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ACTION ALERT: DON’T LET CONSERVATION BUY THE FARM

I have a not-very-taxing question for all you tax payers out there:

Would you like to see your hard-earned dollars used to conserve precious wetlands and vital habitats, or would you prefer to see that money used to build football field-sized pools of pigshit generated by industrial pork producers?

The "manure lagoons" that surround Smithfield slaughterhouses like methane-filled moats emit a deadly and brain-damaging gas called hydrogen sulfide, so for the people who live downwind from them the question is, presumably, a no-brainer.

But what about the 90% of Americans who don't live on or near a farm? Would we rather see our agricultural policies promote conservation, or help fund factory farm cesspools that spew lethal levels of contaminants into air, soil and water with that legendary agribiz efficiency?

Congressman Collin Peterson, Democrat from Minnesota and Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee, thinks we'd rather put our money into pollution than preservation.

So he's submitted a 2007 Farm Bill Proposal that would take funds away from the conservation programs that provide, among other things, aid to sustainable and organic farms, and use it instead to help corporate owned CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) offset the cost of creating more manure lagoons.

I know, I know, you're thinking, sheesh, like Smithfield needs a handout?

But, actually, it turns out that they do, because, as Jeff Teitz noted in a scathing expose for Rolling Stone about Smithfield's execrable handling of its excrement, "There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company."

And that's the largest, most profitable pork producer in the world we're talking about. You would think they could afford to deal responsibly with the vast pits of toxic waste that are a by-product of industrial pork production methods. But you'd be wrong, according to Tietz:

Hogs produce three times more excrement than human beings do. The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums. Even when divided among the many small pig production units that surround the company's slaughterhouses, that is not a containable amount.

Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do -- even if it came marginally close to that standard -- it would lose money.

So obviously Smithfield needs a hand from Uncle Sam.

But what about all those forward-thinking farmers looking to be better stewards of the land? Don't they need assistance, too?

"In 2004, three out of every four farmers and ranchers applying to participate in Farm Bill conservation programs were rejected due to lack of funds," as Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Dan Imhoff, author of Food Fight, the delightfully digestible, if disturbing, guide to the Farm Bill that's chock full of shocking charts and statistics. Read it or you'll get no dessert. Or should I say, if you don't read it, and don't lobby your legislators to better this bill, you'll get your just desserts.

Notes Imhoff, "In dollar terms, eight and a half out of every ten dollars requested were denied due to the funding shortfall. In fact, the 2004 backlog for conservation dollars exceeds the total funding available in 2005 by a three-to-one margin."

Despite being chronically underfunded, the Farm Bill's conservation programs have managed to restore nearly two million acres of wetlands and reverse the decline of waterfowl whose habitat gets destroyed when farmers drain wetlands to plant commodity crops.

More farmers clamor every year to board the sustainability bandwagon, but Congressman Peterson's decided we can't give them a lift. His proposal guts the Conservation Security Program and shifts those funds to the already amply funded Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which goes in part to help defray the costs incurred by CAFOs.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee's set to vote on Congressman Peterson's proposal tomorrow, Tuesday, May 22nd.

So if you'd like to see your tax dollars help underwrite the costs of more disease and death caused by CAFO-contaminated waterways, air, and soil; antibiotics rendered less effective in people by their overuse in chronically sick livestock made ill by horrendous living conditions; the millions of fish killed every time the manure lagoons burst and spill tons of toxic manure into our rivers (which they do regularly, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council); and millions more fish who die because of oxygen-gobbling "dead zones" that spread algae blooms thousands of miles along our coasts, fed by nutrients in animal waste, well, then, just sit back and let congress take its course.

If, like me, you think it makes more sense to encourage sustainable farming and conservation instead of funding more factory farms, you have only one day--today, May 21st--to ask your representative to, you know, represent you.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

Gnome Chompsky’s sick of standing around waiting for us to plant all those seeds we ordered from Fedco. So he went off to the Greenmarket and bought a whole bunch of seedlings from his favorite farmer, Trina Pilonero from Silver Heights Farm.

