Monday, December 22, 2008

Sustainable Holidays: Minimize the Meat

The holidays can get stressful. Whether driving long distances to see family and friends, preparing a meal for 10 or just trying to find a gift for everyone on your list, the holiday season can be hard work!

All of the above examples actually come from my festive woes for the upcoming holiday. This year, I plan on trekking the 500 miles to my parent’s house by car and cooking a dinner for the whole family; the perfect gift will be a successful run at both pursuits. As I plan out the dinner to satisfy all the different tastes of my family members, which now range from vegans to hearty meat eaters, I find myself wondering what to make for the centerpiece, the main dish. Years ago, I would have made some type of roast, or possibly a glazed ham. Probably not turkey; as my Dad was never a fan. Now, though, it’s proving much harder to decide.

The more I learn about the meat industry, the less I want a roast to sit at the center of my table, let alone the center of a family member’s stomach. Nothing says love and care like hormone-injected beef or some factory farmed chicken, right? So where does this leave me, and all the others staring at the hole in the table? It leaves us with a chance to reevaluate our eating habits and bring fresh ideas on food into the new year.

More than two years ago, I made a big step toward a healthier lifestyle by choosing to give up meat all together. During this time, I learned the value of spices and the immense variety of vegetables and fruits we can enjoy. It also gave me more respect for the farmers that grow it and a careful eye for picking out the best produce. It brought me to farmer’s markets in mid-summer to pick the juiciest heirloom tomatoes and showed me how to create something delicious when someone handed me a rutabaga. The journey brought me many places and my views changed constantly, evolving with all that I learned. One thing that has consistently resonated within me is a deep respect for life and a strong connection to the Earth. This respect has made me rethink the role of meat in our diets, at the center of our tables and as the largest portion on our plates.

Americans eat far too much meat without even realizing it. A turkey isn’t a turkey anymore, it’s a package of deli slices for lunch; chicken is drenched in BBQ sauce and conveniently microwaved for dinner. Stopping to think how much meat the typical American eats in a given day, let alone the whole week, is absurd. Meat prices are so artificially low that we can enjoy our favorite dishes everyday instead of reserving them for special occasions - like the holidays. Meat should be regarded as a delicacy, honoring the life that was given so you may enjoy it. It used to be a smaller part the meal. It wasn’t the whole dinner and it certainly wasn’t the meat most of us know today.

So this year, as you stare at the hole in your holiday table, think of what you are thankful for. Think of what you are celebrating or whom you are honoring. If you do eat meat, respect the animal and yourself enough to buy it from a local farmer who raised it on open pastures instead of in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Check out to find a farm near you. And make sure to try out some new recipes like the ones below. I can personally attest to the harvest stuffed squash from; it was a big hit during Thanksgiving!

Alternative holiday recipes:

A complete vegetarian Christmas dinner:

- Guest post by Christopher Grohs, Toxic Free NC Volunteer

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why I am thankful this year

Here is some good news for you: our President-elect reads. And it is a possibility that he reads this very blog. In a recent interview with Time Magazine reporter Joe Klein, Barack Obama mentions having read Michael Pollan's letter to the next Farmer-in-chief in the New York Times Magazine. How did Obama find out about the article? Surely, he has been reading Fair Ground posts.

And not only that, an ABC News article released today about Barack Obama's new White House Budget director, Peter Orszag, contains this quote from the President-elect:
"There's a report today that from 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies, even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff to qualify for such subsidies. If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president."
It seems that Barack Obama has also been studying up on U.S. Farm Policy. It is true that since World War II, subsidies for farmers have focused on commodity farmers; those who raise vast quantities of corn, wheat, and soy, for example. A myopic intensity of increasing productivity while making food as cheap as possible has lead to the predominance of monoculture (one crop) industrial agriculture. Over the years, fewer and fewer farmers have grown more and more of one thing, with those singular crops traded on global markets, throw in big subsidies, and that's how you get millionaire farmers. Not very many of them, of course.

So thanks, President-elect Obama, for your recent reads. While I've got your attention, sir, I would direct you and our other Fair Ground readers to the USDA's article U.S. Farm Policy: The First 200 Years (pdf, 83 KB). I hope everyone enjoys the fruits of their harvest this Thanksgiving!

-Guest post by Kate Pattison, Toxic Free NC volunteer

Monday, November 10, 2008

We (still) need you.


Election season has had Raleigh buzzing these past few months. I have LOVED seeing people so interested in what's going on, passionate about the issues, and generous with their time and support. Knowing that the same thing was going on in communities all across the state and across the country has made me feel so proud of us all, and hopeful about our future.

Now that the results are in (for the most part!), the campaigns have packed up and left town, and everyone's had a few days to recover from election-night parties, I beg you, people of NC and beyond: Don't stop being interested, passionate and generous. No matter whether your candidates won or lost, no matter how much or how little time or money you have to give, let there be no doubt that we (still) need you.

Much like an election campaign, non-profit advocacy organizations like Toxic Free NC need the energy of volunteers and activists to create change. But, unlike election campaigns, non-profits like ours are working at it all year, every year, no matter who's in office. Toxic Free NC helps people make changes at the personal, institutional, and political levels that fight pesticide pollution and promote health and justice in our state.

So, I invite everyone out there who's recovering from election fever to check out Toxic Free NC's volunteer opportunities, consider making a donation, or work with us on one of several exciting campaigns for local and state-level change. Just a few of the things we're working on right now:
As our friendly volunteer coordinator, I'm always here to talk with you about the opportunities we have available, and am also happy to suggest other options if we're not the right thing for you. So, please don't hesitate to call me at 919-833-1123 or write me to discuss the options, or at least to get yourself on our list to receive volunteer updates. Thank you!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Get out there and vote!

Vote early by this Saturday or vote Tuesday November 4th
Get all your voting questions answered at:

With national and state candidates crisscrossing the state, it's clear that North Carolina is headed for a historic level of voter turnout this year. Don’t be left out! You have two options for voting in North Carolina:

1. Vote on Election Day next Tuesday, November 4th . The polls open at 6:30AM and close at 7:30 PM. Find your precinct at the State Board of Elections website.

2. Vote early through this Saturday November 1st. Early voting gives you added flexibility to vote when you have the time rather than trying to fit it in on Election Day. Find your early voting locations and times here. Remember that you can go to ANY of the locations listed in your county.

Early voting is also your last chance to register and vote in North Carolina for next Tuesday’s election. If you’ve moved since you last voted then you need to re-register through early voting. You can also check your current registration status, or contact your local board of elections for more information.

Make sure you know who you’re voting for: go to the State Board of Elecitons site and click on the link for “General Election Sample Ballots.” You can get additional voting questions answered and see bios of the candidates running for state office with this non-partisan voter guide (this is a pdf file download).

Here are some additional resources for other voting and election questions or problems:
- NC Voter
- Democracy NC's Election Connection
- Or call 1-888-OUR-VOTE

And make sure your friends and family have all the info they need to vote in North Carolina!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pollan's letter to the next Farmer-in-Chief

In last week’s issue of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan, the UC Berkeley professor, journalist, and best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, scribed an open letter to the next president of the United States, or as Pollan terms it, the Farmer in Chief.

Since beginning a study of Sustainable Agriculture at Central Carolina Community College, I have become keenly aware of the breakdown of the U.S. food system and crisis we are facing as a nation. I hope John McCain and Barack Obama have had the chance to read Pollan’s letter, because it is not only the American food system that’s under threat. Pollan’s letter offers up solutions to fix our food system, as well as the obesity crisis, climate change, national security threats, and our addiction to foreign oil.

