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Working the Food Chain

9 May

Today’s post is inspired by my mounting excitement over the final stages of funding and post-production on a new food documentary that I can’t wait to see: Sanjay Rawal’s FOOD CHAIN, which explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers.

Check out the trailer.

Yes, actual — not sort-of – slavery.

You can find more information on supporting the documentary, which has met its initial Kickstarter goal,  but has a secondary goal to fully fund the film’s graphics, here.

I’ve summarized some of the labor rights issues in the agricultural industry here before, but thought it was worth revisiting, to put faces, and some specific numbers, to the abstraction that is so often associated with the hands who pick our food — even the food we buy at Whole Foods, or Trader Joes.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, the typical farmworker in the U.S. is a young man who has left his family to work in the field.  He ususally spends between 12 and 14 hours a day in the field, six days a week, and made between $7,000-10,000 a year for an individual, or up to $13,000 a year for a family. The farmworker has no health insurance. No sick days, no vacation days, and certainly no union. More than 50% have never been to a dentist—about 1/3 have never seen a doctor. Typically, farms provide housing for their workers during the growing and harvesting season, to maximize the picking hours in a day. Workers can expect to pay about $50 a week to live in run-down shacks or trailers, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.

All this, all this our farm workers get in exchange for picking the food we need, for working the third most dangerous job in the country. The odds of dying on the farm are 39 out of 100,000. Farmworkers suffer the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, and are more than 25% more likely than the average American to develop asthma, birth defects, tuberculosis and cancer. Children of migrant farm workers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, dental disease and malnutrition.

Because, oh yes, the agricultural industry is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor regulations. In every other industry, the minimum age to work legally in this country is 16. On the farm, it’s 12.

So why would anyone want to do farm work—if it’s so back-breaking, hot, exhausting, dangerous and underpaid, why would you sign up for it? Because you don’t have any other option, of course. It’s probably not a surprise that the vast majority of California’s farmworkers—and, in fact, a majority of farmworkers across the country—are undocumented immigrants. Close to 90% of farmworkers in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking, and most of those born in Mexico. Over 50% of immigrant farmworkers nationwide are not protected by legal documents, and so, in this country, they have no legal rights. This lack of documentation contributes, along with a tight bottom line and a slim margin of economic error on the farm, to the horrible working conditions of the modern American farm.

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When sociologists discuss patterns of migration, they have two terms to explain what makes a person move from one place to the next—they call them push factors and pull factors. The pull factors for farm work in the United States are that agriculture is a dangerous industry. Because the jobs are so life-threatening, and the pay is so low, the agriculture industry would either have to raise pay and improve conditions—or recruit workers from abroad, where there are more laborers, fewer jobs and much, much lower wages. The U.S. agriculture industry is primarily located in California, where a cheap and willing supply of labor is close at hand. Why provide healthcare and housing when you can just import undocumented immigrants instead?

The push factors are the things that make a person’s home country worth leaving behind. Let’s put it this way: the push factors are the things that make working 80 hour weeks hunched over in a field under the blazing sun for seven grand a year look like the American Dream come true.

Before you begin to think that the solution here is to close the borders and take those jobs back, I should make it clear that this is a pretty good deal for the U.S. too. Paying migrant farm workers next to nothing and having a constant stream of people willing to work cheap is what keeps us all in fresh produce, all year round, for pennies. It’s the reason why I can walk into a grocery store in the middle of February and buy a head of romaine for 99 cents. And if the cheap food itself weren’t benefit enough, the U.S. Social Security Administration has recently estimated that three out of every four undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes (in addition to paying the same sales and consumer taxes the rest of us pay), and that undocumented workers contribute six to seven billion dollars in Social Security funds that they are not eligible to claim.

Plus, show me the pools of American citizens out there just dying for a job picking lettuce in Oxnard.

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Next time you consider all the standards to which you currently hold your food, or next time you wonder whether your standards aren’t unreasonably high, take a moment to remember the very real human face of that food. The price tag might look a little different.

Don’t Call Us Foodies

22 Feb

I know I’ve dangled this subject multiple times, and thought it was time to finally tackle it: why I (and many, many others) so strongly dislike the term “foodie.”

