I saw a post over at OpenLeft by Natasha Chart (one of my favorites there) that I want to highlight, because I think that piece, and one I read in the New Yorker (a profile of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey), are important for understanding the different potential routes the green economy might take. Because this revolutionary economic shift can either correct or codify the problems of the old system, it’s essential that we identify what we think are that system’s features and flaws. This discussion will focus on the urban and organic agriculture subcommunities of the larger environmental movement. Proceed below the flip:
Category Archives: Food Policy
For a number of reasons, I’m trying to get more knowledgable about local politics. First of all it’s pragmatic, you can get more done and have a stronger, more identifiable impact. Second of all it’s responsible, it’s important to take interest in the community where you live, especially if you’re trying to (tentatively) put down roots like me.
But election ballot initiatives always scared me, because I didn’t know how to find out decent information. Luckily, I found this page at the Ohio Secretary of State’s (Jennifer Brunner) website. While it’s really basic, at least I now know what the initiatives are, and some sample arguments and counter-arguments. The Ohio Democratic Party is apparently endorsing Yes on 1 and 2, no on 3. I think I’m probably going to go Yes on 1 (money for vets, which I’m guessing will actually be spent at the local level by real families like a stimulus is supposed to do), no on 3 (casinos are considered to be pretty poor job creators by most people who don’t own casinos), and not sure yet on 2 (which would create a Livestock Care Standards Board).
Right now I’m leaning No, judging by Ohio ACT No on 2′s list of supporters, which includes an environmental justice group, Wood County Citizens Opposed to Factory Farms, which I encountered at OHEJ’s Toledo Environmental Justice Town Hall. They seemed pretty legit (and are definitely more grassroots- no offense- than the Sierra Club, no disrespect), and I feel comfortable trusting that they, and the numerous other local food/enviros/organic advocates that are going No on 2, represent my values.
But anyway, I thought the above page at Brunner’s website could be helpful to those who don’t have a clue (like me five minutes ago) about the issues on the ballot this year. Yay taking five minutes for civic awareness!
In the previous post we saw the introduction to the Toledo environmental justice townhall, with some background on Ohio’s unfortunate environmental past and something of a more hopeful future embedded in prospects for an environmental justice bill. Now we move into the most substantial section of the meeting: the citizens’ accounts of specific current environmental justice struggles from around Northwest Ohio.
After the introductions we got into the meeting’s meat, the citizen testimonials, a time for testifying. Again, I’d like to emphasize the churchy vibe of the whole event, with citizens testifying and Morris Jenkins even referencing his own church history (I think his father was a preacher.) This is clearly a foundation and source of strength for much of the environmental justice community, as it was to the civil rights and justice community of the 50′s and 60′s. The moral authority and clarity of the group was on full display, and was wielded (in my opinion) much more effectively than it has been in typical liberal activist circles. God wasn’t referenced particularly often; it was almost unstated that just as the church might be the base for a community, so too is the struggle for security, health, and justice. It was extremely subtle, much more so I think than it was back in the civil rights era, but undeniably present and powerful.
Most of the testimony came from prepared remarks by activists and state legislators of various stripes, but there was also time at the end in which the floor was opened up to anyone who had something to say. The first presentation was on industrial livestock operations, especially a Union County egg operation containing 3.3 million chickens within a three-mile area. According to the speakers, industrial livestock operations only ‘work’ because they externalize costs (in terms of the enormous masses of unused and toxic manure) to local rural communities that suffer from water poisoning and soil degradation, the government subsidies that support the operations, and the lax enforcement of environmental regulations by government agencies. These arguments are widely known, especially by Oberlin students, but it was definitely new to me to hear them being made by people who lived in close proximity to a livestock operation, people who couldn’t get the smell out of their house and who couldn’t drink their own water (agriculture, especially livestock production being the largest source of Ohioan water pollution). The speakers also pointed out that industrial farms are relatively unhindered by typical health codes and laws- they operate without building codes and zoning concerns for health and quality of life issues. Transparency and the lax enforcement of Ohio EPA regulations was a major theme that would be revisited time and time again throughout the testimonials. For more information, check out the group Wood County Citizens Opposed to Factory Farms.
The next presentation was on industrial issues in East Toledo. The area is afflicted by a local oil refinery, with issues of stench, basic quality of life, and frequent sickness attributed to the refinery. In addition to its current burdens, there is a proposed coal coke plant which would further degrade Lake Erie water and local living conditions. This in a neighborhood, Harbor View, in which the average annual family income is $13,000. That is absurd on its own, let alone without factoring in the tremendous health costs the coke plant must bring with it, imposing huge burdens on an already afflicted community.