Think about it this way: since the end of World War II, U.S. Agriculture has focused largely on producing the greatest volume of commodity crops possible. These crops - wheat, soy and corn - trickle down to U.S. consumers as foodstuffs in the form of over-processed, barely recognizable, pre-packaged snacks and meals. It has been relatively cheap to produce food in this way because oil used to be so cheap. Oil, not just for fueling tractors, is also the basis of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are used in incredible tonnages to continually turn out the greatest quantity of the largest possible crops.

Now that we face a crisis in the price of oil, the rest of the world is facing a crisis in obtaining cheap food. At home, our overly-centralized, large-scale agricultural system pumps out foods which are all too vulnerable to bioterrorism. Even if the food supply were better protected, the nutritional quality and long-term safety of consumption is at question. Pollan cites Centers for Disease Control numbers that estimate that one in three American children will develop Type 2 Diabetes, a disease which can result in blindness, amputation of a limb, and early death -- and which is also 100% preventable.

The solution? Pollan urges the next president of the United States to view agriculture, specifically sustainable agriculture, as one solution that can help eradicate obesity, climate change, terrorist threats to our food supply, and our oil addiction. Sustainable Agriculture is based on three main tenets: that farming should benefit of the farmer, the community, and the environment. Pollan’s application of community-based sustainable farming principles to much larger, national threats is elegant and sensible.

Pollan envisions the First Family leading the charge by installing a White House farmer, complete with a productive five-acre garden on the White House lawn. Recipes and gardening tips could be posted and shared on their website. The president, Pollan says, can appeal to all parts of the political spectrum in embracing sustainable food, whether encouraging hunters to supply their families with wild meats, or aiding evangelicals and lefty environmentalists alike who seek alternatives to the fast food diet. As with the Victory Gardens of World War I, we can take control of our food sources and our communities, and face down economic, health, and energy disasters around the dinner table.

- by Kate Pattison, Guest blogger and Toxic Free NC volunteer

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Politics of Food

Photo by Billie Karel

A few weeks ago, Billie and I were lucky enough to attend the Environmental Leadership Program’s Politics of Food Conference held at NC State. There were tons of workshops and panel discussions on a variety of topics from The Impact of Organic Agriculture, to The Farm Bill Uncovered. My favorite part of the conference, however, was a plenary discussion entitled Equity and Justice in the United States Food System, which had a panel representing three very different efforts to make this title a reality.

Saru Jayaman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), was on the panel representing the role of the restaurant worker in our food system. She stressed the importance of economic justice and fair labor conditions for the twenty million people working in the U.S. food industry as integral parts of the food justice movement. Saru also pointed out the link between workers' rights and the quality of the food we eat. She used the term “collective prosperity” to show that fair working conditions and happy, healthy, safe workers in our food system mean safer, cleaner, and in some cases, probably more delicious food. This could apply to the restaurant, food processing, or agricultural settings. When we think about this idea in terms of agricultural workers, a simple connection we can make is between worker exposure to pesticides in the fields and consumer exposure to pesticide residues in the foods those workers grow.

Denise O’Brien also sat on the panel, speaking from the perspective of a female, organic farmer in Iowa. She started the Women, Food and Agriculture Network and nearly became Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, quite an accomplishment in a state where agriculture is so dominated by industrial agriculture, not to mention men. Denise works with farmer women to help them realize their power as farmers (rather than just farmers’ wives) and often, as farm owners after their husbands die. The network is used as a tool for giving women a stronger voice in addressing issues of sustainability, as well as gender, within agricultural communities.

The third panelist, Malik Yakini, is chairman the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which works toward creating a more just and sustainable food system within Detroit by putting some of the city’s 60-70,ooo vacant lots to use in urban agriculture. Malik emphasized the need to connect food-related struggles to struggles for democratic rule, access to true histories, and the struggles of all oppressed people. Clearly, a just and sustainable food system cannot be realized in a world that is not otherwise just or sustainable.

I thought this panel was especially important to include in this type of conference to remind people working for sustainable agriculture (and sustainable food systems more generally) that these issues are inherently linked to social justice issues of all kinds and that these struggles, struggles to protect the environment and struggles for social justice, must be supportive of each other if either are to be successful.

Billie and I were inspired, to say the least. Please check out the work these great folks are doing, and check out ELP, who put on the conference. They give great trainings to awesome people; just ask Billie!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reviewing bad ideas on a case-by-case basis

Cast your mind back to last December, when I was railing at the EPA on this very blog for their wrong-headed and potentially dangerous proposal to allow "Cause-Related Marketing" on pesticide labels.

Cause-related marketing means, for example, selling a bottle of pesticide with the Red Cross logo on it, perhaps promising to donate a portion of the product's sale to the charity. As you can imagine, many people, including many state attorneys general, pesticide administrators from across US states, Toxic Free NC and our allies, went nuts. Good people like you sent in reams of comments to the EPA decrying the proposal, and the agency was forced to extend the comment period to accommodate them all.

The EPA heard us. They heard the public saying "ARE YOU INSANE?" and decided that they never should have told us about the idea in the first place.

Today the EPA released its decision on the matter: they have decided to withdraw the proposal and to discourage cause-related marketing on pesticide containers. This is almost like disallowing the practice, except not. Here's what they had to say about the matter in a news release:
"Although EPA will review any future application it receives, EPA is now generally discouraging the submission of applications to add cause marketing claims or third-party endorsements.

"...If it receives such an application, the Agency expects to decide on a case-by-case basis both what information would be necessary to carefully evaluate the proposed claims and whether a product containing such a claim could meet the applicable statutory and regulatory standards for approval."
What does that mean, exactly? Don't send us an application to put charity logos on your pesticides because it's potentially hazardous to human health and the environment, but if you do, we'll review it on a case-by-case basis.

Come again?

This is like a mild victory for common sense, but without the sting of defeat. Plus the added bonus of secrecy. Something for everyone!

EPA says in its decision: "EPA recognizes that its resources are limited and should be targeted towards activities that will enhance protection of human health and the environment from pesticides." In other words, EPA's shouldn't waste its resources developing standards for evaluating label proposals, then sending them out for public comment again, revising them, notifying the public about pending applications, yadda yadda yadda. If they get an application, they'll just deal with it under cover of darkness - it's more efficient that way.

Is this a lesson in how to make everybody happy by sweeping the issue under the rug?

Under this decision, we won't know when EPA gets an application for cause-related marketing on a pesticide label, nor what standards they would use to evaluate it. If you should happen to find a bottle of Killz-All at the store with your local children's hospital logo on it, you'll know they approved one.

But that probably won't happen, because they're going to discourage it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fall eating

The crisp, cool mornings and shorter evenings are a sure sign of autumn. And so are the beautiful piles of pumpkins, sweet potatoes and winter squash that are beginning to appear in farmer's markets all across North Carolina.

In my house, cooler weather means more cooking, now that it's finally okay to turn the oven on again after a few long hot summer months of melon slices and tomato sandwiches. The garden is leafy and green again, with little chard, kale and lettuce plants soaking up the warm, sunny afternoons. And soon it will be time for boxes of shiny apples, especially my very favorite, Honey Crisp.

If you thought the end of summer meant the end of fresh fruits and veggies from the farmer's market, think again! Many markets stay open right up to Thanksgiving, and some even longer. You may not have known that there was such a thing, but some farms are now offering winter CSA shares to keep you in vegetable heaven all through the cooler months. Check the CSA listings at Growing Small Farms to find one near you.

To get you dreaming of fall culinary delights, here is a recipe for Baked Winter Squash from Toxic Free NC's farmer's market recipe archive:

Baked Winter Squash
by Susan Spalt

- Any kind of winter squash (butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, etc)
- Butter
- Worcestershire sauce
- Brown sugar
- Grated cheddar cheese

Cut squash in half. Wrap in foil and bake at 350 until tender. Remove from foil. Carefully scoop out squash, saving the skins. Combine squash with 1/2 tsp. butter, about a tsp. Worcestershire sauce, and 1/2 tsp. brown sugar. Place back in skins. Sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese. Bake for 10 minutes or until cheese has melted.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ag-Mart workers take the stand

On Wednesday two former Ag-Mart employees finally took the stand in the state's protracted enforcement case against the company accused of hundreds of violations in the largest pesticide case in North Carolina history.

