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Submitted by KAT on Tue, 05/15/2007 - 10:06am.
Today, May 15th, is “Don’t Buy Gas Day,” and as empty, feel-good gestures go, it ranks right up there with the ubiquitous “support our troops” stickers that are apparently standard issue for all gas guzzlers.
This bogus boycott was sparked by a chain of e-mails claiming that we can stick it to Big Oil by going on a one-day fossil fuel fast. How pathetic, and how American. Is there any other nation so convinced that the solutions to all our problems can be solved by shopping—or not shopping?
Of course, the choices we make as consumers do, in fact, make a difference. I’ll be the first to shout “Amen!” to the Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping. Reverend Billy’s a fake preacher, but he advocates making real changes. His message may be swaddled in satire, but he makes a sincere case for living a more spiritual—and sustainable—way of life.
Don’t Buy Gas Day, on the other hand, is a perfect example of what my friend Elizabeth Royte, a “no impact” pioneer, would call a “sustainability stunt.” It may make a good sound bite, but it’s totally toothless.
The premise of Don’t Buy Gas Day is that you can make Exxon Mobil and Chevron bleed for your gas-gouged pain by waiting till Wednesday to fill your tank. Supposedly, postponing your petro-fix by one day will deprive the oil companies of nearly $3 billion in revenues, and cause a 30 cent per gallon drop in gas prices overnight.
But as Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization, told CNN, "A one-day boycott makes no sense whatsoever. You're not reducing consumption, you're just buying on a different day."
It’s a tragic misconception that cars equal freedom. In reality, constructing our communities around automobiles deprives us of autonomy, steals hours from our lives with long commutes, alienates us from our neighbors, tethers us to a finite source of fuel we deem worth dying for, and which, ironically, is killing our ecosystem.
That’s why, in our household, every day is Don’t Buy Gas Day. Matt doesn’t even know how to drive, and I barely do. Never owned a car. We rely on New York City’s excellent mass transit, and commute to our humble Hudson Valley hovel on the weekends via Amtrak.
Our lovely little hamlet has no shops, no mail delivery, and no municipal garbage pick-up. The nearest grocery store is several miles away, and the town dump’s even further.
Does it sound inconceivably inconvenient? It’s not, because our town is rich in the ultimate renewable source of energy—people. Our friends and neighbors gladly give us a lift to the market, or take our garbage to the dump. It’s an old-fashioned sort of community, the kind you can't find once you’ve exiled yourself to the exurbs.
So give the gas pumps a pass for today if it makes you feel good, but take a moment to think about tomorrow, and the next day. Because even as the cost of gas goes ever higher, Americans are driving more than ever. Maybe it’s time to pull over and take a closer look at the road map.
Submitted by KAT on Mon, 05/14/2007 - 9:42am.
Lock your doors. Bolt your windows. There's something in THE FOG!
That’s a line from John Carpenter’s classic 1980 horror film, but it's also the basis of a lawsuit on the coast of Central California, where the fog stands accused of lifting legally applied pesticides from conventional farms and depositing them on organically grown herbs on a nearby farm, ruining $500,000 worth of dill.
Can organic and conventional farms butt borders without butting heads? A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge has issued an injunction against Western Farm Services, a Fresno company that provides and applies pesticides to conventional farms, to stop spraying pesticides while it ponders the case of Jacobs Farms v. Western Farm Services.
Fog, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, has the power to “turn pesticides into liquid and carry them off days after they were sprayed.” Call it “nurture” versus nature, a collision between manmade methods of trying to tweak our ecosystem and, well, the proverbial forces of nature.
How can you hold the law of unintended consequences accountable for breaking the law? Western Farm Services didn’t commit any crimes. According to the Sentinel, which reported this story last week, “under state code, a pesticide sprayer's responsibility to stop chemicals from drifting into other fields ends after the pesticide is applied.”
But the fog apparently carried the pesticides from fields of conventionally grown Brussels sprouts to the 120 acres of Wilder Ranch State Park that Larry Jacobs rents to grow organic herbs.
The chemicals in question are used to control cabbage moths, but their residues are not permitted on any kinds of herbs, conventional or organic. When Larry Jacobs' dill crop tested positive for the pesticide residue in December, his $500,000 crop was a total loss.
Now, the same thing has happened with his spring crop. They’re still tallying the numbers, but it surely adds up to another big loss for Jacobs.