My good friend Steve wrote me, as a post-script to his “How I Became a Food Advocate” story, this explanation:

I cringe at that term.  It seems so contrived and pretentious.  People who care deeply about music are not called “Musicies” and people who love theatre are not called “theatreies.” I am not a foodie in the sense that I go to restaurants all the time and ooh and aah over the food of this chef or that.  I am a foodie in the sense that I am OBSESSED with food.  I think about food, and my next meal, and the next thing I can cook, and the last thing I cooked, and the next thing I want to eat… ALL THE TIME.  Does that make me a foodie?  I don’t think so because food is not a hobby for me.  Food is life.

I couldn’t agree more.

To my mind, foodie is the way that people who want to dismiss food’s importance use to dismiss the new food consciousness as elitist. These are the people who don’t understand the real and meaningful connection between defending local food markets, supporting artisanal producers and experimental chefs, and food as an issue of labor rights and social justice.

Foodie implies a gourmand, a snob, a high-brow eater who dines only at five-star restaurants and turns up her nose at anything cheap. What that distinction fails to recognize is that there are a great many of us in between, people like Steve and I, who I know grew up eating a lot of that cheap food–Kraft macaroni and cheese and cans of sloppy joe mix, among other delicacies–who ate it for a great portion of our lives, and who have begun to realize that the evils of that food are not limited to a low price tag.

In fact, the evils and dangers of processed food, industrially-produced, premade, water-packed food, lies in what the corporation who made it will do to sell it to you at such a low price tag. What it takes to make food that cheaply is not pretty. It is disgusting.

But foodies don’t turn up our noses at it because we think we’re better than that–we think all human beings are better than that.

And this is the core of why I dislike the term “foodie.” Aside from being intentionally dismissive, from making us sound like elitists, it limits our passions about food to its taste or quality. While I certainly do believe there is a significant difference in taste and quality between fresh, healthy, local food and processed food, my tastebuds are not my only — or even my primary — reason for wanting that fresh food.

My body is my reason: keeping it fit and healthy and fueled. My planet is my reason: supporting its ability to support us, keeping its rivers clean and soil invigorated with nutrients.

My concern for social equality is my reason: supporting everyone’s ability to access organic, healthy, whole foods, and supporting everyone’s ability to cook it. My concern for labor rights and fair trade are my reasons: ensuring that this whole, healthy food comes from a long line of whole, healthy people, who feel respected and are well-paid for the hard, crucial work they are doing.

My imaginary future children are my reason: protecting their future bodies and the future air they will breathe from poisons.

This is why I’m trying out the term “food advocate” (make it happen, people). Because I advocate for food in every way — its growth, production, taste and uses. Food is in every aspect of our life. As Steve said, food is life.

What do you think of the term “foodie”? Love it, hate it, never cared this much to think about it? Leave a comment and share your thoughts with your fellow food advocates!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!

 

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week (1/19)

20 Jan

Some news from around the world of food this week…

Many of you may have already heard that Paula Deen has (SHOCKINGLY) revealed she has Type II Diabetes. Now, my little sister has been insulin-dependent with Type I Diabetes since just after her ninth birthday, so I will refrain from unleashing my vitriol at obesity-inflicted Type II Diabetes here. But here are some interesting observations about the Deen situation: how conveniently the announcement coincides with (rather than a change of heart or cooking style) Deen’s contract to shill for a new (and dubious) medication, and the mounting evidence correlating meat-eating habits with diabetes.

On a more creative note, my awesome writer-friend Amy Weldon has a really interesting essay up on her blog exploring the connections between food and Southern femininity.

The “Just Label It!” campaign against unknown genetically modified ingredients in our foods officially launched this week with a new video by Robert Kenner (director of Food, Inc.), and Ecocentric has a good blog post covering the basics of GMOs and the labeling campaign for those who want more information.

This is a bit of a food tangent, but some may have heard that Newt Gingrich is gaining ground in South Carolina with a new ad calling President Obama the “food stamp” president (accusing him of putting more people on food stamps — not because the economy has tanked — but because he just looooves government handouts to poor people, is my read). This reminds me of my recent post taking down Rick Santorum for similarly offensive racial/food political slurs.

