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May 29th, 2015

Merger Mania Spring Updates

By Tyler Shannon Grocery_Shopping_Dairy_Aisle_Woman

2015 is shaping up to be the year of food mega-mergers, which is bad news for consumers. Recently, Hormel announced its intention to acquire Applegate Farms. Over the years, Food & Water Watch has intervened in several of these deals to let shoppers know these mergers impact their wallets. It is difficult for most people to stay up to date on the host of changes sweeping through the food and agribusiness industry, so here are a handful of updates on some recent deals, long-standing food antitrust cases and a few rumored mergers. Read the full article…

May 28th, 2015

Cutting Off People’s Water is Just Damn Wrong

By Wenonah Hauter

Food & Water Europe Works to Protect Human Right to Water

Separated by over 500 miles, Detroit and Baltimore share a few common qualities. Both once thriving steel towns, the cities now face major economic problems. While a recent Pew poll ranked Detroit worse than Baltimore across several important indicators such as unemployment, median household income, poverty and those without health insurance, both of these cities with large African American populations are hurting. This is particularly evidenced by one indicator not featured in Pew’s poll that nonetheless speaks volumes about the overall health of each city—residents of both cannot afford to pay their water bills.

Last summer, thousands of Detroit residents who were behind on their water bills lost access to water service, and in March, Baltimore announced it would disconnect water service for 25,000 customers. If you’ve followed this issue in the mainstream media as we have, you’ll know that many publications are reporting “delinquent payments” as the cause of this crisis. But what they’re actually both experiencing is water affordability problems.

Many of us take for granted the fact that when we turn on the tap, water flows out of it. But many low-income people in the United States can no longer count on that. Instead, they must choose between spending their limited financial resources on transportation to low wage jobs, or heating their homes; between buying medicine and keeping their water on. It’s a perpetual losing battle and in many cases, water falls by the wayside.

In Detroit, nearly 40 percent of residents and more than half the city’s children live in poverty. The city’s unemployment rate as of February 2015 is 12.5 percent—more than twice the national rate. Over the last decade, water and sewer bills there have more than doubled. Nearly a quarter of all Baltimoreans live in poverty and one-third of Baltimore households earn less than $25,000 a year. Yet the typical household paid about $800 dollars a year on water and sewer services, as water rates have tripled over the past 15 years and continue to increase. The economic conditions in these cities simply prohibit many from being able to afford water service.

The United Nations Development Programme set a threshold for affordable water and sanitation at three percent of household income. Water rates in each city exceed that by considerable margins.

What’s particularly tragic and frustrating about the water shutoffs in Detroit is that they could have been avoided. In 2006, the Detroit City Council approved a Water Affordability Plan, supported by the Michigan Welfare Right Organization and the People’s Water Board. The DWSD chose to implement its own plan instead, directed towards households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan’s major flaw is that it’s only applicable after a customer is facing or experiencing a water shutoff. Similarly, the 10/30/50 water plan developed last year by Mayor Mike Dugan and the DWSD also requires households to already be behind on their bills to qualify.

In Baltimore, one-third of residents cannot afford their water rates based on this UN metric. Baltimore’s existing low-income assistance program is also inadequate. The city currently offers a grant of $161 to certain low-income residents who are behind on their bills. But the typical annual household water bill after accounting for the grant is $643—still unaffordable to many, particularly the one in five households that earn less than $15,000 a year.

Why wait that long? Why wait until the house is burning down to make sure it’s supplied with figure extinguishers? Why not make water more affordable so that nobody is ever forced to choose between going hungry or enjoying unfettered access to safe, clean, affordable water? Water is not a privilege, after all. It’s a human right, as recognized by the United Nations.

It is clear that instead of shutting off water service to low income people, both cities need more effective assistance programs. The Water Affordability Plan proposed by Detroit community advocates is preventative, allowing water customers to avoid have their water service shutoff. The plan is based on income, and qualification is determined by the ratio of a household’s utility bill to its income. What’s key here is that a customer doesn’t have to already be in default to qualify.

The larger issue however, is that local water bills are increasing because federal funding to community water systems has declined dramatically. The federal share of capital investment in water systems peaked in 1977 at 63 percent, but fell to a record low of 7 percent in 2006 under the Bush administration. After a slight boost in 2010 to 12 percent from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan, it fell to 9 percent last year. Water service is too important to be left to the whims of politics, which is why we need a steady, dedicated source of federal funding in the form of a water trust fund. The experience of those in Baltimore and Detroit who are without water illustrates this very point.