Silver Heights is dedicated to the preservation of heirloom plants, so Trina sells an amazing array of rare and exotic vegetable varieties, all certified organic and open pollinated. Trina sold us some incredible squash seedlings last year, including the swanlike Trombocini and the gorgeous Australian Queensland Blue, which yielded a 12 pound beauty we displayed like proud parents all winter before we finally started to eat it, and eat it, and eat it.

We had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Kingsolver read from her year-of-eating-locally memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a couple of weeks ago, and when she took questions from the audience, a woman asked “How can city dwellers living in tiny apartments eat local in the winter when we haven’t got the space to stockpile root vegetables the way you do?”

I desperately wanted to jump up and say “buy a Queensland Blue squash!” because, aside from being beautiful and tasty, it keeps in an overheated city apartment for months on end and then provides enough squash for a dozen dishes.

But, of course, I didn’t, because (a) that would have seemed really weird, and (b) where can you buy a Queensland Blue, anyway, even if you knew to ask for it?

But the real question is, why don’t more farmers grow such a fantastic variety of winter squash? Is it because the average Queensland Blue vine yields a grand total of two squash?

Productivity is the priority for commercial growers, not how well a vegetable keeps or how good it tastes. But this focus on production keeps most Americans from ever discovering a keeper like Queensland Blue. Mention the word “biodiversity,” and you’ll get blank stares, or maybe a diatribe about how affirmative action robs white people of the jobs or the college degrees that are their birthright.

Thanks to Trina, though, we are among the lucky few who ever get to eat a Queensland Blue. You’ll have better luck finding the tasty and tender Trombocini, a favorite of our local farmers because, zucchini that it is, it flowers so prolifically that by the end of last summer our yard was covered in swan-shaped squashes that grew to baseball bat-size because we couldn’t pick them fast enough.

This year, courtesy of Gnome Chompsky, we’re growing Purple Peacock Broccoli, a cross between broccoli and kale that reportedly produces prodigious side shoots as well as sweet, tasty leaves you can steam or eat in a salad. Gnome also brought home a flat of wacky, Dr. Suess-like Romanesco, a weird, whorly chartreuse crucifer that’s either a kind of broccoli or a cauliflower, depending on whom you ask.

Whatever you call it, Romanesco is a space hog, requiring a minimum of 9 square feet per plant. We don’t begin to have that kind of space in our garden, but that’s Gnome Chompsky for you—short of stature, long on ambition. That’s the price you pay for abdicating your seedling selection to a metal-headed dwarf.

COOK AWHILE IN MY SHOES: FLIRTING WITH FOOD STAMPS

Hunger activists challenged New Yorkers yesterday to try spending only $3.50 on food, just for one day, to get a taste of what life is like for folks who actually have to rely on food stamps.

It’s the latest installment of Let’s Make a Meal, the “paltry pantry” game that started last month when the governors of Oregon and Utah took a “food stamp challenge” and tried to eat on a meager $3 a day, which the average food stamp recipient does by necessity, as opposed to novelty.

The concept caught on with other public servants, who took the challenge and found it hard to eat healthy on a dollar-a-meal diet. Or even eat at all; Eric Gioia, a New York City councilman, ran out of money before the week was up and had to turn to a food pantry. As he told NY1 news, “This is why by the third and fourth weeks of the month the soup kitchens and food pantries are literally bursting at the seams.”

The number of American households experiencing hunger—or, as the USDA’s rebranded it, “food insecurity”—has been climbing steadily each year while wages erode, health care costs explode, and more people fall into the poverty pit. For these unfortunate folks, food stamps could be a lifeline, but of the 40 million or so Americans eligible for food stamps, only 60 to 70% apply. A bitter blend of bureaucracy, stigma and ignorance keeps others from availing themselves of this modest aid.

Not that $3 a day goes very far, anyway; you’ve got to get the maximum calories for the minimum price, which means filling up on cheap fats and carbs like peanut butter and ramen noodles. Fresh fruits and vegetables? Might as well be caviar. We subsidize commodity crops like corn and soybeans, keeping the price of nutritionally bankrupt processed foods artificially low, while doing nothing for the “specialty crops,” which is what the USDA calls the fruits and vegetables it tells us we’re supposed to eat five to nine servings of each day. Isn’t that special?