The Daily Meal released its annual list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Food. If you click through from the bottom up, you’ll spend the first half cheering at the familiar food advocate faces (Bittman! Bourdain! Allen! Mahler!) and then notice a very distinct shift into the corporate world. Here’s hoping 2012 is the year the balance starts to shift

In good news along that front: Food Corps is open for applications for its next cycle, and is expanding this year after a successful pilot program. They need more people in more states, so if you’re interested in pursuing a career in agriculture, nutrition, education, cooking, gardening or advocacy, this is a great way to — literally — get your hands dirty.

Now before you head off for the weekend, make sure to stop by last week’s post and leave a comment to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

What’s Coming for Food in 2012?

10 Jan

Welcome to 2012, We*Meat*Again! Sorry for my lapse in posting, all. The holiday hiatus was more all-consuming than I thought it would be, and I’ve missed a lot of food news. Rather than try to cover it all, I wanted to catch us up with a post about what I think is coming for the food movement over the course of the next year. There is both good and bad news, and in some ways, the two go hand-in-hand.

Food Consciousness Goes Mainstream

I’ve been engaging in a mini personal research project for my book, investigating how and why the average person has become more food conscious, and the answers I’ve been receiving have been remarkable, compelling, and truly important. What I’m hearing is that people like you and me, people with regular jobs and regular incomes, large or small, are finding the many, many ways in which food affects their lives. Their reasons include health & fitness, parenting, economic limitations, social justice concerns, and community investment.

NPR recently had a great piece echoing this on a larger scale, the notion that we’re interested in local food as a source of authenticity in an increasingly out-of-control world. And to me, that’s a very promising trend.

Government Still Behind the Curve

The end of 2011 was mired, for me, by a decision by the FDA that demonstrate what is still wrong with the government’s positions on food policy, especially in terms of changing large-scale corporate agricultural practices to improve health & safety.

Late in the day on December 22, the FDA quietly issued an announcement that it would abandon its pursuit of (again, voluntary) regulation of the use of antibiotics in livestock. The FDA has been pursuing this mission since the late 1970s, and we’ve covered here on the blog before why this is important for the health of consumers. The fact that the FDA backed off this mission can be seen as nothing other than giving in to very real industry pressure, just at the time when more and more meat is contaminated with diseases that are dangerous to our health, after a year of at least one major meat recall per month.

We have more people becoming aware of the importance of a food revolution — and a government still shying away from doing anything about it. So I think…

2012 is the Year of People Power

TIME magazine’s person of the year was The Protester. We’re angry. We’re exhausted. We’re broke. And we are prepared to do something about it. In 2011, we saw floods of people globally taking to the streets to begin to try. Mark Bittman’s column last week was a wonderful examination of the ways in which food is a part of this larger trend. Perhaps 2012 can be the year we harness the power of the local food movement to protest the government’s failures to act on our behalf.

Do We Need to Eat Meat?

19 Dec

On my belated introductory post a few months back, I asked readers to contribute any questions they have about me, my blog, my diet or why I eat the way I do, and I got this great question from Cristina of An Organic Wife:

You went vegetarian for moral reasons. Do you want to comment on whether we “do or don’t need to eat meat” as some vegetarians argue?

For those of you who don’t want to reading a wandering, musing answer that touches on much more than nutritional needs, here’s the short answer: Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.

It’s been my experience that middle-class people in developed countries (such as myself) do not need to eat meat. We need much less protein than we eat as a nation, and we are capable of getting it from other sources. While there are other nutritients included in meats (zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids in fish, etc.) these are also widely available from other sources in our world. And if you’re in any doubt about what you need to eat, and in what quantities, you should talk to a nutritionist, as they have the knowledge to measure your body’s particular requirements.

But I think there’s more to the question than simply a nutritional response.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this, because the word “need” can convey so many different ideas. Do we need to eat meat for nutritional purposes? Do we need to eat meat for biological purposes? When I was first considering eating meat again, I had already  been convinced that I could do so environmentally, locally, and that I could support small-scale, non-corporate entitites by doing so.

But I still struggling with the notion of whether or not it was “right.” And for me, right in this sense, at that time, meant natural. The question for me was: given that I have alternative sources of protein and other nutrients that I would get from meat, can I justify the fact that an animal dies for me to eat? Given that we are no longer hunter-gatherers, do we, as a society, need to eat meat?

