The Dirty Secret in the Farm Bill

Some big questions remain.

Some big questions remain.

Provisions in the farm bill passed by the Senate this week have set the stage for Big Ag to win a monumental shell game. The hapless victims will be American taxpayers.

Currently, commodity farmers get handouts totaling about $5 billion per year from the government in direct subsidies, whether they need them or not. Large farms and agricultural corporations receive most of this largesse. Under the new Senate bill, these subsidies would disappear and be replaced by a $9-billion expansion in crop insurance support, which reimburses farmers for losses caused by weather.

Crop insurance is really just handout by another name. The government picks up nearly two thirds of the cost of premiums. It also pays private insurance companies more than $1 billion a year oversee the policies. But at least in theory, benefits are paid out only to the farmers who actually need them.

This is where political sleight-of-hand enters the picture. Commodity subsidies received by individual farmers are part of the public record and are published in a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC nonprofit.

In contrast, crop insurance payouts are confidential. Even though their money is being spent, taxpayers have no way of knowing who gets how much. How convenient, if you happen to be a wealthy farmer who might not want others to know how deeply your face is planted in the public trough.

Take the example of Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican. Last month he vigorously argued in favor for slashing $20 billion from the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) which helps feed nearly 50 million needy Americans.

In support of his stance, he hauled out the Bible, quoting from Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

What the Congressman, who is also a well-to-do farmer, failed to mention is that over the past dozen years he has pocketed farm bill crop subsidies totaling $3.5 million. Last year his take, according to the EWG, was close to $70,000 in subsidies alone, more than twice the median income for Tennessee families.

At least Rep. Fincher’s hypocrisy was exposed. If the provisions of the Senate bill become law, similar shenanigans may never see the light of day.

As the House of Representatives begins to take up the farm bill, lawmakers who like to base their legislative decisions on Biblical quotations should reflect upon the following verse from Luke: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.”

FOR MORE DAILY COVERAGE OF FOOD NEWS VISIT CIVIL EATS

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Paul Greenberg on the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone–and How to Fix it.

In the latest Food & Environment Reporting Network report, in partnership with The American Prospect, reporter Paul Greenberg, author of the New York Times bestseller Four Fish, tells the story of how the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is the  result of decades-long U.S. agricultural practices and investigates some of the promising solutions to fixing its future.

The story, “A River Runs Through It,” features a first look at some of the key players working to keep nutrients out of the Gulf, from a Minnesota conventional commodity farmer to a leading scientist who has studied the marsh ecosystem for 25 years, to a MacArthur genius grantee in Louisiana, who was one of the first to shed light on the dead zone phenomenon. Greenberg also talks with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who supports voluntary interventions. “Part travelogue down the Mississippi River, part intense conversation with those who want to fix the dead zone, part mourner’s prayer for a way of life that is under threat, ‘A River Runs Through It’ is a remarkable piece–and I’m delighted the Prospect is publishing it,” said Kit Rachlis, The American Prospect’s Editor-in-Chief. The story was photographed by Dennis Chamberlin, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist and an associate professor of journalism at Iowa State University, while Switchyard Media of Seattle produced the infographic. “This story was kind of a ‘perfect storm,’ because Paul’s such an exceptional reporter and writer,” said FERN Editor-in-Chief Sam Fromartz. “But we also knew Dennis’s memorable photos and Switchyard’s strong visual storytelling would engage readers as well. The American Prospect worked hand-in-hand with us through the entire process.” You can read the full report on the dead zone at The American Prospect, or here on FERN’s Web site,

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The FDA Could Soon Approve GMO Frankenfish

Salmon-GMO (2)

The following very timely post was written on April 26 by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman for the Onearth blog.

Today marks the deadline for public comments on a genetically modified salmon currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the fish will be the first transgenic animal ever to enter the human food supply. Some say it’s about time. In an op-ed that appeared last month in the New York Times under the title “Don’t Be Afraid of Genetic Modification,” science writer Emily Anthes explained that the company behind the fish, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, has been waiting more than 17 years for approval of its product.

Anthes, author of the just-published Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, called the FDA’s extension of the comment period on its environmental assessment (the original deadline was back in February) “just one more delay in a process that’s dragged on far too long.” The tests were in, she suggested, and the diagnosis an obvious one. Couldn’t we please put this poor company out of its misery and give its salmon the green light already?

