Sunday, June 29, 2008

Weekend Update

I make no secret about my love for composting. If I couldn't grow another tomato, I would happily spend my time tossing grass clippings and old leaves and food scraps together to make new soil. With vegetables I merely feed myself. With compost, I feed Planet Earth. Composting is one thing I can do to keep the earth turning in the right direction.

Nations that neglect the health of their soil do so at their peril. North Africa used to be the breadbasket of the Mediterranean. Now it is desert. Today, humans have fooled themselves into thinking we can douse the soil with synthetic fertilizers and deadly poisons and reap an ever-expanding harvest. The latest global food crises proves otherwise. We are killing our soil at the same time we pat ourselves on the back over the purchase of organic milk with pictures of happy cows on the carton.

The idea of regenerating our soil is in direct opposition to the exploitative nature of industrial agriculture. Feeding the soil with compost takes the long view of fertility. Raising crops with noxious insecticides and fertilizers made from fossil fuels takes the short route to profits. Anyone who believes in organics, who believes in food that sustains rather than exploits this blue planet we call home, must embrace compost.

For further reading on the subject, I recommend a recent article in Grist by farmer/writer Tom Philpott. Tom neatly and succinctly makes the case for being an agitator where nurturing the soil is concerned. It's a rallying cry we should all hear: Even as local and organic foods gain in popularity--even as we witness a bumper crops of new farmers markets--these represent but a tiny fraction of the nation's food economy. In fact, industrial agriculture is expanding, tightening its grip on our food supply and on the political machinery.

Time for everyone to get involved....


Here's another universal law for you: wrong thinking, like a bad gas, continues to expand if unopposed.

In the wake of record flooding and crop damage in the Midwest, many are beginning to conclude that a major contributor to the floods was the work of humans, converting all that Iowa landscape into croplands, highways, shopping malls. Prairie grass may be boring, but at least it absorbs water. Turns out tilling the soil from one end of the horizon to the other is just an invitation to disaster.

But here comes Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to free up tens of thousands of farmers from contracts in which they agreed to hold land in conservation rather than plowing it. At stake are millions of acres that now are home to grasses and wildlife but would be plowed to grow corn and soybeans.

Grassley, a leading force in agricultural matters on Capitol Hill, is one of those who believes that turning corn into ethanol has had little to do with the spike in global food prices. While Grassley is calling for conservation land to be plowed, others are suggesting the government ease its requirements for turning corn into fuel.

About 25 percent of the nation's corn crop is now converted into ethanol, helping to double the price of corn. The government’s latest projection, released Friday, is that food prices this year will rise as much as 5.5 percent. Some products, including cereals and eggs, are expected to rise about 10 percent.


There's a growing call to reduce meat consumption on environmental grounds. Too many calories are being burned to make that hamburger you're grilling this weekend. Escalating meat comsumption in China and India is driving up the price of grain worldwide, contributing to the current food crises.

As important as the question of how much meat, however, is the question of what kind of meat. Without doubt, raising livestock in huge, industrial confinement operations is a bad idea. Ruminants such as cattle were not designed to eat corn, soybeans and ground up chicken feathers. Industrial meat is a source of pollution, excessive amounts of bad fat and poor nutrition.

But maybe while we are considering eating less meat we could also switch to grass-fed meat. Farm animals are an important part of the process of creating a healthy soil and farm economy. Meat, eggs and dairy from pastured animals also provides more in the way of lean protein, vitamins, minerals and beneficial fats, such as Omega-3.

Humans have always been eating meat (just ask the woolly mammoth). We don't need to give it up entirely to to have a healthy planet.


At the same time food inspectors are having trouble keeping up with the safety issues posed by all the imported foods streaming across our borders, our U.S. Department of Agriculture is agitating for poultry imports from China despite health issues found in Chinese processing facilities.

A cozy relationship with China can only benefit corporate food interests and Big Agriculture. One goofy proposal called for chickens to be raised in the U.S., then shipped to China to be processed into various food products, then shipped back for U.S. consumers to eat. In return, China might consider allowing imports of U.S. beef. (Weren't the Koreans recently rioting in the streets over U.S. beef imports? Oh, never mind....)


There are food disasters everywhere you turn, it seems. The latest is the collapse of the blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay. The demise of the crab was foretold at least two decades ago. Over-harvesting and pollution have resulted in the lowest crab catches on record and this year promises to continue the trend.

Enter U.S. senators from Maryland and Virginia, proposing the federal government officially declare the crabs a disaster and provide $20 million in emergency assistance to watermen and food processors. The states have both ordered sharp cuts in the harvesting of female crabs because of the decline.

Meanwhile, pollutants continue to pour into the Chesapeake from area farms supported by federal subsidies. Go figure....


Scientists have linked high fructose corn syrup, one of the by-products of our huge, government-subsidized corn complex, with this country's high rates of obesity and diabetes. But that hasn't stopped the food industry, which relies on subsidized corn products for just about everything in the supermarket, from continuing to defend HFCS as a legitimate sweetener.

In fact, the Corn Refiners Association recently took out a full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times equating high fructose corn syrup with honey and table sugar. They've also put up a website where you can take a quiz on how HFCS stacks up against other sweeteners.

Funny, I didn't find any references to those studies that link corn sweeteners with obesity and diabetes....

Meanwhile, the soft drink industry is touting new research indicating that kids aren't getting fat so much because of vending machines at school, but because of the junk they eat and drink at home. (But we can control what's in the vending machines in schools, right?)

And just in case that doesn't turn you into a cheerleader for school vending machines, the American Beverage Association has sponsored a new analysis showing there is no relationship between drinking sodas and body mass index.

Sure, I'm convinced.

Bon appetit....


WeekendFarmer said...

In business school (years ago) - a professor raised the issue on North African farmers dying from the pesticide introduced by the colonial masters - BUT they did have bigger grapes for the wine! What a mess! I dont understand why more legislations are not passed against toxic chemicals we pass on to our food chain and the water bed via pesticide and fertilizers. The higher incidence of cancer should offset the powerful lobby groups. If only we paid attention ....!

Katie said...

Ed, this is a wonderful post, hitting on all of the major issues we're facing this week/month/year. I think you hit the nail right on the head here...