Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Monday, December 03, 2012 3:58 PM
Raj Patel is a writer, academic, and activist. He is the author of
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and the New York Times and international bestseller, The Value of Nothing. He has also published widely in the academic press, with articles in peer-reviewed philosophy, politics, sociology, science, and economics journals. Patel is currently working on Generation Food, a multimedia project about reinventing our global food system. He was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009.
When it comes to feeding the world, most of us support the idea. We are taught from a young age that if someone is hungry it’s our moral duty to feed them, whether they live down the street or in another country. For decades, agriculture companies have used the noble goal of “feeding the world” to increase yields by any means possible, from genetic modification to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This logic has justified ecological destruction from prairies to rainforests. It has wreaked havoc on indigenous and small-farming communities. And with 870 million chronically undernourished people on earth right now, it has failed to get food to the people who need it most.
Instead of a fed planet, we have monoculture farms, poisons on food, and toxic runoff in our land and water. Into our air, the global agriculture industry emits about 14 percent of total greenhouse gases, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). If we include agricultural deforestation, that number jumps to 27.5 percent. “[I]t’s impossible,” writes CGIAR, “to address climate issues without including agriculture—and vice versa.”
Fortunately, real solutions aren’t difficult to imagine. Raj Patel interviewed one Wisconsin farmer, Jim Goodman, who seems to have a lot of this figured out.
In the first minute-and-a-half, Goodman tackles climate change, the politics of feeding the planet, the risks of monoculture and globalization, the aging U.S. farmer population, corporate greed, indigenous rights, and the failure of our globalized agricultural system to feed the people who need it most. “We need to let the world figure out how to feed themselves and we need to be able to let them do it politically. […] We’ve got more hungry people now than we did 20 [or] 30 years ago, when there was much more subsistence, much more local farming.”
He then moves on to the inspiration he finds in the growing number of young adults interested in a different kind of farming. “They want to grow food,” he says. “Not corn and soybeans. […] They want to grow vegetables, they want to grow small livestock operations, they want to do CSAs and farmers markets. And, you know, that’s the way most of the world really feeds itself is with small-scale, local production.”
More young farmers are part of the answer, and debunking the myth that it’s our job to feed the world is another. Also important: acknowledging that industrial agriculture cannot accomplish this. But, says Goodman, the most essential part must be accomplished on a political level. “The corporations that control the food system are no different from corporations that control the energy system, or whatever else. […] It’s all the money that goes into politics and lobbying that dictates how we live. And that’s what has to be changed.”
Image by Pritya Books, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 08, 2012 1:16 PM
Just over half of Americans
say they wouldn’t buy a food they knew was genetically modified. Another 87 percent
say they want to see GM labels at the grocery store. That’s one reason why Connecticut’s
recent failure to require labeling is so surprising, says Treehugger. Now, genetically-modified
food is controversial among consumers, farmers, and scientists, and it’s difficult
to find a consensus on GM benefits and risks. The World Health Organization,
for instance, while noting some potential human health hazards like gene
transfer, maintains GM
safety is a case-by-case issue.
But the biggest opposition
didn’t come from scientists. The reason the bill failed appears to be pressure
from Monsanto, which reportedly threatened state legislators with legal action.
This was the
same tactic that got a GM labeling provision thrown out in Vermont last
month, as the one thing cash-strapped states don’t need is a big lawsuit.
Back in 2007,
then-candidate Obama said he supported labeling requirements for GM foods. But
after years of silence and a high-profile
national campaign last fall to get action from Washington (and another
one earlier this year), many states have taken matters into their own
hands. Mostly, it’s been slow going. In Minnesota,
a bill requiring labels failed in
March. Legislators voted
down a similar bill in Washington
state recently, reportedly after facing pressure from, you guessed it, Monsanto
and other biotech firms.
But in California, voters have the ability to
bypass their legislature in statewide ballot initiatives. Last week, they filed
almost a million signatures to do just that, and this November, a GM labeling
requirement will be on the ballot. The campaign took a
swift ten weeks, says MarketWatch,
and culminated in rallies across the state. Given that a clear majority of
Californians support the initiative, it seems likely to pass.
What happens in the rest
of the country is less certain. Even as state activists and legislators debate
GM safety and labeling, the Department of Agriculture is set to approve a new
GM corn crop which poses potential health hazards to farmers and consumers. The
crop is resistant
to a herbicide called 2,4-D, a chemical now used on golf courses to kill
large weeds, reports Huffington. 2,4-D,
an active ingredient in Agent Orange, has been linked to health problems like
cancer and birth defects, but now may coat millions of acres of modified corn. GM
safety may be a case-by-case question, but many
scientists are concerned about this one.
And for the USDA, and Obama,
all this is nothing new. According to the San
Francisco Chronicle, the department hasn’t
denied approval for a GM crop since they began appearing in the mid-1990s. Last
year, after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack got cold feet about a White House plan to
allow unrestricted GM alfalfa, he fell
back in line almost immediately. The reason, says Tom Philpott in Grist, was almost certainly political
pressure from an administration with strong ties to agribusiness and biotech.
Even if states like California can enforce
labeling requirements, changing how we grow food to reflect people’s
concerns about GM is much more difficult. What all this means is that GM
skeptics have an uphill battle, not just from big chemical companies or
inactive state legislatures, but also from the federal government.
Image by Darwin Bell,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, March 29, 2012 4:13 PM
Later this year, the
federal Farm Bill that was enacted in 2008 is set to expire. Although Congress
already has plenty on its plate—not to mention the ongoing kerfuffle over
Obamacare at the Supreme Court—there’s a good chance they’ll make room for
this. Because of its size and scope, the direction the Farm Bill takes has a
big impact not just on agriculture and farming communities, but also on environmental
policy, trade, and the overall health and safety of Americans. Subsidies and
payments to farmers and farming communities may be the most contentious
portion, but the bill also doles out money for programs like food stamps,
disaster relief, and conservation. Essentially, this is where the debate on U.S. food policy
And every five years or
so, when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, that debate ignites again. A look
at the most recent cycle gives some idea of what’s ahead. At the end of 2006, Oxfam published a briefing on the
politics surrounding the then-current Farm Bill, which was set to expire the
following year. For decades, the report argued, the Farm Bill has been skewed to
benefit mostly the largest and most profitable farmers, at the expense of the
little guys. Commodity subsidies—which make up the second largest chunk of the Farm
Bill’s budget—go overwhelmingly to the small number of conventional, large-scale
farmers who grow the “program crops” of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and
rice. The roughly 75 percent of farms that grow and sell other products (or
program crop growers that are too small to collect support) receive just 8
percent of the Farm Bill’s subsidies. As a result, over the course of several
generations, farms have become much bigger, and many smaller farmers have been
pushed out. Oxfam also pointed to the underlying health effects of conventional
and factory farming, and a food system that relies on processing artificially
cheap foods like corn.
Oxfam’s warning fell
mostly on deaf ears. Especially in terms of crop subsidies, the 2008 bill was
remarkably similar to the 2002 bill, with no big rethinking going on in
Congress. A report by the Land
Stewardship Project, while outlining some progress on conservation
programs, criticized the bill’s overall failure
to address the growing corporatization of agriculture. Tellingly, much of
the problem lay with crop subsidies.