News & Observer photo

Francisca Herrera and Abraham Candelario are the parents of Carlitos Candelario, the little boy whose birth defects stunned the state and tipped investigators off to a pattern of problems. Since the state began investigating the case in 2006, there have been dozens of court hearings, task force meetings, legislative hearings, and many other opportunities for attorneys and "experts" to debate the merits of the state's case, but until yesterday none of the affected workers had been heard. From the Raleigh News & Observer:
Herrera, 22, said she was often told to work in fields that were still wet with pesticides. She said her supervisors ignored her complaints of frequent headaches and stomach pains. "The boss would always be scolding us and telling us that we came to this country to work, not to rest," she said in Spanish. (Source: Raleigh News & Observer article)
Whatever the relative strengths and weaknesses of the state's case against the tomato giant, it was gratifying to finally hear from those whom the case actually affected. Carlitos stayed quiet for two days in the hearing room as his parents waited for their turn to testify. But as his mother took the stand, he cried at being separated from her, and his audible wails outside the hearing room underscored his presence in the hearing.

The Ag-Mart case, at its core, is not about re-entry interval violations, record-keeping requirements, or worker intimidation. It's about what can happen when we use, misuse, or misunderstand the use of toxic chemicals, whether to grow our food, change our environments, or manufacture the consumer products we use every day. With or without negligence, with or without malfeasance, toxic chemicals get into our bodies, and sometimes cause irreperable harm. Whether or not the state collects its $100,000 from Ag-Mart, we need to be looking much harder at the trade-offs we're willing to make for a cheap food supply.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Community Organizing 101: Building community, strengthening democracy, and getting things done.

It's true, most people don't know what the heck I mean when I say that I'm a community organizer. But even though the term is unfamiliar, I think most people would readily recognize "organizers" in their own communities as leaders and connectors - the proverbial "movers & shakers." Anyone who's ever put together a community event like a fundraiser, service project, strike, boycott, or protest; started a new club, organization, union, or other group; asked people to sign a petition, contact their representatives, speak at a public meeting, or vote for a certain person or proposal was probably doing some community organizing.

Community organizing encompasses a really broad range of activities and issues, and many different kinds of people do it. Some are volunteers or concerned citizens, while others do it professionally; some do it as part of a congregation or organization, while others do it independently. But there are a few common threads that I think are the most important parts:

1. Making changes & getting things done. At the most fundamental level, community organizing is a process by which people get together - "organize" - to get something done. This could be changing a rule or policy, getting someone elected, starting a new group or program, stopping something hurtful to the community, or starting something needed and helpful. Whatever it is, people come together to make a plan and then do it together.
2. Community. Communities of people are built and strengthened by the process of community organizing. When a good organizer runs a campaign or project, the community is stronger when it's over, regardless of whether they actually won or accomplished the original goal. The people involved have built relationships, skills, knowledge, and confidence that make them more active and effective participants in their community, and make future community organizing projects easier and more successful.
3. Power, Equity and Democracy. In theory, a democratic process means that people who are affected by a particular decision get a equal say in how it's made, or at least an equal say in who gets to make it (i.e. through electing representatives). But in reality, that is often not the case. The dynamics of power, privilege, and profit in our society mean that the system isn't always fair, and some people can't get what they need through normal channels. Maybe they can't get pollution out of their air or water, can't get their child's public education improved, or can't get a fair living wage. Community organizing helps to correct injustices and fix an inequitable system by bringing people together to exercise their power as a voting block or a customer base, and demand the changes they need.

In our work at Toxic Free NC, this shows up as parents who want to get their schools or childcare centers to stop using pesticides, farmworkers or farm neighbors who don't want to be sprayed, consumers who want better access to food grown without pesticides, and lots of other things too. So, we work with these groups of people to help them get what they want, and in the process we build community and correct imbalances of power that create injustice and weaken our democracy. It's pretty heady stuff, and we're proud to be doing this important work in North Carolina.

Interested in getting organized in your community, and reducing pesticide pollution? We're here to help - please contact us!

Interested in becoming an organizer? It's a pretty great job, if I do say so myself. Here are a couple of my favorite resources:
Midwest Academy
The Community Toolbox

PS: I really like this quote I just found from Mike Miller of the Organize Training Center:
Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance - it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Is EPA hiding information about honeybee disappearance?

We've been hearing about the mysterious illness affecting honeybees for some time now - colony collapse disorder, or CCD. It appears that this year has been even worse than last for beekeepers in the US. Pesticides are one of the leading suspects in this mystery, and attention has turned to a relatively new product called clothianidin, which is made by Bayer CropScience. In Bayer's home nation of Germany, clothianidin was recently banned for suspected effects on honeybees. Here in the US, the product is still very much in use, and the EPA has failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request from NRDC about the chemical's effects on honeybees. So, earlier this month, NRDC sued Bayer.
Get more on this development in the CCD story from NRDC, from Grist Magazine, and from the Raleigh News & Observer.
Want to do something more than fret? Please consider writing a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer - here are some tips for writing good letters to the editor from the NC Conservation Network, and instructions for submitting a letter to the News & Observer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

WRAL Exposé on Farmworkers and Pesticides to Air Tomorrow Night!

For the past several months, WRAL-TV has been working on a documentary piece regarding farmworkers, pesticides and North Carolina's pesticide law. The documentary, entitled "Focal Point - Practical Application" will feature farmworkers talking about their own experiences working with pesticides. Many of our allies from the Farmworker Advocacy Network (not to mention our very own executive director Fawn Pattison) will also be featured discussing loopholes in our state's pesticide policy. Click here for the preview. Looks like some good old fashioned hard-hitting journalism!

WRAL will air its documentary entitled "Focal Point - Practical Application" tomorrow, Wednesday August 20th at 7 p.m. Tune in to see farmworkers and advocates making a powerful case for change!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Farmworker Engagement, Documentary Style

Image (right): A wash bucket used for laundering clothes sits next to a building at a farmworker camp. Photo: A. Duncan Pardo.

This week we're wrapping up a summer audio documentary project interviewing North Carolina farmworkers about their experiences working with pesticides. Student Action with Farmworkers interns Rachel, Pablo, Alejandra and I conducted the interviews and collected workers' recommendations on how best to achieve meaningful reforms for pesticide use as well as other pressing farmworker concerns.

My interview took place in Eastern NC with a man named Bernardo, who comes here every year to work in tobacco and cucumber. He had major concerns about some farmers' tendency to send workers into fields that have been recently sprayed with pesticides. He also talked at length about tobacco workers' inability to distinguish pesticide poisoning from Green Tobacco Sickness. He said that even clinic staff were frequently unable to tell the two apart, and that he was concerned about the potential for misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment. Bernardo is a vocal advocate for the rights of farmworkers, including the right to know when, if and to what they're being exposed. He said he was happy working for his current employer, but he acknowledged that many others weren't so lucky. He had this advice for other workers:
I want to tell my peers not to be speak out about what it's like for us in the fields. We have to stop and think and say 'I want to change this' and fight for it.
We plan to continue interviewing farm workers and building the relationships needed to make our policy and program work better informed by what the workers themselves see as the most pressing issues. We'll be posting audio clips and photos from the pilot project in the near future, so stay tuned!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Win in Washington!

