250,000 Farmworkers Protected from Deportation by Obama’s Executive Order



The United States became a more food secure nation last night after President Obama issued an order that would prevent deportation of up to five million immigrant workers—including at least 250,000 who are toil in the fields to feed us.

To borrow a slogan, if you eat, thank an undocumented worker. Approximately two thirds of the men and women who pick our produce, milk our cows, and slaughter our hogs lack documentation.

“The President’s action will allow at least 250,000 of America’s current professional farm workers who feed our nation to apply for temporary legal status and work permits.  Farm workers who have lived in the United States for five years and have children who are US citizens or Legal Permanent Residents, pass a criminal background check, pay all of their taxes, and pay a fee will be able to work and live in the United States without fear of deportation,” said United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, in a press release.

As they bend over in the fields today, farmworkers will still face grueling toil, low pay, and the lack of many basic labor rights, but at least they no longer face the prospect of being summarily tossed out of an ingracious country.

It’s a fitting coincidence that Obama issued his order the day before the national release of Food Chains, a terrific documentary about farmworkers’ struggle against oppression that is destined to take it place along side Super Size Me and Food, Inc. as a game-changer for how this country views its food system.

Click here to see the Food Chains trailer and for theaters and show times.

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If You Truly Care about the Plight of Farmworkers, You Must See this Film



Click here to view the Food Chains trailer now

 When I first traveled to the fields of Southwestern Florida in 2008 to research my book, Tomatoland, I came face-to-face with labor abuses that I thought had disappeared from the United States in the 1860s. Abject slavery was common. Four out of five women picking tomatoes reported that they had been raped and otherwise sexually abused on the job. Virtually all workers were regularly sprayed with toxic pesticides. Wage theft was the rule, not an exception.

Called ground-zero for modern-day slavery by a district attorney, Florida’s tomato industry was easily the most repressive agricultural sector in this country.

Today, it is the most progressive.

A terrific new documentary, Food Chains, that will be released in theaters nationwide this Friday November 21st, chronicles the story of how a group of impoverished and disenfranchised immigrant laborers banded together and eventually convinced 12 of the country’s largest restaurant chains, food retailers and agribusiness corporations to cooperatively work with them to fix these seemingly intractable injustices.



In on-screen interviews, producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) do a brilliant job of explaining the underlying forces behind farmworker abuses. The documentary’s cinematography is breathtaking—at times beautiful; at times heart-rending. The story of the workers’ struggles, setbacks, and ultimate success is captivating.

But one of the most valuable aspects of Food Chains is that it provides an opportunity far too few Americans experience, meeting and getting to know the fieldworkers who feed us—in their homes, in the fields, and at gatherings where they assemble to try to improve their lot.

Whenever I speak about tomato workers, someone in the audience asks, “What can I do to help?”

I often find myself struggling. There is rarely a simple answer.

Well here is one. Watch Food Chains. Please click here for a list of theaters and showtimes. If you don’t live near one of these cities, kindly forward this post to anyone you know who does and who cares about our food system.

After three and one-half years in the making, Food Chains has reached a critical juncture. It’s a fact of life that if the audiences on opening weekend are small, the film’s run will end. If they are large, the documentary will continue playing, exposing the truths of farmworker injustice to thousands of Americans.

These are truths every one of us should know.

Spread the word.  And please come see this fascinating film.

Thank you.



 Click here to see the trailer.

 Click here for theaters and times.


And if you’re in the NYC area on November 21 (Friday), I will be on a panel following the 7:45 p.m. showing at the Quad Theater, 34 w. 13th St.

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Genetic Engineers Develop an Appetite for the Humble Spud

Photograph by Simplot

Photograph by Simplot



Update: McDonald’s rejects GMO potato.


Late last week the United States Department of Agriculture gave its blessing for J. R. Simplot Co., a major supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, to begin planting a genetically modified (GMO) potato that the Idaho-based company calls “Innate.”

Although not the first biotech spud to be approved by the government (that honor goes to Newleaf, a variety developed by Monsanto Co. in the mid 1990s, but removed from production after five years because of consumer resistance), Innate has some traits that make it almost unique in the GMO world.

