Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Great Chanukah show this Sunday

Join me for a special Chanukah preview show this Sunday, 12/18, from 10-11am Pacific Time on the Portland Yiddish Hour on 90.7fm KBOO. I'll be playing really cool Chanukah tunes from Y-Love and Yasmin Levy. I'll also be featuring Chanukah songs from the Klezmatics' Woody Guthrie Chanukah album, which came out in 2006. If you have no idea how the Klezmatics tie in with Woody Guthrie, you can find out on Sunday! hint, hint...
The Klezmatics will be in town next Tuesday, 12/20, playing at the Aladdin Theatre, btw, and you might want to check out the show if you're in the Portland area. It's going to be a great start to Chanukah.

If you're outside Portland, you can stream the show live online at

Hope you can tune in! Please send a link to this blog entry to everyone you know who might be interested.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Shameless self-promotion

Here's a link to my latest article in the Jewish Review, about my friend David Kominsky's new shul in my old neighborhood in SE Portland:

Unfortunately they didn't use the exact title I proposed, A Shul Grows in Portland, a play on the book title, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ah well.

Comments are welcome...hint, hint, hint...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More connections between food and the Occupy movements

Great post from Civil Eats. In response to many activists' question, "What does the Occupy Movement have to do with food?" some of my favorite answers:

• In the U.S. today, the richest one percent hold 40 percent of the wealth, while almost one in five Americans is on food stamps.  Rampant Wall Street speculation on commodities is driving up food costs, small farmers are being driven off their land, and agribusiness holds monopoly control of our seeds and stores.

• At the most obvious level, as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recently wrote, “Wall Street deregulation has not only made the stock market extremely volatile, it has increased prices and price volatility in agricultural markets.” That is, the relationship between government and Wall Street firms has turned food into commodity like any other, subject to the whims of the market. 

• In 2000, a wave of industry-backed deregulation raised and then removed these limits on speculation, which opened commodity markets to a flood of new players—these later included funds controlled by some of the biggest Wall Street firms looking for new investment opportunities after the housing bubble burst. Flooded with new investments unconnected to any direct stake in crop prices, in 2008, the commodity markets exploded, driving up grain prices worldwide. The grain price spikes were catastrophic for millions of people worldwide. Farmers, who sometimes benefit from high grain prices, mostly were no better off, because similarly skyrocketing energy prices also drove up prices of agricultural inputs.

• Wall Street firms aren’t just gambling on food prices, they have begun speculating on land as well. Alerted to the potential market in agriculture, investors are buying up huge parcels of farmland all over the world, displacing the occupants, and converting subsistence production to cash crops—or, worse, simply leaving the land fallow and waiting for its value to increase. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My adventures this week(end)

Earlier this past week I went out to water the garden (I was wearing a skirt; this detail will become important). I spent about 15 minutes outside and then came back in. When I sat down at my desk, I felt a sharp sting on my ass. Then another. I looked on my office chair but saw nothing. Sat back down. Another sting on my abdomen. Youch! Now I was freaked out and started shaking out my skirt. Sure enough, a yellowjacket flew out. My sweetie, hero that she is, caught it and put it outside, where, presumably, it is happily stinging somebody else.

Three stings and a lot of baking soda paste later, I was fine, if annoyed. Good thing I'm not allergic.

Then today I put a burned CD into my car stereo and couldn't get it out. When I went online to search for a solution (ain't the Web wonderful?) I found this:

Not sure what language he's speaking (it's not Swiss-Deutsch or French; could be Romansh), but you don't need to understand what he's saying to get the gist.

The fun just never stops here...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't look for explanations in 9/11 remembrances

I've been hearing lots of people's reactions to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I heard several people complain that even though the media blitzed us with commentary, photos, video, interviews with survivors and families of victims, there seemed to be a lack of discussion about the underlying causes of 9/11.

I wasn't particularly surprised at this absence; nobody agrees about why 9/11 happened. In my New Yorker this week, Lorrie Moore, quoting writer David Rieff, summed up my take on it more eloquently than I ever could: "Politics is the ghost at the banquet of any national commemoration."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Honey laundering could sour High Holidays

I was disturbed to read about smuggled honey from China in this article a couple days ago.

