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Okay, well, I'll admit... I heard Michael Pollan speak. Which is only like hearing god speak (and Jerry Falwell's not around to argue that point anymore. To think I haven't shed a single tear!) since his latest bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma has become a veritable bible in the one year it's had in print. No doubt it's had wider circulation in its first year than than either the old or the new testaments did in theirs.

Many of the others in the room with me may dispute me for naming Pollan as god - it was a nutrition and medicine conference and I am sure many a conference-goer had a god complex. The attendees included many doctors, and the god complex kind of goes with the territory, particularly in some specialties (::cough:: cardiology ::cough::).

Read on, and I'll tell ya what god had to say (hint: it didn't involve invading any oil-rich countries that start with the letters "Ira").

The event was titled "Eating Well in an Era of Industrialized Food" and it lasted two hours - the first focused on what to eat, the second focused on political change to bring us into the post-industrial food system we'd all like to see... you know, one where food production respects the earth and our food actually nourishes us instead of leaving us fat and sick.

In addition to Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at Berkeley, best selling author, and one of my biggest heroes (right behind Al Gore), the evening also featured:

  • Andrew Weil, MD ("integrative medicine pioneer")
  • David Wallinga, MD (nutrition guru)
  • Daniel Imhoff (author of the next book I will read, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill)
  • Scotty Johnson (representing Defenders of Wildlife)

Dr. Weil
Dr. Weil spoke first, briefly giving some perspective to the conference and to the discussion that would follow. As a physician, he often found that dietary changes helped patients without resorting to drugs and procedures; however, he also found that most medical schools significantly lack nutrition curricula. (As proof of the problem, Weil pointed to the universally bad and often unhealthy food served at hospitals - and the number of hospitals that had fast food restaurants on site!)

His philosophy was not a rejection of Western medicine, but rather an acknowledgement that diet contributes to human health and may provide less harsh solutions than drugs. As an example, he mentioned his success from telling sinus sufferers to entirely remove cows' milk from their diets for a trial period of 2 mos. The conference, which has been held annually for the past few years, was created to educate healthcare professionals on integrative medicine and nutrition, to fill in the knowledge gap in the medical community.

The Industrial Diet
During his part of the talk, Pollan explained a bit of latest book for those who hadn't read it. The Omnivore's Dilemma traces four meals from farm to fork (love the alliteration?). He starts with a McDonald's meal to represent food of the industrial eater, then moves on to two different kinds of organic meals (one "industrial organic" and one local), and finishes by growing, hunting, and gathering his own food.

As was stated numerous times during the panel discussion, all to often, if you look at a modern processed food, you have no idea where it came from. I don't mean that you haven't a clue whether your apples came from Washington or New Zealand (although the importance of Country of Origin Labeling was touched on... hint hint call your representative), but you often have no idea what plant or animal, if any, the ingredients of your food were derived from. (In the case of meat, Pollan pointed out the importance of what your food eats, so that means we've got a significant lack of information beyond knowing that our Big Macs came from cows.)

The answers to the question "Where does a McDonald's meal come from?" (or any other processed food, for that matter) converged on a cornfield in Iowa. In the book, Pollan visits George Naylor, a corn and soy farmer with over 3 decades of farming experience. The book doesn't get overly political, but I found myself cheering for Naylor when he told Pollan that he was growing corn and soy for "the military-industrial complex." About a month later, I met Naylor and my suspicion was confirmed... he's on the right correct side of the political spectrum, smart as hell, and politically active. More on politics later.

Dr. Weil inserted, regarding the use of corn and soy as building blocks of nearly all processed foods, that soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup are markers of cheap foods to avoid. Soybean oil, which he said was not in our diets before the 1920's, has the wrong omega 6 to omega 3 fat ratio. He put it in the category of "avoid at all costs" - even if it's not hydrogenated. That was definitely new information for me. FYI, what you buy at the store in the bottle labeled "vegetable oil" is soybean oil. Yum.

Local and Organic
When asked whether he'd prefer local or organic, Pollan answered "both" but went on to favor local over organic for a number of reasons he explained. First, often local farmers you find at a market or a roadside stand are organic but aren't USDA certified. The question to ask them isn't "Are you organic?" but "Do you use any sprays?"

When you support a local farmer, you're helping preserve some of the farmland nearby that makes your own local ecosystem nicer. You also help preserve the security of our food system. "Food sovereignty" - the ability of each region to feed itself - plays a big role in food safety, as food system centralization allows an E. coli problem in one farm field to go nationwide. Last, when you buy local, you reduce the amount of oil required to bring your food to your plate.

On the other hand, if you go the organic route without giving thought to where your food came from, watch out. Pollan mentioned a student of his who is doing research in China. The student said that a lot of the farmer's there don't give a shit about organics - they buy the certification because they know it will help them make more money from Americans and then they keep doing whatever the hell they were doing before on their farms. (It kind of reminded me of something I read in a book about doing business in China, where it said that usually when an American businessperson tells a joke to a group of Chinese, the translator will just say in Chinese "The American just told a joke. Laugh like it was really funny!" and then they all laugh... they're pretty good at figuring out what they need to do to placate us and take our money.)

Pollan spent some time describing Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm for those who hadn't read his book. Salatin produces six animals on his farm - cows, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, hogs,  and sheep. He's pioneered many techniques allowing him to rotate the animals in perfect symbiosis, giving them natural and happy lives and producing superior meats and eggs. Because he choreographs the animals to fertilize the land and clean up after one another's waste, he uses no pesticides and the soil on his farm improves from year to year instead of eroding.

