The Call, Column 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

So, while I was writing my last column, it occurred to me that many of my readers may be new, either to my column or the subject of sustainable agriculture, and might not be fully aware of the issues that exist with industrial agriculture as it is currently practiced. Before moving deeper into our ideological quest for the ideal sustainable, self-sufficient homestead, I think it’d be great to give you all a little briefer (or just a reminder) on the woes of industrial agriculture. Queue the foreboding music and the lightening!

To start: what is industrial agriculture? This column is not about the small-scale family farm. It is not about the sustainably-managed vegetable operations. It is not about the pastured cattle or poultry or hogs. It is not about the integrated-livestock-and-plant operations, the small orchards, the pick-your-own-whatever farms, or the local apiaries. With the notable exception of one farming empire that wields quite a bit of political clout, this isn’t really about any farm in Rhode Island, or most places in New England (because we’re just that awesome).
This column is about industrial agriculture. Make that “Industrial Agriculture”, with the capital letters designating it as a namable, diagnosable, and most importantly, treatable disease of society. It is about the 5000 contiguous acres of corn, the 12,000 chickens kept in battery cages, the intensive, undocumented-labor-exploiting vegetable operations. Industrial Agriculture is what happens when food is treated as a mere commodity, and the land as a factory, from which as much of that commodity must be produced as possible, with as little expense and human intervention as possible. It is what happens when the government subsidizes productivity at the expense of quality, and the people demand that cost be minimized at the expense of their own health.

It is what happens, in short, when too few people in our country experience anything to do with agriculture (except, of course, its final product); when too few know remotely enough make responsible choices.

And what does that look like? I’m so, so glad you asked.

Carbon dioxide. Lots of it. Between farm equipment, cold storage, processing, and shipping and distribution, Industrial Agriculture uses huge amounts of fossil fuels. Natural gas is even used to manufacture artificial fertilizers; a chemical reaction called the Haber-Bosch Process turns methane into ammonia, releasing carbon dioxide as if it were burned. Not to mention, the large-scale tillage that must be done in order to satisfy our country’s addiction to high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils, forces the soil to off-gas huge amounts of carbon dioxide. All-in-all, Industrial Agriculture is responsible for a double-digit-percentage of the climate-changing carbon dioxide released by our species.

The socio-economic issues associated with Industrial Agriculture shouldn’t be diminished, either. Products, both animal- and plant-based, are considered commodities. This makes them subject to global price fluctuations, which harms not only farmers in the U.S./West, but abroad. The federal government subsidizes certain crops – wheat, corn, soy – in such a way that farmers are forced to continually increase yields, planting “hedgerow-to-hedgerow” at risk of not remaining solvent. This subsidy program and these crops form the basis of our unhealthy food industry (more on this later). And because of the number of steps between the farmer and the end-user’s corn chips, soda, or white bread, the farmer ends up getting paid only a few cents out of every dollar spent at the grocery store. Not to mention, undocumented workers are taken advantage of by industrial farms, paid grossly less than the minimum wage, given no benefits, and made to work long, laborious hours doing jobs that most Americans wouldn’t dream of wanting.

The growing practices of Industrial crops leave much to be desired, and leave even more that can’t be washed off, in the way of chemical residues. The land is forced to conform to a rigid set of industrial standards, not the least of which is monoculture – where thousands of contiguous acres are planted to the same crop – and leaving the soil bare. These issues bring about insect pest and weed problems, for which toxic pesticides and herbicides are sprayed liberally on our food. And to boot, minimally-tested, questionably-safe, and only marginally-effective genetically engineered seed is used in place of open-pollinated.

Over-tillage, lack of groundcover, and a slew of other bad land-management habits result in huge amounts of topsoil washing off into the ocean – causing an environmental nightmare in its own right. The soil loses its natural water-retention capabilities, so more is used in irrigation. And artificial fertilizers are used as a band-aid for the loss of fertility, replacing the naturally-fixed nitrogen so that plants can still grow, but never able to replenish the beneficial microbes, organic pH buffers, biological residues, and that golden humus responsible for the continued existence of life on this planet.

On Industrial animal farms, the conditions are even worse. Instead of being fed from the pastures and forests on which they evolved, animals are fed largely unnatural diets, consisting of the commodity crops above and, in many cases, the waste products of industrial food processing (a nice way to say, “garbage”). They are generally treated horribly, concentrated in very tight quarters and denied the ability to perform their natural behaviors.