Good news folks! The EPA has recently announced a decision to ban traces of the toxic pesticide Carbofuran on both domestic and imported food, essentially taking it off the US market. Environmental and farmworker advocates have long been fighting for the ban. Carbofuran is responsible for over a million bird deaths per year, and according to the Washington Post's July 25th coverage of the ban, the pesticide also kills bees, important friends we cannot continue to lose.

The Beyond Pesticides daily news blog reported that the "EPA has concluded that dietary, worker, and ecological risks are of concern for all uses of carbofuran. According to EPA’s website, all products containing carbofuran generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on humans and the environment and do not meet safety standards, and therefore are ineligible for reregistration."

This news comes along with the announcement of two suits filed against the EPA by a coalition of public health, farmworker, and environmental groups over the continued use of the toxic pesticides endosulfan and diazinon, as well as congress' decision to ban the use of 3 kinds of phthalates in children's toys. Change seems to be lurking everywhere in Washington right now.

What an exciting time to be interning in pesticide reform! I look forward to seeing what happens with the endosulfan and diazinon cases and updating Fair Ground readers on those and other news stories in the rest of my time here. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fewer Pesticides = Fewer Suicides

A story came out from the German Press Agency (DPA) this week discussing yet another benefit of reducing pesticide use: decreasing suicide rates!

India has been experiencing increasing numbers of farmer suicides in the last decade or so as a consequence of its Green Revolution (a US 'encouraged' movement in the late 1960s to increase crop yields through the development of greater yielding plant varieties) and the resulting structural adjustment policies of the World Bank in 1998, forcing farmers into increased use of input-intensive, single-season crops. Mounting debt due to investment in the expensive chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) required to grow demanding hybrid seeds have resulted in more than 100,000 government-acknowledged cases of desperate farmers “drinking the same pesticides that created their liabilities”. Not only have these ‘advanced’ technologies racked up impressive debts for farmers in India, they have substantially lowered both water tables and land fertility, furthering the difficulty of survival for the some 600 million Indians who depend on agricultural activities for their livelihood.

But there’s hope! Programs helping farmers return to traditional and organic farming are proving to be successful in lowering suicide rates by bringing in higher yields and incomes. By returning to local pest management techniques and the tradition of saving and trading seeds (saving money on chemical pesticides and GM seeds) farmers have been able to begin pulling themselves out of debt and recovering mortgaged land. The reach of these programs is increasing as the price of chemical pesticides goes up with the price of oil. Vandana Shiva, creator of the founding organization of India’s current organic movement, Navdanya, is confident that “When chemical farming has led to a total collapse, traditional and organic farming is the solution, the way of the future.”

As the price of oil continues to rise, it will be interesting to see its effects on the use of petroleum-based, chemical pesticides and fertilizers in farming around the world. If it can change the way we drive, why not the way we farm? Sustainable agriculture advocates and the like: lets take advantage of this new incentive for organic or pesticide-free agriculture, and act to encourage and support farmers in making the change.

Friday, July 18, 2008

5 great years!

This week Billie Karel celebrates 5 years on the staff of Toxic Free NC.

As our Program Coordinator, Billie has developed outstanding Volunteer and Community Organizing programs, built our beautiful website, coordinates the Board Development Committee and our new Leadership Committee, keeps everyone in the loop with Action Alerts, and does a million other things to make Toxic Free NC successful. Billie also sings and dances and is generally just fun to be around. That’s why we’ve decided that today is Billie Karel Appreciation Day at Toxic Free NC.

We hope you'll join us in celebrating Billie Karel Appreciation Day today. Together with all our friends, colleauges and supporters, Billie's work is helping us all acheive just & sustainable agriculture, and a toxic-free future for our children in North Carolina.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A challenging victory

This week the NC Legislature passed a small but important piece of legislation to improve the lives of farmworkers who work in North Carolina's fields.

S 847, "Prevent Agricultural Pesticide Exposure," will not prevent agricultural pesticide exposure. However, it will grant a very basic form of workplace dignity to farmworkers: the right to report safety problems on the job without the threat of being fired, demoted or otherwise punished for doing so. Farmworkers who are punished for reporting pesticide safety concerns will have the right to file a complaint with the NC Department of Labor under REDA, the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, and to win their job or lost wages back.

This legislation also directs the NC Pesticide Board to create new rules that improve how agricultural employers keep records when they use pesticides and workers are present. This step is intended to make enforcement of violations easier for the NC Department of Agriculture, and to eliminate the "he-said-she-said" nature of their enforcement cases now.

This is important legislation, and those who worked to pass it should be proud (particularly Rep. Dan Blue, Sen. Charlie Albertson, Health Director Leah Devlin and Governor Easley). But they also shouldn't be lulled into thinking that farmworkers and their families are now safe from harmful exposure to pesticides, or that a disastrous incident like what has been alleged in the Ag-Mart case couldn't happen again.

Toxic Free NC and our allies in the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) have spent years researching workplace pesticide exposure, talking with farmworkers about their experiences, and examining programs in other states. Only one of our long list of recommendations - retaliation protection - made it into S 847 (read more about FAN's recommendations here).

One of the greatest challenges that we face in advocating for and with farmworkers is actually the democratic process, which is designed to ensure that every citizen gets a vote and a voice. Unfortunately, most of the people who labor to plant, tend and harvest our food in the United States are not citizens, and don't get a vote -- or a voice. No elected official in NC is accountable to farmworkers, except perhaps in a moral sense.

Elected officials don't have to listen to farmworkers - even if they could speak to them - but they do have to listen to their constituents, and they especially listen to the lobby groups and business interests - like the Farm Bureau - who are constantly in their offices demanding specific outcomes.

Many, many citizens joined Toxic Free NC and our FAN partners in advocating for worker protection, both before and during the legislative session. Despite all that, we did not get the best possible legislation for farmworkers. We got the best possible legislation in an environment dominated by business interests.

In the future, we can work harder, we can speak louder, and we can recruit more citizens to call on the moral values of our elected officials. We should and we must continue to work for a just and sustainable future for our state, its workers and its residents. To do that, we must also work for the restoration of integrity to our democratic process, to diminish the power of private profit to act as gatekeeper for our health and safety.

What you can do:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's fire ant season in NC

I got stung by several fire ants last week while wearing sandals in a vegetable garden. Besides the usual pain and surprise, my foot and ankle swelled up for a couple days following. Augh....happy summer, I guess. The bites were timely, actually, since I've been working on an article about least-toxic control of fire ants for the summer edition of Toxic Free News (due out in July, stay tuned!). But, I wanted to post a few tips on fire ants now, in case you (like me) are already dealing with these nasty buggers....

Here are few things you might not have thought of:

- Fire ants like to eat trash and drink water from leaky pipes and puddles, just like so many other pests. Keep your outdoor trash and recycling areas tidy, clean up food scraps left after picnics and cook outs, fix leaky pipes and correct drainage issues around the house.

(Image caption: Fire ants swarming a cowboy somewhere in TX. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University.)

- Lots of other ant species will fight and kill fire ants - they're competitors! So, when trying to get rid of fire ants, don't go crazy and kill other kinds of ants, since they may actually be helping you.

- Mark fire ant mounts with a flag or something else bright and eye-catching, and warn people to avoid them. Fire ants only bite when their nests are disturbed, i.e. by stepping on them. They won't come looking to bite you if you stay out of their way!

- The least-toxic, and most-often-cited strategy for fire ants is plain old hot water. Some sources recommend mixing in a little soap, but either way, it's 2 or 3 gallons of hot water poured slowly over the mound. This drowns many of the ants, and annoys the rest of them enough that they move their nest elsewhere. You might have to do it 2 or 3 times over the course of a week to finish them off.

- And of course, the pretty obvious thing that I forgot when I was in the garden last week: wear socks and shoes, or better, rubber boots (or cowboy boots?!) when working in areas prone to fire ants.

