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Blackwater Runs Deep

Is privatized security really the answer? Have we forgotten the lessons of Robocop? Wasn't one "Republican Guard" in Iraq enough?

This is the description of Blackwater Worldwide from their website:

"Blackwater Worldwide efficiently and effectively integrates a wide range of resources and core competencies to provide unique and timely solutions that exceed our customer’s stated need and expectations."

Good stuff. There's nothing better than core competencies. Just a thought, though, you might want to stop "exceeding [your] customer's stated need and expectations." At least until the heat's off.

"We are guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world. Blackwater Worldwide professionals leverage state-of-the-art training facilities, professional program management teams, and innovative manufacturing and production capabilities to deliver world class customer driven solutions."

I agree. Just as NRA members believe we'd all be safer if everyone carried guns, I believe we'd all be safer if everyone had their own private security firm. And “state-of-the-art training facilities” is right. No monkey bars in the desert for this outfit.

"Our leadership and dedicated family of exceptional employees adhere to an essential system of core corporate values chief among them are integrity, innovation, excellence, respect, accountability, and teamwork."

In case anybody's wondering...profit's place as a core corporate value at Blackwater? A distant 7th. Blackwater is a family, and just like any family, Blackwater has someone who gets drunk and causes trouble around the holidays.

This really is a great website, and even though it looks like an evil-action-movie-villain cliché, I've been assured it is real. There's a "proshop" and everything. [Is your daughter's Barbie safe? Can you afford to take a chance? Buy her a Blackwater action figure!]

All that's missing is a corporate slogan. Here are a few suggestions...

Blackwater: We kill more Iraqis before 9am than most people do all day
Blackwater: Army strong; corporate earnings
Blackwater: So secure it hurts

TAKING OUR CUES FROM MR. MAGOO

When did Mr. Magoo, the fifties cartoon character whose severe shortsightedness caused him to regularly stumble into catastrophic situations, become our national mascot?

America is suffering from a massive outbreak of myopia—it’s everywhere you look, if you can only see it. We’re bogged down in Bagdad—who could have foreseen that? Sub-prime mortgage meltdown—who would have guessed those folks might have trouble making their payments? Plummeting sales for Detroit’s gas guzzlers—who knew that gas prices would go up and fuel demand for greater fuel efficiency? Skyrocketing health care costs from diabetes and other obesity-related disease—would it be cheaper to foot the bill for preventative care than to pick up the tab for all those foot amputations?

The latest nominees for the “Who’d a thunk it?” hall of fame are the corn growers who planted all those amber waves of fool’s gold and rushed to build ethanol distilleries. As the New York Times reported last Sunday:

The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading.

Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records.

But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace. The average national ethanol price on the spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating sharply in the last few weeks.

As Tom Philpott of Grist prophesied last October:

As more distillers enter the market, ethanol's price -- and profit margin -- will fall. According to a recent Dow Jones article, there are now 102 operational ethanol plants, 32 under construction, and another 127 in various stages of planning.

If all of those proposed plants come online, Dow Jones reckons, the industry will soon be churning out 16 billion gallons of ethanol per year -- about four times the 2005 level. To do so, they'll eat up 5.3 billion to 5.9 billion bushels of corn. In 2005, ethanol took just 1.6 billion bushels.

That surge in usage will likely mean a big jump in the price of corn. And here's the catch: if the corn price surges, it will make ethanol production much less profitable…

…What we're looking at is the dirtiest four-letter word in the energy lexicon: glut. Which players in the market are the likeliest to fail if ethanol prices dip below the cost of production? Small fry like farmer-owned cooperatives. And what deep-pocketed player is likely to ride out the storm, then snap up a bunch of failed ethanol plants for pennies on the dollar? Well, that would likely be the biggest producer of all: Archer Daniels Midland. And what happens when ethanol production falls after a bunch of plants shut down? The price of corn drops, and farmers are right back where they started.

Of course, ethanol was never going to be a real solution to our energy problems, anyway. As Philpott noted in the same post, “even if the fuel's energy balance is marginally positive, that factor is probably outweighed by the vast environmental liabilities of large-scale corn production.”

