When we welded our wagon to China’s economic engine, did we sign on to an environmental train wreck?

I’m glad the Chinese government’s hired clean tech trailblazer William McDonough’s design firm to create a green blueprint for six new cities and a village--who better to help China bind its ever-widening carbon footprint than McDonough, the internationally influential green architect and designer who turned Ford’s River Rouge factory green and helped Nike create a biodegradable sneaker?

But China may have misinterpreted his “Waste = Food” concept. I’m pretty sure McDonough doesn’t advocate putting pulverized scraps of plastic in pet food, or making soy sauce out of human hair (not to mention lard out of sewage.)

The premise of McDonough’s environmental manifesto, Cradle to Cradle, co-written with Michael Braungart, a former Greenpeace activist turned sustainability scholar, is that every product we make should be non-toxic and biodegradable, or else endlessly recyclable. It’s a utopian vision for a garbage-and-pollution-free future.

Maybe McDonough’s tilting at wind turbines, but his ground breaking, earth saving designs have been hailed by environmental activists and not-so-crunchy corporatists alike. Steven Spielberg reportedly wants to do a documentary about McDonough’s heroic eco-endeavors.

And Chinese officials recognize the need to tackle the problems their overheated economy poses for the planet. In fact, while we fume about all the greenhouse gases China’s spewing, they may actually leave us in the dust when it comes to cutting carbon emissions.

But while the Chinese government may be leaning green, its business sector has been caught red-handed pumping up its profits by dumping chemicals into our food supply. The confirmation that melamine has been routinely added to animal feed to cut costs makes you wonder what else they might be putting in the food they’re shipping to our shores.

The other day we asked our friend Sue, who’s been to China several times, whether she would trust Chinese produce that’s labeled organic. “No way!” was her emphatic response.

And yet, more and more of the organic food we buy in the U.S. is coming from China. Supposedly, our food manufacturers have to rely on imports because American farmers simply can’t grow enough organic produce to meet the ever-growing demand.

I accepted this notion at face value until my friend and fellow NYC Food Systems Network colleague Christina Grace, a farmers’ market maven, pointed out that it really comes down to the fact that Big Food would rather cut corners and buy cheap from China than support America’s small family farms.

After all, it’s a terrific boon to the corporate bottom line to be able to do business with suppliers who can manufacture their products without the added expense of such niceties as worker safety or environmental protection.

Of course, here at home, the agencies entrusted to protect us aren’t doing such a bang-up job of things, either. It doesn’t help that the FDA’s budget keeps shrinking even as food imports rise. Welcome to Small Government, a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Food.

The USDA’s going to compensate the pork producers for the millions of dollars they’ll lose when they euthanize those 6,000 melamine-tainted hogs. Bereaved pet owners, on the other hand, will get nothing.

So taxpayers get stuck with the bill for Big Ag’s habit of salvaging substandard pet food and feeding it to the pigs. The dead dogs and cats? Just collateral damage. You know, like all those Iraqi civilians.


Farmer Kitty’s all in favor of promoting a plant-based diet, despite being an unapologetic carnivore. But, like most felines, she devotes the lion’s share of her waking hours to catnapping. Her less than rigorous routine goes something like this; plant a few seeds, catch a few z’s.

And once the seeds are sown, she tends to forget to tend them, thanks to all that mercury-tainted tuna she’s eaten over the years. So we insisted that she start her seeds in our self-watering germination trays this spring. The seedlings never dry out or get overwatered, because they sit on top of a strip of capillary matting which wicks water from a reservoir underneath on a need-to-grow basis. And the lid helps keep the soil temperature even so the seeds germinate faster.

All you have to do is remember to refill the reservoir every now and then and remove the lid once the seeds sprout. It’s the most painless form of propagation short of just throwing seeds on the ground and crossing your fingers, which is my other preferred method.

I’ve never seen these trays in a store but you can find them online at Gardener’s Supply and Lee Valley. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at growing your own herbs or salad greens but hesitated because you’re not a natural nurturer, these trays are for you; they’ll give the brownest of thumbs a greener patina.


