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THE GRASSROOTS KNOWS HOW TO GROW

If President Bush knew anything at all about gardening, we wouldn’t be bogged down in Bagdad. Any gardener knows that you can’t grow a democracy by sowing seeds of chaos. No wonder our soldiers are getting shredded by shrapnel instead of pelted with rose petals.

Dubya’s a lousy rancher, too. Every year, his Crawford ranch yields a bumper crop of something called “brush,” whose only apparent function is to serve as fodder for photo-ops. Since his ranch is just another Rove-approved prop, there’s no need to grow food for people, or feed for livestock, or plants to make biofuels.

And then we have the equally horticulturally handicapped John McCain, spreading manure in a Bagdad market four years after we uprooted Saddam. Whether Iraq was ever fertile ground for freedom, its blood soaked soil seems more likely now to only yield more violence and hatred.

McCain’s also having trouble harvesting campaign cash, unlike some of his Democratic counterparts.

But there’s one senator who grasps the fundamentals of farming, and that’s Jon Tester. The freshman senator spent the spring recess planting peas, lentils, wheat and black barley on his organic farm back home in Big Sandy, Montana.

Most Americans have never even heard of black barley, which is a shame because it’s the whole-est of those whole grains we’re all supposed to be eating more of. Unlike other grains, black barley, also known as purple hull-less barley, needs no processing—it can go from the fields to our food with its bran layer intact. And it’s got a richer, more complex texture and flavor than your standard, garden variety pearl barley.

I discovered this ultra tasty and nutritious grain through Whole Foods Authentic Food Artisans line, which features heirloom grains and beans grown by “a dozen pioneering farmers…growing nutrient-dense organic grains and legumes on their family farms in the Golden Triangle of Montana.”

Thanks to the small scale farmers like Tester who are bringing back biodiversity, Americans are only just now getting acquainted with ancient whole grains and beans that have sustained people in other countries for centuries. Finally, we have an alternative to Agribiz monoculture. I guess if you want progress, it helps to elect politicians who know how to grow stuff that's good to eat, as opposed to brush.

STOP! YOU’RE KILLING US!

The failure to see what lies ahead can have awful consequences, as I learned last Friday while walking down 9th Avenue. I was looking down (contemplating my carbon footprint, no doubt) when I collided with a fire alarm call box that I didn’t notice until it was embossing my forehead. Thanks to the decidedly unspringlike weather, I was wearing a fuzzy wool hat that cushioned the blow somewhat, but still—the pain was excruciating.

Matt tried to comfort me, noting helpfully, “That will teach you to look where you’re going!”

Yeah, well, lesson learned. If only it were so easy to knock some sense into the Capitol Hillbillies who refuse to grasp the enormity of the global warming crisis.

Who would have guessed that putting a couple of Texas oilmen in charge of things was not such a hot idea in this era of fossil fueled climate change? I mean, aside from myself and the majority of Americans who actually voted for Al Gore, aka “Ozone Man,” as Bush Sr. derisively nicknamed him.

Now, of course, he’s “the Goracle,” but it’s cold comfort that Gore’s dire warnings about global warming have been validated by the 2,500 scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s latest report predicts man-made mayhem on a massive scale: drought, floods, pests, severe food and water shortages.

Poor nations, predictably, will suffer the brunt of this upheaval; the wealthier nations whose petroleum-based prosperity set this sorry chain of events in motion are in a better position to weather the unprecedented change in the weather.

But one thing seems pretty clear; the way we live is going to change dramatically, whether we want it to or not. We can radically rethink the way we allocate our resources, starting now, or we can wait till we’ve passed the proverbial tipping point, when floods and famine will force us to face the fact that we’ve irrevocably altered our entire ecosystem.

President Bush, reacting to the Supreme Court ruling that the federal government has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases, said he thought that the measures he had taken so far were sufficient. And besides, he noted, like a petulant pre-adolescent, if China’s not going to curb its carbon footprint, why should we?

Nevermind that Bush vowed during the 2000 presidential campaign that if elected, he would regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Was he lying, or did he just forget? Once he took office, his administration did everything it could to obstruct any efforts to address the threat of global warming.

And now, leaked documents show that after claiming to support the addition of the polar bear to the list of endangered species, Bush and his carbon-crazed cronies are quietly working to weaken the Endangered Species Act and discourage any discussion of how global warming threatens polar bears with extinction.