For most of us non-rural types, the words “Farm Bill” go in one ear and out the other, leaving sepia snapshots of wizened guys in overalls in our heads. But food activists are trying to sweep those bits of straw from our brains and train us to think of this massive and momentous piece of legislation as the Food and Farm Bill, because more than half the nearly 90 billion dollars allocated every year for the Farm Bill pays for things like school lunches, food stamps, and WIC, the nutrition program for women, infants and children.

The value of the food stamp program erodes each year because it’s not indexed to inflation. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has introduced an alternative to the Farm Bill that would peg the food stamp allocations to inflation, but it won’t compensate for the declines of the past decade. And the Bush administration is looking to reduce the number of Americans who qualify for food stamps at a time when more people than ever are suffering from “very low food security.”

Could I live on peanut butter and ramen noodles? Mmm, that reminds me of a great recipe for sesame-peanut noodles in The Food You Want to Eat, the cookbook from Queer Eye’s culinary guy, Ted Allen.

You just need a quarter cup of peanut butter and a pound of ramen noodles. Oh, and some sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, peanuts, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, mirin or sherry, a few cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, an English cucumber, fresh cilantro, and scallions.

Yum! I can do this $3 a day thing! I’ll just have to skip the seasonings, the seeds, the nuts, the cucumber, the scallions and the cilantro, not to mention the mirin or sherry. Hhmmm. Might be too minimal even for Mark Bittman.

I’m glad politicians are volunteering to venture beyond the Land of Milk and Honey to get a firsthand look at the food deserts so many Americans never see, even if it’s only for a day or a week. Our awful agricultural policies have created a food chain that makes it possible, for the first time in history, for poor people to be both malnourished and obese. That’s quite an achievement, and one for which we’re all poorer, if you don’t count companies like Cargill and ADM.

Well, at least Agribiz plows some of its profits into PBS and NPR. That’s about the only by-product of industrial agriculture that contains any redeeming nutritional value.

THE REAL QUEEN OF QUICK

Eat your heart out, Rachel Ray; your 30 Minute Meals can’t hold a candle to Lorna Sass’s Two-Hour Taste in Ten Minutes. Sass, the pressure cooker expert and “grain goddess,” just won a prestigious James Beard Foundation award in the “healthy focus” category for her latest cookbook, Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way, and deservedly so. It’s the perfect primer for anyone who wants to make easy, tasty meals with the whole grains we know we’re supposed to be eating, as well as the grains most Americans have never even met, from amaranth to teff.

“It is hard to escape the message that whole grains are good for you,” Eric Nagourney noted in Tuesday’s NY Times. “But few Americans put it into practice.”

Well, sure, who’s got time to cook up a batch of barley or buckwheat when we’re so on-the-go that we’re too busy to even sit down and eat a bowl of cereal? We need a breakfast food that we can clutch in one hand while the other grasps the steering wheel, or the briefcase. Something like, say, Jimmy Dean’s Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick, with Chocolate Chips, so ingenuous it won a place in Jon Stewart’s “Pantry of Fame:”

“The Jimmy Dean Pancakes & Sausage on a stick! On a stick! Finally, the classic taste of chocolate chip pancake-wrapped sausage with the convenience of a stick…

…America, continuing to push the envelope of what can technically be defined as food. Are you listening, Al Qaeda? You can’t take us down as fast as these will!“

Stewart is so right: who needs suicide bombers when we’re perfectly capable of blowing ourselves up with cholesterol-coated crap-on-a-stick?

Ironically, it’s the fear of blowing ourselves up that makes most Americans regard pressure cookers as some kind of culinary IED, liable to explode without warning. We’ve all heard the horror stories of grandma’s pressure cooker blowing its top unprovoked, spattering Ralph Steadmanesque flecks of food from floor to ceiling.

But today’s pressure cooker is not only perfectly safe to use, it’s the one appliance that literally has the potential to change, and even save, lives. It gives you a quick, easy way to make all those heart-healthy grains and beans, and you can make an astonishing variety of soups and stews in a matter of minutes.