But even more revealing
was the contentiousness surrounding the plan. Even though the 2008 bill
differed little from a version passed uneventfully in 2002, the later version was only passed
overrode Bush’s veto. Interestingly, while new conservation programs were
indeed controversial, much of the Republican opposition came from concern over
the total size of the bill, and just where those big crop subsidies were going.
Will this year be any
different? Public awareness of these issues is growing. As Oxfam points out, fresh
fruits and vegetables are increasingly more popular than over-processed corn
and soybean creations. Organic farming is ever more fashionable, though many
small farmers still struggle with how costly it is. CSAs and farmers’ markets
are commonplace in urban areas throughout the country. Despite its low cost,
Americans are much less enamored with processed food than they once were. Could
a new Farm Bill reflect these trends?
It’s possible. As Huffington points out, when
negotiations over the 2012 renewal began two years ago, organizations like the
Environmental Working Group and the Land Stewardship Project seemed poised to make
a larger impact on the new version. Predicting that commodity subsidies may
be on their way out, the National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition proposed rewarding green farming
practices, rather than subsidizing conventional techniques. As NSAC noted last
week on its blog, recent Senate Ag Committee hearings seem to
be moving in the right direction. While nothing is written yet, Senators
were reportedly sympathetic to conservation concerns and farmers’ proposals to
cut crop subsidies in favor of less constraining crop insurance programs. The committee
may also be interested in reforming crop insurance to reflect environmental
concerns and better serve beginning farmers. Such modest changes would be
welcomed by millions of small-scale farmers.
But this is where things
get complicated. While the Senate Agriculture Committee debates conservation
policy, tea party Republicans in the House are set to challenge much of the
current Farm Bill from an entirely different angle. Opposition to the 2008 renewal
united an unlikely crowd, from small farmers to conservationists to fiscal
conservatives, and that last group has lost none of its zeal. It may be hard
for some to take the new
GOP budget proposal all that seriously, but it does represent a potential
challenge to decades of more or less bipartisan farm policy. For instance, under
the GOP plan, says Think Progress, food
stamps would be converted to a series of block grants to the states. So
rather than a federal program that grows and shrinks by public need (as it did
during the recession), SNAP would have a fixed limit, whether more people
needed it or not.
Even more importantly, says AgWeek, the new Republican plan would
cut commodity subsidies by a third, and cut the Farm Bill itself
by $180 billion. Now, logistically all of that is very unlikely. Unlike the
House, the Senate has a Democratic majority, and their version of the Farm Bill
so far looks very different. What’s significant is that one of two parties in Washington wants to completely reshape U.S. food
policy, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much they want it. As Grist notes, there is a plan in place
if both houses can’t reach an agreement, a little like that whole sequestration
debacle last year during the deficit talks. In this case, however, the
automatic changes would bring
us back to 1940s-era policies that have very little relevance to the 21st
century. Such a scenario could be downright dangerous.
So what exactly happens
over the next several months is difficult to say. During the deficit talks last
fall, Republican freshmen in the House proved that they are more than willing
to double down on principle, even when high stakes call for pragmatism. At the same
time, conservation groups and small farmers see 2012 as a moment of opportunity
to reshape some of the Farm Bill’s most pressing anachronisms. It’s hard to
predict how all this will shake out, what deals will be struck before or after
the September deadline, and how much of this will be drowned out by looming
elections. We could end up with a radically different food policy in this
country, one that affects everything from school lunches and poverty programs
to how we respond to the emerging threat of climate change. It’s a conversation
we should begin soon.
Sources: Oxfam, Land
Stewardship Project, Thomas, Huffington,
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Christian
Science Monitor, Think
Image by Saffron
Blaze, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 3:27 PM
You’ve heard of farm to table. Coming soon: park to table. This spring, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, seven acres of underused land will be transformed into the nation’s largest urban “food forest”—a community park planted with a cornucopia of produce that visitors are encouraged to harvest and eat, for free.
According to Crosscut reporter Robert Mellinger, the Beacon Food Forest will be “an urban oasis of public food” offering a variety of edibles: apples and blueberries, herbs and vegetables, chestnuts and walnuts, persimmons and Asian pears.
The sprawling project, while ambitious, draws strength from volunteer groups like Friends of the Beacon Food Forest and from simply letting nature take its course. Built around the concept of permaculture, it will be a perennial, self-sustaining landscape, much like a woodland ecosystem in the wild. Companion plants included for natural soil-enhancement and pest-control will help lower the amount of maintenance needed.
“The idea of planting perennials as part of a self-sustaining, holistic system is old hat to many accomplished gardeners,” writes Claire Thompson for Grist, and groups like San Francisco’s Guerrilla Grafters have already dazzled us with novel ways to promote urban agriculture. “But,” continues Thompson, “creating a system on public land that combines the concepts of urban farms, orchards, and natural forest, and depending on collaborative community effort to keep it going, represents uncharted territory for the now-flourishing urban-farming movement.”
In addition to contributing to your family picnic, the bounteous Beacon Food Forest will feature traditional amenities like playing fields, community gardens, a kids’ area, and public gathering spaces. Check out the full site plan below:
Sources: Crosscut, Grist
Image by Liz West, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Friday, February 17, 2012 4:31 PM
As urban homesteading continues its rise, city backyards are booming with agrarian dreams: chickens peck near privacy fences, milk-producing goats bleat greetings to overflying airplanes, and tomato and pea plants stretch toward the smoggy sun. But coupled with these well-intentioned back-to-the-earth efforts is a dark side, says E Magazine’s Jodi Helmer, as the farm animals we bring to the city get short shrift.
“For many urban agrarians, chickens and goats are the perfect addition to a backyard farm,” Helmer writes, “but when the novelty of having a chirping chick wears off or adorable kids turn into grownup goats that eat the landscaping, the animals are often surrendered to rescue groups or abandoned.”
Animal rescue centers like Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary near Salem, Oregon; the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York; and Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis, Minnesota—who has experienced a 780 percent increase in rescue requests over the last five years—do their best to care for animals turned out by their owners, but resources are scarce. “Most urban shelters were not designed to house livestock,” Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tells Helmer, leaving them vulnerable to euthanasia.
Urban goat ownership will likely increase as cities like Minneapolis aim to overturn ordinances banning goats within city limits, joining towns including Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Charlottesville, Virginia.
Think it would be fun to have a goat in your very own backyard? Before buying, check out rent-a-goat services like City Grazing, profiled in the video below. Even better, call a local shelter to find out if a rescue goat could make your metropolitan farmstead its home.
Image by Martin Cathrae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Thursday, January 12, 2012 2:43 PM
What must it feel like to be an astronaut: weightless, rocketing farther and farther from home and country, gazing out your craft’s window at the deepness of space, wondering where you can get a good salad...
As astronauts set their sights on a not-so-distant mission to Mars, scientists are wondering what to put on spacecraft menus. Current packaged meal options, while far more advanced than the nutrition pills and pureed-food tubes of early space travel, aren’t practical for an extended trip, says Alexandra Witze in Science News. “Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the length of a Mars mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be launched.”
