Tom Philpott - June 2011

Jerry Brown 2.0: Friend or Foe of Farmworkers?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Jerry Brown: one more chance to stand up for farm workers.

Back in 1975, a young, newly elected California governor named Jerry Brown signed into law a historic bill recognizing the right of his state's farm workers to unionize. Nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his new-age tendencies, Brown might have been a bit spacey, but he didn't waver in standing up to his state's powerful agribusiness interests.

In the decades since, the protections offered by that law have eroded. Farmworkers say field bosses use intimidation to keep people from voting to form unions. The United Farm Workers have been pushing for years for new protections that would make it easier for workers to cast their votes without being under the noses of the bosses. Advocates have managed to push such a bill through the California legislature four times in recent years. And each time, Arnold Schwarzenegger—unapologetically carrying water for the state's powerful agribusiness lobby—vetoed it.

Now The Arnold is gone, and that '70s-era governor is back—again deciding the fate of legislation that would improve the lot of the thousands of people who work in California's fields. But this time, Jerry Brown came down on the side of the bosses. On Tuesday, he vetoed the the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act.

He had signed the original 1975 act at a press conference with much fanfare. Jerry Brown 2.0 rejected the 2011 bill hidden away in his office, accompanying the veto with a weasely memo (PDF). In that sad document, the onetime-firebrand wrings his hands over the possibility of "drastic changes" to the state's farm-labor law.

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Meat-Industry Abuse: Not Just for Workers

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

As I tried to tease out in this post, the meat industry's business model hinges on cutting costs. And relentless cost-cutting pressure translates to relentless pressure to cut corners down the production chain, from the slaughterhouse kill floor to the factory-farm pen. Ted Genoways' blockbuster piece "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret"  delivers a case study in how workers pay the price for the mountains of cheap meat the industry pays out.

Animals pay, too. They are treated as industrial commodities—like identical machine parts being churned out by a factory—not living beings that have evolved over millennia to thrive or suffer under specific conditions. Systematically objectified, factory-farm animals are subject to routine abuse. If you worked as a quality-control inspector on an assembly line, you'd think nothing slamming a defective widget into the waste bin. Widgets feel no pain. As a matter of course, animals get the same treatment, as this—the latest in a string of appalling recent undercover videos—demonstrates.

Now, unlike other recent cases of abuse exposure, this one isn't likely to result in the responsible company declaring the workers involved "bad apples" and firing them. Most of what you see in the video is entirely routine and industry-standard—like the practice of cutting off the tail of piglets with a pair of shears and no anesthetics. "Tail docking," as the practice is known, is necessary on factory hog farms, because distressed hogs tend to try to chew each others' tails off. The same isn't true of hogs that live outside. Note also the practice of tossing piglets roughly across rooms—which a plant manager is caught onscreen training workers to do, based on the theory that piglets are "bouncy."

What's happening here isn't just a moral abomination. Public health, too, is threatened by abusing animals to the point the point they have open wounds and then hoping daily lashings of antibiotics will keep infections at a manageable level. I can't imagine a better strategy for incubating antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Mercy for Animals, the group that planted the undercover investigator at the facility, documented these conditions:

• Large, open, pus-filled wounds and pressure sores
• Sick and injured pigs left to languish and slowly die without proper veterinary care
• Mother pigs—physically taxed from constant birthing—suffering from distended, inflamed, bleeding, and usually fatal uterine prolapses

Rather than change practices in response to public outrage over these exposures, the meat industry has floated legislation in several states to ban the practice of sneaking cameras onto factory farms. It's an industry that can't bear scrutiny.

How the Meat Industry Turned Abuse into a Business Model

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
These little piggies went to the factory gestation facility.

As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion.

In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of US meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meat packing as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by corporatization, scaling up, plunging wages, and then, well, all manner of hell breaking loose, graphically documented by Genoways. All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.

In his story, Genoways reports that Quality Pork Processors sped up its kill line by 50 percent between 1989 and 2006, while the plant's workforce "barely increased." The strange malady acquired by those workers in Austin, Minn., makes for an eye-popping story; but the rough conditions they worked under aren't the exception—they're industry standard. By 2005, things had gotten so dire for meat-packing workers that Human Rights Watch—typically on the lookout for atrocities in war zones—saw fit to issue a scathing report on their plight. The report's title says it all: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."

WHAT drives such routine worker abuse? What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?

The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers, as Genoways demonstrates.

Priorities, Priorities: AC in Afghanistan vs. School Lunch at Home

| Sun Jun. 26, 2011 2:23 PM EDT
A Canadian soldier works on an AC system in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

When you station hundreds of thousands of people in hot places to fight wars, it costs something to keep them reasonably cool. How much?

