Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Feed Your Children Well

The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization by September 30. This is a federal government policy that sets the rules and standards and uses tax dollars to—among other things—provide a daily reimbursement for school lunches. Right now this amounts to $2.57 for a free lunch, including labor and ingredients. It is nowhere close to what most school districts need to put healthy foods on our cafeteria tables and reward all the people who make that possible. Congress will soon consider adding one dollar per meal to the reimbursement, and this still might not be enough.

Today’s National School Lunch Program, which is a major part of the five-year spending bill called the Child Nutrition Act, provides meals to 30 million children. Many young Americans depend on school meal and snack programs for a great majority of their daily caloric intake.

The NSLP was first made law in 1946, when our representatives—having survived a World War and a decade-long Great Depression—made a direct connection between the health of a nation and its children. They decided to officially establish a school lunch program at least in part for national security reasons. One out of three recruits in World War II had been turned away because of chronic malnutrition. Feeding students a proper school lunch was a national defense strategy.

Back in 1946 the idea was to support excess commodity agriculture that could then be used to feed children. But in the years since the mid-1940s, American agriculture underwent a transformation. Family farms gave way to a massive food industry that has flooded the market and our school lunch programs with intensively subsidized commodities and processed foods that are high in sugars, starches, and unhealthy fats and oils.

This cheap calorie delivery system—funded for the past few decades through both the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Act—has become a key player in a growing crisis: the Supersizing of our kids. One in four children are now overweight and obese. The projections for not addressing this situation—learning to eat better and adopt healthy lifestyles—are frightening. Future health care costs related to this nutritional epidemic could literally swamp local, state and federal government coffers in coming years. And that is just the financial perspective.

Often when we think of huge “omnibus” government legislations like the Transportation Bill, the Energy Bill, or the Farm Bill—huge public spending programs with real life consequences—they seem so complex and tedious it is hard to understand how they affect us personally. It’s easy to get lost in the billions and trillions, in the alphabet soup and acronyms, in highway projects and corn monocultures in the Midwest. One of the beauties of the National School Lunch Program is that we can see the impacts on a personal level. We can look around in our communities and see our kids who depend on these programs. The Child Nutrition Act touches home in every community around the country.

This year the US arm of the international movement known as Slow Food is circulating a petition asking for some very reasonable changes to the Child Nutrition Act:

• $1 increase in the reimbursement per meal;

• grants for Farm-to-School and school garden projects to educate every single child in the country on where food comes from, and get the culture back in agriculture;

• financial incentives for schools to purchase as many fruits and vegetables as possible from local farmers to keep that money in the community, and to shorten the distance our food has to travel before it reaches our children’s cafeteria tables.

All this makes sense and deserves our support if only for one single reason. Children need proper nutrition to be good students. They can’t make it through an afternoon of focused attention without healthy food. This is actually a national security concern. We can’t afford to be a nation of under-achievers, at least not if we can help it.

Fortunately, there is a great shift in consciousness occurring around food and public health right now. Locally grown healthy food is being seen as a catalyst and dynamic organizing principle to revitalize local economies, to compensate for a future with less oil, to deal with a planet that is heating up, to address an obesity crisis that is verging on disaster.

The concept of feeding all of our children well, of teaching them about the beauty and complexity of food production through school gardens and local Farm-to-School programs which actually feed them, should be a community as well as a national priority. But in order for these things to happen, Congress needs to authorize more funding for the program. We should see this long overdue increase to the Child Nutrition Act as a down payment on a new generation that will have a lifetime of good eating habits engrained in them. The idea of healthy foods as preventive health care—perhaps even as medicine—is a concept that can and should change the world.

Find Slow Food's petition here.

Find info on HR 1324, a bill introduced by Lynn Woolsey relating to Child Nutrition Act.

Dan Imhoff is the director of Watershed Media, publisher of the newly released book, "Smart By Nature," a collaborative project with the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Food Safety Bill Ignores CAFOs; Spurns Small Farmers

[Posted by Emmett Hopkins, Watershed Media research assistant and Foggy River Farm farmer.]

In a rush to pass some sort—any sort—of food safety bill, Congress has penned a piece of legislation that might actually harm the very farmers that hold the answers to our food safety challenges.