Unfortunately, the speaker from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who was supposed to tell us about farm worker exposure issues didn’t show up. While there were some latino members of the audience, I would really have liked to hear from Mr. Espinoza, as I’m not well informed regarding farm worker and immigrant EJ issues.
The next series of speakers discussed lead poisoning and cancer clusters, with lack of awareness and adequate information definitely a key concern. Lucas County (where the city of Toledo is located) is second in the state of Ohio for lead poisoning rates (after good old Cuyahoga), and there were a number of health professionals and building inspectors who talked about the laws and effects of lead poisoning. One of the most disturbing correlations was one found between levels of lead exposure and juvenile ‘delinquent’ behavior. Lead poisoning has many well known affects, typically lowering concentration and cognitive development as well as immune system strength, but there have recently been studies done that show a direct connection between lead poisoning, disruptive behavior in school, and juvenile incarceration and run-ins with the law. To make that clearer, lead poisoning, which is concentrated in poor, black, and latino communities, is strongly correlated with incarceration rates, school dropout rates, and the continuing cycle of underdevelopment of communities of color. This was one of the strongest indicators for me of the major connections between environmental health and quality, the cycles of poverty and the criminal justice system, and education- definitely connections that environmental justice is comfortable making, and the climate movement (and even ‘mainstream environmentalism’, if it hopes to be broadly relevant) must get used to as well. The EJ bill will hopefully include in it much stronger lead standards and regulations, which will hopefully, in tandem with other initiatives, facilitate the establishment of pathways out of poverty.
The cancer cluster presentations were simply horrifying. We heard from a couple parents out of Clyde in Sandusky County, one of whom had two children both with severe but theoretically treatable, cancer. These children were half-siblings, making it less likely that the cause is genetic. There are over 20 cancer-afflicted children in the area, an extremely large number considering that these children live in a town of only six thousand people. I couldn’t believe the strength of these parents bringing their stories to the EJ townhall, and was made aware of how critical not only criminal justice, but public health is to environmental justice (and will be to the climate movement in a larger sense.) The parents were clear that they did not have conclusive proof as to who was responsible for the cancer cluster- there are numerous potential point sources of pollution in the area, but studies have yet to be done identifying what in particular might be causing the increased incidence. On the other hand, they can’t yet say that anyone isn’t responsible, and stressed the need for quicker, more urgent study. They suggested that faster implementation of regulation and study, and checking up on communities be a part of the EJ bill, so that other communities won’t have to wait over a year (as did Clyde) to get some attention. Hopefully the EJ bill, when passed, will ensure that other communities receive a much more rapid response so that such clusters can be avoided.
The next speaker, one of Dr. Jenkins’ students, gave a short presentation on my favorite topic in the world, green jobs. He made the case for green jobs being essential not only in seeking justice and equity, but providing solutions to the EJ movement’s concerns, emphasizing how green jobs can bring a transformation of how we work, live, eat, and get around. Green jobs in renewable energy reduce the need for polluting and health-devastating coal plants, and can also facilitate the cleaning of water supplies, agricultural land, and blighted urban spaces. He cited that Toledo was once the glass-making capital of the US, and noted that Toledo’s industries are now making the transition from glass to solar PV (see more on Toledo as Ohio’s solar valley here- the speaker claimed it has already saved or created 10,000 jobs) manufacturing, definitely a heartening prospect for the region. Hopefully their example can be taken even farther throughout the state, facilitating leadership in wind turbine, plug-in/hybrid car, and public transportation manufacturing and repair. He also talked about brownfield cleanup and ecological restoration, both vital fields that are definitely among the least outsource-able of the green jobs and will contribute to greater environmental health and room for in-fill urban development, preventing sprawl and thus helping encourage infrastructure less intended for cars and more intended for people. It was definitely exciting hearing about this from a local person my own age, seeing how far the green jobs message has come and how meaningful it is to my generation.