Growing all this corn for fuel has so many downsides it’s hard to know where to begin: food prices are rising to keep up with the higher cost of feed; farmers eager to cash in on the ethanol boom are destroying their topsoil with repeated sowings of corn instead of rotating their crops, and the massive quantities of chemicals that agribiz corn farmers rely on are taking a terrible environmental toll which will only worsen as more acres of corn get planted.

We know that nitrogen run-off from industrial agriculture is feeding the algae blooms that choke our waterways and destroy marine habitats, but the frenzy to grow more corn is contributing to other environmental calamities we’re hardly hearing about. In Iowa, there’s growing evidence that a weed killer routinely sprayed on corn crops is weakening and even killing the Corn Belt’s oak trees, according to The Gazette (hat tip to Mikael Brown):

Department of Natural Resources foresters have collected circumstantial evidence strongly suggesting that a weed killer sprayed on cornfields is damaging, if not killing, oak trees.

"We don't have the smoking gun, but we have lots of evidence pointing to acetochlor," a leading corn herbicide, as the cause of oak leaf tatters, said Paul Tauke, chief of the DNR Forestry Bureau.

Since 2000, Tauke and his colleagues have been studying the role of acetochlor in oak tatters, an ailment that defoliates Iowa's state tree, and lace-leaf hackberry, a similar condition that affects hackberry trees.

Often the trees grow new leaves and survive, but scientists believe tatters stresses and weakens them, making them more susceptible to death by disease and insects.

Researchers are further troubled by evidence indicating the ill effects are often caused not by application errors, such as spraying crops on a windy day, but by volatilization, the process by which chemicals evaporate and accumulate in the
air.

They also worry that the chemical may harm other life forms, including people -- a prospect that no one is investigating.

And they are certain that acetochlor usage -- nearly 100 pounds per square mile in Iowa -- will increase given that American farmers planted 19 percent more corn this year than last in an effort to meet ethanol demand.

There are several scary aspects to this story; one, the fact that even when correctly applied, chemicals have a way of wandering off and doing harm beyond the boundaries of the farms they’re sprayed on; and, two, if this stuff is so toxic to oak trees, how good can it be for people? As the Gazette notes, no one’s even asking this question.

Corn-based ethanol is a federally mandated mistake, not a solution to our insatiable thirst for energy. Cellulosic ethanol, i.e. “non-feedstock bioethanol” made from switchgrass or sugarcane, has far greater potential for reducing greenhouse gas emmissions, but requires more research and investment before it can become a viable alternative.

Why isn’t our government looking to solar power, to wind power, to hydropower, to conservation, aka good old fashioned people power? Maybe because the sun, wind and water haven’t got powerful lobbyists drumming up support for them in Congress, unlike the corn industry.

As for the farmers who bet the farm on corn, I’m sorry they bought into the corn-based ethanol boondoggle, but, hey, who could have predicted the market for feed-based fuel would flounder? I mean, besides Tom Philpott, and a few thousand other visionaries who aren’t blinded by tunnel vision.

Mr. Magoo’s own myopic missteps were compounded by his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mistakes his poor eyesight led him to make. Maybe he should throw his hat into the ring of Repubican presidential contenders—that is, if he can find it.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

Every year I plant several squash and pumpkin vines, and every year, our garden only manages to produce one lone, spectacular specimen. Last year it was a huge Queensland Blue Hubbard squash, an exotic Australian variety with deep blue/gray/green ribs, superb flavor, and an ability to keep almost indefinitely, even in an overheated apartment. It literally lasted us all winter and made a dozen or so meals.

This year, Babar’s bursting with Gallic pride over our still-growing Rouge Vif d’Etampes, a French heirloom famous for its cheese wheel shape and lovely reddish orange color (ours has yet to start turning red.) It’s said to be excellent for cooking and baking, and, as a bonus, it apparently makes an excellent soup tureen as well. A Rouge Vif d’Etampes can grow as big as 40 pounds—big enough to feed a large family for several months.

Next year, I’m planting a more diminutive pumpkin, say, Small Sugar, or maybe Baby Bear. Something I can carry back to the city on the train, instead of having to prevail on a friend with a pick-up truck to ferry our sole super-squash from the Hudson Valley to the West Village so we can show it off and pretend like we’re such great gardeners.