So our government fiddles with the findings while the ice caps melt. But you can help us light a fire under their petroleum-soaked posteriors; fire up your laptop and fire off a missive to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save the polar bear. The deadline is today, April 9th.

Please, take a minute to help the polar bears fight extinction; after all, it’s their planet, too. Do they really have to die for our sins?

EASTER SUNDAY BLOGGING

May all your eggs be cage free, and your Easter ham pasture raised!

TOXIN DU JOUR: VITAMIN D?

Still worrying about wheat gluten? That’s so yesterday. Today’s suspected pet food contaminant, courtesy of animal rights group PETA, is vitamin D. Excessive amounts of vitamin D cause the same kind of kidney malfunction in pets that vets are seeing all over the country.

PETA’s suspicions stem from the fact that the symptoms are showing up in dogs and cats fed only dry food, most of which contains no wheat gluten. The FDA’s investigation has focused almost entirely on wet foods. And while the MSM is still reporting 16 or so confirmed deaths, anecdotal evidence suggests that hundreds of pets have died and thousands may have been sickened.

The specter of more dogs and cats dying needlessly has PETA pleading with the FDA to widen its focus. In a letter to Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinarian Medicine, PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich made the case for a broader recall:

"Wheat gluten is used almost exclusively in wet foods. However, the mounting number of complaints of illness and death in cats and dogs who had eaten only dry food strongly suggests that there is a second source of the poisoning, another toxic ingredient.

"Evidence from reputable laboratories indicates that an as yet unnamed ingredient may be to blame, perhaps a form of vitamin D."

Pet owners are scared and confused, and rightfully so; while the FDA is busy banning imported wheat gluten, the New York Department of Agriculture still maintains that the culprit is rat poison, and notes that melamine is “not a known toxin.”

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that Menu Foods was aware of a potential problem for a month, maybe longer, before initiating a recall. And the FDA has repeatedly refused CNN’s requests for an interview, although it was willing to answer questions from news anchors during last year’s E. coli outbreaks. What’s different about this recall?

And why does New York’s Department of Agriculture, armed with the latest high tech equipment thanks in part to Homeland Security funds, have a completely different finding?

Whether the killer ingredient turns out to be rat poison, wheat gluten, vitamin D, or some other contaminant yet to be discovered, the focus on wheat gluten has raised other questions.

Why does our nation, with all its amber waves of grain, import so much wheat gluten in the first place? Slate’s Michelle Tsai provides a concise yet comprehensive explanation, but the short version is, simply, it’s cheaper.

So we’re stocking our pantries with foreign food products, of which the fatally underfunded FDA manages to inspect less than one percent. As CNN’s Christine Romans told Lou Dobbs last night:

ROMANS: We now import more food than we export, $10 billion more each year. Food safety experts have long been concerned that food inspections cannot possibly keep up with that explosion. The FDA inspects less than one percent of the imported foods that it oversees.

Dobbs heaped his trademark scorn on the FDA, excoriating the gutted government agency for in “no way discharging its responsibility to public safety and to public health.”

I share Dobb’s dismay that the FDA doesn’t seem to be looking out for consumers. But in our free market economy, you get what you pay for. The question is, who owns the FDA?

Julie Zawisza, spokeswoman for the FDA, told the Christian Science Monitor, "We are just tying up investigations now … we don't see where the system didn't work … it doesn't appear from what we've seen that anyone can be blamed in this country."

As Pet Connection's Christie Keith pointed out in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, though, "The issue may not be that the system broke down, but that there isn't really a system."

PORK COUNCIL PROPOGANDA: LARDED WITH LIES

Pigs are highly intelligent creatures. As are most people. But the pork industry treats us all with equal contempt. How else to explain this letter to the NY Times, written by an agribiz apologist in response to the growing demand for more humanely raised pork:

To the Editor:

Livestock producers raise their animals under humane standards and under the care of a veterinarian. In the United States pork industry, the vast majority of the more than 100 million pigs raised each year are housed in climate-controlled buildings that protect them from the elements, illness and disease and that allow for individual care.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, management and husbandry are more important than the type of production system for ensuring the health and well-being of pigs.

As for the environment, the pork industry prides itself on being a zero-discharge industry.

Finally, organic doesn’t mean safe. While conventional food producers must demonstrate that pesticide residues are within established safety margins, organic growers are not subject to the same scrutiny despite the widespread use of biological pesticides and animal waste as fertilizer.