For more information on Detroit’s water problems, read our new issue brief, Detroit Needs a Water Affordability Plan. For more information on Baltimore’s water problems, read this issue brief. Tell elected officials to stop the water shutoffs by taking action here.

May 27th, 2015

New Data Shows Factory Farms are a #LoadOfCrap

FBLP_1505_FacFarmReport-C1By Wenonah Hauter

If you wander through Times Square through July, you will see an electronic billboard we unveiled last week—Factory Farms Are a #LoadOfCrap. That’s because factory farms produce more than just the majority of the meat, milk and eggs we consume—they breed disease, misery and pollution. In fact, every day, America’s factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building.

It’s therefore fitting that following on the heels of this important public service announcement, we unveiled today our latest Factory Farm Map and released a companion report, Factory Farm Nation: 2015 Edition. The Factory Farm Map uses U.S. Department of Agriculture census data dating as far back as 1997 to show how factory farms are getting larger—at the expense of the public, as well as small and medium sized farmers. For instance, the total number of animals on the largest factory farms increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012.

It’s a trend we ignore at our own peril.

Larger factory farms are a symptom of the increasing consolidation of our nation’s food system. Rather than obtaining our food from a large variety of independent companies, most of us get our food from hungry agribusiness giants that are systematically gobbling up smaller companies. In many cases, large companies are merging with one another, creating foodopolies that control every link of the food chain. If you’re wondering why the Jolly Green Giant is so big and happy, it’s because he just ate several other companies for lunch.

The larger factory farms get, the more problems they create. Larger factory farms mean more animals crammed into disgusting, cramped quarters. To compensate for these tough conditions, industry relies on constant use of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics on factory farms breeds resistance to antibiotics elsewhere, meaning that these life-saving medicines are less effective when we most need them.

Factory farms also generate waste, and by that we mean crap. It’s not something to which the general public is usually privy. That’s because factory farms are usually set away from the public eye, but also because of ag gag laws that are intended to obscure the terrible conditions on factory farms. In 2012, alone, livestock on factory farms produced 369 million tons of manure—about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This is enough manure to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times. Unlike sewage produced in cities, the waste on factory farms does not undergo any treatment.

With nowhere to put this waste, it’s stored in giant pits or lagoons, and then eventually spread on fields as fertilizer, often in amounts that far exceed what the land can absorb or crops need to grow. It’s also important to note that manure from these operations contains nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria that can endanger the environment and public health. You don’t want this stuff anywhere near your drinking water, but that’s often where it ends up.

Waste from factory farms is an enormous problem, one that we cannot begin to curb through market-based approaches such as pollution trading, which should really be called “Pay-to-pollute.” These schemes don’t actually stop factory farms from polluting; they just spread waste around, even to other impaired watersheds. Factory farms concentrate too many animals – and too much waste – in one place. The only solution is to regulate factory farm pollution.

I could go on for days about factory farms, and how they’re both indicative of, and caused by a corporate foodopoly run amok. But instead I’ll leave you to read our report and to explore our map. Click over to www.factoryfarmmap.org to take a look at factory farms in your area and how they affect you and your community. And don’t forget to join the conversation on social media—tell us why you oppose factory farms using the hashtag #LoadOfCrap.

May 26th, 2015

Exclusive: Water Defense Video Shows Tar Balls, Oil Slicks Near Kern County Irrigation Site

By Darcey Rakestraw

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published Water Defense’s results of testing it has conducted on recycled oil field wastewater used to irrigate crops in California. Over a two-year time period Water Defense’s Chief Scientist, Scott Smith, collected samples from treated water sold to the Cawelo Water District. The results? The water contained powerful industrial solvents toxic to humans—higher than he’d seen previously at oil spill sites. Industry officials and the water district told the Times they think the water is safe for crops, citing that they are complying with testing requirements.

In a video released today, Scott takes us to the meeting point of the freshwater and the recycled water for irrigation. Scott told us the tar balls and oil slicked water he saw were just like what he witnessed from the Gulf oil spill. We talked to him about how this practice has been monitored, and what this news means for advocates for our food and water.

Darcey Rakestraw: You’re obviously passionate about exposing water contamination from the oil industry. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this work?

