstruction non-profit with a male friend of hers.

When the staff person trained them, he offered a power drill to help, but spoke about it and handed it only to my sister's male friend. Finally, the friend asked my sister if she, too, would like to use the power drill. My sister did, and had a great time.

My insecurity with machines and tools has several layers. I am not good at them, I suspect, because I was never encouraged to use them, so I never gained comfort or ability through practice. Now, I am afraid to practice because I am not good, and I do not want other people to notice and use their observations of my fumbling to further whatever ingrained ideas they have of women being bad with power tools. It gets rather angsty. I do not want to speak for all female-bodied farmers, but I think many of us feel like we have something to prove. I have to remind myself sometimes that just because I can't shovel compost as fast or carry a wheelbarrow quite as full of watermelons, doesn't mean that I am not strong or not a good farmer. We work together. And anyway, we all can handle wheelbarrows that are pretty darn full.

We never intentionally created a female dominated farm here at Henry Got Crops. Most of our applicants for internships and apprentices just happened to be female, and most of those qualified ended up being women. We have three female apprentices, two female interns, and one male intern. (We now have another -- a big welcome to Ed, who is newly working with us this fall!) I am glad, though, to be able to offer a positive view of women as strong, hard, workers to the students here at Saul; I want the female students to know that they can be farmers if they want, or anything else they aspire toward. One of our Saul summer interns brought her boyfriend out to work with her one morning. "How did he like it?" I asked her the next day. "I brought him out so he would see how hard I work," she replied. "He said it was fun, but really hard. He said he couldn't do this every day."

I have to admit, I was pretty proud.

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It's Always Raining in Philadelphia
Or so it's seemed the last few months. And rain can be fun, except when it overloads your stormwater system and causes raw sewage to pour into your rivers. It took Grist to alert me to what's going on in my own backyard but now I know that Philly's got a plan:

Philadelphia has announced a $1.6 billion plan to transform the city over the next 20 years by embracing its storm water - instead of hustling it down sewers and into rivers as fast as possible.

The proposal, which several experts called the nation's most ambitious, reimagines the city as an oasis of rain gardens, green roofs, thousands of additional trees, porous pavement, and more.

The plan is a radical departure from the highly engineered tunnels and sewage plant expansions cities have traditionally opted for.

"This is the most significant use of green infrastructure I've seen in the country, the largest scale I've seen," said Jon Capacasa, regional director of water protection for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the final say on whether the plan passes muster.

"We commend Philadelphia for breaking the ice," he said.

Apparently, cities around the country are waiting to see if the EPA gives the plan the greenlight; if so, this could be the start of a nationwide trend. And all it took was a little shift in perspective:

"Instead of figuring out how to manage this pollution, maybe we should be looking at how to prevent it in the first place," said Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds in the Water Department. "Let's break down some of the barriers against nature and deal with rainwater where it lands."

The idea now is to "peel back" the city's concrete and asphalt and replace them with plants - with rain gardens, green roofs, heavily planted curb extensions, vegetated "swales" in parking lots, and mini-wetlands.

One of the most radical departures for city planners is this shift from "management" to "prevention." Instead just accepting that the city has to vastly increase its built infrastructure to handle the huge amount of stormwater runoff that currently exists (the prospect of which was, among other things, prohibitively expensive), Philly decided that it would attack the problem at the source. It's funny how that subtle shift in mindset leads to such a radical shift in policy. If we can apply this kind of thinking to other things like car usage or, oh, I don't know, carbon emissions, maybe we can make some real progress.

Photo credit: Cynthia Greer

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September 28, 2009

Aquacalypse Now
The bad news is I can't take credit for that awesome title. It belongs to The New Republic's new article on "The End of Fish" by marine biologist Daniel Pauly. Indeed, it's in the article itself where you'll find the really bad news:
Unfortunately, it is not just the future of the fishing industry that is at stake, but also the continued health of the world's largest ecosystem. While the climate crisis gathers front-page attention on a regular basis, people--even those who profess great environmental consciousness--continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. But eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have "collapsed," meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we.
It's worth reading the whole thing. So go do it.

Photo credit: The New Republic

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Big Ag on Climate Change: "What, me worry?"

