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The Meltdown We Really Can't Afford

Hey, ho, where's the cash flow? Wasn't the bailout supposed to get those streams of credit flowing again? But while the titans of trickle-down and the free-reign rainmakers pray for new rivers of revenue to float their boats, some venerable bodies of water beyond the canyons of Wall Street are in danger of literally evaporating--and all the money in the world won't bring them back once we pass that terrible tipping point.

London Bridge isn't falling down, but the river it spans may be drying up, according to the Guardian:

"Britain's rivers could nearly run dry because long hot summers caused by climate change will not be sufficiently compensated by wetter winters...the overall average trend is towards drastically reduced river flows across the country."


And, to get truly biblical, the BBC reports that years of drought have helped decimate the Sea of Galilee. Should Jesus decide to revisit his old stomping grounds anytime soon (as Sarah Palin reportedly expects him to), the miracle worker who fed the multitudes will be hard pressed to find even two fish in the dregs of this ancient sea, doggone it.

But while rivers and lakes all over the world are simply vanishing into the ether, something really insidious is bubbling up from the Arctic seabed. Scientists have just discovered that "massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats." This could speed up climate change to an unprecedented degree, as the Independent reports:

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.


Nevermind the "negative feedback loop" that's strangling Wall Street. If we don't get a handle on this positive feedback loop--which, let's be clear, is not a positive development--it's going to hang us all, and the future of our financial markets won't matter one molecule.

Yes, it's awful that our nation's debt has ballooned so badly that, as of September 30, we passed the $10 trillion mark and the National Debt Clock ran out of room. The Durst Organization, which maintains the billboard, had to bump the dollar sign to accommodate all those zeroes.

But the figure we need to focus on now is not measured in trillions, or billions--it's parts per million (ppm), the way we measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we had a billboard tracking that figure (maybe the Durst Organization would care to donate one?), it would currently read "385 ppm." Unfortunately, James Hansen and his climatologist colleagues have concluded that if we hope to escape catastrophic climate change, we've got to get back to 350 ppm ASAP.

That's why Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and author, founded 350.org, a website devoted to getting the word out about how our collective goose is getting cooked. There's still time to pull ourselves out of the fryer--but just barely. McKibben, who's been sounding the alarm on global warming for nearly two decades (see The End of Nature), told a group of bloggers the other day that the scientists he's been talking to for the past several decades about climate change are "just panicking," at this point. By the year 2012, these experts say, it will be too late to avoid the most dire consequences of global warming, at the rate we're going.

The carbon cabal that's held our country captive these past eight years has cost us precious time in the fight to reduce the world's greenhouse gases. It may have been a Freudian slip when John McCain addressed the crowd at a Pennsylvania rally as "my fellow prisoners," but he inadvertently evoked the feeling of helplessness so many of us have had as the Bush administration stubbornly refused, for years, to even admit that climate change was a problem, and then--having grudgingly conceded that it was real--made virtually no meaningful effort to address this crisis.

But now, with the promise of a new administration, there's hope that the next U.S. president will stop stalling and start being the leader that the world needs now, more than ever. And he--be it McCain or Obama (well, OK, please let it be Obama)--doesn't even have to wait till he moves into the White House. There's a party the president-elect should elect to attend even before the Inaugural Ball: The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland this December. And 350.org's got a new campaign calling on us all to invite our president-elect to show up and tell the world that "Team America is ready to get back in the game."

350.org's goal is to send 35,000 invitations to McCain and Obama. They've collected 16,000 signatures already in less than one week, so they're nearly halfway there. And 350.org's calling on folks all over the world to submit videos inviting the candidates to come to Poland; send in your own spin for possible inclusion on 350.org's nifty revolving globe, if you're cinematically inclined.

The goal of this gathering of world leaders is to hammer out the details of the Copenhagen Treaty, the successor to the Kyoto Protocol--i.e., an international accord to help the world find solutions to this dilemma before it becomes a disaster. Imagine what a powerful statement it would be to have our president-elect choose to attend this critical meeting. It would send the message that when it comes to fighting climate change, Americans are no longer AWOL, or MIA.

And come January, we'll no longer be POWs held hostage by pro-petroleum politicians claiming that the U.S. simply can't afford to incur the costs of dealing with climate change because it will destroy our whole economy. Yeah, and higher fuel efficiency standards were going to ruin America's auto industry. Hey, good thing Chrysler dodged that bullet!

Those arguments are kind of moot, now, so can we please move on and show the world that we're through with tricks and ready for a treaty? Go to 350.org and tell our next president that the U.S. has got to be part of the equation if we're going to get the world's greenhouse gas emissions down to 350 ppm. Because it really doesn't matter how low our financial fortunes sink; if temperatures keep rising, there'll be no bailing anyone out.

Originally published on Alternet.org

Goodbye Good Times, Hello Waltons?

How will you dress for the Bush Depression this winter? Me, I'm counting on my slightly tattered but super-toasty flannel-lined OshKosh overalls--so old they were actually made in OshKosh. That, and the sweaters I'll be wearing à la Jimmy Carter, since our thermostat and our bank balance will both be chillingly low.

