Posted on October 7, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
How bankers are defining the future of the world’s food.
The Midwest is no longer the cradle of American agribusiness—Manhattan’s financial district is. And while Wall Street suits may not look like farmers, they now own vast quantities of virtual crops and livestock. Under their control, the global food system has begun to collapse.
Since the bursting of the dot com bubble in 2000 and the housing crisis in 2008, powerful institutional investors have increasingly directed their cash towards commodity index funds. These financial products track the investment value of bundled futures contracts for commodities like wheat, cattle, oil, and base metals. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission set the stage for a speculative binge in 1999 when they de-regulated futures markets, allowing investors who had nothing to do with agricultural production to purchase as many commodity futures as they liked.
And buy they did. According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, holdings in commodity futures mushroomed from 13 to 317 billion dollars between 2003 and 2008. In those same five years the average price of the commodities that compose the index rose by 183 percent.
Many Americans have been insulated from the rising costs, because they spend only 8 to 12 percent of their weekly paycheck on food—compared to the 2 billion people throughout the world who spend more than 50 percent of their income on food. For them, the price hikes have been devastating. The World Bank reports that rising food prices have driven more than 44 million people below the poverty line. More than a billion people—an unprecedented figure—are now food insecure. But the effects of commodity speculation have rippled quietly throughout the United States, too, where the percentage of food-insecure households rose from 11 to 14.5 percent between 2003 and 2011.
The easy explanation for the world food crisis is exploding demand and dwindling supply. Factors that undoubtedly contribute to the squeeze include the conversion of farmland for biofuel production instead of food; the rise in the consumption of meat and processed foods in developing countries; and crop failure due to the changing weather patterns associated with climate change, all combined with a rapidly expanding global population.
But ballooning prices and volatile markets reflect more than market fundamentals, say researchers, UN officials, and even some Wall Street investors. While supply and demand factors may have kindled the global food crisis, it has been stoked by excessive speculation.
Traditionally, speculation in agricultural markets provided a buffer for farmers and millers in an inherently volatile industry. The idea was that a “futures” market would help to stabilize prices and protect farmers by establishing an agreement on price between producers and buyers before the product was even grown. Usually the futures price was lower than the “spot” or current price of the product. If spot prices had dropped by the time the futures contract matured, farmers benefited, because they received the previously-determined, higher price for their product. Increases in spot prices favored the buyer. Until the early 1990s, most of the players in the futures market were directly involved in agriculture, either as farmers, processors, or food corporations.
That all changed when banks entered the business. In 1991, Goldman Sachs developed a derivative that bundled futures contracts for twenty-four commodities into a single expression of investment value that came to be known as the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI). With the change in regulations in 1999, GSCI’s pioneering model took off. Between 2003 and 2005, according to figures from the Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation increased by 1,900 percent. More than a third of Goldman Sach’s net earnings now come from commodities markets, while dozens of other banks offer investors a smorgasbord of commodity index funds.
The problem with the commodity futures market is that it distorts the traditional economic model in which prices are shaped by supply and demand. Instead, momentum drives the investment: commodity futures speculators almost always go “long,” meaning they bet that prices will increase. In order to keep herds of cattle from actually being delivered to their new owners on Wall Street, investors roll maturing futures contracts into another bundle, or sell their contracts and invest in new futures, continually feeding the cycle. Unlike consumers, index speculators increase their demand as prices rise. Then, “demand shock” drives up prices yet again.
Investors claim that because they are dealing only in futures and not with the spot market, they have little impact on real market prices. In fact, according to the FAO 98 percent of all futures contracts never result in a real transaction of goods.
Even so, the evidence suggests that by betting on the future, Wall Street is defining the present. A 2010 study by Manuel Hernandez and Maximo Torero for the International Food Policy Research Institute considered price data for corn, wheat, and soybeans, and the dynamic relationship between spot and futures markets. They found that, in general, real market prices do rise to meet commodity futures prices.
The human tragedies that followed the 2008 financial crisis should have shattered the myth that finance occurs on a separate plane from everyday lives. Turning the world’s food into money is filling a few pockets, and emptying millions of stomachs. The speculative bubble has made food inordinately expensive, and people are hungry because they simply can’t afford it.