Once again, topics covered at length in the pixels of Grist are slowly percolating out into the wider media world. Newsweek over the weekend posted an article by Jeneen Interlandi about the grave effects of climate change on agriculture, summed up as the triple threat of "droughts, bugs and big storms." And once again, we learn the future is now:

Farmers on both coasts are already starting to reap some of what the nation's fossil-fuel addiction has sown. Crops in those regions (cranberries in the East and almonds in the West) require a certain number of colder days, or "winter chill" before they break dormancy and begin flowering. Too few cold days disrupts the plants' flowering schedule which in turn affects pollination and hurts yield. A UC Davis study found that winter chill has already declined by 30 percent in California's Central Valley, and almond growers report that yields are down 20 percent from last year. Shorter winters have had a similar effect on cranberry yields in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

As usual, we see the initial effects of a largescale phenomenon on the margins. As Nathanaiel Green of the NRDC puts it, "it hasn't really hit the breadbasket yet," which is why Big Ag, focused as it is on grains and commodity crops grown in the Midwest and South, can so easily dismiss it.

READ THE REST OF THIS POST ON GRIST

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September 25, 2009

Velociraptor Blogging
I respectfully disagree with Brad Plumer as regards this latest bit of research on Velociraptor hunting techniques. A group of scientists have figured out what that nasty claw on Velociraptor's foot was for:
[Lead scientist Phil] Manning suggests Velociraptor used its climbing ability to perch in trees and pounce on prey from above, with its claws puncturing the skin so it could cling to its victim's body while biting and subduing it.
Death from Above, Raptor-style? Are you kidding me? That's the stuff of nightmares, baby. That said, if the below conceptual drawing is what they really looked like? Maybe I'd reconsider.


Apparently, it's well known that they were small and had feathers. Still, Death from Above Rulez!

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Illinois Leads the Way to Local

This development in Illinois managed to pass somewhat under the radar, probably because it took place during the dog days of summer. But it's still a big deal -- Illinois has a new law that starts building the infrastructure for a real regional food system:

The legislation establishes a council to develop a fresh farm and food system in the state, and it creates a system that allows buyers for state agencies to pay up to 10 percent above the lowest bid when purchasing locally grown foods. It also sets a goal for state-owned agencies to increase their purchase of locally grown foods each year so that 20 percent of their food purchase is spent on Illinois-grown foods by 2020.

Currently, an estimated 4 percent of the money Illinois residents spend on food each year is for products grown in the state, and just several hundred of the state's 76,000 farmers are producing for the local market, according to a task force report.

That last statistic is astonishing. Illinois has tens of thousands of farmers and only one half of one percent of them sell their products in their home state. The new law is all the more impressive when you realize that Illinois is second only to Iowa in corn production -- we're talking the heart of the Corn Belt here. It's quite a statement when a top agricultural commodity state has decided it's time to diversify its food production. And make no mistake, institutional buyers are exactly what growers need to have the confidence to give up their reliance on commodity crops, which they can always sell to the local grain elevator. Asking a farmer to grow something that he or she can't hope to sell isn't exactly a recipe for success. But what happens if they know the state will not only buy their produce, but pay a premium for it? I'm smelling a win-win here.

READ THE REST OF THIS POST ON GRIST

Photo by Daniel Schwen used under a CC license

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September 23, 2009

Tom Vilsack, Real School Lunch Reformer?
Wel, well, well. USDA Chief Tom Vilsack is certainly talking the talk of school lunch reform:
When Congress updates the U.S. school lunch program, it should remove paperwork barriers to enrollment to free or reduced-price meals, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.

Vilsack told a conference on children's health it should be simpler to qualify for child nutrition programs and he mentioned "direct certification," which would add children automatically to school meals if their families are approved for other social programs.

Of course, the USDA should also go one step further and make Philly's recently rescued-from-oblivion "Universal Feeding" program, where entire schools in low-income areas are automatically enrolled in the free/reduced meal program, the nationwide standard. But the great thing about something like "direct certification" is that it would help kids who live in more economically diverse areas, and whose schools might not quality for a Universal Feeding-type program. This is definitely a good idea -- anything that reduces paperwork and eliminates the need for kids to "opt-in" to the school lunch program is a big help -- and the Reuters article above speculates that hundreds of thousands of kids would be brought into the system this way.

And I really like the sound of this next idea:

[Vilsack] suggested pilot projects to provide food when children are out of school, perhaps an electronic benefits transfer card for use in the summer.