Before leaving on its August recess, Congress passed House Resolution 2749 (HR 2749). This bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sweeping powers to regulate American food producers, but in doing so, it does little to distinguish between huge multinational corporations and small family farms producing food to sell in their local communities. According to, HR 2749 grants the FDA “the authority to regulate how crops are raised and harvested, to quarantine a geographic area, to make warrantless searches of business records, and to establish a national food tracing system.” To fund this effort, the bill proposes raising a $500 registration fee on any facility “holding, processing, or manufacturing” food.

As we wait for the Senate to return from recess and take up this bill, it is worth considering its effects on small-scale farmers and local food producers. Across America, communities are working to create strong, viable regional food systems. From Alabama to Washington, locals are supporting small sustainable farms, establishing farmers markets, creating local food co-ops. They do this not just because they appreciate the sweet perfection of just-picked tomatoes and melons—but also because they know that by strengthening local farms and food processors they are more likely to have a reliable supply of safe, healthy foods for their children and their grandchildren. Who needs a bureaucratic food registry system when you can drive across town and visit the farmers who grew your lettuce, made your cheese, or canned your pickles?

In its current form HR 2749 could have a disabling effect on many small scale farmers. The $500 registration fee required to be paid by any farm that processes food is unreasonable to ask of small farms. During a committee hearing, one of the bill’s sponsors Henry Waxman (D-California) pointed to large corporate food producers in his defense of the fee structure: “In the recent peanut (salmonella) outbreak, Kellogg’s alone lost $70 million. Faced with such a dire situation, I think it is reasonable to ask the food industry to chip in.” This is all well and good, but the problem arises when Waxman and his colleagues fail to differentiate between Kellog’s—which reported $12.8 billion sales in 2008—and little Grandma’s Jams and Jellies that made, let’s say, $12,800 in 2008.

Several farm organizations and US Representatives have expressed their concern about the fee structure:

Representative Sam Farr (D-California), during a
committee hearing, said this:

"I have deep concerns ... about the fee structure in the measure, which would charge a farm family making jams or syrup or cheese the same fee as a processing plant owned by a multinational corporation employing hundreds or thousands or workers. This strikes me as not only unfair but contrary to federal farm policy that has encouraged small and mid-sized family farms to get into small scale value-added enterprises to survive economically. I am seeking an assurance ... that a more progressive fee structure will be found that does not inhibit our farm families from taking advantage of new markets."

A letter presented to Henry Waxman by seven concerned members of Congress stated:

"More and more, farms are adding value to their products on the farm as a way to survive economically in an inherently volatile sector […] If small or diversified farmers knew that they had to pay an annual fee of $500 to process their product on their farm, many would opt not to explore such market innovations."

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition, in a letter to bill sponsor Representative Dingell (D-Michigan), wrote this:

"While H.R. 2749 bill exempts facilities that sell over 50.1% of their processed products directly to the consumer, it still imposes a fee on those who primarily sell wholesale. We represent a large number of farmers who sell their value-added products to the wholesale market as well as a large number who sell direct to consumer, and in fact, most farmers increasingly do some of each. […] H.R. 2749 requires facilities of all size, regardless of whether their annual revenue stream is $1,000 or $1 million or $100 million, to pay the same fee. […] This is a fundamental issue of equity. The tax in the bill as written and approved by the House violates the basic principle of ability to pay which is the bedrock of our system."

While the proposed law includes certain exemptions for farmers that primarily sell directly to consumers, restaurants, and grocery stores, farms that sell primarily to other local venues such as caterers and school or hospital cafeterias would not qualify. The NSAC and NOC worry that “there is increased demand for locally-produced agricultural products in school cafeterias, but as it stands, the language in HR 2749 would not exempt farmers selling direct to institutional settings which could dampen farmer interest in these important new markets that stand to provide healthy, fresh food to our nation’s children.”

Let’s stop and think for a minute about where the most prevalent food safety problems come from. Salmonella and E. coli are the bacteria that seem to most often cause outbreaks in the US—and both originate exclusively from animals. E. coli lives in the gut of ruminants; The main culprit for spreading this disease is cattle. The corn-fed cattle in industrial feedlots carry by far the most E. coli bacteria. (A 2009 study by the USDA found that “When cattle were abruptly switched from a high grain diet to an all hay diet, total E. coli populations declined 1,000-fold within 5 days.”)