These diets and lifestyles make them sick, with pretty nasty strains of E. coli, salmonella, and the like, which risk tainting the food. They are treated with antibiotics – both because of these diseases, and also because antibiotics make animals gain weight (think about that, next time you’re prescribed one for a virus) – and those antibiotics definitely taint the food, no question about it. And the manure they produce is…let’s say…not the same, high-quality compost material you’d get from a local farm. Tainted with antibiotics and harmful pathogens, and present in such high concentrations, it becomes an environmental nuisance. Instead of nourishing the ground, it poisons it.

And all of this is to say nothing of the effects of Industrial Agriculture on human health. I’ve written pretty extensively about this in the past, but the huge subsidies given to grain and soy operations means that these are the things that are grown, and these are the things fed to us in as many ways possible, including (unnaturally) through ruminant animals. A processed-food- and grain-based diet, deplete of vegetables and pasture-raised meat (the basic foods not subsidized by industrial agriculture) is the cause of chronic disease, hands down.

So…bad for the land, bad for the creatures being grown and raised, bad for the farmers, and bad for the consumers. Can you see why I feel the way I do about Industrial Agriculture?

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at http://blueskysfarm.com/. As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at http://aquidneckfarms.com/.

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 45 – Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

24 04 2016

(April 24, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

~Wendell Berry~

            You can probably tell, if you’ve read my column, that I have a deep concern for the political issues involving the health of our environment, the development of our renewable energy supply, and the sustainability of our agriculture. It’s no secret that these are the issues that I use in deciding for whom to cast my vote.

As I’ve made pretty clear in the past, I believe those three topics to be of the absolute greatest importance to human beings, present and future, and our continued comfortable existence on Earth. We all require food in order not to die, and it is wise to produce (and politically, encourage the production of) that food by means that don’t destroy our ability to do so in the process. We all require energy to heat our homes, power our transportation, and create and share information, and it is in our best interest to invest in renewable, alterative sources, rather than be reliant on fossil fuels doomed to run out in the very near future. And we are all utterly dependent on the Earth’s environment, with our fates as individuals and, even greater, as a species tied intimately to its health – so it might be wise for our governments to prevent localized pollution, and work to stop human-caused climate change while we still can.

Today, we’ll discuss each of the five 2016 presidential candidates – Senator Bernie Sanders, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump – and their stances on the above issues. I’ll draw from their official campaign websites, along with their voting and opinion records as recorded at OnTheIssues.org, and give them each a grade for their overall advocacy in issues of the environment, energy, and agriculture.

Let’s begin with the Democrats, who are neck and neck in a race that has increasingly become a cage match between bold, anti-political progressivism and politically-expedient moderateness. Both Senator Sanders and Former Secretary Clinton have sections on their websites dedicated to climate change and the related policy, and are in fact the only two of the five candidates who do so, despite climate change being a present and immediate threat to our species’ wellbeing.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a long, proven record on environmental, energy, and agricultural policy, receiving a score of 90% from the League of Conservation Voters. His website includes strong language about the threat of human-caused climate change and its root causes, both direct (fossil fuels) and indirect (the economic drivers that motivate their use). It also includes sections against localized pollution, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas, and the related infrastructure, and support for small farms and rural agricultural communities. His voting record is pristine when it comes to these issues. He has consistently supported US and international climate change legislation, the adoption of renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels, regulations on localized pollution, GMO labeling, public transportation, and the protection of natural ecosystems; he has consistently opposed offshore and ANWR drilling, unsustainable agricultural practices, and subsidy programs that choke out small farmers.

Bernie Sanders get an A.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often aligns with the Democratic Party’s views on political issues, including environmental ones, and received a score of 89% from the League of Conservation Voters. Like other areas of her campaign, she has similar language as Senator Sanders on her website, including detailed pages on climate change and energy reform as well as the preservation of small-scale agriculture and rural communities. Her voting record reflects support for climate change legislation, renewable energies, and more sustainability considerations in the transportation industry, and opposition to ANWR drilling, and she has only recently made these issues important parts of her platform. She is lukewarm on nuclear power, and was indifferent-to-supportive of the Keystone natural gas pipeline prior to this campaign. Her campaign has also indirectly benefitted from contributions by the oil and gas industries.