Again, anything that increases food options for kids out of school is surely worth the effort. Hopefully, any such EBT cards would have some restrictions on them, i.e. you couldn't load up on chips and soda, but I like the idea of taking the "school lunch" program out of schools and into the community.

With industry-friendly "moderates" Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Collin Peterson now spearheading the Child Nutrition Act's reauthorization process in Congress, it's up to the USDA and the White House to provide real leadership on these issues. So it's good to hear that Vilsack is ready to make some dramatic change.

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September 21, 2009

Flywheels!

This is one is irresistable. From Yale Environment 360:
The U.S. Department of Energy has granted a $43 million loan to a Massachusetts-based company to prove the value of a new technology in which spinning flywheels are used to improve the efficiency of the electric grid. Beacon Power Corp. will build a 20-megawatt flywheel plant in upstate New York in which flywheels spinning up to 16,000 times per minute will act as a sort of short-term power storage system for the state’s electrical distribution system, according to the Associated Press. Essentially, the spinning flywheels would suck excess energy off the electric grid when supply is high, store it in the spinning cores, and return the energy to the grid when demand grows.
Keeping things running smoothly is what oil- and coal-fired plants do well but global warming is putting the kaibosh on carbon-based grids. In an era of the more intermittent solar and wind power, electricity "storage" technologies will be key. And the centuries old flywheel is just the thing. Of course, they won't look like the one above. Beacon's flywheels are "small" at one ton each and spin in sealed chambers, pictured at right. The old ones are a bit more dramatic, but still... Let the steampunks rejoice!

Photo of 19th c flywheel from Wikimedia Commons
Beacon Power flywheel photo credit: the AP/Lisa Poole


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Plastics, the Silent Obesogens

Hmm... That title doesn't quite seem to capture the seriousness of the issue, does it? But despite rampant skepticism, the data continue to pour in -- chemicals in some of the most common plastics and household products, things that surround us every minute of the day, are major culprits in the obesity epidemic. At least now that fact is now getting some well-deserved attention. From Newsweek:
Evidence has been steadily accumulating that certain hormone-mimicking pollutants, ubiquitous in the food chain, have two previously unsuspected effects. They act on genes in the developing fetus and newborn to turn more precursor cells into fat cells, which stay with you for life. And they may alter metabolic rate, so that the body hoards calories rather than burning them, like a physiological Scrooge. "The evidence now emerging says that being overweight is not just the result of personal choices about what you eat, combined with inactivity," says Retha Newbold of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in North Carolina, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Exposure to environmental chemicals during development may be contributing to the obesity epidemic." They are not the cause of extra pounds in every person who is overweight—for older adults, who were less likely to be exposed to so many of the compounds before birth, the standard explanations of genetics and lifestyle probably suffice—but environmental chemicals may well account for a good part of the current epidemic, especially in those under 50. And at the individual level, exposure to the compounds during a critical period of development may explain one of the most frustrating aspects of weight gain: you eat no more than your slim friends, and exercise no less, yet are still unable to shed pounds.
Note that this phenomenon really hits kids hardest (as does the obesity epidemic), both because of fetal and childhood exposure, and also because of the fact that these products have only become truly ubiquitous since the eighties. Indeed, to my mind, the clincher comes in the fat babies. Or as Newsweek puts it:
...[T]hese [other] causes cannot explain the ballooning of one particular segment of the population, a segment that doesn't go to movies, can't chew, and was never that much into exercise: babies. In 2006 scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that the prevalence of obesity in infants under 6 months had risen 73 percent since 1980. "This epidemic of obese 6-month-olds," as endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, calls it, poses a problem for conventional explanations of the fattening of America. "Since they're eating only formula or breast milk, and never exactly got a lot of exercise, the obvious explanations for obesity don't work for babies," he points out. "You have to look beyond the obvious."
And what's beyond the obvious? Plastics.