Scott Smith: The world is running out of clean water and we must educate millions of people quickly if we are to protect our water resources for future generations. I am passionate about diagnosing water contamination problems and solving them with environmentally responsible solutions. The real problem in California and many other states stems from elected officials and regulators not serving the best interests of the people they represent, allowing the oil industry to pollute while refusing to adequately test the water or enforce proper testing.

My life and business were wiped out in oil contaminated flood waters in 2006. When I realized that there was no effective technology to remove oil from water, I became obsessed with developing a technology that could. developed one based on biomimicry, which was adopted in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010. My invention helped preserve and protect the sensitive wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

While working side by side with fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, I witnessed people getting very ill from the oil contaminated water and yet the water was being declared free of oil using testing methods that were incomplete and gamed. Believe it or not, it was the elected officials and regulators that were gaming the test results.

When I discovered this, I felt obligated to educate the rest of the world in order to drive changes in water testing. I made it my life’s mission and developed new testing methodologies that could not be easily gamed and could detect the full gamut of chemicals in the water, from oil and related chemicals to endocrine disrupting metals and metalloids. You can’t solve any problem until you identify the problem.

DR: How did you join up with Water Defense?

SS: In 2013 during the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, I was testing and identifying oil and chemicals downstream while the regulators and elected officials were declaring the water safe and clear of contamination. I ended up on a few YouTube channels and in the news. It was at this time, John Pratt and Mark Ruffalo of Water Defense found me, reached out to me on Twitter, and set up a meeting with me later in the year. Shortly after that they asked me to join them at Water Defense. We have done a lot of work since then on putting together a system that will empower people and communities to know how their water is being harmed by polluters. Mark told me this was where the environmental movement was weak. They did not have good, easy to deploy, independent and relatively inexpensive water testing. Most polluted communities had to rely on state agencies or the polluters to get test results. We saw in Dimock, Pennsylvania how the state agencies were withholding test results to keep from embarrassing themselves. They did not want to take responsibility for the contamination that was happening on their watch.

In all my travels I have come to see that this is the norm. We came to realize that we must let data lead the debate and that we were not getting great public water data. This is a game changer. Water does not lie. We can’t solve the problem without knowing what the problem is. Now we are armed with credible data. We can give that data openly to the public. Now they can debate with real science that is free from political contamination. They can literally take control of their own water quality. That changes everything. We have to put polluters on notice. We are watching you. We are there. The jig is up. They cannot be expected to regulate themselves and the entire way we monitor water on the state level could use real updating.

DR: How did you decide to focus on this issue (testing recycled wastewater used on California crops), and how did you commence collecting and testing the samples cited in the Times article?  

SS: Initially, a few people concerned about the issue contacted me. They wanted to know if the recycled oil wastewater sold to farmers and used in the irrigation of crops (i.e. almonds, tangerines, grapes, etc.) being promoted by the fossil fuel industry and state officials was free of chemicals of concern. I always viewed California as a leader in protecting the environment and quite frankly could not even believe what people were telling me. I thought that in no way could it even be possible that oil wastewater could be used to irrigate the food we eat everyday throughout the country. Since the Gulf oil spill in 2010, I have been to over 50 disasters where I have conducted water testing. So, I agreed to go to Kern County, California to investigate. Needless to say, I was absolutely shocked when I found myself surrounded by food crops with the smell of oil coming off the irrigation water. It was worse than what I smelled during the BP Gulf oil spill. When the test results came back we found dangerous and toxic chemicals in the irrigation canal system. This water was presumably already treated. The levels of these toxic chemicals exceeded what I have tested in official oil spill disasters. But this was not even an official oil disaster in Kern County. This was irrigation water to which workers and the community were exposed. If this were any other industry or a company not involved in oil production, regulators would have stepped in and fined the responsible party and/or shut them down. Its incredible.

DR: Were you alarmed by the findings, or did you expect the wastewater to show these levels of contamination?

SS: I found it incomprehensible that not only does the State of California allow this to go on, but that municipalities within the State actually brag about the practice of using oil wastewater for irrigation with incomplete and inadequate water testing.

DR: In a video on the Water Defense website, you talk about how companies and local officials typically take “instantaneous” water samples from the surface to test for contamination, but your testing involves testing the entire water column over time. Can you expand on why this approach is better?