As yesterday’s NY Times article on grains points out, “a better diet can lead directly to better health…researchers say they have confirmed a clear connection between whole-grain intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease."

And there’s also a clear connection, now, between climate change and all our meat-centric meals. Pressure cookers not only help you curb your carbon footprint by making it easy to switch to that plant-based Diet For a Not-Big-Enough-For-Everyone- To-Eat-So-Much-Meat Planet, they’re also ultra energy efficient.

So I say, a pressure cooker in every pot, and Sass’s cookbooks on every shelf. If people only understood how quickly, and easily, you can make marvelous home-cooked meals, every time-crunched fast food addict could take a time out from take-out to cook from scratch, without missing a beat. And Sass is a model of moderation; though her cookbooks are predominantly vegetarian, the grains book has some dishes for the conscientious carnivores out there, too.

Now that I’ve conquered my own fear of this miraculous but mysterious appliance, I use my pressure cooker so often it never gets put away; sometimes I even use it several times a day. My bible is Sass’s Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure. Its subtitle, “two-hour taste in ten minutes,” sounds too good to be true, but it’s for real.

To give you an idea, I toiled in my garden till dusk yesterday pulling weeds and planting seeds, and then came inside filthy, exhausted, and starving. And no, I didn’t feel like cooking. But with no leftovers in the fridge and no Matt to make mac’n’cheese (he had to go back to the city while I stayed on to do some digging), I looked to Lorna, as I often do.

And sure enough, on page 207 of Great Vegetarian Cooking, I found a recipe I had all the ingredients for: Lentil Stew With Spicy Greens. Cooking time? 9 minutes. OK, so it took another 5 minutes or so to dice the carrots and onions, and chop the kale, which has been hanging around our garden since last fall and threatening to bolt (i.e., go to seed and get bitter) if we didn’t eat it.

But that’s still only 14 minutes. Less than half the time it takes to make those Rachel Ray recipes. So, by my calculations, Lorna should be twice as popular.

DON’T BUY INTO DON’T BUY GAS DAY

Today, May 15th, is “Don’t Buy Gas Day,” and as empty, feel-good gestures go, it ranks right up there with the ubiquitous “support our troops” stickers that are apparently standard issue for all gas guzzlers.

This bogus boycott was sparked by a chain of e-mails claiming that we can stick it to Big Oil by going on a one-day fossil fuel fast. How pathetic, and how American. Is there any other nation so convinced that the solutions to all our problems can be solved by shopping—or not shopping?

Of course, the choices we make as consumers do, in fact, make a difference. I’ll be the first to shout “Amen!” to the Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping. Reverend Billy’s a fake preacher, but he advocates making real changes. His message may be swaddled in satire, but he makes a sincere case for living a more spiritual—and sustainable—way of life.

Don’t Buy Gas Day, on the other hand, is a perfect example of what my friend Elizabeth Royte, a “no impact” pioneer, would call a “sustainability stunt.” It may make a good sound bite, but it’s totally toothless.

The premise of Don’t Buy Gas Day is that you can make Exxon Mobil and Chevron bleed for your gas-gouged pain by waiting till Wednesday to fill your tank. Supposedly, postponing your petro-fix by one day will deprive the oil companies of nearly $3 billion in revenues, and cause a 30 cent per gallon drop in gas prices overnight.

But as Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization, told CNN, "A one-day boycott makes no sense whatsoever. You're not reducing consumption, you're just buying on a different day."

It’s a tragic misconception that cars equal freedom. In reality, constructing our communities around automobiles deprives us of autonomy, steals hours from our lives with long commutes, alienates us from our neighbors, tethers us to a finite source of fuel we deem worth dying for, and which, ironically, is killing our ecosystem.

That’s why, in our household, every day is Don’t Buy Gas Day. Matt doesn’t even know how to drive, and I barely do. Never owned a car. We rely on New York City’s excellent mass transit, and commute to our humble Hudson Valley hovel on the weekends via Amtrak.

Our lovely little hamlet has no shops, no mail delivery, and no municipal garbage pick-up. The nearest grocery store is several miles away, and the town dump’s even further.