So you can see that for me, need has also always been a muddled question of moral rights, humanity and our place in the natural world, as well as one of health and nutrition. My idea of what is “natural” has always been rooted in my firm belief that we humans are still mammalian pack animals. Much as we may have accomplished by way of civilization, our bodies are still animal bodies with the same basic animal needs. What follows below are a few short excerpts that have recently been excised from my book that try to explore my answer to Cristina’s question.

Be warned: my extreme nerd obsession with biological anthropology is heavily present.

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Meat, we in the developing world have been told for awhile now, is dangerous. Coronary heart disease. Heme iron, present only in animal meat, appears to change the lining of the colon, and cause abnormal cell growth, leading to an increased risk of cancer. Same goes for breast and prostate cancer.

According to a massive study headed by the National Cancer Institute, conducted over the course of a decade on half a million Americans, people who eat more red or processed meat were also more likely to: smoke, weigh more for their height, consume more total calories, consume more than the recommended weekly amount of alcohol, consume more total fat, consume more saturated fat. Subjects who ate more red meat were also less likely to: eat fruits, eat vegetables, eat the recommended daily amount of fiber, take vitamin supplements, be physically active. But the study controlled for all of these other factors and conclusively isolated increased consumption of red and processed meat as a cause for increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

In other words, science agrees that eating more red meat is, in fact, bad for you.

Consuming more red meat, or more processed meat, significantly and conclusively increases our chance of dying sooner than we ought to. All other things being equal, eating more than four ounces of red or processed meat a day makes a person 20 to 40 percent more likely to die.

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Biological anthropologists study the evolution of modern humans by examining hominid fossils and modern human populations, trying to draw connections from past to present. They hypothesize, because of what they know about bones and brain size, about bipedalism and cranial anatomy, that modern humans still inhabit prehistoric bodies. So, the nutritional requirements of modern humans were probably established at some point in our past, as part of an endless cycle of evolution. The food we ate dictated how and in what ways our bodies were able to grow and change, and our new bodies affected our ability to gather, prepare and eat new foods.

But complications arise when examining the diets of early hominids who ate many different types of diets over the last five million years or so. Australopithecines of Africa were scavengers, eating a mixed diet of animal protein killed by other animals, plants and nuts. Homo erectus was a hunter who used stone tool and developed the ability to cook or roast animal flesh, who also ate plants extensively. Neanderthals hunted large game in cold climates, relying on fruits and nuts during the coldest months when access to animal game was limited. And the earliest incarnations of Homo sapiens hunted small mammals, dug and foraged plants, and picked berries. Importantly, these early humans—who would not look out of place if they walked among us today—developed the ability to gather wild grains to grind and bake into breads or cakes. Later, descendents of the same species, our most recent chronological ancestors, ate a fully mixed diet: roots, fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, and a small proportion of animal fat, smaller than at periods earlier in human history.

So the question is not only what did our ancestors eat but also who are our ancestors?

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Changes in the human diet spurred changes in human society, both nutritionally and socially. When Homo sapiens learned how to harvest wild grains, they began the process of learning to cultivate those grains—the very first farmers. Once we could plant crops in rows and have ready access to food, once that reliability was secured, humans could relax a little. We could stay in one place, making us safer from predation, helping us to begin building what we now know as civilization.

But earlier than that, about two million years ago, when early hominids began eating meat regularly, we suddenly saw a rapid increase in growth and development. Our bodies received the energy they needed to stitch together thicker, stronger muscles. Calcium shot into our bones, and our skeletons began to shift and expand, growing taller and more narrow, for better balance. The dense vitamin value of meat—those b-12s and zinc and iron—went straight to our heads, feeding the evolution of our massive brains in both size and ability. Modern humans use nearly a quarter of their resting energy to feed our brains. Chimpanzees use 10%. Gorillas use 8%. Meat was the most nutritionally-dense, energy-rich food available to people over the course of our development, and meat has therefore caused much of that development and that is what makes people say we are “meant” to eat meat.

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Hunter-gatherer societies still exist in the world. Here in the United States, we may sometimes forget that there are places on the planet without Wal-Mart or interstate highways or suburban subdivisions, but they are there, and biological anthropologists spend most of their time in the field studying these people, mostly in rainforests and Pacific islands, in order to better understand how our ancestors might have lived. Modern human hunter-gatherers move, on average, eight miles a day in search of food. No McDonald’s drive-thrus. No Chinese take-out. No home delivery of groceries. If they want meat, they need more than a phone to get it.

