Ag-gag update: constitutional challenge

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Ag-gag laws and their impact. (If you aren’t familiar with what they are, start here.) They’re back in the news again, after Idaho recently passed Senate Bill 1337, which makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment to photograph or videotape abusive, unsanitary or unethical activity on a farm. It was signed into law by Idaho’s governor on February 28, and Idaho is now the seventh state to have an active Ag-gag law.

Thankfully, a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Center for Food Safety, filed a federal lawsuit in mid-March challenging the bill’s constitutionality. In the coalition’s rationale for the lawsuit, they question journalists’ free speech and freedom of the press rights. They also highlight the fact that now, Idaho more severely punishes the person who exposes animal cruelty than the person who commits it.

These laws don’t protect animals or even human beings and public health. They protect industry. Which we obviously value in this country, the way we protect large corporations in every way imaginable. 

It’s also important to point out that no one is asking these companies to allow someone to set up cameras 24/7 to document what happens in a slaughterhouse. We know what happens in a slaughterhouse. Slaughter. And the adage is probably true on some level that if we watched what happens in a slaughterhouse every day, we might all be vegetarians. Transparency in food doesn’t mean we need to see every single second of an industry’s work – that’s just absurd. 

The big issue here is that whistleblower protection is necessary. The photos and videos that these laws try to exclude are ones that show the company overstepping its legal bounds, not to mention ethical ones. A worker should feel safe in coming forward with legal or ethical concerns and allowing a journalist to do his/her work in documenting such items. These bills make it difficult to even get the evidence to law enforcement to spark an investigation before the person would be arrested under the Ag-gag law. 

Other industries can learn to get along with whistleblower protections. Industries that take money from the government, such as healthcare facilities, all must value whistleblower protections. You can’t be retaliated against in any way for exposing fraud or ethical/legal concerns and you are protected by the full extent of the law. This exists to make sure government dollars, and by extension, tax payer dollars, are spent wisely. So why not industrial agriculture? With the amount of subsidies and tax benefits these corporations receive, their workers should receive the same whistleblower protections.

We should not have laws in this country that forbid our citizens from exposing corruption, fraud, cruelty and abuse. We can’t claim to be the greatest, most free society on earth if we don’t.      


yoga mat sandwiches: real threat or hype?

You might have heard the phrase “yoga mat sandwich” tossed around lately. After a prominent food blogger/activist started a petition to get Subway to remove a chemical called azodicarbonamide from its breads, the issue went viral.

Azodicarbonamide is a chemical foaming agent, used in yoga mats and other plastic items to make the item spongy, light and strong. And apparently, bread at Subway. It supposedly “makes bread rise higher, stay soft and form an attractive crust.”

But it’s not just Subway making “yoga mat sandwiches” – according to a follow up study by the Environmental Working Group, azodicarbonamide actually appears in at least 500 processed food products made by a large number of companies. The World Health Organization has found that there are health risks to workers who are exposed to azodicarbonamide, but no one has done studies on its health effects in humans who ingest it.

So here’s the problem. It’s fine for these bloggers and activists to try to get the word out about what’s in our food. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and to some degree, talk about that in this space. But ok, Subway is now removing that chemical from its bread. But what will they put in its place? Bread that’s just made up of flour, yeast, salt and water? Doubtful. 

It’s not an effective overall strategy to get one company at a time to remove one ingredient at a time from one product at a time. What we need are comprehensive regulations and overhauls of the food industry in general, so that the FDA does not approve additives for food use in the first place with no scientific evidence as to whether or not they can threaten human health. We need a policy that considers chemicals to be dangerous for food until proven safe, with effective, third-party science.

So go ahead and stay away from processed foods with “yoga mats” in them – but don’t believe that the removal of that one chemical from a food makes it healthy and/or clean. Processed foods are processed foods. Don’t buy into the hype that industrial food companies are prioritizing public health by removing singular additives – even in the face of increased public awareness, they are still prioritizing profit.

online petitions – effective tool or just armchair activism?

In the age of social media, online petitions were almost inevitable. What better way to marshal support for a cause than to use social media to push the agenda, in hopes that it go viral?

I’ve signed a few online petitions before, mostly related to food issues. But does that really accomplish anything, or is it just armchair activism – an easy way to assuage our uncomfortable feelings about whatever the injustice is that the petition aims to combat?