Miraculously, however, it seems that all of the large-scale industrial animal operations would be exempt from the regulations proposed under this bill (see "USDA Exemptions" section of bill on in fact it is these industries where most of our food-borne illnesses begin. It is the massive industrial farms that need targeting—not a misguided effort to control the demonized "leafy greens." Let's focus our attention where it is truly productive: the mega meat feedlots and slaughterhouses. Instead of HR 2749, Congress would be better suited to pass something closer to Kevin's law—a.k.a. the "Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act." This bill was introduced by Anna Eshoo (D-California) along with 36 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in 2005, but never became law. It would have focused the fight for food safety squarely on the large meat producers, where it belongs.

The idea of promoting food safety is a noble one: To protect consumers from food-borne illness that could suddenly and silently harm them or their families. The solution proposed by HR 2749, however, fails to focus narrowly on the most likely sources of illness: meats and other foods processed in massive facilities, and food imported from abroad. Instead, it risks slowing down the regional food movements that actually promise solutions to our food safety problems. Rather than holding back small-scale farmers, we need to be urging them forward. They represent the future of American food: a network of regional food systems where food is traceable and farmers are accountable because they are right down the road.

*Visit the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) website for links to various Congressional hearings, statements by farm organizations, and information about other shortcomings of HR 2749.

*Visit Wild Farm Alliance’s compilation of articles related to the food safety bill and other related topics issues.

*Read Carolyn Lochhead’s San Francisco Chronicle article on resistance to the bill.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Calls for CAFO Reform are Heating Up

The outbreak of H1N1 influenza—recently classified as an international pandemic by the World Health Organization—has put a human face on the health risks posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As people become more informed of the potentials for disease transfer, the possible squandering of antibiotic medicines, and tragedies of environmental degradation, dissatisfaction with large-scale industrial animal factories is intensifying. The H1N1 outbreak is just one of many signs that this type of industrial agriculture cannot be permitted to continue as currently practiced much longer. Reform is a matter of when, not if.

In November, California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to prohibit confinement cages that do not give egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs, or calves raised for veal adequate room to stand up and fully extend their limbs. While Prop 2, (the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act), represents a major step forward in implementing better practices and more humane treatment for animals, its larger effect may be far beyond the California state line.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a major proponent of Prop 2, is modeling similar initiatives in states such as Michigan and Ohio, which have large embedded CAFO industries as well as ballot initiative systems. In an attempt to block reforms in Ohio, the agribusiness lobby is proposing a pre-emptive legislation that would create industry-determined statewide standards and oversight for farm-raised animals. The Ohio Farm Bureau is attempting to fast track this idea to voters this fall, with the hope of rendering any tighter controls condoned by the HSUS redundant and unnecessary. (One of the best places to find regular updates on both sides of this issue is

These reform movements are not relegated to the animal welfare movement, however, nor to the increasingly critical United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has a web page specifically dedicated to issues surrounding industrial animal production (

Maryland’s attorney general, Douglas Gansler, is pushing for a ban on arsenic, a conventional growth promoter (and suspected human carcinogen) relied upon by the U.S. poultry industry, which is heavily concentrated in the Delmarva Peninsula. Under current law, chickens can be fed small amounts of arsenic along with their feed, purportedly to speed growth and fight parasites. Gansler recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a ban of arsenicals such as roxarsone in chicken feed, as they may be passed on to humans who eat poultry or drink water contaminated by run-off from the industry’s prolific manure. (The poultry industry reportedly generates 1.2 billion pounds of manure each year in Maryland alone.) The Maryland attorney general is currently working with 30 other states through the National Association of Attorneys General to convince the Food and Drug Administration to ban this practice.

The Obama administration is supporting a bill (“The Preservation of Antibiotics For Medical Treatment Act of 2009”) that would ban “many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.” Antibiotic medicines have been heralded as one of the scientific miracles of the 20th century, but their excessive use in industrial animal agriculture has raised grave concerns about the creation and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. (According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the CAFO industry uses 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States.) The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association is one of the key supporters of the legislation. Industry groups such as the National Pork Producers Council are lobbying hard against it. The measure could have industry-wide implications with regard to the incomprehensible concentrations of animals currently being raised in single locations. If non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics were banned, and any use of antibiotics can only be done with supervision from a veterinarian, CAFOs may be forced to radically scale down the size of their operations in order to control disease and maintain healthy animals.

We should probably get used to hearing a lot more about the unintended consequences of our industrialized food system. Slowly but surely, people in all circles and at all levels of government are demanding that food production be put back on a healthy track. This is a very encouraging sign—our present and future are both at stake.