Representative Barney Frank and the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee Chris Dodd have proposed financial reform legislation (known as the Dodd-Frank Act) with a section that would require the CTFC to limit the positions held in futures contracts. The CFTC failed to reach an agreement on the limits by last week’s deadline, and the rules have been delayed again. According to Edward Miller in Global Research, leaks from the CTCF indicate that the limits they are weighing focus on oil, not food, and are riddled with loopholes. The Anti-Speculation Act, proposed by Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Peter Welch in late September, takes a stronger position, but given the massive support that both parties receive from the financial industry, Congress is unlikely to move forward on the legislation, particularly while the CFTC continues to stall. And as Frederick Kaufman writes in Foreign Policy, even if regulations were established in the U.S., food derivative markets have expanded globally to the extent that they are “beyond the reach of sovereign power.”
Even if financial regulation couldn’t fully reign in the runaway speculative train, it’s important to acknowledge the defining role commodities futures play in our food system, and for regulatory bodies to distinguish between financial and commodity derivatives. A handful of reporters like Kaufman, Horand Knaup, Michaela Schiessl and Anne Seith for Der Spiegel, and Tom Philpott for Mother Jones, have recently illuminated the costs of the newest investment bubble. But without greater attention, I wonder if we’ll be blindsided, just as we were in 2008, when it bursts.
Meanwhile a billion people are hungry worldwide. Now in its third week, the Occupy Wall Street demonstration has brought thousands of marchers representing labor unions and other organizations, along with ordinary citizens, to Manhattan’s financial district to join the populist protest. Solidarity demonstrations are underway across the United States. Regardless of what you think about the movement, it’s clear that corporate influence in politics effects our food system in many ways. Perhaps the movement is, at its heart, a struggle for our daily bread.
Posted on September 19, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
What is hydraulic fracturing, and what is it doing to our water supply?
“You’re sitting up on the surface and drilling at the sea floor a mile away. And you’re doing it all with little robots, and the guy with a joystick is making it happen,” he explained. “The industry’s technological capability in doing what it did is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s just like going to the moon. It’s that sophisticated.”
We encountered the limits of sophistication when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010. The blowout reminded the country, albeit fleetingly, of how dangerous our addiction to fossil fuels is, whether we pump oil into our cars or spill it in the ocean. The vastness of the BP disaster clarified the cost of using deepwater drilling to get cheap fuel, but that practice is not the only form of energy adventurism that threatens our health and security.
Imagine that you reach for the faucet one morning—but instead of clean water a brown stream spews out, heavy with the smell of chemicals. You light a match and hold it up to the water, and a fireball erupts, engulfing the sink. Sound implausible? So did the notion that a blown-out deepwater well could gush for months, foiling our best attempts to cap it.
Widespread cases of water contamination have been reported in regards to hydraulic fracturing (also referred to as ‘hydrofracking,’ or simply ‘fracking’), a process used to release methane gas from hard shale rocks thousands of miles below the earth’s surface. Across the country, families are contending that their water has been irreparably damaged from natural gas drilling.
The hunt for domestic sources of alternative energy awoke a slumbering natural gas industry, which increased production globally by 40 percent between 1999 and 2010. Utility companies are attracted to natural gas because of new emissions regulations that make coal expensive, and safety concerns that cloud the future of nuclear power. Hard times in agricultural communities have made the idea of leasing land to energy companies increasingly attractive to landowners. Many communities have placed their bet on the hope that drilling can bring jobs and investment back to rural areas.
There’s lots of natural gas beneath US soil, but until recently much of it was trapped in shale rock formations thousands of miles beneath the surface. Now, technical advances have unlocked many of the reserves, kicking off the nation-wide hydrofracking boom.
The process involves drilling a horizontal well at a depth of up to 8,000 feet, and pumping in water, sand, and toxic chemicals. The pressure creates fissures in the shale, a sedimentary rock containing high concentrations of organic material including natural gas, which is released into the tiny cracks and pumped to the surface.