Teresa Mills then spoke again on the Ohio EPA’s inability to function as a true protector of environmental health and quality. I didn’t manage to take down notes for all of what she said, but much of it was related to stuff we’d already heard: the lack of regulation of industrial livestock production, the minimal oversight and cozy relationship between the Ohio EPA, utilities, and manufacturers, and the Ohio EPA’s disturbing history of keeping information out of the public eye. In one whistle-blower’s account, Ohio EPA officials went so far as to avoid taking notes on a series of meetings with developers with the explicit purpose of making sure such meetings could not constitute the publicly available record. To re-state more boldly, the Ohio EPA held meetings that it knew were damaging to their image and credibility as a regulatory agency, so damaging as to necessitate avoiding leaving a significant paper trail. She ended her speech by urging us all to hold the state executive branch responsible, as the Ohio EPA is an arm of the governor’s will and vision for the state.
Finally, there was a representative of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I wish I remembered what local union) to talk about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and its relationship to environmental justice. He talked about how a lot of the environmental problems of the state can be related back to the narrow-minded bottom line, big business’ tendency to try and gain easy, simple profit regardless of external costs to communities. He also laid out the case that the labor movement has always been engaged in the aims of environmental justice, to ensure the health and welfare of local communities. Environmental justice needs to keep big business in check, and organized labor has historically been at the very front lines of that struggle, the first line of defense against pollution and damage to the community. More than that, labor represents the community, the workers, and the protection of living and family-supporting wage that is fundamental to the green jobs movement. He then laid out some basic information about EFCA, how it strengthens unions and workers that want to form unions, thus giving organized labor more tools to contest damaging big business practices, to stand up against pollution. For more information, see Citizen Obie’s EFCA Center page. Overall I thought he made a compelling case for stronger labor leading to stronger support for environmental justice within business. There are many groups like Green For All, the Apollo Alliance, and the Blue Green Alliance that are already working at creating these kinds of coalitions, and they will definitely prove to be extremely necessary as we climate activists and environmental justice activists work to broaden and strengthen our base.
Thus ended the citizen testimonials. There were a number of unscheduled testimonials that were great to hear, but I didn’t take adequate notes (being somewhat sleepy) and can’t put down a good record of them here. We heard from a number of legislators and some citizens that largely echoed the statements already made, but it was great hearing other voices making a contribution.
After this we would have stuck around for the student organizing session afterward, but it took a bit too long to really get stuff started and we had to go. We did at least put our names and contact information down on the sign-up sheet, and I’m confident that we’ll stay in touch with Dr. Jenkins and Mary Clare (of Ohioans for Health, Environment, and Justice- OHEJ, one of the organizers of the townhall) in the future. Overall it was a great experience, and I’ll try posting a succinct summary of my reflections tomorrow.
Next Up: Final Reflections, And What You Can Do!
University Of Toledo Environmental Justice Townhall Meeting, First Impressions And Introductions (Part 1)
What’s good yall? Yesterday I went to an environmental justice townhall meeting at the University of Toledo, and it was such a great experience I thought I’d share it with you. This first part of my account will deal with the opening of the townhall and some of my first impressions. The next post will deal with what was to me one of the most exciting parts of the townhall: the citizen testimonials.
Before the meeting itself began there was an open reception that was very reminiscent to me of post-service coffee hours at my old Episcopalian church, if coffee hour had an array of posters with maps of egg-production factory farms, statistics on lead poisoning throughout Toledo and wider Ohio, and lists of public schools affected by nearby point sources of pollution (primarily steel manufacturers, incinerators, coal plants, and water treatment plants). The atmosphere was extremely friendly, despite the topic. While some people were clearly visitors there was also a lot of familiarity, history, and community among a number of the people. Some were definitely connected through the University, but others seemed to come from nearby towns and rural communities, making up something of a Northwest Ohio environmental justice network. After meandering around for a bit picking up literature I went into the meeting itself.
One of the first things I noticed about the group was its age diversity. The group was racially diverse, as I was kind of expecting of an EJ crowd, but it was interesting to me how many undergrads, graduate students, middle aged, and elderly people there were. While I tend to associate environmentalism with a student and aging hippie crowd, the EJ townhall was a very different group. Parents, municipal representatives, government agency workers, and professors joined the good number of students my age and older. I found this really heartening. Sometimes it seems like especially with the climate movement it can often be dominated by younger voices (who are much more unanimously in favor of strong action than other age groups), but this townhall was very representative of a different kind of community- one occupied by families and elders as well as the young revolutionaries and hell-raisers.