Petitions that are sponsored and/or backed by advocacy groups are more likely to have legs. That is, they are using a collection of signatures to advance their already existing lobbying efforts. These groups exist outside of social media and have at least some power to get issues in front of legislators. 

But what about the petitions that are just started by a random person with an issue? I’ve been emailed petitions to sign to save just about every animal species under the planet, to take every ingredient out of every processed food, to make dolls and toys for kids of all shapes and sizes. (Recently, a White House petition to deport Justin Bieber received enough responses that the White House will have to issue a response.) 

A lot of these issues are good causes that I support in theory. But a lot of them are slightly misguided. For instance, the petition to take artificial colors out of M&Ms so as to not expose children to those chemicals doesn’t make any sense to me, since children really shouldn’t be eating any M&Ms at all, or at least not enough to make a difference. It’s worse to be exposed to those chemicals through the processed foods kids eat at every meal. So why try to get companies to change already unhealthy products to still unhealthy products? 

Shouldn’t we be petitioning the FDA and USDA to help us get chemicals out of our food supply, as opposed to individual companies? Consumers can also choose to not purchase M&Ms if they aren’t happy about the ingredients. If you don’t like the ingredients in Subway’s bread, don’t eat at Subway and if you choose, let people know why you don’t. But most Americans can’t go completely off-grid and stop buying their basic food supplies at grocery stores. So shouldn’t we be petitioning the government to make our general food supply safe and not just asking for one specific product to remove a specific ingredient?

I think it makes people feel like they are involved in activism when they share petitions and stories on social media. And really, they are. It’s a good thing to spread information and raise awareness, and I take part in that myself on a regular basis. But before you sign online petitions and expect them to make a difference, really think about whether or not that petition has a likelihood of affecting change, or if there’s a better way to go about it. 

Asking Subway to change its bread isn’t going to do anything to reform our food system. Take the time you would spend on online petitions and contact your legislators or write a response when legislation or FDA/USDA rules are up for public comment. Spread those messages on social media. It’s awareness of the scope of the real issues in our food supply that will ultimately make a difference.

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.

GMO culture war – is there a middle ground?

Recently, a reporter from Grist, one of the country’s premiere environmental magazines, finished a sixth month series on GMOs. He used the series to investigate the truth about GMOs outside of the two opposing narratives that are usually circulated. On one hand you have the pro-GMO people, who see GMOs are a feat of human ingenuity and technology/science that will save agriculture as we know it and go a long way to address starvation and hunger across the globe. On the other hand, the anti-GMO people, who see GMOs as a symptom of corporate control of our food system and the unsustainability of modern agriculture, not to mention a health risk.

His wrap-up piece, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters” caused a huge stir, from both sides of the debate. He concluded that the cultural debate actually misses the mark. Since it talks about GMOs in a broad sense, it doesn’t allow for discussion of individual GMO plants or organisms. He argues there’s a difference between engineering rice to feed starving people and engineering corn to feed pigs in a nation that already eats too much meat. (I need to read the series to see how he feels about genetically engineered animals, like salmon.)

I haven’t read all of the pieces in the series (though I probably will start to go through them). And Civil Eats also addressed his piece on their site, with a compelling rebuttal. In particular, that essay addresses what agricultural priorities should be if we are trying to envision a sustainable future. And points out rightfully that the companies involved in GMO technology are also the ones that poisoned us with Agent Orange, etc. The writer acknowledges that the debate does obscure the technological innovations that do need to occur in order to move toward sustainability. 

For me, the GMO issue primarily comes down to the issue of transparency. If I believed that as a nation we could keep corporations accountable to make decisions in the public interest, it would be one thing. But we can’t, and we know that much of the scientific research being done about GMOs (all types) is controlled by parties with a financial interest. We need third party research that’s independent. That encourages human innovation and scientific development, but with an eye toward sustainability. That researches the health and environmental effects of these plants. And we need a system that errs on the side of caution, not risk, when it comes to public health. 

While I don’t agree with him entirely – I think we need to avoid adopting a flippant attitude about GMOs – Nathanael Johnson’s Grist piece is food for thought and encourages us to dig through the hype for what’s actually true when we talk about GMOs.

picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

Real Life CSA: why I’m not sharing what we got this week

This was a big week for us, CSA-wise. A great final meat share from Clarion River Organics and our next-to-the-last produce share from Kretschmann Family Organic Farm.