Santa Cruz attorney Austin Comstock, who’s representing Jacobs, told the Sentinel "There's a traditional concept in Anglo-Saxon law that you use your property in a way not to damage mine. If you damage mine there's some redress there."
Sounds reasonable. But we live in an era where Monsanto can plant genetically modified crops and then, when their patented seeds are carried by the bees or the breeze to nearby organic farms, take the hapless farmer to court for stealing their product—and win. By that logic, I could sue my next door neighbor for damages because my bamboo invaded her yard (which, of course, it did--talk about broken borders, oy.)
The livelihood of both organic and conventional farmers is at stake here. Pesticides and GMOs routinely show up like uninvited Agribiz ambassadors crashing the organic garden gate, but a ban means putting the interests of organic farmers ahead of conventional crop growers.
Unlikely, yes, but there’s a hopeful precedent for Jacobs Farms in a case where herbicides that were properly applied migrated to nearby orchards and killed the trees. The orchard growers sued, and the standards were tightened.
But it makes you wonder. Can something that causes that much harm be safe to use in the first place? And if the pesticide residues from the stuff they’re using to protect Brussels sprouts from cabbage moths aren’t considered safe enough for conventional herbs, why are they OK on Brussels sprouts?
Of course, in the end, it's really a case of the People v. the Pests. But some might argue that we are the pests.
If Jacobs Farms v. Western Farm Services were a Capra film, I'd bet on Jacobs Farms. How did The Fog end, anyway? My recollection is hazy. Was it a happy ending?
Hat tip to Cookie Jill.
Submitted by KAT on Fri, 05/11/2007 - 3:21pm.
Here’s a feel-good story from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about one town’s five year plan to collectively tackle the childhood obesity epidemic. It’s Friday, and we’ve all had our fill of FDA failures and toxin-tainted imports, so here’s a heapin’ helpin’ of happy news, just for the heck of it.
Tufts University assistant professor Christina Economos spearheaded an innovative community-wide effort to get the kids in Somerville, a town of 78,000 just outside Boston, to eat their fruits and veggies and get more exercise:
Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Cortatone, immediately saw the potential in Dr. Economo’s experiment and threw his weight--including some unwanted pounds he’d picked up himself on the campaign trail--behind the project.
“We’re here to improve the lives of everybody in the city,” he told the WSJ.
And so they did, using heretofore untried tactics: persuading restaurants to reduce portion size and offer low-fat milk; extending bike paths and enhancing crosswalks to make the car-centric community better for biking and walking; adding fresh, wholesome foods to the school lunch menu, concentrating on flavor and quality instead of calories.
Classes on exercise and nutrition were added to the curriculum, and fatty, sugary snacks were exiled from the lunchroom. Teachers stopped handing out candy as a reward; now, kids get a pass to skip homework or a test question, instead.
The kids still complain about the switch from French fries to potato wedges, but the program is working; the kids have adopted healthier habits and thereby achieved a healthier weight. Somerville’s success could soon be duplicated elsewhere:
Submitted by KAT on Thu, 05/10/2007 - 1:04pm.
Mississippi’s Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner, Lester Spell, has ordered Chinese catfish off store shelves all over Mississippi after samples tested positive for illegal antibiotics. The antibiotics, banned by the FDA, have been known to cause allergic reactions and nerve, muscle and heart problems. Health officials in Arkansas and Louisiana are awaiting the outcome of tests on samples of imported seafood sent to the FDA, which has yet to issue a recall.
A ban on Chinese catfish would surely be a boon to American catfish farmers, who’ve been struggling to stay afloat in a flood of competition from Asian aquaculture. Imports of Chinese catfish reportedly doubled in the U.S. last year, making life harder than ever for U.S. catfish farmers in the already down-at-the-mouth south.
This morning, a group of southern Senators, led by Republicans Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, tacked an amendment onto yesterday’s prescription drug safety bill that authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to inspect seafood for antibiotics and other contaminants already banned by the FDA. Their concern for the health of their constituents, including, presumably, the sizable southern seafood industry, is heartening.
As Louisiana’s Daily Advertiser notes, “Beyond the antibiotic threat, Asian catfish are often raised in "latrine ponds" - the Chinese system of channeling human and other waste into ponds used to raise fish.”
By contrast, American fish farmers, such as the farmers’ cooperative Delta Pride, raise catfish in ponds in the Mississipi Delta that “produce clean, white-fleshed fish with little collateral damage to the surrounding environment, “ as Jay Weinstein notes in The Ethical Gourmet, the book I always turn to when I have questions about aquaculture.
