Category Archives: Published Works

Communities Organizing Against Big Pork

The editors at FoodPrint asked me to write a supplement to The FoodPrint of Pork (see post below), highlighting three of the dynamic rural grassroots organizations who are resisting the takeover of their communities by the pork industry. The stories of North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Missouri Rural Crisis Center are a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of rural America.

Published at FoodPrint, October 30, 2020

In the last 30 years, the shape of hog farming has transformed. It used to be that tens of thousands of small-scale farmers would raise hogs to sell at local auction houses. Today, hogs are being raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — huge barns holding thousands of animals. The auction houses (where the bidding of multiple buyers formerly ensured farmers a fair price) have been replaced by contracts, under which farmers raise animals for a large pork company according to strict specifications, and for prices they have little say in determining. In many instances, farmers no longer even own the pigs. Across the country, the number of pork farmers has declined by 75 percent over the last three decades, whereas the number of hogs being raised has increased by nearly 50 percent. Now, four companies — Smithfield, Tyson, JBS and Hormel — control two-thirds of the entire US pork market.

The loss of hog farmers has had a negative economic impact on rural communities. The proliferation of hog barns, by contrast, with their enormous amounts of waste, has led to polluted rivers and wells, toxic air and diminished property values. Industrial hog barns have also drastically affected the quality of life for people throughout rural America: in some states, the impacts are widely felt; in others, they are concentrated (with brutal precision) in low-income communities of color.

Many such communities, in Iowa, North Carolina and Missouri, have been fighting the power of Big Pork for decades, facing intimidation, massive losses, and getting outspent by millions of dollars. Their stories illustrate how the pork industry has captured state houses across the country and written laws enabling hog farms to increase in size — causing air and water pollution without restraint — and how farmers and rural residents have been able to organize to wrest back control of their communities and their environment.

The opposition to the highly consolidated, polluting and politically powerful pork industry is important in and of itself, and such valuable stories attest to the energy and tenacity of rural organizing. Agricultural economist and longtime rural resident and observer John Ikerd said, “I see the future leadership of our rural communities rising up from the people standing up and resisting the CAFOs.”

While much of rural America has been taken over by Big Meat, thousands of people across the country are resisting, and building an alternative — one that is democratic and people-centered, not based on corporate interests. For the future of all communities that are in danger of being subsumed by corporate greed, we must support them and follow their example.

Read the rest of the publication: Communities Organizing Against Big Pork

The FoodPrint of Pork

My deep dive on the pork industry for FoodPrint looks at the substantial political power that the pork industry has gained at the state and federal levels, and has used that power to trample the health, safety, and human rights of communities from the Midwest to the South to grow their own profits.

Published at FoodPrint, October 2020

Introduction

For meat eaters, bacon is a delicious staple that finds a home on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates. Yet that crispy, salty goodness hides some ugly truths about the pork industry.  Those truths were starkly revealed in April 2020 when pork processing plants temporarily shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. One of the largest to close,  a Sioux Falls, South Dakota Smithfield plant, waited more than three weeks to do so, by which time there were at least 644 positive cases and one death reported, and the town of Sioux Falls had become the single largest virus hot spot in the nation.

The closure of the Sioux Falls plant and others had ripple effects on farms and supermarkets across the country: with nowhere to send their mature hog for processing and no more space in their barns, hog farmers saw their prices collapse and chose to euthanize their animals instead, horrifying people with the cruelty and waste. As sausage and pork prices spiked at grocery stores and lines grew at food banks, Smithfield warned of potential long-term shortages.

When President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order to reopen the plants — much too quickly, according to public health experts, and with no mandated worker protections — things got even worse: by late June, just two months after the order, over 27,000 meatpacking plant workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 100 had died, while infection rates in surrounding rural communities were five times higher than the rest of rural America. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a problem with US pork supply at all: in April, the pork industry exported a record amount of pork to China.

