Sunday, March 28, 2010

Organic Farming Opens a Way for Farmers to Return to their Proper Role as Innovators and Stewards of the Land

The twenty-first century’s uncertainty about the future abounds with predicaments like climate change, depletion of our water resources, and the end of cheap energy. And farmers are being called upon to assume a new role as innovators and stewards of the land because they know how to produce food.

“Farmers were the true founders of the United States,” said Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, “because they went out into the wild and built the first structures and communities that eventually became our cities and the nation.” In 1800, 90 percent of Americans were farmers.

She spoke recently at the 21st Annual Conference of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) held in La Crosse, Wisc.

By 1900 after the frontier closed and the nation moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the percentage of farmers dropped to almost 40 percent. That’s also when farmers began to shift in their role from “citizens” to “producers.”

And they have been rebelling ever since over land and crop prices and agricultural policies, said Hamilton.

“They weren't looking to change the system; they only wanted their fair share of the wealth.”

Meanwhile, other inducements moved them off the farm.

They were perceived to be “hayseeds” and helpless victims of droughts, floods and crop failures.

War in Europe exposed many young men to a more expanded view of the world, including the city’s lures of wine, women and song as expressed in the World War I hit, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”

Economic opportunity and excitement in the city led to the gradual abandonment of farming as a career choice. Even during the Great Depression, income was three and four times higher off the farm than on it. In 2007, the USDA reported that farm income per capita was $28,781 compared to urban income of $40,570. Today, a mere 2 percent of Americans are farmers.

After World War II, the United States began a program of prosperity and productivity for all. Farmers who grew crops and stewarded the land were cajoled into resembling industrial workers from the city who produced piecework in a complex system overseen by major corporations, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.

Livestock are cared for by “employees” of big corporations rather than by farmers who once took responsibility for their businesses as well as the small communities where they lived. These were things that gave meaning to their lives. As a result, small farming towns have fallen into social decay with a disappearing middle class.

Then, the USDA’s “cheap food policy” of the 1970s resulted in giving major food corporations almost total control of the food system.

“What have we wrought over these past 70 years?” asked Hassebrook.

“People yearn for greater authenticity and a genuine search for meaning and significance in life,” said Hassebrook. “They don’t just want to accumulate things. They are searching for community and meaningful relationships with people and with the land. They are yearning for more access to nature.”

The Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), located in Lyons, Neb., a town of 980, represents a set of values that reflect the best in rural people, he said: fairness, widespread ownership, personal and social responsibility and stewardship of the land where it is preserved for the next generation.

“When you look beyond selfish interests, the true interests reflect these values and are tied to community and the common good,” said Hassebrook.

But there is change in the making. Organic farming and the local food movement are capturing the imaginations of people in small, rural towns. And while it’s difficult to tell where the future lies, Hassebrook urged conference participants to recognize that people need to take responsibility for their own destiny and future.

“We can't wait for government or corporate America to save us.”

Hassebrook identified five keys that tap farmers’ full potential to create a better future.

1. Protect authenticity.

The recent clarification of organic standards on dairy products is a vital start that means something to family farmers who want to treat their animals well and consumers who want to believe that their food is safe.

2. Be entrepreneurial and re-build ownership and a legacy in the family farm rather than subject it to corporate ownership and control.

“There is a great untapped opportunity in grass-fed dairy. Go after that market,” he encouraged. “This is a strategy for linking farmers with consumers.”

Cooperatives are a great way to do this. Spain has developed a cooperative system where they train entrepreneurs and created a bank to finance start-up businesses.

“Emulate that!” he said.

3. Be mindful of the importance of contributing to the community.

Farms have always had a symbiotic relationship with cities and the organic food movement can rebuild this relationship as people grow more concerned about where their food comes from and who the farmer is that grows it.

In truth, these are quality of life issues, said Hassebrook. Baby Boomers are retiring and choosing places where they want to live instead of where their jobs take them. Likewise, people in their 30s are attracted to rural America as a good place to raise their children.

“If they could make a living in small farms and businesses, they would come to our rural towns,” he said.

4. Protect access to good germ plasma.

Organic farmers can collaborate with conventional farmers on the issues of genetic drift and improving seed varieties. Allowing big corporations like Monsanto to have almost total control of seeds is antithetical to good stewardship.

“It pains me greatly that Monsanto received exclusive license through the University of Nebraska,” said Hessebrook who has urged policymakers to prohibit this practice, especially when public funds go to private companies outside our own states.

5. Reverse the government’s bias toward big corporations at the expense of small and medium-sized family farms.

This practice drives these farms out of business and also drives up land prices. Conservation of these lands is also an important and essential aspect of stewardship.