One question Pollan took was "Is that scalable?" From what I've learned, the answer isn't that simple. In the last hundred years, farming has gone from being labor-intensive to capital-intensive. Salatin's farm (and other organic operations) require labor. A farm I visited here in California a week ago used to require one guy to go around the farm spraying pesticides for a few days, whereas now that it's organic, it requires much more labor to fertilize, weed, and deal with pests. So, is it scalable? My hunch is yes but you won't reap the same benefit from economies of scale as a conventional farm.

The other thought I had - which wasn't mentioned by any of the panelists - was the harm that NAIS, the National Animal ID System, would inflict on Salatin and other farmers like him. For a farmer who isn't using all of the wonderful Monsanto-provided shortcuts to cheapen the product and help the bottom line, the added costs and hassle from NAIS could really be the last straw. Furthermore - and this is a whole separate discussion - I don't believe NAIS is going to bring us any added food safety, particularly on small farms like Salatin's that are already much safer than your average factory farm.

Dietary Advice
Each panelist was asked to provide some quick dietary advice to the audience. Among the recommendations were "Don't eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," "Avoid soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup," "We aren't only what we eat, we are also what we eat eats," and Pollan's quote from his NY Times piece, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

The 2007 Farm Bill
When the Farm Bill came up, one of the panelists joked "Lock the doors!" as if the entire audience would run out. In my experience, it's far more likely that they'd all fall asleep. The Farm Bill seems to be a sleep-inducing topic, even here on DailyKos where we like to talk politics.

If I'm going to stick to describing the event last night, then I won't get into the 2007 Farm Bill too deeply because none of the panelists did either. They gave the basics, that it's an omnibus piece of legislation (i.e. a bunch of bills that get passed together) that gets passed every 5 years or so. Congress must pass a new one or extend the 2002 bill by September 30 this year, so NOW is the right time to start calling your representatives.

The parts of the Farm Bill we care about are the Nutrition title, the Commodity title, and the Conservation title. The Nutrition title deals with food stamps, the Commodity title deals with agricultural subsidies for commodities like corn and soy, and the Conservation title is where we've got a lot of potential to start funding the things that we want. From my limited understanding, here are the basic things we want to see:

  • Food stamps revised to better allow people to dig themselves out of poverty and to choose nutritious foods instead of junk. (Currently, food stamps provides about $1/meal. If that's all that stands between you and starvation, are you going to spend it on high calorie junk or a salad?)
  • Commodity title returned to pre-Nixon-era sanity, to no longer encourage infinite overproduction and low prices for corn and soy that are subsidized by our tax dollars. I'd much prefer that those like Tyson and ADM who buy corn and soy (and currently profit off our system) pay fair prices to farmers for commodities instead of giving them a discount created by my tax dollars.
  • Conservation title used to inject more money where it will do the American people the most good. For example, grants for more research for organics.

Other than that, most of the time was spent stressing the importance of the farm bill and of our participation in the grassroots lobbying effort than explaining the specifics. Pollan repeated a comment made by a Congressman earlier this week: our legislators only listen to the lobbyists when they hear nothing from the voters. I'm not sure how true this is, but just in case it describes how my representative operates, I'll give her a call.

Another point made was that newspapers judge the public's interest in issues by how many letters to the editor they get on the subject. If you and twenty other Kossacks in your town flood the newspaper's office with mail about the farm bill, they might start covering it.

I think the Farm Bill is still called the Farm Bill (not the Food Bill, as some advocate) to make it sound irrelevant and boring. That trick is an oldie but a goodie. So is making the legislation really long and confusing so none of us will read it or attempt to understand it. This time around, for the first time, at least some of us non-farmers have woken up to the farm bill's significance. We've got a few months to mobilize and get our act together, unless we want to wait 5 years for the farm bill after this one.

That's about it for the panel discussion, so I'll leave you with a pic of me and Michael Pollan and a few links where you can get more information.

Me with Michael Pollan, holding my now-autographed copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma. (The Kossack effort to get active about food issues)

Originally posted to OrangeClouds115 on Wed May 16, 2007 at 07:13 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Awesome, as usual, OC.... (6+ / 0-)

    ...and I think Pollan is God too....a really cool God...

    "Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery." ---Jack Paar

    by bic momma on Wed May 16, 2007 at 07:15:09 AM PDT

    •  the effect of his book was AMAZING (4+ / 0-)

      I'd walk around the farmers market last summer to talk to the farmers while prepping for a diary I was writing, and they'd pull out their copies of Omnivore's Dilemma and tell me to read it. And, of course, I already had.

      For ages, everyone on dKos was telling me to read it, and I got so darn sick of saying "I've reserved it from the library and I'm on a several months long waiting list" that I just went out and bought it finally. It's wonderful and powerful that his words have reached so many people.

  •  Thanks for this diary. Healthy eating is the... (5+ / 0-)

    foundation for good health.

  •  My favorite 'talking point' from Omnivore's (14+ / 0-)

    Dilemma is that your average fast food type meal is basically corn with a side of corn and a tall cold glass of corn.

    So! They laugh at my boner, will they? I'LL SHOW THEM! Relentless!

    by ablington on Wed May 16, 2007 at 07:24:19 AM PDT

  •  This is a vitally important subject (13+ / 0-)

    I almost didn't click on your diary.  I assumed the "God" in the title referred to yet another Falwell diary.  

    Currently, food stamps provides about $1/meal. If that's all that stands between you and starvation, are you going to spend it on high calorie junk or a salad?