President Carter tried, and failed, to make cardigans and conservation cool during the seventies energy crisis. He warned of "the serious consequences of our long delay in creating a comprehensive national energy policy" in a speech announcing the Emergency Natural Gas Act of 1977, and called on us all to buckle down and bundle up:

I again ask every American to lower the thermostat settings in all homes and buildings to no more than 65 degrees during the daytime and to a much lower setting at night...

...I must say to you quite frankly that this is not a temporary request for conservation. Our energy problems will not be over next year or the year after. Further sacrifices in addition to lowering thermostats may well be necessary. But I believe this country is tough enough and strong enough to meet that challenge. And I ask all Americans to cooperate in minimizing the adverse effect on the lives of our people.

Sadly, the sole American family willing to heed Carter's "make do with less" message was the Waltons, who, alas, resided only in the corn pone-filled cranium of Earl Hamner Jr. Two years later, a frustrated Carter asked, plaintively, "Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?" He blamed the loss of community and the rise of materialism in our culture:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Again, Carter channeled the Waltons while the rest of us stayed glued to the oily exploits of the Ewings. We bought into the more-is-more mania, and our collective carbon footprint expanded exponentially. Houses and cars and waistlines grew bigger, while an endless geyser of consumer goods gushed all around us. Will it ever run out of steam?

Consider this astounding statistic I came across in the October issue of Organic Gardening: In 1995, the average number of food items sold in supermarkets was 3,000; by 2006, it had jumped to 45,000. And most it is cartons and cans and clamshells filled with industrially grown stuff that's been processed to death and then schlepped over land and sea. That's why Michael Pollan's "eater's manifesto," In Defense Of Food, advises us to avoid supermarkets altogether and seek out fresh food from local farmers--and our own front yards--instead.

Sure, some folks will continue to fill their cupboards with Campbell's soup--the only stock that didn't tank when the Dow sank. But more and more Americans are rejecting pre-fab faux foods in favor of DIY dining. Today's New York Times cites a report that, as of May, "53 percent of consumers said they were cooking from scratch more than they did just six months before," driven by the rising cost of convenience foods. Hey, when you're unemployed, there's plenty of time to hone those handy Depression-era skills like how to make your own stock, grow your own veggies, and can tomatoes.

We're reverting to old-timey modes of transportation, too--there's been a dramatic spike in bike sales and train travel in recent months. And many of us are buying less, learning to make do, and turning off the lights when we leave the room. We are, at last, achieving Jimmy Carter's dream of a simpler, less-stuff driven life--a dream, by the way, that he shared with another recent U.S. president, George H. W. Bush.

Poppy Bush declared back in 1992 that he wanted to "make American families a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons". How gratified he must be to see that Waltons-style austerity is finally in vogue. And all it took was his son's catastrophic stewardship of our country.

Let’s Ask Marion: Can A Free Market Feed The World?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: You ruffled some high-powered plumage earlier this month when you spoke at the Global Food Systems forum hosted by Jeffrey Sach’s Earth Institute. After listening to executives from Monsanto, Pespsico, Nestlé, Unilever, and Syngenta declare their intention to help solve the world hunger and obesity crises (oh, and climate change, while they’re at it), you expressed the belief that these are social problems that can’t truly be addressed through technological fixes or marketing.

But the agronomists who spoke at the forum insisted that Africa’s soil is so poor, so depleted, that our only hope for eradicating hunger there lies in increasing crop yields via the patented biotech seeds and chemical fertilizers proffered by Monsanto, Syngenta, et. al. OK, so if agricultural conditions are so lousy in Africa, why, then—as this article in Sunday’s Los Angeles TImes reveals—are wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait snapping up Africa’s cropland “hoping to turn the global epicenter of malnutrition into a breadbasket for themselves?”

According to the Times, the Saudis are so worried about insufficient irrigation in their own country that they’re leasing land from Sudan, whose government is waving export taxes and granting low-cost 99-year leases to foreign investors on the grounds that “the new deals will help, not exploit, their country by creating jobs, promoting commercialization, and pumping much-needed investment into its agricultural industry.”

But what about pumping out Africa’s finite water resources onto crops for export when its own people are starving? Many African nations are facing the specter of water shortages and drought along with much of the rest of the world. Presumably, this isn’t what Jeffrey Sachs had in mind when he called for “increased food production in Africa.” What good do genetically modified drought-resistant seeds do for the world’s poor if the resulting crops are grown for the benefit of the affluent?

Dr. Nestle: Ruffling plumage was not my intention and, as usual, I just thought I was stating the obvious: American and European food and agriculture companies that exist for the purpose of earning profits for stockholders are not going to be able to do much to help poor farmers in Africa make a living. For one thing, Western companies depend on government subsidies to keep the prices of their products down and this undermines the ability of African farmers to sell crops at a decent price. For another, political instability and extreme poverty in Africa make it difficult to establish the conditions necessary for agricultural production.

Poverty means that people won’t have enough money to buy the seeds, fertilizer, and farm equipment that are required to make the “green revolution” work. That is why biotechnology companies spend most of their resources developing—and patenting—seeds designed for temperate zone agriculture and invest so little in research on crops that can grow under harsh tropical conditions. Mind you, genetically engineering crops that can grow in hot climates with poor soils and little water present difficult scientific problems that will not be solved easily. But no agricultural biotechnology company of which I am aware is putting much money into this kind of research quite simply because it has no obvious payoff other than public relations. Hence: Golden Rice.

