Climate Change and the Power of Community

October 7, 2015

I wrote out a quick question on a slip of paper, and sent it on to the moderator last night as Bill McKibben of 350.org finished his lecture for the E.N.Thompson Forum in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Bill McKibben. Image from UBC via Creative Commons.

Bill McKibben. Image from UBC via Creative Commons.

“What about the role of industrial agriculture in climate change?” I wrote. A few minutes later the moderator posed the question to McKibben, who had a ready answer.

Industrial agriculture is a factor in global warming, he said, contributing about 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “That needs to change,” he added.

McKibben said that all through the Holocene Epoch (the last 12,00 years) we human beings have been able to count on the basic stability of habitable conditions that allow agriculture. There have always been good years and bad years in one place or another, but the basic pattern has been stable.

“We can’t count on that any more,” McKibben said. “Climate change is biting harder and faster than we thought…It’s going to impact our ability to grow food.”

As McKibben was speaking the waters were still rising in the epic South Carolina flood catastrophe brought on by the whiplash of Hurricane Joaquin, and 2015 was decidedly on track to be the hottest year in recorded history.

“The disaster in South Carolina is off the charts,” he said, “but that kind of stuff is happening somewhere in the world every day now. And we are just getting started…We’re not going to stop global warming. It’s too late for that. But if we act fast enough and decisively enough, we may slow it enough to survive.”

McKibben said this is a beautiful moment for agriculture because for the first time in 150 years the number of farms is going up, not down. He commented that a lot of young people are seeing that the vocation of sustainable farming can help them address climate change by reducing ag emissions through agroecological approaches and improving the soil health so that it absorbs CO2.

In concluding his lecture McKibben observed that for years we have emphasized the importance of taking individual actions – such as using energy efficient light bulbs, riding bikes, and installing solar panels – as a way of countering climate change. “But that’s not going to do it,” he said. “It’s just not enough to stop climate change. Climate change causes are structural and systemic, and now pose the greatest threat of all time to human life.”

tpHe said climate change is requiring us to come together in a movement. “The power of community is the theme of the year ahead…Community is one of the best manifestations of being a human being. We are social creatures. We derive a great deal of satisfaction in working with each other toward a common end.”

McKibben and 350.org will be in Paris this December with a massive community of activists working toward a common end by sending a message to the world governments meeting for COP21 to try to strike a new global climate agreement. That message will be, “make this a turning point.”

In the aftermath of McKibben’s lecture, no doubt because it is the central topic commanding my attention these days, I saw again how important Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) can be in the context of climate change. CSA creates pathways for all manner and shapes of communities to apply themselves in support of the kind of agroecological healing of the land that will, indeed, make this a turning point. It’s time for Awakening Community Intelligence.

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Calling Things by Their Name: The World’s Urgent Summons to Agrosanity

September 2, 2015

For industrial-chemical-genetically-modified agribusiness, this has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, butt-kick summer. Maximally so.

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The whole, gargantuan, super-efficient, hyper-technical, chemical-dependent agriborg has been repeatedly whacked upside the head by reality. Yet despite a steady assault of paradigm-shattering facts, the mega-tentacled, bottom-line corporate complex plows systematically onward into toxic drainage ditches of its own fouling.

As made inescapably evident by the flood of ag-related news stories arising through summer 2015, corporate chemical GMO systems have over time spawned a deeply problematic matrix of land, animals and human beings. For the sake of life, it’s time to stop, to look at reality, to terminate intoxication, and to change direction. It’s time to act fast.

The news stories cited below represent a chorus of sharp alarms. At the same time they also represent an urgent summons to agrosanity – the necessity to act with intelligence and common sense to transform the contaminating status quo into clean, sustainable, agroecological farm and food systems in America and globally.

That summons to agricultural sanity is the call of the land. The call is plain: to actively transform and retrofit existing systems to agroecological enterprises that will heal rather than harm the land and the people. This ideal, given eloquent expression in the Seventh Generation teaching which is native to North America, is a critical thread in the rising network of community farm and food initiatives. Many of the emerging agroecological initiatives offer models that could be of high service for the wholesale agriculture transformation which is now imperative.

Here’s a roundup of gut-wrenching, paradigm-annihilating Ag news just for the months of summer 2015.

Cavalcade of Contamination

o – Major study finds GMO soy is not equivalent to normal soy. Even in 2015, it is premature and unscientific to label such GMOs as safe (August 18). The study published in the journal Agricultural Sciences revealed that GM soy generates a significant increase in levels of a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, in plants. GMOs also disrupt the development of glutathione, an important anti-oxidant necessary for cellular detoxification.