It is this distinction that led to the consensus, among biological anthropologists, that it is not only the amount of meat consumed that causes obesity and other diseases in developed countries—but that the amount so drastically overestimates the amount of work done to get it.

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While many people in the developing world eat or have available enough food in sheer caloric intake, their diets are severely lacking in micronutrients that can only be derived from animal-source protein. Livestock consumption provides a micronutrient-rich supplement to a staple-plant based diet in developing nations. Animal-source foods (including meat, milk and eggs) are particularly appropriate for combating the range of nutritional deficiencies faced by people in developing nations, from providing them with additional iron, calcium, and zinc, to stabilizing a food supply which often fluctuates seasonally.

Beyond limited access to food, the developing world is full of people who have trouble eating even when food is available—like children whose stomachs are small, whose intake is physically limited, or HIV/AIDS patients whose bodies are slowing, sluggish, reduced to fulfilling basic needs, for whom digestion is a full day’s work. Because it provides such a high amount of protein per ounce, meat is uniquely poised to help fulfill nutritive requirements for those populations.

The truth is, there’s no one answer to the question of whether or not we need to eat meat — the answer is different for everyone.

Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.

Do you think people need to eat meat? What have your personal experiences been with trying to — or trying not to — eat meat that might impact this? Leave a comment or drop me an email and share your thoughts!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week 12/15

16 Dec

I owe all you We*Meat*Again readers an apology. In the whirlwind of new job, new place and new revisions on the book that has been this semester, and especially the last month or so, my blogging performance has been spotty. As I head into winter “break” (during which I have to plan three new classes for spring semester and continue said revisions) I promise to focus on quality, even if that means a solid, consistent three posts a week instead of five short, fragmented ones.

If you haven’t noticed a change in the blog, well, then, nevermind.

The first things I want to shape up are my sadly out-of-date “What I’m Reading” page, which I will tackle this weekend, and to get into a more consistent rhythm with the end of the week links roundup posts. There is a lot of great writing out there on food, and when I miss a links post, you all miss a lot, too.

So here are some things worth checking out between/instead of holiday shopping this weekend.

A cool NPR feature on an increasing focus on the local in America — while not exclusively a food-related story, I think the food movement deserves a lion’s share of credit for re-popularizing small, local businesses.

Related: a reminder from the USDA blog that many farmers’ markets are still open throughout the winter (maybe even at a different/indoor location) so check your local listings.

In rabble-rouser news, AlterNet has good coverage of the food movement on Occupy Wall Street that I wrote about earlier this week. Barry Estabrook’s (always) gorgeous prose in the latest Gastronomica describes some of the ecological innovations of the San Joaquin Valley.

And in rabbles that need rousing news, Perennial Plate continues its online documentary series with a subtle, powerful photo essay of tomato workers in Florida.

Food Safety News’ Michele Simon writes on Grist in response to the First Lady’s recent decision to shift the “Let’s Move” campaign focus back onto exercise and away from eating habits (a decision I personally feel is largely motivated by politics–rather than engage in a national conversation, the Obama administration wants to shy away from accusations of becoming a “nanny state” during an election cycle).

This is particularly relevant in light of recent findings detailing just how cozy the national school lunch program is with the food processing industry, and the serious health consequences this relationship is having on our children. I’m ALL for increased activity in youth, but to very pointedly ignore diet in favor of exercise only is disingenuous.

Do We Need a “Green Revolution” in the Global South?

15 Dec

First, a point of clarification. When I refer to the green revolution in the title here, I mean the commonplace thinking of the Borlaug-era use of agricultural technology like genetic modification to produce higher-yielding crops. As I’ve already expressed on the blog, I don’t actually believe the green revolution was all that green or productive–which is why I wanted to round up some information on a new series of debates being waged over what the “right” kind of agriculture to practice in developing nations will be to meet the needs of an increasing global population.

Last week, Andrew Revkin posted on his NYT blog about a disconnect over the proper use of patented seeds between farmers and city dwellers in Nepal, where Monsanto is making in-roads. It’s clear from the post that Revkin’s views are that modern technology will be necessary to feed the world.