Homegrown space food could be the answer. Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are exploring ways for astronauts to raise their own vegetables in orbit, from radishes and lettuce to cherry tomatoes and mizuna greens. The plants, generating oxygen as well as food, are grown hydroponically, with blue, red, and green lights employed to aid production and special implements used to carry moisture to their roots.
But as with Sputnik 1, the Russians got here first. They’ve been growing food in space, on a small scale, for decades and have a miniature garden in their part of the International Space Station. Now, funding for research in the United States—which has been fickle over the years—is reinvigorated, thanks to the prospective trek to Mars.
Researchers suspect that space gardens won’t be the primary source of sustenance on galactic missions, but fresh-picked vegetables will be a welcome addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.
“Along with reducing trash and launch mass requirements, such crops would give astronauts a little diet variety and psychological lift,” writes Witze. After all, even astronauts love to eat local.
Source: Science News
Image by Tim Sackton, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 06, 2012 3:51 PM
Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.
Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:
Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.
Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.
The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”
Source: Discovery News, Discover
Thursday, December 29, 2011 10:12 AM
What do you get if you cross an apple tree with a littleleaf linden? The Guerrilla Grafters—a renegade urban gardening group in San Francisco—hope the result is a metropolitan food forest. The volunteer activists splice branches from fruit trees onto the non–fruit bearing trees that line their city streets in an effort to grow cherries, Asian pears, and other fresh produce for local residents, free of charge.
“We have tens of thousands of trees in San Francisco,” says Guerrilla Grafter Tara Hui, in a video shot by *faircompanies, “so that’s a huge resource that we could tap into to provide food.”
Not everyone is a fan of the project, reports Yi Chen on psfk: “In some states, it’s illegal to have fruit bearing trees on pedestrian footpaths as fallen fruits become a health and safety hazard, [and are] also believed to attract insects and rodents.” The Guerrilla Grafters, however, believe that enlisting community stewards to monitor the trees will prevent such problems.
To learn more about the project, and find out how you can replicate it in your city, visit the Guerrilla Grafters website and watch this video of Hui and Booka Alon as they lovingly check their grafts and seek out new fruit:
Sources: *faircompanies, psfk
Image by Muffet, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 11:45 AM
The decay of present-day Detroit has been well chronicled, and the new documentary film Urban Roots in its first minutes treads familiar ground as it unspools a now-familiar montage of crumbling warehouses and gutted bungalows in the ailing Motor City. But before you can hurl charges of “ruin porn,” the film shifts to its real focus: The gardeners who are turning the vacant lots of Detroit into fields of abundance. Let others focus on what’s dead and dying; this movie is about what’s growing here.
“Resilient” only begins to describe the determined, resourceful Detroiters who have seen jobs and neighbors disappear as the city depopulates. Instead of fleeing, they’ve stayed and begun growing vegetables. Lots of them. You may have heard or read about Detroit’s urban farmers, but Urban Roots really brings the movement alive by getting right down in the furrows with them.
The film, whose production team includes the producer of the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted green doc The 11th Hour, introduces us to the guys at Brother Nature Produce, who have carved out a small farm that supplies farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation. It shows us the Field of Dreams Mobile Market, which delivers fresh, local produce to sick or elderly people. A rap artist turned pepper picker finds “something positive” in his community garden work, and proud kids mug for the camera not with bling but with vegetables.
Yeah, Urban Roots is a feel-good movie, but in the best kind of way: The positive vibe is, to use the appropriate metaphors, organic instead of artificial, homegrown instead of Hollywood.
The only discordant note for me—and it’s a small one—is a futuristic illustrated montage at the film’s end showing skyscraping “vertical farms” and some ridiculous high-tech floating monstrosity called a “boat farm.” I understand the filmmakers are trying to think big here, but the basic economics of vertical farming are highly questionable at best, and anyway, this sort of large-infrastructure techno-fix is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself spirit exemplified by the citizen-farmers we’ve just met. They didn’t sit around hoping for some eco-designer to build them a 10-story steel-and-glass farm. They just went to the vacant lot next door and started digging. As one of the farmers says, “It’s an act of self-determination.”
Source: Urban Roots
Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.
Friday, October 21, 2011 3:17 PM
“Why would someone spend their limited leisure time shoveling horse-shit into a compost pile?” wonders Jason Mark, co-manager at San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, which hosts community workdays twice a week.
More and more, people are clamoring to join in the urban farming movement and get their hands dirty. There’s no doubt that urban gardening has graduated from fledgling trend to part of our cultural landscape, with vegetable gardens taking root everywhere from tiny backyards, to college campuses, to the White House grounds, to fire-escape terraces. Writing for Gastronomica, Mark lays out the motivations behind the movement and why public participation continues to rise:
The new agrarians are seeking a way to refashion the relationships—ecological, emotional—that have been eroded by work without meaning and food without substance. They are trying to accomplish a kind of restoration of the world…. The farm’s gift is the confirmation of our common need for sustenance, for cooperation, achievement, and creativity, and for a visceral connection to the biological systems on which we depend. The farm reminds us of how, when we join together in the spirit of collective action, we fulfill our individual selves.
Mark points to several specific, personal benefits of urban gardening. First, of course, there’s the food. (Who can’t appreciate the crunch of a Mokum carrot or the beauty in a row of ruffle-leaved lettuces?) But behind this real food lies the honest labor that results in real satisfaction, another key reward. Mark writes:
At the end of a workday, the most common sentiment I hear from volunteers is astonishment at how much they have done. They are delighted to witness the immediacy of their accomplishments. When the day started, the onions were a weedy, overgrown mess; by the close of the afternoon, the crop lines are clean and obvious. Most people’s regular jobs don’t provide such clear cause and effect.
Cultivating farmland where we can provides other simple gifts, too: an artistic outlet, an escape from a self-absorbed society, and a much-needed reconnection with nature—no matter how urban it might be. Mark says this of his beloved, if not bucolic, Alemany Farm:
This isn’t the backwoods of Yosemite. We grow food next to a 165-unit public-housing project. I will never forget one college student I spent an afternoon weeding with. I asked him why he came to the farm. “It’s just great to be out in nature,” he said. I almost dropped my hoe. Didn’t he hear the rush of freeway traffic seventy yards away?
(article not available online)
Image by clayworkshop, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:46 PM
Whatever you call it—“agricultural urbanism,” “new ruralism,” or one of the dozen other alternate labels—the concept of carefully planned agrarian suburbs sounds like utopia. Protecting land while permitting growth, “agriburbia” is a farm-friendly antidote to the eat-it-up philosophy of consumerist suburban sprawl.
When populations encroach into the countryside, we sacrifice more than pastoral vistas, says Jonathan Lerner in Miller-McCune.“The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities,” he explains.
In Fresno County, California—where the majority of farms are small, family-run enterprises and half are minority operated—the threat to the agrarian landscape that produces everything from plums to almonds is undeniable. “The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres,” Lerner writes. He continues:
[A] new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations….
Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.
This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What’s new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.
