Maui County Council to Vote on GMO Taro

This Thursday, July 16, the Maui County Council is scheduled to vote on a bill to protect taro from genetic modification. Maui residents should contact their council member to ask them to vote in favor of protecting taro. The following is from KAHEA's, The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, email dated July 9, 2009:

Last month, the Maui County Council heard two days of public testimony on the proposal to protect taro from genetic modification. Maui taro farmers were out in force and gave excellent testimony in defense of Haloa. Of course, corporations like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta have also been making their rounds to Council members, trying to erode support for natural taro in order to safeguard their corporate profits. The pressure from the corporations is immense and the threat of a bill in the legislature that could undo county-protections is growing. That's why Maui taro farmers are asking for help to convince County Council members stand strong, support natural taro, and uphold truly local decision-making.

Please take just a minute to make phone calls today:

  • Mike Molina (Haiku, Paia, Makawao) 270-5507
  • Gladys Baisa (Kula, Pukalani, Ulupalakua) 270-7939
  • Joe Pontanilla (Kahului) 270-5501
  • Jo Anne Johnson (West Maui) 270-5504
  • Danny Mateo (Molokai) 270-7678
  • Sol Kaho'ohalahala (Lanai) 270-7768
  • Bill Medeiros (East Maui) 270-7246
  • Wayne Nishiki (South Maui) 270-7108
  • Michael Victorino (Wailuku, Waihee, Waikapu) 270-7760

Ask them to support Bill 09-100 and help protect taro from genetic modification.

Council members are expected to make a key decision in this process by July 16th, so please, please, please call them today. Your phone call could help to extend the shield of protection for taro to one more county.

Monsanto subject to a ban on planting GMO Roundup Ready alfalfa

In a victory for all those concerned about the dangers that GMOs pose the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday upheld a ban on all planting of genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service failed to conduct an environmental-impact study before Monsanto, the makers of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, released its product to the marketplace. The ban is now firmly in place until the APHIS finishes a full EIS, which could take months.

Senate Passes Food Safety Bill with Manager's Amendment

Just in, the Food Safety Modernization Act, SB 510, was passed by the Senate this morning along with the critical Manager's Amendment which protects small farms.

The bill marks the most sweeping overhaul of food safety regulations in nearly a century. It will require improved planning and record-keeping by food producers and processors and will allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make mandatory recalls of contaminated food. The bill exempts small farms from the regulation.

The legislation follows a spate of national outbreaks of food poisoning involving products as varied as eggs, peanuts and spinach in which thousands of people were sickened and more than a dozen died. (1)

Food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 of them each year, according to government statistics. Tainted food has cost the industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal expenses.

The bill places greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to prevent contamination - a departure from the current system, which relies on government inspectors to catch contamination after the fact.

The measure also gives the FDA authority to recall food; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And it gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities.

The bill sets standards for imported foods, requiring importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet safety standards. Public health experts say this is urgently needed, given the increase in imported foods. The FDA has been inspecting only about one percent of imported food products.

The bill would also require the FDA to regularly inspect farms and food processing facilities, something it does not currently do.

There has been a lot of controversy around this Act, which many said would threaten small organic farmers, famers markets and even backyard gardens. An important group of six amendments, grouped and called collectively, "The Manager's Amendment", was finally approved after two weeks of debate between consumer groups who had originally opposed a portion of the amendment and sustainable agriculture groups who supported it.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who worked hard for the amendments, reported that the bill will now be sent to the House for their consideration.

The New York Times reported today that, "Despite unusual bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and a strong push from the Obama administration, the bill could still die because there might not be enough time for the usual haggling between the Senate and House of Representatives, which passed its own version last year (HR.2749) without the amendments: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/health/policy/01food.html?partner=rss&.... Top House Democrats said that they would consider simply passing the Senate version to speed approval."

“The Manager’s Amendment” essentially removes all the obstacles to preserving the viability of small organic farming and organic farms in back yards. Essentially, it says that organic farmers and growers will not need to register their farms with the FDA if the operation has less than $500,000 in gross sales and its products are sold primarily to customers within 400 miles.