This isn’t only happening in Asia. Monsanto is a global powerhouse, looking to market their seeds worldwide. They’ve gotten some help from the Gates Foundation in Africa, a program criticized this week on 60 Minutes by Howard Buffet (Warren’s son) as following in the mistaken footsteps of American agriculture.

There are several separate issues of concern when it comes to making use of high-tech ag solutions in developing nations. Tom Philpott has taken both the Gates Foundation and Howard Buffet to task in the past for this strategy, specifically for the “get big or get out” mentality behind scaling-up to be globally competitive, and for the devastating environmental effects high-yield agriculture is responsible for producing.

But there’s an issue of secondary concern here, which the original Revkin post ignored, in my opinion. Revkin posted in a follow-up comment a response from Matt Liebman, the H.A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (go Cyclones!) which addressing the issue head-on: how much corporate control do we want to encourage in the developing world?

In a time of growing poverty, in parts of the world that are the most vulnerable to the immediate negative impacts of climate change, I am deeply concerned about attempting to replicate American-style industrial agriculture around the world. Setting aside for a moment all that we know about the actual dangers of transgenic plants (the superweeds & superbugs modification produces) and their devastating environmental effects, and their carcinogenic properties, the real danger, as I see it, is the debt incurred by small farmers in developing nations who take out loans against their land to buy these patented seeds.

In 2008, more than 1,000 farmers in India committed suicide because these expensive crops failed to produce the yields promised, and left them with mountains of debt, facing the loss of all their land and livelihood. Monsanto sold them the seeds. THAT’s why it’s a problem.

Especially when faced with a growing body of evidence that organic, sustainable agriculture can actually feed the growing demands of our planet–can’t we now try to find a better way forward?

Inequality in Our Food System

12 Dec

A few events, some louder than others this week got me thinking about just how unequal our current food system is. The protestors on Wall Street are angry because income disparity leads to a disparity in political representation and access to education, improvement, etc. The food system, as it currently exists in this country, has the same results. The poor stay poor (and less healthy), and the small farms fail, so that the large corporate farms may survive.

In fact, the first event this weekend that reminded me of the parallels between food and finance was the first major gathering of farmers at Occupy Wall Street. Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Trader’s Organization, spoke to The New York Times last week about why he’d be making the journey from Maine to join the protests:

He said farm gate prices — wholesale prices for farm products, excluding transportation — were the lowest he had ever seen. “And the price of food in supermarkets is higher than it’s ever been. So, farmers are hanging on by their fingertips, and consumers are paying through the nose.”

“The money that gets made in between,” he continued, “is going to companies, and the government isn’t doing anything about it.

“And if it goes on like this, all we’re going to have to eat in this country is unregulated, imported, genetically modified produce. That’s not a healthy food system.”

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Gerritsen’s quote is so valuable in that it reminds us that the current system of wholesale food distribution harms both producers and consumers. Just as big finance is constructed to continually insulate those in positions of power, to reward and encourage their risk-taking on the backs of a working class who suffers when these high-stakes maneuvers fail, so too is the food systm constructed to encourage consolidation and cheap growing methods that cause higher prices for less healthful foods.

And the people suffering most are the consumers with the least.

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The second event was much more quiet, in terms of news coverage anyway, and much more disturbing. After a seven-hour stand-off last week, a woman in Texas shot her two children, and then herself, in the head. The reason? She was at the end of her rope, having repeatedly been denied food stamps by the state.

She and her children bathed in hoses outside of their trailer park. She begged at the back doors of restaurants for their food waste scraps. But her child support payments were greater than her expenses, so she was deemed able to care for her children without assistance.

Clearly, this was not the case.

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Last Monday, at a campaign event in Iowa, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum promised to significantly reduce federal funding for food stamps, citing the nation’s obesity crisis as evidence that the program was being fradulently misused.

If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Santorum asked.

I had to re-read the last part of the sentence a few times to fully understand what it meant.

Set aside for the moment the complete lack of understanding of the roots of the obesity crisis (a significant increase in the consumption of certain types of foods, such as refined sweeteners combined with a sharp increase in the prices of whole foods due to the above mentioned consolidations) that this quote shows. Set aside for the moment the reality that SNAP has actually been proven to help grow the economy by protecting the poorest consumers.