The agriburban plan being considered for Fresno, called the Southeast Growth Area (SEGA), would combine a vibrant residential community with agriculture in a 9,000-acre belt of land at the edge of the city. Gardens and orchards would grow throughout, and small commercial farms would border the eastern perimeter.
Agriculturally oriented subdivisions are springing up in other parts of the country, too: There’s Hampstead near Montgomery, Alabama; The Farmstead, outside Charlotte, North Carolina; and Pingree Grove, less than an hour from Chicago. With amenities including elaborate community gardens, local food farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and active community involvement, there are plenty of reasons to live there beyond land preservation.
“Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land,” Lerner writes. “New-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable.”
Image by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 09, 2011 4:21 PM
Farmers are often among the first people to notice a shift in the climate. So while I rely on scientists for my big-picture information about climate change, I also take seriously the cumulative daily—and yearly—field research of a trusted source: My local CSA (community supported agriculture) farmers, Michael Racette and Patty Wright of Spring Hill Community Farm in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. They are keen observers of wind, water, air, and soil, living so close to the land that they literally sink their hands into it every day.
Farming has of course always been an uncertain business, due to the naturally variable whims of weather, but lately it’s more uncertain than ever—some would even call it wildly unpredictable. Here’s what’s happening in the furrows as reported by Patty in this season’s Spring Hill newsletters:
Sometimes rain is a lovely thing, sometimes it’s not. Last Friday we had about half an inch of rain. It made harvest not very pleasant or pretty, but we appreciated it knowing we were in for a blast of heat over the next week. Then there was Saturday morning. Very early Saturday morning we woke up to thunder and lightning and heavy, heavy rains. When we went out to take a look there was over four inches of rain in the gauge. Our little stream had become something of a river and we were unable to cross it. Our plan to pick peas with the members who were to arrive shortly was curtailed when we sank up to our ankles in mud. Plans to pick cilantro were changed to basil from the hoophouse when we saw the flattened cilantro.
It’s been a big week at the farm, a big week of crazy weather and a big week of garlic harvest. After that most amazing four-inch-plus rain, we were blasted with heat. … We had hoped to finish [the garlic harvest] last Saturday but just as people arrived to help with the harvest day, so did the rain. We got over an inch that morning and then another inch and a quarter Saturday evening. Thankfully we’ve managed to escape damaging winds and hail and we all survived the brutal heat. I know there’s crazy weather every year but this year seems record breaking on way too many fronts.
Rain, heat, mosquitoes! The working conditions of late have not been ideal. We’ve gotten well over ten inches of rain over the last couple of weeks and it’s raining again as I write. The ground is saturated making it impossible to get in and do some of the work we’d like to be doing.
We are starting to see some of the effects of extended hot weather along with all the rain.
Last Tuesday, Mike and I went out to harvest the eggplant. We were able to pick about 75-80 nice eggplant—and that was it. There would be no eggplant for Saturday’s delivery and none in the foreseeable future. The plants have no more eggplant of any size. Peppers are equally puzzling. Some have a decent fruit set, others a couple of big ones and nothing else. Our poblano peppers have no fruit. While it’s true that peppers and eggplant both are heat loving plants, they’re rather particular about the temperature while they’re blossoming. In fact, they’ll drop their blossoms if the daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees and/or if nighttime temperatures are above 75 degrees. Beans, it turns out, are equally sensitive. Our first bean planting produced just fine. Our second planting, however, setting its blossoms during that heat spell, is not producing well at all. We’re taking a week (maybe two) off of beans. Hopefully we’ll have some after that. The bees, so important for pollination, also take a vacation when it gets hot. We’ve noticed the effects of that in our zucchini and cucumber patches. Potatoes, we’ve learned, go into a stage of dormancy when it gets too warm.
If this year is any indication, farming in this time of climate change is going to be challenging. While one certainly can’t plan for unpredictability, we’re trying to think about what we ought to be doing as extreme weather patterns become more common.
Source: Spring Hill Community Farm
, licensed under
Thursday, September 08, 2011 4:03 PM
An estimated 80 percent of the world’s population considers insects a commonplace food source, and soon—as eating meat becomes increasingly costly to wallets and the environment—bugs may hit Western dinner tables, too.
In the Netherlands, the company Bugs Originals recently developed pesto-flavored bug nuggets and chocolate-covered muesli bars made from crushed mealworms, the larvae of the darkling beetle, reports Daniel Fromson for The Atlantic. Bugs Originals has also been successful in selling freeze-dried locusts and mealworms to local outlets. Fromson writes:
The company’s goal is to get consumers to embrace bugs as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional meat. With worldwide demand for meat expected to nearly double by 2050, farm-raised crickets, locusts, and mealworms could provide comparable nutrition while using fewer natural resources than poultry or livestock. Crickets, for example, convert feed to body mass about twice as efficiently as pigs and five times as efficiently as cattle. Insects require less land and water—and measured per kilogram of edible mass, mealworms generate 10 to 100 times less greenhouse gas than pigs.
Here in the states, in an innovation and entrepreneurship competition this spring, the University of Chicago awarded $10,000 to student-conceived Entom Foods, reports Carrie Golus in The Core. The team, which won with their well-received grasshopper cookies, plans to start a for-profit business that produces insect meat as a sustainable food source. But implementation will require clearing some hurdles, Golus says:
For Western consumers, the team admitted in its proposal, “the multiple wings, the beady eyes, the slimy legs . . . all contribute to an overall ‘ick’ factor.” Entom’s brilliant solution: food processing. The shelling machines currently used for lobsters and other crustaceans could be adapted for insects, the team proposes. The wings, legs, eyes, and other gross parts would be whisked away, leaving the thorax meat, “which is nutritious and has the same consistency as more traditional meats.”
Entom has yet to decide which insect will be the focus of their venture. “One possibility is the long-horned grasshopper, which reportedly tastes like a hybrid of butter, bacon, and chicken,” Goluswrites. “Another is the giant prickly stick insect; at eight inches long, this creature could supply a lot of meat.”
But Entom is keeping American tastes in mind. “We’re obviously going to avoid the super-stigmatized insects, like cockroaches and flies,” team leader Matthew Krisiloff tells Golus. Those bugs “wouldn’t have substantive meat on them anyway.”
Sources: The Atlantic, The Core
Image by diverevan, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 18, 2011 5:28 PM
More than 270,000 organic farmers are taking on corporate agriculture giant Monsanto in a lawsuit filed March 30. Led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the family farmers are fighting for the right to keep a portion of the world food supply organic—and preemptively protecting themselves from accusations of stealing genetically modified seeds that drift on to their pristine crop fields.
Consumers are powerful. For more than a decade, a cultural shift has seen shoppers renounce the faster-fatter-bigger-cheaper mindset of factory farms, exposéd in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. From heirloom tomatoes to heritage chickens, we want our food slow, sustainable, and local—healthy for the earth, healthy for animals, and healthy for our bodies.
But with patented seeds infiltrating the environment so fully, organic itself is at risk. Monsanto’s widely used Genuity® Roundup Ready® canola seed has already turned heirloom canola oil into an extinct species. The suing farmers are seeking to prevent similar contamination of organic corn, soybeans, and a host of other crops. What’s more, they’re seeking to prevent Monsanto from accusing them of unlawfully using the very seeds they’re trying to avoid.