First, the dogs and cats got kidney failure. Now, some 6,000 hogs in seven states will have to be euthanized after consuming tainted feed. Chickens may have eaten melamine-contaminated food, too.

Oh, and then there’s the three hundred or so hogs that have already been slaughtered and shipped off to market. Suddenly bringing home the bacon sounds slightly sinister.

The FDA expressed confidence a few weeks ago that the tainted wheat gluten hadn’t entered the human food chain, but they acknowledge now that plastic-polluted pork may indeed have entered our food supply.

Still puzzling over how a chemical used to make plastic found its way into the food chain? The evidence suggests not a random or accidental contamination, but rather a systemic and deliberate reliance on melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to artificially elevate the protein content of wheat gluten, rice protein, and other grain-based products used in animal feed as well as human food products.

Melamine is only mildly toxic, but experts have detected a second contaminant in the tainted pet food called cyanuric acid, which, when combined with melamine, appears to prompt the formation of crystals in urine, which in turn can cause kidney failure.

Cyanuric acid has all kinds of useful applications, apparently; it’s good for stabilizing the water in outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs, as well as boosting the protein content in food.

As Kitty Pilgrim reported Thursday on Lou Dobbs Tonight:

“The United States is importing tons of food and food additives from China. Imports of Chinese food and agricultural products have soared 400 percent in the last 15 years. Nobody knows how much of it is safe…

The Chinese themselves suffer from contaminated food and water. The U.N. estimates 300 million Chinese every year suffer food poisoning.

Sometimes, it’s substandard sanitation, such as the 100 restaurant goers hospitalized after eating bad snails. Sometimes deliberate fraud. A Chinese company was caught making lard from sewage. Farmers were caught adding cancer-causing dye to duck feed to enhance the eggs.

Pollution from industrial production or toxic accidents find their way into the water and subsequently into the food chain in China. Some of that food may be shipped to the United States. Almost all of it, untested and uninspected.”

Making lard from sewage? Suddenly, the Yes Men’s “reBurger” satire seems more prescience than parody.


Factory farms are incredibly efficient powerhouses of pollution; they simultaneously sully our air, soil and water.

I always assumed the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) could get away with dumping so much toxic waste and generating all those greenhouse gases because enforcement of environmental regulations is so lax.

But in Michigan, the factory farms are free to spew all the noxious sludge and fumes they create. Call it the No Particle Left Unpolluted Act. From the Muskegon Chronicle:

CAFOs in Michigan spread more than 4 billion pounds of untreated manure on farm fields each year -- animal feces and urine laced with hundreds of toxic chemicals and potentially deadly pathogens -- because the state Legislature in the 1990s made farms exempt from most environmental laws.

Air emissions from CAFOs contain hundreds of chemicals, including potentially deadly toxins and compounds that contribute to global warming. Those emissions are not regulated because farms in Michigan are exempt from the state's air pollution rules.

Ah, but there’s a new sheriff in town; on Wednesday, Michigan Democrats introduced legislation intended to halt the CAFOs’ unrelenting assault on their surroundings. One bill would impose a moratorium on construction of CAFOs. Another would give the Department of Environmental Quality more clout.

The pro-CAFO contingent claims that if it can’t pollute, it can’t compete. The Farm Bureau immediately cried foul, claiming that the right to foul our land, air and water is essential in a global economy:

Imposing a moratorium based on arbitrary and unscientific reasoning on the growth and expansion of agriculture, Michigan's second largest industry, is unreasonable, economically irresponsible and unfair punishment to Michigan farmers who are complying with environmental laws.

It all makes sense when you think about it. Our demand for cheap food compels us to ship more and more of the foods we eat from China, where pollution is just the cost of doing business.

If we hold Michigan’s farmers to a higher standard, they’ll have to pass the cost of compliance on to the consumer. Currently, they’re passing the costs off to the environment and the next generation. Talk about “unfair.”