To read more about these issues, check out the following reports:
Pew Commission, Putting Meat on the Table;
Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs Uncovered;
UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Chile's Salmon Farms Verging on Breakdown

It seems like not a week goes by without industrial animal food production somehow making headlines—the H1N1 flu pandemic, astounding meat recalls, high levels of arsenic in chicken feed, or any of a dozen other concerns. One recent story that should have generated some rather large waves, however, has made only a minor splash. Chile’s salmon farming industry, second only to Norway's, is on the verge of collapse.

Salmon are not indigenous to Chile, but grown in crowded cages installed in the bays and estuaries of the country's otherwise beautiful southern fjord region. These "farmed" Atlantic salmon are fed a steady diet of wild fish—perfectly edible for humans, but more profitable when converted into "value-added" finfish. The approximately three pounds of wild fish needed to produce each pound of farmed salmon has caused some people to refer to finfish aquaculture operations as "reverse protein factories." Equally alarming, salmon farms have become excessively dependent upon toxic pesticides to combat sea lice and antibiotic medicines to thwart infections that can run rampant among the high concentrations of rapidly growing, penned fish—not unlike industrial-scale hog, poultry, and cattle CAFOs on land.

But the drugs are no longer working. According to industry source Intrafish, Chile's 2009 salmon output could decline by as much as 87 percent from last year—a drop from 279,000 metric tons in 2008 to between 37,000 metric tons and 67,000 metric tons. The cause is the widespread outbreak of a virus known as infectious salmon anemia (ISA). When the virus first appeared in 2008, many offshore aquaculture companies moved their production farms further south in Chile, into waters still unaffected by ISA. Instead of lessening the problem, the industry actually spread the virus into the southern waters.

The Chilean government and regulatory agency are now implementing measures to address the crisis, but their efforts, for the time being, have been too little, too late. Chilean salmon stocks have been devastated, and this is expected to send ripple effects throughout the world's food supply. A 20 percent shortfall in the global supply of farmed Atlantic salmon is predicted for this year and perhaps 2010 as well. The human toll in this saga is also significant, as the salmon industry has become a primary employer in the southern region of the country, and could lead to the unemployment of as many as 15,000 people.

Experts had been cautioning for years about the hazards of unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in industrial salmon cages. The first widespread die-offs due to ISA began to mount early in 2008, but the industry declined to take protective measures to guard against further spread of the infection. Critics have called for improved conditions by limiting the number of salmon in the cages and by spreading the farms farther apart from one another to avoid transfer of disease and to lessen the concentration of harmful chemicals, antibiotics, and other adverse affects of large-scale fish production.

Unfortunately, this has not been the only alarming news in 2009 about Chilean aquaculture. In February, the Pew Environment Group obtained documents from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealing that the Chilean salmon industry has been using antibiotics prohibited on fish destined for the United States. Apparently, the FDA notified the three companies guilty of using the unapproved drugs that they can no longer use them on fish raised for the U.S. market. But questions remain whether or not the FDA will enforce these restrictions, and if so, how they will go about ensuring that the banned substances are not used.

Concerns over antibiotic overdosing and its potential to create antibiotic resistant disease organisms that could harm humans may become less of an issue if the Chilean salmon industry suffers an even further decline. Many are calling for a dismantlement of the industry. Others caution that without real reforms it could implode of its own unsustainable production practices. At a minimum, we should take this as one more in a long series of wake-up calls that our concentrated animal food operations—whether on land or at sea—need to be urgently reconsidered, before they are all on the verge of collapse.

Pew Press Release on Unapproved Chemicals
Pew Letter on Unapproved Chemicals
New York Times article on Chilean Salmon Virus
New York Times article on Chilean Salmon Industry Rehabilitation efforts

Friday, January 23, 2009

Deep Ecology Champion Arne Naess Passes

Amidst the euphoria swirling around this historic inauguration was the passing of Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, on January 13. Perhaps best known for coining the term “Deep Ecology,” Naess was one of Europe’s most well respected and prolific philosophers of the 20th century. His writings and lectures spanned Spinoza, the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi, and 20th century environmentalism.