These issues are about money, which is one source of power in Washington. The other power source is people, said Hassebrook.

“When people give up, money fills the void. When people hold the politicians accountable, they trump the power of money,” he said. “When we send people to Washington to represent us, we need to remind them who sent them there.”

“We can create a new wave of change in America,” said Hassebrook. “Organic farming is a big part of this change, but it won't be automatic. We have to work for it.”

“Let our inspiration be the pioneers who first settled America. Those who succeeded were courageous. They made sacrifices to achieve their dreams. They were builders and entrepreneurs. They cared about their communities, which were comprised of a diversity of people with different languages and customs. They were farmers, carpenters, teachers, politicians and planners. They were visionaries who worked hard to achieve progress. They remained optimistic and were open to new ideas. Our challenge is to go forth and do good.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

City Bans Informal Winter Market

Customers of an “informal Bank Street winter farmers market” will have to look elsewhere for the five vendors who have been selling grass-fed meat and organic produce on Saturday mornings.

Mark Polega, parks manager of the Kalamazoo Department of Parks, who happened to drive by the market on Saturday, noticed some market activity that he said wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I was just driving by and was surprised to see them here when the market is closed,” he said.

He said no one in the city had talked to him about the Saturday market and he was unaware that farm vendors have been doing business there over the past five years.

He told the farmers they could not return next week.

The Bank Street Farmers Market operates May through November.

One of the farmers who has a stall during the summer market, Sandy McNees of Bear-Foot Farm, sells organic eggs and produce. She said that she and her husband, Kim, asked permission from the city last year, got the go-ahead, and assumed that it would be all right again this year.

“This is our only source of income for the winter,” said McNees who sells pork and produce out of the back of their truck.

She said they got the idea to use Bank Street as a meeting point for customers who made regular orders rather than have them go out to their Paw Paw farm. Other people passing by the market noticed activity and indicated their desire for Bear-Foot’s products so the couple stocked extras for them.

Bonnie Bartholomew of Bar-Land Farm in Scotts has been selling grass-fed meat and eggs at Bank Street during the winter for the past five years and no one from the city has approached her before. Like the McNees, she was there for the convenience of her customers.

“I think he should have went to the city, have a meeting and then told us what to do,” said Bartholomew who mentioned that Polega was talking with vendors and their customers for about 45 minutes.

“People are willing to shop [for these products] in 24-degree weather,” said McNees, whose husband set up a ramp so their customers could walk into their truck, which they heat.

“People want our products,” said McNees. “We provide a service [by being here] so that our customers don’t have to run around to find us.”

“We want to make this place better,” said Polega, who said he shops at farmers markets as well as local grocery stores.

“My concern is if this just happens like this, can anyone set up? We need some structure to it. When you run a public facility, you have to be fair,” he said.

The farmers were not as miffed as they were perplexed by Polega’s objection, especially since the entire facility was vacant and they only occupy a small section of the north parking lot. They plan to locate their trucks on the public street across from the Bank Street Market next week.

Customers, however, were livid at the news.

One unidentified woman spoke about the difficulty of finding local, organic products, which she depends on for her health.

Another woman said she depends on the farmers’ products so much, she offered to let the farmers use her driveway to sell their wares.

“You gotta support the local farmers,” said Beth Albee, another customer. “We’ve all got to struggle to save our farms. The local farmer is precious.”

Mayor Bobby Hopewell and Frances Jewell, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, were unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.

The popularity of farmers markets has led many Kalamazoo residents to demand a year-round market so a few venues have become available during the winter months but they are scattered.

Bronson Hospital has been holding a winter market near its food court, on the lower level of the hospital on alternate Fridays, December 11 through April 30 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. It features meats without antibiotics, vegetables grown without insecticides, and pastries made with Michigan products. Officials said they are trying to help local growers who had few warm places to go to sell their wares.

Vandersalms Flower Shop downtown has been hosting Otto’s Chickens for the past couple years every other Saturday. April 3 will be the next market day.

Kalamazoo County Expo Center & Fairground started an indoor farmers market in October, which is open on Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. through April 28 and on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Oct. 31, Dec. 19, March 13 and April 3.)

Some cities see farmers markets and local food as an economic development tool. Grand Rapids announced last week that it plans to build a year-round market building that will house fresh food from local agriculture as well as small artisan food and craft businesses starting in 2012. The project, costing $27 million, is expected to generate 1,200 jobs and $775 million over 10 years, according to Grand Action, the city’s economic development organization.

A similar concept operates in Milwaukee and cost about $11 million to build.

Chris Dilly, general manager of the People’s Food Co-Op, said that he’s heard rumblings about a year-round market in Kalamazoo but he is not a part of any conversation for this prospect. His sales of local and organic produce and meat have been increasing, however. The Co-Op has a presence at the Bank Street Farmers Market during the summer months.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food Fight

The Right Wing is now attacking school gardening programs.

Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor and book reviewer at The Atlantic Monthly, recently targeted famous chef, Alice Waters and Edible Schoolyard (ESY), a school gardening program sponsored by the Chez Panisse Foundation, which she founded.

Waters started ESY in 1995 on a one-acre empty lot near Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA, in order to teach kids where their food comes from. ESY and gardening programs like it have been adopted by many public schools across the country.

In her article, Flanagan objects to garden programs because they take time away from the academic subjects. This causes underprivileged students to do poorly on their standardized tests and thus subjugates them to failed, impoverished lives as adults.

Flanagan criticizes Waters for assuming the role of educator even though Waters and King Middle School Principal Neil Smith collaborated with teachers and community members to put the program together over a two-year period. Their goal was to integrate ESY into the middle school’s curriculum, culture, and food program, according to the ESY website.

Flanagan maintains that gardening programs should be held after school. Then, she chides not Waters but the California Department of Education “for allowing these gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools.” In 2008, she says, 3,849 out of 9,000 California schools used ESY, which she regards as part of the "new Food Hysteria" that is promoted by “an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology.” And, she says, they do this without a single study verifying that garden programs help students pass standardized tests in English and math!

Actually, Flanagan’s concern about the poor is the same kind of disingenuous patter that she also used in her book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (2006), where she trashes the feminist movement and extols the emotional rewards and social value of the traditional housewife. She, herself, works from home, takes her children to school and cooks for her family at night—all with the help of a nanny and a housekeeper.

People like Flanagan are anathema to any discussion of the real issues. School gardening programs directly address the problem of getting children to eat good, nutritious food. This isn’t an easy thing to do and it has resulted in one out of three American children being overweight due to the fat-laden and high fructose food they eat both at home and in school. This diet is provided and promoted courtesy of the Big Ag corporations, which is all spelled out in the film, "Food, Inc."

It is notable that Waters' ESY program is complemented by other gardening programs like Will Allen’s Growing Power Youth Corps. He has been using gardens to provide children with academic experiences, teach them reading and mathematics and develop their entrepreneurial and life skills. So impressive is his success, that Allen was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2008.

Meanwhile, British chef and school food advocate Jamie Oliver has been trying to attack childhood obesity by helping Americans understand that the food they eat is killing them. He notes, for example, that four Americans die from the food they eat every 20 minutes, and that 10 percent of our health care bills ($150 billion) are obesity-related. That amount is expected to double in 10 years unless we do something to change our eating habits.

One of the astounding realities Oliver discovered is that many kids can’t even identify fruits or vegetables in their original form. That is because they are eating so much fast food, processed food, and restaurant food that they don’t know what real food looks like. A gardening program can alter this travesty.

BTW, Oliver will air “Food Revolution” on Friday, March 26 at 9 p.m. (EST) to explain his work in the “most unhealthy town in America:” Huntington, WVA, where half of its citizens are obese.

(Jamie Oliver was recognized for his efforts in teaching kids about food by winning the $100,000 TED Prize. The TED Prize is one of many programs of TED—Ideas Worth Spreading, a small nonprofit organization founded in 1984 that is devoted to bringing together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, Design to converse.)

Gardens were a staple in American homes two generations ago and many people like Waters, Allen and Oliver demonstrate the wisdom in bringing them back. During World War I and II, as well as the Great Depression, American families grew backyard gardens that produced more than half their food. This is a lot of food in a small space. Some people are even raising chickens so they can obtain fresh eggs and meat.

So, Mrs. Flanagan: please don’t stop kids from learning how to garden. Their lives—and their health—depend on it. Isn’t that something precious our public schools can give them?

Monday, March 22, 2010

So What Passes for Food These Days?

You are what you eat, as the saying goes, but if you don't know what you're eating, how can you be all you want to be?

The pervasiveness of genetically-engineered (GE) food in America provides a glimpse of the ethical lapse our corporations and government have come to in allowing such food on the market—without American consumers knowing it.

Worse yet, I’ve found that most people do not know what GE foods are—and that includes grocery store managers.

The masking of GE foods brings us to yet another sad but true example that when it comes to policymaking, it’s all about money and power and the people be damned.

Genetic engineering or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects or animals—including humans. GMO derived foods are pervasive and, due to current laws and regulations, difficult to distinguish between foods that are GMO and those that are not.

Monsanto leads the pack as the nation’s largest producer of GM seeds with total revenues of $11.4 billion and profits of $2 billion (2008). It is the world's leading producer of the herbicide, “Roundup,” and “Roundup Ready,” a line of gene-modified seeds that protect plants against Monsanto-produced herbicides.