Does it sound inconceivably inconvenient? It’s not, because our town is rich in the ultimate renewable source of energy—people. Our friends and neighbors gladly give us a lift to the market, or take our garbage to the dump. It’s an old-fashioned sort of community, the kind you can't find once you’ve exiled yourself to the exurbs.

So give the gas pumps a pass for today if it makes you feel good, but take a moment to think about tomorrow, and the next day. Because even as the cost of gas goes ever higher, Americans are driving more than ever. Maybe it’s time to pull over and take a closer look at the road map.

FRESNO FOG CASTS A CLOUD OVER CONVENTIONAL FARMERS

Lock your doors. Bolt your windows. There's something in THE FOG!

That’s a line from John Carpenter’s classic 1980 horror film, but it's also the basis of a lawsuit on the coast of Central California, where the fog stands accused of lifting legally applied pesticides from conventional farms and depositing them on organically grown herbs on a nearby farm, ruining $500,000 worth of dill.

Can organic and conventional farms butt borders without butting heads? A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge has issued an injunction against Western Farm Services, a Fresno company that provides and applies pesticides to conventional farms, to stop spraying pesticides while it ponders the case of Jacobs Farms v. Western Farm Services.

Fog, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, has the power to “turn pesticides into liquid and carry them off days after they were sprayed.” Call it “nurture” versus nature, a collision between manmade methods of trying to tweak our ecosystem and, well, the proverbial forces of nature.

How can you hold the law of unintended consequences accountable for breaking the law? Western Farm Services didn’t commit any crimes. According to the Sentinel, which reported this story last week, “under state code, a pesticide sprayer's responsibility to stop chemicals from drifting into other fields ends after the pesticide is applied.”

But the fog apparently carried the pesticides from fields of conventionally grown Brussels sprouts to the 120 acres of Wilder Ranch State Park that Larry Jacobs rents to grow organic herbs.

The chemicals in question are used to control cabbage moths, but their residues are not permitted on any kinds of herbs, conventional or organic. When Larry Jacobs' dill crop tested positive for the pesticide residue in December, his $500,000 crop was a total loss.

Now, the same thing has happened with his spring crop. They’re still tallying the numbers, but it surely adds up to another big loss for Jacobs.

Santa Cruz attorney Austin Comstock, who’s representing Jacobs, told the Sentinel "There's a traditional concept in Anglo-Saxon law that you use your property in a way not to damage mine. If you damage mine there's some redress there."

Sounds reasonable. But we live in an era where Monsanto can plant genetically modified crops and then, when their patented seeds are carried by the bees or the breeze to nearby organic farms, take the hapless farmer to court for stealing their product—and win. By that logic, I could sue my next door neighbor for damages because my bamboo invaded her yard (which, of course, it did--talk about broken borders, oy.)

The livelihood of both organic and conventional farmers is at stake here. Pesticides and GMOs routinely show up like uninvited Agribiz ambassadors crashing the organic garden gate, but a ban means putting the interests of organic farmers ahead of conventional crop growers.

Unlikely, yes, but there’s a hopeful precedent for Jacobs Farms in a case where herbicides that were properly applied migrated to nearby orchards and killed the trees. The orchard growers sued, and the standards were tightened.

But it makes you wonder. Can something that causes that much harm be safe to use in the first place? And if the pesticide residues from the stuff they’re using to protect Brussels sprouts from cabbage moths aren’t considered safe enough for conventional herbs, why are they OK on Brussels sprouts?

Of course, in the end, it's really a case of the People v. the Pests. But some might argue that we are the pests.

If Jacobs Farms v. Western Farm Services were a Capra film, I'd bet on Jacobs Farms. How did The Fog end, anyway? My recollection is hazy. Was it a happy ending?

Hat tip to Cookie Jill.

DOES IT TAKE A VILLAGE TO TAKE OFF THE POUNDS?

Here’s a feel-good story from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about one town’s five year plan to collectively tackle the childhood obesity epidemic. It’s Friday, and we’ve all had our fill of FDA failures and toxin-tainted imports, so here’s a heapin’ helpin’ of happy news, just for the heck of it.