As is true for most well-informed people who pay attention to where their food comes from, tainted food products coming out of China is not news to me. The scandals about powdered milk and pet food made international news when they broke (and caused a number of deaths of both children and pets, here and abroad), and there are a depressing number of other examples to cite, should one be so inclined.

For Jews, the story about tainted honey carries a special significance. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is coming up on September 28 (1 and 2 Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar), it is traditional to dip apple slices in honey to celebrate the sweetness of the new year. Clearly, using honey that contains illegal antibiotics and heavy metals negates the whole purpose of this tradition; never mind the health effects of consuming such additives.

Passing off inferior or illegally imported honey as safe and legal is far from the only example of such trickery/smuggling. Many high-end seafood and sushi restaurants serve fish identifed as tuna or something else equally expensive and desirable, when tests have shown the fish is in fact something else entirely (in all fairness, sometimes the restaurants are themselves cheated by their fish suppliers; without DNA tests, it can be very difficult to verify which fish is which). The same is true in the world of olive oil; often low-grade oil is sold as high-end virgin, and sometimes other oils are mixed into the olive to increase quantity.

But this honey story hit me in a different way. Not only is the product in this instance not what its sellers claim, but it is actually potentially dangerous to consume. With fish and olive oil, we're talking about basic fraud, but such frauds do not usually result in a product that can make you sick.

More to the point, from the Jewish perspective, using tainted honey to celebrate the New Year angers me, because the honey is being used in a symbolic traditional way, not merely for regular eating or cooking. It both enrages and saddens me to think of eating such honey to mark one of our holiest days.

On a related note, I just returned from the 6th annual Hazon Food Conference (I'll be writing more about that in upcoming editions of The Jewish Review; be sure to check it out). It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of change facing all of us who work in the areas of sustainable, ethical food. The conference recharged me on many levels and I am excited to implement what I've learned here in Portland.

May this year bring real, lasting change to our broken food system, and may we all greet it with an apple slice dipped in locally produced honey, perhaps from the hives of someone we know. Amen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Green Thing

I subscribe to a food activism listserve; this was posted on it a couple days ago. I wish I could credit the author, but I don't actually know who wrote it.

In the line at the store, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.

The woman apologized to her and explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."

The clerk responded, "That's our problem today.  Your generation did not care enough to save our environment."

She was right—our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over.  So they really were recycled.

But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.

But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throw-away kind.  We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts—wind and solar power really did dry the clothes.  Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right; we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house—not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana .

In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us.

When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power.  We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right; we didn't have the green thing back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water.

We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But we didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service.

We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances.  And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Save locally grown greens!

Today the USDA and Big Ag are conspiring to implement a set of rules that favor giant industrial growers while placing small, diversified farms at risk. Known as the National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, this set of rules was designed by industrial growers to protect their market share while harming their main competition, the growing local and organic food movement. The Leafy Green agreement, drafted by the largest vegetable growers’ lobbyists in an effort to whitewash their growing food safety problems, would implement draconian practices that saddle farmers with one-size-fits-all rules and would drive local and organic farmers out of business with expensive regulations.

Tell Secretary Vilsack that it's time to protect family farmers and stop letting Big Ag write the rules by adding your name to the petition:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tuv Ha'Aretz 3rd annual edible garden bike tour

Spoke cards from previous bike tours; this year's is the yellow one.
On Sunday, July 10, Portland Tuv Ha'Aretz, Portland's Jewish connection to sustainable, ethical food for all, hosted our third annual garden bike tour. Led, as always, by intrepid Tuv member Beth Hamon, this year's ride theme was building community through edible gardens, specifically (and obviously) community gardens, for which Portland is justly famous.

A bit of Portland's community garden history:

The Community Garden program, founded and managed by Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, has provided gardening opportunities for the physical and social benefit of the people and neighborhoods of Portland since 1975. (Leslie has recently retired after 35 years on the job, and all gardeners in Portland, not to mention every citizen of the city, gardener or not, owes her a tremendous thank you for her work in making our city more beautiful and more edible).