 

MUST COKE AND PEPSI KEEP STEEPING OUR KIDS IN SALT & SUGAR?

Now that soda’s been exiled from school vending machines, the beverage industry’s angling to replace that lost revenue with sports drinks like Gatorade and “enhanced” VitaminWater. Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the companies who make these drinks, have spent a fortune hyping them as “healthy,” but public health advocates say their high fructose corn syrup and sodium content ought to disqualify them for a slot in the vending machines.

A billion-dollar battle is brewing over the fight to get these fizz-free pseudo sodas out of our schools, as the Washington Post reported Wednesday. Senator Tom Harkin’s attempt to pass a bill that would raise the nutritional standards of the foods and drinks sold in our schools is running into fierce opposition from food and drink manufacturers whose fortunes rest on a foundation of high fructose corn syrup and sodium.

The beverage lobby insists that these drinks are being attacked unfairly. One beverage industry spokesman told the Washington Post:

"These drinks are low in calories and the portion sizes are capped…They have benefits to the student. Where you have students competing in athletics throughout the day, it's an essential beverage to make available. These are very reasonable, common-sense things."

So, where, exactly, do you have students “competing in athletics throughout the day”? As far as I can tell, the average American kid is only marginally more active than a factory farm cow. And second, the only essential beverage to make available is water, pure and simple. Only a serious athlete in intensive training even has to worry about losing significant electrolytes, which, by the way, are easily replenished by eating, say, a carrot or an apple.

As Marion Nestle notes in What to Eat, “Gatorade is a salt-supplemented sugar drink, but with fewer sugars and calories than a regular soft drink.” Is it better for you? In some ways, it may be worse; according to the Washington Post, a 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade Rain contains 165 milligrams of sodium, more than triple the amount of sodium in a can of Coke (52 milligrams.)

So, what’s the big deal about a little extra salt? Well, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, salt is “probably the single the most dangerous ingredient in our food supply.” Excessive sodium intake leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates that “cutting the amount of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods by half would save 150,000 lives a year.”

But American taste buds have been trained to expect, and welcome, an incredibly high level of salt and sugar in almost everything we eat. Our palates have been so warped by processed foods that things just don’t taste “right” unless they’re sufficiently salty or sweet. And that’s why it’s now possible to consume your entire daily allowance of sodium at one meal—in one dish, even--at many restaurants.

The CSPI has been after the FDA for years to reclassify salt as a food additive and regulate its use; currently, it’s classified as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.” But it’s not safe in the quantities that food manufacturers rely on to improve the taste of processed foods that would otherwise be unpalatable.

So now our kids are so used to salty, sugary, fatty foods that unadulterated “real” foods, i.e. fruits and vegetables, just don’t taste good to them.

Senator Harkin told the Washington Post he wants to get sports drinks and sugary waters banned from our schools:

“Our most recognized national health watchdog -- the Institute of Medicine -- said sports drinks are equivalent to flavored water, noting their high sugar content…If the beverage industry is serious about the health of our kids, as it repeatedly claims to be, science and sound health should be the guiding principle."

But of course, the beverage industry’s true obligation is to its shareholders, not our nation’s children. And that’s the billion dollar question: can we have healthy corporations and healthy kids?

ARE WE EATING THE FRUITS OF SLAVE LABOR?

Slavery in America is alive and well, according to author John Bowe, whose book Nobodies documents the shocking degree to which some American industries--including food producers--are exploiting foreign workers. Bowe’s book is a shot across the bow to American consumers; are we so enslaved by our own addictions to cheap food and cut-price clothing that we’ll still buy these things knowing they’re a product of slave labor?

Bowe’s book unravels the Florida-based food chain that connects Tropicana, Minute Maid, Taco Bell and McDonald’s, among others, to a network of contractors who lure migrant workers into a form of indentured servitude that sounds so Dickensian you can’t believe it exists in this country, in this day and age. The workers Bowe profiles in Nobodies sometimes don’t get paid at all, and are essentially prisoners in squalid camps or trailer parks where they’re subjected to abysmal living conditions and routinely threatened with violence if they attempt to leave.