I cross country skied with Naess when he was in his mid-80s. On a sunny spring day, we strided and poled three or four miles to the Peter Grubb Hut at the base of Castle Peak, not far from Donner Pass. We stopped occasionally to take in the sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada, and Naess fanatically checked his pulse. At the hut, he insisted on shadow boxing and fooling around with my friend, the outstanding Norwegian skier, Jon Erik Brondmo, and me. In addition to his childlike high energy, I had this feeling that Arne had a special lens onto the world, that he was sensing and relishing in layers of aliveness that the average person could not see or experience.

Perhaps this is what helped him to discern the important differences between “Deep Ecology,” which addresses the root causes of biodiversity loss, and “Shallow Ecology,” that attempts to remediate environmental problems with end-of-pipe fixes. Naess very clearly stated his concerns about the growing human population, the rise of affluence and technology, and the reverence for all of the earth’s species. Among his more notable quotes, I remember him saying that he was a pessimist for the 21st century but an optimist for the 23rd century, when he envisioned that extreme changes in the human population, in ecological and social justice, and other developments would once again turn us toward a more harmonious way of life. But Naess believed in personal responsibility and urgency. “Every week counts. How terrible and shamefully bad conditions will be in the 21st century, or how far down we fall before we start on the way back up, depends on what YOU and others do today and tomorrow. There is not a single day to be lost. We need activism on a high level immediately.”

Below is the 8-Point Deep Ecology Platform drafted by Arne Naess and George Sessions:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life-forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

NY Times Obituary

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ripe for Change?

The American public’s demands for a radical new direction in the country’s food and farm policy are beginning to gain some rather serious volume. It’s a new year, a new administration is assembling, and the unrequited expectations of the last eight years are being vocalized: in key newspapers, on the blogosphere, among community organizers, and at dining tables around the country. We are experiencing a shift in the global gestalt, not only around the possibility and need for change, but in the places where such reforms have to start.

People want our unhealthy food and agriculture system made healthy. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be giving up any time soon.

At the Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008, the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture was unveiled, an eloquent call and 12-point checklist for a 21st century approach to food and farm policy. Thousands of people signed on immediately. And the declaration is gathering steam as it makes its way around the country.

In December, the Iowa-based group Food Democracy Now drafted a letter to the Obama Transition Team recommending potential candidates for the vacant Secretary of Agriculture position. Within a week, that letter gained over 60,000 signatures. A core group of sustainable food advocates talked with the Obama Transition Team to express the severity and urgency of a potential food system meltdown. But it remains to be seen if that testimony will actually be taken seriously by the new administration, with former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as USDA chief. In the mean time, Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote a full-page article about the Food Democracy Now effort, which is well worth the read. Will the Obama’s till up a few acres of the White House’s precious lawn to plant a vegetable garden? It doesn’t seem that much to ask.

Journalist Christopher Cook—in a recent piece for the Christian Science Monitor—put forward a “nine-point platform for food reform.” He calls for the new administration to include food and agriculture projects in the forthcoming stimulus package, asking for “change we can eat.”

Just this week, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and our sustainability laureate, Wendell Berry, published an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a Fifty-year Farm Bill. The United States, Jackson and Berry argue, must quickly move from highly erosive and toxic monocultures of corn and soybeans that blanket the country, to a more perennial landscape. That is, farming systems that maximize soil and water protection by providing as much permanent ground cover as possible. Jackson and Berry call for a two-pronged approach: transitioning back to hay, pasture, and grazing rotations that allow the “farming to fit the land”; and a revolution in perennial grains that could reduce the need for plowing, toxic pesticides, and heavy doses of fertilizers.

Because the Farm Bill is renewed every five to seven years, and because its billions of dollars in farm owner incentives actually determine many of the rules of our modern food system, federal policy can become both a driver and road map for that long term goal. In fact, using a fifty year Farm Bill plan, we could begin to plot out a half century of sustainable food policy. Instead of “Getting Big or Getting Out,”—the cold war-era blueprint for the past fifty years of agribusiness domination—we could “Go Perennial by the Next Centennial.”

My hope is that this surge in popular understanding of the importance of our food system to the very survivability of our society is not merely swept up in the winds of change blowing across Washington at this very moment. Rather, I hope these efforts are only the seeds of something much larger, a movement that will grow to millions of concerned citizens. Millions of citizens who may be willing to make small contributions to an organization dedicated to demonstrating the power of a new movement—civic agriculture. Maybe then the needs of the people and the land and the future will begin to take precedence over the greed and ambition of corporate agribusinesses now standing in the way of healthy food and agriculture.

These times are ripe for change.