…Download The FoodPrint of Pork report…

The Coronavirus Pandemic is Pushing Dairy Farmers to the Brink

Published at Civil Eats, April 8, 2020

Long before coronavirus upended everyone’s lives, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Brenda Cochran had been living in near-perpetual crisis. Five years of low milk prices have had the farm operating in the red, the family avoiding calls from creditors, and sometimes struggling to buy groceries. “There has never been a period of worse financial losses and … hopelessness than the past six years,” she said.

The U.S. has been losing dairy farms like the Cochran’s at a rate of nearly nine per day since 2015. Milk prices were expected to rise in 2020 for the first time since then, but the forecasts made a u-turn two weeks ago as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic began to upend the dairy supply chain. Now, dairy prices are in freefall. Even as grocery stores struggle to keep dairy cases stocked, farmers across the country have begun dumping milk that their processors have no room for. “There’s no one who can sustain this,” said Cochran. “It’s over.”

With dairy farmers’ reserves tapped out, the year that was supposed to be a catch-up is turning into a disaster.

…Read the rest at Civil Eats

How Rural Communities Are Fighting Farm Crisis-Fueled Xenophobia

Published at FoodPrint, October 9, 2019

There is a lot of bad news coming from farm country in 2019. Farm bankruptcies are up, due to five years of low farm prices, compounded by wet spring weather and the trade war with China. As in the rest of the US, anti-immigrant and white supremacist sentiment are also on the rise in many rural areas.

For many in rural America, 2019 feels like déjà vu. In the 1980s, a farm crisis swept through the heartland, shuttering over a quarter of a million farms. The decade saw a spike in rural anti-Semitism and other racism, as struggling farmers sought explanations for the crisis wherever they could.

There is a long history of rural white communities looking to racist ideology, especially in moments of crisis; blaming hardships on someone who doesn’t look like you can feel like an easy solution to your problems. At the same time there is also a long history of rural communities fighting back against these simplistic and hateful ideas, finding strength in unity rather than in division. Recently, Farm Aid, an organization that was founded in the heart of the 1980s farm crisis, convened meetings in Wisconsin highlighting how farmer organizers in the 1980s addressed racist extremism head on. They instead worked in broad multiracial coalitions to build power to end the farm crisis. The hopeful news is that similar work is happening around the countryside today.

Read the rest at FoodPrint….

Warren and Sanders Think This Farm Policy Will Help Rural America Rebound. Does it Stand a Chance?

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale Published at Civil Eats, August 26, 2019

Since the 1970s, American farmers have been urged to produce as much as possible at all times. Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, famously ordered farmers to plant their crops “fencerow to fencerow,” and most have taken the order to heart ever since. Overproduction of grains, dairy, and other commodities has left the market perpetually flooded, causing farmer prices to plummet to well below their costs of production.

Harwood Schaffer, director of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, says that many of the crises facing rural America today—from the low prices driving farmers out of business to factory farm runoff polluting water supplies—are caused by this overproduction. Schaffer was a rural pastor in the 1970s, and says that just a few years after the order from Butz, farm prices dropped to crisis levels, demonstrating that conventional free market models of the day simply did not work on the ground for agriculture.

“In the 30 years I was in the parish, [nothing that] agricultural economists said made any sense to me. It didn’t match up with what was going on with my farmers,” he says. Schaffer, who is now an agricultural economist himself, is “absolutely delighted” as he watches the 2020 presidential campaign unfold. For the first time in over two decades, several Democratic candidates have proposed putting a stop to overproduction.

…Read the rest at Civil Eats

At the End of the 3 Line, East New York Farms! Grows

EB-Logo-Summer_16_V2Published by Edible Brooklyn, Issue 44, Summer 2016.

Take the 3 train to the penultimate stop on a summer Saturday. The barren roofscapes you see from the elevated track don’t hint that you’re entering the neighborhood with the most community gardens in the city. But walk down Livonia Avenue under the tracks, and the scene changes: there are gardens on every block, some threatening to spill through their fences, others tamed into neat raised beds. Follow signs for the farmers market—the hand-painted signage on the fence, the tempting smells and the reggae/R&B/salsa mix. Round the corner onto Schenck and you’ve found the heart-beat of this community, in the midst of the impromptu dance party, the Caribbean breakfast specialties, the hot peppers ranging across the rainbow (and Scoville scale), and the young people proudly hawking their greens and bitter melon.