Children's Health Magazine recently did a story on "Your Big Fat House" that uncovered just how common these -- as one scientist has dubbed them -- "obesogens" are in your home:
BEDROOM
Carpet (PBDEs), vinyl flooring (PVC), mattress (PBDEs), toys, (BPA), waterproof clothing (Phthalates, PFOA)

FOYER
Raincoats (phthalates), rain boots (phthalates), faux leather coats, shoes, purses, and briefcases (phthalates)

LAUNDRY ROOM
PVC pipes, detergents, and dryer sheets (phthalates)

LIVING ROOM
Carpet (PBDEs), air fresheners (phthalates), furniture (PBDEs), electronics (PBDEs)

BATHROOM

Toothbrush (BPA), toothpaste, vinyl shower curtain, water from the shower comes through PVC pipes, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, creams, powders, and makeup (Phthalates), nail polish (Phthalates, PFOA)

KITCHEN
Produce in the fridge (pesticides), meat in the freezer (PBDEs, PCBs, pesticides), canned food in the pantry (BPA), jars of peanut butter (phthalates), jars of tomato sauce (phthalates), jarred baby food (BPA), plastic cups, baby bottles, plates, and utensils (BPA)
Now you can probably find a way to eliminate some of these, especially in the bathroom and the kitchen. But are people going to rip up their vinyl floors and throw out ALL their children's toys (not to mention those precious consumer electronics). And for many products how are you even supposed to find out if they contain these chemicals? In theory, you have to seek out products that declare their "status." But really. Are we seriously expected to junk the entire contents of our houses? The advice that comes with the article tries to make this into one of those issues that can be solved by a good spring cleaning. Clearly, we're way beyond that.

In June, the NYT's Nick Kristof had an article about this class of chemicals and the danger they pose to ourselves and the environment. And he lamented the EPA's "glacial pace" in addressing them -- truly glacial if you realize that, though the connection to obesity is new, scientists have been aware of the existence of endocrine disrupting chemicals for decades. But the reason is obvious, isn't it? These chemicals are in EVERYTHING. Truly everything. The "disruption" to manufacturers at every level is mind-numbing. We're not talking about phasing out Freon here. This is about reformulating some of the fundamental ingredients to just about every major consumer item.

Plus, to go ahead and ban them would not only force our friends in industrial chemicals and the oil industry (most of these products come from oil, remember) to find safe alternatives, which in some cases might be impossible. But all these suppliers (and the consumer products companies that incorporated these poisons into their offerings) would also be open to massive liability lawsuits.

But the Newsweek piece concludes with the suggestion that even the EPA understands that the issue can't be ignored for much longer:
This fall, scientists from NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and academia will discuss obesogens at the largest-ever government-sponsored meeting on the topic.
For this to lead to real change, of course, it will take more than articles in Newsweek and expert panels (and immunity from lawsuits which all these companies will inevitably be granted). What we need is outrage and consumer revolt. Anyone know where to find that?

Photo by tuppus used under a CC license

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September 18, 2009

Drain the Food Swamps!

The new farmers market in front of the White House is being rightly praised for its multi-layered symbolism. But the lower-profile kid-driven transactions that take place every day at other markets represent the great challenge for food system reform and obesity prevention. The Philly Inquirer reports:

Like clockwork at 3:15 p.m., the eighth grader - Scotch plaid shoes, cell phone pressed to her ear - exits Tairina Grocery near the corner of Fourth and York, her first stop out of Welsh Elementary School, 30 seconds away, one of a steady stream of kids leaving the store with filmy black sacks.

The contents of hers is typical - two one-ounce bags of Herr's Salt & Vinegar chips, a can of Coke, and a cake called Elim's Delight, favored by North Philadelphia's schoolkids for its price point: 25 cents.

This ritual - often played out before and after school - adds an average of 360 calories (per visit) to the kids' daily total, subverting the laborious fine-tuning of school lunches, and upping the odds of obesity-related disease.

To combat this, a group of researchers from Temple University have partnered with the innovative (and nationally recognized) Philadelphia Food Trust -- a non-profit involved with food deserts as well as farmers markets and school food -- to look for alternatives. More from the Inqy:
...A dozen corner stores around five city schools (besides Welsh, Clymer, Fairhill, Kenderton, and Robert Morris) are being not only studied, but manipulated: They're asked to post the Food Trust's Snackin' Fresh posters ("Small Size, Big Taste!" is one), stock bottled water, and visibly display coolers of chopped-fruit salads.
A crucial element of the study is to have researchers perform voluntary inspections for students' purchases -- most obesity studies rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable. And what's inside those before- and after-school shopping bags is pretty depressing. One researcher saw an eighth-grader's $1.80 haul -- a Coke, chips and piece of chocolate cake. 500 calories -- calorically (though not nutritionally) equal to the lunch served that day at school. These lunches are free to most students as the school in question participates in Philly's Universal Feeding program. As the article points out, the hard work that went into getting junk food out of these Philly schools is being almost totally undermined.