Hydrofracking uses over 500 chemicals, between 80 and 300 tons per frack. The drilling process produces millions of gallons of polluted wastewater, which can contain corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium. Those compounds occur naturally belowground and so can be released along with natural gas by the high pressure.
Industry officials insist that fracking occurs thousands of miles below drinking-water aquifers, and that the distance is too great for contamination. Some of the controversy is simply about a subtle difference between fracking and drilling. Natural gas drilling practices have been clearly linked to numerous cases of water contamination that have resulted in fines and penalties for shale drilling companies; however, as the New York Times reports the industry position that “fracking” refers specifically to the injection of chemicals into the shale forms the foundation for claims that fracking, specifically, has never been proven to contaminate groundwater.
Semantic squabbles aside, the fact is that polluted water and other health concerns increasingly appear in shale drilling hotspots throughout the country. Foul-smelling and discolored water, respiratory and skin infections, and explosive gas build-ups originating in waterlines are just part of the toll natural gas drilling has taken on nearby communities.
An investigation by ProPublica revealed that environmental health cases related to emissions and waste from hydrologic fracking go back a decade in Wyoming and Colorado, where drilling has long been underway. Cases are emerging now in Pennsylania, where the fracking craze exploded when energy companies began targeting the Marcellus Shale formation in 2008.
Neither the federal government nor states have a system for tracking reports about water contamination. Nor have they pursued a full investigation into the human health risks of natural gas drilling.
Federal oversight is hogtied by an exemption known as the Halliburton Loophole, which was built into President Bush’s 2005 energy bill. The loophole excuses natural gas drilling from the Safe Water Act and from disclosing chemicals used during fracking. That means that it’s up to states to police the practice.
Establishing effective regulation is complicated by the fact that very little comprehensive research has been done. Officials often struggle to investigate suspected cases of groundwater contamination, because energy companies legally seal the details of complaints through legal settlements with landowners.
It all sounds too familiar. I spent several weeks reporting on the aftermath of the BP disaster in Louisiana communities, and I saw how much the rush into deep water had crippled the coastal economy. Rural America needs diversified investment, true support for small and mid-size farmers, better healthcare and education opportunities, and a comprehensive energy policy—not explosive tap water and corporate control. Hydraulic fracturing is not a solution for our economic and energy problems. It’s a symptom of them.
The EPA is currently weighing public comments on hydraulic fracturing. If fracking is truly as safe as energy companies claim, research and regulation by the EPA won’t get in the way of production. But it’s crazy to resign ourselves to fumbling about in the dark, 8,000 miles below the surface, putting our health and our land at risk. Sign now to tell the EPA: conduct a thorough review of fracking and hold corporations accountable for polluting our water. It’s a resource too precious to barter in exchange for short-term solutions.
Photo: Flickr/PJ Ray
Posted on September 14, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
It’s high season for tomatoes, that luscious fruit that the French once called pommes d’amour—apples of love. Here in Oregon, vines in street-side gardens bend low beneath the weight of the red and yellow orbs. Fantastically shaped heirloom varieties overflow their boxes in the grocery stores and farmers markets.
In a few short months this seasonal bounty will be replaced by stacks of red tomatoes, uniform in their size, shape, and firmness. Most of them will have been grown in Florida.
From October to June, nearly all of the fresh tomatoes available in America’s grocery stores come from the Sunshine State, which produces a third of the country’s total tomato harvest. That’s a billion pounds of succulent fruit every year.
But Florida tomatoes are neither delicious nor healthful, writes Barry Estabrook in his new book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The tomatoes that Estabrook encounters during his undressing of Florida’s industrial tomato industry are flavorless, rock-hard, and lacking in the nutrients once concentrated in the fruit. That’s because tomatoes have been bred to be durable and uniform—so that they can be shipped thousands of miles in the winter and still catch the consumer’s eye—but not necessarily to taste good.
