Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Wal-mart: the white knight of the organic food business?

There's an interesting piece by Field Maloney, a New Yorker staffer, on "the dark secrets of the organic food movement" in Slate that makes many good points but ends with the batshit insane suggestion that Wal-mart's entry into the organic food biz might be a good thing.

There's no guarantee that a consumer is doing the right thing simply by buying a product labeled "organic." Big producers have watered down the label, for one thing, and as Maloney explains:
When the Department of Agriculture established the guidelines for organic food in 1990, it blew a huge opportunity. The USDA—under heavy agribusiness lobbying—adopted an abstract set of restrictions for organic agriculture and left "local" out of the formula. What passes for organic farming today has strayed far from what the shaggy utopians who got the movement going back in the '60s and '70s had in mind. But if these pioneers dreamed of revolutionizing the nation's food supply, they surely didn't intend for organic to become a luxury item, a high-end lifestyle choice.
Absolutely right. Eating out-of-season organic tomatoes from Chile or California in New York is probably worse for the environment than eating New Jersey tomatoes that lack the organic label.

But Maloney wanders onto much shakier ground when he goes on to suggest that:
It's likely that neither Wal-Mart nor Whole Foods will do much to encourage local agriculture or small farming, but in an odd twist, Wal-Mart, with its simple "More for Less" credo, might do far more to democratize the nation's food supply than Whole Foods. The organic-food movement is in danger of exacerbating the growing gap between rich and poor in this country by contributing to a two-tiered national food supply, with healthy food for the rich. Could Wal-Mart's populist strategy prove to be more "sustainable" than Whole Foods? Stranger things have happened.
Really? I'd like to know what would be stranger than that.

I won't argue that anti-Wal Mart prejudice doesn't contain some elements of snobbery, or that eating organic can be simply one more status symbol for wealthy consumers. But it's a ridiculous argument that to say that Wal-mart will somehow "democratize" the organic food business. Wal-mart's history of how it treats its workers and suppliers and local communities is there for all to see. A recent U.C. Berkeley study concluded that Wal-Mart "actually reduced the take-home pay of retail workers by $4.7 BILLION dollars annually." What organic farmer who desires to make a good living is eager to deal with that company?

And there's no small irony to the juxtaposition of this story with Why the nation's largest community garden must become a Wal-mart warehouse. Tom Philpott argues that the heartbreaking battle over Los Angeles' South Central Community Garden is a microcosmic illustration of the essential contradiction between community sustainability and the inexorable logic of global trade (of which Wal-mart is certainly one of the prime movers).

Down the road, food should be organic AND locally grown. That's the basic argument for real "homeland security." Whole Foods, while it has its shortcomings, is probably somewhat approachable on the latter issue.
Can a leopard change its spots? Anything's possible. But based on its track record with employees and providers, having Wal-mart dominating the organic food market is an idea that almost too awful to contemplate.

Here is the Organic Consumer Association's manifesto for "breaking the chains":
The answer to Wal-Martization and so-called “Free Trade” is ethical consumer purchasing and political action--building and supporting local and community-based producers and businesses through solidarity, collective purchasing power, and mutual aid. Fair Trade, not Free Trade, must become the global norm, with organic and sustainable production leading the way. Local and community control over essential goods and services provides the only solid foundation for economic democracy, a sustainable environment, and public health.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"Free fraud zone"

A documentary scheduled to run on the UK's Channel4 tonight will look at the scandal of Iraq's missing billions—huge amounts of cash, earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction, but either stolen outright by American contractors or doled out on now-familiar Bush-regime lines of loyalty.

"[R]ather than being a technical agenda, I believe it was largely a politically motivated reward-and-punishment kind of agenda," said Mary Patterson, an experienced health worker who was eventually asked to leave Iraq by James Haveman, the man appointed by the Pentagon to supervise the reconstruction of the Iraqi health service.

Haveman, who had zero experience in international health work, was however highly qualified to work for the Bush regime, with his track record of being "a loyal Bush supporter, who had campaigned for Jeb Bush, and a committed evangelical Christian."

