Monday, May 09, 2011

We Can’t Afford to Look Away

Copious column inches have been devoted recently to secrecy laws that are being proposed and voted upon in state legislatures to protect Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from unflattering media attention. “Whistle blower” laws in Iowa, Minnesota, and Florida would make it a felony offense to gain employment for the purpose of producing videos documenting the realities of food animal production. The New York Times editorial board had this to say in late April:

“Exposing the workings of the livestock industry has been an undercover activity since Upton Sinclair’s day. Nearly every major improvement in the welfare of agricultural animals, as well as some notable improvements in food safety, has come about because someone exposed the conditions in which they live and die.”

Just this winter nutcases in Montana introduced a law that would allow representatives to carry concealed weapons in state capitol buildings. Do we find it surprising that states would also want to protect the sociopathic behavior behind closed doors of animal factories?

The CAFO industry and its evil twin, big agriculture, have been mucking with free speech, freedom of information, and basic democratic rights for over a decade. Oprah Winfrey was dragged through a prolonged and expensive lawsuit in the late 1990s for saying she had changed her mind about eating hamburgers after learning about industry feeding practices.

When sifting through 6,000 images for possible publication in CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, we learned that Montana, North Dakota, and Kansas had already passed laws making it illegal to photograph a food animal production operation without consent of the owner. Thirteen states had passed “veggie libel laws” making it a criminal offense to critique a food production operation. Needless to say, the 450 photographs and 30 essays that made the final cut were carefully vetted.

Many reactions to the images that finally appeared in CAFO follow similar lines: “it’s so heavy,” “I can’t get past the beginning,” of “I’d just rather not know.” A classroom of Bradford University political science students described the photographic content as “very intense.” Please consider this. Of the sixty-plus photographers that contributed images to the book, the largest by number came from photo agencies: the Associated Press, Corbis, Reuters, Alamy, and others. These photographers had permission to enter slaughterhouses, feedlots, and hog factories. Do you think they were shown the most down and dirty or the best of the best?

Facing the importation of the U.S. mega-dairy model into the United Kingdom, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) sent a video team to America’s largest milk producing state, California, to see what they might be up against. The WSPA researchers were appalled at how easy it was to document blatant and abysmal animal welfare conditions. Should they be classified as “agro-terrorists” as the new anti-whistle blower laws proposed by industry suggests? Or should they be thanked for showing us a situation so desperately in need of improvement? After a prolonged campaign, the UK mega dairy withdrew its pollution permit—at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, in January of 2011, the Idaho legislature voted 61-7 to keep the public from knowing how dairy waste is handled. One wonders how legislators—charged with protecting the public good—can possibly pass a measure that prohibits its voters from being informed about something as potentially toxic as fecal floods of CAFO manure that can penetrate their drinking wells and groundwater.

These are Orwellian times. Many local governments have lost the ability to decide on whether or not to allow a CAFO in their communities. Those decisions are now made instead by state departments of agriculture, which are largely ruled by industry. Legislators turn their backs on freedom of speech and freedom of information to protect shit spewing polluters.

Citizens can’t afford to look away from the realities of basic economic production systems, whether we are talking about food, energy, shelter or anything else. What you don’t know can at least make you an accomplice in something you might not agree with, such as the abuse of other living creatures or ecosystems for the sake of a cheap meal. More than that, the democratic rights that we hold dear are ultimately at stake.

Is protecting the Fast Food Nation worth that price?

See also:

"Collaborative Approach Sets UK Apart on Animal Welfare"

Monday, May 02, 2011

A West Coast Healthy Food Uprising

The West Coast is a place where, on a rainy winter night, hundreds of people turn out to discuss food policy. People understand the connection between healthy food and community health. They see local and regional food as an engine to revitalize economies. Still I am often asked what audience members can do to affect change in the food system.

To my mind, individual action takes place in radiating circles, starting with the personal and moving out to the local, regional, state, national and global. I am increasingly drawn to the personal and local, where influence and outcomes are most powerful and tangible. Raise your own fruits, vegetables, or chickens and you know exactly what goes into the entire process. Work on a campaign to protect open space or build a school garden and you can have personal contact and investment.

Things are not so clear or accessible at the national level. The Farm Bill, driver of federal food policy, is so complex that it is hard to know where to begin. Absent campaign finance reform, you are swimming with the sharks: grain monopolies, corn growers, farm bureaus, livestock associations, sugar lobbies, ethanol processers that pour billions of dollars into the political process.

We can’t let this intimidate us from righting a broken food system. By pulling back to the regional level, it might be possible to form an alliance of concerned eaters with political power at the national level. In January 2011, the City of Seattle approved a Farm Bill platform. Given the growing awareness of the importance of food and farm policy on the West Coast, it is reasonable to expect that city councils in Olympia, Portland, Eugene, Ashland, Ukiah, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Los Angeles and all the way down to San Diego may carefully consider and eventually sign on to a similar document. Its main tenets share a lot in common with a Farm Bill platform drafted by Roots of Change in Los Angeles in November 2010:

• a health centered food system;

• sustainable agriculture practices;

• community and regional prosperity and resilience;

• equitable access to healthy food;

• social justice and equity;

• systems approach to policy making.

While the Farm Bill is the Big Kahuna in the food and agriculture system, there are other forceful unifying levers. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2, an animal welfare initiative that will ban three forms of egregious confinement systems: cages for laying hens; confinement stalls for pregnant sows; and veal crates for male dairy calves. Proposition 2 can’t be dismissed as a purely California phenomenon. It passed with 63 percent of the vote. Seven states have now banned certain animal confinement systems, and the Humane Society of the United States has introduced similar initiatives in two more key states: Washington and Oregon.

In addition to unified Farm Bill platforms, imagine the entire West Coast agreeing on advanced animal welfare standards. Most citizens believe that food animals deserve humane treatment while they are alive, yet there are no laws at the national level to protect livestock during their production cycles. Intervention is still possible at the state level.

Health practitioners are also joining the food policy reform movement, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other nutritionally related ailments ravaging adults and children in their communities. They are following the lead of innovative programs like the California Farmers’ Market Consortium that links the food stamp program (SNAP) with regional growers of fruits and vegetables in 60 farmers markets, from Santa Rosa to San Diego. In key markets, SNAP recipients can receive up to double the value of their purchases of fruits and vegetables—money that goes right into the hands of farmers. They can also watch demonstrations on how to cook and eat more healthfully. Doctors are collecting data on the medical benefits of such programs to analyze their effectiveness.

Coastal livestock producers and consumers interested in high quality, pasture-raised animal food products are united around a common concern: a lack of slaughter facilities within reasonable driving distances from production centers. In years past, each large town had some sort of slaughter facility. But decades of massive consolidation have devastated local processing capabilities. Small-scale slaughter facilities are one of the crucial missing links in local food system capabilities. In California, for example, only a handful remain. Just as Farm Bill dollars once built the giant monoculture farming infrastructures and Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation industry that dominate today’s food system, it can do the same for the modern pastured livestock movement. Assistance can come in the form of value added producer grants, loans, important research, regulations tailored to small-scale facilities—to complement necessary private investment. Reformers could ask for 10 new West Coast processing facilities, for example, in the upcoming Farm Bill as a pilot project.

In a relatively short amount of time Washington, Oregon, and California could become a regional force in the national dialog leading up to the next Farm Bill. If we citizens don’t impact policy at the national level, there are plenty of agribusinesses and food manufacturers already working to set the rules and spend taxpayer money for us. As the old adage says, we reap what we sow. The West Coast can set its own table.