The consumers have spoken, and the message to Monsanto is loud and clear: we don’t want yer stinkin’ recombinant bovine growth hormone. Sales of organic dairy products have skyrocketed as people steer clear of rbST for fear that it’s harmful to consumers and cows alike.

If you’re not up to speed on the controversy, watch the video Stephen Colbert aired last week from “the Prescott Group, America's leading agri-pharma- petro-chemico-militaria-industrial corporation.” A public service announcement disguised as a parody of corporate propaganda, it surely curdled rBST-tainted milk sales even further.

Given the choice, we’d prefer not to be guinea pigs for a hormone whose side effects on humans are unknown. What we do know about rbST is that the cows injected with it suffer from painful udder infections which then require massive doses of antibiotics.

So Monsanto is fighting back the only way it can: by attempting to deny us that choice. The multinational biotech behemoth has filed a complaint with the FDA which claims that “rBGH-free” labels on dairy products “deceptively imply negative health effects from rBGH.”

It may well be that rBGH is, in fact, perfectly safe for humans. But it’s definitely bad for bovines. “Dairy cows are already bred for high milking output, and the artificial boost from rBGH takes a toll on their bodies,” notes Christopher Wanjek, who covers the “Bad Medicine” beat for LiveScience. “For animal welfare reasons alone, consumers have the right to know how their milk is produced.”

Monsanto has been waging a pr battle on behalf of rBGH ever since the FDA approved its use back in 1993. When Fox News assigned two investigative reporters to do a four part series on rBGH for a Florida affiliate in 1996, Monsanto provided Fox executives with talking points that totally contradicted the reporters’ own research.

The reporters, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, were ordered by Fox executives to air Monsanto’s false claims. They refused, and threatened to report Fox to the FCC. Fox responded by firing them. Akre and Wilson sued.

A Florida jury found Fox guilty of wrongful dismissal under Florida’s whistle blower protection laws, but Fox appealed, and in February 2003, a Florida Court of Appeals ruled in Fox’s favor. Why? Because it turns out that there’s no law against a news media outlet deliberately distorting or falsifying news. In other words, no laws were broken, and therefore, the reporters were not, technically, whistle blowers.

For the record, Fox News never denied that it pressured its reporters to broadcast a false story. Fox’s entire defense rested on the premise that the First Amendment grants broadcasters the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports.

I guess it shouldn’t be a shock that companies like Monsanto and Fox are in cahoots, conspiring to peddle their tainted products. Birds of a feather. May an avian flu-like pox plague both their houses, and the FDA's, too, if they cave in to this agribiz avarice.


Apparently, we Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between real chocolate and the cheap, waxy “chocolatey” concoctions that food manufacturers fabricate out of artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes, and partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. those toxic trans fats). Or so the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is hoping.

Real chocolate is made, of course, from cocoa beans. But thanks to global warming, cocoa bean crop yields are dropping as temperatures rise. The specter of parched cocoa plantations has sent the cost of cocoa beans up about 28% in recent months.

So the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestlé, and Archer Daniels Midland, are lobbying the FDA to change the legal definition of chocolate to let them substitute cheap vegetable oils for cocoa butter.

But vegetable oils and cocoa butter are two entirely different ingredients. As Brad Kinstler, the CEO of See’s Candies (one of Warren Bufffet’s tastier acquisitions), told Bloomberg News, “If the margarine manufacturers could call their product butter instead of being required to call it margarine, wouldn't it strike the consumer as being odd?''

Yes, and it would strike this consumer as another egregious example of Big Food’s utter contempt for the American public. The “citizens’ petition” these multinational corporations have submitted to the FDA presents this proposed redefinition as a boon to consumers. As Hershey’s spokesman, Kirk Saville, told Bloomberg News:

”The petition would modernize all food standards, increasing flexibility to accommodate changes in technology. Changes, if adopted, would provide the flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preference, ingredient costs and availability, and shelf life.''