“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement,” says Public Patent Foundation director Dan Ravicher in a Cornucopia Institutearticle about the farmers’ lawsuit (May 30, 2011), “but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement.”
Even as the megacorporation enjoys soaring stock, the U.S. justice department continues to look into allegations of its fraudulent antitrust practices (The Street, June 29, 2011):
Monsanto, which has acquired more than 20 of the nation’s biggest seed producers and sellers over the last decade, has long pursued a strict policy with its customers, obligating them to buy its bioengineered seeds every year rather than use them in multiple planting seasons. Farmers who disobey are blacklisted forever.
It’s a wide net Monsanto has cast over the agricultural landscape. As Ravicher points out, “it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply.” Imagine a world devoid of naturally vigorous traditional crops and controlled by a single business with a appetite for intellectual property. Did anyone else feel a cold wind pass through them? Now imagine a world where thousands of family farmers fight the good fight to continue giving consumers a choice in their food—and win.
Source: Cornucopia Institute, The Street
Image by NatalieMaynor,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 03, 2011 3:54 PM
And you thought the stacks of vacuum-packed pork chops sold at Costco were creepy. At the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, scientists are growing meat in petri dishes, reports Nicola Jones in Conservation.
Utne Reader has been following the in-vitro meat discussion for several years and was interested to read Eindhoven University’s progress. There, researchers like Mark Post harvest myosatellite cells (stem cells responsible for muscle growth and repair) from living pigs, cows, sheep, turkeys, or chickens and turn them into thin strips of animal muscle, only about 200 micrometers thick, through a series of cell division and bundling.
Unsettling as the idea of manufactured meat sounds, the field’s leaders have the best intentions. Post hopes to end the “wasteful production of farm animals for food by helping to develop life-like steaks.” Like vegetarianism and veganism, the prospect could benefit the environment, Jones writes:
Largely because of the inefficiency of growing crops to feed livestock, a vegetarian diet requires only 35 percent as much water and 40 percent as much energy as that of a meat-eater. Future “in-vitrotarians” should be able to claim similar savings.
So, how does it taste? Don’t ask Post—he hasn’t eaten the pork grown in his lab. Jones explains:
The thing that enthusiasts for fake meat talk least about is its taste, perhaps because they haven’t tried it. In the U.S., researchers have largely avoided eating anything grown in the lab for fear of violating a Food and Drug Administration regulation . . . or of being seen as publicity hounds. Researchers generally believe that, if they can get the texture right, taste will follow—particularly once flavoring is added.
As far as [Post] knows, the only person who has swallowed a strip of the pale, limp muscle tissue is a Russian TV journalist who visited the lab this year to film its work. “He just took it with tweezers out of the culture dish and stuffed it in his mouth before I could say anything,” says Post.
Image by cbertel, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 25, 2011 4:48 PM
Some developers are starting to incorporate a new feature into neighborhoods: A food supply. Landscape Architecture magazine reports in its April issue on forward-looking urbanists who are situating working farms next to homes in mixed-use projects.
“Both development and agriculture are broken, and the answer to each is in the other,” architect Quint Redmond tells the magazine.
Community gardens are a familiar manifestation of residential-area agriculture, but many of the new designs are incorporating farms that are bigger and intended to meet more of the community’s nutritional needs.
In one setup, a neighborhood of small lots adjoins land set aside for conservation and agriculture. The land is owned by a nonprofit or homeowners’ association, and the farm management and/or operation is contracted to a professional farmer. Residents can get the produce through a market or by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Prairie Crossing near Chicago and Serenbe near Atlanta are two examples of this type of approach.
Other proposed communities are still on the drawing boards and attempting to attract support. One designed by Redmond’s firm TSR Group would turn 618 acres of current industrial farmland in Milliken, Colorado, into an “Agriburbia” community using almost half the land for commercial farming. Another 135 of the acres would go to acres to parks and natural habitat, and the rest would host 994 dwellings.
In Vancouver, a 536-acre proposed project, dubbed the Southlands, would host 2,000 housing units ranging from multifamily dwellings to single-family homes to small farmsteads and larger farms. All the residents in this “agrarian urbanism,” as New Urbanist planner Andres Duany has called it, would contribute, in their own way, to food production.
Landscape Architecture hints at some of the conflicts that that could arise in such communities, noting that residents would have to be willing to tolerate farm smells and noises. (I’d add my own caveat: Unless we’re talking organic, non-GMO agriculture, who wants to live near pesticide drift and genetic cross-contamination?) Other significant logistical challenges remain, including “the niggling problem of individualism” in proscribing private land use.
Some critics have larger conceptual problems with the whole enterprise. Duany’s “agrarian urbanist” vision for Southlands attracted some blowback even in the planning stages, having kicked up a spirited row in 2008 between him and Toronto Globe and Mail architecture critic Trevor Boddy in the pages of the design-architecture magazine Arcade. Boddy sees the Southlands development as simply a new way to justify unjustifiably large yards:
My own view is that history will regard the New Urbanism as a last gasp attempt to reform suburbanism from within, before high energy prices and new respect for land compels much denser development.
Boddy’s sharp attack aside, it remains to be seen whether something good can grow from these farm-and-live arrangements, which get down to the basic and long-lived question of how we should organize society. It seems it can’t hurt to start trying something other than big highways, big cars, and big stores.
Sources: Landscape Architecture
(article not available online), Agriburbia, Arcade
, licensed under
Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:17 PM
Food is infused with politics these days, so foodie columnist Mark Bittman is getting out of the kitchen and into the fray. Bittman announced this week in his popular Minimalist column and blog for the New York Times’ Dining section that he’s shifting gears because of a shift in consciousness:
My growing conviction that the meat-heavy American diet and our increasing dependence on prepared and processed foods is detrimental not only to our personal health but to that of the planet has had an impact on my life and on that of the column. You can see this in dishes like stir-fried lettuce with shrimp, chickpea tagine with chicken, a number of bean dishes and the dozens of other meatless or less-meat recipes that have become dominant in the last five years.
In part, what I see as the continuing attack on good, sound eating and traditional farming in the United States is a political issue. I’ll be writing regularly about this in the opinion pages of The Times, and in a blog that begins next week. That’s one place to look for me from now on. The other is in The Times Magazine, where I’ll be writing a recipe column most Sundays beginning in March.
Here at Utne Reader, we’re quite familiar with the politics of food, having watched the organic, local, and sustainable food movements grow from infancy into cultural phenomena that are making us rethink the American diet. Last year, our “Food Fight” package of stories was one of our most-read cover sections. So we’ll be following Bittman’s coverage in his new role, and likely following his lead on important stories and analysis.
In the meantime, Bittman’s regular readers are distressed that their guru is changing forums. Bittman is more socially and politically aware than most foodies, and vegetarians, vegans, and conscientious carnivores can count on him for recipes that don’t always rely on butterfat, foie gras, and veal for their kicks. In my own household, with two vegetarians and three flexitarians, his cookbooks (especially How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) and recipes have been the foundation of many a meal.