The taste and texture of the insipid Florida tomato are but the smallest of its evils. The true focus of Tomatoland is the human and environmental cost of the system that satisfies our off-season cravings for fresh produce—the tons of chemicals dumped, the workers poisoned, beaten, and enslaved. Estabrook’s expose shines a harsh light on the many injustices inherent in Florida’s tomato industry, but it raises just as many questions about our food system as a whole. Estabrook isn’t just out to bemoan the ruin of his favorite sandwich-stuffer. He’s protesting the decline of American agriculture as it sinks beneath the weight of market pressure. It’s not just Floridians. We’re all living in Tomatoland.
Estabrook swiftly outlines the journey of the tomato from its birthplace in Peru to domestication in Latin America and Europe, to genetics laboratories in California, and finally to Florida, where a businessman exporting tomatoes to New York in the early twentieth century established an enduring model for commercial success: the tomatoes he shipped were green, cheap, and produced in the off-season.
As it happens, Florida is a terrible place for growing tomatoes. The state’s sandy soil holds few nutrients, and so demands intensive fertilization. The heat, humidity, and infrequent frosts nurture hordes of destructive pathogens and pests that growers control with toxic pesticides and fungicides. Each year, Florida tomato farmers spray eight times the amount of chemicals on their produce as do growers with similar crop sizes in California, the second leading tomato producer.
Estabrook offers chilling accounts of the consequences of such chemical-intensive farming techniques. He tells the story of three mothers who worked in tomato fields belonging to Ag-Mart, whose babies, born within seven weeks of one another, were either deformed or died soon after birth. Estabrook goes on to share a riveting report of the legal hearings that ultimately established that Francisca Herrera’s preventable contact with pesticides was responsible for her son Carlitos’ disability; he was born with no arms or legs.
Perhaps the most important question raised in Tomatoland is about the vulnerability of the people who harvest our food, particularly undocumented immigrants. Workers like Herrera who are injured—accidentally or intentionally—on the job are often reluctant to seek legal protection because of their undocumented status (as was the case for Herrera). Poverty, as well as language and literacy barriers make it easier for employers to exploit a migrant work force. Work in Florida’s tomato fields often amounts to very real, modern slavery, with workers locked up at night, and beaten for refusing to work or for trying to run away.
The stories of abuse are emotional, but Estabrook honors his role as a journalist by including the voices of the big men in the tomato business. Estabrook challenges the excuses given by the industry for its shameful practices, but Tomatoland doesn’t argue that the root of the problem lies with exploitative tomato farmers. It’s the system that demands the cheapest product, with no mechanism of accounting for the hidden costs. It’s an appalling lack of enforcement of already-weak agricultural labor laws. It’s industry cartels, like the Florida Tomato Committee, that manipulate the market for self-interest.
Tomatoland does document positive signs of change. He writes at length about the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fought to improve labor conditions and ultimately established a “fair food agreement” that gave workers rights to and extra penny per pound picked. He tells the stories of several farmers, activists, and researchers who are finding more sustainable and just ways of growing and buying tomatoes.
The one thing Estabrook doesn’t do is suggest a fix for America’s broke-down industrial agricultural model. If his assertion that the 1 cent a pound raise for tomato pickers amounts to 20 to 30 dollars more per day falls a bit flat, perhaps it’s because there really is no satisfying fix to a system that never worked to begin with.
Posted on September 9, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
Why the Farm Bill matters
A tall stack of paper will determine what you and your family eat for the next five years.
It’s a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill, and it’s up for reauthorization in 2012. The bill helps the government set the agenda for our food system, by allocating billions of dollars to back up agricultural policy and nutrition assistance. We believe it could use some rethinking.
Currently, many families don’t have access to affordable, healthy food; small-scale farmers can’t compete with big agribusiness; and our land is being diminished by pollution and erosion. Thanks to deregulation and consolidation, a small but powerful group of companies controls the prices that farmers receive for their products, leaving small and midsized farms vulnerable to market fluctuations. Meanwhile, supermarket mergers have left just five firms collecting more than half the retail profit, so that the cost of groceries stays high for consumers even while farmers settle for low prices.
The 2012 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to fix a broken food system. Activists, entrepreneurs, and consumers are making strides locally, but we need policy at the federal level that supports small and midsize farms, protects public and environmental health, and upholds the right of low-income families to healthy food.