The study concludes that the U.S. government’s current standards for the safety assessment of GMOs based on the dubious principle of “substantial equivalence” – are both outdated and unscientific. The study’s findings call into question the FDA’s food safety standards for the entire country. The authors conclude, “…we believe it is premature to approve GMOs and to consider them safe.”

0 – Doctors issue a resounding call for a complete scientific review of glyphosate (aka Roundup), and for labels on GM food (August 19). The ubiquitous and infamous “weed killer” called glyphosate, toxic handmaiden to GM crops, is now officially suspected as a carcinogen. According to a column published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “There is growing evidence that glyphosate is geno-toxic and has adverse effects on cells in a number of different ways.”

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

The authors cite this summer’s determination by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that the most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate, is a probable human carcinogen, Despite its claimed non-toxicity at low levels, accumulation over time is problematic. GM foods and the herbicides applied to them may pose hazards to human health that have notbeen assessed. Regulators have relied on flawed and outdated research to allow the expanded use of this herbicide.

Evidence shows that glyphosate may well be a factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases. The journal noted that labeling of GM food is “essential for tracking the emergence of novel food allergies and assessing effects of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops.” Without labeling, there is no such thing as long-term safety research.

In the face of direct blowback from the chemical-GMO corporate public relations industry, and several shoulder-shrug, what’s-the-big-deal? articles in mass media, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer went to the trouble of making a second public announcement to specifically reiterate their finding that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Meantime, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) added the weedkiller to its list of highly hazardous substances.

o – New study suggests that chronic exposure to glyphosate at ultra-low doses can result in liver and kidney damage (August 26) After the WHO report on glyphosate and the demand for a complete scientific review of the plant-killing chemical, yet another deeply troubling study on glyphosate was published. The new study showed significant potential health implications for both animal and human populations. Glyphosate is spread far and wide on land to kill other plants that GMO crops may dominate. Thus for both animals and human beings, there is already extensive exposure to ultra-low doses.

Yet another study published this year found that glyphosate in combination with aluminum induces pathology in the pineal gland. That crucial degeneration of the pineal gland has been in turn linked to gut dysbiosis and neurological disease. As the researchers note, “many neurological diseases, including autism, depression, dementia, anxiety disorder, and Parkinson’s disease, are associated with abnormal sleep patterns, which are directly linked to pineal gland dysfunction.

o – Synthetic nicotine chemical insecticides found in half of USA streams (August 18) – The US Geological Survey released a study showing that insecticides known as neonicotinoids contaminate more than half of the streams sampled across the dedbeUS and Puerto Rico. Published in Environmental Chemistry, the study represents the first national-scale investigation of the environmental occurrence of these insecticides. Use of neonicotinoids to control insects has increased over the past decade, especially on corn and soybeans. Most scientists consider neonicotinoids as the main culprit in Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing bees around the world. The poisons have been banned outright in many nations around the world, but not fully by theS. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For its determinations the EPA relies on studies done by others, including companies that manufacturer the poisons.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are traces of at least 29 different pesticides in the average American’s body. Overall, both individually and collectively, the cocktail of synthetic chemicals infesting almost every human being in North America increases the risk of birth defects, diminished IQ, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more.

o – Colossal zombie zone in the Gulf of Mexico metastasizes (August 3) As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the infamous dead zone in Gulf of Mexico — a vast, noxious, oxygen-starved area in the sea that suffocates shrimp, fish, and other sea creatures — is bigger than ever in the summer of 2015. The dead zone is caused mainly by runoff of chemical fertilizer and manure from factory farms and corporate livestock confinement operations (CAFOs).

This year’s dead zone spans about 6,500 square miles. That’s size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. According to NOAA, there are more than 550 of these zombie zones floating around in the world this summer. The dead zones happen when runoff from industrial agriculture stimulates furious overgrowth of algae, analogous to the unchecked growth of cancers. The pumped-up masses of algae then sink, decompose and gobble up the oxygen necessary for healthy aquatic life, spawning massive, infernal zombie zones.

o – Industrial agriculture found to be contaminating America’s major aquifers with uranium (August 17) – A study

Uranium Electron shell. Courtesy of CC.