More detailed information on the six amendments that each became part of the Manager’s amendment.

According to the Washington Post, "Boosters of sustainable agriculture and the local food movement want small farmers to be exempt from the regulations, which they say could force small operations out of business."

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), himself a farmer, negotiated language into the bill last week to exempt small farmers who have annual sales of less than $500,000 and sell the majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants and retailers in their state or nearby.

"The risk that they pose is small," he said. "They have the ability to meet their consumers eyeball to eyeball. They're not raising a commodity; they're raising food. There's a pride of ownership."

If the FDA had reason to believe a small farmer was producing unsafe food, it could revoke the exemption for that farmer, according to the provision.

The darlings of the local food movement, authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, weighed in on the debate last Tuesday and endorsed Tester's proposal, calling it "the right thing to do."

There's no question that improving food safety is in everyone's interest. Down to Earth is pleased that small organic farmers were protected via the Manager's amendment, and hope that the House preserves these protections.

You can contact your Representative to ask them to pass the Senate version of the Food Safety Modernization Act. It’s easy to call: Go to Congress.org and type in your zip code. Click on your Representative’s name, and then on the contact tab for their phone number. You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Representative’s office: 202-224-3121.

The message is simple: “I am a constituent of Representative___________ and I am calling to ask him/her to vote for the Food Safety Modernization Act as passed by the Senate. We need a food safety bill that cracks down on corporate bad actors without erecting new barriers to more local and regional food sourcing. Size and practice appropriate food safety regulation for small and mid-sized farms and processors is vital to economic recovery, public health, and nutritional well-being. “

Be a good citizen today and help to preserve your right to healthy food!

Widening Meatless Monday Challenged by Meat Industry

As a sure sign of its wide-reaching impact, The Meatless Monday movement is getting a surreptitious yet steady attempt at discreditation by the meat industry. Not really a surprise. In fact to me, it signals success, a sample of which follows.

MM has now made the Washington Post, as in "Meatless Mondays, a movement that has legs."

Every week we hear about famous people, school districts, cities or even countries that have signed on to the movement.

Famous chef Mario Batali, described as "famously rotund and infamously gluttonous" by the Washington Post,  restaurateur and star of cooking shows, now offers two vegetarian entrees – highlighted by the "MM" logo -  every Monday at his 14 restaurants.

Across the Bay from San Francisco, whose school district is meatless on Mondays, the Oakland Unified School District is also on board, serving vegetarian meals to its 28,000 K-8 students on Mondays since January 2010.  "According to ABC News, Meatless Monday has been a “real hit” with Oakland’s kids. Another healthy side effect- principals report that the new, nutritious school lunches help students remain settled and focused in their afternoon classes." They report the health benefits for childhood obesity, fiber increase, and lower fat. Environmental benefits they cite include reducing their carbon footprint and water consumption. PETA calculated that the Oakland School District in one year of Meatless Mondays saves 50, 000+ animal lives, 168 million gallons of water and 955,000 kg. of carbon emissions. Now that's education!!

On April 26th, Japan became the latest country to embrace Meatless Monday! College students are leading the charge in monthly Veggie Monday parties to encourage the country to try more plant-based options. Students and supporters meet at a local restaurant to share meatless dishes and learn more about plant-based options. Reportedly, party-goers are impressed when they discover how delicious plant-based options are and often invite friends to come along next time.

Students are taking action on the campuses, making their universities aware of the growing interest in plant-based options. Veggie Monday was well-received at Japan's Veggie Festival in Kyoto.

What all this plant munching has sparked is a concerted effort by lobbying groups of the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau, targeting institutional Monday promoters – such as the Baltimore City Public Schools - and meat purchasers -such as Wal-Mart - and policymakers, such as the FDA, whose high-profile Food Pyramid is slated for revision this Fall.