There are 35 community gardens located throughout the city, developed and operated by volunteers and Portland Parks & Rec staff, offering a variety of activities. Immensely popular since their inception, there's now a 3-year waiting list (with over 1000 names on it) for a plot. A local nonprofit, 1000 Gardens, is hoping to add another 1000 plots by 2012.

We started our ride at the Woodlawn Community Garden, which is 14 years old this year, and shares space with Woodlawn Elementary School. One unique feature of this garden is the Thai jar rainwater-harvesting cistern, the first of its kind in the northwest United States, which was installed in 2007. It collects rainwater from the school roof, which is then piped to spigots placed throughout the garden:

Thai rainwater jar at Woodlawn Community Garden
Our next stop was the Rigler Peace Garden, located at 54th and NE Prescott. Here's some info about this special place:

Inverted gazebo roof with rain chain at Rigler Peace Garden.
In 2000, Will Levenson and Starr Hogeboom, Friends of Trees volunteers who were in the Cully neighborhood selling trees door-to-door, noticed an ugly, dusty piece of land that Rigler School was using for overflow parking. Given that the neighborhood had no park, they came up with the idea of creating a community garden in that space. For the next two years, they applied for grants, recruited volunteers, solicited donations from local businesses, filed for city permits, and negotiated a lease with Portland Public Schools to prevent the land from being sold. In total, the group received $60,000 in grants and $10,000 in fundraising. Donated materials were worth an estimated $40,000. The garden opened in September 2005.

The Rigler Peace Garden, as it was unofficially named by the group of volunteers who built it, is used for both community gardening and for education. Its entrance, made of bricks and featuring a shiny sculpture made of galvanized steel and student artwork, invites children to learn about natural science as well as how to grow flowers and vegetables. A concrete path leads to a gazebo where teachers hold class. The inverted roof of the gazebo captures rainwater and funnels it down a chain into an underground storage tank that is connected to a hand-operated water pump. The north side of the garden is shaded by dozens of native trees, each one sponsored by a different Rigler classroom.

Student artwork decorates the gate at Rigler Peace Garden
Our final stop was at Columbia Ecovillage, a sustainable co-housing community in NE Portland. Our friend Dennis is one of about a dozen Jewish members of CEV, and he gave us a tour:

Dennis (turquoise T-shirt) shows us the hazelnut trees CEV has planted in the parking strip; the nuts are intended to be shared with CEV's neighbors.

Dennis and chickens. CEV has 30 birds, including a rooster. Eggs, anyone?

Just a portion of the amazing garden space at CEV.

Bees at CEV.

5,000 gallon water tank, which harvests gray water from the roof to use in watering the garden. CEV can store up to 29,000 gallons of water with its tanks.

Thermostat and namaste inside the temperature self-regulating greenhouse.

Dennis assembled a salad for us, complete with edible flowers.

Group photo at CEV.
So what's Jewish about all this? The examples of community building we saw in the gardens and at CEV aren't specifically rooted in Judaism, of course, but as Jews interested in making strong, lasting connections with our neighbors and the land we live on, we can learn (glean?) much about how to build a Jewish community from what we saw on this ride. It requires patience, determination, a willingness to compromise and listen, and affords ample opportunities, as with reclaiming the land for the Rigler Peace Garden, to practice tikkun olam, repair of our world.

You can see more pictures from the ride here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fire or water?

Last weekend my sweetie and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Metolius River in Central Oregon. Well, I say annual because we've been going every year since 2006, but we didn't make it last year, so returning this year was especially lovely, like greeting an old friend.

Here are some random pics:

Closeup of Ponderosa bark; I used to call these "puzzle trees" when I was a kid, because the bark looks like a jigsaw puzzle. My favorite pines.

Near the head of the Metolius River, just below our campsite

Very late purple trillium near Cabot Lake

Black Butte from the Cabot Lake trail

 On the Cabot Lake trail, which goes through part of the B & B fire area in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. That's Mt. Jefferson off to the right.

Shabbat citronella candle blessings

 This trip brought us into proximity with both fire and water. Fire because we hiked a trail to Cabot Lake through part of the area that burned in the B & B fire in 2002, and water because of the Metolius, of course, and Scout Lake, our favorite swimming hole nearby.