    This is a real dilemma for those of us either on food stamps or limited to a similar amount of money ($80 or so a month) to spend on food.  Salads are not cheap when one only has access to the local Kroger.  When pasta goes on sale at Meijer for 25 cents a box, one finds out rather quickly why so many poor people are fat.

    Thank you for posting this.  I will check out Pollan's book.

  •  I need to finally fire up the juicer (8+ / 0-)

    I bought with my Christmas money, so I can finally wean the spouse off of bottled juices which are usually loaded with HFCS -- I've pretty much given them up (about the only time I have a glass is when we're having breakfast out and the restaurant doesn't have fresh squoze OJ) and I think that's helped contribute to my 30 lb. weight loss. I've already quit using oil in cooking, except for occasional sautéed veggies in olive oil.

    My main problem is I really can't give up meat, because I have to limit my soy intake due to thyroid issues, and I'm really not a big veggie eater anyway. I go with really lean meats (Trader Joe's has an extra-lean ground beef that's delicious) and poultry; I'm trying to add more fish to my diet but that can be tricky as well. And I do allow myself the occasional junk food fix when I'm on the go, but I'll allow for that in my daily eating plan and go lighter at dinner (soup and/or salad).

    I'd like to see a Democratic administration revive and overhaul the old "President's Council on Physical Fitness", making it a comprehensive program on overhauling the way we see both eating and activity in this country...but that's just one of my pipe dreams...

  •  local food (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Runs With Scissors

    When you support a local farmer, you're helping preserve some of the farmland nearby that makes your own local ecosystem nicer.

    And when you support a distant farmer, you're helping preserve some of the farmland near something/someone else.  What's the difference, or are we just being selfish here? Safety: This seems more a food distribution issue, i.e. if food is all stored in a common place where E coli etc can spread from one farm's food to another.  I would certainly believe that long-distance food tends to have more common storage though.

    ...And I'm certainly with you on the energy consumption via transportation part.

    •  local economies, for one (9+ / 0-)

      i don't take my mower to be fixed in the nearest city 100 miles from here because there are people who live a quarter mile from me who can do it just as well - and who need the money.

      and by supporting my neighbor in this way, i help strengthen the community, especially because this is a rural area where jobs are few and far between.

      furthermore, by buying locally, i'm also cutting back on the use of fossil fuels. consider the difference between potatoes shipped 800 miles and potatoes from 20 miles over - or, in the case of this year, my back yard (hehe, thanks Kate!).

      or blueberries shipped 600 or 1000 miles away - or blueberries from the blueberry farm 5 miles over.

      besides, local products lack all the packaging of things shipped from hundreds and thousands of miles away.

      so there you have it: two reasons to do it: it contributes to the local economy which strengthens the community, and it cuts back on the use of fossil fuels.

      •  Potatoes are so EASY to raise in containers (5+ / 0-)

        except for potato beetles, which can be controlled organically by canola oil and pyrethrins (warning: PDF).  And there is no comparing the taste.

        Food and the art of improvisation:
        Jazz Cooking

        by kate petersen on Wed May 16, 2007 at 07:51:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  re local (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Runs With Scissors

        I'm very much with you on the fossil fuels part- sorry if I didn't express this clearly above.

        The strengthening community point is also well taken.

        My only aim here is to question whether we should value people more just because they're near.  You've got two good reasons for why we should buy local even if we value everyone equally.  For what it's worth, I try to buy local, mainly for the fossil fuels reason, and I'm all for community in general.

        •  the community aspect is almost the most (5+ / 0-)

          ... important one for me, especially because i live in such a poor area.

          •  the flip to that is (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Runs With Scissors

            if I live in a wealthy area (I do for now- Boston) then I should err on the side of buying food from poorer communities.  Or, more generally, we should go out of our way to get more money to the poor.  Sounds good to me.  The biggest way of doing this via agriculture may actually be the reducing ag subsidies/helping ag in poorer countries thing.

            •  you have a local farmer here on dKos (4+ / 0-)

              who could use your support: farmerchuck. he's a Massachusetts farmer who is going under.

              he's one example why community support is so very important, especially in this day and age.

                •  complicated (3+ / 0-)

                  part of it is mistakes, but we all make mistakes. part of it is changes in local regulations. part of it is market. part of it is the cost of his feed has shot up 100% since last year. part of it is natural disasters which wrecked some of his infrastructure. etc.

                  but it's not an individual thing. the only reason all the farms around me aren't going under is because i live in Indian Country and these are all family-based communities.

                  so there's community hay barns, when you need to hay your fields, your cousins and nephews and uncles and sister-in-laws help --- and yes, i've seen 65 year old women speeding by here on balers --- if you have a family emergency and need to spend the next week in town because of a sick spouse or child or parent, your in-laws removed three times who live a quarter of a mile away can feed and water your goats and turn them out to pasture.

                  and when it's time to pick the strawberries, all of your cousins help. not to mention, we're pretty backward here (hehe), and never got too citified, so people are still carrying the knowledge of their parents and grandparents wh were famers. so our support systems even outside family are still pretty strong, unlike other areas.


                  etc. etc.

                  farmerchuck's been diarying it and is putting up another diary tonight. it's all too common a story.

                  •  community (3+ / 0-)

                    Your description of the community farms in your area is quite interesting.  Do you think this model would work well elsewhere?