SS: The instantaneous water testing is equivalent to a split second picture or a still camera. Water Defense cumulative water testing, on the other hand, is essentially a video security camera that monitors what exactly is flowing through the water over time. It is not an issue of Water Defense testing being better per se, but more complete in that if the chemicals are in the water, cumulative water testing will find them. While the instantaneous testing is helpful, and has its place in the toolbox of water testing, you can easily get a non-detect for that split second in the water when there are actually dangerous chemicals present. Instantaneous testing is subject to variability versus cumulative testing, and this can lead to false non-detects for instantaneous testing. Lastly, if testing isn’t ongoing and independent, it is impossible to know what is in the water. The good thing about our testing is that it’s very easy to deploy and very difficult to foul. We also happen to be independent. We are just trying to get the truth out to people and let them decide for themselves. People deserve to be told the truth. We believe water doesn’t lie. When testing is given priority then we can solve the problems.

DR: What did you think about the response of water officials quoted in the article? They seemed to downplay the findings.

SS: I really feel for the water officials as they are in a tough spot. They are confused and scared. I look forward to working with them in a cooperative and transparent way to preserve and protect the precious and declining water in California. There is no reason to be confused or scared because we can all work together to monitor the contamination and stop it. This doesn’t have to be this way. But someone has to be responsible here. Someone has got to oversee what is happening here. There seems to be a huge lack of oversight. It may cost more money on the front end, but when people start getting sick it’s only going to cost that much more. We don’t want to wait for the worst-case scenario, when all it takes is a little bit of common sense to know that if you aren’t careful you will be harming people.

DR: What other projects are on the horizon for you and Water Defense that you’d like to tell us about?

SS: I have never been more optimistic and excited about the future because it is our plan to make Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing a common thing. This is not rocket science. The Water Defense testers can be deployed by anyone. They are pretty much fool proof. We want to empower millions of people to be citizen scientists and monitor all the waterways in the country. In a few months, we plan to formally launch the “We Are There” campaign. It will be focused on taking action in the field with citizen scientists to deploy Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing to find water contamination. We want to bring people together to remove and stop the contamination. I have also recently consulted with the EPA on the proposed changes to oil and chemical spill regulations. This would include adoption of open-source cumulative water testing along side the grab sampling being used today.

The good news is each person that reads this can take part in changing the laws to better preserve and protect our water. By writing to his or her elected officials and demanding they contact the EPA to support these changes, people will be doing a lot to keep this type of thing from continuing to happen.

To learn more about Water Defense, visit their website, waterdefense.org.

To take action to protect California’s water, sign our petition to Governor Jerry Brown asking him to ban fracking.

Fast Track Update: Senate Bill Limps Across Finish Line and on to the House

By Patrick Woodall

Fast Track, LaborThe Senate ultimately passed Fast Track after a surprisingly contentious and difficult week of trade debate late last Friday night. The big business-Republican leadership-Obama administration alliance had hoped to generate momentum for Fast Track by scoring a swift and easy victory in the Senate.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised a “robust” amendment process, debate over amendments was cut off and only a few amendments were even considered. The Senate defeated important amendments to increase funding for assistance to workers who lost their jobs because of trade (offered by Senator Brown, D-Ohio), to prevent other countries from manipulating their currency and artificially increasing their exports (Senators Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio) and to prevent the corporate lawsuits against consumer and environmental protections (Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts).

But the Fast Track juggernaut fizzled in the Senate as stalwart proponents of a fairer global trade system highlighted the flaws for workers, the environment and consumers in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Fast Track limped across the Senate finish line after bitter debate between staunch opposition and shameless apologists for the corporate trade agenda.

Ultimately Fast Track passed 62-37, with fourteen Democratic Senators voting yes (Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) joined the bakers dozen corporate trade backers that joined the Republican leadership to begin the debate) and five Republican Senators voting against Fast Track with the majority of Democrats (Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)).

It was never in doubt that Fast Track would pass the Senate. The Fast Track proponents hoped an easy victory in the Senate would build a sense of inevitability as the measure moved to the House of Representatives. Instead, Fast Track garnered fewer votes than 2002 or 1991 and the anemic victory further deflated the hoped for momentum. In June, the legislation heads to the House where the Senate legislative hiccups will run headlong into stiff and bipartisan opposition that will derail Fast Track.