Uranium Electron shell. Courtesy of CC.

conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) showed dramatically high levels of uranium contamination in both the Great Plains and the Central Valley (CA) aquifers. The toxic silvery-white metal known as uranium is released in the aquifers through interaction with nitrates a common groundwater contaminant that originates mainly from chemical fertilizers spread on fields, and mass quantities of manure from industrial livestock confinement operations (CAFOs). The researchers found that the aquifers contain uranium concentrations up to 89 times the EPA standard for safety, and nitrate concentrations up to 189 times greater. This acute concentration of uranium has a detrimental impact on human health.

o – Industrial commodity corn is scorching our planet (July 27) The University of Minnesota published a blockbuster study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that our foremost industrial corn production systems are frying the planet with the release of nitrous oxide, a compound that traps far more heat in our atmosphere than CO2 does. The extent of nitrous oxide arising from industrial corn has been grossly under-measured to date. New data show that it is a critical factor in climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), industrial agriculture is responsible for a huge detrimental impact on climate change: almost a quarter of the continuing increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nowadays the dominant industrial Ag production systems are glyphosate-drizzled rotations of GM soy with GM corn. The corn harvest largely gets funneled toward the production of taxpayer-subsidized ethanol, livestock feed, and the sickly-sweet substance which has become notorious among dietitians and health advocates: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

o – Major ethical violation for GMO scientists (July 29) – The American Journal of Clinical Nutritionretracted a major study on GMOs because of ethical transgressions. The authors of the often-cited study had claimed that GM rice (so-called Golden Rice) was an effective Vitamin A supplement. This study has served the well-funded GMO industrial agriculture public relations industry as a key talking point for years. The industry has relentlessly touted this flawed study about Golden Rice as proof that a patented GM product would solve a major global health problem by providing children with extra Vitamin A. Editors at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that the study was afflicted with major ethics violations and thus they had to retract the study and it’s claims.

o – Interlocking ties between GMO industry and scientists probed for conflict of interest (August 6) According to

Sculpture by Antony Gormley, Quantum Cloud. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Sculpture by Antony Gormley, Quantum Cloud. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

report in Nature, US universities, including taxpayer-supported land grant institutions, have been targeted by a private advocacy group, US Right to Know. The group is investigating collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics involved with science, economics and mass communication. The activist group has so far used the courts to compel records from 40 researchers at US public universities. The report in Nature pointed out that “at least one institution, the University of Nebraska, has refused to provide documents requested by the group.”

There are 106 US land grant institutions. They have at their disposal an annual budget of nearly 2 billion taxpayer dollars, and many millions more from corporate funding. The land grant universities have decades-old relationships with agricultural groups, corporations and state legislatures.

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Individually and collectively the studies cited above sharply call into question the foundation and the principal thrust of the industrial-chemical-GM Ag industry, of the USDA, and also of America’s public land grant institutions.

Despite the well-known capacity of agroecology to address many of the problems created by corporate industrial agriculture, and to help mitigate the accelerating damage of climate change, such clean, sustainable approaches are treated either like neglected children, or like an enemies at the gate of corporate bank vaults. That’s got to change.

In the governmental realm, sustainable agriculture is currently allocated only about 2% of the multi-billion dollar USDA budget. True clean, agroecological and sustainable farm and food systems remain at best an adjunct concept – an outlier — at most land grant institutions.

By far the lion’s share of our tax dollars goes to benefit corporate-industrial-chemical agriculture systems. In 2015, in the face of all the head-whacking realities, this pathway emerges as truly shortsighted, ill advised, and profoundly perilous.

Consideration for the human beings

fire-forestThe bundle of disturbing Ag reports cited above came forward this summer only to be obscured behind an inferno of news about record-breaking wildfires, the ongoing meltdown in arctic regions, flood-inducing deluges, and the hottest months ever recorded on Earth. Those months – summer 2015 – set us all firmly on course to finish out the hottest year ever recorded. So far.

At the start of summer 2015 Pope Francis threw down a gauntlet in the global controversy about industrial-chemical-GM agriculture systems. He raised not just environmental and health concerns, but also the glaring social and economic imbalances that corporate Ag systems intensify. He asked for an honest debate.

Perhaps as he visits the US in late September, 2015, the Pope will press the demand for debate on industrial-chemical-genetically modified agriculture. I hope so. He pulls media attention. People will be informed and will talk. But the Pope is just one prominent voice articulating deeply and widely held concerns for life. The real debate challenge – the one that must for the sake of integrity be answered – arises from the many millions of human beings who want to live healthy lives on a healthy planet and to ensure the well being of their children unto seven generations. Their voices are so far mostly unheeded.

In all respects ethical, economic and environmental, the farm and food challenge of the human beings to the corporations and their manifold matrix of contamination is valid, worthy and necessary. America’s land grant institutions should take the lead in focusing public attention on this critical debate.