That's all for now! Check out this article from the Toxic Free News archives - it includes a description of the "yellow flag system" used to control fire ants at Elizabeth City public schools. And stay tuned for my article on fire ant management coming up in the next issue of Toxic Free News!

I fell in to a burning ring of fire (ants)....I went down down down, and the flames went higher....and it burns burns burns, that ring of fire....that ring of fire! Too bad we already missed Ashburn, GA's Fire Ant Festival last March. But, it's good to know that other states with longer-standing fire ant problems are keeping a good sense of humor about them....bodes well for NC!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pesticides and Diabetes..... and Golf!

Earlier this week, the National Institutes for Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) released new results from the Agricultural Health Study showing that applying some pesticides can increase a person's risk of developing diabetes. From the June 4th press release:

"(...) Researchers compared the pesticide use and other potential risk factors reported by the 1,171 [licensed pesticides] applicators who developed diabetes since enrolling in the [Agricultural Health] study to those who did not develop diabetes. Among the 50 different pesticides the researchers looked at, they found seven specific pesticides — aldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, dichlorvos, trichlorfon, alachlor and cynazine - that increased the likelihood of diabetes among study participants who had ever been exposed to any of these pesticides, and an even greater risk as cumulative days of lifetime exposure increased.
All seven pesticides are chlorinated compounds, including two herbicides, three organochlorine insecticides and two organophosphate pesticides. (...)"

The Agricultural Health Study is a long-term study of health outcomes among about 90,000 pesticide applicators and their families in North Carolina and Iowa.

One of the higher risk chemicals identified in this study, trichlorfon, is commonly used on golf course turf! Check out this Golf and the Environment feature from Beyond Pesticides for more information about chemicals used on golf courses, and safer alternatives.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We miss the bees

Though this has been a beautiful spring, we have noticed a disturbing absence in our flower garden. We seem to be suffering from a serious shortage of bees.

Our front yard is loaded with white clover, and our flower beds are full of bees' favorites. With names like Bee Balm and Bienenfreund (German for "Bee's friend"), you'd expect the flowers in our garden to be lousy with bees. And in past years, they have been. But this year, it seems eerily silent in our garden. The familiar buzzing is missing around our blooms.

Commercial apiaries are suffering dramatic losses of bee populations due to a mysterious killer called Colony Collapse Disorder, and wild bee populations, like the ones who should be pollinating our garden, are being ravaged by disease and parasites.

Last week Germany took dramatic action to ban an entire class of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, which have been blamed for the deaths of millions of honeybees there. Bayer CropScience, one of the main producers of neonicotinoid pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, two chemicals that have been blamed for massive bee die-offs in the US and Europe, denies that the pesticides are dangerous "when used properly."

I don't find their reassurances very satisfying. Surveys from the Apiary Inspectors of America this year report that honeybee populations in the US are down by about 36% over last year, and last year they were down by 31%. Growers who depend on honeybees for pollination, like fruit growers, are paying top-dollar for commercial pollination services, adding to the list of woes driving up food prices around the world.

We haven't had a scientific survey done in our garden, but I'm finding the quiet out there more than a little disturbing. We need some real answers about what's killing off bees around the world, and perhaps we need to be following Germany's example when we've got a good hunch.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wash that produce

The US Department of Agriculture is about to cut an $8 million survey program that provides the public (and many government agencies) with data about how much pesticide US farmers apply to their crops around the country. Toxic Free NC uses this vital data regularly. I was interviewed for an NPR Marketplace story about the cuts today - you can listen here.

Read more about the cuts on Jennifer Sass's blog at the NRDC.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Global Food Crisis - Ouch.

Headlines about the global crisis of increasing food prices are pretty staggering. Here in the US, food prices up as much as 20 or 25% for some staples have added insult to the injuries of record-breaking prices at the gas pump and the housing slump. Local food banks are reporting unprecedented jumps in their populations served over the past couple months. Meanwhile, in poorer nations overseas, where people spend a much larger portion of their incomes on food, and prices for some staple crops like rice have doubled or even tripled in price over the past several months, there have been riots and other evidence that the situation is becoming increasingly critical.

In the midst of this devastating silent tsunami, I ask you to consider some of the causes, many of which are environmental:

1) Climate change. Droughts, floods, and other unusual weather patterns across the globe have disrupted farming over the past few years and hurt local food supplies in many parts of the world. This has made people more dependent on imported food and driven up the price.
2) Gas prices. Food that is trucked, shipped and flown around the country or the globe is costing more to transport these days, with gas hitting new record prices all the time. This is hurting import-dependent developing countries most.
3) Increased meat consumption. It takes about seven or eight hundred calories of grain to make one hundred calories of meat. Consider the impacts on global grain prices of increasing meat consumption in populous countries like China and India, while American appetites for cheap and plentiful meat remains high as ever.
4) Fuel made from food. There has been a great push in the US and several other countries to put more ethanol in people's gas tanks to reduce tailpipe emissions. 20% of the American corn crop was used for biofuel in 2006, a number that has come up from the single digits in just a few years. This has driven up prices for corn, and prompted farmers to divert land from other food crops to corn (driving up prices on those crops), or from "conservation" (un-farmed land near water ways and other sensitive areas). Increasing corn production in turn contributes to water pollution problems (think of the growing "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the fact that an herbicide commonly used on corn has been shown to cause hermaphrodism in frogs).

So, what can we do? A few ideas -

* Eat local. May and June are some of the lushest, most productive months on farms and NC. Take advantage by hitting your local farmers market or local foods grocer - you'll find prices on locally produced foods relatively stable, and you'll be helping to ease the pressure on the global commodity market and stabilize food prices for people who don't have other options. Better yet: grow your own. Can't beat free! Also, please keep an eye out for opportunities to get local foods in more places in your community: Local food purchasing policies for cafeterias in your favorite school, childcare center, or workplace? Farm-to-school, office, or church programs? We're here to help!
* Eat less meat. Consider a quality-over-quantity approach to eating meat and other animal products like eggs and dairy. Try eating less of them, and when you do eat them, focus on local and sustainable options, which are often more nutritious and tastier! It'll be better for you, better for our environment, and better for our global food economy.
* Share. There are lots of organizations working to fight hunger, both domestically and overseas, which you might consider supporting this year. One tip - the national "Stamp Out Hunger" food drive is coming up this Saturday, May 10th. The National Association of Letter Carriers has teamed up with food banks across the country to pick up your food donations from your mailbox this coming Saturday. Please consider making a gift - in our area, your gifts will be handled by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, which distributes food to many smaller providers across our region.

In the long term, more of us need to recognize that our economic decisions, as individuals and as nations, are having a serious impact on the global environment and on the welfare of our neighbors on this planet. Our global food economy is seriously broken, and we need to fix it. We as a society, and the governments who are working for us, must heed the lesson of this crisis by making long-term investments in *real* energy efficiency, and agricultural practices that are truly sustainable in the environmental, social and economic senses of the word.

So, my dear readers, please keep on eating local, voting your heart, and speaking your mind!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pesticide Task Force punts on the tough issues

A Task Force convened earlier this year by Governor Mike Easley to address pesticide exposure hazards in agriculture has sent its recommendations to the Governor (read the press release). The report contains some good ideas and some welcome changes, to be sure, but misses the chance to bring much-needed basic workplace protections to farmworkers who face the threat of pesticide exposure on the job.

Within the report's recommendations you'll find budget requests for several of the agencies that were represented on the Task Force, ideas for the expansion of many voluntary and educational programs, and very little reform. Only one of the recommendations brought by farmworker advocates, a provision that would outlaw retaliation against workers who report workplace safety problems, was adopted by the Task Force.

The Task Force faced several challenges in its structure, including the absence of any farmworker representatives. Because the recommendations were made by consensus, any Task Force member was able to prevent recommendations from going forward. One Task Force member in particular, Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, was extremely effective in preventing the Task Force from taking up several of the reform measures they discussed.