Most GMO crops (including Newleaf) are designed to benefit farmers and agribusiness by being resistant pests and the herbicides used to control weeds. They are often developed by splicing genes of completely unrelated species together—bacteria and corn, for instance.

Innates are lured to be less prone to bruising than everyday potatoes. They also produce less of the chemical acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen that forms when potatoes are deep fried, a benefit for consumers, according to Merck.

The second major difference is that bioengineers altered genes from wild and domestic potato varieties—not unrelated species—to create Innates. Simplot used a a technology called RNA interference, which deactivates specific genes—in this case those that cause potatoes to develop brown areas where bruised and those that cause the plant to make acrylamide.

Consumer advocates are none too happy about Simplot’s new form of genetic manipulation. “We simply don’t know enough about RNA interference technology to determine whether crops developed with it are safe for people and the environment. If this is an attempt to give crop biotechnology a more benign face, all it has really done is expose the inadequacies of the U.S. regulation of GE crops. These approvals are riddled with holes and are extremely worrisome,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture at the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in a press release.

The CFS claims that analysis of RNA interference by a panel of independent scientists requested by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there were many significant uncertainties about potential risks from this technology, and that current risk assessment procedures were not adequate.  “Despite such cautions, USDA is rushing the technology forward,” the group says.

Ultimately Innate’s fate, like that of Newleaf, may rest with consumers who don’t like the idea of  a bunch of bioengineers messing with their fries.

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Blunderdrug: Growth Booster for Beef Cattle Rears Its Controversial Head–Again

Hay, Merck! We're fattening just fine as is.

Hay, Merck! We’re fattening just fine as is.


I thought we’d seen the last of Zilmax, a chemical given to feedlot cattle to make them pack weight in the weeks leading up to slaughter. Merck Animal Health, which sold the drug, called it a “beef-improving technology.”

Although the drug added 24 and 33 pounds to carcasses, it failed in the marketplace. Grocery chains didn’t want beef from Zilmax-fed cattle because consumers complained about lack of taste and toughness. Besides, nobody was clamoring for bigger cuts of beef. One meat department supervisor grumbled that he had to start using larger Styrofoam trays to accommodate the brontosaurus-sized T-bones.

What seemed like Zilmax’s death knell sounded in the summer of 2013 when beef giants Cargill and Tyson announced that they would no longer accept Zilmax-treated cattle, citing animal welfare concerns. Cattle fed with the stuff often arrived at the companies’ slaughterhouses with hooves so damaged by the drug that they were unable to walk to their deaths.

The European Union and China (not exactly a paragon of consumer protection) banned meat from animals treated with the drug because of human health concerns.

True to form, the United States Food and Drug Administration, which approved Zilmax in 2006 (and is charged with protecting our health) took absolutely no action, even though its original approval was based on studies by scientists who received funding from Merck.

The situation became so bad that Merck voluntarily pulled Zilmax from the market in August 2013.

But, as it turns out, the company was far from ready to say good riddance to a loser product.

Instead it implemented the “Zilmax Five-Step Plan for Responsible Beef” as a way to reintroduce the controversial drug to American herds. The plan took one giant step forward when the FDA approved a new method of administering the drug in October, paving the way for Merck to announce that it would launch “In Field Use Studies” with cattle farmers that the company has trained to administer Zilmax according to its specifications. The company’s hope is that these studies will “help support the return of Zilmax to the market place in the future.”

One more reason to eat grass-fed beef, in case you needed one.

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Fish Die in Droves after Iowa Hog Farm Pumps Manure into River

Photograph by Lori Nelson, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

Photograph by Lori Nelson, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

During my many trips to Iowa to research my forthcoming book, Pig Tales, I lost count of the number of times government officials, university professors, and owners of large hog operations assured me that the state enforced strict manure-management regulations to keep the soupy manure, which is usually applied to fields, out of waterways and wells. “We have to account for every drop,” said one pork producer.

I also cannot count the number of times I was told by environmental activists and managers of municipal water systems that such assurances were a pile of, well, manure.

It’s time to score one for the environmentalists—though it’s not the sort of we-told-you-so moment they wished for.