I usually take photos and gush about all the goodness that we are so blessed to have. But I’m not posting them until next week. Why? Because if the proposed rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act go into effect unchanged, as currently written? There might not be any more Real Life CSA posts. There might be many less small farms, community supported agriculture programs. The farms in our community that we have come to love would have their viability threatened, and who knows how many shares they could support, if any? 

There wouldn’t be any photos of organic greens, because the compost restrictions would make it hard to grow those locally. We wouldn’t benefit from the years of accumulated agricultural knowledge that our farmers carry, because they’d be told to sanitize, sterilize and modernize, with no regard for what that actually means on a practical level. The restrictions on wildlife encroaching on crops? Have these people BEEN to Pennsylvania? Do they think deer will respect property lines?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review featured Don Kretschmann, the owner of our produce CSA, in an article yesterday that shows you in photos how his farm is threatened by these FSMA rules. Read it. 

Both of our CSAs have spoken up about how it would affect them. Read about it here and here. These are not groups that are typically outspoken about their political views. They’re too busy planting things and harvesting things. But it was important enough for them to take time out to speak up, and we owe them a few minutes of our time to comment in support.

I know I have mentioned this issue and the importance of commenting on these rules many times over the last couple months, and I’ve tweeted about it a lot too. Here’s the thing. Being a CSA subscriber is a great joy for us – and that’s not hyperbole. It’s a privilege to be able to source such wonderful food locally – one that we don’t take for granted. I might not know the technical ins and outs of farming and I’m no food policy expert. I’m just a normal consumer that can’t imagine a summer, or a winter for that matter, without my local farms. 

Americans love to complain about our government. I think we can be disillusioned with the democratic process sometimes, feeling voiceless in the face of what feels like so many things we can’t change. But this is a chance to participate and to use your voice. All the things they taught you in elementary school about government? This is where it comes alive.

For more information on how to comment, TODAY, before it’s too late, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s FSMA section here.

Grover’s grapes?: marketing produce to children

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama held a press conference with Elmo and Rosita, Muppets from Sesame Street. (Side note – does it make me super old that I have no idea who this Rosita character is?) She was announcing that Sesame Street will allow its characters to be used to market fresh produce, including fruits and vegetables, to children free of licensing fees for 2 years. This is an effort in partnership with the Produce Marketing Association and the Partnership for a Healthier America, and it coincides with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign. 

This reminds me a lot of the Chipotle campaign – where at first glance it seems awesome and simple, but it is actually a lot more complex. The good first – any effort to get kids to eat more fruit and vegetables is important. Kids need vitamins and nutrients as they grow and develop, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables at a young age helps to build healthy habits and allow kids to develop a taste for more than just chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. 

But is the best way to get them to eat the fruits and vegetables to package them and put famous characters on them?   

As far as characters go, they could have chosen worse than Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop has contributed to the education of millions of American children over the years. I grew up on Sesame Street and I know I learned so much from watching it on PBS.

Also, Sesame Workshop is giving up a lot of profit in waiving licensing fees for two years. That’s a big deal, even considering the PR boost they will get by the gesture. 

But at the end of the day, I am not convinced that marketing to children is even really appropriate in any context. Marketing at its most basic level is about manipulating information to persuade someone of something. Young children haven’t developed the reasoning skills to be able to discern between education and marketing. Putting characters on packaging, even of healthy foods, reinforces the idea that you should buy items with characters on them. Sesame Street characters already appear on foods for kids – processed, packaged foods. And to them, what’s the difference between Grover, Disney Princesses, Hello Kitty or Tony the Tiger? 

It would be more compelling to me if characters weren’t currently used on all manner of junk food products aimed at kids. They will likely be unable to differentiate between Grover on a package of cookies and Grover on a package of grapes. I recall wanting my mom to buy products I knew I didn’t like, simply because of the packaging. I hated sliced white bread when I was a kid, but I know I lobbied for her to buy Wonder Bread because it had cheerful polka dots on it. I was unable to reason that I didn’t actually even want to eat it. This is not to say that items shouldn’t be attractively packaged or designed. But how much more seductive is Elmo to a child than polka dots? A lot.