Tufts University assistant professor Christina Economos spearheaded an innovative community-wide effort to get the kids in Somerville, a town of 78,000 just outside Boston, to eat their fruits and veggies and get more exercise:

The Somerville program, designed primarily by Dr. Economos and fellow researchers at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, offers a surprising blueprint. It didn't force schoolchildren to go on diets. Instead, the goal was to change their environment with small and inexpensive steps. Dr. Economos, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and the mother of two school-age children, has long believed that the battle against obesity can't be fought at the dinner table alone but requires social and political changes.

For inspiration, she turned to other successful social movements of the past 40 years, analyzing tobacco control, seat-belt use and breastfeeding. All were thorny public-health problems lacking a quick fix, yet significant progress was made on each. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Dr. Economos a $1.5 million grant to find out whether the same social forces could work in nutrition.

The goal of the researchers' Shape Up plan was to have Somerville children burn more calories through exercise and take in fewer with a healthier diet, for a total benefit of 125 calories a day.

Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Cortatone, immediately saw the potential in Dr. Economo’s experiment and threw his weight--including some unwanted pounds he’d picked up himself on the campaign trail--behind the project.

“We’re here to improve the lives of everybody in the city,” he told the WSJ.

And so they did, using heretofore untried tactics: persuading restaurants to reduce portion size and offer low-fat milk; extending bike paths and enhancing crosswalks to make the car-centric community better for biking and walking; adding fresh, wholesome foods to the school lunch menu, concentrating on flavor and quality instead of calories.

Classes on exercise and nutrition were added to the curriculum, and fatty, sugary snacks were exiled from the lunchroom. Teachers stopped handing out candy as a reward; now, kids get a pass to skip homework or a test question, instead.

The kids still complain about the switch from French fries to potato wedges, but the program is working; the kids have adopted healthier habits and thereby achieved a healthier weight. Somerville’s success could soon be duplicated elsewhere:

Now, Dr. Economos is working with the Save the Children Foundation to adapt and test some of the Shape Up initiatives for rural schoolchildren in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and California's Central Valley.

"A lot of people making a few small changes added up to this huge thing," says Dr. Economos. "We couldn't go to the kids and say you have to change your lifestyle. We had to change the environment and the community spirit first."

P’OH BOY! THE CAJUN-ASIAN CATFISH FIGHT

Mississippi’s Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner, Lester Spell, has ordered Chinese catfish off store shelves all over Mississippi after samples tested positive for illegal antibiotics. The antibiotics, banned by the FDA, have been known to cause allergic reactions and nerve, muscle and heart problems. Health officials in Arkansas and Louisiana are awaiting the outcome of tests on samples of imported seafood sent to the FDA, which has yet to issue a recall.

A ban on Chinese catfish would surely be a boon to American catfish farmers, who’ve been struggling to stay afloat in a flood of competition from Asian aquaculture. Imports of Chinese catfish reportedly doubled in the U.S. last year, making life harder than ever for U.S. catfish farmers in the already down-at-the-mouth south.

This morning, a group of southern Senators, led by Republicans Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, tacked an amendment onto yesterday’s prescription drug safety bill that authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to inspect seafood for antibiotics and other contaminants already banned by the FDA. Their concern for the health of their constituents, including, presumably, the sizable southern seafood industry, is heartening.

As Louisiana’s Daily Advertiser notes, “Beyond the antibiotic threat, Asian catfish are often raised in "latrine ponds" - the Chinese system of channeling human and other waste into ponds used to raise fish.”

By contrast, American fish farmers, such as the farmers’ cooperative Delta Pride, raise catfish in ponds in the Mississipi Delta that “produce clean, white-fleshed fish with little collateral damage to the surrounding environment, “ as Jay Weinstein notes in The Ethical Gourmet, the book I always turn to when I have questions about aquaculture.

Weinstein adds that domestic catfish logs far fewer food miles than its Asian competitors, and “also supports an ecologically sound food production system in our own country, improving living standards in a traditionally poor region.”

Matt makes a killer cornmeal-crusted catfish po-boy, and you can bet he wouldn’t dream of buying catfish from Asia. American catfish is still pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of things. Of course, Chinese catfish is even cheaper, if you don’t count the consequences of relying on illegal antibiotics and toxin-filled aquafarms. Mississippi’s done the math, and it adds up to this: when it comes to catfish, buy American.