I do not claim to know how to solve Africa’s need for agricultural development but I applaud efforts to help its farmers grow enough food to feed themselves and their families—and to have enough left over to sell at a profit. I thought the absence of Vandana Shiva at the conference was a big gap. It would have been interesting to see how its audience reacted to a report on what her Navdanya Center is doing to help small farmers in India grow multiple crops under sustainable conditions appropriate to their particular location. This approach seems to be working well to raise farmers out of dire poverty and is a model that I would think deserves serious consideration. Its one major drawback? It only helps farmers help themselves and will do little in the short run to raise the profits of the food and agriculture corporations represented at that meeting.

In the long run, of course, a population that is better off economically will be interested in buying better food and more consumer goods, which is what we see happening in China. China invested in its own agriculture right from the start of its economic development, but it has a stable government. All I was saying was that government stability and poverty are social problems unlikely to be solvable by genetically engineered crops, at least as currently managed.

No Cow Patties On The House...

The analogies are not very appetizing: House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, described the bailout bill as a "crap sandwich." Rep. Paul Braun, R-Georgia, called it "a huge cow patty with a piece of marshmallow stuck in the middle," which he declined to eat, and his colleagues declined to pass.

Hey, we get it; nobody likes to eat crap (or step in it, for that matter.) And nobody wants to see the return of Depression-era breadlines, either. But it should be clear to everyone, at this point, that we're in for some turbulent times:

"America better prepare for some uncomfortable changes. Things might get really ugly."

So said an upstate New York pig farmer to Momofuku chef David Chang, who recalls the conversation in an essay for Esquire, What the 21st Century Will Taste Like. Chang calls the rise in food costs a “massive correction,” adding that:

The machinery that's pumped so much meat into our lives over the last half century was never built to last, and now it's breaking down big-time. Feed is more expensive. Gasoline is more expensive. Milk, rice, butter, corn--it's all going through the roof. And for the foreseeable future, it's not coming back down…
… At the table, this means our plates will be heavier on grains and greens, and meat will shift from the center of the dish to a supporting role--the role it's played throughout history in most of the world's cuisines.

Not impressed by the observations of a fancy-pants New York City chef? OK, then how about this quote from Matt Simmons, a lifelong Republican oilman from Houston turned peak oil prophet, who told Fortune:

"I do think there are a growing number of people who are getting it. But I guess it just reminds me that as a society, we don't have the ability to actually come to grips with a crisis until it's hit us in the face. I am discouraged enough now to think that we're going to have to have a really nasty shock before we wake people up...
...We should basically be going back to creating a village economy, so that we really reduce the energy intensity of how we live. We need bigtime conservation, not feel-good conservation. Make things where they're used. You'll end long-distance commuting, and we have the tools to do that now with webcams. Grow food locally. Grow food in your backyard. If they're not commuting, people will have time to do that."

There may be an upside to this downshift; you know how we've been diminished in the eyes of the world in recent years? It turns out that we've literally suffered a loss of stature over the course of the last century or so, and the cause, according to the New York TImes, "appears to be due to a lower standard of living, poor health care and inadequate nutrition...In 1880, Americans were the tallest people in the world. But by 2000, American men, at an average height of 5-feet-10.5-inches, ranked 9th, and women, at about 5-feet-5-inches, fell to 15th. "

“We conjecture that perhaps the Western and Northern European welfare states, with their universal socioeconomic safety nets, are able to provide a higher biological standard of living to their children and youth than the more free-market-oriented U.S. economy,” wrote John Komlos, professor of economics at the University of Munich.

So I guess that means capitalism stunts growth? Warren Buffet's warning that we're looking at the "biggest financial meltdown in American history." Oh well! If David Chang and Matt Simmons prove to be right, at least it may compel us to eat more fruits and veggies--and less meat. And not a minute too soon--as the Guardian reports today, The Food Climate Research Network at the University of Surrey just released a study declaring that those of us in developed nations "will have to be rationed to four modest portions of meat and one litre of milk a week if the world is to avoid run-away climate change." Seed money's vanishing from Wall Street; maybe now Main Street will start investing in seeds. It's not too late to start some fall veggies!

Today's Tidbits

Alaskans Impale Palin

Thanks to Daily Kos for tipping me off to this YouTube video of Alaskans protesting Sarah Palin, displaying some excellent homemade signs. My favorite, highlighting Sarah Palin’s foreign policy experience: “I see Russia, I’ve heard of France, I wear Chinese underpants.”

Speaking In Tongues

Andrew Sullivan sees shades of Sarah Palin in this comic vignette about a “multilingual” assistant:

The Mendacity of McMath; The Veracity of Van Jones

John McCain claimed during Friday night’s debate that building 45 new nuclear power reactors by 2030 would create 700,000 new jobs in the U.S. We’re so used to politicians pulling numbers out of their asses at this point that hardly anyone beyond the blogosphere seems to question statements like this. Kudos to my fellow Kossack nirsnet, who took the trouble to refute McCain’s preposterous claim:

…according to sworn testimony before the Maryland Public Service Commission, top officials of UniStar Nuclear, which seeks to build a new, 1600 Megawatt nuclear reactor on the Chesapeake Bay--by far the largest in the United States, testified that this proposed project would create a maximum of 4,000 short-lived construction jobs—most lasting one year or less--and 360 permanent jobs.