 So it occurred to me to wonder, one night while I was watching our campfire, whether watching fire or watching water, especially the ocean, creates different states of contemplation. Watching either can easily hypnotize me for awhile, and there's little I find more relaxing than gazing into the snapping flames of a campfire, or seeing the eternal ebb and flow of ocean waves.

But the hypnotic state created isn't the same, at least not for me. When I watch a fire, I don't usually find myself contemplating anything in particular. Perhaps it's the mercurial, elusive nature of flame (as soon as you fix your eye on it, it moves or disappears). I'm just drawn into the fire itself and my mind doesn't fix on any specific ideas or thoughts. Whereas when I sit and watch the ocean, often my mind will turn towards the big eternal questions of existence, or at least to thoughts about particulars in my own life. Perhaps it's the regular rhythm of waves that creates this state of mind.

What about you? Do fire and water stimulate different thoughts (or lack thereof) in your head? Or similar ones? What happens for you?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monsanto foiled in U.S. Court

Great news about Monsanto, for a change:

From the Center for Food Safety: 


San Francisco, CA – May 20, 2011 – Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a summary order concluding a long-standing lawsuit over the impacts of genetically engineered (GE) ”Roundup Ready” sugar beets. As a result, previous court rulings in favor of farmers and conservation advocates will remain, including the order requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prepare a rigorous review of the impacts of GE sugar beets, engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, before deciding whether to again allow their future commercial use.

Here's a link to the complete news release:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tomato dreams...

I planted our tomatoes today; one Sungold, a delicious, incredibly sweet orange cherry tomato:

one heirloom yellow Brandywine:

and two Early Girls, which are good for canning (I don't have pictures of them, but imagine your standard-sized red round tomato).

It was actually hot in the sun while I was working and getting my hands dirty in the soil of our garden bed (I almost never remember to wear gloves). I still have dirt in the cracks of my fingers, a sure sign of spring's arrival.

I never tire of planting things, just as I continue to be awed by the miracle of tiny seeds morphing into enormous zucchini, or 4-inch starts becoming 6-foot tomato plants heavy with fruit. It's a timeless source of amazement for me, one that will never diminish.

I dream of August and the longed-for taste of a tomato exploding in my mouth with that first, sun-warmed bite.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alex Ross likes us...he really really likes us!

Alex Ross, classical music critic for The New Yorker, wrote this on his blog, regarding the Oregon Symphony's performance at Carnegie Hall this week:

"OREGONIANS TRIUMPHANT (accompanied by a great photo of Carlos Kalmar with his fantastic conductor hair flying)

Spring for Music is heading into the home stretch, with two concerts remaining. Last night's performance by the Oregon Symphony, under the direction of Carlos Kalmar, was pretty extraordinary; you can listen online. The good folks at NPR Classical are archiving all the concerts in the series. I will have more to say in a future issue of The New Yorker."

I'm a huge fan of Ross' writing; I don't make a habit of reading lots of music criticism, unless it's for work, but he's a cut above everyone else out there today. I'm also kind of in awe of him; he's a year younger than I am, has a dream job and won a MacArthur Fellowship a few years ago for his book, The Rest is Noise. Talk about setting a high bar...

Oh, and the New York Times liked us too:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

shameless self-promotion(s)

Check out my latest gig, for the Jewish Review, Portland's bi-weekly Jewish rag...

I'll probably be writing several times a month for them; you can always access the JR online, if you're outside Portland, here.

Also, the Oregon Symphony heads to Carnegie Hall this week to perform in a new music festival, Spring for Music. Here's an overview from Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the NYT:

I won't be going in person, but my notes will be there, in the program book. It's a great program, titled Music in a Time of War. Here's more info.

So how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Write, write, write!

Trying to fight my yetzer cynique...

In Jewish tradition, we learn about the yetzer tov and the yetzer ra, the good inclination and the bad inclination. Both are locked in constant conflict, each trying to dictate our actions and reactions. I submit there's a third inclination, the yetzer cynique, or cynical inclination. I must admit I have more trouble not giving in to my yetzer cynique than I do resisting my yetzer ra (I'm basically a good person, after all, however boring that sounds).