According to NPR, the military spends $20 billion per year on air conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that a lot? Here's NPR:

That's more than NASA's budget. It's more than BP has paid so far for damage during the Gulf oil spill. It's what the G-8 has pledged to help foster new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.

To choose an example from my world, that's more than twice as much as we spend annually on the National School Lunch Program. I would argue, as I have before, that investing significantly more in school lunches is an urgent national priority. School lunches are society's most concrete, tangible way of transmitting foodways to rising generations. Sure, we pass on foodways in home kitchens and in our built infrastructure of restaurants/eateries, and well as through advertising; but those are in the private sphere. The public-school cafeteria is where we create a public vision of what the food system should be like. In short, it's the public contribution to the formation of kids' eating habits. And the eating habits we develop as kids largely determine the food choices we make as adults. If that weren't true, the food industry wouldn't be dropping $1.6 billion every year marketing to kids.

Tom's Kitchen: Pasta With Snap Peas and Fennel

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Welcome to my occasional cooking column (a continuation of something I started on Grist). The idea of Tom's Kitchen isn't to show off my flashy cooking skills (which are actually quite modest); or rub your face in how amazing it is to cook on a small veggie farm. Rather, what I want to do is contribute to a tradition established by much more accomplished cooks than me—e.g. Deborah Madison, Mark Bittman—of showing that cooking delicious, healthful food really isn't all that hard or time-consuming. 

When I first started cooking seriously 20 years ago, I would grab an "authentic" cookbook centered on some faraway land—say, Paula Wolfert's classic 1973 opus Couscous: And Other Good Food from Moroccochoose some recipes, jot down a vast shopping list brimming with esoteric ingredients, and set off on a day-long adventure (and a long night of dishes). You can learn plenty from that style of cooking—I have—but really, it's a hobbyist's activity. It's not going to put dinner on the table on a Tuesday night after a long day at the office (or of writing and farm work). These days, my cooking is simpler: I see what fresh ingredients are available, check out what's in the pantry, and figure out some quick way to bring it all together in palatable fashion. It's often influenced by techniques and pantry ingredients I picked up over the years from the likes of the great Wolfert, but there's no attempt to be authentic or fancy or do special shopping. There's just no time.

I think this style is a much more user-friendly way of drawing more people into cooking—a critical task, I think, when tens of millions of people have no idea how to cook and outsource their diets to the food industry. 

Weekend Quick Bites

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

Civil Eats' Paula Crossfield breaks down Gannett's absurd decision to lay off the last D.C. beat reporter covering ag policy: Phil Brasher, former mainstay of the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register. This is what you get when newspapers are owned by faceless corporations, not community members. The move is even more absurd given that we're moving into a presidential election and negotiations over the 2012 Farm Bill.

• On Grist, Monica Potts dives deep into something I covered briefly last week: the House's move to keep the USDA from protecting small farmers against the market power of giant meat companies.

• HuffPo's Lucia Graves goes long on the suspicion that Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide, is linked to birth defects. This is an explosive story. Roundup rains down on millions of acres of farmland each year. I'll have more to say next week.

• On Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, Kathleen Schafer delivers the latest on a more definitive herbicide-birth defect link: the one involving Syngenta's atrazine.

• This week, I wrote about how my esteemed representative to the US Congress, Virginia Foxx, had taken a break from bashing gays and immigrants to try to stamp out the progressive wing of Obama's USDA. Turns out, she's even busier than I thought—in debate over the same House bill she managed to use as a club to pummel the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Foxx essentially tried to do away with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), reports belmontmedina of Postbourgie. Classy! Belmontmedina notes that "half of all American infants and about a quarter of kids under 4 have participated in WIC," and that "every dollar spent saves three in health care costs during the first 2 months of a child's life."

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There's a Foxx Guarding the Ag-Policy Henhouse

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 2:09 PM EDT
Know your farmer, know your food? Oh no, you don't, says Virginia Foxx.

In my post on the recent House Republicans' assault on progressive ag policy, I mentioned the move to shut down USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. The sponsor of the amendment that did the dirty deed is Rep. Virginia Foxx (R.-N.C.)—who, it turns, out, represents my district in Congress. This is the sort of thing she gets up to when she's not defending children from the scourge of gay marriage, or lashing out at undocumented workers (who, incidentally, form the backbone of our area's Christmas tree and nursery industries.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, Know Your Farmer is essentially a website. it gathers up and spotlights a hodgepodge of existing programs, funded by the 2008 Farm Bill, that direct modest amounts of money to rebuilding local and regional food systems and supporting new farmers.

That's actually a significant service. The USDA's own site is infamously unwieldy and impossible to navigate. Without Know Your Farmer, the few progressive federal ag programs we have—for example, ones that that help make farmers markets accessible to low-income mothers, or help small farmers launch profitable food businesses—would likely wither on the vine.