Not so fast. . . .

READ THE REST AT ONEARTH BLOG

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The Rise of Super Bugs

A rosy picture?

Last fall I flew halfway across the country to go grocery shopping with Everly Macario. We set out from her second-story apartment in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago and walked to the supermarket to buy a couple of rib steaks that Macario planned to serve to her husband and two children, ages 7 and 13. Macario, who is 46, holds a doctorate in public health from Harvard University and has spent decades as a consultant, working to prevent deaths from chronic conditions such as cancer and cardiac disease.

 

Yet she believes that what she buys—or more accurately, refuses to buy—in the supermarket is the most important action she takes, not only for her family’s health but for the health of every person in this country. “I am determined that no product from an animal that has been fed antibiotics will ever enter my home,” she said as we walked along the meat counter peering at beef, poultry and pork. “I look for labels that read ‘certified organic,’ ‘no antibiotics’ or ‘raised without antibiotics.’”

 

It’s not the antibiotics themselves that are troubling: animals pass the drugs through their systems long before they are slaughtered and animal products are tested for traces of antibiotics. What really worries Macario is the increasing wave of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that might be traveling on her food.

 

Macario has reason to be vigilant. Her 18-month-old son, Simon, died in 2004 from an infection known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA, pronounced “mersa”). Simon was a husky, happy toddler. On his first birthday, Macario marveled to her husband that the baby had never been sick. Then one morning the boy awoke with, in Macario’s words, a “blood-curdling shriek.”

Read the rest at EatingWell.com

 

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The Pope of Pork: Meet the farmer who inspired Chipotle’s commercial in praise of small pork producers

The bad old days

Priest or pig farmer? Those were the only two callings that Russ Kremer ever considered. And really, it wasn’t even close.

Raised in the hamlet of Frankenstein in central Missouri, a few miles from where he still lives, Kremer wasn’t even old enough to attend grade school when his father gave him the job of bottle-feeding orphaned piglets in the house. By age six, he had graduated to tending sows and their litters. At eight, Kremer’s father handed him a recently weaned female and said, “She’s yours.” Kremer named her Honeysuckle and raised her like a pet, often lying beside her in her stall. She gave birth to 15 young — a challenge because she only had 13 nipples. Normally, at least three piglets would have died, but Kremer switched the babies on and off their mother during the critical early weeks. All 15 survived.

Happy days are here again.

For a time as a teenager, Kremer, a devout Catholic, considered becoming a priest. “I was always a person of faith,” he says. “I went to Catholic schools and was inspired by the work priests did to help people.” Even today, his voice, a soft twang, can take on reverential tones when he talks about his animals, and he’s been a life-long bachelor. But when he realized that he could never minister to a congregation and raise a herd of swine at the same time, he headed off to the University of Missouri, got a degree in animal husbandry, and returned home.

Instead of the catechism, he followed the canon of modern agribusiness.

To get more profit from the land, which his family had farmed for five generations, Kremer erected a long, low warehouse-like building and cycled 2,400 hogs a year through his operation. It wasn’t pretty. The sows that produced his piglets spent their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates — metal enclosures barely larger than the animals themselves, which barely allowed them to move. The piglets grew up cheek by jowl in metal pens. Stressed and sickly, the animals were fed a constant diet of commercial feed laced with low levels of antibiotics. Slatted concrete floors allowed their excrement to drop into a vast pit below the barn. Massive fans pushed out poisonous gasses from the pit. In the mid-1980s, a thunderstorm struck in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning, knocking out power. Within a few hours, more than 200 hogs suffocated from the gas. Instead of going to church that morning, Kremer dug a pit and buried them.

“Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made,” he says.

The last straw came in 1989, when a 700-pound boar, eager to service a receptive sow, sliced open Kremer’s knee with one of its tusks. The leg became infected and ballooned to twice its normal size. Doctors treated him with a half dozen different antibiotics, but the virulent Streptococcus suisbacteria proved to be resistant to all of them. Kremer developed heart palpitations. His family was told to prepare for the worst.