Late last month a pipe ruptured at a farm in northern Iowa spewing 5,000 gallons of raw manure into the Little Cedar River. When Department of Natural Resources employees arrived at the scene, they found dead fish floating along a half mile of the river downstream from the spill.

At a time when many states were cleaning up their rivers and lakes, the number of impaired waterways in Iowa more than tripled from 159 in 1998 to 630 in 2012–a period of rampant growth of factory hog operations.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, seen by activists as a lap dog of agribusiness, responded to the pollution crisis by doing less than nothing—the department actually cut the number of factory farm inspectors from 23 to nine.

In 2007 the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa branch of the Sierra Club, and Washington, DC-based Environmental Integrity Project threatened to sue to force the Department to enforce The Clean Water Act.

The Department agreed to a series of changes, including reinstating some of the fired inspectors, conducting regular on-site monitoring of large hog farms, and increasing fines and penalties for miscreants.

It sounded great on paper, but as Lori Nelson, a board member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, told me—and last month’s spill demonstrates—words on paper mean nothing.

The one bit of good news to come out of Little Cedar spill is that the pollution was prevented from spreading farther and faster because the current was slowed by dams across the river built by beavers. If only the Department of Natural Resources approached its mandate as eagerly.


See also

Raising a Stink: Neighbors Win $11-Million Lawsuit Against Foul-Smelling Factory Hog Farm.


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Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. A Review

Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Take this quick quiz:

  1. Beef production is a key contributor to global warming. True or False.
  2. Overgrazing by cattle and other livestock causes soil erosion and desertification. True or False.
  3. Americans’ over-consumption of beef has played a big role in the obesity epidemic. True or False.

I suspect that many conscientious eaters would answer each of those questions with a resounding, True! I know that I probably would have done so before I read Nicolette Hahn Niman’s recently released meat manifesto, Defending Beef. Now, I’m pretty sure the accepted anti-beef dogma is wrong—or at very least too simplistic.

Perhaps it’s because I live in a New England state with far more rocky, sloping terrain than deep-soiled, flat land, but I have never fully subscribed the notion that raising ruminants is intrinsically wasteful and environmentally harmful. Cows grazing on grasses convert vegetation that humans cannot digest into nutrient-dense food and at the same time supply farmers with valuable organic fertilizer. It’s a natural cycle that has worked for millennia and lies at the heart of organic farming. My own vegetable patch benefits mightily from annual contributions from my neighbor’s livestock.

Niman, who was an environmental lawyer before becoming a rancher, agrees—and takes the argument one major step further. Large, grazing ruminants, she says, are critical to sequestering carbon in soils and enriching grasslands. They can play a role in curbing global warming.

In her view, the accusations against beef only apply to meat from cattle that are raised in massive feedlots on unnatural diets of corn, a practice she decries with vehemence equal to that of any anti-beef crusader.

Drawing from the work of ecologist Allan Savory and dozens of other scientists, Niman presents a convincing case that overgrazing is not the problem. The blame lies with improper grazing. Savory and his adherents advocate “holistic planned” grazing, an approach that mimics ruminants natural instinct to travel in dense herds, browsing everything edible in their paths, then quickly moving on to fresh pastures. Under Savory’s system, ranchers keep their animals in tight enclosures and move them regularly. The cattle’s manure acts as fertilizer; their sharp hooves “cultivate” the ground and embed grass seeds, and their browsing exposes young, fast-growing shoots to sunlight. Under this system, near-deserts have reverted to productive pastureland—and carbon that would have entered the atmosphere has been trapped in the process.

The second major accusation against beef that Niman tackles is that it is wrecking Americans’ health. She argues that our consumption of beef has fallen even as rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have risen. The real perps, she contends, are excessive sugars and carbohydrates, an argument laid out in detail earlier this year by Nina Teicholz in her book, The Big Fat Surprise.

Niman’s contrarian positions might be easy to dismiss, but she backs up her contentions by citing hundreds of respected scientific books and journals.

Her arguments won’t win everybody over, but she provides plenty of food for thought for omnivore and vegetarian alike.


