Articles in Politics

Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Pyale Paşa Bostan, a market garden in Istanbul.

The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.

“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.

Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.

As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.

“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)

A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.

Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects

Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.

“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.

In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”

Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.

“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.

Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.

“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”

Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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One

The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

I seldom feel sorry for the leaders of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, where multimillion dollar compensation packages, corporate jets and unending expense accounts are the norm. But I’m starting to pity these poor souls. Why? Because their job — indeed their whole purpose — directly conflicts with the effectiveness of antibiotic medicines essential for all humanity. To be frank, I sometimes wonder how they can sleep at night.

Surely they must wake every day knowing their actions are basically destroying antibiotics for future generations, leading to the rise of untreatable diseases that will affect millions of lives. After all, this is the consensus among government agencies, public health organizations and scientists across the globe. It’s been the focus of major medical reports that have generated headlines.

The boards of the world’s pharmaceutical giants must also recognize that the only solution is to collaborate with their competitors, public health organizations and governments across the world to end the inappropriate use of antibiotics in human health care and also food animal production, which is the biggest area of abuse by far. Yet this presents them with a huge ethical dilemma: As officers of publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, how can they reconcile protecting the efficacy of these vital drugs with their corporate responsibility to boost market share and profitability?

All this got me thinking: Antibiotics are now “societal” drugs. Let me explain. If I misuse or abuse a medication prescribed by my doctor for blood pressure, that only hurts me. However, if I don’t take my full course of antibiotics as instructed, or if Big Ag’s boardrooms insist that all their contracted farmers use antibiotics in ways that lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that affects everyone.

If antibiotics are societal drugs, and, so, critical to the future of humanity, shouldn’t they be managed for the benefit of society as a whole? Sadly, the production, distribution and sale of these drugs has been left almost entirely to corporations and a free market based on volume, dominance and last quarter’s sales.

Antibiotics for people are almost always prescribed to treat actual illness. Preventative use is generally limited to things such as post-surgical care. We wouldn’t expect to fortify our food or water with antibiotics to prevent illnesses caused by unsanitary living conditions or eating an unhealthy diet. Instead, our first thought would be to improve sanitation or help people to eat better.

So I have two questions: Does the current corporate business model really protect antibiotics for the benefit of all? And is the free market really the right place for these life-saving medicinal tools?

Reconciling corporate needs with public health

To succeed as a chief executive of a major corporation, free market logic dictates that you must grow your company and your market. After all, a successful company is one that achieves market dominance and, where appropriate, continues to increase product sales.

So how do we reconcile the innate corporate need to increase antibiotic sales and market share with the widely acknowledged public health need to dramatically decrease the amount of antibiotics used in all sectors — but particularly in farming systems that are abusing antibiotics?

Some believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent introduction of voluntary guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in food animals shows that appropriate action is being taken. However, many commentators — myself included — strongly disagree. New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has campaigned to stop antibiotic misuse in industrial farming, says the voluntary initiative “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Let’s also put the FDA’s voluntary guidelines into historical perspective: The FDA first acknowledged evidence of a link between antibiotic abuse in farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 1977. Yet more 30 years later it’s clear that little —  if anything — has been done to control how antibiotic use in farming. In fact, the U.S. leads the world in the overuse of antibiotics in farming.

Despite mounting scientific evidence of the urgent need to act, the FDA and the USDA have been cowed by industry pressure on antibiotic control. Anyone who believes that Big Ag and Big Pharma — or any big industry for that matter — do not have a direct influence on the development and implementation of U.S. government policy is sadly mistaken. Corporations spend billions of dollars lobbying government to ensure favorable policy outcomes.

Bear in mind, too, the wider market realities here. In 2009 alone, 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. were used for food animals — an incredible 28.8 million pounds out of the 36 million pounds produced. As the New York Times said in a recent editorial: “No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987, largely because the financial returns for finding new classes of antibiotics are too low. Unlike lucrative drugs to treat chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular ailments, antibiotics are typically taken for a relatively short period, and any new drug is apt to be used sparingly and held in reserve to treat patients resistant to existing drugs.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved: “We must focus … on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have.” Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

One could argue that the demand for antibiotics from intensive livestock systems represents a near perfect market for Big Pharma. Unlike humans, who normally get better after a single course of antibiotics, millions of livestock usually receive low-level daily doses to prevent disease or increase their lifetime growth. Unless farming changes in a big way, our insatiable demand for ever-cheaper animal protein means demand for these drugs isn’t likely to cease any time soon — even under the FDA’s voluntary guidelines to phase out antibiotics as animal growth promoters. Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently told the Wall Street Journal that the FDA’s voluntary agreement “will not have a significant impact on our revenues.”

We have spent too many years hearing industry lobby groups and paid-up scientists and politicians deny any link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the routine abuse of low-level antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial farming. Time and again, we have watched the meat and pharmaceutical industry-funded lobbyists and front groups fight tooth and nail against any attempt to regulate antibiotic use in farming. The industry-funded U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, for example, insists “there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals for consumption . . . ” If they still won’t accept any responsibility for antibiotic-resistant bacteria — despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary — what makes anyone believe these corporations are now suddenly willing to put public health ahead of corporate profit?

With no new antibiotics in the development pipeline, we must focus our combined energies on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have. We need to accept that industrial livestock farming systems are unsustainable. Instead, we need to support the expansion of alternative livestock farming systems where antibiotics are used only as a last resort.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infections. We keep hearing about the need for better antibiotic stewardship in farming. But what exactly will it take to trigger regulatory intervention and enforcement: Tens of thousands more deaths each year? Maybe hundreds of thousands? How bad do things have to get before we realize that cheap meat is killing us, and that the time for the self-regulation of antibiotic production and use in farming has long since expired?

Main photo: The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

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Fighting Hunger: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa's St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.

Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.

In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.

Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes —  makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.

Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”

Tracking food’s path from seed to plate

FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.

Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.

Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.

Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.

FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/

Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.

The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.

Defining the lexicon of sustainability

In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?

We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.

Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen's garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen’s garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community.  Who knew food had so much attached to it?

New food movement  has no center or single leader

Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.

To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.

The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.

Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.

Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

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A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.

Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.

In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.

Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.

What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.

Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms

Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.

Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.

Real danger lies with industrial operations

It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.

The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.

The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.

The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.

When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.

Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.

Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.

Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

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