  • In Laudato Si, the Encyclical published this summer, the Pope wrote: In many places (around the world), “following the introduction of these (GM) crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production.”
  • As a result of this general model of development, the Pope noted, farmers are driven to become temporary laborers. Many rural workers end up in urban slums, ecosystems are destroyed, and “oligopolies” (markets dominated by a few huge corporations) expand in agricultural production. While the trend to Ag oligopoly is global, America experienced this pattern playing out as a result of the massive ag consolidations and vertical integrations of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and ongoingly. “Get big or get out,” was the infamous mantra of Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture (1971-76). That is just what happened across America’s heartland, a hard reality attended by great waves of family heartbreak, widespread depopulation of rural communities, and a troubling cavalcade of contamination.
  • The Pope’s Encyclical called for broad, responsible scientific and social debate, a debate capable of considering all the available information and of “calling things by their name.”
  • In his encyclical the Pope included a telling remark instructive for America’s Land Grant institutions which are now so critically dependent on corporate financing: “It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they political, economic or ideological.”

In service to the actual human beings who are citizens, our public land grant institutions should not dodge this debate by pretending that it’s not happening. That would constitute an outright betrayal of humanity in favor of corporate hegemony over the earth. This is shortsighted in the extreme.

Go Sustainable, or Go Extinct

Rachel Carson sounded the alarm on the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture well over 50 years ago in her book, Silent Spring. Then in his book Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times (1978), Jim Hightower documented the reality that America’s land grant institutions were by and large turning their interest and focus from the working people of America that they were initially chartered to help, and instead more and more frequently casting their lot with deep-pocket corporations.

In light of the deeply troubling facts coming forward, especially now in summer of 2015, it’s time for everyone to stop, to take a deep breath, detox, and seriously to weigh the true costs and true consequences of their actions. It’s that serious. Industrial Ag business as usual is lunacy.

The realities of summer 2015 underscore the critical importance of the resilient, community farm and food initiatives that have been arising so dynamically in the US and abroad over the last 30 years or more. The emerging, networked community food movement with its emphasis on clean, sustainable, democratic agroecological farming systems – along with economic and social justice – arises in an era of vast environmental contamination.

Agroecology in its many permutations offers a multitude of pathways for reforming and redeeming our farm and food systems. We can have clean agriculture, and we can use it to help cleanse and heal our distressed lands.

seekingAs we move from summer 2015 on to December, the United Nations will sponsor in Paris the 21st session of the Conference on Climate Change: COP21. This will be a huge event. The conference aims to demonstrate the commitment of non-state actors (companies) to reach new legal agreements that will help protect the earth.

Among the ideas being floated is something that appropriates the acronym CSA, which for 30 years has been recognized as a term of integrity referring to Community Supported Agriculture.

But now through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which floated the concept, corporate actors are now promoting their vague, loosely defined concept of CSA. This second “CSA” ought to be clearly labeled as CSA, Inc.  It’s not about community. It’s essentially corporate green washing, a flaccid concept that is in no way makes corporations accountable to democracy, health, food security, climate reality, or the spirit of the land and the people.

borbee

Borage for courage, bee for life. Photo by Ferran, Creative Commons.

One must hope that in the context of the COP21 global gathering and all the troubling paradigm-shattering realities of industrial Ag, that the corporations themselves, the USDA and America’s array of land grant institutions will find the wisdom, the integrity, and the courage to change course. They can become leaders embracing and developing clean, intelligent, authentic community and global agroecological systems in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and the growing demand for food.

To date the most prominent global spokesperson for this kind of healing trajectory has been UN Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter. After intensive study of the big questions, in his final official report to the world on food, he sounded a salient summons to agroecology and food democracy. He urged swift and radical transformation of the world’s food systems, and emphasized the importance of rebuilding and strengthening clean, local democratic community food systems.

In what should be universally recognized by now as profound common sense, the UN Rapporteur recommended shifting the emphasis in agricultural policy from productivity and profit to “well-being, resilience and sustainability.”

In the spirit of calling things by their true name, and based on the realities of summer 2015, it’s time to uproot from our agricultural vocabulary Earl Butz’s menacing mantra: “get big or get out.” We must supplant that thought-form with something based on the realities of 2015, something wiser, something that serves human beings and the land we all depend upon for life: “Go sustainable, or go extinct.”


Our Responsibilities to the Animals We Eat

February 8, 2015

animalsweeatlEach year more than nine billion animals go to slaughterhouses in the USA to be killed, processed, and packaged into the beef, pork, lamb and chicken that eventually find their way onto our dinner plates. It is an industrial process on a staggeringly vast scale, and it has some fundamental problems.

While the number of animals fated to pass through industrial processes has continued to grow in recent decades, the number of independent family farmers who care for them has continued to decline due to high-efficiency corporate mechanical processes and confinement strategies that optimize profit. The animals have been relegated to “units of production.” The population of human beings in our rural regions in the heartland of America has, meanwhile, been decimated as family farmers have steadily fallen victim to vertical integration and the relentless economic demands of corporate bottom lines.