Tony Geraci, the director of food service for Baltimore City Public Schools, has received a raft of what he calls "cease and desist" letters from meat industry lobbyists.  Geraci recognizes the industry's panic: "If Baltimore does it, then what happens?"

Healthcare Without Harm, the nonprofit group that is urging hospitals to serve less meat, has received stern letters from industry officials.

The meat industry's approach stresses science. "We're scientists here. We're not going to step out of line on the facts," said Ceci Snyder, a registered dietitian and vice president of marketing for the National Pork Board.

"Science or 'science-based' are code words for 'there's something at stake here," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and a frequent critic of industrial food producers. "People eat very complicated diets. And they know the science will never be strong enough to make unequivocal recommendations about what people should eat."

So, to public-health advocates, they wax about meat being a complete protein, where beans are not. This is an urban legend, propagated by the meat industry and loudly echoed by my mother.

To environmentalists, they challenge the 2006 UN Report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," where animals raised for slaughter are reported to contribute more to greenhouse gas production than the transportation sector. The error in calculating comparative emissions is in undercalculating emissions produced by the transportation sector, making in actuality that figure higher than listed in the U.N. report. There have been no challenges to the emissions produced by animals raised for slaughter, so even if the transportation sector's contribution is higher, what we learned from that seminal report is the huge deleterious environmental impact of the meat industry.

Need we mention that the research challenge to the U.N. report was funded by the Beef Industry?

Lobbying for the upcoming dietary guidelines is among the most urgent efforts. The guidelines are the basis for the USDA's food pyramid, which recommends daily intakes for food groups including meat, grain and dairy products. I remember being taught the Food Pyramid every year in elementary and middle school. I took it as gospel fact. In actuality, it is largely propaganda.

Let's look back a little at the meat industry's "recommendations" to the USDA over the years, as reported in the Washington Post article.

In a recent letter to the USDA, the American Meat Institute voiced concern that policymakers were overemphasizing plant-based food as the foundation of a "healthy" diet for Americans. "The Carbohydrate and Protein subcommittee appears to be actively seeking a link between adverse health outcomes and animal proteins," the letter stated. "AMI strongly recommends that the Committee evaluate its data based on sound science and a scientifically based risk assessment, not nutrition publication bias."

Professor Nestle, who served on the advisory committee in 1995, said the language in industry letters suggests a level of concern about the Meatless Monday campaign, but that the industry is not truly threatened: "There's no reason for them to raise their voice. They've always gotten what they wanted from Washington."

In case after case, she said, policymakers have refrained from suggesting that Americans eat less meat. A 1977 Senate select committee led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was forced to beat a hasty retreat after it initially recommended that Americans could cut their intake of saturated fat by reducing their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Its revised guidelines suggested choosing "meat, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake." (McGovern, whose constituents included many cattle ranchers, lost his seat in 1980.)

In 1992, when the USDA planned to recommend reduced meat intake in its new Food Pyramid, the meat industry howled again. It created a public-relations nightmare for the agency. Under intense media scrutiny, the USDA could not change its recommendations. It did, however, redesign the chart so that the two to three servings of meat that it had suggested as a maximum serving looked like a recommended amount.

I think it's time we take government recommendations with a huge cup of salt, and see them for what they are: political manipulations. Listen to your body instead. If you've tried forgoing meat, how do you feel? Listen to a wide range of "experts", including especially those deemed "alternative". I find they are often on the cutting edge of truth. Those with less financial investments in delivering information can usually be counted on to be more in our best interests.

Celebrity Testimony Highlights the Problems of Industrial Agriculture

Comedian Stephen Colbert made news when he testified last Friday before a Congressional subcommittee in support of migrant farm workers rights. Some representatives took issue with his choice to appear in character as the blustering conservative commentator he plays on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, but it was also noted that his appearance gave the hearing much more exposure than it would have had otherwise.