Multiply that by 45 new reactors and you get 180,000 temporary jobs and 16,200 permanent jobs. Temporary jobs would be less than 20% of what McCain claims, permanent jobs would be far fewer than 5% of McCain’s claims.

OK, so McCain’s only off by, oh, about 500,000. Hard to know what’s more impaired: his math skills or his integrity?

The day after McCain delivered that nugget of nuclear disinformation, more than 100,000 people rallied all over the country for "Green Jobs Now: A Day to Build the New Economy,” a day of action spearheaded by Van Jones, who foresees all kinds of empowerment growing from homegrown alternative power. From MarketWatch:

"We can't drill and burn our way out of this economic crisis. We can -- and must -- invest and invent our way out," said Van Jones, founder and president of Green For All. "600,000 jobs have been lost this year alone. We need to free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil, and instead invest in jobs in sustainable industries -- wind and solar, among others. Only then will we be able to fight poverty and pollution at the same time."

If you share Van Jone’s vision, please take a minute to sign the petition in support of these goals at greenjobsnow.com.

The Green Mind Behind Those Blue Eyes

We’re all terribly saddened by the passing of Paul Newman, who gave us so many great films and much, much more. His Newman’s Own brand, and its organic offshoot, headed by his daughter Nell, are a tribute to his desire to do good and give back. Newman's sustainable sensibility is nicely captured in this quote from the New York Times obituary:

“We are such spendthrifts with our lives,” Mr. Newman once told a reporter. “The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”

P. Diddy: Beverly Drillbilly?

Image: Eco Hustler for Creative Accelerator/ecohookups.com

The fact that rap mogul Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy, stepped in a pile of dog crap on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk the other day would not seem to be an especially newsworthy event, IMHO. But what do I know? The photo of Combs stepping in dog doo made the cover of Saturday’s New York Post, with the caption “Poo-Diddy! Rap Heavy Steps In It Big-Time.”

For my money, Combs already stepped in it big-time last month with the execrable video he posted on YouTube lamenting the fact that rising fuel costs had forced him to park his private jet and fly commercial. He takes the opportunity to beg his friends in oil-rich nations to do something about the price of oil to spare him the trauma of having to fly American.

I don’t know what’s more tragic: America’s insatiable appetite for vacuous celebrity “news,” or the inanities of the celebrities themselves. Talk about a missed opportunity. As Eco Hustler noted over on Current :

Diddy's youtube video would have been a perfect platform to say that he supports the need for alternative fuel, to stop global warming or to buy cool eco-friendly products etc...Just imagine the audience he would have reached. Our problem is way bigger than the price of oil.

Yeah, our problem is that most of the country has yet to grasp the urgency of global warming and seems to think that we can drill our way out of this disaster. Why are we taking our cues from celebrities, anyway?

Maybe because they’re the only people we recognize. As 17 year-old filmmaker Niaz Mosharraf documented in his wry short America For Dummies, his peers could all identify photos of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, etc., but were stumped by images of world leaders and politicians.

True, we’ve got more celebrities than ever giving “green” a more glamorous sheen, as the website Ecorazzi documents daily. Sadly, though, as Eco Hustler points out, the majority of these folks are white: “Are Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Don Cheadle and The Roots the only eco-friendly celebrities of color?”

The thing is, we need to find a way to get everyone to understand the challenges we’re facing and how our own choices can make things better—or worse. But asking people who are coping with their own domestic meltdowns, from foreclosures to lay-offs to lack of health insurance, to get worked up about melting glaciers in the Himalayas, well…good luck with that.

I don’t know how you can convince people to care, but I’m pretty sure it’s not by parading around with a bag like this one I spotted in a shop window on my way home from the farmers’ market this morning:


This is about as persuasive as those “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers so beloved by drivers of SUVs.

Just think, if Diddy had a sense of humor, he could design a t-shirt for his Sean John clothing line that says, “I’m flying commercial. What are you doing to curb your carbon footprint?” And then he could donate the proceeds to a non-profit dedicated to fighting climate change, like, say, 350.org.

Diddy was said to be upset when he spotted photographers documenting his encounter with a pile of dog crap, and reportedly pleaded with them not to publish the pictures. I guess it’s kinda embarrassing to have your picture in the paper with the headline “Diddy The Crap Star.” It should be beyond embarrassing, though, to post a video of yourself on YouTube in which you essentially echo the creepy GOP chant “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Why not “Chill, Baby, Chill?” We need to make conservation cool.

Dispatch From A Pedal-Powered, Pastoral Pajama Party

Post by Guest blogger Jeanne Hodesh. She has written for Takeabite.cc , Saveur.com, The Eat Well Guide’s Green Fork blog, Edible Brooklyn & Edible Manhattan. She also writes a weekly e-newsletter highlighting NYC food events, Local Gourmands.