Another plugged-in contracting company, Custer Battles, billed the U.S. government for $10 million dollars in return for $3 million of actual expenditure. "Perhaps more remarkable is that the US government, once it knew about the scam, took no legal action to recover the money."
When the coalition troops arrived in Iraq, they were received with remarkable goodwill by significant sections of the population. The coalition had control up to a point and, perhaps more importantly, it had the money to consolidate that goodwill by rebuilding Iraq, or at least make a significant start.

Best of all for the US and its allies, the money came from the Iraqis themselves.
Because the Iraqi banking system was in tatters, the funds were placed in an account with the Federal Reserve in New York. From there, most of the money was flown in cash to Baghdad.

Over the first 14 months of the occupation, 363 tonnes of new $100 bills were shipped in - $12bn, in cash. And that is where it all began to go wrong.
"Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money," says Frank Willis, a former senior official with the governing Coalition Provisional Authority. "We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced."

The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption. "American law was suspended, Iraqi law was suspended, and Iraq basically became a free fraud zone," says Alan Grayson, a Florida-based attorney who represents whistleblowers now trying to expose the corruption. "In a free fire zone you can shoot at anybody you want. In a free fraud zone you can steal anything you like. And that was what they did."

Read the whole article...

It's rather important to remember that this was Iraqi money that was stolen. At the start of America's atack on Iraq, "around $23bn-worth of Iraqi money was placed in the trusteeship of the US-led coalition by the UN. The money, known as the Development Fund for Iraq and consisting of the proceeds of oil sales, frozen Iraqi bank accounts and seized Iraqi assets, was to be used in a 'transparent manner,' specified the UN, for 'purposes benefiting the people of Iraq.'"

Friday, March 17, 2006

Of magical places and iron fists

Tom Philpott, a financial writer turned farmer (which is sort of the path I'm on, albeit at a much earlier stage), is always worth reading.

While he appears to have at least temporarily abandoned his great, cleverly named Bitter Greens Journal blog, which he describes as "a running critique of industrial agriculture, a clearinghouse for info on sustainable farming, and a working manifesto for a liberation politics based on food," his writing continues to appear in other venues.

He seems primarily to focus on contributions to Grist and Gristmill (here's a recent piece), but today he turns up in Counterpunch, with a heartbreaking, sharply reasoned look at the tragedy of Los Angeles' South Central Community Farm, the nation's largest community garden, which, it appears, is being done in by the double whammy of dubious backroom real estate deals and the "invisible fist of neoliberalism," which has come down hard on the (mostly Central American, all poor) plot holders. Taking land nobody wanted at the time, these 325 families have created what the L.A. Times allows is a "special, almost magical place." Of course the Times, its priorities always in place, doesn't allow itself to get carried away: "no magic is so strong that it erases a landowner's right to either his property or its fair value."

As Philpott explains, that "right" and "fair value" are not exactly clear cut.
Irony abounds here like vegetables in a well-tended garden plot. Most of the plot holders are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. A generation of neoliberal policies in Latin America has turned smallholder farming there into an economic disaster, sending legions of displaced farmers north in search of gainful employment. These immigrants-whose hard work for low pay has helped underwrite the U.S. inflation miracle, keeping interest rates low so consumers can, well, consume-find few opportunities to grow their own food here in El Norte. In this case, when they did gain access to kitchen plots, the invisible fist of neoliberalism swooped down again, powered as always by property's inalienable right.

Yet the ironies go deeper than double-displacement-deeper even than plunking a big-box warehouse, groaning with goods manufactured by low-wage workers in China, on top of a food source for low-wage Latino workers in the United States. To understand fully the brazenness of Horowitz's power play-and the feebleness of the Times' response to it-you have to sift through the details of how the developer gained title to the land.

Earth to Congress: WTF?

The disconnect between constituents and their representative is truly shocking. Congress no longer even pays lip service to the idea of speaking for the people they work for.

While the citizens are rarin' to go forward with censure and impeachment proceedings, only one—one!—senator has aligned himself with Feingold's call to censure Bush.

From Raw Story:

A new poll finds that a plurality of Americans favor plans to censure President George W. Bush, while a surprising 42% favor moves to actually impeach the President.

A poll taken March 15, 2006 by American Research Group found that among all adults, 46% favor Senator Russ Feingold's (D-WI) plan to censure President George W. Bush, while just 44% are opposed. Approval of the plan grows slightly when the sample is narrowed to voters, up to 48% in favor of the Senate censuring the sitting president.