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Civil Eats Relaunches–A Great Day for Food Journalism

 

 

Civil Eats, one of my very favorite sources of information about food-related issues, has just been relaunched, and I’m delighted to report that it’s better than ever. Anyone who has an interest in the material covered by Politics of the Plate should bookmark Civil Eats. You’ll be visiting it often for the latest from the world of sustainable food.

This from the Civil Eats editors:

When we started Civil Eats in 2009, we saw a need to create a trusted community supported blog about food politics, from policy being made on Capitol Hill to new projects seeking to change our food system sprouting up on Main Street and everything in between. Since then, we’ve had 2.5 million pageviews, with clicks coming from decision makers in Washington, D.C. and ordinary citizens across the nation. We are proud to have featured the work of over 200 contributors. We hope to continue to grow our readership and find new ways to inform and provide resources to everyone interested in food politics. Today, we share with you the new vision of Civil Eats (in beta, of course, while we iron out the wrinkles). 

Visit Civil Eats

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The FDA is Out to Lunch

The Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting our health, is a miserable failure

 

All of his life, Paul Schwarz had been active and healthy. When his family imagined the various ways the decorated veteran of World War II might eventually die, they never imagined that the cause would be a piece of cantaloupe.

On Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Schwarz complained to his daughter Janice of abdominal pains and a slight fever. She took him to his doctor, who said it was likely a case of stomach flu. By Thursday the symptoms had worsened, and Schwarz had developed diarrhea. Janice took him to the emergency room. Once again flu was the diagnosis, and he was sent home. For a time, his condition improved. He called his son, also named Paul, that Sunday and cheerfully assured him that he’d eaten a big breakfast and felt a lot better.

But on Monday morning the younger Paul received an urgent phone call. His father had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, unable to move his legs. In the coming weeks his behavior grew erratic, and he began thrashing in his bed, hollering, and behaving like a drunk. Usually gentle, he was combative with the nurses. “The devil has a hold of me and won’t let go,” he screamed. During a lucid moment, after Schwarz’s condition had stabilized, two of his nieces visited and had an animated chat with him. But after they left, Schwarz, who normally had a sharp mind, turned to Paul and asked, “Who were those people?”

Within a month, Schwarz no longer recognized his son. By then the doctors had determined that he was suffering from invasive listeriosis, an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium transmitted by eating contaminated meat, dairy products, and produce. The pathogen can lead to bacterial meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that causes headaches, confusion, and convulsions. It kills about one in six of those infected. Children, the elderly, people with depressed immune systems, and pregnant women are most vulnerable. On December 18, 2011, after a drawn-out decline, Paul Schwarz succumbed. He was 92.

Schwarz grew up in Fda City, Missouri, during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. In 1943, when he was 19, he married his 18-year-old sweetheart, Rosellen “Rosie” Clouse, and then marched off to serve as an infantryman in the Pacific, returning home a sergeant with two Purple Hearts. He and Rosellen purchased the house where she still lives in 1953, and raised five children. Schwarz was known for a loud, ready laugh and a twinkle in his eye that foreshadowed some practical joke. He remained active, playing golf until age 88, eating healthfully, accepting the occasional drink, and making sure that he and Rosellen, who was suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s, took their prescribed medications. Devout Catholics, they attended church every Sunday. After Mass they would dine at the same family restaurant, where they always shared a fruit bowl — grapes, peaches, pineapple, banana, and, fatefully, the cantaloupe.

Schwarz was only one of more than 100 patients suffering similar symptoms at the same time in 28 states.

Read the rest of this article at ONEARTH

More Posts by Barry Estabrook on the FDA

You Want Superbugs with That?

By Refusing to Ban Giving Healthy Livestock Daily Doses of Antibiotics, the FDA Puts Corporate Profits Above Consumers’ Health

More Cheap PR Stunts from the Folks Who Are Supposed to Protect Our Health

 

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Lose Weight by Eating the Best Food You Can Get Your Hands on. A Review of Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy and Really Well”

Dig in!

In the mid-1990s, Peter Kaminsky, a self-proclaimed hedonist, landed the perfect gig. As the writer behind New York magazine’s “Underground Gourmet” column, he was paid to patrol the outer reaches of the boroughs in search of the tastiest ethnic fare. When he wasn’t sampling Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Cuban, or West Indian cuisine, his duty was to discover little-known, up-and-coming restaurants. And as the magazine’s go-to food writer, Kaminsky was also called upon whenever the likes of Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, or Thomas Keller opened a new bastion of four-star-fare. Some of New York’s greatest chefs hired him as a co-writer (and taster-in-chief) for their cookbooks.

