Blue Marble - August 2009

Half-Pint

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

There's something seriously wrong with America's dairy industry. A thumbnail sketch: California dairy producers committing suicide like rural subsistence farmers in Andrah Pradesh; big-eyed dairy cows packed off to the slaughter house in record numbers; New Yorkers dolling out $6 a gallon, even as raw-milk prices plummet to lows not seen since Jimmy Carter's administration. And in the midst of it all, dairy giant Dean Foods, the country's largest processor of raw milk, is having the best year ever.

What gives? Despite the hold-steady price-per-gallon at Ralph's, wholesale milk prices have plummeted to half of what they were a year ago, and just more than 20 percent what they were at the beginning of 2008. The situation is almost as egregious for consumers as it is for dairy farmers, who continue to abandon the industry or face pumping at a loss.

In New York City—where they have a milk price-gouging hotline!—the price of a gallon ranges from $2.25 to $6 in the same borough, despite traditionally strict, and strictly enforced, retail maximums. Late last year, the agency responsible for capping the price just ...stopped. Meanwhile, California, the country's top dairy-producing state, has completely abandoned its retail price floors for milk.

None of this has helped stanch the flow of dirt cheap raw milk into an already glutted consumer market. Farmers blame the nation's two dairy processing giants, milk co-op Dairy Farmers of America and Dean Foods, which together manage virtually all of the 22.2 billion gallons of milk produced annually in the United States. Dean owns 50 major brands, and farmers who hope to sell under them are obligated to work through the DFA. And, surprise surprise, as milk plunged in value, Dean's profits have soared.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

4 Hopes for Obama's Farmers' Market

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

You may have read yesterday that President Obama wants to set up a farmer's market at the White House. On first glance, this confirms my suspicions that President Obama is pretty damn cool. In his words:

One of the things that we’re trying to do now is to figure out, can we get a little farmers’ market outside of the White House... I’m not going to have all of you all just tromping around inside, but right outside the White House so that we can, and that is a win-win situation.

It gives suddenly D.C. more access to good, fresh food, but it also is this enormous potential revenue-maker for local farmers in the area. And those kinds of connections can be made all throughout the country, and has to be part of how we think about health.

But coolness aside, if this idea becomes reality, the Obamas should be careful to make it a sustainable market for local farmers rather than a kitschy tourist attraction bogged down by pins and t-shirts that say "Yes We Can Farm" and "Change We Can Grow In." But let's face it, due to the massive security detail the market would require and the overwhelming draw for Washingtonians and tourists alike, the latter is more likely. After all, markets that truly support local, organic farmers have become increasingly rare even as farmers' markets, both organic and kitschy, increased threefold between 1994 and 2008.

So taking the touristy factor as a given, how can Obama make the White House farmers' market most beneficial to farmers and consumers alike? I have four ideas:

Eco-News Roundup: Friday August 21

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 7:05 AM EDT

News from our other blogs, and around the web, you might have missed.

Sneak Peek: Jim Ridgeway offers a preview of healthcare reform options' effects.

Death And...: Taxes. If the Public Option dies, where will they go?

Trouble Up North: Info shows that Alaskan waters may be particularly vulnerable to effects of global warming. [The Daily Climate]

Sheriff Waxman: He's requesting insurance companies' info, and lots of it.

Smart Chart: This handy chart tells you all you need to know about the GOP's approach to healthcare reform.

Sleeping With the Enemy: Oregon's environmental department is supporting a limits exemption for the state's largest mercury producer. [The Oregonian]

Double-Header: Kevin Drum doubts the Dem's latest two-headed health bill will work.

Money Talks: Blue America has raised a $200,000 incentive for Congress members to vote against any healthcare bill that doesn't contain a public option.

What Gay Marriage Means: Same-sex marriage opponent says it'll lead to more tolerance... and that it's a bad thing.

 

Pumping in Dirty Oil From Canada's Tar Sands

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 7:18 PM EDT

Today, the State Department announced that it has okayed a new oil pipeline between Canada and the United States. A press release hails the decision to break ground on the Alberta Clipper Pipeline for sending "a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of United States’ energy imports" and for providing "shovel-ready" jobs. What it doesn't mention is that the pipeline between Alberta and Wisconsin will be pumping oil from Canada's tar sands—some of the world's dirtiest petroleum. As Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson reported in a gripping first-hand dispatch from the "Tar Wars," Canada's oil boom is exacting a heavy toll on the rural areas surrounding the massive pits that comprise the largest industrial zone in the world. For every barrel of oil produced from the tar sands, another two of toxic waste are left behind. Indigenous Albertans worry that their water and wild game have been dangerously contaminated. And that's not all: Squeezing oil from tar sands emits 151 percent more greenhouse gases than the production of conventional oil (including 80 percent more CO2). The official justification for the new pipeline echoes the Bush administration's policy, which put "energy independence" ahead of environmental considerations. Yet the State Department insists that the US is still committed to taking "ambitious action to address climate change" and getting Canada to follow suit. Sounds like a pipe dream.

 

World Bank Knowingly Funds Harmful Biofuel Co.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 5:30 PM EDT

In our March/April 2009 issue, journalist Heather Rogers investigates the controversy surrounding biofuel production and the ever-expanding oil palm plantations in Indonesia. In her report, Rogers explores why the world's largest palm oil trader, Wilmar, is facing intense criticism: 

Wilmar is currently under scrutiny for illegalities...including logging protected areas, using fire to clear trees, forcibly removing peasants and indigenous people, and operating without proper permits. 