Even more shocking is that just 57% of Republicans are opposed to the move, with 14% still undecided and 29% actually in favor. Fully 70% of Democrats want to see Bush censured.

More surprising still: The poll found fully 43% of voters in favor of actually impeaching the President, with just 50% of voters opposed. While only 18% of Republicans surveyed wanted to see Bush impeached, 61% of Democrats and 47% of Independents reported they wanted to see the House move ahead with the Conyers (D-MI) resolution.

And what does the opposition party have to say?
Democrats have to focus on average voters and their needs and not get diverted by other things," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "That's where we'll find success."

When asked about the censure resolution, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, paused for several seconds before wrinkling his face and trying to change the subject. He and others believe the censure discussion is a distraction.

A full 46% of citizens, a plurality, want to censure the president. A mere 2% of senators are behind the move. What does that tell you?

Even Sandra Day O'Connor (who, it might be said, bears no little responsibilty for installing the current regime), is talking dictatorship. And the democrats call the censure move a "distraction."

Really, who do these guys work for?

Today on Huffington Post, Cenk Uygur has a pretty funny piece on the subject called Three Crazy Things Democratic Politicians Believe.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Common sense—who could argue?

Not that you'd know about it, but Reps. Lynne Woolsey and Barbara Lee introduced the modest and realistic Common Sense Budget Plan last week.

The plan calls for $60 billion in cuts for the Pentagon (from total military spending of about $1.1 trillion), all of which will come from obsolete programs, as identified by a team led by Lawrence Korb, Reagan's assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Installation and Logistics.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
Backers have a wish list for spending the proposed $60 billion in defense savings: $5 billion to homeland security improvements, including a program to inspect all 11 million shipping containers that enter the country annually; $10 billion to move toward energy independence; $10 billion for children's health care; $10 billion for school construction; $5 billion for job training; $2 billion for medical research; and $13 billion for overseas humanitarian aid. Another $5 billion would go to start cutting the rising national debt.

The proposal, Lee said, would "slash $60 billion from the defense budget without diminishing our ability to protect our nation.''
Sounds greeaaaattt, right? Who could be against such a bill? Would it surprise you to learn that "there's little chance Republican House leaders will allow a committee or a floor vote on the plan."

Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a group whose leaders include Ben Cohen Ben and Jerry's fame, are buying ads in Iowa and New Hampshire to boost the idea of the $60 billion cut in Pentagon spending.

"We know once the people there see how this money is spent, they will come to conclude on their own that it's right,'' Cohen said of the proposed cut.

"Oh, it was breathtaking!"

Victims of U.S. raid yesterday (AP)

On the third anniversary of the start of something big (we still don't know what exactly), FAIR remembers the glory of the war that "united the country and brought the military back" (according to Newsweek's Howard Fineman)....
"Oh, it was breathtaking. I mean I was almost starting to think that we had become inured to everything that we'd seen of this war over the past three weeks; all this sort of saturation. And finally, when we saw that it was such a just true, genuine expression. It was reminiscent, I think, of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And just sort of that pure emotional expression, not choreographed, not stage-managed, the way so many things these days seem to be. Really breathtaking."
Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly, appearing on Fox News Channel on 4/9/03, discussing the pulling down of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, an event later revealed to have been a U.S. military PSYOPS operation [stunt]--Los Angeles Times, 7/3/04

"Picture perfect. Part Spider-Man, part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan. The president seizes the moment on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific."
PBS's Gwen Ifill, 5/2/03, on George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech)

"Well, the hot story of the week is victory.... The Tommy Franks-Don Rumsfeld battle plan, war plan, worked brilliantly, a three-week war with mercifully few American deaths or Iraqi civilian deaths.... There is a lot of work yet to do, but all the naysayers have been humiliated so far.... The final word on this is, hooray."
Fox News Channel's Morton Kondracke, 4/12/03

Molly, en fuego

Oh, Molly. You're on a roll. She spoke for many millions last week when she wrote in the Progressive, "I have had it with the D.C. Democrats, had it with the DLC Democrats, had it with every calculating, equivocating, triangulating, straddling, hair-splitting son of a bitch up there" and that she "can’t see a damn soul in D.C. except Russ Feingold who is even worth considering for President. The rest of them seem to me so poisonously in hock to this system of legalized bribery they can’t even see straight."