The discussion started off with Morris Jenkins, a professor of criminal justice at the University, laying out the schedule of how the meeting was going to go. First off he introduced the backing panel (which mostly just asked participants some clarifying questions during their testimonials) and the townhall’s sponsors. Again, not unexpected for an EJ event, but the list included a diverse array of interest groups: chapters of the NAACP, the University of Toledo Departments of Criminal Justice and Women’s and Gender Studies, and a variety of public health groups, in addition to some more explicitly ‘environmental’ groups (though I struggle to call a group devoted to water quality and safety environmental). Then came some introductory remarks on Ohio’s history with environmental disasters, delivered by Teresa Mills, and a summary of the Ohio EJ bill, described by Ron Davis (the Ohio EJ bill will soon be receiving its own page at the top of the Citizen Obie site).
Mills’ presentation began with the burning of the Cuyahoga river but also brought up another series of environmental disasters in Ohioan history, and I’m sorry to say that there have been quite a lot of them, many of them unresolved to this day. While California is often associated with air pollution, I learned that Ohio is actually one of the most air pollution heavy states in the country, with among the highest concentration of coal plants as well. Also important is the fact that high-sulfur coal (which is more polluting and damaging to respiratory health) makes up 90% of Ohio power generation. Coal abuses aren’t confined to plants however. Meigs County, which is currently struggling to avoid the construction of a fifth coal plant, has had a number of instances in which coal mines were ‘cleaned’ via flooding, which brought toxins and other mining waste into the water table and the local soil. Finally, in order to demonstrate how the Ohio EPA has failed tor regulate poor behavior, Mills described one industrial plant that had had over 150 fires or explosions, not one of which was investigated by the Ohio EPA.
After this, Ron Davis described the process by which the Ohio EJ bill had come about. There was a 2007 EJ forum, I forget where, after which the participants all began the work of going around to various communities and organizations (in environment, justice, health, and many other sectors) to take suggestions and input as to the contents of the to-be-proposed EJ bill. Just as the townhall consisted especially of taking testimony, the EJ bill stands (as do the 17 EJ principles) as a representation of the diverse perspectives, voices, and needs of a wide variety of communities and co-existing groups and interests. The bill is still gathering legislative support and I’ll detail later, and on the page dedicated to the bill, how Oberlin can help push for strong legalization and implementation of EJ principles in Ohio.
The beginning of the townhall left me with a very good feeling. There were aspects of it that reminded me of the best parts of my time at Power Shift; a tangible diversity of background and perspective coupled with a friendliness, inclusivity, and complete absence of pretention that was refreshing in the extreme. The next stage would prove to be even more provocative and inspiring.
Next Up: Testimonials!
What’s good yall?
Found a good article in the New York Times Technology section (go figure.) It was a profile of this website, Find The Farmer, that lets people track where their Stone-Buhr flour came from with resources to get in contact with farmers, see a profile of their source farmers, and in general keep tabs on the work of the people who provide for them. While this website is voluntary (and something of a promotion,) I’m curious about the ability of this kind of format to mitigate some of the externalization and divorce of consumers from the larger food system.
If we’re being realistic, the food system is not going to change to one based on ultra-localism, farmer’s markets, and personal connections over night, as much as we’d all (or many of us anyway) would like. It’s arguably not entirely feasible anyway; there’s no way of getting around the fact that some regions are better at producing products than others, and even in terms of meeting people’s basic needs a degree of globalism is necessary to supply the world with enough grain (though obviously peak oil and climate change will drastically alter our ability to maintain a global food system in the long run). With some degree of detachment from our food somewhat inevitable, how do we promote consumer identification with their food? And given the anxiety surrounding the food system as a source of disease and insecurity, how do we promote democratic oversight of this behemoth?
The website above, if widely adopted, could provide people with a valuable service in a number of ways. It could allow people to feel connected to their food’s production, albeit electronically. It could allow them to keep tabs on production methods and feel involved in their food’s production. And if it was implemented by a third party it could even serve to allow democratic blog-like citizen regulation of the food system. There are obviously privacy issues when this is considered on small family farms, but I think a greater degree of transparency is undeniably necessary with the larger industrial outfits. My mom saw some PETA videos of the cruelty of an industrial meat operation the other day and was horrified, it was very different from just knowing what goes on hypothetically. Similarly, I think if people could see industrial farming, could see the surrounding environment, could see the conditions under which unappreciated migrant workers live and work, people would make very different demands of the food system. How this would be implemented I honestly have no idea, I think broad-based transparency would be the greatest threat imaginable to the industrial food system and I imagine they’d fight it tooth and nail. With that perspective, I wonder what we can do as citizens to support widespread adoption.