Readers who have followed Bittman’s every sauté, braise, and glaze reduction are sending in their kudos to his final column, making it feel something like a eulogy. But he’ll still be cranking out recipes, and anyway, as one reader points out, “But we’ll always have the cookbooks. And you’ll have the royalties.”
Source: The Minimalist
, licensed under
Friday, December 17, 2010 4:33 PM
The backyard chicken boom is teaching a lot of urban dwellers about life on the farm—but it’s death that is proving to be the harder lesson for some of them. In “When Backyard Chickens Become Pets,” Meatpaper’s Kassandra Griffin describes the mortal dilemmas that take many a new chicken owner by surprise.
For one thing, predators from hawks to raccoons can break into coops and massacre chickens. For another, hens stop laying eggs when they reach a certain age, and then some hard choices must be made unless one wants to oversee an ever-growing geriatric chicken population.
Griffin interviews a Portland woman who began raising chickens and grew close to a hen named Lucky that no longer lays eggs—but slaughtering Lucky is a no-go. “They’ve been very easy pets to have,” she says. “It’s just heartbreaking when they get killed. I can’t imagine killing one myself, especially not to eat.” Writes Griffin:
In that, she illustrates a new urban problem: People want to get closer to their food, but often that means getting closer to eggs, but not to meat—few want to eat an animal they know by name. When older hens stop laying, the owner runs out of eggs, which were the presumed point of having the chicken in the first place.
Griffin goes on to interview less squeamish chicken owners who’ve made meals of past-their-prime birds. Says one, “I feel kind of sad about the chickens but not sad enough to eat them.”
(article not available online)
, licensed under
Monday, November 22, 2010 12:27 PM
A run-in with Roundup herbicide was a transformative episode in farmer Eric Herm’s shift toward sustainable agriculture. A fourth-generation farmer, Herm tells the tale in the book Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth: A Path to Agriculture’s Higher Consciousness (Dream River Press):
In May of 2009, my neighbor had his Roundup Ready cotton sprayed by Helena Chemical Company less than 40 yards from my home garden. The Roundup herbicide drifted and wiped out over 800 garlic bulbs, and all of my tomato, pepper, potato, bean, and corn plants. Within 48 hours every single plant in my garden curled up into a fetal position. Leaves curled upward, cupped around the edges, and plants showed visible signs of suffering. For three or four days I couldn’t figure out what had happened until I discovered my neighbor had sprayed Roundup a few days previous. I flew into a rage yet maintained my cool talking to Helena company officials. They were very courteous yet proceeded to blame a plane spraying half a mile away to the southwest.
Herm had tissue from his dead crops tested, and the results came back positive for glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup. Still, the local Helena Chemical Company store manager insisted that his product wasn’t to blame.
That’s how these chemical companies work. Did I receive the $4,000 in damages? Take a wild guess. They put their lawyer against yours, and these chemical companies have a lot more money to spend on attorney fees than an individual farmer. Thanks to my neighbor and Helena Chemical Company, I lost an entire season of garlic, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn as months of hard work spiraled down the drain.
Tomato, people, onion, garlic, and potato plants are extremely sensitive to Roundup. One whiff and their leaves curl upward and they are unable to produce healthy, normal-sized fruit. Very frustrating when you begin an entire garden from seed. Money cannot replace healthy food. … As long as we continue to think Roundup Ready crops are the only answer, agriculture is doomed.
Herm’s writing has a folksy, ticked-off tone, kind of a Jim Hightower with a stronger streak of rural individualism, a distrust of big government, and a dash of new age spirituality. But his overall message is positive and forward thinking: Our industrial, chemical-intensive farming practices are destroying the land and harming our health and security, and we must change them:
“It is up to you and me—us. We the people,” he writes. “If not us, if not now … well, then we are all really in trouble.”
Source: Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth
Monday, October 18, 2010 4:50 PM
Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit:
• Oil giants spent $880 million over the last decade to support energy research at 10 large universities, according to a report covered by Kate Sheppard on the Mother Jones website. The report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “Big Oil Goes to College,” concludes that these ties constitute a threat to academic independence and good science.
• Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).
• The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently reported on an incident in which Big Ag seemed to be calling shots at the University of Iowa: A shoo-in candidate for a sustainability program position was brushed off after he suggested that cows eat grass—not a message that sits well with the factory-farm titans who are entwined with the university.
• Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.
It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.
Sources: Mother Jones, Chronicle of Higher Education, Civil Eats, Grist, Huffington Post, Twin Cities Daily Planet
Image by minnemom, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:15 PM
Europe may soon build its first mega-dairy, an 8,000-cow facility being considered for Nocton, England. To get a glimpse of what’s coming their way, some intrepid reporters for Britain’s Ecologist went to the heart of mega-dairy country, visiting California’s Central Valley to see how the biggest industrial operations do their business. It’s not exactly pretty, they learned. Read their story about their foray into the large-scale dairy industry and watch their eye-opening video report, “Sour Milk,” here:
Source: The Ecologist
Friday, August 13, 2010 5:09 PM
One of the coolest programs of Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project is its Farm Beginnings program, a “farmer-led educational training and support program who want to evaluate and plan their farm enterprise.” Check it out in action: There’s a great profile on the organization’s website of two Farm Beginnings participants and their fledgling fruit farm, originally published in the most recent issue of the Land Stewardship Letter. It’s compelling reading for any urban-bound individual who has ever dreamt of someday heading back to the land.
Source: Land Stewardship Letter
Image by Nicholas_T, license under Creative Commons.
Monday, August 09, 2010 3:19 PM
Cows eat grass. You wouldn’t think it’s a big deal to state this, but at Iowa State University a highly qualified job applicant who had the temerity to voice this simple biological fact was ejected from consideration for a post leading a sustainable agriculture program, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
Among those who study sustainability, saying cows should eat grass is not a controversial statement. But saying so in Iowa—which grows more corn than any other state—is likely to attract attention.
Well, it sure did. Ricardo Salvador is a well-respected sustainable agriculture expert and a former professor at Iowa State—and a natural, many observers thought, to lead the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture as its new director. A finalist for the position, however, he didn’t get the post even when the top candidate turned it down. Apparently, his cow comment came back to haunt him:
The remark that may have sunk Mr. Salvador’s candidacy came 37 minutes into his on-campus presentation. While discussing a research project in New York State, he mentioned meat being “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on land suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”
If this were a TV game show, a loud buzzer would have gone off and Mr. Salvador would have been escorted from the stage that very moment. Because apparently he was supposed to say that cows should eat corn. Even if that’s not natural or sustainable, it’s simply how things are done in Iowa, a state built on big agriculture:
Corn allows cows to get fatter faster and be ready for slaughter sooner. But there are downsides, including the fact that cows have trouble digesting corn and must be fed antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill. What’s more, the beef from corn-fed cows tends to have more fat.
The danger of the truth is so great that the Chronicle couldn’t even get Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of Iowa State’s agriculture school, to go anywhere near it. When asked whether cows evolved to eat grass, she replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.”