Dave Warner
Director of Communications
National Pork Producers Council
Washington, March 28, 2007

Yeah, and smoking doesn’t cause cancer, either. And the streets of Bagdad are safe—just ask John McCain.

When it’s your job to defend the indefensible, you’ve really only got two weapons: shameless spin and flamboyant falsehood.

Warner’s letter is a brazen blend of half-truths and outright lies. Let’s take it from the top:

“Livestock producers raise their animals under humane standards…”

If cruelly confining these creatures and chopping off their tails without benefit of anesthesia so they won’t bite one another’s tails out of boredom and frustration is humane, well, OK. The Humane Society doesn’t think so. But what do they know?

As for being “under the care of a veterinarian,” what choice do the huge hog operations have when their preferred practices breed all kinds of disease? If they didn’t keep their pigs in such cramped conditions and force them to stand around in their own waste twenty four hours a day, they wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on vets to inject all those antibiotics.

“…the vast majority of the more than 100 million pigs raised each year are housed in climate-controlled buildings that protect them from the elements, illness and disease and that allow for individual care.”

What Warner doesn’t tell you is that the pigs have to be housed in “climate controlled buildings,” because in the quest for leaner luncheon meats, pig breeders have practically eliminated the back fat that pigs need to survive outdoors. As The Niman Ranch Cookbook notes: “Because hogs have neither sweat glands nor fur, they moderate their body temperature in both heat and cold with an insulating layer of back fat…Without that natural insulation, these unnaturally lean hogs can’t tolerate a steamy summer or chilly winter. They have to go indoors.”

Animal scientist Temple Grandin documents another downside to the leaner pigs in her book Animals in Translation; “…their personalities are completely different. They’re super-nervous and high strung.” Grandin cites a Purdue University study that showed “pigs bred to be lean got into more fights than pigs from a fatter genetic line.”

Lean pigs are far less productive as well, according to Grandin. “In China, the pigs are all fat, and the mama pig makes way more piglets. A fat Chinese mother pig will have a litter of twenty-one piglets compared to just ten or twelve piglets in a lean American sow’s litter.” So much for American agribiz’s much vaunted “efficiency.”

“As for the environment, the pork industry prides itself on being a zero-discharge industry.”

Huh? “Zero-discharge industry?” Do pigs not poop? As Rolling Stone’s recent expose of Smithfield’s horrendous hog operations revealed, “America's top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the largest fines in EPA history…”

“…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.”

The environmental consequences of industrial hog farming are catastrophic. The pollution generated by these operations degrades our waterways, our soil, and the health of neighbors who suffer the toxic stench from the slurry-filled lagoons created by this “zero discharge industry.”

After making the preposterous claims that his industry is humane and environmentally benign, Warner can’t resist throwing in a gratuitious swipe at organics:

“Finally, organic doesn’t mean safe. While conventional food producers must demonstrate that pesticide residues are within established safety margins, organic growers are not subject to the same scrutiny despite the widespread use of biological pesticides and animal waste as fertilizer.”

Warner is telling the truth, for once. Organics aren’t subjected to the same scrutiny; they’re held to a higher standard. Which a coalition of corporations and politicians have lobbied mightily to erode.

Eight senators, all Republicans, “attached a rider to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill to weaken the nation's organic food standards in response to pressure from large-scale food manufacturers,” according to the Organic Consumers Association, who launched an “SOS” campaign in response—i.e., Save Organic Standards.

Warner, as The National Pork Council’s Director of Communications, has to figure out how to keep factory farm pork palatable to the American people despite our growing distaste for agribiz animal abuse. In other words, he gets paid to lie. It’s his job to take the truth and run it through the pr meat grinder. The end result is this kind of feces-laden fodder. Consume it at your own risk.

MONDAY GREENMARKET BLOGGING

It’s so gray and gloomy today that the blue bears couldn’t believe it was high time to come out of hibernation. After much poking and prodding, though, they made their groggy way to the Union Square Greenmarket, where the sight of brand new baby greens was enough to shake the sleep from their eyes.

They raided Yuno’s Farm stall, snatching up the season's first baby tatsoi, bok choy, arugula, broccoli rabe, and a carton of lovely fresh eggs before lumbering over to the Race Farm stall to stock up on end-of-the-season sweet potatoes and Yukon golds.