On Friday of last week I journeyed to Omaha – Gateway to the West – to be part of the annual conference of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS). The primary emphasis of the gathering was on local, sustainable community food systems. But the conference also featured a keynote address from Wayne Pacelle, the director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Mr. Pacelle is regarded with fear and loathing among industrial livestock titans who, with their mammoth Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have made Nebraska into a dominant force providing meat for our tables.

In this context over the last few years, HSUS and NSAS, partnering with the Nebraska Farmers Union, have established an innovative Ag Council to promote humane husbandry of farm animals. While Nebraska was the pioneer in this progressive action, eight other states have now formed similar Ag Councils, and more are coming.

So perturbed are corporate livestock barons about the specter of humane animal husbandry, that they’ve established phony “public interest” front groups to wage a proxy campaign against HSUS. According to many observers, that animus has also been reflected in the actions of Nebraska’s Land Grant University. UNL has by and large cast its lot with industrial chemical agriculture and corporate livestock monoliths* while severing ties with NSAS because of its partnership with HSUS. As critics have noted, land grant universities in general have since the 1980s become less oriented to serving the human beings who are citizens of their states, and progressively more dedicated to serving the corporations that do business in their states. That’s where the money is.

Wayne Pacelle at the NSAS conference. "Farmers should be leading the way in the humane treatment of the animals we eat. (Author photo)

Wayne Pacelle at the NSAS conference. “Farmers should be leading the way in the humane treatment of animals.” (Author photo)

“Animal welfare should not be a controversial subject,” Pacelle told the conference. “It’s a natural thing. We have been in relation with animals for millennia.”

“It’s not about animal rights, but rather it’s about our human responsibility to our animal relatives. We have duties,” Pacelle said. “Animal life does not exist solely for our exploitation. How do we handle that responsibility? Ultimately there is no escaping the moral issue. Farmers should be leaders in fulfilling our basic human responsibility to the animals who give up their lives that we may eat.”

Billions of animals suffer needlessly in confinement because they are bound up in corporate economic activity. The economics of industrial efficiency have spawned what might be termed a race to the bottom, not just for the animals, but also for the underpaid human beings – the farm workers and packing-house employees – who are charged with managing them.

As NSAS Board member Kevin Fulton noted during the conference, “There’s a direct correlation between moving the animals off the land and into the vertical integration of industrial confinement operations, and the socially destructive process of moving people off the land. We need fewer animals, and more farmers.”

If industrial food-production corporations continue to regard animals as just dull, dumb commodities – units of production to be fattened with genetically modified grains grown in oceans of glyphosate and pumped up beyond natural reason with hormones and antibiotics – then we are failing at our basic responsibility to be in right relationship with them.

* The University of Missouri has calculated the share of production held by just four firms in different sectors. In total beef production, for example, the share of the top four firms (Cargill, Tyson, JGF, and National Beef) increased from 69 percent in 1990 to 82 percent in 2012. The story is the same in poultry, pork, flour milling, and other sectors. Fewer firms control bigger and bigger shares of total production, making it progressively harder for other farmers to get fair prices or earn a living from their production.


CSA Farms: Actual Farm-Community Alliance or Alternative Marketing Strategy?

January 27, 2015

vegetablesAgrarians often remark in one context or another that they feel farming went off course when people started trying to run farms as a business instead of as a way of life. At that point they say farming was no longer a culture of the land, but rather a business of the land — a business that has metastasized over decades to become the modern, chemically-fueled behemoth of industrial agribusiness.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been planted and cultivated in the context of the increasing dominance of industrial agriculture and the ongoing decline of the traditional family farm. Over the last 28 years many thousands of people have recognized in CSA a vehicle for approaching food, land, environment and community in a different way. But there is a creeping risk that CSA could be diverted down a course more devotedly focused on monetary profit and business efficiency in service to profit. In so doing the movement risks losing its bearings on the matters of  agricultural, social and environmental renewal that were intrinsic to the original concept.

Increasingly over the last decade, as more and more businesses have seen a marketing opportunity and begun to describe themselves as CSAs, extension services and educators have also advanced the idea of CSA as a “marketing approach” or “marketing tool.” Yet an emphasis on marketing is in many respects the antithesis of what CSA started out to become, and what it still has the potential to become. CSA was not initiated as a way to sell food. It was about communities of people directly supporting specific farms, and in reciprocity farms directly supporting specific people in specific communities.

Many agricultural initiatives claiming the status of CSA do in fact approach it as simply a marketing strategy — just another way for a farm to sell vegetables and to earn money. Such initiatives fill a true need, no doubt. But they veer from the core ideas of CSA, ideas which are eminently worthy of recollection. In my view, the agricultural, environmental, social and health ideals are still very much worth striving for.