                    •  of course (3+ / 0-)

                      and it's one of the most important consequences of buying local, imo.

                      these guys couldn't make it if they didn't have each other. no. way. true, it's all also an accident of geography because this is the Ozarks, so the land is too steep and rocky for developers and those huge commercial operations which require flat land or, at most, rolling hills. and an Indian nation - okay, a few Indian nations :=D - so suburbanization and commercialization has been very slow in coming.

                      but you go back in time, and this is the way it was done. people here don't have to buy hay (unlike farmerchuck who has really suffered under that burden, given the price of hay has shot through the roof, due to weather) because they do a kind of barter thing.

                      and when you buy local, you get to know your producers, which is the beginning step in creating those networks of community. so even if you wouldn't know a baler from a backhoe (which i admit to still being very confused on), you've strengthened something which will eventually, given the chance, grow into an entire network of people, some of whom do know how to run those balers.

                      OklahomaFoods, a coop set up by Robert Waldrop, is a perfect example. one of our poultry producers who sells thro Ok Foods, was being shut down by the USDA (at the behest of Tyson et al). word went out on the Ok Food network and a defense fund was set up for him.  and guess what? enough money was donated that he was able to fight the USDA WITHOUT GOING BANKRUPT AND HAVING TO GIVE UP THE FARM!


                      that's how it works.

        •  Here are some reasons... (10+ / 0-)

          One, if the distant farmer is even in North America it's likely to be a huge multi thousand acre, mono-culture dead-zone of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers or raw effluent from CAFOs which would be full of antibiotics and hormones as well as dangerous diseases caused by feeding the animals those things subsidized by the farm bill but for which they aren't meant to eat. Cows are grass eaters not corn or chicken poop eaters. Then because these farms are mostly about putting money in ever more distant share holders on Wal-Street those products used to kill everything but the GE/GMO plant (probably patented by Monsanto and which hasn't been proved unsafe because it hasn't been proved safe) are purchased from Monsanto and friends in great quanities and over applied because that's more efficient and they don't have to pay the costs of over-runs into the streams, rivers, oceans, and ground water.

          Furthermore, foods coming from outside the country are often exposed to chemicals and strengths that aren't legal here. That doesn't even address foods being grown for corps in America (including yes Wal-Mart) that crowds out the food that is needed for those living in those countries.

          I'll repeat most of an earlier comment of mine that has a few links that will get you started in what is meant by industrial food where for instance 32,000 hogs are slaughtered each and every day in one location (so how many hogs are there in that location and because NAIS makes it so that it's cost effecient to raise the animals in the same place as they are packed we can be assured they are raised there. What is most horrifying is this is just a beginning of the awful that is food centralization.

          CSAs are wonderful and a great idea. The initial cost seems really high to people but when broken down the price is very reasonable working out to no more than $27.50 a week for your share as detailed above if a short season which probably gives you more than imaginable and if preserving lasts well beyond the season too thereby cutting the costs even more. We spent $9.65 tonight just on some fruit (though good stuff).

          CSAs in my area also give the opportunity to work on the farm or putting together the boxes, delivering to bring the price down too or allow people to donate to allow others of lower incomes to get shares for half price or even to donate fresh produce to the food banks. Truly community. But each CSA is different so be sure to check out what each one offers. Some are even year round.

          To find not just CSAs but also farmers markets, co-ops, locally owned markets, cheeses, even seeds and materials to grow your own even in window boxes or pots, and much, much more usually by zip code or town/city check out these links.

          Food Routes
          Sustainable Table
          Local Harvest
          Eat Wild
          Eat Well Guide

          A bunch of places now have an Edible Communities magazine being published in their local area highlighting the food produced and sold around them that also includes a list of what's in season currently. There is an opportunity to subscribe for home delivery or often pick the latest issue up for free from many of the places that can be found above.

          However, there are a lot of misconceptions about meat. One is that most of the meat produced these days actually grazes on any land. Most of the corn and soybeans grown are genetically modified putting huge amounts of petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbacides and fungacides into the ground and waterways (there's a major hypoxic dead-zone the size of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf but that's only one of 150 or so including off the West and East Coasts which is affecting food and livelyhoods for many others) are to feed animals being grown in massive feedlots called Concentrated Animal Feeding  Operation (CAFO) which are miserable for the animal and so stressful they are given antibiotics in massive doses (which is the main reason we are looking at resistant germs) and the grains cause terrible gastic upset and upset the balance (hence e coli), not to mention the estrogenic hormones given to up their market weight all of which are invading our soils and waterways and ground waters (which I believe is causing a rise in cancers especially breast). The livestock are subsidized and so is their feed and then the environmental messes are left for the taxpayers to deal with not to mention the indescribable smells, noise and misery for all involved but Wal-Street.

          CAFOs are also the reason we are living in fear of bird flu and the next massive yearly flu.

          There's also a misconception that cattle (which aren't even native) graze on otherwise unproductive lands. It's an excuse that keeps getting repeated. Here's one example:

          Nuts harvested from pinecones of both the Colorado pinyon pine (which isn't native to Idaho) and the single-leaf pinyon pine (which is) were a crucial fat and protein source for indigenous American tribes across the West, just as pine nuts in Russia, China and the Mediterranean have been staples for the last 6,000 years. Single leaf pinyon nuts were also a crucial trade item for early white settlers--especially Mormons--since the nuts were one of the few valuable commodities that could be easily harvested from the desert landscape. For the first third of the twentieth century, the nuts seemed poised to blossom into a major domestic crop, as the U.S. exported 8 million pounds of pine nuts in 1936 alone. Yet today, almost all of the pine nuts available on the U.S. market are imported from China, and the few from the United States are high-end local delicacies. What happened in the interim?