Hillary Clinton gets a B.

And now, for the Republican candidates. Historically, the environment has not been a topic of discussion or debate within Republican primaries, while energy has been, only insofar as our supply is a national security concern (which is one important part of the discussion). This election cycle is different, with climate change coming up during a debate in March. Three of the four candidates at the time – Senator Rubio, Mr. Trump, and Senator Cruz – denied both the fact of human-caused climate change and the value in taking legislative action to mitigate its effects, while Former Governor Kasich took an approach relatively more aligned with the science, accepting the truth of climate change and a certain level of human responsibility for it, and advocating for moderate energy policy. Let’s start with him.

Former Governor John Kasich is the Republican candidate with the highest level of support for pro-environmental action, though his website does not include a section on any of the relevant topics. As mentioned above, he accepts the fact of human-caused climate change and has used his gubernatorial and (in the past) legislative power to affect some change towards greater sustainability, a stance which deviates greatly from his party’s belief. In some cases, he has opposed climate change remediation and renewable energy legislation; in others, he has supported such laws when they make provisions for economic growth. However, he voted against the Kyoto Protocol in 2000.

John Kasich gets a D, with bonus points for being a dissenter.

Senator Ted Cruz does not dedicate a page on his website to any issue related to the environment, agriculture, or energy. He has repeatedly denied the fact of human-caused climate change, instead perpetuating untrue arguments in an attempt to discredit climate science and comparing environmentalism to a religion. He has taken contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which are reflected in his voting record. He has consistently opposed legislative action on climate change, the promotion of renewable energies, and the protection of natural environments, and instead supported pro-fossil-fuel legislation and offshore drilling.

Ted Cruz gets an F, and I’m being generous.

Mr. Donald Trump also doesn’t dedicate any space on his website for issues related to the environment, agriculture, or energy, instead focusing on the important issues of the needlessness of political correctness and the absolute necessity of a border wall. He does not have legislative or other political history to draw from, but has consistently used harsh language (i.e. “hoax”, “con job”, and profanities) to deny the fact of human-caused climate change and other basic tenets of environmental science. He has made negative and factually incorrect statements about renewable energies, animal welfare, and environmental regulations, and supports the complete disbanding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Donald Trump also gets an F, for not handing in the assignment.

We stand at a cusp in human history, where our action – or continued inaction – on climate change and other environmental issues will decide the fate of humanity. Problems of environmental health, sustainable agriculture, and a renewable, stable energy supply are some of the most important that we face as a nation, a species, and a planet, and we must choose our leaders based on how well they are poised to solve them. Rhode Island’s 2016 Presidential Primary is on Tuesday, April 26th, and I urge you to get out and vote for a better future.

And now that this column is done, I guess it’s time to go put that sign up on my lawn.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to https://sos.ri.gov/vic/ and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 40 – When Logic Doesn’t Matter

15 02 2016

(February 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

When Logic Doesn’t matter

Last November, in response to the WHO’s horribly erroneous claim that “meat causes cancer”, I wrote a column about the glaring issues with mainline nutritional science. I briefly mentioned the bias that naturally exists in nutritional research, and blamed it on the funding stream from industry groups, private organizations, and the government (let’s use “institution” as a stand-in for all of these). Today, we’ll ask the question: Why do these institutions throw so much money, so much time and effort, in order to essentially lie to their constituents?

I call this “institutionalized misinformation” (or “willful, militant ignorance” on my bad days), and it pains me to see how easily it has infected our society. The first thing we need to figure out, is how this package of misinformation – let’s call it the Flawed Narrative – arises in an otherwise well-meaning institution.

At some point, a Flawed Narrative begins as a single piece of misinformation, something that is factually incorrect but easy to believe, maybe because it fits comfortably into knowledge that is already common. A person of authority becomes convinced that this misinformation is true (either as an honest mistake, or because it is to his or her, a friend or family member’s, or the institution’s benefit), and in his or her capacity makes this misinformation doctrine within the institution.

Normally, in nature or human society, if an inappropriate or harmful thing is trying to grow within an environment – like a new product trying to take over the market, or an animal or plant filling a niche within an ecosystem, or even bacterium proliferating in a human being – the environment has some mechanism for stamping it out. If the product doesn’t work, the free market makes it fail; if the animal is taking resources from other species, established populations find ways to wipe it out; if the bacterium is pathogenic, the body’s immune system checks its growth and eliminates it.