The date of the infamous Rabbit Roast was changed three times before the end of the summer, and by the time the chosen weekend finally rolled around Hurricane (which one on are we on now?) posed a cloudy threat to the planned skinning/cooking/farming/teaching festival sponsored by The Greenhorns. Severine von Tscharner Fleming, producer of The Greenhorns, a forthcoming documentary about young farmers, is criss-crossing the country collecting footage and rousing interest in farm interns and savvy urbanites alike. Whether you’ve had soil under your nails for years or you like to wear straw hats while bar hopping in the Village, the mix at Severine’s educational/fundraising parties always runs the gamut from hippie to hipster, and once you’re out in the field together, examining a root cellar, or checking out the horse-drawn tiller, you realize there’s not much of a difference between the two anyway.

Having been to several of the Greenhorns shindigs before, I’d been looking forward to the Rabbit Roast all summer, an event that I would get occasional updates about, each with more promises than the last. “Vegetarian yum-yums”, “Bicycle-powered rotisserie!” and “Pig curing workshop” ratcheted up my anticipation. And, of course, there would be rabbit. I imagined a rollicking barn raising party of sorts, plenty of mud slinging, and maybe a dilapidated old farmhouse.

Instead, we met at the Cold Spring train station, just an hour up the Hudson from the city, and were whisked off down the winding roads to the Glynwood Center. The moment our car turned off the main road into the fairytale-like driveway and the lush never-never land leading up to the farm I knew my expectations had been way off. It’s not often that a young urbanite like myself gets to spend the weekend amidst foggy emerald hills in old stone buildings taking walks amidst the goldenrod and eating wine grapes from the vine.

At first there were only fifteen of us. We dodged the drizzle and pitched our tents, then gathered on the terrace where Judy LaBelle, Executive Director of the Glynwood Center, welcomed us. “How many of you are farmers or gardeners?” she asked with the warmth of a grade school teacher. Three people raised their hands. One guy was growing tomatoes in his backyard, someone else had a patch of herbs on her roof. Almost all of us hailed from Brooklyn.

“How many of you are interested in becoming farmers and gardeners?” Judy continued. I was one of a few more who raised my hand quietly, and she latched right on. With land in the Hudson Valley going for the asking price of $10,000 an acre young farmers who want to get started have an uphill battle ahead of them—not to mention start-up costs. One of Glynwood’s big projects is working with area land trusts that have acreage which could be rehabilitated for agrarian use. There’s about 2,000 acres in the Hudson Valley that is currently protected by land trusts—it will never be developed—and about half of that is perfectly farmable.

Now, we need some farmers. The average farmer in America is nearing the age of 60, a statistic that seems to hit me over the head daily. I looked around at our modest crew of girls and boys clad in skinny jeans and vintage shirts. If Judy questioned why we were there for the weekend, she never revealed her doubts.

The afternoon started with a tour of the Glynwood CSA vegetable garden, an operation which provides 50 families with boxes of produce grown on just 1.5 acres of land. There’s an old horse named Maggie who walks the till around, and the heating system in the nearby greenhouse has recently been retrofitted to function without its old fuel-eating heater. We oohed and ahhed at the cool of the ancient root cellar and petted the horses that board in the surrounding field.

By and by we gathered around for the moment of truth: Severine took the stage with the rabbit she had so carefully brought along in a hay-lined basket. While stroking the animal, more than one story about a childhood pet floated through the audience. But Sev was all business. How can young farmers make a financially viable living? Well, they can come up with a “sexy new product” that does not “step on the shoelaces of older farmers.” When she ran into Dan Barber of Blue Hill in he halls of Slow Food Nation she asked if he might consider buying rabbit for his menu. Absolutely—he’d need at least 18 a week.

Later, when she e-mailed to follow up on the prospects of her company, Yummy Bunny, he confirmed the quoted amount, and then asked if she needed start-up capital. Stroking the bunny who grazed freely on the grass, Severine explained that Barber’s offer showed he was not only seeking a quality product for himself and his restaurant, but his commitment to the conditions of the place and the person who would be providing the commodity. The next phase of her business plan is still being worked out with a fashion designer in Europe who wants to make leather gloves from the rabbits’ hides. “You know, to sell at Bergdorf’s. $300 a pair is a lot better than $5.99 a pound.”

By now our crowd of fifteen had swelled to forty-five. We were NYU food studies students, newly minted lawyers, random friends, food non-profiteers, urban gardeners, policy pushers, bloggers, writers, advocates and activists. Severine explained what would happen next. First she would stun the bunny with a hammer between the eyes, then slit its throat, then hang it up…The tension mounted with her rambling digressions in between steps, and slowly the process moved from G-rated conversation to R-rated demonstration.

By dinnertime the promised bike-powered rotisserie had not yet arrived from Brooklyn. The rabbit fur was splayed on the roof of Sev’s red (veggie-powered) Mercedes station wagon. We crowded into the dining room at the Glynwood’s Main House where volunteers had prepared a meal made of entirely local produce, most of which was grown by young farmers. Between bites of celery root and carrot soup someone seated across from me posed the question “What’s the definition of young farmer?” Is there an age cut off?