Although farmers have enjoyed the initial increases in crop yield from Monsanto seeds, their seed costs have increased disproportionately, in some cases by almost 50 percent
. That's because farmers are prohibited by contract from saving seeds and planting them the following year—an agricultural practice that has 10,000 years behind it. If they do, they face lawsuits because Monsanto has patented the seeds and therefore owns the technology.

St. Louis-based Monsanto was recently touted as Forbes magazine's Company of the Year. It also made Corporate Responsibility Magazine's 2010 list of “100 Best Corporate Citizens,” and Fortune's annual listing of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

What wasn’t mentioned in this award was the fact that Monsanto set forth a plan of dominating the seed market by 100 percent, according to Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You Are Eating (2003).

Monsanto’s corporate strategy was to purchase or acquire hundreds of competing seed companies and to produce GM seeds. Currently, Monsanto has 90 percent of market share on GE seeds. As a result, the company is being investigated by the Department of Justice for violating Federal Anti-Trust laws.

A film has been produced about Monsanto’s devious ways: “The World According to Monsanto”.

However, Monsanto shouldn't be singled out. Other corporations are engaged in food biotechnology with multi-billion dollar revenues (2008) including Syngenta ($11.6 billion), Bayer ($42.23 billion in 2009), BASF ($84.4 billion), Dow ($57.5 billion) and DuPont ($31.8 billion) that with Monsanto control 75 percent of the agrichemical market.

Most of these corporations started out as chemical companies that made explosives during World War I and World War II. They then applied their technologies to peacetime products, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

The U.S. government shares a lot of the blame for the presence of GMOs in the market, said Smith. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed it had no information showing GM foods were substantially different from conventionally grown foods. Therefore, they were considered safe to eat and warranted no safety studies. But internal memos made public by a lawsuit revealed that the agency’s position was staged by political appointees who were under orders from the Bush I administration and later the Clinton administration to promote GMOs. In addition, the FDA official in charge of creating this policy was Michael Taylor, former attorney for Monsanto, who later became its vice president. Monsanto is among six multinational corporations that manufacture GM seeds.

FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems, said Smith. FDA scientists urged long-term safety studies but were ignored. Today, the same multinational and biotechnology companies that have been found guilty of hiding information about the toxic effects of their chemical products are essentially in charge of determining whether GM foods and products are safe!

Such shenanigans give science a black eye and didn’t sit well with reputable science journals like Scientific American. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised,” said the editors in their August 2009 issue. “That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.”

Apparently, the same political influence and money that got the biotech corporations past the FDA have also prevented any GMO labeling laws from being implemented. President Obama had indicated support for labeling laws during his 2008 campaign, however, many of his top appointees for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are known backers of GMO-producing corporations. He has received much criticism from non-GMO activists as a result.

U.S. government statistics from 2007 show that the vast majority of the country’s commodity ingredients come from GMO crops: 91 percent of soy, 87 percent of cotton and 73 percent of corn. It is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80 percent of packaged food products found in U.S. or Canadian supermarkets.

“The coming year promises to bring about a greater, more pervasive awareness of those numbers as opponents of GMOs bring a unified campaign—complete with a non-GMO standard—to the public,” notes Robert Vosburgh, editor of Supermarket News.

Over the past 70 years the American agriculture system has focused primarily on productivity, not quality of product or the adverse effects farming methods have on soil, the plants and animals raised, other species, and even health. GMOs are a product of “industrial agriculture” where farmers try to gain the greatest productivity and provide the cheapest food possible without the laborious practices of manuring soils, planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting crops. Instead, they rely on machines and chemicals to do the work for them.

This system changed the pre-World War II system of managing small, multi-crop farms to create large farms that grow high-value monoculture crops like corn, wheat, and soy, which became products for world trade as well as for fast food, animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol. Industrialization was eventually applied to animals that supply consumers with meat and dairy products through concentrated-animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) or factory farms.

This switch to large-scale industrial food operations really kicked into gear when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (1971-74) revolutionized federal agricultural policy and reengineered many New Deal-era farm support programs that sought to protect farmers from the big agribusiness companies overseeing a hyper-efficient, centralized food system capable of “feeding the world” by manipulating (or “adding value to”) corn and soy production. Butz’s mantra of “get big or get out” forced tens of thousands of small family farms to close in the 1980s after grain prices plummeted from overproduction and debt—the consequences of buying more land, bigger and more expensive machines, new seed varieties, more fertilizers and pesticides, according to Tom Philpott. Our current Farm Bills are structured to continue Butz’s policy.