Weinstein adds that domestic catfish logs far fewer food miles than its Asian competitors, and “also supports an ecologically sound food production system in our own country, improving living standards in a traditionally poor region.”
Matt makes a killer cornmeal-crusted catfish po-boy, and you can bet he wouldn’t dream of buying catfish from Asia. American catfish is still pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of things. Of course, Chinese catfish is even cheaper, if you don’t count the consequences of relying on illegal antibiotics and toxin-filled aquafarms. Mississippi’s done the math, and it adds up to this: when it comes to catfish, buy American.
Submitted by KAT on Wed, 05/09/2007 - 5:34pm.
The litany of what’s wrong with lawns is long. They’re prodigious polluters, from the fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate our soil and water to the gas powered mowers that spew noxious fumes. They waste precious water, and create a sterile, monoculture habitat with nothing to offer the birds or the bees. Last, but not least, you can’t eat them.
The more I learned about conventional lawns, the stupider they seemed. And now it turns out that the stupidity is contagious; all this stuff we use to grow our lawns is shrinking our babies’ brains, according to a study from the Indiana University School of Medicine.
The research showed that children conceived during the summer months when pesticide use is at its peak consistently scored lower on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) examination. Neonatologist Paul Winchester, who studied more than a million and a half Indiana students, presented the findings last Monday at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting:
It’s been obvious for decades, though, to some of us, that you can’t just pour pesticides all over your yard without poisoning everything around you. And as more people figure this out, there’s a growing demand for grass that’s really green, and a renewed interest in edible landscaping, the kind of yard “guerilla gardener” Heather Flores advocates in Food Not Lawns.
But if you continue to contaminate your soil with toxins, your kid might turn out to be a dunce. Will it be due to pesticide exposure? Hhmmm, hard to say. If you’re dumb enough to keep using all that chemical crap, it might just be congenital.
Submitted by KAT on Tue, 05/08/2007 - 6:55pm.
First it was cats and dogs, then hogs and chickens. Now we find out they’ve been feeding melamine-tainted wheat gluten to the fish, too. Oh, and by the way? It wasn’t even really wheat gluten. According to the AP, it was actually a blend of wheat meal, melamine, and “related, nitrogen-rich compounds to make it appear more protein rich than it was.” Next, they’ll be telling us it was really pulverized pencil shavings.
So while federal inspectors poke around the fish farms trying to figure out whether the fish that ate the tainted feed have entered the food supply, the FDA assures us that “the contamination was probably too low to harm anyone who ate the fish.”
Probably. Who knows? Even additives that have been declared safe by food safety experts can turn out to be toxic. The Guardian reports today that a study of synthetic food additives commonly consumed by British children supports “findings first made seven years ago that linked the additives to behavioural problems, such as temper tantrums, poor concentration and hyperactivity, and to allergic reactions.” The additives include food colorings and preservatives that have been deemed safe in the U.K., including some that are banned in Scandinavian countries and the U.S.
The results of the study, conducted at Southhampton University for the Food Standards Agency, will not be published for several months, although independent experts say the evidence is compelling enough that parents should eliminate foods containing these ingredients from their childrens’ diets immediately.
The research confirms a 2000 report called the Isle of Wight study, which concluded that "significant changes in children's behaviour could be produced by the removal of colourings and additives from their diet…”
The FSA's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food (CoT) discussed the findings in a closed meeting on March 20. Normally, the CoT’s meetings are open. The Guardian notes the ramifications of making the results public:
So, here in the U.S., we’ve got stuff in our food that isn’t supposed to be there, but may or may not be harmful, while in the U.K., the stuff that the experts say is safe may not be after all. We're all out to sea while our FDA fishes for clues and the U.K.'s FSA flounders.
Submitted by KAT on Mon, 05/07/2007 - 11:29am.
We’d rather not hear about how our habits are harming habitats in faraway places. Why let rainforest destruction rain on your parade? All those acres of amputated tree limbs shipped off to the sawmill to become chopsticks, or make room for livestock crops, leaving a cemetery of sawed-off stumps—such a buzzkill.
Americans don’t want to watch that kind of thing, or so the Discovery Channel seems to think. After greenlighting Planet Action, a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund and Discovery’s Animal Planet channel, Discovery’s executives evidently concluded that the six-part series documenting the extreme exploits of amateur environmentalists and eco-experts in places like Belize and Borneo made for Mustn’t-See-tv, at least in the U.S.