So imagine the difficulty I have containing the old yetzer cynique when I read this:


Launch of Major New Food and Ag Policy Initiative
Long-Term Initiative Funded By Eight Leading Foundations

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 27, 2011 – On May 3, eight of the world’s leading foundations will launch a major new initiative designed to impact food and agriculture policies on a global scale.  

The world will have more than 9 billion people to feed by 2050, with two-thirds of them living in cities, putting greater demands on our agricultural and environmental resources. Current food and agriculture policies cannot meet the needs of this future without drastic consequences for our environment, health and rural communities.   

This initiative is funded by Ford FoundationBill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight FoundationRockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Please join us for a press conference detailing how the initiative will engage on food and agriculture policy on May 3, 2011 at 10 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Who:    Deborah Atwood, Executive Director
Dan GlickmanCo-Chair, former USDA Secretary under President Bill Clinton
Gary HirshbergCo-Chair, President and “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm
Jim Moseley, Co-Chair, former USDA deputy secretary under President George W. Bush
Emmy Simmons, Co-Chair, former assistant administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at U.S. AID
Todd Barker, Partner, Meridian Institute

What:  Launch of a new initiative to transform food and agriculture policies

Where: The Fourth Estate, National Press Club
529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C.

When:  Tuesday May 3, 2011, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m.

It sounds good, doesn't it? But I can't help thinking this is just one more instance of the haves taking over food production from the have nots. Given the USDA's conflicted mission: to promote US agribusiness and to safeguard our food supply (guess which one wins out 95% of the time), I question the integrity of any current or former USDA official. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation I've already written about, and their love affair with technology over sustainable socially just solutions (particularly with regard to their advocating GMO crops, esp. in Africa). So much as I'd like to think Bill and Melinda are doing a good thing here, I have serious doubts.

Anyone else's yetzer cynique sending off warning bells?

Eric Schlosser on food elitism

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, wrote this in the Washington Post a few days ago. He makes great arguments against the idea, promoted by agribusiness, that advocating for sustainable food systems is inherently elitist, and makes them well.

Here's my favorite part:

"Calling these efforts [by Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama, among others] elitist renders the word meaningless. The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst toxic chemicals on the job. They are sold the unhealthiest foods and can least afford the medical problems that result.
A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable."
Worth reading.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tell President Obama No GMO beets and alfalfa

Please join me in telling the Obama administration it's time to halt the sale and planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready GMO alfalfa and sugar beets until proper independent peer reviewed science can be conducted.

On January 17, 2011, Dr. Don Huber, an internationally-recognized plant pathologist sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attempting to warn him of a serious problem facing U.S. agriculture. This letter, marked “CONFIDENTIAL and URGENT”, warned Secretary Vilsack of a previously unknown pathogen, “new to science” that “should be treated as an emergency”.

Huber’s letter discussed the new pathogen in the most dire terms, saying that the findings of this top team of scientists had already discovered a link between the new pathogen and the steady rise of plant diseases in Roundup Ready corn and soybean crops and in association with high rates of infertility and spontaneous abortions of animal livestock.
Huber warned Secretary Vilsack that the discovery of the new pathogen was “highly sensitive information that could result in a collapse of U.S. soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies.”

Unfortunately, less than 3 weeks later, the Obama administration approved 2 new Roundup Ready GMO crops, which are set to be planted this spring.

Please join me in this urgent action telling President Obama and Secretary Vilsack to halt the sale and planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready GMO alfalfa and sugar beet seeds until more independent scientific testing can be conducted to ensure the safety of our food supply.

Watch the interview with Dr. Huber and learn about the science at Food Democracy Now! -


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tell the EPA to ban cancer-causing strawberry pesticides

A message from the good folks at Earthjustice:

Earlier this year, officials in California approved a cancer-causing pesticide that's chiefly used in strawberry fields. They did this over the objections of scientists who warned that use of the chemical would make farmworkers and people in nearby communities sick. The chemical—methyl iodide—is so toxic that scientists in labs use it in very tiny amounts to create cancer cells.