          The BLM happened. The bureau was created in 1946, and land managers began managing pinyon-heavy high desert rangeland exclusively for cattle grazing. For many ranchers and managers, this meant the pinyon trees were just taking up space. So, they used old anchor chains to pull up thousands of the trees across Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and, to a much smaller degree, Idaho. Ironically, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the deforestation made the rangeland less productive for grazing, as the range became drier, more prone to range fires and less nutrient-rich for other plants.

          More recently, however, mainstream demand for pesto-based dishes, as well as positive press about the health and supposed aphrodisiac qualities of pine nuts, has caused resurgence in the market. With no American suppliers able to deliver large quantities, the demand for imported pine nuts--usually of Korean or Siberian varieties, which are frozen or preserved in lye in China and shipped to the U.S.--has risen to around three million pounds annually, according to the Department of Commerce.

          But here's the "Aw, nuts!" part of that story, which should be no surprise to anyone who has ever paid $8 for a baggie half-full of puny, shriveled nuts: According to the USDA, managing western rangelands for fresh pine nut production, rather than cattle, would produce approximately 100 times more financial value per acre. That's the kind of potential that quickly brought idealistic prospectors like Penny Frazier out west.

          I encourage anyone who wants to continue to consume animal products to buy responsibly from producers that can be found at the links above (the taste is so much better anyway it's worth every extra penny).

          Here are some more examples of the problems with modern food production:

          The Line Never Stops

          Working on the Chains
          Finger Lickin' Bad
          Poverty and the Environment
          Industrial (Wal-Marted) Organic
          Agrobusiness Watcher

          and some great diaries by other kossoks are pig poo, cattle feed and eating a chicken.

          Then there's the article in Time Magazine that had me quitting Tyson products (can't vouch for the organization that the link is from but the article is there in full with the Tyson stuff about middle):

          How Corporate America Thrives On Illegals (not my choice of words in the subtitle; basically though it's insourcing and allows terrible treatment of all involved but those making the profits -- meanwhile big corps are outsourcing organic food production to China and South America because the labor is so low cost but those countries are unable to feed their own populations with the space left over not to mention it's impossible to check the accuracy of the organic standard).


          Some documentaries I found the other day (though there are dozens more including one on CSAs called The Real Dirt on Farmer John -- linked in my blogroll even -- that is brilliant:

          Asparagus! (A Stalk-umentary)

          Directors Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly manage to seamlessly tell two inseparable and compelling stories in this documentary about a rural Michigan county’s dependence on one vegetable and the effect of a United States war-on-drugs policy that is threatening its economy.

          Through interviews with farmers, farm-organizers, promoters and asparagus-loving residents, "Asparagus" presents a sweet portrait of rural Michigan and the people who live there. In the 1970s, Oceana County started calling itself the asparagus capital of the world. An annual festival and parade celebrating the area’s green pride and joy soon followed, and the first asparagus queen was crowned. "Did you ever know that asparagus grows in Oceana County in Michigan?" was the jingle kids sang at the White House.

          But in an effort to curb cocaine production, the United States lifted export tariffs on Peruvian asparagus in the early ‘90s, and corporate growers started heading south for cheap labor.

          Fighting for their economic lives, the farmers begin to focus on providing new products, such as pickled asparagus and microwavable packs complete with "cheese volcanoes," and catering to niche markets by going organic. All the while, local advocates reach out to the state and federal government for help.


          Black Gold

          From the rural fields of Ethiopia to the jungles of the New York Stock Exchange, "Black Gold" follows the $80 billion coffee trade and the work of Tadesse Meskela, a farmers’ representative who works hard to make sure growers get the best price they can for their crops.

          A striking scene early in the film shows Meskela explaining to the growers how much a cup of coffee sells for in the United States compared to how little the farmers get paid per kilogram.

          As the film progresses, some of the farmers cut down their coffee plants to grow chat, a popular narcotic in East Africa, because they can get more money for it.

          The film cuts from these scenes in the fields to the Starbucks on an American city street corner and the cafes of Italy, where Americans and Italians, respectively, sip on Frapuccinos and espressos.

          At one time, coffee farmers in Ethiopia could get a fair price, but a late 1980s free trade policy opened up the markets to make the coffee industry what it is today and put farmers at the mercy of commercial buyers who set the prices for coffee around the world. One farmer says his life would improve dramatically if only he could make 57 cents per kilogram of coffee.

          Finally (as though I haven't spouted off enough) here's some links to reading up on the upcoming Farm Bill which everyone should do (and let their congress critters know they are doing so) as it's a huge piece of legislation that has effects that ripple around the world.

          Harvesting Cash: A year-long investigation by the Washington Post

          Food Fight: A citizen's guide to the Farm Bill

          How your tax dollars prop up big growers and squeeze the little guy by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

          And be sure to check out natasha's Vegetables of Mass Destruction diary on one aspect of the bill).

          Mais, la souris est en dessous la table, le chat est sur la chaise et le singe est... est... le singe est disparu! -- Eddie Izzard

          by CSI Bentonville on Wed May 16, 2007 at 08:39:51 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Are you suggesting (0+ / 0-)

            that ag subsidies are good in part because they prevent us from hurting people in poor countries by "crowding out the food that is needed for those living in those countries"?  Groups like Oxfam say the exact opposite- that us buying their food helps them.  See for example

            "With subsidies, the problems start. A one percent increase in US subsidies leads to a 3.8 percent drop in the price on the world market," he said. "That may not seem to be a very important matter, but when you translate that into money in Mali, for example, it makes a big difference -- less money for the government to invest in education, to invest in churches, mosques, housing, water, electricity. It means the dissemination of hunger and poverty in our countries."