Ah yes, “flexibility”--i.e., the option to use cheap, toxic trans fats instead of antioxidant rich cocoa butter. As today’s NY Times notes, “Eating dark chocolate may be almost as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking the most common antihypertensive drugs.” The fat found in cocoa butter is, like olive oil, one of the “good” fats.

The partially hydrogenated oils the Chocolate Manufacturers Association wants to substitute, on the other hand, constitute a known health hazard. But Hershey, Nestle et al insist that Americans don’t actually care what goes into the food we eat, as Cybele May, founder of, noted in an LA Times op-ed. She cites a passage from the petition:

Consumer expectations still define the basic nature of a food. There are, however, no generally held consumer expectations today concerning the precise technical elements by which commonly recognized, standardized foods are produced. Consumers, therefore, are not likely to have formed expectations as to production methods, aging time or specific ingredients used for technical improvements, including manufacturing efficiencies.

So switching from costly, heart-healthy cocoa butter to artery clogging trans fats constitutes a “technical improvement” or “manufacturing efficiency.”

May points out that it’s perfectly legal for manufacturers to sell their cheap chocolate flavored confections. They just can’t call them “chocolate.”

But Big Food insists that cocoa butter and vegetable oils are interchangeable. In theory, this means that if you’re trying to butter up your sweetie with a fancy box of chocolate, you could save yourself a few bucks by bucking the Scharffen Berger and springing for the Whitman’s Sampler instead.

In actual practice, of course, this could incite a 21st century Valentine’s Day Massacre, with hordes of furious females hurtling boxes of bargain basement bonbons at their cheapskate dates. Because nothing says “I’m just not that into you” like a box of crappy, waxy candy.

And nothing says “We work for the corporations, not the consumers” more than the FDA’s willingness to consider the merits of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association’s petition. As a nostalgic nod to the democracy we once were, the FDA allows the public to provide feedback on these matters, and tomorrow, April 25th, is the very last day for us to tell the FDA to take its greasy palms off our chocolate.

You can take a catastrophically mismanaged war, tie a ribbon around it and call it a victory for democracy, but it’s still a disaster and a defeat. And a box of partially hydrogenated, artificially flavored candy can never be a box of chocolates. It wouldn’t even fool Forrest Gump.


Earth Day brought us a smorgasborg of sustainable sound bites, a bull horn of plenty, if you will. I’m sure I missed a few, and no doubt so did you, so I’d like to take this opportunity to steer you to some of my favorites.

Bill Maher delivered a stinging rant about our embattled bees at the end of last Friday’s New Rules; the transcript’s on Huffington Post, and it will be rebroadcast on HBO tonight at 8, but here’s a highlight:

Here's a quote from Albert Einstein: “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Well, guess what? The bees are disappearing. In massive numbers. All around the world.

And if you think I'm being alarmist and that, "Oh, they'll figure out some way to pollinate the plants..." No, they've tried. For a lot of what we eat, only bees work. And they're not working. They're gone. It's called Colony Collapse Disorder, when the hive's inhabitants suddenly disappear, and all that's left are a few queens and some immature workers -- like when a party winds down at Elton John's house…

But I think we're the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what's killing the bees, it's not al-Qaeda, and it's not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it's not Winnie the Pooh. It's us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won't fly near cell phones -- the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It's nature's way of saying, "Can you hear me now?"

Speaking of pesticides, CBS Sunday Morning ran a terrific profile of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring single handedly got Americans rethinking our cavalier use of chemicals back in the 60’s. You have got to see the creepy, Bela Lugosi-like spokesman for the chemical industry who denounces Carson in wildly melodramatic fashion:

"The major claims in Miss Rachel Carson's book, 'Silent Spring,' are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field. If Man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth."

This hilariously histrionic snippet is followed by Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist/lawyer himself, noting that when his uncle, who was President at the time, read Silent Spring, he said, 'I'm gonna appoint an independent commission to investigate whether it's true or not. “ The commission met for almost a year, and determined that “essentially everything in Rachel Carson's book was true."