The workers, many undocumented and most speaking little or no English, are reluctant or unable to seek help, so they make perfect victims. Their employers pay them little or nothing, and pass the savings on to the corporations who’ve subcontracted the production of citrus fruits and tomatoes to these shady operators so that they can reap the benefits of this sleazy system without having to worry about public relations.

After breezing through Bowe's lively, gripping expose of Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers, I understand just how crucial undocumented workers are to some of our largest companies. Corporate America needs those porous borders to keep its profits flowing.

But does it, really? Bowe discussed the pervasiveness of the problem with Jon Stewart on Monday's Daily Show, and again on Tuesday with Doug Krizner of American Public Media’s Marketplace:

KRIZNER: So what are the companies, then, that I might be familiar with who are taking advantage of this situation, where we have workers in conditions that we are calling slave-like?

BOWE: I would say that the conditions are bad enough, especially in the fruits and vegetables area, that pretty much every large vendor of food products -- that means McDonald's, Burger King, Wal-Mart, anybody big at the top of the supply chain -- probably has a trickle of slave-picked stuff in their supply chain.

KRIZNER: If we go up and talk a little bit about pseudo-slave labor, immigrants who have come in and are making themselves available to do work, what would be the impact if these people were to be fairly compensated for their work?

BOWE: Well, one of the things I found that was so surprising is how little money it would take to make it so that the lowest-tier workers are adequately treated. So for example, for the 1 to 2 million migrant farm workers we have in the U.S., for them all to be paid minimum wage would cost the average American household $50 a year. So I don't think it'd be stretching too far to be able to make it fair.

Bowe expresses the hope that Americans would rather not knowingly purchase goods made by slave labor. He’s also optimistic about the power of organizations like the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to shine a light on this very dark side of our food chain. CIW’s mission is to help migrant workers, bring their exploiters to justice, and shame corporations into raising their standards.

They’ve succeeded in getting the Department of Justice to prosecute some of the worst subcontractors, and they’ve also persuaded Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, to pay an additional penny per pound directly to their tomato pickers. That may not sound like much, but, according to Bowe, it will nearly double the pickers’ wages. And, pressured by CIW and a coalition of church and student-based groups, McDonald’s has agreed to a similar program.

Nobodies profiles two other industries that rely on indentured servitude besides the Florida produce growers: a Tulsa, Oklahoma pressure tank plant that imported fifty three workers from India and then essentially held them hostage, paying them three dollars an hour; and the garment industry of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific, where workers toil for companies like Target and the Gap in sweatshop conditions while the clothes they crank out get to bear a “Made in America” label, thanks to the machinations of patriots like Tom Delay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Bowe writes about the grimmer aspects of globalization and capitalism run amuck in a surprisingly entertaining and engaging way, providing a wealth of facts and figures while openly acknowledging his own biases. He dissects the notion of “free trade” and wonders just how much unfairness and misery we’re willing to inflict on others in pursuit of our own creature comforts.

We’re paying a price, too, with millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs washing out to foreign shores and a commensurate flood of shoddy and toxic consumer goods from overseas filling our store shelves. Bowe takes issue with Thomas Friedman’s rosy view of our globalized economy; a “flat” world hasn’t translated to a level playing field for the workers Bowe profiles. What’s so great about a flat earth, anyway? Seems like you could sail right off the edge of it without seeing the precipice.

COMMUTING VS COMMUNING

The average American commute is growing ever longer, according to a study released last week:

Despite high gas prices – $2.66 in Atlanta on Tuesday – 9 of 10 Americans still drive to work each day, the vast majority of them alone, according to census figures released in June. What's more, the average commute in America has lengthened by a minute a year since 2000, now topping out at 38 minutes, according to the report.

"The big picture is we see congestion increasing in cities of all sizes," says Tim Lomax, an author of the study.

It's not just cars that have wear and tear, experts say. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that every 10 minutes added to a person's commute decreases by 10 percent the time that person dedicates to their family and community.

Longer commutes eat into mealtime, too; with more of us leaving the house at the crack of dawn and coming home later in the evening, we’re too rushed, even, for a bowl of cereal in the morning, much less a home-cooked meal in the evening.