It's already being used in Florida; if California growers start applying it to strawberry fields later this year, millions of pounds of this toxic gas could end up being released straight into our air and water.
But we have a chance to make this right. Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are signaling they want to take a closer look at whether or not to ban this pesticide.They've given the public until April 25 to weigh in with their comments. We need to let them know that methyl iodide is much too dangerous to be used in our fields and farms.
Here's a link to post your comments to the EPA:>

Sunday, March 27, 2011

End the Monsanto monoply

Last year, the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture held a series of five hearings investigating anti-competitive practices in the food and agricultural sectors. The hearings were historic and gave a vital opportunity for hundreds of thousands of America’s farmers, agricultural workers and citizens to call for an end to agribusiness’ excessive monopoly power. 
Last December, Food Democracy Now! delivered more than 200,000 citizen comments to Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney with your demands to break up the worst abusers.
Nowhere are these abuses more prevalent than in the extreme market share enjoyed by the seed and chemical company Monsanto, which has a virtual stranglehold on seed supplies in crucial sectors that has severely limited farmers' choice in what seeds they can buy. Monsanto’s control of the seed market is so high that 93% of soybeans, 82% of corn, 93% of cotton and 95% of sugarbeets grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto's patented genes.
Not only is this level of market share allowing Monsanto to jack prices up on farmers because there’s no competition, but it also threatens our democracy as Monsanto uses their corporate power to influence our regulatory agencies, like the USDA, EPA and FDA, as well as Congress and the White House.
It’s time to fight back, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the Department of Justice continues their investigation into Monsanto’s anti-competitive business practices.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Legal matters

Last week, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA challenging the USDA's decision to allow the planting of GM alfalfa. You can read more about it in their joint press release here.

In other legal news, the Iowa state house last week approved a bill that would criminalize secret videotaping of activities on farms, specifically related to the mistreatment of animals. While the ag industry is crying victim here, saying they're being held hostage by PETA and other animal rights groups, the larger issue is that investigations into farm and animal conditions would be illegal, if video was used. The bill could also apply to crops, not just animals. In other words, the makers of Food, Inc., could, under this bill, have been arrested if they'd filmed in Iowa and this bill had been law at the time the film was made. Florida is reportedly also considering a similar bill. The Iowa Senate has yet to weigh in.

If you're an ag company and you're supporting a bill that would make it illegal to video your crops, exactly what are you hiding? Yes, that is a somewhat rhetorical question, but I ask it because I don't personally know a single farmer who'd object to anyone filming their farming practices.

Other thoughts? I'd share more of mine but am posting this while I should be writing program notes. Back to Bartók.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why the Gates Foundation worries me

When it comes to philanthropy, few can top Bill Gates. He's donated so much of his money to various educational and health-related causes over the years that he's no longer the richest man in America. Good for him. Seriously. I think it's great that he is using his wealth to better the planet. What worries me is the credo his foundation seems to operate under, which could be summed up as technology uberalis. The foundation believes in using high-tech solutions for things like eliminating malaria in Africa, or, more recently, advocating for industrial farming practices in developing nations in order to produce enough food to feed everyone.

The Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, wants to launch a new Green Revolution in Africa. While the Green Revolution had measurable benefits in a number of countries, its success relied primarily on industrial farming methods: use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers to boost gain.

Enter the UN report I posted a few days ago, which is referenced again in this report from Humanosphere, that proves low-tech farming is both more productive and better for farmers and land.

Still not convinced? Even if you think industrial methods are the best way to increase yields, all those pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers do enormous damage to the soil, rendering it less fertile over time. The runoff from all these industrial inputs contaminates water supplies. Most important, industrial farming relies on petroleum to create all those (say it with me) pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Uh, Mr. Gates? Petroleum is not a renewable resource (I don't have time to address the global warming implications of using a petroleum-based farming system here, but you can fill in the blanks yourself).

What worries me is that America's biggest philanthropist is so seduced by the lure of technology that he's willing to ignore or downplay low-tech methods that have a proven track record of success. I get it that low-tech isn't sexy. But if you really want to feed more people, and low-tech methods work better and are healthier for the farmers, the soil, the water, the people who eat the food, and, ultimately, the planet, you need to wean yourself away from the glitz and glamour of high-tech.