The Planet Action series, which aired internationally, continues The World Wildlife Fund’s forty year-plus fight for the rights of the finned and the furry. From Animal Planet’s UK website:
Sounds like a reality show I might actually want to watch, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have the chance; there’s no mention of the show on Animal Planet’s American website. I only heard about it thanks to a Daily Kos post by a Kossack in Scotland, “Melmoth,” aka novelist and environmentalist Gregory Norminton, who wrote:
It would have been nice if Norminton had cited his sources, but it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a bunch of suits at company headquarters decreeing that a show about sustainability wouldn’t sustain our interest.
Norminton calls the Discovery Channel’s decision “stupid, gutless and wasteful.” To which I would only add “sad,” because it’s a missed opportunity to encourage Americans to embrace a more sustainable way of life.
I’ve been heartened in recent months by, among other things, the growing stigma against plastic shopping bags, the rising rejection of agribiz animal abuse, and the ever-higher profile of the eat local movement, which made the cover of Time a couple of months ago and is about to get an even bigger boost from Barbara Kingsolver’s brand-new locavore memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
We’ve been fiddling while the world burns, but the majority of Americans now seem to recognize that global warming is a real problem. The good news is that there are things we can do to avert carbon-fueled catastrophe, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released on May 4th. From the AP:
Norminton ends his Kos diary with a plea to take action on behalf of Planet Action:
OK, so Animal Planet’s not PBS, I get that. It’s a for-profit enterprise. And so is Discovery Home, which Discovery’s going to turn into a “24-hour channel focused on eco-friendly living,” as part of its “PlanetGreen” initiative.
“The channel is doing well economically,” Mr. Zaslav told the NY Times, “but it’s not serving this higher purpose.”
And producing a program like Planet Action and then choosing not to air it in your largest market--which, incidentally, is also the largest producer of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions--isn’t serving a higher purpose, either.
Norminton’s Kos post caught my eye because the story it tells is part of a larger pattern. The people who program our airwaves have a pre-conceived set of notions about what Americans will watch. Look at the way the Learning Channel routinely adapts British “how-to” shows for American audiences by dumbing them down and prettying them up with bland but telegenic hosts.
The news shows are just as bad. Witness CNN’s decision to replace Soledad O’Brien with Fox News alumnus Kieran Chetry on its morning news show. American Morning’s ratings were up, but still trailing Fox. Not good enough for CNN president Jon Klein.
So he replaced O’Brien, who did such a terrific job during the Katrina debacle, with Chetry. Chetry’s credentials? ''You just have to look at her'' to know what a strong anchor she is, Klein told the NY Times. ''She lights up the screen.''
Sounds more like a candidate for American Idol than American Morning. Not that there’s much of a difference, these days. I vote for bringing back Soledad. And airing Planet Action.
Submitted by KAT on Sat, 05/05/2007 - 1:29pm.
Finally, the greenmarket’s kicking into high gear after what seemed like an awfully slow start. In our haste to beat the chefs to the cream of the season’s first crops, we hustled over to Union Square around 8 a.m. without even taking time out for our usual morning coffee.
Even so, we arrived just in time to see someone snap up the last bunch of pea greens from Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm, our favorite “beyond organic” source for unusual greens. John Gorzynski farmed organically for decades before abandoning the “organic” appellation a few years back out of disgust with diluted federal standards.
Ask him what it’s like to be a grower of what the USDA labels “specialty crops,” aka fruits and vegetables, and he’ll gladly give you a dash of ornery indignation to go with your greens, because our nation’s farm bill, up for renewal this year, historically gives agribiz fatcats a hefty helping of corporate welfare, and leaves the so-called “niche market” growers like Gorzynski to fend for themselves, like feral felines.
All us sustainable ag-tivists are trying to rebrand the Farm Bill the “Food and Farm Bill” in the hopes that more non-rural folks will finally realize this incredibly important piece of legislation affects them, too. Dan Imhoff’s excellent and entertaining Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill should be required reading for anyone who eats. Michael Pollan wrote the forward, though he apparently forgot to mention Imhoff’s book in that great NY Times article he wrote about our atrocious agricultural policies a few weeks back. Oh well.
We consoled ourselves for missing the boat on the pea greens by scoring one of Gorzynski’s last bunches of fava bean greens; less delicate but equally exotic in their own beany way. Either one adds a zing of spring to an otherwise ordinary salad, which is why both are sold out by 8:30 a.m.