“Industrial agriculture” is also run by a handful of food megacorporations like Archer-Daniels-Midland, ConAgra, Cargill, and Continental. Their TV advertisements are clean and slick and make you love America, mother, home, and apple pie. But the truth is that these corporations are controlling nearly all of our food supply. That seems to me to be a problem of food justice when a small group of people control so much of our country’s—and their world’s—food.

So as you wheel your cart around the grocery store, remember that the food you see probably isn’t the food you think it is—and that the corporations providing it are making a lot of money off you!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seventh Anniversary of the Iraq War: Help Comes to the Garden of Eden

A few months after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the war would be “a long, hard slog.” Truth is, the victory that Americans expect, will be a longer and harder slog than Rumsfeld could ever imagine.

What policymakers forgot—or maybe never considered in planning the war—was the devastating aftermath that civilians must bear like the lack of the basic necessities of life including food, water, medicine; schooling for their children; families destroyed by death, illness, discord and homelessness; daily life severely disrupted; the land ravaged and polluted.

Iraq has not known peace for 25 years. It has endured a 10-year war with Iran, the Gulf War, sanctions, Saddam, and the seven-year American occupation. Iraqi citizens have been left with extreme poverty, 4 million refugees (half of them under 18), hundreds of thousands of dead, millions more wounded, a corrupt government that doesn't work—and tiny brown flakes of depleted uranium (DU) that float in the air, a topic of daily conversation among the women who recognize that DU has caused birth defects and miscarriages.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the cancer rate in Iraq has increased by ten and birth defects by five. The increase is believed to be caused by depleted uranium used by American and British troops, who continue to use it today.

In the province of Basra alone, the cancer rate rose by 242 percent while leukemia among children under 15 rose 100 percent during 1976 to 1999, according to a study at the College of Medicine at Basra University. Children living in the area were falling ill with cancer at the rate of 10.1 per 100,000. In districts where the use of DU had been the most concentrated, the rate rose to 13.2 per 100,000.

Most diseases, like diarrhea, are preventable with clean water but women must walk long distances to get it.

Enter Haider Al Saedy, an Iraqi immigrant from a small village near Basra in southeastern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers converge and empty into the Persian Gulf. He left his country in 1991 because of Saddam's brutal policies and lived for five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before he settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he eventually became a U.S. citizen.

In 2006, Haider returned to his hometown for the first time. What he saw was a complete breakdown of the city's infrastructure where there was little electricity or clean water. The streets were full of garbage and raw sewage seeped into the water supply. Dirt settled at the bottom of water bottles. The privatized water treatment facilities there were staffed by unqualified and untrained employees who are only there to make money.

He visited his nephew, Dr. Dhurgam, a medical doctor, who also told him that the hospitals lacked supplies like gauze, blood bags and urine sacks. They re-used syringes and had no antibiotics. But what doctors needed most were cancer medicines.

Haider also visited the nearby marshes, whose annual floods had created a resource-rich ecosystem and a 6,000-year-old civilization in the area known as the Fertile Crescent—presumed home of the Garden of Eden. However, instead of finding a thriving agricultural paradise, he discovered that thousands of people had died and lost their living after Saddam partially drained the marshes from 9,000 square kilometers down to 760 as payback against the Shiite Muslims who had opposed him.

They escaped to the marshes for safety, but their refuge was short-lived. In 1991, Saddam rained down more bombs and 30,000 Shiites fled the marshes and went to Iran to join 650,000 other Iraqi refugees. Thousands of others died. Then Saddam took out his anger on the 250,000 Marsh Arabs who lived there and attacked them with bombs, napalm and indiscriminate slaughter. The 65,000 who couldn't flee were sent to camps away from their homes.

The people in the marshes lack many of their basic needs, said Haider, and 32 percent have little access to clean water, which mostly breeds water-born diseases. They have no money, schools or power sources where they live so they must transport themselves by boat to other villages. Their whole way of life as a traditional water culture has been shattered.

Since the American invasion, 40 percent of the marshes were re-flooded but drought is shrinking them once again and the water remains very salty. The rest of the area is now a salt-encrusted desert.

"Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct," said a 2003 United National Environment Programme (UNEP) study. "Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline." Global biodiversity has also been ruined stretching from Siberia to South Africa because the marshes served as a way station and breeding ground for migratory birds.

To make matters worse, Haider's brother, a hydro-engineer, said that Syria, Iran and Turkey have constructed dams on the rivers bordering Iraq. In this way they trade their water for Iraq's oil.

Along the desert roads are trashed landscapes with scattered “villages” of refugees living in tents. Many of people have escaped from the ravaged cities of the north. They cook their meals over charcoal fires.

Haider felt a profound emotional heartbreak over these sights and stories.