But manmade power structures don’t have this self-correcting mechanism. So the seed of misinformation is planted within the institution, and it is free to grow without natural opposing forces. Maybe the institution changes its bylaws to reflect the “truth” found in this package of misinformation; or maybe it informs its constituents (the people who make it up or depend on it) of the new truth, and some of them believe it. There are many possible ways it can happen, but over time, what started as a single person believing a single believable falsehood grows into an institution and its constituents having a belief system which takes a falsehood as given.

Some fraction of the constituents of the institution adopt this pathogenic belief system as fact, making it part of their day-to-day lives – maybe it’s benign enough that they don’t notice that it’s false, or maybe they trust the institution enough to overlook or explain away glaring problems. Either way, in turn, the institution now has a whole lot more incentive to defend this information, and feed it back to their constituents – and on, and on. This back-and-forth turns an innocent, easy-to-believe piece of misinformation into the Flawed Narrative, institutionalized misinformation that is now accepted as fact by the population, even though it is not.

And here’s the fun part. The Flawed Narrative is now at the level of what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – it feels true, so it is! It is now the duty of the institution to defend the Flawed Narrative at all costs, funding scientific research riddled with biases that lend support to it, and convincing media sources to report it with enough sensationalism that it seems groundbreaking and unquestionable.

And so it goes. The misinformation gets cemented into public consciousness, and the Flawed Narrative becomes the official position of polite society: to disagree with it is to disagree with simple fact, to argue against knowledge so basic that they “knew it in our grandparents’ day” (even though they didn’t).

I know this has all been very abstract so far – so let’s take the specific, close-to-home example of backyard chickens, to demonstrate how pervasive and damaging this problem is within our cherished institutions.

In the City of Woonsocket, when I started trying to legalize chickens back in 2013, the accepted doctrine was that “chickens don’t belong in the city” – that they smell, and are loud, and will decrease property values, and simply aren’t worth the effort by the misguided peasants petitioning to be able to keep them. This was a bit of institutionalized misinformation that had arisen in our city (curiously, the same one that I saw in North Providence last March), and there is no better indication of its pervasiveness than the harsh treatment of myself and other public proponents, and of the council-members who worked to change the law. Thankfully, this Flawed Narrative was relegated to the history books a year ago.

I could write about countless other examples (climate change denial that is unfortunately rampant amongst government officials; the misdirected blaming of the Greek people as being responsible for their economic crisis), but I think this briefer and my previous columns are enough for you to understand this problem.

The pièce de résistance, the dogmatic ridiculousness that served as the main driving motivator for this column, is of course the religion of modern, low-fat, high-carb, count-your-calories nutritional science.

This elaborate False Narrative began with a self-serving nutritional researcher, Ancel Keys. One day in the 1950s, Dr. Keys made the decision that saturated fat intake causes heart disease, and cooked some data (in margarine, of course) in order to convince the government of the validity of his hypothesis.

The government bought it. And the rest, my friends, played out just as I have described above. The low-fat era was born in the 1960s, and the official dietary religion became that fat makes us fat and (especially the saturated type) is the cause of heart disease. The grain-based, low-fat food pyramid was published, and the federal government defended their assertions tooth-and-nail. Assertions which, conveniently, aligned just right with the large amount of money they were throwing at massive grain and legume agriculture to keep food prices artificially low.

The party line was lapped up like (low-fat) milk by an unsuspecting public, and defended mercilessly by the government, the processed food industries, and the private nutritional organizations that they fund.

And guess what? Following these high-carb, low-fat recommendations, we’ve gotten sicker than we were before they were published. But since that would have dangerous implications, the Flawed Narrative must be defended at all costs. Enter: the evil calorie! Chronic metabolic disease (heart disease, diabetes, etc) must be caused by obesity, which in turn must be caused by eating too many of those nasty Calories (because our bodies are blast furnaces, and not the most complex biochemical systems in the known universe). And because fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, saturated fat still makes us fat, and is still somehow the cause of heart disease. But, for some strange reason, the same is not true of unsaturated fats (despite having the same number of Calories). No, they now claim they’ve told us to eat these all along.

            Biochemistry, the actual science we use to describe what goes on in the human body, disagrees with pretty much all of these claims. But government officials, and those who report on the “science”, have become experts at parroting off these failed hypotheses like robots, ignoring something as mundane as rational thought.