Sheesh. Consider, for a moment, the man that the Leopold Center is named for, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold. In 1939, in the essay “A Biotic View of Land,” he wrote:
Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains. The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains.
Sorry, Mr. Leopold, but I’m going to cut you off right there before you say anything more inflammatory. Some university officials are not going to be happy about this.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required to read full article)
Image by twicepix, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010 1:23 PM
Some types of environmental action are pretty easy: Compost your food scraps, ride a bike, skip the factory-farmed meat. Others are very hard and in fact potentially life-threatening, such as fighting against gigantic animal feedlots in your own backyard. Rural Michigan resident Lynn Henning is a winner of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize for her brave campaign against concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, a battle that according to the Christian Science Monitor has sometimes been pretty scary:
Henning matter-of-factly recounts a list of harassments and lawsuits against her that stretches back for years: Being chased by manure tankers down the road; having dead animals left in her driveway and car; and having her mailbox blown up.
On Dec. 30, someone shot out the window of her granddaughter’s bedroom with buckshot. The 2-year-old was in the room at the time.
Henning started going up against local mega-feedlots after they began concentrating in the area where she and her husband run an 80-acre farm. There are now 20,000 cows within a 10-miles radius of her home, and every year 20,000 hogs cycle through the area. The impact on air and water quality from the massive manure output has often been overwhelming—literally, if you’re talking about the stench. Henning believes that some of her relatives got hydrogen-sulfide poisoning from the toxic stew.
Learn more about Henning and her campaign in this video:
Source: Christian Science Monitor
Image by Tom Dusenberry, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.
Thursday, May 06, 2010 4:14 PM
So many American farmers are spraying Roundup weedkiller on their fields that they may be effectively creating a monster, the New York Times reports:
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of … Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them … farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
The superweed revolution appears to threaten what the Times calls the “Roundup revolution” in which many farmers combine Roundup and genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. These crops stand up to the weedkiller while most of the surrounding weeds perish—or that’s the idea, anyway. Some farmers told the paper that they’re spraying more herbicide and giving up minimum-till farming, which reduces erosion and chemical runoff.
If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.
It’s notable that just last week, Roundup maker Monsanto was defending itself at the Supreme Court in a case that involved the weedkiller’s environmental effects. On April 27, SustainableBusiness.com reported:
Today the Center for Food Safety faces off against Monsanto in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of farmers and public interest environmental organizations. Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms is the first case involving genetically engineered crops that has ever been heard by the Supreme Court.
Lower courts agreed that the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa must be stopped because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had failed to analyze the crop’s impacts on farmers and the environment. Although it remains undisputed that USDA violated environmental laws, and that it must rigorously analyze the genetically engineered crop’s impacts before deciding whether or not to approve it for sale, Monsanto is arguing that the lower courts should have allowed the planting of the illegal crop to go forward in the interim.
Presciently, the threat of the Roundup-resistant weeds covered in the New York Times came up in an amicus brief filed in the case by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity:
In this case, the significant environmental risks that warrant preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, and that also implicate respondents’ interests in particular, involve not only whether Roundup Ready Alfalfa would further contaminate conventional alfalfa (as it already has), but also the risk that large-scale use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of the Roundup pesticide, which, among other impacts, may result “in the development of Roundup-tolerant weeds.”
Source: New York Times, SustainableBusiness.com, The Center for Food Safety
John D. Byrd
, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 06, 2010 1:56 PM
Human Rights Watch has launched a campaign to end child labor in US agriculture. "Children can legally work on any farm at age 12, with their parents’ permission, and it's not uncommon to see children as young as 7 and 8 in the fields," according to a new Human Rights Watch report, Fields of Peril. "During peak harvest season, the children work up to 14-hour days, and earn far less than minimum wage. There is no minimum age for children working on a small farm with parental permission."
The organization has produced a short video on the issue. Pass it around!
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 10:29 AM
Face it, Earth Day is kind of daunting, and I think that’s one reason it isn’t as widely or exuberantly celebrated as some environmentalists wish. Merely acknowledging the tenuousness of our existence on this planet makes us confront fundamental issues of mortality and sustainability and the possible end of the world as we know it. That’s not nearly as fun as the mindless consumptive revelry of birthdays, Christmas, or Halloween.
So my concept for this Earth Day—Thursday—is to keep things simple. I’m going to celebrate the beauty and power of dirt. My inspiration for this personal back-to-the-roots movement is Dirt! The Movie, a documentary that premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens series tonight, April 20, and also recently became available on DVD from New Video.
Of course, dirt might seem like the most boring and mundane film topic you could imagine, and indeed, a procession of soil scientist interviews would send many viewers fleeing. So Dirt!—starting with the exclamation point, it seems—goes out of its way to inject humor and visual effects, with microorganism cartoons and goofy interludes that will keep even younger kids interested. Beginning with the Big Bang and bringing us right up to modern agriculture, mining, and other earth-intensive human pursuits, it does a wonderful job of showing and telling us that “the living, breathing skin of the earth” is a fantastic and fragile resource.
The film takes a turn toward gooey eco-earnestness near the end, and cynics may groan as Kenyan “Green Belt” activist Wangari Maathai tells the tale of one brave little hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire drop by drop. But I won’t be joining them. If there’s one time when I’m willing to suspend pessimism and cheer on the treehuggers, it’s for Earth Day.
Sources: PBS Independent Lens, New Video
Thursday, April 15, 2010 5:27 PM
Many veggie burgers are made using hexane, a pollutant and neurotoxin also found in gasoline, Mother Jones reports, citing a recent study by the Cornucopia Institute. Writes Kiera Butler:
In order to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers, manufacturers of soy-based fake meat like to make their products have as little fat as possible. The cheapest way to do this is by submerging soybeans in a bath of hexane to separate the oil from the protein. Says Cornucopia Institute senior researcher Charlotte Vallaeys, “If a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein, you can be pretty sure it was made using soy beans that were made with hexane.”
These veggie burgers are made with hexane:
Boca Burger (conventional)
It’s All Good Lightlife
Yves Veggie Cuisin
While these veggie burgers are hexane-free:
Boca Burgers “made with organic soy”
Morningstar “made with organic”
Superburgers by Turtle Island
The Mother Jones blog post kicked up a lot of comments and questions and led Butler to do a follow-up interview with Vallaeys. The researcher points out that the hexane process is used to make many cooking oils, margarines, and other products. A key question of course, is whether residues from the hexane remain in the food—and Vallaeys concedes that more testing is needed in this realm.
But personally, I don’t need any more testing to convince me that using a gasoline ingredient to soak the fat out of vegetables is a bad idea, and to cut foods that use this process from my diet.
See the full report (pdf) on the Cornucopia website.
While the rest of us are freaking out about our veggie burgers, we might do well to get outraged on behalf of babies, too. Writes Butler:
More worrisome still: According to the report, “Nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted.”