The market is run by East New York Farms!, a partnership between United Community Centers (UCC) and neighborhood residents to address food justice by promoting local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development. Founded in 1998, almost a decade before The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped to popularize sustainable food nationally and, well before Brooklyn became synonymous with artisanal pickles, East New York Farms! was far ahead of the local food trend—because growing food together turned out to be an excellent way to organize the community.

…read the rest at Edible Brooklyn–or in the magazine, available around NYC this summer…

A Path Forward: Innovations at the Intersection of Hunger and Health

Published by WhyHunger, November 9, 2015

When it comes to hunger and health, there is a big difference between feeding and nourishing.

For decades, our nation’s emergency food providers have worked tirelessly to provide food to those in need, yet we are still in a hunger crisis. One in six Americans is food insecure—uncertain where their next meal will come from. And hunger still kills. In the U.S. in 2015, it is less often as a result of chronic food deprivation; instead hunger’s victims suffer from heart disease or diabetes or myriad other symptoms of poor health and malnutrition. With
limited capacity, food pantries and soup kitchens are often forced to provide unhealthy, processed food to their clients—food that may fill a person up but is linked to serious diet-related illnesses and long-term health consequences.

When we talk about success in addressing U.S. food insecurity, we generally use metrics that tout pounds of food distributed, with the implication that the more pounds of food we can distribute, the closer we are to ending hunger. This narrow lens hides the malnutrition that is strongly correlated with disease and morbidity. For most Americans, malnutrition is a symptom not of insufficient food but of insufficient healthy food and balanced nutrition: malnutrition is lack of nourishment.

…the rest of this publication, featuring practices and philosophies of three innovative food providers in New York and New Jersey, can be found here (PDF)…

A Tree Grows in Gaza

Modern FarmerPublished at Modern Farmer, December 5, 2014

An olive branch is a universal symbol of peace, but as the decades-long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians continues, it has become yet another source of conflict.

In the West Bank and Gaza, almost half of the arable land is planted with olive trees, from saplings to some that have produced fruit for a thousand years. Nearly 80,000 Palestinian families depend on the annual fall olive harvest for their livelihood. But in recent decades, the conflict in the region, which recently flared up once again, has taken a devastating toll: Israeli settlers and military personnel have cut down, uprooted and burned an estimated 800,000 olive trees since 1967, including approximately 49,000 in just the past five years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The Union of Agricultural Work Committees of Palestine (UAWC) wants to turn this dire situation around. Ali Hassouneh, the group’s board chair, believes that the olive groves represent a shared inheritance. “If I have an olive tree that is 1,500 years old, I think: Who planted it? How many thousands of people have eaten from it? The trees are our heritage – my heritage and [the Israelis’], too.” The UAWC, one of the oldest Palestinian NGOs, has worked with farmers in the West Bank and Gaza on water and land access since 1986. It also provides annual support with the olive harvest.

The walls separating the West Bank and Gaza from Israel cut through many Palestinian farms, separating families from their orchards and grazing lands. Farmers cannot cross the wall regularly to tend their trees and other crops; they must apply for a special permit for the olive harvest. According to the UN, as many as 42 percent of these permit requests have been denied in recent years. Those who do get a permit often face harassment and violence, and they sometimes arrive only to find their trees destroyed.