We’ve got a current day Carson in the person of Bill McKibben, but the odds of his latest plea for environmental sanity, Deep Economy, landing on Dubya’s nightstand are, sadly, nil. Yesterday’s NY Times Book Review summed up McKibben’s clarion call to reduce our consumption and renew our communities as follows:

McKibben says in effect, All right, we are two nations: 1) Wal-Mart Nation (gigantic, globalized, unsustainable in the face of climate change and the trashing of nature and the coming exhaustion of the world’s fossil fuels), a world predicted half a century ago by Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, desperately gobbling oversweet glut from the unstoppable assembly line; and 2) Farmers’ Market Nation (manageably small, localized, communitarian, neighborly, calibrated to the human scale)…

…He defends his “economics of neighborliness” against the charge that it is “sentimental, nostalgic, some Norman Rockwell old-town-green fantasy.” In fact, he insists: “Given the trend lines for phenomena like global warming and oil supply, what’s nostalgic and sentimental is to insist that we keep doing what we’re doing now simply because it’s familiar. The good life of the high-end American suburb is precisely what’s doing us in.” His alternative, an intelligent, socially responsible, nonideological localism — essentially a readjustment downward of material expectations and therefore of our “hyperindividualistic” economic metabolisms — “might better provide goods like time and security that we’re short of.”

McKibben’s premise got some scientific validation in an article from last Friday’s Washington Post, “Baby Boomers Appear to Be Less Healthy Than Parents”:

…boomers tend to report more stress than earlier generations -- from their jobs, their commutes, taking care of their parents and their kids -- all of which can take a physical toll, which is compounded by having less support from extended families and communities, experts say.

"People are working two jobs. They are not sleeping as much. They're experiencing more job insecurity. They have less time to take care of themselves. They are more socially isolated," said Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Public Health. "This all could add up to a huge crisis and really calls for us to examine the things that perhaps we're not doing so well."

Yeah, like living well. Which, contrary to the conventional wisdom, isn’t so much about how much stuff you have. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win. If he’s accumulated all that crap at the expense of spending time with family and friends, he might just be one of the bigger losers.



This week’s cavalcade of catastrophe and carnage lent credence to T.S. Eliot’s adage that April is the cruelest month. It started with some biblically bad flooding, followed by massacres at home and in Iraq, a Supreme setback for women, a cornered Wolfie snarling at the World Bank, and an addled Attorney General bravely facing his critics despite a crippling case of amnesia. Or is it Alzheimer’s?

Oh, how we longed for just one story with a happy ending. But even the saga of Sludgie, the baby whale who wandered into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, turned into a tragic fish-out-of-water tale.

So, in the spirit of the classic kitten-on-a-limb “Hang in There!” poster, after such an unrelentingly grim week, I’m thinking this might be a felicitous time for some feline fooling around.

Here, for your amusement, I offer a series of shots of our resident Libertarian, the laissez-faire Zuzu, with one of her favorite toys, a catnip-enhanced Newt Gingrich. She never tires of biting him and batting him around, but she wasn’t the only one taking swats at the former Speaker of the House this week.

Gringrich is trying to persuade his fellow conservatives that global warming is real, but all he’s managed to do is inflame the red-staters, as my fellow Kossack greendem hilariously documented in a diary on Daily Kos yesterday. Greendem ventured over to the far right corner of the blogosphere to harvest some howlers from the climate change naysayers, and wished Gingrich well in his thankless task of trying to counter years of disinformation from fossil fueled don’t-think tanks:

…So good luck with that whole Green Conservativism thing, Newt. Seems your people believe you are walking lock-step with granola-munching Maoists.

Unfortunately, the activist base of your party has been hijacked by rabid anti-environmentalists and the wacked-out "end of times" crowd too long to ever understand what Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Or that Conservatives once believed in "conservation" of our natural resources.

Jason Jones interviewed one such “end-of-times” wacko for a segment on last night’s Daily Show entitled “Apocalypse How?” Oh, how I love the smell of wingnuts roasting in the evening.