GROW YOUR LAWN, STUNT YOUR CHILD

The litany of what’s wrong with lawns is long. They’re prodigious polluters, from the fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate our soil and water to the gas powered mowers that spew noxious fumes. They waste precious water, and create a sterile, monoculture habitat with nothing to offer the birds or the bees. Last, but not least, you can’t eat them.

The more I learned about conventional lawns, the stupider they seemed. And now it turns out that the stupidity is contagious; all this stuff we use to grow our lawns is shrinking our babies’ brains, according to a study from the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The research showed that children conceived during the summer months when pesticide use is at its peak consistently scored lower on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) examination. Neonatologist Paul Winchester, who studied more than a million and a half Indiana students, presented the findings last Monday at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting:

"Exposure to pesticides and nitrates can alter the hormonal milieu of the pregnant mother and the developing fetal brain," said Dr. Winchester. "While our findings do not represent absolute proof that pesticides and nitrates contribute to lower ISTEP scores, they strongly support such a hypothesis..."

…Nitrates and pesticides are known to cause maternal hypothyroidism and lower maternal thyroid in pregnancy is associated with lower cognitive scores in offspring.

"We have now linked higher pesticide and nitrate exposure in surface water with lower cognitive scores. Neurodevelopmental consequences of exposure to pesticides and nitrates may not be obvious for many decades," said Dr. Winchester.

It’s been obvious for decades, though, to some of us, that you can’t just pour pesticides all over your yard without poisoning everything around you. And as more people figure this out, there’s a growing demand for grass that’s really green, and a renewed interest in edible landscaping, the kind of yard “guerilla gardener” Heather Flores advocates in Food Not Lawns.

But if you continue to contaminate your soil with toxins, your kid might turn out to be a dunce. Will it be due to pesticide exposure? Hhmmm, hard to say. If you’re dumb enough to keep using all that chemical crap, it might just be congenital.

THE MELAMINE MERRY-GO-ROUND

First it was cats and dogs, then hogs and chickens. Now we find out they’ve been feeding melamine-tainted wheat gluten to the fish, too. Oh, and by the way? It wasn’t even really wheat gluten. According to the AP, it was actually a blend of wheat meal, melamine, and “related, nitrogen-rich compounds to make it appear more protein rich than it was.” Next, they’ll be telling us it was really pulverized pencil shavings.

So while federal inspectors poke around the fish farms trying to figure out whether the fish that ate the tainted feed have entered the food supply, the FDA assures us that “the contamination was probably too low to harm anyone who ate the fish.”

Probably. Who knows? Even additives that have been declared safe by food safety experts can turn out to be toxic. The Guardian reports today that a study of synthetic food additives commonly consumed by British children supports “findings first made seven years ago that linked the additives to behavioural problems, such as temper tantrums, poor concentration and hyperactivity, and to allergic reactions.” The additives include food colorings and preservatives that have been deemed safe in the U.K., including some that are banned in Scandinavian countries and the U.S.

The results of the study, conducted at Southhampton University for the Food Standards Agency, will not be published for several months, although independent experts say the evidence is compelling enough that parents should eliminate foods containing these ingredients from their childrens’ diets immediately.

The research confirms a 2000 report called the Isle of Wight study, which concluded that "significant changes in children's behaviour could be produced by the removal of colourings and additives from their diet…”

The FSA's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food (CoT) discussed the findings in a closed meeting on March 20. Normally, the CoT’s meetings are open. The Guardian notes the ramifications of making the results public:

If the findings of the new research do confirm the Isle of Wight work, "the implications would be enormous", said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, in London. "The stakes are very high; these are additives that children have been exposed to for years. I can understand the FSA wanting to be sure no one can accuse it of breaking scientific protocols but these findings need to come out quickly," he added.

So, here in the U.S., we’ve got stuff in our food that isn’t supposed to be there, but may or may not be harmful, while in the U.K., the stuff that the experts say is safe may not be after all. We're all out to sea while our FDA fishes for clues and the U.K.'s FSA flounders.

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