When a “CSA” puts its central focus on profit, by that very act it modifies or mutates the spirit of the movement and fundamentally becomes something else – ‘Genetically Modified CSA,’ you might say. That something else may be a fabulous business idea that is doing an effective job of fulfilling a real need for consumers. That’s admirable. But the business is not a CSA, and the use of CSA as a descriptor for such businesses undermines the efforts of true community supported farms.

Profit-centered enterprises have over time eroded the integrity of the term “natural” so that it has little relevant meaning in the marketplace. No one trusts the label “natural” anymore because it can mean anything the labeler wants it to mean. Likewise, the meaning of words like “green” and “sustainable” has mutated over the decades. Those terms have been deliberately compromised to cover an ever-widening range of  ideas and tools, and in some cases the terms have been distorted to describe extreme industrial technological “solutions” for environmental problems, such as adding chemicals to the ocean to control pollution, or salting the atmosphere with microscopic metal particles in an attempt to prevent global climate change

Similarly, the term ‘CSA” may have its definition eroded. As Angelic Organics CSA farmer John Peterson told me last year, “A farm is not just an economic unit to produce food. It’s also a living social, environmental and educational organism…

THE-CALL-OF-THE-LAND-The“A CSA cannot be thought of as just a unit of economic production. That just commodifies the farms and farmers, as food is commodified also…You can’t have farmers beat into the ground working for prices set by wholesalers, trying to make mortgage and equipment payments and all the rest. You cannot have the stewards of the land struggling under that much pressure.”

As I hear it, the call of the land in regard to CSA farms has far more to do with communities of people coming together in creative, positive response to the agricultural, environmental, climatological, social and health challenges of our era than it does with retailing.

– by Steven McFadden


No No Nano: Macro-Objections to Micro-Machinations of Industrial Processed Food

October 2, 2014

“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” – Wendell Berry

Steadily, stealthily, corporations are driving the goodness of natural life itself from our food, and cleverly – though unwisely – infesting it with dim bits of microscopic material substance that are obscured from human awareness. I object. Wholeheartedly.

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Just as synthetic chemicals, manufactured additives, irradiation, and then genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been corporately imposed upon processed food, now a micro-invasion of nanoparticles is gaining momentum. Patented lab-created nanoparticles are even penetrating the realm of organic food, as the USDA’s organic program chooses to do nothing.

The invisible, insidious micro-mechanistic food interventions being aggressively advanced by industry are now incarnate via nanotechnology. That’s the practice of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale, and then incorporating the synthetic molecules into processed stuff, including our food.

The scale of nanotech is so infinitesimal that it’s a mindstretch for most people. A sheet of newspaper, for example is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

The chemical-food industry has already incorporated nanomaterials into dietary supplements as well as packaging materials and cutting boards. They claim their nano-products make food safer, and they have dozens of direct food applications in development.

A MishMash of Micro-Machinations
Overall, at this early stage of the 21st Century, corporations are churning out a complex mishmash of novel, man-made, synthetic materials to impact the industrial food chain, and eventually our bodies and souls. They are doing it with minimal or no regulation. Consider:

  • The market right now offers more than 300 foods and food packaging materials that likely contain engineered nanomaterials, according to the Center for Food Safety. Nanomaterials can cause damage to ecosystems by transporting toxic contaminants through the environment, potentially causing cancer and organ damage.
  • Researchers are now developing nanocapsules containing synthetic nutrients that can be released in your intestines when nanosensors detect a vitamin deficiency in your body.
  • Nanoproducts already on sale in Europe purport to smuggle fat through your stomach and into your small intestine. This triggers a feeling of satiety and manufacturers claim it can help people cut their food intake.

atomsNano is the latest dimension, but by no means the whole of the manufactured machinations impacting the corporately patented and processed food chain:

  • We are consuming a wholesale eruption of food additives. In the 1950s there were only about 800 food additives. Today there are an estimated 10,000, many of them dubious and provoking a cascade of health complaints. Since the days of the Bush-Quayle Administration in the early 1990s, the FDA has shrugged its regulatory shoulders. It provides no scrutiny of food additives to determine whether they are safe for human consumption. The government allows corporations to monitor themselves.
  • Over 275 chemicals used by 56 companies appear to be marketed as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Secret) and are used in many products based on companies’ safety determinations that, pursuant to current regulations, do not need to be reported to the FDA or the public. This is probably just the tip of an iceberg.
  • The science is just not in on the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their long-term impact on health and the environment. Yet against the explicit recommendation of FDA scientists, the FDA does not test GMOs. The FDA, in fact, does not even have a testing protocol for GMOs. Since the Bush-Quayle era, the federal government has placed faith in the corporations and their dubious dogma of “Substantial Equivalence.”
  • Fake DNA is now worming its way toward our food chain. As Tom Philpott reports in Mother Jones, synthetic biology – synbio for short – is tantamount to “genetic engineering on steroids.” Synthetic biologists generate new DNA sequences for food the way programmers write code for computers. Like nanotech, food additives and GMOs, synbio foods may well also escape government oversight, independent testing, and the requirement of labels so people may know what they are eating.