The good news is that the researchers' goal is not to eliminate all of these purchases, but to reduce them. But here's where you realize it's all about price. The bottled water with which the Food Trust supplies the participating corner stores costs 50 cents. For that price, a student can buy a sugary drink and a bag of chips. Think about that for a second. A tasteless and odorless (but refreshing!) zero calories costs twice as much as 200+ sweet and salty calories. That's Big Food's great legacy to society. Thanks, guys!

They have in essence put dirt-cheap candy stores across the street from schools across the country. For pocket change kids can eat nutritionally empty put calorie packed junk twice a day -- and their parents need never know. Meanwhile, the "candymakers" are screaming that anyone who wants to do something about this is a Communist.

At some point, we're going to have to drain these food swamps. Cities will have to uses zoning laws to restrict what can and can't be sold near school. We're going to have to tax junk food, folks. These kids' purchases are likely significantly underestimated and probably not accounted for properly in most economic models of how taxes will affect purchases. If junk food taxes did nothing else but reduce these shopping trips, they would be a rip-roaring success.

This latest effort shines invaluable light on what's going on in these corner stores. The least our politicians can do is show the courage necessary to do something about it.

Photo by loop_oh used under a CC license

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Begun These Soda Wars Have

To read the news, it would look like soda taxes are just around the corner. First, President Obama mildly suggested in an interview in Men's Health that soda taxes were worth some consideration. Then Obamafoodorama broke the news of Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent's reaction to said soda tax:

"I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink,"’ Kent said. "If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around." Kent also called the soda tax "outrageous."

Whew. The man is pissed. That's probably why Coke is one of the companies behind the full-page ad in the Washington Post by a new junk food industry astroturf group designed to combat junk food taxes. More from Ob Fo:

The ad… was in the A section of the Washington Post on Sunday, part of a new campaign that lobby group Americans Against Food Taxes is running to fight taxation of soda and sugary beverages, although the plea is "don't tax our groceries." Coca Cola funds the group, as does Pepsi Cola, Dr. Pepper, Canada Dry, McDonald's, Jack in the Box, among others.

And now the NYT has jumped in to the debate with an article which mostly echoes Ob Fo in the particulars. One twist that the NYT adds, however, is the fact that a penny per ounce federal tax on soda would raise $14.8 billion in its first year--that's a lot of money.

READ THE REST OF THIS POST ON GRIST

Photo by trekkyandy used under a CC license

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September 16, 2009

Plastic Power

Let's accentuate the positive today, shall we? The NYT's Green Inc. blog is reporting that a startup has an operating plant in the DC area that can convert used plastic (i.e. garbage) into usable fuel:

Entrepreneurs have been trying for years to turn low-value wastes into high-value products. Waste plastic is among the lowest in value, and gasoline or diesel fuel the highest, but machines to do that conversion usually consume a lot of energy and get gummed-up by leftover material that they cannot convert.

Now a company in Washington, D.C., is trying out a new way -- heating the plastic to a very carefully controlled temperature range, with infra-red energy.

The company, Envion, is expected to cut the ribbon on Wednesday morning on a $5 million plant that it says will annually convert 6,000 tons of plastic into nearly a million barrels of something resembling oil. The product can be blended with other components and sold as gasoline or diesel.

"We are the world's largest oil consumer and the world's biggest producer of waste," said Michael Han, chairman and chief executive of the company.

This process will convert one to the other for about $10 a barrel, he said.

An important element to the conversion is that the process is electrically powered -- no fuel is burned on-site to run the converter -- so that a renewably-powered plastic-to-gasoline facility is inevitable.

This is quite a game-changing development given that we're drowning our land and choking our seas with plastic -- much of it not recyclable. This process offers at least the hope that we'll find a way to stay afloat.

On the other hand, it's worth observing that plastic represents a fairly stable way to sequester carbon. By turning it into fuel and then burning it, we're putting even more carbon into the atmosphere. But if this scales massively and ultimately is able to displace conventional oil production (itself a carbon-intensive process) we might be looking at a real win-win. See! I stayed positive all the way to the end.