Peace yall, and happy birthday to my sister Ruth.
What up yall?
There’s been a lot of food stuff lately, much of it related to Monsanto, biotech, and in general issues of food sovereignty. As most people are more familiar with the term food security, let me take a brief moment, if you don’t check out the links just provided to explain my understanding of the difference.
Food security refers to the basic availability and accessibility of food to an individual or a population, and the quality of whether said individual or population has enough food on a regular basis to sustain itself. An example: to many, particularly poor Indians, Latin Americans, East Asians, and to the big agribusiness conglomerates, the green revolution (a combination of increased use of chemical additives, irrigation, and genetically modified strains of grain) was a massive success from the standpoint of food security. It allowed millions (some would say billions) to avoid hunger and starvation on a tremendous scale. On the other hand, it has arguably also promoted widespread environmental degradation of water, soil, and ecosystems, and has allowed corporate interests to consolidate control of the food supply such that local players have lost control of their economies, cultures, and most importantly, food. This is where food sovereignty comes in.
Food sovereignty, an alternate term coined by La Via Campesina, an international alliance of small-hold farmers and peasants (and in my opinion, all-around badasses), refers not only to the availability and access to food, but to a variety of other issues that are inextricably linked and tied up to that access, including political self-determination, environmental health, and trade law. Using the example above, the green revolution has been problematic in that the yields gained cannot be maintained sustainably (because of soil salinization due to irrigation, erosion due to poor soil conservation, and the imminent limits to the availability of fossil fuels upon which industrial agriculture depends) and in that many local communities are now stuck in relationships of dependency with large multinational biotech and agribusiness companies, which limits their self-determination and the effectiveness of the democratic process. Food sovereignty, to me, is a more comprehensive, full-systems term that better addresses the interconnectedness of material, political, and cultural welfare as it is tied to food.
In light of those definitions (which are of course my own opinion and contestable) I start this post proper with an article by Andy Revkin over at Dot Earth. In it he quotes extensively from an American researcher working at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a combination seed bank and research facility into genetic modification of crops and livestock. Dr. Fedoroff believes that genetic modification will become increasingly necessary as climate change makes agriculture in many parts of the world untenable. In all honesty, I am not sure where I stand on this because it is a complex issue, but I think there is a definite point to be made that we are going to have to seriously consider how we intend to feed 8 billion people (if we’re extremely lucky) on a planet in which a great deal of arable land is lost to desertification, sea level rise, drought, natural disaster, and all-around climate change (which has a huge effect on yields and the size of the growing season.)
The next thing I’d like to bring to your attention was sent my way by Jessi, and we should be talking about it at the meeting tonight. The issue is summed up in this op-ed piece, and the conclusions reached are disturbing. I wish I had the time to look into this further (stupid homework…) but the author, Linn Cohen-Cole, indicates that some of the legislation in the works (in all likelihood crafted in large part by Monsanto) will seriously strip away local autonomy from family and organic farmers by criminalizing many essential practices (seed banking and use of manure) and mandating many that may be destructive (increased use of antibiotics on feedlot animals, genetically modified crops, and increased pesticide regimens.) Finally, Cohen-Cole makes the point that Food Democracy Now!, a group I have linked to numerous times on this blog, has really dropped the ball on mobilizing around this legislation, having been, in her opinion, duped by Vilsack. That is beyond my ability to judge, but it is a worrying thought. Check out the above op-ed if you have the time, and go here if you want to contact some relevant policy-makers or news outlets.
Finally, heading over to Food Democracy Now!, they indicate that Michael Tylor, a former executive at Monsanto, and Dr. Michael Osterholm, a proponent of irradiation and the continuance of centralized food production and processing, are likely going to find key positions in the Obama Department of Agriculture. Again, I wish I had the time to delve deeper on this issue, but all over the place it looks like there are problematic developments going on at the DOA. If you’d like to email Secretary Vilsack with your concerns, he can be reached at AgSec@usda.gov. Local congresspeople and senators are also good people to call, as always.
That’s all for now, I gotta get started researching for my paper on Attini cephalotes (leaf-cutter ants, so baller) due Tuesday. Peace yall, and hope to see you at the meeting tonight where we can go into more detail about this stuff. Hopefully later I or someone else will get the chance to post on the action we decide to take and give some options for how you can get involved if we don’t see you there.