But only grassroots pressure can ensure our congressional representatives stand up to the pressure from corporate lobbyists and Washington insiders and vote no on Fast Track.

Contact your Representative right now and tell them to vote NO on Fast Track!

 

 

 

May 22nd, 2015

Iowa State University goes Bananas over GMOs

By Tim Schwab University_Building

When news circulated that the first people to consume a new GMO banana would be student guinea pigs at Iowa State University, the university community had questions.

A recently released, redacted copy of the initial “informed consent document” that ISU lead researcher Wendy White gave to students doesn’t appear to mention that the GMO banana has never been approved as safe to eat by any regulatory agency anywhere in the world, that there have been documented human health risks associated with some GMOs or that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.

After public controversy swelled around the feeding trial, ISU’s ethical review boards worked with White to revamp the informed consent document to include some additional “bulleted points” about GMOs. What appears to have resulted is a list of one-sided science, misleading citations and industry-funded research, not an honest, accurate, impartial assessment of the potential risks associated with the GMO banana.

From what we can see in these redacted documents, it’s hard to believe that cash-strapped students, tempted by the $900 stipend, have all the information they need about the risks associated with eating the GMO banana. In December of last year, Food & Water Watch joined more than 100 groups on a letter sent to Iowa State University, questioning the ethical dimensions of the university’s experiment with student subjects and highlighting fundamental scientific flaws in the research.

ISU has quietly delayed the research—but only because of quality problems with the bananas it had shipped to ISU—and refused to engage with stakeholders or answer basic questions about the research and how it fits into the mission of a public university. University administrators, who have rebuffed good-faith invitations from concerned ISU students and faculty, recently penned an oddly defiant op-ed in the local newspaper that defended the research project and extolled the virtues of the GMO banana.

What are the supposed virtues? The banana—actually a cooking banana (think plantain) that is a staple in the East African diet—is supposed to give consumers a dose of Vitamin-A. GMO supporters at ISU have made extraordinary claims about the banana’s potential to improve public health in countries like Uganda, a target destination for the banana, where many people are Vitamin-A deficient.

The GMO banana is following in the footsteps of the biotech industry’s last Vitamin-A GMO, “golden rice.” This crop has so far proven to be a colossal scientific failure, unable to deliver adequate amounts of Vitamin-A.

Syngenta and Monsanto, which helped develop Golden Rice, hoped this “humanitarian” GMO would help break down the well-founded resistance that many Asian countries have to GMOs, which has kept the biotech industry shut out of these lucrative agricultural markets. The GMO banana, like golden rice, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a pro-GMO group that partners with biotech companies. If the GMO banana is successfully commercialized, the primary beneficiaries will not be Vitamin-A deficient Ugandans, but rather the biotech industry.

While it may be true that many Ugandans need more vitamin-A, the solution to the problem isn’t high-tech, risky, expensive, ineffective GMOs. The solution is a balanced diet.

So why is ISU promoting a technological solution that would require a radical shift in Uganda’s agricultural policy (the introduction of GMOs)? Could it have something to do with the millions of dollars that the biotech industry is pouring into the university’s research apparatus? Or the fact that corporate agribusiness representatives sit on governing boards of the university?

As conscientious and thoughtful ISU students and faculty continue to call on the school to have a conversation about the GMO banana feeding trial, including through a recent petition (which you should sign), it’s time that the school stop its stonewalling and start engaging with the public. Founded by Congress and still largely funded by taxpayers, ISU should first and foremost be serving the public, including the farmers and consumers that depend on solid, independent science that improves the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

May 20th, 2015

Factory Farms Make Me Sick: Times Square Edition

Factory farms produce more than the majority of the meat, milk and eggs we consume—they breed disease, misery and pollution. We’re bringing this message to Times Square this week with this advocacy ad, which will run through July.

Watch below and tweet why you oppose factory farms to the hashtag #LoadOfCrap.

 

Take action to tell the EPA to regulate factory farms:

TAKE ACTION

 

And tweet why you oppose factory farms:

Tweet: U.S. factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building every day. What a #LoadOfCrap. Take action: http://ctt.ec/nH04p+ U.S. factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building every day. What a #LoadOfCrap.

 

Tweet: #Factoryfarms breed disease, misery and pollution. That’s a #LoadOfCrap. Take action: http://ctt.ec/cvlRc+#Factoryfarms breed disease, misery and pollution. That’s a #LoadOfCrap.