When he returned to the United States, he was determined to do something for his former country. He gathered a few peace activist friends—Kathy Murphy, Maia Storm and Helen Salan—to figure out what to do. Together they formed Iraqi Health Now.

In December 2006, they sent a cardboard box full of syringes and gauze by U.S. mail. It took two months to get there.

Then they began to think bigger and enlisted more help from local peace activists. In March 2008, they sent a 20-foot container to Basra with over 100 walkers, 50 sets of crutches, 15 wheelchairs, dried food, toys, soccer balls, toiletries and over-the-counter medicines.

Iraqi Health Now also became a project of Healing the Children Michigan/Ohio.

Then again in May 2009, they sent a 40-foot container full of medical equipment and supplies, clothes, food, and 120 Hydraid bio sand water purifiers from Clean Water for the World, a Kalamazoo-based organization that sends simple, adaptable 35-pound water purification systems“to communities without access to clean drinking water.”

Surgical kits were donated by Borgess Medical Center through Sister Elizabeth Veenhuis, CSJ, patient representative for the Catholic hospital.

Dr. Richard Hodgman, M.D., arranged for a supply of medicines. (The long-time social justice activist had founded the local chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility in the 1980s.)

Iraqi Health Now also held fundraisers that attracted nearly 200 people for a delicious Middle Eastern dinner supplied by a local restaurant.

For the past three years, Iraqi Health Now has sent over 3500 pounds of medicines and medical supplies to Iraq. And all of the donations go directly to the Iraqi people living in villages and the marshes near Basra. There are no overhead costs or paid employees and it is a total voluntary operation.

The strength of Iraqi Health Now is in the personal contacts Haider has through his family and friends in Iraq. In this way supplies get to the people who need them. This is especially critical now since many NGOs and charitable organizations have left Iraq due to the lack of safety in the country.

During his visits back to Iraq, Haider soon learned that what the people most want from the American people is to care about them and to know and understand their suffering. So Bill Murphy accompanied and videotaped Haider on his trip last May and secretly took 15 hours footage lest it or his camera be confiscated by authorities. The film was edited down to 30 minutes by a Kalamazoo College videography student and local filmmaker, Matt Clysdale.

The highly emotional film also shows the Iraqis' big smiles and expressions of gratitude as the supplies are distributed. One mother of a severely deformed boy cries over her son's good fortune of getting a wheel chair. An old man lovingly pats his new crutches.

Haider and Murphy were in Iraq for three weeks. They made many new friends and discovered that what they had ultimately done was to bring together two communities half a world apart with aid, hope and smiles.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Health is the Tipping Point to Identify and Eliminate GMOs

This article appeared in Common Dreams, Energy Bulletin and Civil Eats

Are Americans willing to jeopardize their health with GMO foods?

Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You Are Eating (2003), is convinced that they are not, so he started the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, which calls for the elimination of GMO foods altogether.

He spoke recently at the annual Michigan Organic Farm and Food Association conference held at Michigan State University and provided participants with resources and inspiration for joining the movement to eliminate genetically-engineered (GM) foods.

Smith figures that it will take only 15 million Americans or 5 percent of the population, to pressure food companies not to use GMO ingredients or products and thus establish a tipping point for change.

Potential target audiences receptive to his message include food co-ops, health-conscious shoppers, schools, parents of young children, medical practitioners, green groups, chefs, food service executives. Meanwhile, physicians are already telling their patients to avoid GMOs and religious organizations are looking into the ethical and spiritual aspects of food production, he said.

"When people see what is going on, they realize that it's bad," said Smith. "We want to take that energy and turn it into effective action instead of feeling like victims. We want people to say to themselves: ‘I determine what food I eat.'"

Genetic engineering or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism. GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects or animals-including humans. GMO-derived foods are pervasive and, due to current laws and regulations, difficult to distinguish between foods that are GMO and those that are not.

Twenty-two European countries have solved that problem by demanding that their governments require labels to identify all GMO foods. Then consumers had the option to choose whether to buy what they called "frankenfoods" or not. However, the pressure was so strong against GMO foods that American companies took them off the market and reverted back to selling their original, non-GMO products.

Smith said that 53 percent of Americans would do the same if given the choice, but GMO foods are not labeled in the United States except in Minnesota, California, Vermont and Maine and a few cities.

One significant problem with GM seeds is that through the GE process mutations are generated throughout a plant's DNA, such as deleting or permanently shutting on or off natural genes, changing the complex interactive behavior of hundreds of genes or changing or rearranging either natural or inserted genes that may create unique proteins that can trigger allergies or promote disease,

In his second book, Genetic Roulette (2007), Smith presents irrefutable evidence of 65 health dangers linked to GMOs including allergens, carcinogens, new diseases, antibiotic resistant diseases and nutritional problems.