On his show, Colbert assumes a persona patterned after commentators such as Bill O’Reilly in order to skewer the illogical and excessive rhetoric that often takes the place of balanced inquiry and analysis on news shows. Although much of his testimony was meant as satire, he did finish on a sincere note. When asked why he had taken up this cause he stated bluntly, “Because migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Check out a video of his opening statement

He mentions the United Farm Worker’s “Take our Jobs” campaign, which he participated in for a day, working alongside migrant workers in Iowa packing beans and corn. UFW initiated the “Take Our Jobs” campaign in response to accusations that undocumented migrant field workers are exacerbating the unemployment rate in America. They distributed applications and invited any legal, unemployed American citizen to replace them in the fields. Arturo Rodriguez, the president of UFW, reported to Congress that while he convinced 8,000 people to apply, only 7 actually completed the process and accepted the job. After describing the difficult working conditions he witnessed, Colbert declared, with a note of sarcasm, “this brief experience gave me some small understanding why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker.”

Colbert went on to note that 84,000 acres of production and 22,000 farm jobs have moved to Mexico, leaving a million acres of US farmland barren due to lack of available labor. It’s clear that even with the unemployment rate approaching 10%, most people aren’t eager to start picking their own produce.

This trend is disturbing, but not unexpected to anyone who’s been paying attention to the degradation of agriculture in America. In 1900, over 50% of Americans were involved in agriculture. In 2000, that number was less than 1%, and the average age of a farmer was approaching 60. This decline is caused partly by the outsourcing of food production to other countries, and partly by the increased use of technology in the field, which allows one farmer to produce more food with less labor.

Producing more food with less labor might seem like a good thing. However, as a result of increased mechanization, modern industrial farm work isn’t just hard; it’s dangerous. A study by Texas A&M University found that the rate of fatalities in agriculture is 22.7 per 100,000, greater than construction and transportation, and second only to mining. The study also noted that these figures only take into account workers 16 and older, leaving out over 650,000 minors who work in agriculture. Also, since an estimated 50% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, it’s likely that many deaths go unreported.

The rate of injury in agriculture is also commonly believed to be higher than most other sectors, however various factors make it difficult to collect accurate data. One study noted that “This problem of incomplete reporting is further complicated by the reluctance of many hired farm workers, especially those not authorized to work in the U.S., to report injuries to anyone in authority.” (http://www.donvillarejo.com/fulltext/injuryrate.pdf) The study noted that many undocumented workers calculate the risk of lost income against the potential health hazard of not reporting an injury and continuing to work untreated.

The high rate of injury and fatality is due primarily to untrained and overworked laborers working with heavy machinery they are ill equipped to operate. According to the National Ag Safety Database, the three leading causes of death on farms are machinery, motor vehicles and electrocution. In addition, farm workers are regularly subjected to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have dangerous and potentially fatal side effects

It’s undoubtedly important to protect the rights of migrant farm workers. Their work feeds this country, and they deserve at least fair treatment and a living wage. However, it’s not enough to protect the rights of workers in an industry that is fundamentally flawed. We need to look deeper. The places where we grow our food shouldn’t be epicenters of disease and death. Farms shouldn’t be places we avoid for fear of getting poisoned, run over or electrocuted. Farms should be places we gather to nurture the best in our communities and ourselves.

We need to understand that just because we can grow food bigger, faster and cheaper than ever before, it doesn’t mean we should. By treating food like any other commodity, we ignore the relationship between food and health, food and family, food and community.

This transition back to community and home-based food production may take place whether we like it or not. Industrial agriculture depends on a steady supply of fossil fuel, which, at the rate we’re currently burning it, won’t last forever. Richard Heinberg, in an address to the E. F. Schumacher society, estimated that when fossil fuel reserves decline, it will take 50 million farmers to supply the food needs of this country. So if we want to eat, we need to make farming a more attractive career, and we need to teach farmers how to grow food without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and massive combines.

Industrial food isn’t good for the people who grow it or the people who eat it, and in the long run we won’t be able to sustain it. Buying organic food is one way to encourage an alternative, sustainable industry. When we buy organic we’re not just supporting our health and the health of our family. We’re supporting the health of the soil, the health of the ecosystem and the health of the farmers.