Photo by meaduva used under a CC license

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September 15, 2009

The Blanche Lincoln Hits Just Keep Coming
Not to be All Blanche Lincoln, All the Time but this is really something. In a speech to the National Cattleman's Beef Association, one of the main agribusiness industry groups, your Senate Ag Committee Chairman double dipped in spectacular anti-environmental fashion. First up -- as reported in National Journal ($ub req'd) -- the climate bill:
...Lincoln she said does not support the House-passed climate-change bill because it "picks winners and losers" and "places a disproportionate share of the burden" on her home state of Arkansas in particular and rural and poor America in general. Lincoln said she will not support a climate change bill in the Senate if it is similar to the House-passed bill.
I'd point out that opposing climate change is also about picking winners and losers, Senator. And if we listen to you, Blanche, we all lose.

Lincoln strongly supports putting Max Baucus, Senate Finance Commitee chair, in charge of the Senate's version of climate change. Did I mention that he's also on the Ag Committee? Must've slipped my mind.

But Lincoln publicly harshing all over climate change isn't necessarily anything new. Lincoln publicly harshing all over clean water regulations? That's new.

Lincoln said a provision in the Clean Water Restoration Act passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that covers "the waters of the United States" rather than "navigable" waters needs to be amended so EPA does not interpret it to cover all waters.

"We've seen in the past where the imagination can be stretched," Lincoln said. "We don't need the imagination to be stretched right now."

Of course, the NYT just informed us that our imaginations regarding the danger posed to us by our nation's drinking water have failed us -- stretching them, along with the EPA's power over safe drinking water is exactly what we need. I think I'm going to be sick.

Keep in mind that Lincoln's opposition to EPA jurisdiction over "all waters" has nothing, in her mind, to do with drinking water. What she and her ag industry allies do have in mind is keeping the EPA well away from livestock factory farm manure lagoons. Is it her problem that they have an awful tendency to overflow into the water supply? As does raw liquid manure sprayed on fields. As does excess nitrogen fertilizer. As do pesticides and weedkillers like Roundup and atrazine. And if she has anything to do with it, none of that will be Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods or the American Farm Bureau's problem either.

Wow. I didn't think you could do worse than House Ag Chair Rep. Collin Peterson in the -- for lack of a better term -- asshattery department. Apparently, I was mistaken.

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September 14, 2009

Water Woes

There's a lot that's discouraging in part two of the NYT's "Toxic Waters" series. Choosing one's lowlights from a list that includes children whose teeth have been eaten away by contaminated water or who get rashes from their bathwater (not to mention cancer), or whole communities (in America, mind you) that need to have fresh water trucked in is an unpleasant task. Things are, it seems, surprisingly bad and getting worse:
[I]n recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found.

In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment. State officials have repeatedly ignored obvious illegal dumping, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act, has often declined to intervene.
Indeed, the NYT offers a handy map-based guide to water polluters in every state. But you don't really need the map -- the dots of individual polluters are so dense that they make a state-shaped blob of pollution. Sigh.

But to me the most discouraging development in the article is learning that, even now, top government officials seem more intent on making excuses than on making change. Here's EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:
"Do critics have a good and valid point when they say improvements need to be made? Absolutely," Ms. Jackson said. "But I think we need to be careful not to do that by scaring the bejesus out of people into thinking that, boy, are things horrible. What it requires is attention, and I'm going to give it that attention."
You know what, Ms. Jackson? This article scares the bejesus out of me and it seems pretty clear that things are horrible -- I don't want attention, I want action. Where's the sense of urgency?

It's lacking because we seem to have governments at the state and federal level that walk on eggshells around corporations. But I don't think it's only because of corporate campaign contributions -- it due to a far more pernicious reason than that. Ronald Reagan trained a generation of Americans that government was part of the problem. And now even Democrats are mindful of rocking the boat. The only burden that seems to matter is the corporate burden -- we can act, as long as it's okay with the affected industry. It's the "opt-in" approach to regulation. It worked so well in finance and health care. Why not apply it to those pesky environmental laws as well.

But action is also lacking because Americans just aren't making much noise on these kinds of issues. Oh, sure, it's easy to find people blind with fury over death panels and our Kenyan-born President. But clean air and water? Meh. I do think it odd that so many people in this country operate under the delusion that a corporation would act in anyone's interest but its own. Yet that does seems to be the assumption of many -- how else to explain the apathy?

I once heard it said that no true, major structural reform ever happens until people get out into the street to demand it. The teabaggers were out certainly, for all the good it will do them. But where are the thousands rallying to get heavy metals and industrial chemicals out of our drinking water? Without that kind of presure, backroom dealing and public/private backscratching win the day.