There were some key issues exposed by the Ag-Mart case that the Task Force chose to put off for future study:
  • Keep workers' names confidential when they report workplace safety problems.
  • Require growers to keep records of compliance with Worker Protection Standards by recording when workers are sent back into the fields after spraying.
  • Increase minimal pesticide fines and remove the standard of "willful" violations.
Panelists also recommended solutions including: require crop-specific pesticide safety training; redesign pesticide labels and ensure that they are also provided in Spanish; encourage the use of organic farming, Integrated Pest Management and less-toxic alternatives; improve regulations of pesticide drift; require adequate showers and telephones in employer-provided farmworker housing; screen workers regularly for health impacts; increase the number of bilingual pesticide inspectors, and many others. None of these were mentioned in the final report to the Governor.

Whether Governor Easley and the NC Legislature can look beyond the limitations of this report remains to be seen. But they will have to if they intend to fix the problems that Ag-Mart has so painfully pointed out.

You can download the report (PDF, 232 KB) by clicking this link.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Earth Day, everyone?

Earth Day is coming up on Tuesday, April 22, and that means the Toxic Free NC team is busy gearing up for events and festivals all over the state. I hope we'll be seeing you at some of them!

Stop by and say hello to our staff and volunteers, color a bug or make a veggie painting like this guy, who had a ball at 5% Day last week, thanks to Whole Foods Market in Raleigh.

The Whole Foods stores in Raleigh and Chapel Hill dedicated their 5% Days last week to Toxic Free NC. We are so grateful to them for the generous donation, and for the chance to talk with so many new people (not to mention smashing beets for the sake of art).

Here's where we'll be celebrating Earth Day this year:

Saturday, April 20
Raleigh: Burt's Bees Planet Earth Celebration
Winston-Salem: Piedmont Earth Day Fair
Goldsboro: Wayne County Earth Day

Saturday, April 26
Fayetteville: Dogwood Festival
Washington: Beaufort County Earth Day

Sunday, April 27
Fayetteville: Dogwood Festival

There are lots more community events coming up where we'll be out meeting folks around the state, and we'd love to see you there. Check out our calendar of events to find one near you. If you're interested in helping us get out the word about Toxic Free NC and alternatives to pesticides, email Billie and let her know you'd like to volunteer with us at an upcoming event.

And happy Earth Day!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Farmworker Awareness Week

This is Farmworker Awareness Week, and a time to reflect, learn more, and support the millions of farmworkers whose labor puts food on every American table.

It's estimated that in North Carolina, about 100,000 - 150,000 farmworkers plant, tend and harvest our crops every year, particularly in labor-intensive crops like tomatoes, vegetables, Christmas trees and tobacco. The large majority of North Carolina's farmworkers are migrants who move from place to place following the harvest. The average annual income for a farmworker in the United States is about $11,000, or about $16,000 for farmworking family (though pay on the East Coast is lower than the national average). Farmworkers live in overcrowded housing, few receive health care or unemployment benefits, and about half of North Carolina's farmworkers cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families.

Farmworkers are also disproportionately exposed to hazardous pesticides on the job. A recent study in eastern North Carolina found multiple pesticide residues on the hands and in the urine of farmworker chidren. Many of you have followed the Ag-Mart case: last week the company settled for millions of dollars with the family of a boy, Carlitos Candelario, who was born with multiple severe birth defects, which his parents attribute to their hazardous working conditions at Ag-Mart.

This week you can attend events to learn about the rich history and culture of farmworkers in the United States, and you can take action to support better working conditions for the people who harvest our food. When you sit down to your next meal, please also take a moment to give thanks for the hardworking hands who brought it to you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Preventing poisonings

It's National Poison Prevention Week, and the US EPA is touting its big message to prevent childhood pesticide poisonings: lock up your pesticides. That's the word from Assistant Administrator Jim Gulliford in a podcast out this week from EPA. Poison Control Centers report that more than 50 percent of over two million exposure incidents each year involve children under six years of age, so to combat the danger, EPA wants us to put locks on the cabinets where we keep the poisons.

What a radical message. Every week EPA reviews new studies about how low-level pesticide exposure can increase children's risks for cancer, harm neurological development, increase the risk and severity of asthma, and on and on. Amendments to the Federal Pesticide Law in 1996, in response to the groundbreaking National Research Council report "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," recognized that children are exposed to many pesticides at once through their diets, water and surroundings -- at potentially hazardous levels -- and required new restrictions on agricultural pesticide use to reduce those aggregated exposures. EPA funds dozens of programs around the US to reduce children's pesticide exposure in schools, public housing and child-care centers through Integrated Pest Management.

So when it comes down to the public message, why is EPA telling people that the way to protect kids is to keep on using pesticides -- just lock them up when you're done? How about this for a protective message: hey, you've got kids in the house, and you really ought to quit spraying pesticides altogether. No exposure, no storage problems... no risk of accidental poisoning. That's a simple, straightforward message that will actually protect children.

For every category of potential household poison that Gulliford enumerated in the podcast, there is a simple non-toxic replacement. That's what the IPM programs that EPA supports are all about -- eliminate the risk by eliminating the poison in the first place. Is there a safer way to control pests? You betcha. It's also the safer way to prevent childhood poisonings.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Noisy spring, silent summer?

This is a story about sludge, worms and songbirds, and it starts in your bathroom cabinet.

When we treat our wastewater to remove "biosolids" -- a polite term for our human waste -- all sorts of other things end up in the leftover sludge, including the drugs we take and the "personal care products" like lotion, shampoo, makeup and cologne that we slather on our bodies, which have been absorbed through our skin and then excreted in our waste. The treated wastewater is usually discharged into the local river, and the sludge that's been removed from it frequently becomes fertilizer for agricultural production.

Researchers at the US Geological Survey have found that the hungry earthworms who feed on this sludge in farm fields contain concentrated levels of our drugs and personal care products in their bodies. In fact, a USGS study published in February found that the compounds bioaccumulate in earthworms, meaning that the worms bear higher levels of these pollutants than the surrounding soil does. The USGS researchers note that worms could become monitoring species to help us determine the relative pollution levels in soil, but state that the pollution in these worms have "unknown effects" for wildlife [read the story in Science News].

"Unknown" maybe in that particular study, but researchers in the UK published a disturbing study about a week later that provides some insight into what happens to the polluted worms: Birds eat them.

This particular study examined Eurpean Starlings in the wild, who like to forage in farm fields where fertilizer from sewage sludge has been applied, because the soil is rich in earthworms and other organisms who are busy feasting on the nutrients in the fertilizer. But they're also feasting on the contaminants in the fertilizer, and those contaminants have an impact on the foraging birds [read the story in the New York Times].

The contaminants in sewage sludge can contain hormone-mimicking compounds that act like estrogen in the birds' bodies (Following the thread here? Those compounds are the drugs and personal care products the USGS was examining in the earlier study).

The UK researchers found that the contaminants boosted development in the part of the male birds' brains that control their songs, making them sing longer and more complex songs. The researchers also found that female starlings preferred the long, complex songs of the contaminated male starlings.

The bad news is... they're contaminated. The same endocrine-disrupting compounds in the male starlings that made them attractive as mates make them unfit as fathers, because the compounds suppress the birds' immune systems and make them sick. While that might be good news for American birders who aren't fond of invasive starlings, it's rather bad news for birds everywhere who like to eat worms. While that fat earthworm might taste good and improve a male songbird's chances of attracting a pretty lady bird, it could actually be crippling his chances of producing a healthy brood of babies.

