A New Year, But the Same Fight for Safe Food

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I turn the calendar with a deficiency of optimism. The churches tell us that the meek will inherit the earth. Will the extraction of the earth’s resources continue without environmental restraint? Will agrochemical companies market increasingly toxic products to grow genetically modified [GM] crops? Shall we be meek in defense of our Earth?

Tom Vilsack was Secretary of Agriculture under Obama for 8 years. He’s okay with the Monsanto/Bayer merger, loves GM crops and the more resistant they are to multiple weedkillers, the better. In the 2010s, U.S. farmland “infested” with glyphosate (Roundup) resistant weeds grew by almost 30 million acres, equivalent to nearly 2/3 the size of California. The USDA proposed to decrease the approval time for new and more toxic weedkillers from 2 years to 13 months.

We can thank Vilsack for glyphosate-resistant Kentucky bluegrass, approved by the USDA in 2011 without an environmental impact assessment. Glyphosate resistant alfalfa was approved in 2011, even though Vilsack and the USDA knew it would readily cross pollinate with organic and non-GM alfalfa.

He proposed that the speed of chicken killing in poultry processing plants increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. Worker safety groups successfully opposed the speed increase, but Vilsack privatized the inspection of killing lines. The poultry owners now inspect themselves.

Vilsack did promote the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign to increase  awareness of alternative food systems, i.e., organics. As Patty Lovera,  assistant director of Food and Water Watch quipped, “He made the icing on the cake a little better, but the cake itself was still Big Ag.”

Trump has yet to name his Secretary of Agriculture.

This past summer Congress passed Senate Bill 764, dubbed by opponents  the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act. It effectively overturned Vermont’s GM labeling law, substituting instead voluntary product QR coding, which requires a special app to access.  Obama signed it into law. One would have hoped that Obama veto the bill in spite of the 63 to 30 vote to pass it and at least land himself on the side of the American consumer. Vilsack and others presented S. 764 as a compromise, but it clearly was crafted for Monsanto and the agrochemical companies.

This new law also creates confusion as to the definition of “bioengineering.” It requires the USDA to determine how much bioengineering of a product requires labeling and even prevents the food companies from certain types of disclosure. Investigative “determination” is never on fast track.

Ninety percent of the U.S. public supports food labeling. The Republicans, who are big states rights proponents when it comes to gay rights and women’s reproductive rights and the rights of corporations to do local polluting, voted to overturn the Vermont law and effectively extend the so-called  “Monsanto Doctrine” to the legislative branch. Plenty of liberal Democrats were on board as well, including Diane Feinstein from California, Minnesota’s Al Franken and our own Tim Kaine.

Currently, agrochemical company lawyers are challenging county and state laws created to protect public health and safety and the environment from toxic pesticides in our food, water, and soil. And they are winning!

Syngenta, an agrochemical multinational, recently won a ruling in Hawaii’s federal district court against Hawaii’s Kauai County. For years the big six ag-chem companies have been spraying experimental (chemical composition undisclosed) chemicals on 1,100 farms in the Hawaiian Islands to see which GM crops survive. Kauai County had passed a pesticide regulation ordinance to create a buffer zone of 500 feet for schools, homes and hospitals from massive spraying of experimental toxic pesticides on the GMO farms. The district court also struck down bills passed on Mauai and by the Hawaii County Council. The decision is being appealed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

If the ruling is upheld there, it will be the environmental equivalent of Citizens United. Our government agencies charged with protecting public health will function as legal shields for corporations from any and all county and state public safety and health regulations that might impinge on their profit margin.

The emerging legal right of agrochemical corporations to do whatever they want has been named the Monsanto Doctrine.

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I was ill over the Christmas holiday and I spent days on the couch. I’ve been watching a Spanish whodunit/telenovela titled Mar de Plastico. It’s set in southeastern Spain in Almeria. Racial conflict and environmental challenges, a murder and multiple romances—what more could one ask to keep one on the couch.

Mar de Plastico translates into “sea of plastic” and indeed there are over 185 square miles of plastic greenhouses in Almeria. Consider that Albemarle County is 726 square miles.

Fifty years ago the land was a semi-arid plain adjoining the Mediterranean Sea extending to the Sierra de Gador on the north. People herded goats and movie companies filmed “spaghetti westerns.” Beginning in 1963, small farmers drilled deep wells and constructed greenhouses to extend the growing season. Over 13,500 small farmers turned their holdings into greenhouses and marketed their produce through cooperatives. Today the area is home to the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world. The plasticulture is so vast it can be seen from outer space.  Tomatoes, eggplants, cukes, lettuce, peppers, melons are exported primarily to the United Kingdom and also France and Germany. The greenhouses provide one-third of Europe’s winter consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Temperatures in the greenhouses are as high as 45 degrees Celsius (over 110 degrees F).  Hot temperatures in the greenhouses give rise to plant diseases and increased insect pests.   As many as 100,000 workers, at first predominantly from Eastern Europe and now more and more from Morocco and sub-Sahara Africa, grow and harvest crops from October to July. At least half are undocumented. The pay is generally 30 to 35 euros per 8 hour day and often as low as 20 euros. (The dollar and euro are almost equivalent currently.) Housing is substandard. Shantytowns spring up within the sea of plastic. Local small farmers are squeezed by the rise of plasticulture elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin and they in turn exploit their workers, who are in endless supply.

The albedo or “whiteness” of a surface is the fraction of sun’s radiation reflected back into space. In Almeria the albedo from the endless greenhouses has actually had a cooling effect on the area. Temperatures have decreased by 0.3 Celsius every ten years since 1983 while overall temperatures in Spain have increased form 1 to 3 degrees Celsius.

Ten percent of vegetables are raised hydroponically today with optimal Israeli methods of computer-controlled drip irrigation that contains a chemical mix of fertilizers, micronutrients and pesticides. Sand covers the soil to conserve humidity and prevent erosion. Sand depletion is another of many negative consequences of plasticulture. Ninety percent of the greenhouses use artificial soil called Enarenado–a mix of clay, manure and sand on top of the original soil base.

Although drip irrigation and the opening of a desalinization plant in 2009 has somewhat ameliorated the water situation, the Sorbas-Tabernas fossil aquifer in Almeria has been mined to the point of collapse. Fossil or paleowater is nonrenewable. The European Union is seeking its protection, but farmers continue to drill illegal holes.

Since the 1980’s companies have arrived to recycle plastic waste. However, thin plastic remains unrecyclable and in some areas is calf deep. Some aquifers have been contaminated by pesticide-laden wastewater. Plastic, wastewater, and sewage from shantytowns finds its way into the Mediterranean. Construction materials–steel and plastic and pesticides–have their own large CO2 and nitrous oxide footprint.

In 2014 a sperm whale washed ashore on Spain’s southern coast. It had swallowed 37 lbs of plastic dumped into the Mediterranean from the greenhouses.

By 1999, 30 million acres were covered in plastic worldwide, mostly in economically poor areas with marginal soils and low rainfall. It is estimated that plasticulture continues to grow by 20 percent every year.  Eighty percent of greenhouses are in the Far East (China, South Korea, Japan). Fifteen percent are in the Mediterranean basin. China leads the world’s growth with the volume of plastic film exceeding 1 million tons/year (2015).

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