The bottom line? If you eat and pay taxes, this bill matters.
What is the Farm Bill?
The Farm Bill is a hefty piece of legislation that determines how our tax dollars are put to use in the food system. Initiated during the New Deal, the legislation was originally intended to stabilize commodity prices. Now the bill generally keeps the price of certain commodities artificially low.
Overall, the bill dictates which programs and producers get government funding, and how much; it influences how our food is grown, processed, and distributed; and ultimately the bill determines what kinds of foods are affordable and available locally.
Congress reauthorizes the farm bill every four to five years. The 2008 version is up for renewal in 2012, in the context of growing public interest in food and agriculture, economic instability that particularly affects food access for poor families and the prospects for small producers, and political leadership bent on cutting social and environmental programs in the interest of corporate greed.
What does the Farm Bill really do?
The greatest percentage of the funding allocated in the Farm Bill goes to nutrition programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, is the country’s largest food assistance program. Nutrition assistance is a particularly important issue in the 2012 bill thanks to the recession. Enrollment in the program has grown dramatically since 2008. SNAP serves 43 million Americans, half of them children.
The next largest slice of the budget goes towards farm subsidies. Subsidies largely support corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and cotton production in the Midwest. Because subsidies drive down the cost of a few dominant crops, those products have been increasingly used by food companies, for energy, and in livestock feed—to the detriment of marketplace diversity, regional networks, and consumer health.
The farm bill also allocates funding for conservation. The legislation supports some of the United States’ largest and most effective conservation programs. The programs pay farmers to take fragile land out of production, encourage erosion control, and protect the water supply by increasing wetland and riparian buffer habitat.
Finally, a tiny fraction of the funding supports a variety of other projects, including rural development and investment in organics.
Who is involved?
In the House, the Agriculture Committee will be led for the first time by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), known as a supporter of commodity producers. The Ranking Member is Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Sixteen of twenty-six Republican members of the committee are new to Congress, as are several Democrats from non-traditional and urban districts.
The new chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who has shown her support for specialty crops. Pat Roberts (R-KS) assumes the role of Ranking Member.
While the powerful agricultural industry lobbies hard in Congress to influence the redrafting process, representatives aren’t used to hearing from all the other Americans who have a stake in the legislation. That means that your input matters. Stay tuned for information about taking action in support of fair, healthy, and sustainable food systems.
What would you like to see in the 2012 Farm Bill? Leave your ideas and questions in the comment section.
Posted on August 24, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
Reviving Cultured Foods
It all started with a pickle.
It was a sour New York pickle, to be precise, and what started was Sandor Katz’s obsession with fermented foods.
“It’s a flavor I’ve always been drawn to,” said Katz, a self-described “fermentation revivalist” and the author of the books Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. While most of the pickles that are available in grocery stores today are preserved in vinegar, the pickles of Katz’s childhood were fermented in brine, lending them the tangy flavor associated with fermented foods.
If the mere suggestion of fermentation, not to mention its taste, makes you queasy, consider this: you probably ate a fermented food for breakfast. Bread, cheese, yogurt, and coffee are just a few of the staples for which we have fermentation to thank. According to Katz, as much as one-third of food eaten worldwide is subjected to some kind of enriching microbiotic transformation.
“I’ve tried, and have not found, a tradition or culture that doesn’t include fermentation,” said Katz. “People might not have thought about fermentation, but no one is unfamiliar with fermented foods.”
Getting more familiar doesn’t only provide fodder for cocktail party conversation. It’s also a way of improving intestinal health and supporting alternative food systems, and of reclaiming a process that lies at the heart of many culinary traditions.
We’re trained to think of microbes as the enemy—evasive killers that must be boiled, steamed, fried, or otherwise driven out of the kitchen. “One of the triumphs of microbiology in the twentieth century was identifying pathogenic organisms,” Katz told me. “But now in the popular imagination, bacteria equal disease.”