The NYT has documented nothing else but a[nother] total regulatory failure -- with most of the backsliding occurring, of course, over the last 8 years. Where Al Gore offered the social security lockbox, George Bush gave us the environmental lockbox -- the place where anonymously quoted EPA officials were instructed to put their clean air and water cases so that polluters campaign contributors could remain unpunished. Ugly, ugly stuff. No wonder no Bush-era EPA administrator had the guts to go on the record for the article.

It certainly feels like we're farther than ever from addressing the biggest challenges that face us. Until government (not to mention the media) decides that its job is to be a true counterweight to, rather than an enabler of, corporate American excess, we'll be living in a dirty, unhealthy country.

Photo by gambier20 used under a CC license

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Blanche Lincoln: Lobbyist Fantasy
As suspected, agribusiness is indeed turning cartwheels over the news that Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln is now chairman of the Senate Ag Committee. The public policy director for the retrograde American Farm Bureau told The Hill, "We couldn’t have handpicked a chairman better than this." The giant sucking sound you're hearing is agricultural reform rushing down the drain.

The headline of The Hill's piece tells you all you need to know: "K Street welcomes Lincoln as the new head of Ag committee" -- K Street being the center of the lobbying biz. If you read on, however, you'll discover all sorts of lovely little Lincolnian tidbits. Did you know that in 2007 Lincoln tried to exempt agribusiness from toxic waste lawsuits? The fact that Tyson Foods, the nation's largest chicken (and chickensh*t) producer, is based in Arkansas and is a major campaign contributor to her is, of course, a total coincidence.

Oh, and all that oil and gas money she gets is entirely unrelated to her strident opposition to climate change legislation -- opposition that is so strong, The Hill speculated she could single-handedly derail it.

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September 11, 2009

Food, Meet Income

supermarketWhere the deals are.First came the news that anti-reformer Sen. Blanche Lincoln has taken over the Senate Agriculture Committee. Now, from the US Census Bureau we get even more bad news for those hoping for serious reform of our food system: the Census Bureau announced to day that middle class income is diving. Real median household income fell 3.6 percent between 2007 and 2008, from $52,163 to $50,303. As Felix Salmon of Reuters points out, that $1,800 drop is real money. Oh and I did I mention that the poverty rate is up, too?

Salmon also directed attention to David Leonhardt at the NYT who observed that "the typical American household made less money last year than the typical household made a full decade ago." [Emphasis mine] And if you look more closely at the data, it now appears that most middle- and working-class Americans saw their inflation-adjusted incomes drop over the last ten years. American dream, indeed.

What does this have to do with food system reform? As both Tom Philpott and I have argued repeatedly: everything.

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September 9, 2009

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the Anti-Reformer
I posted a piece at The New Republic's The Vine on the implications of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln's taking up the Senate Ag Committee gavel. Check it out. Though I warn you, the news is not good.

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Nightmare Scenarios

You know, I keep trying to stay away from this stuff, but I can't. Turns out there's a whole new wrinkle on climate change. Once the glaciers melt and all that weight pressing down on the earth's crust lifts, seriously bad things start to happen (via the Guardian):

Scientists are to outline dramatic evidence that global warming threatens the planet in a new and unexpected way -- by triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches and volcanic eruptions.

Reports by international groups of researchers -- to be presented at a London conference next week -- will show that climate change, caused by rising outputs of carbon dioxide from vehicles, factories and power stations, will not only affect the atmosphere and the sea but will alter the geology of the Earth.

Melting glaciers will set off avalanches, floods and mud flows in the Alps and other mountain ranges; torrential rainfall in the UK is likely to cause widespread erosion; while disappearing Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets threaten to let loose underwater landslides, triggering tsunamis that could even strike the seas around Britain.

At the same time the disappearance of ice caps will change the pressures acting on the Earth's crust and set off volcanic eruptions across the globe.

Yikes! One would hope this all is far enough off that none of it is baked into the climate (as certain amounts of warming and sea level rise already are). But it certainly means that we need to get our act together ASAP. It also means that we may need to pay a bit more attention to geo-engineering schemes. Not the wacky ones, like giant space shades, of course. But did I mention that someone has invented a magic carbon eating machine, and it's considered one of the best geo-engineering options by UK engineers?