This foreboding fiesta of micro-mechanistic manipulations to our human food chain is happening in the context of an assault of disinformation being perpetrated through both social and mass media. As reported by Reuters, GMO, chemical and processed food corporations have committed themselves to a multi-year, multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat attempts to require GMO labels.

The campaigns pursue a number of different strategies to manipulate public opinion, including false claims that there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and the oft-echoed meme that we (citizens and consumers) are just too stupid to appreciate corporate scientific brilliance. Meanwhile, well-funded attacks continue in efforts to corrupt or undermine the integrity of organic food.

My Macro Objections
Although in time some innovations may prove worthy, in general I’ve got a skullful of reality-based objections to these micro-materialistic manipulations of the natural world and our food. But for the sake of brevity, here’s a half dozen of my macro-objections:

1. Free Will. First, I object to corporate micromanipulation of our human food supply on the spiritual basis of free will. As consumers of processed food, we are not asked for input or permission. We are not even afforded the basic respect of being informed about the material substances being mechanically ingrained to alter our food. That constitutes a direct violation of free will. That’s unacceptable.

I suspect that – if more widely known – such fundamental transgressions would be unacceptable to the vast majority of human beings. With no corporate or governmental transparency there can exist no trust on the part of citizen consumers. That’s pretty damn basic, despite the info war to convince us that our knowledge is wanting, and that our free will is irrelevant.

Scientific research indicates that when nucleic acids are introduced into our foods – such as through genetic engineering – they can survive digestion and wind up woven into the fabric of our blood and our body organs. Corporate GMOs can become part of our human bodies, and interact with our normal, natural genes in ways not understood or predictable.

Thus, I object to having corporately designed, produced and patented genes intermingling with my natural genes without my informed consent, or my even knowing about it. My genes are a key part of the spiritual, biological recipe for me. They are sacrosanct, and not available against my will for corporate exploitation with their unknowable synthetic entities.

2. Relationship. My second objection is spiritual as well. It has to do with our relationship with the earth and the land and all the animals and plants that are part of our world. These relationships are integral to our health and well-being. The complex relationship of the web of life is identified and appreciated in both leading-edge science and in ancient native knowings concerning The Sacred Hoop.

web-of-lifeWhen corporate science isolates factors such as genes, and studies them short-term for isolated results, it’s examining perhaps half of reality, and ignoring the rest. That is dangerously myopic. We are part of a cosmic web. All of life is related and interconnected whether corporations allow themselves to be aware of it or not. When you pluck a single thread on the web and it vibrates throughout the whole. This basic reality must become a consideration for the entire technological realm.

The establishment of synthetic constructs between human beings and nature – as is the case with the action of many drugs, chemicals, GMOs and other materials concocted in the lab — causes distortions, and tends to incrementally divorce human beings from the natural world and its rhythms.

Many materials used in industrial agriculture have the capacity to enhance plant growth and performance. But at the same time they exterminate or otherwise suppress the billions of life forms found with healthy soil biology. Industrial-chemical agriculture has already diminished vast tracts of the earth into denser, dimmer material substance. This conquering and controlling approach to nature in the food chain tends intensify the material aspect and blunts the animating spiritual life elements. With chemical-mineral fertilizers, and synthetic chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, industrial agriculture systematically snuffs out or reduces life so that a dull monoculture may exist.

zomSoil forms the basis for healthy food, and food forms the building blocks of our bodies and health. Deader, denser soil yields duller, denser food which over time — as I see it — yields denser, duller people. Even our mental health is linked to healthy soil, rich in living microbes. So when the soil is deadened, ultimately the light (biophotons) in our bodies and souls is deadened as well. Metaphorically speaking, zombie soil gives rise to zombie culture.

3. Precaution. I object to the heedless velocity of these synthetic enterprises. As a core value, I embrace thoughtful, independent science and sober progress. I advocate accuracy of perception of the whole, not just a few precise but narrow peeks and pecks at the web of life.

For this reason I stand with the moral community in championing the common sense embodied in the Precautionary Principle. The principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action – in this case that would be the corporations manufacturing micro chemicals, synthetic materials, and GMOs for the human food chain. The fundamental level of conservative common sense expressed in the Precautionary Principle is generally missing from these enterprises.