Much more than disease, bacteria are essential to human existence. They are the most basic building blocks of life, and our bodies teem with them. More than a thousand species live in our stomach, intestines, mouths, and skin, but only fifty of those are known to be harmful. As Katz put it, “All life exists in a bacterial context.”
So do all cultures. Katz noted that the word culture is itself related to fermented or “cultured” foods. Farming—the cultivation of seed—and preserving the harvest through fermentation are at the core of modern ways of life. “Humans could never have made the transition to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle without insight into fermentation as a form of food storage,” said Katz. Since the microbial transformation of food is inevitable—often as rot—humans had to find a way to deal with it. And what ways they found. Culinary achievements like wine, cheese, miso, chocolate, and kimchi are all part of the legacy.
But the bacteria so fundamental to our biological and cultural existence are under constant assault thanks to an industrial food system that emphasizes processed foods, and the pervasive use of antibiotics, chlorine, preservatives, and antibacterial cleansing products. Several studies suggest that our immune and digestive systems pay the price for the latter. While a sterile environment is essential for open-heart surgery, depriving our immune systems of opportunities to develop antibodies makes us weaker over a lifetime.
Accordingly, Katz told me, it’s become important to replenish and diversify the bacteria in our gut. The easiest and most delicious way to do so is by consuming live fermented foods. Live cultures (unlike cooked fermented foods like bread, or pasteurized commercial products) contain beneficial Lactobacillus acidophilus, which produces lactic acid, a natural preservative, and a tender texture and complex flavor.
For those looking for a way into the healthy and delicious world of fermentation, Katz recommends brining any favorite vegetable. Sauerkraut was Katz’s “gateway ferment.” He made his first batch after he’d moved to rural Tennessee and planted a garden, to solve the practical problem of having too much fresh cabbage. Many years later Katz still bears the nickname ‘Sandorkraut.’
His “totally straightforward” instructions are to “chop up some veggies, salt them lightly to taste, squeeze or pound them and then stuff them into jar or crock so they’re submerged under liquid. Let them sit for two weeks, or months, or years.” Other easy ferments include mead (honey wine), yogurt and kefir, and sour-tonic beverages. “It really depends on what you like to eat,” said Katz. “You can ferment anything.”
When I asked Katz about the safety of home fermentation, he replied that fermented vegetables are really the safest kind. “There is a pervasive fear in our culture in aging food outside the refrigerator,” he said. “But according to USDA’s microbiologist, there has never been a case of food poisoning in the U.S. related to fermented vegetables. If you were to take vegetables that had been contaminated by factory farm uphill, and fermented them, the lactic bacteria would rapidly overpower pathogenic bacteria.”
The strength of fermented food doesn’t just lie in its biological capacities. “Fermentation challenges the notion that food is just another commodity that can be produced in far-away places,” said Katz. Part of bucking the corporate system and re-localizing food is also reclaiming the processes that are essential to preserving fresh produce and enjoying its complexities.
“Empowered” is the word Katz used repeatedly , and I understood him to mean it on physiological and personal terms. And isn’t that really what it means to be fed, or nourished? We should receive nothing less from our food.
Here a few tips to get you started:
- Make sure your vegetables are submerged in liquid—this prevents mold growth and is the difference between rotten vegetables and fermented ones. Usually the liquid is salty water (brine), but you can use plain water, wine or whey too.
- Play with chopping your vegetables or leaving them whole. If shredded, simply salting the vegetables will typically pull enough juice out via osmosis, so adding water isn’t necessary. Whole vegetables require brine.
- Traditionally, vegetables were fermented with lots of salt to preserve them for longer periods of time. However, less salt can be better for flavor and nutrition. Salt lightly, to taste—there’s no magic proportion. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of vegetables.
- Use a heavy cylindrical ceramic crock, if you can. Glass containers also work well, but avoid plastic and metal, as they can leach chemicals or be corroded by the fermentation. Pack your vegetables at the bottom and submerge them with a weighted plate or jug.
- If mold develops on the surface of the liquid, scrape it off as best you can; it will not hurt the vegetables underneath.
- Taste your ferments early and often to find out what you prefer. Longer fermentation and warm temperatures mean tangier flavor.