Top of their list of practical solutions that would be low-carbon to build and require only existing technologies were artificial trees. These units, invented by Columbia University scientist Klaus Lackner, would be the size of a standard shipping container and could remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere. "100,000 trees would take up an area of around 600 hectares, which is less than 10% of the surface area of the Firth of Forth, and that would be able to absorb the CO2 emissions of the UK's non-power sector annually," said Fox.

Currently the UK produces 556 megatonnes of CO2 per year and the 100,000 trees could absorb around 60% of that amount. The engineers calculated that forests of artificial trees powered by renewable energy and located near depleted oil or gas fields, where the trapped CO2 could be buried, would be thousands of times more efficient than planting trees over the same area.

Making each artificial tree would require energy and materials but this would only account for 5% of the CO2 that the device could capture in its lifetime. On a global scale, between 5-10m artificial trees could absorb the CO2 emitted from all sources other than power stations.

We can't geo-engineer as a replacement for emissions reductions, but if it's tsunamis, volcanoes, landslides and earthquakes, I think we better expect to do a whole lot of both and soon. The good news: Congress is on the case! Oh, wait. No, they're not.

Photo credit: National Parks Service

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September 8, 2009

The End of the Dennis Wolff Follies?
As some PAers may know, Dennis Wolff, the state Ag Secretary and big, big fan of using artificial growth hormones in milk, recently announced his resignation. Wolff has a reputation as a frighteningly good friend to industrial food producers and a lousy one to Gov. Ed Rendell. Since this was a man whose name had been in the running for the top food safety job at USDA (and at one point, for USDA chief), some in the progressive food policy world were concerned that Wolff's resignation was a precursor to a much-feared presser at USDA HQ in which USDA head Tom Vilsack would hand him the food safety reins.

Well, according to Farm and Dairy's twitter feed, Wolff is being true to his word that his departure:
"...comes down to having some other opportunities I am interested in exploring right now in the private sector."
According to Farm and Dairy, he's taking a job as a lobbyist with Versant Strategies, a PA-based ag lobbying firm. From its website, Versant appears to focus its lobbying efforts on Harrisburg, not Washington. If true, this would be a happy ending indeed. Dennis, we won't miss you one bit.

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September 1, 2009

GMO Labels, But for How Long?

The good news in the recent NYT article concerning a consortium of food companies that is rolling out a "GMO-Free" label comes in the lede:
Alarmed that genetically engineered crops may be finding their way into organic and natural foods, an industry group has begun a campaign to test products and label those that are largely free of biotech ingredients.
Yay! GMO labeling is earth-shakingly popular. Some studies demonstrate close to 95% support for such labels among consumers -- how many issues in this country register support like that?

But the bad news in the recent NYT article on GMO labeling comes at the end. And it's a doozy:
The F.D.A. said it did not have authority to approve labels before they appeared in the marketplace. Once a label is in use, the agency could initiate a review if it received consumer complaints or had concerns the label was misleading.
And who might have "concerns" that the label is "misleading"? Big Food, perhaps?

There's a lot of history here. The food industry has successfully beaten back GMO labeling efforts in the past. And it's worth noting that, while various products may advertise their status as GMO-free, the "Non-GMO Project" that's behind this new label seeks to standardize the labeling effort across the industry (you know, like real governments do).

I found it a bit chilling that the article didn't quote a single representative from one of the major food companies or industry associations. Not typically a group that shrinks from the media, these companies have, no doubt, been advised by their teams of lawyers to keep their traps firmly shut. I wonder how long after the label finally hits the shelves it will be before the injunction against it hits participating companies' doorsteps. Anyone care to wager?

The key questions are 1) where will FDA Chief Margaret Hamburg and her number two Josh Sharfstein come down on this debate and 2) where will former Monsanto exec turned FDA food safety advisor Mike Taylor fit in to all this. The success of the labeling campaign hinges on the answers.

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"Don't Drink Yourself Fat"

While the evidence continues to mount that taxes alone aren't enough to significantly reduce junk food consumption, the political prospects for passing a federal soda tax appear to be dim. Well, New York City has decided that if they can't tax your soda, they'll go after your appetite instead.

...New York City's public health officials opened a new front in their struggle against high-calorie beverages on Monday, unveiling an ad campaign that depicts globs of human fat gushing from a soda bottle.

"Are you pouring on the pounds?" asks the ad, which urges viewers to consider water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead, and warns: "Don't drink yourself fat."

Take a good look at that image, folks. Ah, the pause that nauseates.

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