…read the rest at Modern Farmer

5 Reasons the Tyson-Hillshire Buyout is a Big [Meat] Deal

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale     Published at Civil Eats, September 3, 2014

Although it has been in the works for months, the merger of Tyson Foods and Hillshire Brands went public the week before Labor Day, when the U.S. Justice Department approved the deal. The merger brings together the largest meat processing company in the U.S. (Tyson) and the 11th largest (Hillshire), for $7.7 billion. And even if you buy mainly sustainable and grassfed meat, this merger is worth watching. Here’s why:

1. You’re probably eating Tyson meat without even knowing it.

Tyson was interested in Hillshire in part for its branded products: Jimmy Dean, Ball Park Franks, and Hillshire Farms. The “frozen handheld breakfast sandwich” is one of the company’s specialties. Tyson hasn’t had similar success with its own forays into branded meat products (Day Starts frozen breakfasts, anyone?) and sees the merger as an opportunity to direct meat from its processing empire into an already successful national brand. Until now, Tyson has excelled at selling unbranded meat to restaurants and cafeterias and it is the national leader in “private label” meats–those sold as in-house supermarket brands. So when you eat bacon at a restaurant or chicken salad at the supermarket deli, if it doesn’t feature the name of the farm, there’s a pretty good chance it’s from Tyson.

2. Independent meat producers are an endangered species.

Tyson has become powerful by vertically integrating its operations: It buys up all the component parts of its supply chain, from grain dealers to breeding facilities to slaughterhouses, and incorporates them into the company to gain control over prices and production. As other companies have followed suit, encouraged by market forces and the “get big or get out” policies that prevail across agriculture, independent farmers and their supporting businesses have been bought out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. lost about 70 percent of its hog operations–150,000 farms–between 1993 and 2012 and with them went much agricultural infrastructure. As a result, the few independent farmers producing pastured pork humanely often have to drive 200 miles each way to a slaughterhouse. By buying up so many pieces of the farm supply chain, Tyson has contributed to an environment where many of the producers working outside their system must struggle to survive.

3. Tyson has its eye on the sustainable meat sector.

If you eat “better” quality meat, you might not pay much attention to Tyson. But Tyson is paying attention to you. Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food economy and even two years after Lay’s advertised its potato chips as local, corporations have not slowed their pursuit of the natural and sustainable markets. And meat is one of the biggest potential growth areas. Most of the nation does not have access to high quality, locally-raised meat in the grocery store, particularly value-added products like sausage and hot dogs. A few towns are beginning to rebuild their local slaughterhouses or sausage companies, but the infrastructure is rare. If the expanded Tyson/Hillshire sets its sights on this vast market and starts putting out greenwashed imitation products, it could block regional efforts to rebuild truly sustainable meat production.

…read the rest at Civil Eats…

Soylent is…

The new “food substitute” Soylent has been around the news of late — somewhat mysteriously, as maybe best expressed by a good friend who loves food and cares about where it comes from, who emailed me, “I was starting to think I was losing my mind, not understanding why anyone is paying this soylent goop ANY MIND.” Indeed.

I had pointed her to The Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable, the New York Times‘ appropriately skeptical and wry take. The New Yorker was much more in-depth and perhaps more credulous in Could Soylent Replace Food?, and I thought there were some significant gaps in the piece. I’m pleased that the magazine saw merit in the argument I sent, and published my letter this week. (I also loved the letter than followed mine–follow the link to read it–and tracked down its author today to thank him for making the other main point I wanted to make.)

 

The-new-yorker-logoPublished in The New Yorker, issue of June 23, 2014

Greener Soylent
Lizzie Widdicombe rightly points to agriculture as a leading cause of climate-warming emissions, and Rob Rhinehart, the creator of the food substitute Soylent, calls nonindustrialized farms “very inefficient factories” (“The End of Food,” May 12th). But, until Rhinehart engineers Soylent from algae, his product will depend on chemical- and fossil-fuel-reliant grains grown in monocropped fields and refined in energy-intensive processing plants—an inefficient nutrient-delivery system, from an emissions perspective, if ever there was one. Meanwhile, studies show diversified small-scale agriculture to be one of the best ways to both mitigate and adapt to a warming climate. Healthy soils built through crop rotation and organic fertilizers sequester carbon and fare dramatically better in both droughts and floods. Food production is part of the problem of global warming, but it will become part of the solution as we learn to cook and eat a wider variety of foods, instead of turning to a food substitute whose components rely entirely on climatically inefficient industrial farming.