It can also be argued that there might be a price increase in the fruits and vegetables with the characters on them, considering that previously unpackaged vegetables and fruits might need plastic bags to feature the characters. That all remains to be seen, as the marketing for these products actually takes shape. I hope that it’s done really carefully, and that it will encourage other companies to really consider what messaging they are sending to children. 

Real Life CSA: week 22, produce

Even though the season is winding down, we still get an impressive amount of produce in the share – and not just storage crops.

Going to have a pepper slice-a-thon this weekend and get a bunch frozen for winter fajitas, since we already have enough chili peppers hanging to dry in our kitchen (which you’ve seen if you follow me on Instagram @nextgenhouse)

This is the second week for turnip greens and I’m not disappointed. We ate last week’s turnip greens sauteed with the previous week’s chard as a side dish for the nice dinner we made ourselves on our wedding anniversary this week. Mark’s found a great way to leech the bitterness out is to use a little white wine or broth to allow the greens to cook longer while the liquid evaporates. It also lends a good flavor to them. I’ve never enjoyed bitter greens so much as this season!

More delicious apples this week. Trying to savor these guys every time, knowing we won’t be getting them forever. But a great way to savor great apples through the winter is…

We’re drinking this fresh, but you can also freeze the whole half gallon by pouring off and enjoying about a half a cup to give it room to expand. We had no choice but to drink this fresh anyway, considering our chest freezer is officially packed to capacity. I’m not even sure another molecule of ice could fit in there. (The peppers will have to be shoved in the upstairs freezer. Might have to eat up some ice cream to make room. What a sacrifice.)

Gratuitous slightly unfocused tendril shot!

The radishes and greens will be salad this week, and the potatoes will be stored if we don’t use them as a side. As for the dill, I’m thinking of drying it or preserving it in another way since we are unlikely to use that enormous bunch in one week of recipes.

I’m not sure how many weeks we have left, but I will miss this CSA when it’s done for the season. 

Remember that if you’re in the same boat – that you enjoy your CSA and the fresh variety of foods it brings to your diet, comments are still being accepted on the FDA’s new rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act that threaten small farms and local producers. Read more directly from our CSA about how they would be specifically affected by these potential rules here. You can read my comment and find instructions on how to submit your own here.

Real Life CSA: week 20, produce

This week’s share was the first in months to not include tomatoes, which definitely means we’re in to fall now. We got a great assortment this week, though. 

But before I share what we received this week, I have to take time to mention that the bounty that we get each year from our CSA is truly threatened by new rules that the FDA is trying to establish due to the Food Safety Modernization Act. These rules jeopardize small farms and by extension, our economy, environment and health. You can read directly from our produce CSA why this is such an issue for them here.

Often we think that one voice doesn’t matter when it comes to our government and that we’re too busy to take the time to speak up when it matters. If you’ve ever enjoyed produce from your CSA or your local farmers markets, this affects you. Take 10 minutes out of your schedule today to read about these rules and how they will directly affect your community. I linked to resources and ways to comment in this post, last week. It’s worth it, if for no other reason than to stand up next to farmers and show your support as a consumer. They shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone.

With that said, check out what we received this week.

Depending on what we cook this week, I might slice and freeze peppers, since we have an abundance of them right now. Broccoli will make a great side. (We never get tired of broccoli as a side. Just plain steamed in all its own glory. Yes, I just used the word glory in a sentence about broccoli.)

These greens are great and so flavorful. I love the pieces that have tendrils.

These tiny eggplants might find their way into a slow cooker recipe this week. We’ve been trying to take advantage of the slow cooker more lately, to take some of the time burden off of cooking at home. In fact, a lentil stew with tomatoes is in the crock pot right now!

The apples this year have been amazing. They are crisp and so flavorful, it makes you never want to touch a waxy apple again. If you’ve ever wondered why these apples have gray spots, it’s from the natural clay treatments they get to ward off disease and pests. It’s perfectly fine to eat and you don’t even taste it. I think it gives them character.

But taking the prize this week for most beautiful produce is definitely the chard. We like to eat this sauteed with garlic, and even after cooking, the colors are so vibrant.

What did you get in your CSA share this week?