There was one occupational hazard. When Kaminsky, who is five foot-nine, became the Underground Gourmet, he weighed 172 pounds and wore trousers with 34-inch waistbands. After a few years on the job, he had crossed the 200-pound line and struggled to wiggle into XL T-shirts and 38-inch pants. The wake-up call came when his life insurance renewal was denied. “The choice was clear,” he writes. “Mend my munching or fast-forward to Judgment Day.”

And mend he did, shedding 40 pounds, getting his blood sugar levels under control, and regaining his insurance policy. Culinary Intelligence is the story of how he accomplished what many dieticians say is impossible: losing weight and keeping it off.

“Intelligence” is the operative word. Kaminsky tells his story with engaging, thoughtful prose–no gimmicky diets, no impossible-to-follow menu plans. He believes in gratification, not denial. “For a change in diet to succeed, it must be at least as satisfying as the unheathful fast food and processed ingredients that it replaces,” he writes. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to lose weight was so that he could look forward to many more years of drinking great wines and eating juicy steaks.

The guiding principle to eating intelligently (and with full pleasure) according to Kaminsky is by maximizing what he calls Flavor per Calorie, or FPC. FPC simply means consuming the very best food and drink you can get. Beer, which Kaminsky still enjoys, provides a good example of FPC in action. Guzzling a Coors fails to quench that beer-y thirst, so you pop another can. On the other hand, a full-bodied, hoppy, yeasty craft brew invites you to sip and savor its complexity. One bottle leaves you satisfied, and packs no more calories than a bland, industrial brew. The intense flavor of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables satisfies; there’s no need for high-calorie sauces and sweeteners to breathe life into out-of-season produce. A modest portion of grass-fed beef delivers more satisfaction than the dreary meat from industrial feedlots. And — critically — cooking those ingredients well (or living with someone who does) maximizes FPC.

Although there are few outright taboos in Culinary Intelligence, Kaminsky does point out areas where those trying to shed pounds go at their peril. If you want to lose weight, Kaminsky has three words of advice: “No white stuff,” meaning white flour, white sugar, white rice, and potatoes. He suggests you avoid desserts and sweetened beverages. All forms of processed food are antithetical to FPC. And he suggests you examine your diet for high value targets to eliminate. In Kaminsky’s case, it was pizza. As a pizza-loving writer working from home in Brooklyn — a pizza paradise — he was in the habit of nipping out at midday and heading to one of the many good parlors in his neighborhood. A little calculation showed that his pizza habit added the equivalent of two extra days’ worth of calories to his weekly diet — he was eating nine days’ worth of food every seven. Daily sojourns to the pizza parlor became a thing of the past, although he occasionally picks up a slice as a special treat.

Liquor can be part of intelligent eating — in moderation. Kaminsky urges readers to set limits and stick to them. After some introspection, Kaminsky decided that he could survive on one glass of wine with dinner, where his earlier self might have enjoyed three or four. One glass forced him to savor every precious drop and increased the satisfaction he got from wine.

In the end, eating mindfully rests on three commonsense pillars:

  • Don’t eat processed foods.
  • Buy the best, fullest-flavored      ingredients you can afford.
  • Make those ingredients even better      by cooking: the surest way to maximum FPC.

I ran into Kaminsky earlier this year at a reception at a hotel looking out over the Hudson River. He bellied up to the bar clutching a glass of red wine and extolling the culinary virtues of fatty, pasture-raised heritage pork. He was fit and trim — and, from what I could tell, partaking fully in the evening’s festivities.

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Seeing Red: Paperback Edition of Tomatoland Hits the Shelves. Plus!!!! PoliticsofthePlate Exclusive. A Link to a FREE Excerpt.

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Want a taste? Click here to read an Excerpt.