And those obliged to drive to work miss out on the opportunity to incorporate a bit of physical activity into their workday, unlike folks who are lucky enough to live within walking or biking distance of their jobs.

Do we really need to read another study to figure out that all this eating on the run and endless driving is eroding our quality of life? The automobile has not lived up to its promise; it doesn’t provide us with true autonomy or mobility. It’s enslaved us to fossil fuels from foreign countries while depriving most Americans of any alternative means of transport. And all this commuting is a driving force behind climate change, too.

Mass transit, regarded as a common good that merits serious investment in most developed nations, is considered by many American planners and politicians to be as quaint and outmoded as, say, the Geneva Convention.

Plenty of people still consider proximity to public transportation a selling point, judging by the property values of older suburban enclaves that offer the convenience of commuter trains. But somewhere along the line, we started to put all our eggs in one combustible basket, and now we’ve hatched a whole flock of problems.

Many people would dearly love to live closer to their jobs, but can’t afford the high cost of housing near their workplace. Parents who might prefer to raise their kids in a more densely populated, culturally diverse, mixed-use kind of neighborhood find themselves forced to move to the ‘burbs because the public schools are better, the streets are safer, or the property taxes are lower.

But there’s a sizable percentage of folks who’d rather live in a bigger house on a larger lot no matter how far from their place of work, for whom the long daily drive seems a reasonable trade-off—or even a pleasure. Their commute gives them precious “alone” time, or a chance to listen to their favorite author’s latest book, or an opportunity to multitask on their cell phones (hands free, we hope.)

So if these so-called extreme commuters are happy with their way of life, why should anyone else frown upon it?

It depends on whether you regard global warming as a problem. If you don’t, well, then, there’s not much I can say to persuade you that the exurbs are inherently unsustainable. But as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just told a roomful of world leaders at today’s Climate Summit, "the time for doubt has passed…inaction now will prove the costliest action of all in the long term."

And another report issued last week, from the Urban Land Institute, points out that choosing to live closer to work is, in fact, a more effective way to fight climate change than switching to a hybrid car.

Unfortunately, our land use policies historically have encouraged exactly the opposite phenomenon, with federal, state and local policies that actively encourage sprawl and make it seem inevitable. And there are plenty of people willing to defend our ever expanding exurbs. As James Burling, the litigation director for the Pacific Legal Fund, a conservative group that dismisses environmentalists’ concerns over sprawl and global warming, told the Los Angeles Times:

"So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn, there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that," he said.

Ah, the proverbial bit of lawn, that precious American birthright. Who cares about greenhouse gases, as long as we can have our own bit of green? When it turns brown from drought, will the suburbs lose their luster, or will extreme commuters even notice, since they leave their homes before dawn and return after dark?

In the meantime, I’m off to hear Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA’s Goddard Institute, give a lecture on the impact of climate change on agriculture and food in the Hudson Valley.

Lucky for me, the venue hosting the event is within walking distance, because Manhattan is going to suffer from major gridlock today, thanks to the UN’s Climate Summit. Featured speakers include Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bush couldn’t make it, but he condescended to send Condi. Guess he’s busy prepping for his own two-day climate summit on Thursday and Friday, which will call for the usual voluntary measures and other pie-in-the-sky solutions. Brace yourselves for more hot air.

A DEEPLY ROOTED LOVE

Our G.O.P. (Gray Old Pachyderm) seems to think there’s something twisted about the attachment these carrots have for one another. Farmer Kitty, on the other hand, thinks it’s sweet. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Is it OK to juice them, though?

Please Don't Petraeus in a Bad Light

“I've got to admit it’s getting better.” In a stunning result, Iraq’s Al Anbar Province has landed on Money Magazine’s list of the “Top Ten Best Places to Live 2007.” Unknown to most Americans until mentioned numerous times by President Bush, General Petraeus, and others on American television as an exemplar of the improving situation in Iraq, Al Anbar surprisingly finished 2nd in the latest poll, ahead of Hanover, New Hampshire, but behind Middleton, Wisconsin. “Some places have everything any family could want—economic opportunity, good schools, safe streets, things to do and a sense of community,” according to Money Magazine, but just what does Al Anbar Province offer? “Well…it’s less Hellish than it was six months ago,” said an Anbar resident who asked not to be identified. Some in the media have linked Anbar’s place in the poll to its use as a Republican talking point, but a spokesman for the Bush Administration said, “We’d love to take the credit, but I think you’ll find it has taken place organically, a little reduction in ethno-sectarian strife goes a long way.” Look out Middleton, Al Anbar may not be #1 right now, but they’re #2 with a bullet…or is that an RPG?