So you may be asking: why does any of this matter, outside of human health? Well, when a Flawed Narrative becomes institutionalized, it makes it incredibly difficult for activists to make positive change!

It legitimizes anti-scientific and anti-logical groupthink; and it allows pro-establishment members of powerful institutions to simply deny every rational argument you throw at them, every piece of logic, in favor of their accepted narrative. This means that the public ends up following advice that isn’t sound, or isn’t based in real science, but is instead protected by moneyed interest groups whose well-being relies on the preservation of a particular set of incorrect beliefs.

60 years ago, not long before the dawn of the low-fat era, George Orwell penned in his famous book, 1984: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

When we allow scientific discourse to be guided by politics, by moneyed interests, by institutionalized misinformation that persists as “truth” long after the quietly-spoken facts say otherwise, we suffer for it. Don’t let that happen. Speak with a louder, smarter voice than the institutions. Provide logic they simply cannot argue with. Be the self-correcting mechanism that won’t exist without you. Make positive change!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 39 – Local Agriculture: Greek Style

8 02 2016

(January 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Local Agriculture: Greek Style

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

As I write this, I arrived home not 16 hours ago from my month-long trip to Greece. I spent a lot of great time with my family around the country, and one of my most vivid memories was the context that surrounds you as you explore the cities and landscapes – the Greek agriculture.

I’ve made it pretty obvious in the past, that small-scale, local agriculture forms the basis of Greece’s economy. We’ve discussed this from the perspectives of urban farming, energy efficiency and sustainability, community resiliency, economics, and international politics. Today, let’s talk about the farmers markets and the farmers themselves.

Last week, I visited two huge farmers markets. The first was the Varvakios Agora, Athens’ central market, and it was a pretty incredible experience.

Imagine walking down a long hallway, with standard sized market booths on either side, each of which belongs to a meat farm or farm collective. You can find almost any kind of meat you want – lamb, goat, beef, pork, chicken, duck, and every kind of fish swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. And many of the animals are still whole – entire lambs or chickens, with the heads and (if you’re lucky), organs still attached, hanging on display – having obviously been slaughtered just that morning.

And here’s the fun part: the vendors talk directly to you as you pass by. They are constantly yelling their products and prices – “Fresh lamb, 5 Euros per kilo!” But as you walk by, they address you specifically, explaining how the meat is “just for you, sir”, holding a lamb-chop or whole chicken out in front of you, urging you to examine and smell it for quality.

And that’s not the half of it. Along one adjoining road is the fruit and vegetable market, where in-season produce from around Southern Greece is laid out in farmers-market style. They have a longer growing season and warmer year than us, so in addition to the root vegetables, leafy greens, and brassicas, I found a plethora of fruits and vegetables that I wouldn’t otherwise dream of eating in January. And along the other joining road was the dried goods – nuts and seeds, dried fruits, cured meats, and spices of all kinds.

A few days later, I went to a “small” farmers market (called a Laiki) in Piraeus, the suburb of Greece where my dad’s mom and sisters live. That was an experience in itself.

Four or five city blocks along one road were lined with upwards of 100 vendors from the local foodshed. Like in the Varvakios Agora, Greece’s warm, extended growing season was made obvious by the shear diversity of produce available – fruits and vegetables, eggs, olives and oil, and honey, among others.

And in similar fashion to the agora, the farmers and vendors were shouting their competitive prices, and addressing sales pitches at specific passersby. This market reminded me a lot of the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market going on now in Rhode Island, but was generally louder (and there were lemons).

Despite the positive and inspiring atmosphere in these markets, I couldn’t help but recognize that it wasn’t a good reflection of the situation that the farmers in Greece are facing.

If you thought my description last time of the labor crisis and tax rates was unbelievable, it is even worse for the farmers. When all is said and done, their income is taxed at something like 85%, despite their not being the best-off financially. Their social security is being cut significantly, and their insurance rates are increasing as well. And having to honor the European Union’s regulations and embargos – specifically with Russia, one of the Greek farmers’ biggest customers – is making it even less financially stable to be a farmer in the country.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that there have been massive farmer protests in the recent months, and quite often while I was there. They used their tractors to block the National Highway in Northern Greece earlier this week, and in some cases stage protests where they spill unsold/unsellable produce (milk was what I saw) in the street. I generally don’t condone food waste, but if they are being driven to waste the product of their own hard work, it shows the magnitude of the struggles they are facing.