“I think it has more to do with a state of mind,” said his neighbor. On the back porch we tapped into the keg, serving up heady beer in mason jars. Drizzle came and went, and the crowd began to get giddy. The next morning there would be yoga at 7:30, a workshop on beekeeping, a walk through the herb garden to gather flowers for making tinctures, a lesson in fermentation. Tom Mylan was scheduled to give a workshop on curing pig, and it was rumored, sometime past midnight, that the Reverend Billy was on his way to give ceremonial closing remarks. By the time I left, mid-Sunday, the rabbit rotisserie had not yet crossed the stage, but I boarded the train with the confidence that making burping bottles of home brewed kimchi is about to be en vogue in Village kitchens.

“This is only a taste of the rock show it’s going to be!” cried Severine, who dreams big. Next year she imagines the Rabbit Roast will draw thousands. These parties for young farmers need to happen in every city and town across the country—and she believes they will. Speaking of rock shows, the Ginger Ninjas made it just in time for dinner. The bike powered, bike touring, forward-thinking rock/folk band swung by for a surprise pit stop to tickle our ears beneath a near-full moon. “This is what it’s going to be like,” said Severine. “The bands are going to have to leave the cities to come to us because we’ll be farming the land.”

Let’s Ask Marion: What’s Up With China’s Toxic Food Chain?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: Well, here we go again. I was astonished, as were you, by the news that China’s biggest manufacturer of infant formula has just recalled 700 tons of melamine-tainted milk powder. As David Barboza reports in Saturday’s New York Times, “the formula is implicated in the death of one infant, and at least 432 others have been afflicted with kidney problems.” Supposedly, this stuff wasn’t imported to the US, but, as you note, the FDA has issued a warning that it may have found its way onto the “grey” market.

Melamine and the cutthroat, corner-cutting manufacturers who used it in the production of pet foods are, of course, the primary culprits in your latest book, Pet Food Politics, which thoroughly documents China’s food safety problems as well as our own.

In the book, you note that in the aftermath of the tainted pet food debacle, the Chinese government launched a new food safety campaign and declared, in January of this year:

The illegal practice of using of non-food materials and or recycled food to produce and process food has been basically eliminated.

Gao Qiang, China’s vice minister of health claimed at a press conference on Saturday, “This is a severe food safety accident.”

You must be our foremost authority on melamine-adulterated foods, now, so I have to ask you, in the vulgar vernacular of the blogosphere, WTF? Or, if you prefer, what the hell?

Dr. Nestle: Astonished doesn’t begin to describe it. The point of The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the subtitle of Pet Food Politics, is that the 2007 pet food recalls were an early warning of disasters to follow. By the time the book went to press in May this year, we were already dealing with the heparin crisis. This was a completely analogous situation in which Chinese producers substituted chondroitin sulfate for heparin because the heparin assay only looks for sulfur, apparently. Melamine has a lot of nitrogen. Protein assays test for nitrogen and don’t care whether it comes from protein or melamine. Chondroitin sulfate and melamine are a lot cheaper than the drugs or food ingredients they replace.

In Pet Food Politics, I trace the use of melamine—fraudulent and not—back to the mid-1960s. David Barboza, the intrepid New York Times reporter based in China, actually got animal and pet food producers to confess that they had been fraudulently adding melamine to feed for years. My guess is that these producers had been adding it in lower doses, got greedy, and upped the dose or used sloppier formulations that contained cyanuric acid. You need a lot of melamine to damage kidneys. But when melamine is mixed with cyanuric acid, it crystallizes in kidneys at very low doses. If it could be added to food for cats, dogs, and farm animals, why not add it to other foods? If nobody is checking—which, apparently, nobody is--you have a good chance of getting away with it, especially if the animals are eating other foods as well.

But infant formulas? These are just like pet foods in that the animal or baby is completely dependent on the one product for complete nutrition. So as with pet foods, there is a good chance of doing great harm and getting caught. Officials didn’t get upset about pet foods because they view dogs and cats as “just pets.” Infant formulas get everyone’s attention. And you can find plenty of Chinese infant formula in Chinese markets in the U.S. It’s doubtful that getting rid of them would be on anyone’s priority list for enforcement.

As for what’s going on in China, good luck. It’s the Wild West over there, with foods being made by millions of small backyard producers and a food safety system absolutely unprepared to deal with the scope of the problem. We are talking here about rampant early capitalistic development, just like what we had in the United States prior to 1906 when Congress passed the first food and drug laws. Chinese officials know they have a problem and maybe now that the Olympics are over they can get on it.

In the meantime, we can all exercise personal responsibility and buy local. We also should exercise social responsibility and insist that (1) companies test their products for dangerous contaminants, (2) companies inspect the suppliers of their ingredients, (3) Congress gives the FDA the authority to regulate imported foods more effectively, and (4) Congress demands enforcement of the new Country-of-Origin-Labeling laws that are supposed to be in effect by the end of this month.

Kat: Uh-oh. Your response begs a follow-up question. Speaking of adulteration, have you seen this article from Sunday’s Chicago Tribune about the watered-down COOL standards? As consumer watchdogs Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch tell the Tribune, there are “giant, giant loopholes in the law." Specifically, foods that are considered “processed” are exempt from the COOL standards, and the USDA is defining “processed” so broadly that it’s severely reducing the number of foods that will be required to carry the labels.