After hauling their beautiful bounty home, the bears were so worn out from all the excitement they had to go back to bed. We tried to persuade them to stay awake for lunch; Matt’s sauteing the broccoli rabe with some wild boar sausage, pine nuts, raisins, and garlic in olive oil to have over a penne from Italy that I found upstate this weekend. It’s from a company called Racconto, and it’s got eight different whole grains: wheat, rye, buckwheat, kamut, spelt, millet, barley, and brown rice. What, no quinoa?

Anyway, the bears took a pass on the pasta and went to snooze. They asked us to wake them on Wednesday, so they can head back to the Greenmarket to get some biodynamic sauerkraut from Hawthorne Valley Farms.

Will we save them some pasta? That depends on whether the penne turns out to have a decent texture. So many whole grain pastas have a texture that only a dog could love. Or a bear. In which case, there will be plenty leftover.

WEEKEND HOUSE BLOGGING

Matt’s putting the finishing touches on the security system for our upstate house this weekend, and boy, am I glad. There’s been a rash of thefts in our little hamlet, with everything from copper plumbing pipe to bikes being stolen.

Our watchdog, a mohair mutt named Blind Willie, has seen nothing out of the ordinary. He hasn’t heard or smelled anything unusual, either. But then, his nose and ears are stuffed with fluff.

We didn’t ask Blind Willie to protect our property; we took him in out of pity, to be honest. But he doesn’t believe in charity, and insists on earning his keep by keeping an eye on things.

His empty sockets aren’t much help, but that doesn’t discourage Blind Willie. His parents, Blind Faith and Blind Ambition, taught him that it’s more important to have loyalty than vision. So he doggedly patrols the premises, bumbling around while the field mice have a field day foraging in our kitchen.

Now that Matt’s got our high tech alarm system up and running, though, we'll have to find another way for Blind Willie to make himself useful. Maybe he could apply for a job at the FDA; they’re terribly understaffed, from what I hear, and they’d probably welcome an applicant with Blind Willie's gift for turning a blind eye.

MELAMINE IS FOR PLATES, NOT PETS

The case of the contaminated pet food grows curiouser and curiouser. Now the FDA’s discovered melamine in the wheat gluten used by Menu Foods. Yes, that melamine, the veneer of choice for cheap landlords. You may know it as Formica. Turns out it’s also used as a fertilizer–in China . From the AP:

In a news conference, FDA officials said that the apparently melamine-contaminated wheat gluten also was shipped to a company that manufactures dry pet food, but they would not name the company.

The FDA also knows the name of the supplier of the tainted wheat gluten, but, again, they’re not telling.

Wheat gluten is used in “people” food, too, but the FDA says there’s “no indication” that the melamine-tainted wheat gluten has been used in food for people, and assures us they’ll “alert the public quickly” if the melamine turns up in any other foods, according to the AP.

They’re now reviewing all wheat gluten shipments from China. You know, just to be on the safe side.

So rat poison’s out; melamine’s in. But whether it might be in that bag of Brand X kibble on your shelf is another question, one the FDA won’t answer right now.

In fact, the FDA has refused repeated requests from CNN to have a spokesperson appear on American Morning to answer questions about the pet food recall. They’re protecting someone or something; sadly, it’s not our pets.

(Hat tip to my fellow Kossack ChristieKeith, who covered the FDA’s press conference for PetConnection.com and blogged about it on Daily Kos. Christie says PetConnection.com will continue to update this story as it unfolds.)

HE AIN’T HEAVY, HE’S MY BROTHER

While No Impact Man runs around air-drying his ass for posterity, less flamboyant folks are leading lives of quiet inspiration. Like my brother Bruce, a founding member of a co-housing community on Central California’s coast dedicated to “creating an old-fashioned neighborhood in a new way.”

Bruce likes to think big when it comes to making your carbon footprint smaller. A few years back, he took me and Matt to a patch of land on a creek in Paso Robles to show us the future site of Oak Creek Commons. He laid out his idealistic vision for a neighborhood of homes designed to foster cooperative living, and it sounded like a dream—that is, a pipe dream.

But my eternally energetic and upbeat brother is blessed with a sunny disposition that generates its own kind of solar power. His project proceeded in fits and starts; building began in 2003 and was completed in 2005. Today, Oak Creek Commons is a thriving community of independent homes clustered around a Common House whose energy comes from a brand new batch of solar panels mounted to the roof of the parking shed.

Bruce sent a jubilant e-mail yesterday to announce that “As of 10:45 AM this morning March 28, 2007, the Oak Creek Commons solar system officially started "turning the meter backwards", producing 14kw of sun power! The solar system is now on line!!!”