And while I celebrate the farmers standing up for their interests against the European Union government that obviously doesn’t care, I write it all with a heavy heart – I have a personal attachment to these goings-on, because a good part of my family in Greece is farmers.

On both sides of my family, my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generation were mostly full-time farmers, and now, many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, are at least part-time. I have experienced this fact first-hand, enjoying the fruits – and vegetables, and eggs, and olive oil – of their labor each time I visit Greece. But with this also comes stories: of peaches and kiwis, which are bought for so little money by Northern European packing companies that it’s barely worth growing them; of cherries that had to go to waste, because EU regulations have closed market channels and there isn’t enough demand at local farmers markets; and of produce that was grown and harvested, only to be made unsellable overnight by an unexpected embargo with Russia.

If, through conversations with my family members, friends, and baristas at local coffee shops, I could feel the struggles facing every citizen of Greece, I could feel it tenfold amongst my farmer relatives. Farming was and still is considered a noble job in Greece – whether full- or part-time, it is a common and positive thing for a family to spend their free time collectively managing a few acres of agricultural land.

As I have said a few times, agriculture is the basis of Greece’s economy. And I think the farmers are all fully aware of that, which is why they seem hopeful that they can use it to their advantage in protesting.

But with all of this said, the local agricultural scene in Greece is still vibrant and strong. They aren’t allowing the problems with the European Union and the Greek government to get in the way of their chosen profession, their calling – to raise a good product, and make it available to their fellow Greeks.

They are blessed with good soil, abundant sunlight, lots of pollinators, and a culture of people who know that agriculture is a dignified occupation and who respect, and can empathize with the lives of farmers. They live in a perfect environment for agriculture; and guess what: They sure know how to put on a good farmers market.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 35 – Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

8 02 2016

(December 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

As you probably already know, last Monday marked the beginning of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (“COP21”), in Le Bourget, Paris, France. The goal of the conference is to reach a comprehensive, global agreement, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, and halt the dangerous climate change that these emissions are causing.

Even if a global plan of action is not formed (the U.S. has been a notable holdout in the past), it does not change the facts: the climate has been altered significantly in the past century; we, and specifically our carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas, are the dominant driving force of that change; and it is easily the biggest threat that we face to the comfortable existence of life on Earth. Moving forward, we can either intentionally take strategic, preventative measures now, or be forced to take reactionary measures to ensure our survival in the future. Given the devastation that is often caused by a single hurricane, I hope it’s clear which action is the safer bet. And today, the engineer (and potential future political leader) in me is going to get really practical: What can we, lowly human beings on an environmentally-unstable planet, do about climate change?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you must “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – this is a good starting point. There is action that we can and must take within our own lives, in our own households, to help slow the progression of climate change.

The first step is to assess and minimize your household energy use. In Rhode Island, National Grid and private companies, like RISE Engineering, offer no-cost energy assessments/audits, where they visit your home, assess your energy use, and suggest ways to reduce your long-term consumption. You can find out more about these programs at their websites. And whether or not you get a formal energy audit performed, there are some key areas in home energy use where a small change produces a pretty huge effect. All of these solutions work for commercial buildings as well.

First, lighting uses between 10 and 15% of a normal household’s electricity, and by switching out incandescent light-bulbs for significantly more efficient LED bulbs, you can reduce that amount by 83% – a reduction of nearly 10% of your household’s total electricity consumption, and a savings of about $8.20 per year per bulb. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate that National Grid heavily subsidizes LED lighting, allowing companies like Ocean State Job Lot and many of the drugstores in the area to sell them for around $3 per bulb, yielding a 100% return on investment in as little as four months, on a bulb that will last over 20 years.

Heating, cooling, and refrigeration consume a combined 60% of residential electricity usage. Whether your water heater, refrigerator, air conditioners, and other such appliances are electricity- or gas-powered, there are very efficient versions currently available, which would drastically reduce their energy consumption. And with heavy subsidies from National Grid (https://www1.nationalgridus.com/RhodeIsland), their cost is quickly returned by the savings in energy use. Furthermore, structural efficiency measures (like replacing windows and doors and adding insulation in key areas) can help to reduce heat loss.