- Nearly any vegetable can be fermented—be bold! Seaweeds and fruits can be fantastic, and spices play a big role in giving kimchi and sauerkraut their distinctive flavors.
For more detailed information and recipes, check out Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation website and his books.
Photos from Flickr: little blue hen
Posted on August 17, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
A sting operation targeting a small food club raises questions about food safety, consumer freedom, and the influence of the corporate food system.
On August 3, armed federal and county agents raided Rawesome Foods, a food club in Venice, CA. They seized computers and cash, loaded a flatbed truck with watermelons and coconuts, and poured out gallons of fresh milk. They arrested James Stewart, Rawesome’s owner, on criminal conspiracy charges. His alleged crime? The production and sale of unpasteurized goat milk, goat cheese, yogurt and kefir.
Stewart was later charged on 13 counts, 12 of them related to the sale of “raw” or unpasteurized milk. Healthy Family Farms owner Sharon Palmer and her employee Victoria Bloch were also arrested on related charges.
The raid was the culmination of a year-long sting operation targeting the club, which began twelve years ago as a collective of raw-milk drinkers who sourced unpasteurized milk from local dairies. While the sale of raw milk is legal in California, retailers are legally required to buy from state-certified dairies. Organic Pastures, which produces milk from Holstein cattle, is the only certified raw-milk dairy in California. Rawesome’s members had been buying uncertified cow, goat, sheep and camel milk from various producers. They did so as a private club of consenting adults, freely choosing raw milk from local sources.
That same day, while prosecutors attempted to set Stewart’s bail at $121,000, food industry giant Cargill issued a voluntary recall of more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey. The meat was contaminated with a strain of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and had caused at least one death and 76 illnesses. It took Cargill, which sells turkey under multiple brand names and is a major supplier to public school meal programs, more than four months after illnesses surfaced to issue the recall.
Rawesome’s members have been declared criminals, but no one affiliated with Cargill has been charged with a crime. In fact, the USDA can only recommend “voluntary recalls” in cases related to pathogen-contaminated products, leaving companies like Cargill to self-police.
While the austerity-obsessed government struggles to find room in the budget for food safety oversight of massive multinational corporations, American tax dollars are funding multi-agency sting operations directed against neighborhood food co-ops, anti-raw milk ads and press releases, and lawsuits against small-scale farmers.
As the FDA maintains, unpasteurized milk presents a potential health threat because it can carry bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. But according to the FDA’s own statistics, sickness related to raw milk only accounts for about 0.00008% of food borne illnesses.
And there’s plenty of other data suggesting that the regulatory crackdown on raw milk is a waste of time and money. According to the CDC, approximately 800 people have become sick from raw milk since 1998. That’s an average of 62 people per year, compared with the 76,000,000 Americans who become ill, the 325,000 who are hospitalized, and the 5,000 who die annually from federally inspected/accepted ‘safe’ foods. Milk, pasteurized or unpasteurized, isn’t even on the list of the ten riskiest foods regulated by the FDA. The number one risk? Leafy greens.
If our regulatory agencies were solely concerned with the potential for food to cause disease, closer scrutiny would be placed on the opaque network of industrial producers that are responsible for deadlier and more frequent outbreaks of foodborne illness. For example, a recent technical review by the USDA acknowledged the connections between antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the prophylactic use of antibiotics on animal farms. But as Tom Philpott reported last week in Mother Jones, the report disappeared from the USDA website after complaints from the meat industry. Regulatory agencies have continually shied away from limiting antibiotic usage in industrial feedlots in spite of a vast body of scientific evidence pointing to the serious health threats related to that practice, like the resistant strain of Salmonella in Cargill’s turkey meat.
So the raw milk debate isn’t really about public health. It’s about the right to choose local, non-corporate foods. Rawesome members signed a form acknowledging the possibility of microbe contamination in the food they received, and records in the Rawesome office would have helped members trace contamination back to the source if illness had ever occurred. In comparison, consumers who eat federally accepted foods have much less information about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it’s produced.
The real health problems caused by the American food system have little to do with raw milk. Sign now to tell the FDA: we have the right to choose what goes into our bodies.