Here are a couple of the more head-scratching examples:

A bag of imported frozen peas, for instance, must list its country of origin under COOL. But a bag of peas mixed with carrots is considered processed, and does not require such a label…

… Under COOL, meat derived from cattle imported into the U.S. for immediate slaughter can bear a label that states it's a product of its origin country and the United States, even though the animal was raised entirely outside the U.S.

In a word, oy. It seems as though the food industry, having fought the COOL standards for the last few years, is now resigned to the fact that they are going to be implemented, so their new strategy is to undermine the standards by limiting their application as much as possible.

This makes your oft-repeated edict to “avoid processed foods” more timely than ever, but it also compels me to ask, what will it take to put the “us” back in the USDA? Will they ever stop kowtowing to Big Food and start looking out for the little guy?

Dr. Nestle: I had not seen the article but certainly was aware of the problem(s). Congress passed COOL years ago, but then postponed implementing it (except for fish—a fishy story in itself) until now. Why? Because the food industry hates the very idea. I can totally understand why and the pet food and infant formula scandals are great examples. If you knew that the foods you were eating had a good chance of being produced someplace where nobody was minding the store, you might buy something else.

The problem for the food industry is that so much of our food comes from elsewhere. On the order of 80% of our shrimp come from Asia, for example. In the course of working on Pet Food Politics, I met an official of a pet food company who agreed to tell me where the ingredients in his products came from (provided I never mentioned his name or the name of his company). He could tell me the name of the ranch that raised the meat in those foods but the other ingredients constituted an international feast. You have to assume that foods and ingredients come from overseas unless the companies tell you otherwise.

Is this good or bad? I think it’s great that we support farmers in developing countries but I want to have the choice. And the choice isn’t mine if the country of origin isn’t labeled. This is a huge consumer protection issue and it would be nice if our congressional representatives took it seriously. As for the USDA, it and the FDA need some serious depoliticizing. Will we get that in the next administration? Only if we organize, lobby, and exercise our democratic rights as citizens. And start working on the next farm bill, of course.

The McCain Campaign’s Dirty Record on Clean Energy


Image by patriotunderground

In part two of Sarah Palin’s interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, she gives lipstick-y lip service to the notion that human beings may, in fact, be contributing to climate change. What a difference a month (and a nomination) makes! ‘Cause back in August, before John McCain singled Palin out as our nation’s foremost expert on energy, Alaska’s climate change denier-in-chief told Newsmax.com that “I'm not one though who would attribute [global warming] to being man-made.”

Hey, Sarah, great to see that you’re not afraid to peel off the pumps and dip your toe into the reality-based community! If the reception seems a little chilly, well, chalk it up to your party’s shrill Drill, Baby, Drill mantra, your God-endorsed pipeline project, your anti-polar bear agenda, and your work husband’s lousy record when it comes to actually supporting alternative forms of energy.

The Straight Talk Express may have hit one pothole too many on the low road to the White House; are the wheels coming off the bus? The MSM, from Krugman to the AP, is finally exposing many of the McCain campaign’s most egregious lies without mincing words.

But when it comes to dealing with climate change, McCain’s still benefitting from the perception that he’s been more progressive than the fossil fueled fossils that fill his party’s ranks. Thanks to some sleuthing on the part of clean energy activist Susan Kraemer, though, we now have proof that when it comes to voting to support renewable energy, McCain’s no better than James “Global Warming Is A Hoax” Inhofe.

Kraemer tallied up McCain’s votes and found that McCain has “voted consistently against government support of solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, ocean and any other clean energy, with the exception of being strongly for nuclear power.” Hey, nuclear families, nuclear power, it’s all good. Whatever.

Maybe it’s kind of age-ist for us to expect a geezer like McCain to grasp the potential for new technologies to solve our energy woes; after all, as the latest ad from the Obama campaign notes, he has yet to master the art of the email. Feisty, Facebook-savvy Palin, on the other hand, is presumably up to speed on cutting edge solutions—after all, wasn’t Senator Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens a mentor of hers, back when the Bridge To Nowhere was her ticket to ride?

And yet, despite this energy hog’s judicious application of lipstick, it’s clear that “pitbull” Palin routinely pits economic growth against environmental preservation. The day before John McCain selected her as his veep, our gutsy Governor from Alaska penned a letter to fellow Governor Schwarzenegger strenuously protesting the Governator’s proposal to impose a fee on the cargo containers that move more than 40% of the nation's goods through the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “The fees would raise $400 million annually for such pollution-reduction projects as installing cleaner-burning truck and train engines and building roadways under or over railroad tracks to avoid long lines of idling vehicles.”

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) sponsored the bill in the hopes of reducing the number of Californians killed by air pollution, estimated to be some 3,400 annually.

Palin objects to the proposal on the grounds that it will raise the cost of goods shipped to Alaska, where, as the Times notes, many communities “lack road access and depend entirely on goods shipped by container, something that has significantly increased in cost in recent years.”

So I guess Palin’s m.o. is to choose life, unless it’s going to hit her constituents in the pocketbook. If you’re unlucky enough to live near the ports of California, Palin’s message seems to be “suck it up.” A change of heart on climate change that we can believe in? If you buy that, I’ve got a bridge to nowhere to sell you.