            •  Buying *some* food in other countries helps (5+ / 0-)

              Buying "organic" from China crowds out the land they need to feed their own and causes them to go to South America which then clear cuts rain forest to plant GE/GMO soy which could be bought here (but really shouldn't be grown here either).

              To Fortify China, Soybean Harvest Grows in Brazil
              Published: April 6, 2007

              Buying natural (not artificially built) shade grown, organic, fair trade coffee, chocolate, Acai berries and Brazil nuts are also ways to support other countries and give viable economic reasons for not cutting down the Rain Forest which we all around the world count on to survive.

              I don't know where you were able to pull out that I supposedly think Ag subsidies are good in any way let alone in the way you suggest. Please clarify for me.

              There are other problems with hunger in other countries that we could do a lot to alleviate if we'd consider doing certain things such as buying the grain grown and already stored in their countries to feed the starving instead of shipping American-only GE/GMO grains to them (unmilled so they can contaminate their countries too).

              Mais, la souris est en dessous la table, le chat est sur la chaise et le singe est... est... le singe est disparu! -- Eddie Izzard

              by CSI Bentonville on Wed May 16, 2007 at 09:24:24 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  clarification (0+ / 0-)

                I don't know where you were able to pull out that I supposedly think Ag subsidies are good in any way let alone in the way you suggest. Please clarify for me.

                Without ag subsidies, poorer countries' food would be more competitive in world markets, so we'd buy more of it.  You seem to be arguing that's a bad thing because then those countries would have less food for themselves.  I apologize if I'm misinterpreting your words here.

                •  Right now we are taking advantage (3+ / 0-)

                  I don't feel you are reading what I've written. It feels like a deliberate twist and I wonder if what you yourself are forwarding here is that we should mow down other countries and plant soy and corn and have them raise the pork, beef, chickens and even salmon in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) away from our delicate sensibilities under the idea that we are "helping" them and those who would grow our food here can go work for the new Wal-Mart built on former farmland (since they've built all they will on former factories).

                  Yes, I think it's horrid that we are using huge amounts of land to grow "organic" in one of the most polluted and easily bought politically countries that can't even feed it's own but must outsource. And all to circumvent those who've put in so much effort to make organic viable here.

                  Why can I go to the store down the street and buy frozen edamame from two companies, one of which that bills itself as local even though it is owned by a company more than a thousand miles away, and both are filled with product that comes from China even though edamame grows less than 50 miles away (and I can tell you it tastes much, much better) while the Chinese are growing soy for their own consumption in a different hemisphere let alone across an ocean?

                  It seems you are wanting me to give you an absolute that will fit whatever idea you have and not to expand what you can understand. Obviously I can't make you understand (especially something so complicated) unless you want to but neither can I give you something so simple, I simply won't. You really need to read up and that's why I provided so many links to help you out there.

                  However, to clarify further for others who might be confused by what you've advanced about what I might be saying:

                  I think subsidies are evil and New Zealand has been able to prosper without them (however now we have "milk product" being shipped dry from there to put in yogurts and cheese "product" aka Kraft "American" slices) all to the detriment of our own farmers not unlike what we are doing to those in less fortunate countries.

                  Subsidies here only help corporations and drive down the prices for crops in other countries (to the benefit of corporations) and basically has led us to having a diet of soy and corn in all kinds of nasty incarnations (High Fructose Corn Syrup HFCS has gone from zero to over 60 pounds per year consumption in 30 years). We eat far more soy than Asian countries.

                  Currently we are propping up production of corn (and soy) that isn't even bought for the cost of growing it. That is subsidizing big corporations at the detriment to basically everyone else including the independent farmers in Anytown, USA. Everything we eat is affected by this from corn chips to eggs, to beef, to even salmon (when did salmon start eating corn?!).

                  Currently 5 states produce a huge amount of food for the entire US but get very little in subsidies and those states are much healthier and have a much more diverse economy and crops.

                  I think subsidies are awful and death even in the end for the corporations.

                  Mais, la souris est en dessous la table, le chat est sur la chaise et le singe est... est... le singe est disparu! -- Eddie Izzard

                  by CSI Bentonville on Wed May 16, 2007 at 10:17:37 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                •  I'll clarify even further (4+ / 0-)

                  Buying certain products especially from some companies only encourages more poverty and advantage taking.

                  From Oxfam on coffee.

                  From Oxfam on Chocolate.

                  When our involvement includes:

                  Food giant Nestlé is currently being sued for alleged involvement in child trafficking and slavery in the Ivory Coast.

                  I don't think we are being very helpful but more of just another damn interfering problem and blight upon those who are struggling.

                  Mais, la souris est en dessous la table, le chat est sur la chaise et le singe est... est... le singe est disparu! -- Eddie Izzard

                  by CSI Bentonville on Wed May 16, 2007 at 10:27:01 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  thanks (3+ / 0-)

                    for all the links.  You're right that I hadn't read through all of them.  I will if I can get the time.

                    It seems we're both on the side of helping the world's poor, and neither of us like ag subsidies.  Whether buying certain ag products from poor countries helps them is an open question to me (perhaps not to you, and perhaps your links will resolve the matter).  I am familiar with the fair trade issue but I'm not an expert on it.

                    Again, I apologize if I've misinterpreted your words.

                    •  I appreciate your words (4+ / 0-)

                      I was in a hurry so a bit rushed (and perhaps a little testy too -- my apologies), and there's a lot to the issue that is complicated and needs to be unraveled which has taken me months (and why I tried to provide you with the links I know are valuable so you won't have to wade through the chafe as I did).