Gates has a penchant for reaching for the brass ring high-tech solution. In 2005 I read an article in The New Yorker about the Gates' Foundation work to eliminate malaria in Africa. Turns out one of the most effective methods is mosquito nets (very low-tech, and they've been around for thousands of years in one form or another). But Gates wanted to focus his efforts on finding a vaccine, because that would allow him to use science and high-tech to further his philanthropic agenda.

I'm not questioning Gates' sincere desire to feed the hungry, or make malaria a thing of the past. I do question, and object to, his slavish devotion to The Next Big Thing, the cool new technology, the sexy science, while ignoring proven low-tech, low-cost methods. I get that Gates, one of the best-known representatives of high-tech, wants to use the technology that made his fortune to right some of the world's biggest wrongs. His motivations are admirable, but it's his money that will make the difference, not necessarily the technology he champions. After all, what's important here is feeding people, or curing malaria. Let's not lose sight of that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

UN Report endorses eco-organic farming practices

Organic farming advocates have been saying this for years, and places like the Rodale Instistute have been proving it with numerous field trials. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report two years ago called "Failure to Yield," which also debunks the empty promises made by advocates of GMO crops and industrial farming (chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides), that industrial farming methods are the only way we can feed the world. And yet, despite these and many other studies, The Economist last week published an article which concluded, "although the concerns of the critics of modern agriculture may be understandable, the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich. Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world."

More on the Economist article in an upcoming post, but I just have to point out how well it pushes the divide-and-conquer button. It's all well and good for rich first-worlders to play with organic methods, but it's totally unfair of those same pampered well fed folks to advocate for organics in the developing world, because organic methods can't feed millions. There's a lot of research this article conveniently leaves out, but I'll get to that in a later post. I just need to fume for a moment, 'cause I hate it when good writers use their powers for evil. Okay. Done.

Meanwhile, back to the good news:

Now that the UN is advocating "ecological methods," I hope that will give farmers in other countries a tool for combatting the reach of global chemical and seed companies, which are trying to force governments in the developing world to use their products, rather than allow the farmers in these countries to farm in a way that protects and enriches the nutrient value of their soil.

Here's a companion article that supports the U.N. report, by Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. (Yes, for all you baby-boomers, Anna is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, which was such a central part of the the 1970s environmental movement).

Here's the UN news release:


8 March 2011 
Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years, says new UN report

GENEVA, 8 March 2011 – Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report* shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live -- especially in unfavorable environments.”

Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems that can help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges. It enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects. “To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

“Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today,” De Schutter stresses. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation -- and this this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. Malawi, a country that launched a massivechemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton/ha to 2-3 tons/ha.”

The report also points out that projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh recorded up to 92% reduction in insecticide use for rice, leading to important savings for poor farmers. “Knowledge came to replace pesticides and fertilizers. This was a winning bet, and comparable results abound in other African, Asian and Latin American countries,” the independent expert notes. “The approach is also gaining ground in developed countries such as United States, Germany or France,” he said. “However, despite its impressive potential in realizing the right to food for all, agroecology is still insufficiently backed by ambitious public policies and consequently hardly goes beyond the experimental stage.”

The report identifies a dozen of measures that States should implement to scale up agroecological practices. “Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services,” De Schutter says. “States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food also urges States to support small-scale farmer’s organizations, which demonstrated a great ability to disseminate the best agroecological practices among their members. “Strengthening social organization proves to be as impactful as distributing fertilizers. Small-scale farmers and scientists can create innovative practices when they partner”, De Schutter explains. “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

“If key stakeholders support the measures identified in the report, we can see a doubling of food production within 5 to 10 years in some regions where the hungry live,” De Schutter says. “Whether or not we will succeed this transition will depend on our ability to learn faster from recent innovations. We need to go fast if we want to avoid repeated food and climate disasters in the 21st century.”

(*)  The report “Agro-ecology and the right to food” was presented today before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This document is available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian at: and

Olivier De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization.

For more information on the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur, visit: or