Craig Ferguson: "If you don't vote, you're a moron"

For nearly two weeks now, I’ve been suffering from a newly-minted malady called Palin-paralysis--a nasty tv-transmitted virus I caught after watching Sarah Palin’s divisive and derisive acceptance speech. You know, that salute to “small town values” that lionized plucky, scrappy hockey moms and demonized yucky, crappy community organizers.

The primary symptoms are nausea, a perpetually clenched jaw, and a half-baked Alaska-induced brain freeze; can’t get out of bed, can’t blog, can’t even blog in bed. The surreal spectacle of the Palin pick, the depth of cynicism and carelessness that it demonstrated, and the embrace of this ludicrous choice for veep by so many folks is truly appalling. As Matt Damon told the AP:

“…It’s like a really bad Disney movie. You know, the hockey mom, you know--"Oh, I'm just a hockey mom from Alaska!" And she's the president! And it’s like, she's facing down Vladimir Putin, using the folksy stuff she learned at the hockey rink. It’s just absurd. It’s totally absurd and I don't understand why more people aren't talking about how absurd it is. It’s a really terrifying possibility. The fact that we've gotten this far...and we're that close to this being a reality is crazy. Crazy.”

But the McCain campaign is not so much a bad Disney movie as a Beltway retread of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, in which the straight talkin’ maverick senator’s crusty ol’ carcass comes back to life—well, sort of--as a robotic Rovian pod-politician flatly intoning flagrant lies, pandering to the basest of bases, doing whatever it takes to win. Josh Marshall said it best on Talking Points Memo:

All politicians stretch the truth, massage it into the best fit with their message. But, let's face it, John McCain is running a campaign almost entirely based on straight up lies. Not just exaggerations or half truths but the sort of straight up, up-is-down mind-blowers we've become so accustomed to from the current occupants of the White House…

… John McCain is running the sleaziest, most dishonest and race-baiting campaign of our lifetimes.

As Grist’s Dave Roberts noted, McCain, in an interview with a Portland, Maine tv reporter, claimed that Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America.” If he really believes this, he’s an idiot, and if he doesn’t believe it, he’s a shameless liar. Either way, he’s demonstrated, yet again, that he doesn’t deserve to be president.

E. J. Dionne wrote a column in the Washington Post on Wednesday plaintively entitled “Does The Truth Matter Anymore?” in which he expressed surprise at the McCain campaign’s fearless fibbing. Other pundits, notably Chris Matthews and James Carville, are still having trouble reconciling the McCain they once admired with this disingenuous creep and his equally creepy veep.

But wallowing in all the moose manure from Wasilla gets us (on a bridge to) nowhere. After moping around for days, bemoaning the swift-boating of Obama and badgering my female friends to add their voices to the chorus of Women Against Sarah Palin (90,000 strong and growing), what finally roused me out of my slump was a rant from Craig Ferguson, the Scottish talk show host who became an American citizen earlier this year. I never watch the Late Late Show, so I would have missed it if it weren’t for this Daily Kos diary from paddykraska. The whole clip is worth watching, but here are some highlights:

“This is a very important election, this one, but you would not know it from the way it’s being reported. Y’know politics is covered like show business, now. On the Today Show this morning, they’re, like, “Which candidate would you rather have dinner with?” Here’s an easy answer—NONE! They’re politicians, I don’t want dinner with you, I don’t want your friendship. Here’s what I want to know; what are you going to do for this country, pal? What are you gonna do?...

…The news reports are either very tabloid-y, or they’re trying to be funny like Jon Stewart, maybe because more and more people say they’re getting their news from late night tv, which, believe me, is not a good idea. I like the Daily Show, I like Jon Stewart, I think he does a bang-up job, a great job, but let him do it. The rest of the news people, TAKE THIS JOB SERIOUSLY! This is important…

…Do you know what bothers me? Every election year, as well, you get the voter registration drives aimed at the young people—“Rock the vote, the vote’s crack-a-lackin’!”…are we so lost that we have to be sold our own democratic right? What the hell is wrong with, what is going on? We have to “sexy up” the vote for young people?...

…Here’s what I’m saying to you—if you don’t vote, you’re a moron. I know what you’re saying—“well, not voting is a vote.” No, it isn’t. Not voting is just being stupid.

Voting is not sexy, voting is not hep, it’s not fashionable, it’s not a movie, it’s not a video game, all the kids ain’t doin’ it. Frankly, voting is a pain in the ass, but here’s a word, look it up, it is your DUTY to vote.

The foundation in this democracy is based on free people making free choices, so, young people, if you can’t take your hand out of your Cheetos bag long enough to fill out a form, then you can’t complain when we end up with President Sanjaya.

Listen, I’m an American. This country, as it is, at war, right now—Americans in foreign lands wearing uniforms representing this country are losing their lives. Americans here in this country are losing their homes. We have two patriotic candidates, right? They both love this country, they have different ideas about what to do with it. Learn about them, read about them, question them, listen to them. Then, on election day, exercise your sacred right as an American, and listen to yourself.”

And if you’ve done your homework, you’ll conclude, as Thomas Friedman did, that there’s only one choice. Unless, of course, you want to ride the Straight Talk express right off the edge of this hot, flat, crowded earth.