Praise for Tomatoland

“Smart and important book.”
—Sam Sifton, The New York Times

“The pleasures of Tomatoland are real. They’re strong but subtle and sustained. Mr. Estabrook’s prose contains a mix of sweetness and acid, like a perfect homegrown tomato itself.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“If you care about social justice—or eat tomatoes—read this account of the past, present, and future of a ubiquitous fruit.”
—Corby Kummer, TheAtlantic.com

Tomatoland (is) in the tradition of the best muckraking journalism, from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.”
— Jane Black, The Washington Post

“Masterful.”—Mark Bittman, New York Times

“Eye-opening exposé . . . thought-provoking.”
Publishers Weekly

“Estabrook adds some new dimensions to the outrageous . . . Story of an industry that touches nearly every one of us living in fast-food nation.”
—David Von Drehle, Time magazine blog “Swampland”

Tomatoland makes you second-guess your food choices. That Florida red tomato you’re eating? Yeah, it’s probably gassed to make it that red color, and it also may have been picked by slaves. Not so tasty, eh?” —Carey Polis, The Huffington Post

“Read award-winning journalist Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, and you won’t look at a tomato in the same way again . . . Estabrook presents a cogent case for reform, challenging everyone to stand up for what is good not only for the taste buds and the wallet, but also for the soul.”
Epicurious.com

“This is the sort of book you want—need—to finish in one or two servings as it will forever changes the way you look at the $6 burger.”
LA Weekly

Tomatoland has a moral force that I won’t soon forget. Estabrook makes it clear that the choice we make between a plastic-tasting supermarket tomato and fragrant organic farmer’s market tomato . . . says everything about our humanity, and our conception of America as a nation.”
—Michele Owens, Kirkus Book Reviews

“In the tradition of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Estabrook gives us the darker side of the fruit we so love. Readers who may not have been turned off the winter version of our collectively favorite fruit will certainly find reason here to pause before making a selection at the supermarket. Choose well, Estabrook reminds us.”
ForeWord Reviews

“Our favorite fruit may not be quite as innocuous and delicious as it appears.”—Salon.com

“Vital information that every conscientious eater—and parents of eaters—ought to know.”
CivilEats.com

“A must read for everyone who eats. I don’t care if you are in the commodity cattle business or feed your own family with a small garden. I don’t care if you are a policy maker, extension
professional, molecular biologist, industrial mogul, minister, teacher, or what have you. Tomatoland illustrates how fundamentally bankrupt our current commodity-based, industrial food systems have become and offers a glimmer of hope for a food future that’s healthful for all involved. Read it and try not to weep.”
Grit Magazine

“Put Tomatoland on your reading menu. It will surprise and perhaps enrage you, but its final flavor is hopeful.”
St. Petersburg Times

“The buzz about Tomatoland, a scathing indictment of South Florida’s tomato industry, keeps growing.”—The Oregonian

“You can really stop at any point during the narrative and decide that you’ve bought your last supermarket tomato, but Estabrook is just warming up . . . a brisk read, engrossing as it is enraging.”
TheDailyGreen.com

“Corruption, deception, slavery, chemical and biological warfare, courtroom dramas, undercover sting operations and murder: Tomatoland is not your typical book on fruit.”
Maclean’s

 

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How to do Your Part to End Labor Abuses of Farmworkers

Every time I talk to groups about the plight of tomato workers—exposure to toxic chemicals, below-poverty wages and, all too frequently, abject slavery—someone comes up to me and says, “This is horrific, but what can I, do?

I have had no simple answer, until now.

The award-winning indie filmmaker Sanjay Rawal and his small crew of cinematographers, producers, and sound experts have spent the last eight months touring the country working on a documentary called Food Chain. They have amassed over 400 hours of incredible footage exposing the terrible conditions endured by the men and women who pick the food we eat. The tenacity of Rawal’s reportage leaves me awestruck. The outtakes I have seen of the Florida tomato industry vividly bring to the raw realities that I could only superficially describe in my book Tomatoland.

Now Rawal needs just $27,000 dollars to hire a world-class editor to shape his work into a documentary. When it is done, I have no doubt that it will reach thousands of Americans with the stark images of the underside of our food supply that the giant food companies, with their billions of dollars, go to great extremes to prevent us from seeing.

At the very least, check out this trailer on Kickstarter.

For as little as $1 on your Amazon account, you can make a difference. Please use the links below to Tweet and Facebook to your friends. This film has to get made. Thanks.

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