Posted on August 10, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
Thirty-four million tons of food. That’s how much rots in landfills each year in the U.S. Meanwhile, 14.7 percent of households were food insecure last year, and one in six Americans relies on food stamps to get by. Why is such an astounding amount of food wasted when there are millions who need it?
“A lot of it has to do with poor distribution,” says Emily Kanter, the Development and Communications Coordinator for Urban Gleaners, a non-profit in Portland, OR. “It baffles me that people go hungry in America.”
Though Portland has been lauded as an epicurean mecca for local and seasonal produce, the truth is that Oregon ranks among the five hungriest states in the nation. To combat this, Urban Gleaners is trying to restore some balance to a food system that leaves some Americans bloated, and others starving. With the help of forty volunteers and a part-time driver, Urban Gleaners collects more than 45,000 pounds of food each month from high-end restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city. The food, which would otherwise be thrown away, is sorted and then distributed to local agencies that feed the hungry.
“It’s a pretty astounding amount of food to waste,” says Kanter. “I picked up around 400 pounds of zucchini and squash last week from a farmers market. We also pick up hundreds of pounds of bread and bananas– we never seem to run out of either bread or bananas.”
It was an excess of bread that prompted the organization’s expansion last year to include a Food To Schools program. Founder Tracy Oseran was trying to figure out what to do with a surplus of whole-grain loaves when she learned that hunger was a serious issue for students in some of Portland’s elementary schools. Food to Schools now delivers nutritious foods to six elementary schools in Portland’s David Douglas district, where 75 to 90 percent of children live below the poverty line, and many rely on subsidized school meals—which, Kanter notes, are constructed on nutritional guidelines that consider Corn Nuts a vegetable. Kate Barker, the principal of Cherry Park Elementary School, says that so far “Urban Gleaners has provided for hundreds of families. Some of these children come from homes where there is nothing in the cupboard.”
A primary goal for Urban Gleaners is to bring as much fresh produce as possible to food insecure households. Kanter says that the lack of support for specialized crops combined with massive subsidies for corn products makes it nearly impossible for low-income families to access fresh foods, particularly vegetables. The double burden of food insecurity and obesity is one outcome of that imbalance. Kanter thinks that healthy foods could be more accessible if there were a better system in place for redistributing unused food, and if food stamps were worth more when used to purchase produce.
Urban Gleaners acknowledges that redistribution does not directly alleviate the socioeconomic inequalities that create barriers to adequate nutrition. But, she says, “there are families that are starving right now, and food that can be made available to them. Ideally, there wouldn’t be any wasted food, but while there is we should do something about it. We want to draw attention to how much gets wasted.”
Local food insecurity is also part of larger compounding systems of poverty and unemployment. “It’s hard to look for work when you’re hungry. It’s hard to focus in school when you’re hungry,” says Kanter. So while working with lawmakers like Senator Ron Wyden to encourage long-term systemic change, Urban Gleaners focuses on making an immediate local impact. The organization also tries to provide opportunities within the community of recipients, for example by hiring a former resident of a participating shelter as a driver.
By creating a network of donors, volunteers, and receiving partners, Urban Gleaners works to promote resourcefulness and cooperation in the city. Kanter says that the most important part of signing up new donors is taking the time to build relationships and establish common ground. Accordingly, Urban Gleaners has typically has more success working with small, independent restaurants and grocers rather than large chains, simply because it’s more difficult to coordinate with a bureaucratic network.
The benefit of a model like Urban Gleaners, says Kanter, “is that it’s not impossible to do anywhere, if you take the time to make the connections.” Older food rescue organizations like New York’s City Harvest and Boston’s Food For Free have developed extensive networks, and there are signs that greater attention to distribution issues may be the next step for local food movements.
Although Kanter thinks that metropolitan areas are ideal contexts for forming establishing networks, she sees potential for rural communities to form effective partnerships with farmers and smaller producers of specialty crops. She notes that Oseran started Urban Gleaners with her two teenagers, one restaurant, and one agency; ”If you have a car and some bags or bins, you can do what we do.”