May 18th, 2015

UPDATE: Senate Begins Trade Debate

BlogThumb_WoodallPatrickBy Patrick Woodall

Yesterday, the Senate voted 65-33 to begin debating Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority, a few days after Senate Democrats prevented Republican leadership from bringing up the controversial trade legislation. Thirteen Democrats joined the Republicans in voting to start consideration of the Fast Track legislation that will be used to accelerate the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. No Republicans voted against it.

The bakers dozen corporate trade backers included: Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Thomas Carper (D-Delaware), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Diane Feinstein (D-California), Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and, the co-sponsor, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).

This vote was never really in doubt; the legislative setback earlier in the week sent a strong message that the corporate-Republican-White House trade juggernaut could not even ram Fast Track through the pro-trade Senate. Now the Senate will debate the bill and even consider some amendments, and that process will take more than a few days. Ultimately, next week or the week afterwards, the Senate will pass Fast Track. Then the legislation moves on to the House, where the considerable public opposition to the corporate trade agenda can derail Fast Track once and for all.

Contact your Representatives and Senators right now and tell them to vote NO on Fast Track!

May 15th, 2015

Why The Food Movement Must Build Power

By Wenonah Hauter

WenonahHauter.Profile

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Mark Bittman’s recent op-ed on the faults of the food movement provides a great opportunity to discuss how we should be engaging politically to demand a better food system; unfortunately, it misses the mark on why we are making limited progress on food policy issues. While it‘s refreshing to hear a food luminary acknowledge the importance of organizing, as a long time organizer, it’s frustrating to me that he never addresses the fact that winning means building political power. His piece also criticizes the large segment of the movement that has begun to build that political power on labeling GMO foods. This is not a recipe for success.

First off, Bittman questions if there is a food movement. But from the large number of national, state and local organizations and tens of thousands of individuals who are interested in a range of food related issues, it’s clear there is a movement. The real challenge has been translating that movement into building political power. For the most part, food activism has been focused on cultural changes and buying habits, not on building power to hold elected officials accountable for how their votes affect food policy. The emphasis has been on using dollars to vote for better food or corporate campaigns focused on making junk food a little less bad for you.

Granted, people are so disgusted with our political system that embracing a rallying cry about “shopping our way out” of the problem seems easier in the fast-paced environment that most people operate in. But I would argue that if we just focus on making corporations behave a little better, we have missed the chance to push for the systemic change we need. A democracy is based on holding elected officials accountable so that they vote in the public interest. The root cause of the sick food system (and most other economic and social problems) is our weakened democracy.

Changing this means organizing politically at the local and state level, and eventually translating this to electoral work and holding Congress accountable. One of the weaknesses of the food movement and all non-profit issue causes is that there are thousands of groups competing for funds to work on many critical issues. But, unlike right wing forces that have taken over the political system by draping themselves in the legitimacy of religion and the flag while carrying out the political program of the Koch brothers and multinational corporations, progressive forces are fragmented. The food movement suffers from this problem and many of the funding sources for food work are bent on addressing problems in the marketplace, not building political power.

The best way to build this political power is to organize around issues that resonate with people, engage those folks, and begin to develop long term change. Some issues like GMOs and bad labor practices easily resonate with people and lend themselves to political action. These represent exciting and important parts of the food movement, and ones that will win real and meaningful changes that they can see, but also will politicize large numbers of people who will learn more about systemic problems with our food system and democracy, and engage in other issues in the future.

We have seen this happen at the state and local level already. For example, a few years ago we launched a campaign to get arsenic out of chicken feed in Maryland. It took three years and lots of hard on-the-ground work, but, with our allies, we were ultimately successful in passing legislation that was signed by the governor. Now we are building on that to take on larger systemic problems with factory farmed poultry in the state, with legislation we hope to pass and then model across the country. Eventually, after being shamed by grassroots activists for exposing the population to arsenic in food products, the Food & Drug Administration took arsenical drugs off the market nationwide.

This is all hard work that takes education, time and significant resources. Bittman cites the Sierra Club’s work to close coal plants as a model for organizing, yet this is an atypical campaign because of the amount of money they have, which has paid for dozens of organizers and many expensive tactics like advertising and videos. Since 2005, they have received $38.7 million and donors have pledged $60 million more. As insightful and influential as Bittman may be, he cannot dictate the issues that excite people or write a check for the tens of millions of dollars the Sierra Club has had to close coal plants.