According to Rogers, these activities violate Wilmar's own social responsibility policies, as well as the standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank's private sector lending arm that has bankrolled Wilmar with millions. After pressure from Indonesian activists, IFC's ombudsman was forced to launch an investigation.

Well, the investigation finally wrapped up this summer, culminating in this damning report that details IFC's failures:

  • IFC did not address the livelihood and economic issues faced by smallholders or plantation workers in the supply chain.
  • IFC overrode the assessment by it's own economic and social department (CES) and incorrectly categorized investments in Wilmar's oil palm projects as having "limited, or no, environmental or social impacts."
  • IFC failed to address the fact that Wilmar's plantation operations were not in compliance with Indonesia's national laws, which require Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), and local land rights customs.
  • IFC investments were overly influenced by commercial pressures and disregarded environmental and social due diligence requirements.

Indonesia's civil society organizations have responded quickly to these findings. In conjunction with the UK's Forest Peoples Programme, they sent a letter to IFC officials arguing that such failures require IFC "to suspend its support for the palm oil sector in Indonesia until these deficiencies are addressed." As Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme explains, "IFC staff knew of the environmental and social risks in the palm oil sector, including unresolved land disputes and non-compliance with its social and environmental standards, but chose to ignore the risks."

Check out Heather Rogers' investigation here.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday August 20

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 7:17 AM EDT

Pay to Play: For the cost of medical fraud, we could pay for healthcare reform.

Dean 3G: Guess who's got his own healthcare reform Rx? Howard Dean.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em: New findings show antioxidants can fuel breast cancer. [National Geographic]

Next!: The public option may be breathing its last.

Small Screen: The McSteamy's sex tape, hydrated by Fiji Water.

Wolf Woes: State of Idaho will allow a cull of 25% of its wolf population. [MongaBay]

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Plastics in Ocean Decompose After All

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 9:21 PM EDT

If you thought billions of pounds of indestructible plastic circling the gyres of the ocean was depressing, sorry to say it gets a lot worse. Scientists are now reporting that " indestructible" plastics decompose with surprising speed and release toxic substances into the water.

The findings were reported today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University, Japan, and his team found that plastic in the ocean decomposes with exposure to rain, sun, weather, and ocean—giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue far into the future. Their key findings:

  • Polystyrene begins to decompose within one year, releasing components that are detectable in the parts-per-million range. 
  • Plastics themselves usually don't break down in living animal bodies after being eaten. But the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could have adverse effects. BPA and PS oligomer can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.
  • The researchers simulated the breakdown of plastic products at low temperatures found in the oceans. Degrading plastic this way created three new compounds not found in nature:  styrene monomer (SM), styrene dimer (SD) and styrene trimer (ST). SM is a known carcinogen and SD and ST are suspected carcinogens.
  • BPA ands PS oligomer are not found naturally either and therefore must have been created through the decomposition of the plastic.

Seems to me we need to reconsider what goes into the ocean with the same urgency we're almost beginning to exhibit towards the atmosphere.

 

Even More Coal PR

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 3:55 PM EDT

Climate Progress reports on yet another feat of coal PR: A new campaign called the Federation for American Coal, Energy, and Security, or, for short, FACES of Coal. Welcome, FACES, to the  party: Your compatriots will include Citizens for Coal, Friends of Coal, and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, now famous for their achievements in astroturf.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has a story about a coal-industry-sponsored team of 10-year-old athletes whose tournament trip to Tennessee was cut short so they could come back to West Virginia and play a game clad in FACES of Coal tees for the launch of the campaign. The team's shortstop told WVPB she didn't mind coming home early. "It was mostly the kids' idea because we really wanted to go down there and show them that coal is important."

Of course they do. That shortstop's dad is a surface miner, after all, and it's fair to say that the nefarious motives of the folks behind the FACES campaign are well beyond the comprehension of a ten-year-old. But there's just something unsettling about the coal industry using kids to convey their disingenuous message. Again.

Clean Coal Coloring Book

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 1:30 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Wed Aug. 19, 2009 1:34 PM EDT

Grist has found a priceless artifact of the coal industry's massive PR effort: Eyes for Frosty, a coal coloring book produced by the lobby group Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy. The basic plotline: Two kids are looking for eyes for their snowman when they are visited by Power Rock and Spurt, two charismatic anthropomorphized lumps of coal who teach them how abundant and useful coal is.

Parents, if your kid just can't get enough of staying within the lines of dirty energy propaganda, never fear! Chesapeake energy has a natural gas coloring book, too.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, August 19

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

News from our other blogs and across the WWW on health, environment, energy, and wildlife.

Health Timeline: Universal coverage doesn't just happen. It takes time to work out the kinks.

Minority Opinion: Are there enough Republicans left to filibuster public healthcare?

Four Years Later: Looking back at Katrina, and what hasn't gotten done.

Astroturf Admissions: More letters (fake) against the Markey-Waxman bill turn up.

Island Eaters: Invasive plants have gobbled up dozens of islands. See which ones here. [BBC]

Sticks and Stones: Social rejection can make you hurt, physically. [LiveScience]