WHY IT’S ONLY RATIONAL TO RATION MEAT

One of the more novel cookbooks in our collection is a little World War II vintage number called Cooking Without Meat. Published in 1943, it begins:

WHEN THERE IS NO MEAT

Doing with little meat, one of the necessities of wartime, means a drastic change in the eating habits of most North Americans, a change many resent and most cooks deplore. For it is true that the average meal (luncheon or dinner) is planned around the meat dish. Not only that, but the rest of the meal usually receives less attention, both in preparation and eating, and is often practically obscured in meat gravy with the result that even the flavor of vegetables is masked by the odor and savor of meat.

Not surprising, then, that meatless meals are a problem. The cook is left without the customary high spot in her menu, and foods that before received little attention must now stand on their own merits. This is not all tragedy, however. Other foods worthy of acquaintance have distinctive and subtle flavors which frequently go unnoticed in competition with the dominating taste of meat. And still other delectable foods are seldom served in meat-eating households, a privation no lover of good food would knowingly endure.

So if steaks and chops have left your table and a new cooking era confronts you, set out with anticipation to explore a new realm of gastronomic wonders. There are many pleasant surprises ahead for you and your family.

Faced with the complexities and restrictions of a rationed larder, you may be inclined to be skeptical about the joys of war-time cooking. Naturally, it means considerable readjustment, but it can be a game, a battle of wits. By accepting your limitations as a challenge, you will find increased satisfaction in the preparation of palatable meals.

Back then, life during wartime meant enduring all kinds of shortages. Ironically, it was the post-World War II surplus of petro-chemicals that fueled the rise of industrial agriculture in America, as Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer. After the war the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help out the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: Spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.”

So, thanks to our military-industrial-fueled food chain, food rationing is a thing of the past (although we’re reportedly running low on bullets.) America’s positively marinating in meat. A food shortage is inconceivable in a land that produces enough food to supply every man, woman and child with 3900 calories a day—nearly double what the average person actually needs.

Whether you regard this uber-efficient system of food production as a plus or a minus depends on whether you’re a multinational conglomerate that profits from this glut, or just a no-name glutton. What’s clear, though, is that the average American actually ate better during the supposed deprivations of World War II than most of us do now; between cutting back on meat, and harvesting all those fresh, homegrown veggies from their victory gardens, Americans had a far healthier diet then--and, not coincidentally, a lower incidence of disease.

Now we’re importing our meat-centric diet, and the diseases it breeds, to the rest of the world, resulting in what the World Health Organization has dubbed the “globesity” epidemic. Excessive meat consumption is exacerbating global warming, too, because livestock production turns out to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

And as global warming worsens weather conditions such as droughts and floods, food production all over the world is in jeopardy. But just as we’ve figured out that we affluent nations need to eat less meat, meat consumption is skyrocketing in newly prosperous developing nations, to the consternation of climate change experts. A recent article in the venerable British medical journal the Lancet makes “the case for restricting production and consumption of red meat:”

Given the projected increases in global livestock production and in associated greenhouse-gas emissions if policies do not change, urgent attention needs to be paid to finding ways of reducing the demand for animal products and the energy intensity of their production…

…the prime objective must be to reduce consumption of animal products in high-income countries, and thus lower the ceiling consumption level to which low-income and middle-income countries would then converge…

… the urgent task of curtailing global greenhouse-gas emissions necessitates action on all major fronts. For the world's higher-income populations, greenhouse-gas emissions from meat-eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying, especially in view of the great warming potential of methane in the short-to-medium term.