The probability of major problems underlying this mish mash of mechanistic meddling with nature and our food is exceedingly high. The risks of GMOs are far higher than nuclear energy, and far less well understood. Statistically speaking, GMO risks are extreme, global, unknown, and perpetual.

With a fundamental matter such as human sustenance, we are wise to take a conservative stance and proceed more prudently, honestly appraising both the short and long-term consequences of actions on the web of life. This is the essence of Seventh Generation thinking, a core ethical principle in North America for many thousands of years.

4. Oversight. My fourth macro objection is that these manufactured micro materials are entering the market place, and eventually our bodies, with little if any regulatory oversight.

As established under the Bush-Quayle Administration, the FDA relates to GMO foods as part of a team of federal agencies that includes the EPA and the USDA. Their policies (unchanged since 1992) place responsibility on producers or manufacturers to assure the safety of the food. If a company tells the government their stuff is safe, the government takes their word for it. There’s rarely independent scientific review.

Meanwhile, both corporocrats and bureaucrats are busily striving to establish further hegemony for industrial food through new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA). These 600 pages of proposed rules tend to favor indsutrial-scale operations, and to place onerous burdens on small and moderate-scale organic and agroecological farm operations.

5. Mechanistic Metaphysics. My fifth macro objection is to the widely held corporate-scientific materialist yang notion that mechanistic “fixes” can and will trump nature. The industrial food juggernaut strives for control and domination, and apparently rejects the possibility of working in respectful relationship with nature.

free willWe see this kind of thinking embodied, for example, in many CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The animals, crowded together, are systematically injected with antibiotics and growth hormones at a notoriously high rate according to reports from a Reuters investigative team. Eighty percent of all antibiotics used in America are given not to human beings directly, but rather to the animals that we human beings eat. This practice of food-chain drug abuse is giving rise to superbugs that directly impact human health.

circleoflifmalsWith thousands of pigs, chickens, or beef cattle all crowded together and essentially treated as Units of Production in ruthlessly efficient industrialized settings, the creatures tend to be disregarded as individual, sentient beings, even though they are. Animals are our relatives, part of the Sacred Hoop or Circle of Life. They merit basic respect.

As with the CAFO meat factories, similarly utilitarian and materialistic ethics and procedures hold sway in the realms of micro and nano manipulations of processed food. The subjugation of living interests to the impersonal mechanisms of corporate profit-seeking by the artificial, mechanical “person” or “citizen” that is the modern corporation is establishing a chain of troubling consequences for the environment and human health.

This mechanical material approach of corporately striving to trump nature arises in a realm of abstract thinking. It’s devoid of connection to soul of the world and of human beings. It’s a kind of automatic intelligence, often disguised as science, yet so rigid and narrow as to disregard half or more of whatever it considers. The world is just not a material conglomeration of bits and mechanical processes open to ongoing exploitation. There are consequences.

6. Obsfucation. My sixth macro objection is to the obscured nature of the whole corporate enterprise. Almost all of this stuff that’s happening to our food is lacking in transparency, but is patented to ensure corporate profit and control. Without full-time vigilance – a challenge far beyond the capability of almost every citizen consumer – you cannot know what the chemical, bioscience, agriculture and industrial processing conglomerates are doing to the land and to the material substances they sell us as food.

Integrity of Body, Mind & Soul
I choose to stand on — and to eat from — conservative turf.  I also choose in my own life to buy, or to grow, and to consume what I have come to call “agrarian food.” By that term I mean to suggest food that is clean, that is grown with organic or agroecological techniques. I cultivate a large organic garden and I buy clean, natural food that is grown with sustainable organic, biodynamic, or agroecological techniques from a co-op (Open Harvest), which does business with over 100 local farms, and that I and my fellow townspeople own and manage for the benefit of our community.

Agroecological growing techniques have long, established solid track records for environmental and dietary excellence. Even the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is now declaring definitively that the world must change from  radically polluting, petroleum-based industrial ag practices to sustainable agricultural systems as the heart of our efforts to manage climate chaos. Agroecological approaches have become so sophisticated and dependable in recent decades, that they can supply all the clean food necessary to feed the world. And they can do it while improving soil, air, and water quality, helping to stabilize Earth’s climate, and enhancing human physical and mental health.

There is genuine 21st century wisdom in knowing your farmer, or in knowing where and how your food was grown and processed, or in having some kind of food firewall that gives you information and allows you to make informed choices for yourself and your family. Of this I am certain.

For the moment co-ops, CSAs, Farmers Markets and the burgeoning local food movement are the firewalls, and the clear choice for people who recognize the troubling mish mash of patented mechanical material corporate factors, ethics and practices at work on our daily sustenance, and who choose something that is clean, more natural, more full of life.


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