This might seem like just a scientific curiosity if the same kinds of effects hadn't also been noted in many other species, including fish, reptiles and amphibians. Sort of makes you think twice about that nice body spray in your bathroom cabinet that's supposed to make you more attractive to a mate, doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The case against Ag-Mart marches forward

The NC Department of Agriculture's case against giant tomato grower Ag-Mart took another step forward at today's NC Pesticide Board meeting. The Board ordered Ag-Mart to pay $21,000 in fines, and revoked the pesticide license of Jeffrey Oxley, the Ag-Mart employee named in the case.

The Board also decided that an Administrative Law Judge had been hasty in tossing out hundreds of charges of endangering workers by allowing them back into the freshly-sprayed fields before protective "re-entry intervals" had expired. The Pesticide Board wants to hear the evidence on those 201 charges, and will hold hearings this summer. In the mean time, it's very likely that the Department of Agriculture will be looking for Ag-Mart workers (or former workers) who can testify in the case.

It's about time the workers' stories are brought to bear in this case. It is amazing that in a case that came to investigators' attention because of the tragic injuries to workers' families, their stories have never been heard. But Ag-Mart's legal counsel will work hard to limit the introduction of "new evidence" -- like workers' statements -- into the record.

Whether the truth will ever come to light, and whether the state's case will withstand the lengthy appeals process that it seems likely to endure, is anybody's guess.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Local & Organic Food on NC Campuses - Advances in Food Democracy

There's an exciting (and delicious) trend afoot: college campuses in North Carolina are turning to locally-produced, organic foods for their dining services and on-campus restaurants! To get up to speed on what Triangle campuses are doing, check out this great article in last week's IndyWeek about the "FLO Food" movement at UNC, and similar efforts at Duke and NCSU.

Across the state, students and staff at colleges and universities are working on getting their own dining halls to go local and organic, and it's not just the crunchy colleges you might think of first, either! This is really exciting to me for a lot of reasons, but to sum up the highlights -

If a college campus can do it, just about anyone can. At the top of the list of reasons why people don't eat local and organic food, you'll probably find things like "it costs too much," or "it's hard to find," or, for large-scale kitchens, "there's not a large and consistent enough supply for what my restaurant/school/etc needs." But, goshdarnit, if a university dining service that makes thousands of meals a day can do it, than so can just about anyone! I think our NC university dining services are dispelling some important myths about buying local and organic food:
> It doesn't necessarily cost more, and when it does, it's often worth it. I like the example of the hamburger made of local grass-fed beef that costs $1 more, but students buy more of them anyway because they taste better and it's the right thing to do. If you're truly strapped for cash, that $1 really might not be worth it, but I think a lot more people could, and would, make that choice if they had the option.
> You don't have to buy everything local and organic for it to count - start somewhere! According to this article, dining services at Duke are serving between 16% and 35% local foods, depending on the place. That's fantastic, so long as they're not misleading anyone to think that it's more than what it is. As consumers, we have to be like the Duke dining hall - we have to buy as much local and organic stuff as we feasibly can, and trust that with time, it'll get easier. Any business we can consistently send to local and organic farms helps our local economy, environment, and our own health. With a little time, the supply side of the equation will catch up to us, and we'll be able to find more affordable local and organic foods.....but we've got to start buying what we can now!
> It's not just fancy stuff, and it's not just veggies. Nope, "organic food" does not just mean shitake mushrooms, sprouts and broccoli rabe (say what?), and it doesn't just mean something you eat at a fancy restaurant for special occasions. It also comes in normal everyday varieties....your green beans and your mashed potatoes, your carrot sticks and apple juice. And, it's not just your fruits and veggies that come locally produced and organic - it's also meats (pork, beef and poultry), eggs, milk and cheese, honey and more. Heck, it's even your Christmas tree! All these products are available organic and North Carolina-grown, so please don't forget to look for them!
Most of all, this article makes me happy because it's about democratizing good food. By that, I mean that everyone deserves the choice to eat healthy, locally-grown organic food, not just people who live near natural foods stores, and not just wealthy people. When large institutions that serve a broad cross-section of the community commit to providing these options, that's a huge step in improving our food democracy! Where else do we need to see more local and organic food options?
K-12 schools!
Childcare centers!
Office & hospital cafeterias!
Your regular grocery store!
Where would you like to see more local or organic foods? Need help making a plan to get them? Please don't hesitate to contact us!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Biofuels - not so hot

I was already a big skeptic of biofuels before today. Using cropland to grow giant monocultures that are then burned as fuel instead of fed to people seems like a not-so-hot idea - think of the pesticides! More mono-cropping means more chemical pesticides and fertilizers that end up harming downwind and downstream communities and ecosystems. Yuck!

Today, I learned that two recent studies confirm that in addition to being a source of pesticide pollution, biofuels aren't actually preventing global warming either. Princeton University and The Marshall Fund published a study in the journal Science, and The Nature Conservancy has put out a study with similar conclusions.

From an article in The Washington Post on these findings:

"(...) As the study from the Nature Conservancy warns, 'converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a 'biofuel carbon debt' by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.' There are other negative effects. Massive amounts of water are needed to irrigate cornfields, setting up potential competition between farms and homes. The runoff of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers used by farmers could lead to increased pollution and oxygen-depleted waterways. The natural gas used to make the fertilizer adds to the carbon deficit created by biofuels.

An essay in the May-June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs by two professors from the University of Minnesota highlighted still another problem: The biofuels craze could starve people. "By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world," they wrote. "If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum."

Will someone please get the memo to decision makers in Washington who are pouring money into biofuels right now?? Eep!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Just Say No to Endosulfan

The EPA is taking public comment on its review of the acutely toxic pesticide endosulfan until next Tuesday, Feb. 19. The EPA considers endosulfan a potential human endocrine disruptor, and mounting evidence links endosulfan exposure with increased risk of autism and delayed puberty in boys. Endosulfan is already banned in Cambodia, the Philippines and most of Europe, but is still used in many other parts of the world including India and the U.S. In North Carolina, endosulfan is used on cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, apples and tobacco, with the highest concentrations of use in Eastern NC.

Our friends at the NC Conservation Network are conducting an online petition calling for a complete ban of endosulfan. Take a minute and let the EPA know where you stand!

It's worth noting that part of the reason these highly toxic chemicals are still around is that the people most affected by their continued use--farmworkers--are largely disenfranchised. Current laws not only fail to protect workers from the misuse of pesticides in the field, but they also fail to protect them from retaliation if they dare to file a complaint about it!

Picture a world in which farmworkers aren't hiding in the shadows, and you'll see a world in which toxic pesticides like endosulfan are a thing of the past.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Feeding our kids, without contamination

Did you need another reason to buy organic food for your kids? If so, yesterday's news from Emory University ought to do it.

Yet another study shows that kids who eat "conventional" diets -- that is, food grown in the standard way with chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- have significant levels of neurotoxic pesticides in their bodies. And when those same kids switch to an organic diet -- that is, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides -- the pollution disappears from their bodies. When they go back to "conventional" foods, the pesticide residues come right back again.

Researchers at Emory University followed a cohort of 21 elementary school-aged children and measured the pesticide metabolites for two common insecticides -- chlorpyrifos and malathion -- in their urine and saliva. These two pesticides belong to a larger family called "organophosphates," which target the nervous system. There is a wealth of evidence that exposure to organophosphates harms children, particularly their developing brains.

This study is important, not just because it's another sign that organically-grown foods really are different from conventional (and therefore worth the extra investment), but because it shows that federal laws designed to keep pesticides out of our kids' diets aren't working.