I’m so proud of my brother for being such a trailblazing tree-hugger. Most Americans have never even heard of co-housing, and it’s about as radical a departure from the standard suburban lifestyle as you can get. Not coincidentally, it’s an awful lot lighter on the land.

But co-housing communities, of which there are only a handful in the U.S., are about much more than sharing resources and the occasional meal. As Bill McKibben notes in Deep Economy, they “represent a powerful idea: that the desire for more community might begin to radically alter the ways we imagine our lives.”

McKibben writes about his visit, in 1996, to one of America’s largest co-housing communities, EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, where the residents relied on every eco-trick under the sun to reduce their carbon footprint, situating their superinsulated homes to take advantage of the sun, carpooling, composting, and so on. As a result, the EcoVillagers used roughly 40 percent of the energy of a typical Northeasterner.

But co-housing doesn’t just lighten your carbon footprint; it can lighten your spiritual load, as well, forging the kinds of bonds that were once commonplace among neighbors but have largely disintegrated in this era of what McKibben decries as hyper-individualism. McKibben notes the unquantifiable value this sense of connection offers: “The knowledge that you matter to others is a kind of security that no money can purchase.”

Oak Creek Commons’ vision, according to its website, is to be “a community that fosters enriching relationships with one another, nature and the larger community.” The website lists the community’s shared values:

It is our intention to...
1. Celebrate, accept and welcome diversity.
2. Communicate with integrity, respect and trust.
3. Support, encourage and be compassionate with each other.
4. Live in loving connection while respecting personal space.
5. Create opportunities for fun, laughter, play, celebrations and rituals.
6. Contribute time and talents within our community and beyond.
7. Respect the environment by being sensitive to the interconnections between all things.

Oak Creek Commons sits on 14 acres surrounded by a hillside of oaks and more than 40 acres of open space, and yet you can live there without a car, because there are shops and schools within walking distance, and public transportation. It’s the very antithesis of—and antidote for--sprawl.

As James Kunstler predicted in The Long Emergency, the housing market is collapsing under the weight of all those sub-prime mortgage foreclosures. Whether it will drag our whole economy down is uncertain, unless you’re Kunstler, who’s convinced our fuelish culture’s going to collapse, causing a mass exodus from the exurbs.

Will co-housing become more commonplace as people realize there’s an upside to downsizing? My brother’s always been ahead of his time; he was a member of a food coop about thirty years ago. And now he’s on the cutting edge of cooperative living. Together with his neighbors at Oak Creek Commons, he’s providing a viable template for sustainable living, unlike No Impact Man. In this era of global warming, it takes an EcoVillage, not a faux eco-egomaniac.

BURGER KING BOARDS THE ANIMAL WELFARE BANDWAGON

As baby steps go, these are huge; Burger King’s adding a dash of farm animal compassion to its menu. The nation’s second biggest fast food chain announced yesterday that 2 percent of its egg supply will soon be cage free, and 10 percent of its pork will come from hog farmers who don’t use gestation crates.

Burger King’s decision may only raise the bar on farm animal welfare just a smidgen, but it’s not paltry to the poultry and the pigs kept confined within an inch of their miserable lives. As The Humane Society’s President and CEO Wayne Pacelle notes on the http://www.hsus.org/farm/news/ournews/burger_king.html ">HSUS website:

"With its new policy changes, Burger King is signaling to agribusiness that the most inhumane factory farming practices are on the way out…As a result of this decision, large numbers of farm animals across the nation will be spared much needless suffering."

The Humane Society and PETA have been pestering fast food companies for years to steer clear of factory farm practices that appeal to agribiz but appall the average American. A report in today’s NY Times cites the growing clout of ethical eaters:

“I think the whole area of social responsibility, social consciousness, is becoming much more important to the consumer,” said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm. “I think that the industry is going to see that it’s an increasing imperative to get on that bandwagon…”

… Burger King executives said the move was driven by their desire to stay ahead of consumer trends and to encourage farmers to move into more humane egg and meat production.

“We want to be doing things long before they become a concern for consumers,” Mr. Grover said. “Like a hockey player, we want to be there before the puck gets there.”

Of course, one Puck—Wolfgang—already is there, but the more, the merrier. In an ideal world, there would be no factory farms at all, and maybe sometime in the future, they’ll be obsolete. But we’re stuck with them for now. So let’s keep on raising a stink about them. Who knows? They might just have to clean up their act.

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