                      The more I've discovered the more I think subsidies are disaster in many ways and instead of cutting the food stamp program as is being proposed I'd like to see it increased so the poorest among us can afford real food rather than further subsidize the bad corporate food at the corporate stores because that's all that is affordable on the program; then eliminate the subsidies with perhaps programs and grants to ease the transition for independent (not corporate) farms. Currently under the environmental title of the Farm Bill, big corporate farms can get $400,000 to establish a manure lagoon.

                      Currently, a huge proportion of the subsidies given out under the Farm Bill, as high as 92 percent, go to only five crops — corn, wheat, cotton, rice, and oilseed (such as sesame, cottonseed, and castor bean). Imhoff argues that this has created a monoculture-based food industry, enriched megacorporations at the expense of small- to mid-sized farmers, and even helped lead to Americans' burgeoning obesity problem. [Daniel Imhoff, author of the recently published Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill] adds that American corporations have been glutting world markets by undercutting producers outside the U.S. with artificially cheap crops, thereby destabilizing local economies and bringing the problem back to the U.S. in the form of illegal immigration. Meanwhile, Farm Bill programs that are supposed to help encourage farmers to conserve land may be having the opposite effect. Under the 2002 bill, for example, feed-lot operations are rewarded with $450,000 to expand manure-lagoon facilities — essentially small, open lakes of livestock feces — in the name of conservation.

                      Manure Lagoons are reprehensible:

                      Lagoons and Sprayfields
                      At factory farms, "lagoon" means an open-air pit filled with urine and manure. Lots of urine and manure -- some lagoons are larger than seven acres and contain as much as 20 to 45 million gallons of wastewater. The waste is collected with scrapers, flushing systems, or gravity flow gutters, and then stored in lagoons. Opportunities for disaster abound. The lagoons can leak or rupture, for instance, or they can be filled too high. But even if none of these problems occur, the lagoons still release gases. Their horrible stench and toxic chemicals harm workers and nearby residents.

                      Sprayfields are yet another threat. Manure is periodically pumped out of lagoons and sprayed on fields. Although manure can be an excellent fertilizer when it is applied at rates that crops can absorb, it must be safely -- and sensibly -- applied. But factory farms produce far more manure than their land requires, and they often overapply it to fields, causing it to run off the fields and into rivers and streams. Farmers may also spray when it is rainy or windy, or with little regard for adjacent property. In addition, the act of spraying wastes increases evaporation and vaporization of pollutants.

                      [Immediate] Threats to Human Health
                      People who live near or work at factory farms breathe in hundreds of gases, which are formed as manure decomposes. The stench can be unbearable, but worse still, the gases contain many harmful chemicals. For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects -- which are irreversible -- range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death. Other health effects associated with the gases from factory farms include headaches, shortness of breath, wheezing, excessive coughing and diarrhea.

                      Animal waste also contaminates drinking water supplies. For example, nitrates often seep from lagoons and sprayfields into groundwater. Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants. High levels of nitrates in drinking water near hog factories have also been linked to spontaneous abortions. Several disease outbreaks related to drinking water have been traced to bacteria and viruses from waste.

                      On top of this, the widespread use of antibiotics also poses dangers. Large-scale animal factories often give animals antibiotics to promote growth, or to compensate for illness resulting from crowded conditions. These antibiotics are entering the environment and the food chain, contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and making it harder to treat human diseases.


                      As far as other countries, I think what is being done is the prices are being artificially lowered here to the detriment all over the world and that's depressing their economies (as well as ours) and forcing them to grow crops that further their poverty.

                      This is a lovely example of getting big ag out of other countries and fair trade in:

                      The hottest cuppa in the world
                      Joanna Blythman
                      Sunday April 29, 2007
                      Observer Food Monthly

                      Fifty years ago, Darjeeling was the 'champagne of teas'. Then came pesticides and mass production, the tea gardens withered, families starved. But now, there is hope of a revival, as tea workers are returning to the terraces to restore their age-old farming methods

                      Corporations care only about one thing and that's shareholders from Wal-Street. People who will get rich off the backs of the laborers and never have to eat the food that has lost all semblance of nurturing and sustainability and who rely on sleight of hand and our ignorance of what we are really buying.

                      And that's why I mentioned those crops we can't reasonably grow ourselves such as chocolate, coffee, tea and yes, those we could do without such as the acai berry and Brazil nut because we help those to be grown fairly and safely while still keeping local food sovereignty in our own communities and not have to rely upon the whims of the corporations (or governments -- seriously if there was a huge disaster what would the people of the mid-west eat amongst their deserts of corn, wheat and soy?).

                      It's really in our best interests for those people in lands far and near to prosper because when it's only about price, it ends up costing us a fortune.

                      We have to vote with our fork and our calls, letters, faxes, emails and elections to regain sanity. To do so we really need to educate ourselves so we can vote effectively.

                      Mais, la souris est en dessous la table, le chat est sur la chaise et le singe est... est... le singe est disparu! -- Eddie Izzard

                      by CSI Bentonville on Wed May 16, 2007 at 02:10:45 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  thanks again! (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:

                        You and the others here have got me interested in following the Farm Bill.  I'll admit I'm not optimistic about our chances of improving it since the entrenched interests seem particularly entrenched here and global poverty and animal welfare are unfortunately not prominent issues these days, but that doesn't mean we should give up on it.

                        Incidentally, would you describe yourself as a consequentialist?  Sounds like it from your writing.  (I think that's a good thing! :) )

                        Take care, and hopefully see you around.

          •  Magnificent material ... (3+ / 0-)

            That I hope is or becomes a diary ...

            Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

            by A Siegel on Wed May 16, 2007 at 08:52:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  re: food safety (4+ / 0-)

      take the spinach problem from last summer. The bad spinach came from a 50-acre field in CA and infected people in 26 states. Perhaps if that spinach was consumed locally instead of all over the place, the same # of people would have been sick, but the economic fallout would have been MUCH reduced. As it was, spinach growers, truckers, restaurants, and grocery stores all over the country were hurt. I'd also imagine that if the spinach were sold locally, it would have been far easier to recall so that less people could've gotten sick too... but that's speculation by me.

  •  Thanks for some great info.... (10+ / 0-)

    My uncle is facing this tagging system for his animals.  He milks a herd of 60 cows, and to be forced to tag each one will be much more expensive for him than for the big guys.  My understanding is that the corporate farms with huge herds will be given an exception where they only have to tag the herd itself, not each individual animal.  This is a terrible idea whose only purpose seems to be to make farming more expensive for the little guy.

    You are right on about the organic label too.  My uncle is not certified organic, but he does not use growth hormone for the dairy herd because he knows it is bad for the cows' health.  Most of the fertilizer he uses on his fields is manure from the cows.  He does not spray crops as far as I know.  but his food must be pretty healthy because my family has eaten food from this farm for several generations, we all look about 10-15 years younger than we actually are, and we spend very little time at the hospital.  

    The meek shall inherit nothing. -F.Zappa

    by cometman on Wed May 16, 2007 at 07:32:50 AM PDT

  •  Great diary. Thanks so much 4 sharing this w/ us (4+ / 0-)
  •  Selfish reason to buy local (10+ / 0-)

    Our paper is running an article today highlighting local farmers' markets.

    Once you bite into a sweet, juicy Texas peach, you'll never settle for those baseball-hard, California ringers again. The same is true for tomatoes: Local ones are fleshy, ripe and bursting with flavor vs. the pale, mealy wannabes trucked in from out of state.

    Just be warned: Once you taste the good stuff, you'll be hooked. You won't want to go back. Ever.

    Revolutionary words start revolutions

    by Catte Nappe on Wed May 16, 2007 at 08:04:22 AM PDT

  •  George Naylor and the Farm Bill (6+ / 0-)

    Thank you to OrangeClouds for her heroic work on this.

    This article about George Naylor appeared in the Des Moines Register, front page of the business section. In it, he describes the type of Farm bill we need.

    Bottom Line: Farmers deserve a fair price for their products. there are a lot of myths about subsidies out there, but subsidies are a SYMPTOM of the problem, not the root of it (a mistake even many "progressives" make). the unsexy solution of supply management and government intervention in our agriculture market is what is needed, but unfortunately, Washington is still bent on its "free trade" deregulation model (Clinton after all, signed into law the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996.) and even so-called progressive groups like enviros and consumer groups sometimes don't understand the need for a fair price for farmers, and instaed focus on conservation issues solely.

    I will be posting more about the Farm Bill in upcoming weeks to hopefully shed some light on some of these really really complicated issues, from the commodity title to dairy crisis to livestock competition / concentration issues (did ya know Smithfeild just bought out Premium Standard Farms last week??? the #1 and #2 pork producers? a nuclear bomb detonated in the Midwest and no one cares!)

  •  Adding the book to my list to read (4+ / 0-)
    I went & looked up The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
    and see that the author's also the author of The Botany of Desire which was fascinating & I recommend highly to all sorts of folks.
  •  I have Omnivore's Dilemma...but I haven't (3+ / 0-)

    read it yet. I don't really want to get any more nervous about food than I already am at the moment. I'm planning on reading it this summer for sure though...I've just been putting it off.

  •  Along the same lines... (2+ / 0-)

    ... Barabara Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is a terrific read. Much more anecdotal, but with some hard facts. There's a website, and the recipes are first-rate.

    I also highly recommend Gary Nabhan's book from... 2002? It's called Coming Home to Eat. When I read it in 2002, it was the second in three events that, over time, completely changed the way I saw food (the first was a kitchen garden at a hotel in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland in 1997, and the third was starting my work at our local food co-op and getting the largest garden I'd ever had put in at the same time in Spring 2005).

    I'm now working at a regional food bank, trying to get the powers that be to see that acceess, nutrition, and sustainability are not/should not be solely the provinces of the privileged. Fundraising in a university town is hard.

  •  GREAT diary, HORRIBLE title (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Downriver Gal, Hardhat Democrat

    I agree with your other commenters, this is a phenomenal diary that should be high up there in the rec list. However, you really need to change the title to let more readers know what you're talking about. I got the point of your title after getting into the story, but you might as well have called it "Any Random Four Words" for all that the title helps the potential reader to understand your topic. Also, that title will act like kryptonite to many of us testy untheists out here. I actually came here looking for some oddball ranting, um, I mean, religious discussion, and was quite pleasantly surprised.

    Forsooth! I art in thine keep, killing thine serfs!

    by Morlock on Wed May 16, 2007 at 01:55:45 PM PDT

  •  How much ... (0+ / 0-)

    if any, of the conversation discussed "energy" and the farm community/world?

    • 100 mile diet
    • Energy calories in food
    • Impact of biofuels
    • Using agricultural waste for fuel
    • Renewable fuels in the agricultural system / opportunities.

    Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

    by A Siegel on Wed May 16, 2007 at 08:50:40 PM PDT

  •  But...did you like the speech? :) (0+ / 0-)

    M-O-O-N! That spells Iran!

    by cskendrick on Thu May 17, 2007 at 10:29:06 AM PDT

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