Please click here if you’d like to buy Defending Beef through Amazon. Disclosure: This site receives a commission on any books sold through this link.


And before you bite into your next rib eye, you MUST take a look at these two photographs!

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Will Obama Follow Doctors’ Orders to Protect American’s Health?


Come on, Joe.

Come on, Joe.



It’s damn near impossible to get 93% of Americans to agree on anything, but that’s the percentage of doctors who told a recently released Consumer Reports poll that they were concerned about the common practice of feeding perfectly healthy livestock in this country constant low levels of antibiotics—a practice banned in much of the civilized world.

Groups that included Physicians for Social Responsibility, Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Physicians Alliance, in addition to the Consumers Union, have long held that feeding farm animals drugs creates strains of bacteria that resist even the most potent antibiotics. Infections from these so-called “Superbugs” kill 23,000 Americans a year, and many of the germs responsible originate on farms.

The Consumers Union also sent a letter signed by more than 2,000 medical professionals to Trader Joe’s, urging the niche grocery chain to stop selling meat from animals fed regular low-dose antibiotics (Trader Joe’s competitor Whole Foods Market already follows such a policy).

The Food and Drug Administration has known for nearly four decades that misusing antibiotics in this way is hurting Americans’ health, and has yet to take any serious steps to stop the practice.

Last month President Obama ducked the issue by telling cabinet secretaries to come up with a five-year action plan. He ought to act now—doctors’ orders.


See also:

As 125,000 Americans Die, Obama Resorts to Greenwash

The Rise of Superbugs

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A Dangerous Duo Is on the Loose Thanks to the EPA

If at first you don't succeed . . .

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

Weeds aren’t as dumb as you might think. Kill enough of them with a certain herbicide, and some will eventually figure out how to become resistant to that herbicide, rendering it useless. This fact appears to be lost on the scientists at Dow Chemical and the bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

So-called “Superweeds” have already become resistant to glyphosate, sold by Monsanto as Roundup, which farmers apply to 80 percent of the soybean acreage in the United States and 66 percent of corn acreage, according to research sponsored by the agricultural chemical industry. After being doused with the herbicide for two decades, at least 14 weed species in 29 states have evolved traits that allow them to survive applications of the popular chemical.

Dow’s solution has been to combine glyphosate with an older, even nastier herbicide called 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used in Vietnam. The new chemical cocktail, called Enlist Duo, is meant to be deployed in combination with Dow’s Enlist corn, soybeans, and cotton varieties, which are genetically engineered to survive the weed killer.

Earlier this month the EPA approved Enlist Duo, clearing the way for it to be applied to American fields, even though over one million citizens, 60 members of Congress, and 35 prominent doctors petitioned the agency to disallow application of a chemical that many claim has been associated with immune system cancers, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption, and reproductive problems.

The Center for Food Safety, a consumer group, vowed to battle the EPA’s decision in court.

But the final verdict may be out of the legal system’s hands. Enlist Duo has already sowed the seeds of its own obsolescence. Scientific studies (see here and here) have proven what should be obvious to agrichemical producers and government officials who allow them to use poisonous chemicals: Weeds will inevitably become resistant to the new herbicide cocktail.

By then, one fears, the corporations will have come up with another, even more toxic “solution.”

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“In Search of the Perfect Loaf:” A Review

Sam's Book Cover

I am not in the habit of reviewing books by friends or people who have edited my work and supported it financially. Sam Fromartz, the author of In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey, fits into all three categories.

But I found this book so informative and worthwhile that I would be remiss if I failed to bring it to the attention of anyone who bakes bread—or who wants to understand the art, craft, and science that come together to create this historic staple.

I envy Fromartz. He is a bread geek extraordinaire. He bakes beautiful sourdough loaves for his family (neighbor kids rush over to beg for slices when that telltale aroma wafts from his kitchen window). He once entered a baguette contest against the best bakers in Washington, D. C. (his home) and won. When Alice Waters of Chez Panisse—no slouch when it comes to appreciating great bread—held a benefit in Washington, she requested that Fromartz provide the bread.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf is a seamless blend of memoir and how-to. Serious bread bakers will want this book for the how-to information it contains. For four years Fromartz traveled to bakeries from Berlin, to Paris, to New York, and California and worked elbow to elbow with the world’s finest bread bakers, and makes readers feel like they, too, are participating. His journey makes for a fascinating story in its own right, populated with vividly drawn characters, every one a dedicated fanatic.