Of course, being a medical journal, the Lancet also emphasizes the many health benefits of eating less red meat. But it’s kind of a moot point, because if we can’t reign in our greenhouse gas emissions, our collective goose is cooked, anyway. Uncle Sam’s asleep at the wheel—and he wouldn’t dream of asking us to curb our carbon footprint, anyway, whether by carpooling, say, or skipping the steak. Because, you know, that would be un-American.

But that’s no excuse for the rest of us to remain in a carbon-induced coma. Nature is asking us, nicely, to change our wasteful ways before it’s too late. So you can choose to change now, or you can have change thrust upon you later, when we’ve reached the point of no return. To paraphrase a 70’s margarine mantra, it’s not nice to fuel Mother Nature.

ROOTING FOR AMERICA’S ASPARAGUS FARMERS

We’re thrilled to be co-hosting, along with Screening Liberally, a showing this evening of the award-winning “stalk-umentary” Asparagus! If I were a film critic, my blurb for Asparagus! would be “Hilarious and Heartbreaking!” This saga of how the War on Drugs is destroying American asparagus farmers is funny, tragic, and infuriating, documenting our government’s demented decision to use our tax dollars to pay Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus instead of coca.

This strategy has done virtually nothing to stem the production of cocaine, but it’s nearly wiped out the family farms of Oceana County, Michigan, where the farmers are struggling to compete with cheap imported asparagus.

We here at Eating Liberally pride ourselves on providing tasty and topical food at all our events, but a fall screening of a film about a spring vegetable poses particular logistical challenges. Needless to say, there’s no locally grown asparagus this time of year. Sure, we could buy fresh asparagus at Whole Foods, except that it’s from Peru, which is, like, the whole point of this film.

Ah, but what about frozen asparagus? After all, everyone knows frozen’s the next best thing to fresh, right?

So I could get a 12 ounce bag of asparagus spears from Trader Joe’s for only $1.99, except that, it’s from, of course, Peru. How about Whole Foods? They’ve got 12 oz. bags of organic asparagus spears for just $2.29! Too bad they’re from China.

If you’re willing to pay more, Whole Foods also stocks 9 oz. boxes of organic asparagus from Cascadian Farms for $3.99. Why is it more expensive? I have no idea, because it, too, is from China.

There is only one source for American asparagus, and that’s good ol’ Bird’s Eye. My local supermarket sells their 10 oz. packages for $3.99, the same price as Cascadian Farm’s Chinese asparagus. OK, so it’s not organic, but if ever there were a situation where local trumps organic, this is it. I mean, if it weren’t for Bird’s Eye, these Michigan farmers might be out of business altogether.

Consumers are clearly willing to pay more for organic produce. When will food manufacturers figure out that we’re willing to pay a premium to get fruits and vegetables that are domestically produced, too? Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are no doubt compelled to source their foods as cheaply as possible. But those low prices don’t reflect the cost of transporting imported foods to our store shelves, not to mention the toll our globalized food chain is taking on our farmers.

Why can’t more companies offer us grown-in-the-USA frozen produce so that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to spend a bit more at the market would have the option of supporting American farmers? And even if you aren’t particularly patriotic, you might be happy to pay a bit extra to get food that’s not made in China. Or South America, at our expense.

Sometimes it seems the only thing we manufacture in the US these days is an appetite for cheap consumer goods and crappy processed foods. Most farmers who grow “specialty crops”--the USDA’s pet name for fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption and deemed unworthy of the largesse the USDA bestows on commodity crop farmers—can’t make a decent living off their land and have to take second jobs off the farm, which is also the only way many of them can afford health insurance.

I don’t know what the solution is, but as Asparagus! so ably shows, the answer is not to pay Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus, unless the question is, “How can we destroy our own farmers?” Three cheers for Bird’s Eye for being the only brand that can say “Product of the USA.” My boxes of American asparagus spears also say “please call us with comments at 1 800-563-1786…or visit our website at www.birdseyefoods.com.” I’m going to call them just to say thanks, on behalf of the fine folks of Oceana County, the former asparagus capital of the world. And thanks, too, to the filmmakers of Asparagus! for spreading the word about our endangered asparagus spears! Now, speaking of spreading, I’ve got some hors d’oeuvres to prepare…

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