If you're one of those families who's looking for strategies to buy organic foods without breaking the bank, check out our article Organic on a Budget. But safe food shouldn't just be for families who have an organic grocer nearby and can afford to shop in it -- all our kids should be able to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables without contamination by neurotoxins. You can help make that happen, too:
  • Introduce some families you know to the local farmer's market.
  • Organize with your PTA to get your school's cafeteria buying local, organic produce. Check out for some neat resources.
  • Let your elected officials know that pesticides don't belong in our kids' bodies. Not only should we be lowering the "tolerated" levels of pesticide residues on our foods, but we should be promoting sustainable agriculture that reduces dependence on toxic chemicals for all growers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


This week PESTed celebrated the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. by honoring our volunteers. At a volunteer appreciation party on Monday at DesignBox, we got a chance to say "thank you" to some of the wonderful people who give of themselves to make the movement for pesticide reform and a toxic-free North Carolina possible.

The King holiday was set aside by Congress as a national day of service in 1994, in order to encourage Americans to carry out one of Dr. King's great themes: that of service to others. We thank our volunteers in this same spirit, that of recognizing that greatness comes not from one's achievements and one's status in society, but from the greatness of our humility and our devotion to humankind. Dr. King gave his famous sermon on service, "The Drum Major Instinct," at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968. Here is a portion of that sermon, which I know you will recognize:
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

Take a minute to read the whole sermon (and even listen to moving audio excerpts) at the website of the Stanford MLK Papers Project.

Like our wonderful volunteers, I hope that you will be moved to serve others every day, long after the National Day of Service is over.

P.S. Thanks also to those who sponsored our volunteer appreciation party and helped us say "thank you" to some of those who serve: DesignBox, Neu Romance Entertainment, The Carolina Brewing Company, and Susan Barringer Wells. Here are some pictures from the party for your enjoyment!

MLK Day Volunteer Appreciation Party

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ag-Mart hearing at the Pesticide Board, 1/8/08

Yesterday, PESTed's staff attended a hearing in Raleigh on the infamous Ag-Mart case, in which the tomato grower has been investigated for hundreds of violations of NC pesticide law and federal Worker Protection Standards. The investigation started off back in 2005 after three of Ag-Mart's employees gave birth to children with severe birth defects, all within a few months of one another.
North Carolina's Pesticide Board, a citizen body that serves as the professional licensing board for pesticide applicators in the state, is charged with making the decision in the $185,000 case. At yesterday's hearing, the board heard hours of testimony from lawyers for both sides, and then asked their own legal counsel for other information before their next meeting on Feb 12th. So, no decisions until then, at least.
Three different news outlets have covered the hearing, so rather than giving you a blow by blow, I'll refer you on to them:

Raleigh News & Observer - Hearing pits state against Ag-Mart
Wilmington Star-News - No ruling yet about safety violations at grower's area farms

Independent Weekly - Ag-Mart case still hanging

I do want to share a few key impressions from the day, however:

1) Over the past year, the NC pesticide board has received recommendations from two separate administrative law judges ("ALJs" - Judge Wade and Judge Webster) that most of the charges against Ag-Mart should be dropped and their fines drastically reduced. I had feared that when pressed with making a final decision, the board might simply defer to those judges and accept their recommendations without much question. But so far, they don't seem to be doing that. Board members asked many probing and pointed questions of attorneys on both sides during the hearing, giving me the impression that they're skeptical of many of Ag-Mart's arguments, and that their minds are far from made up yet. Of course there's not been any real decision yet, but I'm heartened somewhat to find that the pesticide board is weighing the matter very carefully.

2) Farm workers, babies with birth defects, consumers who eat food harvested too soon after spraying, air pollution and run-off - there are so many real human and environmental impacts of any company's failure to abide by state pesticide regulations, and nary a one was mentioned in the 3 hours of testimony and questions heard by the pesticide board. Perhaps that was a strategic decision on someone's part that I just don't get. Perhaps they were thinking that since health impacts and pollution and all that stuff are hard to prove in a direct "cause and effect" way, they are not factual or "material" evidence for a case like this, and so the state's talking about them might open them up to attack from the other side. Maybe that's what they were thinking, but gosh, it seems that evoking all those impacts should have been important to remind the board and everyone present why we have pesticide regulations in the first place, and why it's so important to take them seriously. So many of Ag-Mart's arguments have to do with "slight" non-compliance with the regulations: harvesting six days after spraying, rather than seven as required; applying pesticides not registered for use on tomatoes in NC; possibly spraying on one side of a field when workers are on the other side; etc. Oopsie! Is the state supposed to just waive the fines because the violations weren't so bad?


The regulations are what they are for a reason (and they're not enough as it is, though that's a whole other blog post...), and we must keep perspective on what that reason is: people's health, their very lives, and our environment are all at stake when pesticides are applied unsafely. It is not okay to bend the rules!!

3) The attorneys for Ag-Mart probably didn't realize this, but in the course of their arguments, they did a pretty good job of laying out the case for The Agricultural Families Protection Act (H1818), pending legislation that would close many of the loopholes in NC pesticide law:

Ag-Mart's argument:
* Ag-Mart records are not "inaccurate" - they simply don't keep a record of which worker is where and when, because that information is not particularly important to farmers, and is not required under federal or state laws.
* There is no record of spraying and work locations to draw from - there is only a record of potential or planned spray sites, and potential or planned work sites.
Proposed law change in H1818:
* Require agricultural employers to maintain accurate records of pesticide applications to document compliance with the Worker Protection Standard.

Ag-Mart's argument:
* Many Ag-Mart workers were questioned as to whether they'd been sprayed or asked to enter fields before the required "re-entry interval" had elapsed, and they all said no, that there had been no such violations.
Why that may not mean much:
* Under current laws, workers involved in a state investigation are not kept anonymous - their names appear in public records related to the case.
* Under current laws, workers also have no protection from retaliation if they act as whistleblowers. In other words, if they report their boss to an enforcement agency, or cooperate with an investigation and get their boss in trouble, they have no recourse if their boss subsequently fires them or reduces their pay in retaliation.
* The vast majority of Ag-Mart's employees are undocumented immigrants. Many have low to no literacy, and many do not speak Spanish well - they speak an indigenous Mexican language. All this makes them very vulnerable, and so unlikely to stick their necks out.
Proposed law changes in H1818:
* Add a confidentiality clause that enables agricultural employees to confidentially file a complaint about workplace pesticide safety violations.
* Add the NC Pesticide Law to the list of statutes covered under NC’s anti-retaliation law, to protect workers from retaliation for attempting to comply with the law.

Other changes that would be made if H1818 becomes law:
* Ensure adequate pesticide decontamination facilities by requiring 1 shower head per 8 workers–making the standard equal to NC jail standards.
* Employers should ensure access to a working telephone and emergency medical contact information in every worker housing unit.
* Raise fines from $500 to $2000 maximum per violation for large agricultural employers. Preserve the lower fines for small family farmers.

I believe this case has demonstrated that NC needs the changes H1818 proposes! The Agricultural Families Protection Act would add little additional responsibility for farmers who are already in full compliance with state and federal rules on pesticide use and worker safety. But, it would make it much harder for other agricultural employers to break those rules and get away with it. It would also provide some measure of protection from excessive pesticide exposure and from exploitation for the most vulnerable workers and their families.

If you're concerned about this too, then please take a moment to make your thoughts public. You can write a letter to the editor of one of the papers that covered the story (N&O, Wilmington Star-News, IndyWeek), or to your local paper, expressing your views and hope that we can make our pesticide laws work better. Tips on writing a letter to the editor from the NC Conservation Network.

Want to do more? Be an Ambassador for Just & Sustainable Agriculture this spring! PESTed is working with groups of concerned people all over the state to organize meetings with their representatives in the NC General Assembly this winter and spring - contact us to be a part of it! We're also happy to accept donations to sponsor this effort: gas cards to help us get out to far-away districts and work with concerned citizens on preparing for their meetings, gift cards to purchase food for those people while they're preparing, and straight-up money are all very welcome.

Thank you, and we'll keep on keeping you posted!