I think it’s important to take a minute to address what Santorum meant by “among the people who we say have a hunger program.”

Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure what he’s saying there is that poor minorities tend to be those receiving federal nutrition assistance, and also tend to have the highest rates of obesity. I think what he’s saying is, why do black people need food stamps when they are already so fat?

*

Santorum isn’t wrong. According to the most recent data, adult obesity rates for Blacks and Latin@s were higher than for Whites in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Why? Do we believe, as Rick Santorum seems to, that this is because black and Latin@ people eat more? Are lazier?

Or could it be this: 35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.

Could it be that we need food assistance from the federal government not in spite of increased obesity rates among the poorest, but because of those rates?

Could it be that our government’s food system, as its finance system, rewards the lowest-brow, cheapest, poorest-quality investment, and that the customers for those shoddy investments — in this case, mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup and soda — are the least fortunate among us?

That those who have the least choice suffer the most loss.

*

Internet comments on stories about the Texas family are too cruel to replicate, but include standard lines about the selfishness, or laziness, or incompetance of a woman who would turn to such desperate (and indefensible) measures when faced with an 18-page form and proof of income and employment.

But of nearly $262 billion in farm subsidies paid by the federal government over the last fifteen years, the farms with the highest top ten percent in annual incomes raked in more than 74%. $165.9 billion. And no one is calling them lazy.

Corporate Vegetarian Food

8 Dec

I’m in the midst of a pretty serious overhaul of the working manuscript of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, a process that is involving the second major rounds of cutting/rewriting to the book in the few years I’ve been working on it. This go-round involves the extrication of much of the research elements of the book–or at least a reframing of them as personal revelations.

So I thought that perhaps some of those segments might work well here on the blog, where the research may be new or at least interesting information. Let me know what you think of this one below, and perhaps I’ll make a trend of this. Scenes from the cutting room floor…

(Fellow Ithaca College alum may recognize some details…)

My first meals as a vegetarian, eaten in the crowded, generically-decorated dining halls of my college, were prepared by Sodexho. These dining halls were palatial, and would have impressed any dorm-dweller. One house had a vegan station and another a kosher station (with on-site rabbi), complete with separate kitchens and staff. All held tin warming counters polished to a glisten, swinging heat lamps hung down low over the chafing dishes of hot entrees, a sandwich bar, a salad bar, a soft-serve ice-cream machine, and lots of choices. We could choose from three different dining halls, including one with a waffle station and a fountain, or another that was open until midnight during the week. They were staffed by latex-gloved, hair-netted blue collar employees: small, frail women with thick glasses, men with big biceps, faded tattoos, edges softened with time, young Latin- and African-American men, fresh out of high school, who were not students at this college.

I didn’t know then that Sodexho, the 22nd largest employer in the world, pays their food service workers as little as $8.27 an hour to reheat frozen bags of soup and spoon them out to college students and elementary schoolers, to wash our dishes, to stock our salad bars, to fill our ice cream machines, to swipe our cards at the entrance. Since Sodexho employees are only needed during the school year, most are essentially laid off during the summer months, and are not guaranteed their positions will be available in the fall. I didn’t know that the HMOs Sodexho offers their employees cost more than a quarter of a full-time income. That Sodexho posts annual profits in the hundreds of billions. That their most lucrative source of income are the private prisons they operate, including ones they contract with the U.S. military to build and run on foreign soil. That most of the Sodexho workers making my on-campus food would have qualified for federal anti-hunger programs.

*

In the Campus Center Dining Hall, at the vegan station, there were these veggie burgers, made with brown rice and black beans. I imagined them soft in someone’s hands, rolled around and flattened, the way my Nona’s raw meatballs felt in my palm before they were baked. Burgers tossed onto a slatted grill by a twenty-something guy with flowers on the backs of his hands I could just barely see through the gloves, then wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper and placed in a cardboard container, next to the side of the coveted sweet potato fries. We loved the Sodexho sweet potato fries, the perfect layer of corn-syrup crispy on the outside, a delicate crust that broke open into the soft, tanning-salon orange flesh of the fry, always just this side of too hot, crumbling and sweet.

We would sit in circles around tables, us white college kids, and talk about serious things, about free trade and facial piercings, and shove whole handfuls of these sweet potato fries into our mouths. I was happy to let someone else do the cooking.

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