Moving on to other vendors, Matt stalked up on asparagus, ramps, shitake mushrooms, and one extravagance--nasturtiums, the most flamboyant member of the cress family. They’ve got a peppery bite much like watercress with the added bonus of being beautiful. So easy to grow, too; I tuck nasturtium seeds in the ground every spring and watch them climb up our front fence and trail in front of it all summer, giving us plenty of flowers to garnish our greens and our garden.
They’ll thrive in a city window box, too, though they’re not fond of auto exhaust. But then, who is? Nasturtium lovers, unite, and demand congestion pricing in car-choked urban centers!
I gravitated as always to the greens, filling the now-mandatory canvas shopping bag with lacinato kale, baby collards, and a lovely bunch of beets with their equally lovely greens, which are identical to chard for all culinary purposes. My one indulgence was a single red bell pepper, grown hydroponically in a hothouse. It will give the Greek salad I’m making for lunch a nice crunchy touch, but it’s not so crunchy, figuratively speaking. Yes, it’s local and organic, but it’s an off-season crop grown in an artificially heated environment.
Then again, try finding a place on this planet that’s not artificially heated, these days. It’s getting to the point where a greenhouse will be the only place where the phrase “climate control” won’t be an oxymoron.
Submitted by KAT on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 11:30am.
Madison Avenue has a label for socially conscious shoppers who are willing to pay a premium for ethically and sustainably produced food: LOHAS. As in, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.
But the LOHAS crowd is being denied the one label it craves, COOL, aka Country of Origin Labeling. Under the COOL legislation, which Congress included in the 2002 Farm Bill, retailers were required as of September 2004 to provide labels revealing the country of origin for all fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, peanuts, and seafood.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the supermarket; food industry lobbyists bought themselves some back door delays from Congress. With the exception of the seafood industry, which was apparently not agile enough to escape getting caught in COOL’s nets, the legislation has yet to be implemented.
Debra Eschmeyer, program director for the National Family Farm Coalition, has done the math:
The clothes we wear are required to carry a label telling us what country they were made in; why shouldn’t we have access to the same information regarding the food we consume?
Matt and I have been scrutinizing the source of our food purchases for a long time now in our quest to eat more ethically, but lately, we’ve noticed that the fine print seems to have disappeared altogether. At first I thought maybe it was my aging eyeballs, but no, the frozen peas and corn from Whole Foods have taken a vow of silence, refusing to divulge their origins.
Trader Joe’s frozen peas are clearly labeled “Product of U.S.A.” But they’re not organic. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has organic frozen peas, but won’t tell you where they’re from. Presumably they’re foreign, because they’re certified organic by a private, for-profit corporation called Quality Assurance International.
We just want to know where our food comes from, as do the vast majority of Americans. A cabal of corporations and special interest groups doesn’t want us to have that option. And Congress is doing their bidding--bidness as usual.
So while an army of advertisers targets the lucrative LOHAs demographic by coating everything with a shell of sustainability, Congress withholds from us the single greatest weapon in our battle for better food—the right to know its origins. Why are the food manufacturers so determined to keep their sources a secret? Maybe because a “Product of China” label on a bag of frozen peas just doesn’t have the kind of cachet that translates into ka-ching.
Submitted by KAT on Thu, 05/03/2007 - 9:14am.
Yum Brands, proud parent of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, has had a spell of bad yuck recently. First came the Taco Bell E. coli episode. Then came the vermin-filled video that quickly went viral, starring the rat pack who turned a West Village Taco Bell into their very own after hours supper club.
Nothing slows fast food sales faster than viruses and varmints, and, sure enough, Yum Brands announced Wednesday that its overall U.S. operating profits fell 11% in the first quarter.
Yum Brand shares promptly soared to a record high on the New York Stock Exchange.
It’s not that Wall Street’s bullish on bacteria, or unperturbed by pests. Strong sales are what floats investors’ boats, and Yum Brand’s got ‘em—in China.
Sales have been terrific in the land where formica’s a food additive, more than offsetting the decline in U.S. earnings.
We learned last week that Chinese food producers routinely add melamine, a coal-derived chemical, to a wide variety of grain-based food products. The practice is widespread and appears to have been going on for more than fifteen years, according to an account in the China Post:
Call it a culinary culture clash. We say “contaminant,” they say “revenue enhancing additive.”
No wonder Yum Brands finds plenty of takers for its take-out in China. Apparently, if you taint it, they’ll say “yum.”
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