Sources: Mother Jones, Cornucopia Institute
Tuesday, August 04, 2009 10:43 AM
A Wisconsin farmer has figured out a way to turn cow manure into water that “tastes just like the kind you get at the grocery store.” John Vrieze and his son have developed an innovative four-part filtration system that effectively converts the manure from his 1,200 cows to potable drinking water and highly enriched fertilizer. Vrieze’s son tells Wisconsin People & Ideas that although the technology is not new (it’s typically used in food processing and water treatment plants), “its use in a dairy farm is unprecedented.” The downside? The equipment requires an awful lot of fuel. With rising fuel costs the economy in shambles, Vrieze has been forced to revert to “conventional manure management” for the moment.
Source: Wisconsin People & Ideas
Image by Svadilfari, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 15, 2009 5:48 PM
More than a few daydreaming co-op shoppers have entertained the notion: When we get fed up with the rat race, we’ll move to a sweet patch of land in the country and start up a small organic farm. After all, people are paying good money for organics, and the market share for this segment is growing every year—what a great cottage industry for a newly minted back-to-the-lander.
Hold on just a minute there. Before anyone gets too far into their modern agrarian fantasy, they should seek out the May-June issue of In Good Tilth magazine (not available online) and read all about the nitty-gritty details of organic farming. In a series of articles grouped under the cover headline “Fresh Young Farmers,” the magazine profiles people who’ve actually put their hoes to the humus and arrives at an inescapable conclusion: It’s really, really hard work—but it’s also very rewarding for those who’ve got the right stuff.
In the leadoff article, “Want to Farm?” Katie Kulla, who runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Oregon with her husband Casey, writes that “going from the early dream to today’s farming reality has required more work, money, and time than we ever anticipated.” In the spirit of helping others follow their path with fewer obstacles, she offers advice that she wishes she and Casey had gotten before they started: “Pay off debt and start saving money,” “Get in the best physical shape of your life,” “Learn about the reality of farming,” “Know yourself (and your partner),” “Set goals and persevere,” and “Stay open.” Having doled out these hard truths, Kulla offers encouragement by noting that “our life is richer and fuller than I thought possible.” (Read more about that life on their farm blog.)
In “Cross-Roads Generation,” Erin Volheim writes about an influx of young farmers in the Applegate Valley area of southwest Oregon who “wanted something different for the future, beyond the McJob,” and started farms in the 1990s. These Generation Xers had to learn a lot on their own, but they persevered and now are positioned to provide help and advice for the next crew: Generation Y, or the Millennials. As one of them, “Mookie” Moss, says, “The longer you farm, the more you learn from this dialogue with the land.”
In “No Stone Unturned,” newbie farmer Zoe Bradbury writes that “anyone who has the passion for farming should have a fair shot at it.” She guides prospective farmers through some of the resources available to them, noting that she didn’t always take full advantage of them. Still, her story is instructive: “Considering that I was relatively well prepared to take the leap into independent farming, it was still a tough go,” she writes.
So go ahead and dream—but make sure you do your homework before you buy the farm.
Sources: In Good Tilth, Oakhill Organics
Image by jessicareeder, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 05, 2009 5:30 PM
What’s the thirstiest industry in the United States? If you thought of agriculture, you’re spot on. But coming in second—guzzling 40 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawals—is a surprisingly different undertaking: electricity.
Environmentally motivated researchers and policymakers are just beginning to grasp the importance of illuminating the complex relationship between water and energy, Sustainable Industries reports. The clock is ticking. By 2025, the United Nations forecasts half the world will meet with freshwater shortages. By 2050, upgrade that pinch to scarcity spanning three-quarters of the planet. And, oh, wouldn’t you know: All forms of energy production require water (and on the flip side, heating, treating, and distributing water requires energy too).
“Increased implementation of renewable power sources is key to securing future water supplies, but when it comes to water use, not all renewables are created equal,” writes Sara Stroud, SI’s Bay Area correspondent.
Wind and solar photovoltics are among the lesser offenders; they require only one gallon of water for each megawatt hour of electricity produced (excluding water used in manufacturing). (A megawatt is one million watts, and one megawatt hour could power 400-900 homes for that hour.) Compare that to corn-derived ethanol, which sucks anywhere from 5 to 2,000 liters of water for each liter of fuel. That higher number comes courtesy of agriculture undertaken in arid states, like California and Colorado.
“Federal incentives happened so quickly without evaluating consequences,” Dulce Fernandes of Network for New Energy Choices told SI. “If we are investing in alternatives, we have to get it right.”
Source: Sustainable Industries
Friday, May 22, 2009 3:57 PM
When an author comes out with a book called The Vegetarian Myth (Flashpoint Press), as Lierre Keith has, you know she’s not treading lightly, and the book is every bit as hell-raising as its name suggests. Keith comes from an ex-vegan perspective in this takedown of vegetarianism and veganism, and she acknowledges right away that she’s in for some pushback:
It’s not just the amount of information that makes the discussion hard. Often the listener doesn’t want to hear it, and the resistance can be extreme. “Vegetarian” isn’t just what you eat or even what you believe. It’s who you are, and it’s a totalizing identity. In presenting a fuller picture of food politics, I’m not just questioning a philosophy or a set of dietary habits. I’m threatening a vegetarian’s sense of self. And most of you will react with defensiveness and anger. I got hate mail before I’d barely started this book. And no, thank you, I don’t need any more.
Keith goes on to make her case, which basically is this: 1) Vegetarianism will damage your body. It damaged mine. 2) Our bodies are made to eat meat. 3) Converting to a vegetarian or vegan diet isn’t healing the planet if all you’re doing is eating veggies, fruit, and annual grains grown by large and distant megafarms, as most food is—even the stuff at the “natural” food store.
She is ultimately a radical environmentalist, which isn’t surprising since the book is published by Flashpoint, the imprint run by radical green author Derrick Jensen, who is quoted on the jacket front saying, “This book saved my life.” Keith suggests that as important as food choices are, bigger steps are needed to stave off environmental collapse. Namely, refrain from having children; stop driving a car; and grow your own food.
Oh, and by the way:
“Agriculture has to stop. It’s about to run out anyway—of soil, of water, of ecosystems—but it would go easier on us all if we faced that collectively, and then developed cultural constraints that would stop us from ever doing it again.
“Where I live, the wetlands need to return to cover the land in a soft, slow blanket of water. … The rivers need to be undimmed. And the suburbs and roads need to be abandoned. I have no great solution for how to make that economically feasible: I sincerely doubt it’s possible. I only know it has to happen, no matter how much we resist.”
Source: Flashpoint Press
Friday, January 09, 2009 10:10 AM
Some forward-thinking Wisconsin HMOs are encouraging their members to eat healthy with financial incentives. Four Madison-based HMOs have teamed up with the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) to offer rebates to insurance policy holders who purchase shares in CSA farms,which supply members with fresh produce all summer long.
Like HMO-sponsored discounts on gym memberships, the Eat Healthy Rebate recognizes that it costs insurance companies less money when policy holders make healthful lifestyle choices. (The rebate applies only to produce shares, not meat or dairy). In the program’s first year, more than 970 people applied for the rebate, and nearly half of them had never joined a CSA farm before.
Now if Wisconsin’s farmers could just get affordable health insurance.
(Thanks, Madison Commons.)
Image by youngthousands, licensed under Creative Commons.
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