Back to cat-tales, I offer for your viewing pleasure “Kittens and Bacon,” an amusing allegory of kittens, mittens, lobbyists and larded legislation. Thanks to our friend Andrew for sharing it. We need all the laughs we can get right now.


Why are we treating our kids like cattle? We herd them into school cafeterias and pump them full of grain-based by-products, and confine them to classrooms to cram for all those No Child Left Behind tests. It’s like a federally mandated feedlot for tots, a government sanctioned program whose goal seems to be No Child Left Without a Big Behind.

And then we wonder Why Johnny Can’t See His Feet. “Eat more fruits and vegetables!” they tell him. “Get out and play!” they say.

Surely, nourishing our children well is a high priority for our government when it crafts a new farm bill every five years.

Except that it’s not. Our agricultural policies push “commodity” crops like corn and soybeans at the expense of so-called “specialty crops,” i.e. all those fruits and vegetables they tell us to feed our kids. So we fatten the bottom line of industrial agriculture, which in turn fattens our collective waistline and fosters an epidemic of obesity related illness.

As a bonus, industrial agriculture also poisons our environment, pollutes our waterways, depletes our soil, abuses animals, squanders fossil fuels, and exploits workers. Your tax dollars at work.

And yet you’ve probably never even thought about our nation’s farm bill. It sounds both too bureaucratic and too bucolic to have any real relevance to your life.

Well, wake up and smell the CAFOS. Michael Pollan, on the frontlines of the “real food” revolution, tells us why the farm bill matters to every American in a NY Times Magazine article entitled “You Are What You Grow:”

…the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives… The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce…

But Pollan’s optimistic that this year’s farm bill will be different, because the good food movement is gaining steam, giving even perennial pessimists like me reason to hope. Much of my newfound optimism comes courtesy of my colleagues in the New York City Food Systems Network, a coalition of nutritionists, anti-hunger activists, farmers’ market advocates, sustainability scholars, and other fine folks dedicated to changing the way we grow our food and feed our families.

One of the driving forces behind the NYCFSN, Hilary Baum, also founded the Baum Forum, a non-profit dedicated to promoting local agriculture, better food in schools and a healthier food system for everyone.

Her Baum Forum regularly hosts stellar-paneled conferences that feature the finest foot soldiers in the battle for better food, and she’s got another amazing conference lined up for this Saturday, April 21st: “Schools, Food and Gardening: Cultivating a Healthy Future,” a day-long conference at Columbia University co-sponsored by the Nutrition Program at Columbia’s Teachers College.

We’ll get the sustainable scoop from organic pioneer Joan Dye Gussow, whose memoir This Organic Life persuaded me to plant paw paws, and a dose of post-Katrina progress from Anthony Recasner, who heads the charter school that’s home to the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard.

And I can’t wait to see the demonstration of those self-watering Earth Box planters, so efficient at growing produce that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has adopted them as part of The Growing Connection campaign to help communities all over the world grow their own food.

If you’re in our neck of the woods, we hope you’ll join us, but you can board the real food bandwagon wherever you are. Get up to speed by reading Daniel Imhoff’s Foodfight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, with a forward by Michael Pollan. Imhoff’s taken a dry topic and made it wry with his well-illustrated and entertaining compendium of all the collateral damage our misguided agricultural policies have wreaked on ourselves and our environment.

But Imhoff doesn’t just diagnose the many sicknesses of our food system, he offers the antidote, which, not surprisingly, calls for a massive dose of citizen activism:

…The critical moment will occur when a coalition of previously isolated voices joins ranks to challenge the status quo by insisting on a healthier, more hopeful and secure future for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. Farm and food policy will become an integrated economic engine that not only encourages environmentally viable crop production but truly supports health and nutrition, renewable energy, entrepreneurial development, stewardship, fair trade, living wages, and regional food security.

And who wouldn’t be in favor of all that? I mean, aside from Archer Daniels Midlands, Cargill, Monsanto, and all their Big Food buddies. Do we live in a democracy, or a cornarchy?

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