Unlike Fromartz, I am a bread geek manqué. I like to think of myself as the type of guy who wakes up at dawn, gets his hands all flour-y, and turns out perfect loaf after perfect loaf from a starter that came down to me from a genuine Forty-Niner. Alas, my one and only attempt at sourdough bread produced a product that was the size, weight, and texture of a paving stone. I have neither the patience nor the powers of observation to make anything that requires more than a packet of store-bought yeast and a couple of hours rising time on the kitchen counter. Besides, my neighbor down the road bakes splendid bread in his wood-fired oven and sells it at our weekly farmers’ market for less than four bucks a loaf. Why bother?

But thanks to Fromartz, I feel for the first time that I know what bread really is. I understand the mysterious lives of the yeasts that make a miracle out of flour and water. I understand how wheat becomes flour, and know about the other grains that go into breads. And most important, I see the care and craft that go into making “real” bread.

Even though he includes detailed, step-by-step recipes complete with timelines (“Morning, First Day; Evening, First Day, Second Day”) for nine different breads, it is evident that Fromartz feels that the most detailed instructions are far less useful to the novice bread baker than trial and many, many errors. But as this book makes clear, those errors are perhaps the most important ingredient in mastering the art of making a perfect loaf.


Click here if you are interested in ordering In Search of the Perfect Loaf through Amazon. Disclosure: This blog receives a commission from any books sold through this site.

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As 125,000 Americans Die, Obama Resorts to Greenwash

Thanks for the five-year reprieve, Mr. President.

Thanks for the five-year reprieve, Mr. President.

Salmonella are known killers. The food-borne bacteria poison 1.2 million Americans each year, resulting in 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. Astonishingly, it is not illegal to sell meat and poultry contaminated with salmonella, according to the current policies of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service—the folks who are charged with keeping this country’s meat supply safe.

Three years ago the USDA denied a petition by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) requesting that the agency declare four strains of drug-resistant salmonella adulterants, which would have made it illegal to sell food contaminated with them. These four bugs can survive regimens of modern medicine’s most powerful antibiotics, making them the worst of the worst in salmonella’s thuggish clan.

Despite the evidence, the USDA turned away CSPI’s petition. Agribusiness representatives won the day by making the rather counterintuitive argument that the potentially deadly germs were simply too common, particularly in poultry. (Early this year, Consumer Reports found salmonella in 97 percent of chicken breast samples in grocery stores.) Eliminating them, they said, would be inconvenient and costly.

After an outbreak of salmonella poisoning caused by poultry from California-based Foster Farms that sickened more than 630 people came to light this summer, the CSPI refiled its petition. A USDA spokesperson told the Washington Post that the agency “will give the petition a full review.”

What’s needed is not yet another foot-dragging “review,” but a quick, firm decision.

I would suggest that the USDA take an approach like the one they used in 1994 when they declared E. coli 0157 an adulterant after that bacteria killed children who had eaten tainted fast-food hamburgers. That caused yowls from the same industry groups that are whining today, but infections from that notorious bug subsequently dropped by 58 percent.

The CSPI’s move coincides with yet another example of the Obama administration’s paying lip service (and reaping huge PR rewards) to sustainable agriculture issues while doing absolutely nothing concrete to back up its fine words.

Last month, President Obama signed an executive order telling three cabinet secretaries to come up with a five-year action plan to curb the abuse of antibiotics. Many resistant bacteria arise on farms where animals, even healthy ones, receive regular doses of antibiotics. These “Superbugs” kill 23,000 Americans a year.

This delighted trade groups such as the National Pork Producers Council, who claimed that more research is needed.

It disappointed biologists, physicians, and consumer advocates who have long insisted that the time for action to curb antibiotic abuse by agriculture is long overdue. When five years have gone by, 125,000 more Americans may have died needlessly.

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