House Republicans Aim Pitchfork at Food-System Reform

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

I've complained once or twice in the past that US farm policy, even under Obama, favors corporate-led, highly dysfunctional agriculture. That's true on balance, but it doesn't tell the whole story. If you dig into the topic, you'll find that sustainable-food activists have been working for decades to place progressive, community-oriented programs into the ag-policy mix. These hard-fought victories, won during once-every-five-years Farm Bill wars, are vastly outweighed by things like the government's corn-ethanol fetish, or its hyper-aggressive trade policies. 

But the food movement's political gains are real, they're fragile, and they need defending. And they're under withering attack from the GOP-controlled US House, which passed a fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that if signed into law would snuff out US farm policy's green shoots like an herbicide-spewing crop duster snuffs out weeds. The D.C.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the best watchdog/lobbying group we have on ag-policy issues, delivers the grim news on what the House bill would do. Here's a few highlights, summarized by me.

Is the "Clean 15" Just as Toxic as the "Dirty Dozen"?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:35 AM EDT
Fumigants don't generally make it into the fruit you eat, but that hardly makes them "clean."

Recently, Environmental Working Group released its annual "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of produce with the most and least pesticide residues. My reaction was: Well done, but what about farm workers? The EWG lists provide an invaluable tool to help consumers reduce pesticide exposure, but tell us nothing about the folks who grow and harvest the great bulk of food we consume.

Well, over on Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, researcher Karl Tupper shed some light on the murky question of farm worker exposure to toxic pesticides. Tupper stressed that pesticide residues pose a real threat to consumers. However, he adds "It’s the farmers, farm workers, and residents of rural communities who are really most at risk from pesticides, not consumers." Tupper explains:

While these folks are exposed to pesticides from food like the rest of us, they also must contend with pesticide fumes drifting out of fields, exposure from working directly with pesticides, and pesticide-coated dust and dirt tracked into their homes from the fields.

Tupper cross-referenced the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists against USDA numbers for total pesticides applied per acre of each item. He found that from the perspective of farm workers, the Clean Fifteen just aren't much cleaner than the Dirty Dozen.

Overall, the two lists don't look that different from the standpoint of pesticide use. The average pesticide use intensity for the list are quite similar: 26.2 lbs/acre for the Clean Fifteen and 29.8 lbs/acre for the Dirty Dozen.

Disturbingly, two Clean Fifteen items—sweet potatoes and mushrooms—land on top of Tupper's list of most pesticide-intensive crops. And the least pesticide-intensive crop by Tupper's calculations—spinach—took fifth place on EWG's Dirty Dozen. In short, what's clean for consumers is too often dirty for farm workers, and vice-versa. One main reason for the dirty-but-clean nature of so many vegetables that reach consumers' plates: widespread use of highly toxic fumigants. Tupper describes them like this:

They are very drift-prone and very toxic, and they are applied at very high rates compared to non-fumigant pesticides. But because they are applied to soil before crops are planted, and because they are so volatile and so reactive, they don't stick around on growing plants and they don't end up contaminating the food you buy at the market.

Why the Senate Ethanol Vote Doesn't Matter Much

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 3:29 PM EDT

I have a really bad idea.

Let's push farmers to plant as much as they possibly can of our most ecologically devastating crop. Maybe we'll even get them to plow up some erosion-prone grasslands to do so. Then we'll take a huge portion of the bounty (say, 40 percent) and subject it to a Byzantine, energy-intensive process that will turn it into something (barely) suitable for internal-combustion engines. (Never mind that internal-combustion engines, powering private pods over roads always in need of extravagant maintenance, are a rotten way of converting energy into mass locomotion.)

The production process generates a heaping amount of a byproduct tainted with antibiotics and industrial chemicals. No worries—we'll feed that stuff to livestock on vast factory farms, even though it increases deadly pathogens in beef and does terrible things to pigs. Since the whole idea is so clearly misbegotten, we'll need to deploy serious government support to keep it from stalling. How about decades of lucrative tax breaks, bolstered in recent years by upward-spiraling usage mandates? We'll need a bit of PR, too, to keep the public from squawking. Let's just pretend that the product we're peddling is a green, job-creating machine that will "wean us from foreign oil."

You in?

That, in a nutshell, tells the story of America's corn-based ethanol boondoggle over the past three decades. (For the rollicking tale of how the whole thing got started in the first place, go here). Over the same time span, we've allowed our national rail-transport system to wither into self-parody; watched as cities defunded or neglected mass transit; failed to make necessary investments in clean energy sources like wind and solar while also declining to force fossil energy producers to pay for the massive damage they cause; and, most recently, elected a Democratic president who seems hell-bent on putting Sarah Palin's "drill, baby, drill" energy vision into place. And through it all, our government's blind, deep-pocketed loyalty to corn-based car fuel has endured.