In addition, finding ways to supplant current, energy- and carbon-intensive processes with less intensive ones – like switching to a clothes line, or from electric to gas heating – are good ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, supplementing or completely replacing fossil fuels with sustainable sources – by having solar panels installed on your roof, or paying a little extra to the energy company in order to guarantee better energy sourcing – may have the biggest effect of all.

Let’s change gears a bit: by driving less, and instead using public transportation, carpooling, and alternate forms of transportation like bicycles, you can significantly reduce your transportation-related carbon emissions. Personally, I take RIPTA whenever I can – on average, one-third to one-half of the times that I go to school in Providence are with public transportation. This and other alternative transportation is often pretty fast, costs less than gas, and doesn’t require parking. Also, because of their efficiency, electric cars (even running on coal electricity) produce less carbon dioxide per mile than gas cars.

Most products that we buy come with baggage, an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide (and other pollution) that was required in order to bring it to your home. By simply buying less stuff, buying used goods (which don’t have an additional footprint), buying locally (to reduce shipping), buying goods whose production methods you know were better for the environment, and throwing away less, you can help to reduce the fossil fuel that is burned by industry on your behalf.

That brings us to a very specific case – the food we eat. The knee-jerk response you’ll hear from some environmentalists is to “eat less meat”, citing a ridiculous, cherry-picked statistic and linking to a tofu recipe. If you couldn’t already guess, I don’t agree with this, and I think it indicates intellectual laziness and unwillingness to look deeper into the issue.

The actual carbon emissions of industrial agriculture come largely from the same place as in every other industry – burning fossil fuels. When industrial grain and soy monocultures are grown year after year, the soil’s fertility must be heavily supplemented with artificial fertilizer – this is made from natural gas, and releases carbon dioxide in its production. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in industrial farm machinery and artificial chemical applications. And the off-farm processing of these crops into “food”, and shipping them around the globe, uses fuel as well. When we (unnecessarily and inefficiently) feed animals these cheap grains, the effect is compounded.

Saving more detail for future columns, we need to eat diets that are environmentally-restorative – that have the net, lifetime effect of actually putting carbon into the ground (sequestration) rather than into the atmosphere. That means animal products that are raised on pasture, rotationally-grazed to build the topsoil, and fruits and vegetables that are grown non-intensively, on farms that use organic sources of soil fertility and don’t mechanically harvest, or otherwise in permaculture-type systems.

Buy these foods in season and from your local foodshed to eliminate long-distance transport; and rather than looking for “organic” or “natural”, ask the farmer yourself in order to ensure their practices fit these criteria. And, as always, grow your own using these methods.

We should all certainly make these changes, because they are the most direct and necessary ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not enough to make them in our own lives, and be satisfied – there are 7 billion other people on Earth, who either already do, or are on the path to, contribute to climate change as much as the average American.

We need to do more than “be the change” – we need to make the change through collective action! We have to champion good politicians who make climate change a top priority. And we have to call and write to make it clear to our leaders (in every level of government) that action on this issue should be taken now, by choice, rather than later, out of necessity.

Whether or not COP21 is successful, we in the United States, with 4.7% of the world’s population that produces an unbalanced 16% of its carbon emissions, need to change our regulatory and legislative climate.

On the municipal and state levels, we need to ramp up incentives for renewable energies – subsidies and grants to consumers who install solar and other alternative energies, the removal of taxes and fees on those projects, and investment by the government itself.

On the federal level, we need comprehensive carbon legislation. Whether that’s a carbon tax on power companies, to incentivize the switch to renewable sources without significantly increasing energy prices, or a cap and trade system, where we catalyze this change through market mechanisms, allowing companies to choose their own paths, or straightforward regulations, directly promoting the use of renewable sources of energy, it has to happen.

We have to stop subsidizing dirty energy. We need to stop sacrificing the lives of our brave servicemen and women in pointless oil wars. We need to stop dragging our feet, entertaining useless politicians who are so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to spend 1% of our GDP for a few years to ensure that there is a functioning Earth left for our grandchildren.

It’s time to act. In our homes, in our businesses, in our communities; with both our individual and our collective voice, we must demand action before it’s too late. Accelerated climate change threatens the general welfare of life on our planet, and inaction violates the oath that every politician takes to uphold the Constitution. It’s time to act.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.