For example, soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 percent, said Smith. In March 2001, the Center for Disease Control reported that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the United States compared to estimates just seven years earlier. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans began eating GM food.

"Without follow-up tests, which neither the industry or government is doing," said Smith, "we can't be absolutely sure if genetic engineering was the cause."

Children with young, fast-developing bodies face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods for the same reasons that they face the greatest risk from other hazards like pesticides and radiation: they are susceptible to allergies and have problems with milk, nutrition and antibiotic resistant diseases.

Smith pointed out that in the past when consumers found a product to be a health risk-as with bovine growth hormones in milk by 2009 (a product of Monsanto) and Alar in apples in 1989 (a product of Uniroyal Chemical Company, Inc., now integrated into the Chemtura Corporation)-they voted with their wallets. Likewise, in India when there was talk of concocting GMO eggplant, a staple in that country, 100,000 people put on a fasting demonstration and 8,000 others showed up at a government hearing and stopped it.

There are other efforts afoot to fight GMOs.

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit collaboration of manufacturers, retailers, processors, distributors, farmers, seed companies and consumers who believe that everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified products. The group's common mission is to ensure the sustained availability of non-GMO choices so it lists participating food companies and state-by-state retailers. It also has created an independent verification system that offers transparency and a consistency of standards consumers can trust. Its core requirements are traceability, segregation, and testing at critical control points.

The Center for Food Safety has published the pocket-sized Non-GMO Shopping Guide that lists products and companies that produce GMO and non-GMO foods-as well as the "hidden GM ingredients" that are found in many processed foods.

Smith's website also provides a summary of the crops, foods and food ingredients that have been genetically modified as of July 2007.

"We actually have the power to eliminate GMOs ourselves instead of waiting for government or for labels," said Smith. "We must move through our networks and let others know that GMOs are unhealthy. That what will allow us to make change."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Faith-Based War: From 9/11 to Catastrophic Success in Iraq

Faith-Based War: From 9/11 to Catastrophic Success in Iraq
by T. Walter Herbert
Oakville, CT: The David Brown Book Company
189 pages
$26.95 (paperback)

Despite all the experts, technology and intelligence available to the Bush Administration, the war in Iraq, now going into its seventh year, was undertaken with “ardent devotion to a misplaced faith,” says author T. Walter Herbert, professor emeritus of American literature and culture at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. This faith was derived from a faith-filled narrative with roots in our Puritan heritage,

The Puritans saw themselves as God’s “chosen people” given “the Promised Land” in America. The only thing stopping them from settling it were the “savages” who sought to kill them. The “frontier hero” emerged to “rescue” them from their plight.

This hero re-emerged in the nineteenth century Wild West as the “Indian fighter” who saved the lives of hapless pioneers. Later, “white-hatted good guys” like Wyatt Earp also took on mythic proportions by bringing “black-hatted outlaws” to justice.

During the 1970s, the “frontier hero” becomes Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the blunt, cynical, unorthodox detective who overcomes his incompetent bosses to apprehend the violent urban criminals.

President Bush’s resolve “to get” the people responsible for 9/11 also harkened to the “frontier hero,” a role he played with moral certitude despite the poorly planned invasion and occupation, says Herbert. The president “knew” we could win in Iraq because we were “doing the right thing.” Besides, as a “chosen people” America doesn’t lose wars.

Meanwhile, Bush’s “phobic anger” about being right checked any advisers who expressed doubt in the mission. General Tommy Franks found that out before the war began when he questioned the number of troops needed.

“[E]xpressing unshakable faith…was the mark of a team player” in the Bush leadership ethic, says Herbert. Likewise, any administration officials bearing bad news were silenced into “drinking the Kool Aid” of “religious delusion.”

By emphasizing his role as the “war president” and looking “tough” in the face of pressure and opposition, Bush attempted to allay any doubt that America was doing the right thing. Besides, Herbert wryly suggests, expressing doubt may have led to “moral awareness,” something that couldn’t be risked, especially when boots were on the ground.

The decision to go to war also involved its chief advocate, the Christian Right, says Herbert, with its “militarist religious vision” seeking to avenge non-believing evildoers by executing God’s “righteous wrath.” The Muslim terrorists proved to be a good target on all counts.

While Herbert lays most of the blame for the war on President Bush, he criticizes the American people as well. Americans, he says, have learned to perceive war as an irresistible good not only because it has become the “center of value for the society” but because military power in the second half of the twentieth century is seen as “the truest measure of national greatness.”

The most intriguing part of the book is Herbert’s explanation of the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib prison. This haunting symbol of the Iraq War stirred most Americans’ shock and shame to learn that we, who usually think of ourselves as the “good guys,” had not only used torture but justified its use.

