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!