Organizing in most cases is about taking an issue that people care deeply about and helping to bring large numbers of people together to give them a collective voice. If it is not an issue that people feel strongly about at the grassroots, it is difficult to move it up the ladder of priorities for people.

Bittman may not think GMO labeling is an important issue, but millions of Americans do. They believe they have a right to know what is in their food and they are skeptical of the process by which GMOs come to market. They know that labeling is a step on the path to more protective measures around GMOs. They know that the GMO companion herbicide has been proven to have a range of health effects and that it should be regulated. Rather than chiding the work being done on GMO labeling, which effectively constitutes running interference for giant corporations like Monsanto, Bittman should be celebrating and supporting their efforts. Corporate and economic consolidation, after all, is at the root of the problems with our food system and the GMO labeling movement takes on one of the strongest and most consolidated industries – seeds. Already a consolidated industry, now Monsanto is pursuing a merger with the giant Swiss agricultural chemical company Syngenta, which will mean even more corporate control of seeds and the chemicals used to grow crops. If any movement to change the food system should be supported it is the movement to take on Monsanto and GMOs.

When activists get involved in organizing around issues, and they win, they get a sense of their own power to make change. They realize that their voice can – even in our broken democracy – make a difference. People who experience wins go on to stay involved. This is how movements are built: one victory at a time. There are many aspects of the food system that must be changed, but a list of issues is not really a program for social change. We need a broader vision for how we are going to build political power.

This blog was updated on May 15 to correct a factual inaccuracy.

May 14th, 2015

Biking to Work in the Motor City

It’s National Bike to Work Week and to celebrate, Food & Water Watch decided to interview one of our very own. Meet Meredith Begin, online organizer and cyclist extraordinaire.

How does riding your bike to work relate to Food & Water Watch’s mission?

Food & Water Watch Online Organizer and avid cyclist Meredith Begin

Food & Water Watch Online Organizer and avid cyclist Meredith Begin

Food & Water Watch champions access to safe food and clean water. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment. Transportation is also a key factor in people’s lives and has a huge impact on our environment. When automobile companies strategically bought and dismantled much of public transit infrastructure in Metro Detroit, they gained control over the business of moving people. Now, most Michiganders are dependent on cars, and suffer the added expense of auto insurance and gas. But I believe people should be able to have reliable, affordable choices in how they get around. By biking to work, I’m leading by example and helping to grow the movement to demand better infrastructure and safety for all road users. We shouldn’t have to be reliant on fossil fuel, auto and insurance industries whose bottom-line is not about moving people around but making a profit.

Do you really bike to work in Detroit?

Yes! I actually live about a mile north of the city line in a quaint city called Ferndale.

My shortest bike route from home to the office is 10 miles exactly, but my favorite route is about 13 miles.

You’ve said some areas of Detroit are “pretty country.” What do you mean by that?

Well, I’ve seen some pretty wild animals — a lot of pheasants, which are quite beautiful birds!

Detroit had a population around 3 million at one point, so space-wise, it’s pretty big. Now, with a population of less than 800,000, the neighborhood roads have far less traffic than planned and there is a lot of open space, ideal for urban farms, apple orchards and even aquaculture facilities!

Why take on the Motor City by bike?

Oh, wow. I get this question a lot, especially in Metro Detroit, and could probably write a book on the topic.

It’s perhaps important to know that my bicycle was my primary mode of transportation for over 10 years when I lived in Washington, DC. It was faster than walking or taking the bus. And more often than not, it was faster than driving — maybe not for everyone, but the four years I spent as a bike messenger before joining the Food & Water Watch team (seven years ago!) gave me the skills and physical ability to bike far and fast.

I never really thought I’d be traversing the Motor City by bike but my decision to move “back home” allowed me to take on the challenge. So, when I’m asked, some of my favorite answers include “I prefer to burn calories over fossil fuels any day,” and “life is about the journey, not the destination.” But, really, the reasons are endless.

Here are my top five reasons I bike to work:

  1. I get to bike through a variety of neighborhoods and experience Detroit in a way very few do.
  2. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels.
  3. Morning exercise wakes me up.
  4. Biking makes it easier to patron local establishments
  5. The commute is just downright FUN!
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