One of President Bush’s first comments after 9/11 was the question: “Why do they hate us?” It played well with the American people because it evoked our feelings of innocent victimhood. However, going to war against Iraq moved us, just like it did the Puritans, to a peculiar level of culpability because we tried to defeat the forces of evil by violating human law in the name of establishing God’s law.

After reading this acerbic account of the decision to go to war with Iraq, readers might wonder what will become of the “frontier myth” in the dangerous world of the twenty-first century. And Herbert might answer: distinguishing between reality and religious faith would be a good start.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Got Data and Regs!

This article appeared in the Z Magazine and Energy Bulletin.

Going organic is proving to be a good investment for small and medium-sized farmers—and they are receiving some government protection against Big Agriculture as well.

In a first-time statistical analysis of sales, production, profits, and management, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) recently reported that the nation’s organic farms and ranches have a higher average sales than U.S. farms overall even though average production expenses were higher.

“This was USDA's first wide-scale survey of organic producers, and it was undertaken in direct response to the growing interest among consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and others,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “The information being released today [February 16] will be an important building block for future program and policy development.”

Jim Riddle, outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota, announced the good news at the 21st Annual Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference, held in La Crosse, Wisc., which attracted 2,700 organic farmers, retailers, university researchers, educators and supporters from all over the United States, as well as Armenia, Thailand, Austria, Canada, South Korea and Germany.

The NASS data was derived from the results of its 2008 Organic Production Survey that included more than 25,000 responses out of 29,000 surveys mailed in order to gain information on organic agriculture in the United States. About 12,600 of these responses were from active organic farms. This extensive survey of organic agriculture was performed in response to lack of information about organic farms and the organic marketplace. The 331-page document provides state-by-state information and is available at

Highlights of the survey show that the total organic sales in 2008 from 14,540 farms and ranches were $3.16 billion, including $1.94 billion in crop sales and $1.22 billion in sales of livestock, poultry and their products. California led the nation in organic sales with $1.15 billion or 36 percent of all U.S. sales.

Most U.S. organic producers sold their products locally, with 44 percent of sales taking place less than 100 miles from the farm. Nearly 83 percent of organic sales were sold to wholesale channels, including processors, millers and packers. Just over 10 percent of sales were direct to retail operations, including supermarkets. Only 7 percent of sales were direct to consumers via farm stands, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture and other arrangements.

“The distinction between local and organic food is merging,” said Riddle. “You want both in the food system over time.”

Riddle also said that the USDA Organic Pasture Rules for organic livestock were recently clarified by incorporating quantifiable measurements for tracking the pasturing and living conditions of ruminant animals.

For example, 30 percent of the dry matter intake of ruminant animals is to be provided from grazing (this is when an animal breaks off forage from a living plant whose roots are still attached to the soil, green chop transported to the animals is not pasture) or from forage that has been cut and is still laying in the pasture as “residual forage.”

The minimum time of the grazing season in a calendar year is 120 days and can be broken up into more than one time period and need not be continuous.

There are also some specific documentation requirements to ensure that these requirements can be verified by the inspector and certification agency.

Most organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers already graze their animals and maintain pastures that meet the requirements of this rule.

“Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is not generally regarded as an organic agriculture supporter. “The final rule published today (February 12, 2010) will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products.”

“This is very exciting news,” said Riddle, who was 20 years a farmer, 20 years an inspector and former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). “It levels the playing field for organic livestock producers and meets consumers’ demands.”

Pasture management has been a long battle and the many different activist groups sometimes speeded up and slowed down legislation at the same time, said Faye Jones, executive director of MOSES. This sent mixed messages to the USDA, which as a government agency is typically slow in changing policy.

“I never had any doubt it was going to come,” said Jones, “even though 30 years ago I never dreamed that we'd be where we've come in my lifetime.”

Finally, Riddle announced that the National Organic Action Plan (NOAP) established organic as “the foundation for food and agriculture in the United States” after a five-year dialogue with organic stakeholders across the country.

NOAP recommends the adoption of an expanded organic policy agenda to unite people across the country in their efforts to enhance access to organic food for people of all income levels; safeguard the environment and conserve biodiversity; ensure a fair marketplace for small, medium-sized and family farms; and move society towards more socially just and humane food and agriculture production systems, according to the National Organic Coalition (NOC), which organized the dialogue for NOAP.

NOC is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a “Washington voice” for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and progressive industry members involved in organic agriculture. The Coalition also believes that organic agricultural policy must encourage continuous quality improvements, sound stewardship and humane practices.

Clearly, the organic movement is here to stay—and grow—even though it now represents less than one percent of the nation’s total food production.