Today, she takes on "the long war" we're being force-fed, and the return of a certain Republican eminence who left the public eye a clown, and now returns as ... still, a clown:

As of Sept. 11, 2001, there were a few hundred people identified with al-Qaida’s ideology. Even then, it was unclear the American military was the right tool for the job. Now, Rumsfeld is apparently prepared to put the full might of the U.S. military into this fight indefinitely, backed by the full panoply of ever-more expensive weapons and the whole hoorah. I don’t think the people who got us into Iraq should be allowed to do this because, based on the evidence of Iraq, I don’t think they have the sense God gave a duck.

On top of everything else, Rumsfeld is now circulating a grand strategy for the Long War written by Newt Gingrich. Am I the only person covering politics who ever noticed that Newt Gingrich is actually a nincompoop? When Newt bestrode the political world like a colossus (Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1995), many people took him seriously—but he was a fool then, too. The Republicans were so thrilled to have someone on their side who had ideas, they never seemed to notice Newt’s were drivel.

From orphanages to space colonies, it was all shallow but endearingly enthusiastic futurism. Gingrich was the kind of person who read a book or two on something and would then be quite afire as to how this was going to fit into some shining future. Republicans are so amnesiac, they didn’t even snicker when Newt turned up recently posing as a respected party elder to give them advice on ethics. Ethics. Next, family values.

I have no idea whom this administration plans to talk into its Long War, but I’m sure they won’t roll out the new campaign in August. In order to sell this, they’ll have to scare us, assuming some obliging terrorists don’t do it for them.

I came across this quote in a recent obituary for George Gerbner, who headed the Annenberg School for Communication for 25 years: “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures. ... They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.”

Which of course brings to mind Ben Franklin's (and/or Jefferson's) apercu, more relevant than ever 200-something years later: "people willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The practice war

I know George Bush has stolen the car, but you might say the car was running, the door was open, and the keys were left in the ignition by his predecessors.

Counterpunch takes the occasion of Milosevic's murky death to revisit those heady days of "the liberals' war"—when self-identified progressives discovered the frisson that comes with getting behind blowing women and children up with bombs from on high.

The opening paragraph of a March 6, 1999 Cockburn piece is a classic:
Strange are the ways of men! It feels like only yesterday that the New York Times was denouncing President Bill as a moral midget, deserving of the harshest reprobation for fondling Monica Lewinsky's breasts. And today here's the New York Times doling out measured praise to the same president for blowing little children in pieces. The Times last Thursday had pictures of those dead refugees on its cover, bombed by one of NATO's aviators. Editorial page editor Howell Raines staked out the Times official view that "For now, NATO must sustain and intensify the bombing." What a weird guy Raines must be. Kiss Monica's tits and he goes crazy. Bomb peasants and he shouts for more.
Some of this lookback doesn't age all that well. "Leftist opponents of the war, such as ourselves [writes Cockburn] now march shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Colson, Barry Farber, Don Feder, Bob Grant, Bob Novak, Arriana Huffington, A.M. Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer, Edward Luttwak, Oliver North, Joe Sobran and the Pope."

That was the other Pope, the dead one, who described NATO's bombing as an "act of diabolical retribution." Cockburn can still be pals with some of the guys he mentions, but not all. Is it safe to say some of those characters were antiwar simply out of of party loyalty/anti-Clinton prejudice? But here's to Counterpunch's celebration of "heartening evidence of interesting coalitions"—something that goes on to this day—and for its unceasing exposure of frauds.

This scene ends badly, as you might imagine. Anything sound familiar here?
So the NATO bombs began to fall and, exactly as could have been predicted, the Serbian brutalities in Kosovo escalated and the tidal wave of refugees began. Everything has gone according the script. NATO bombs destroying Serbian civilian infrastructure: power plants, sewage treatment, electricity and gas and oil supplies. Everything that's hit is hastily described by NATO spokesmen as "dual purpose," (i.e., possibly also for Serb military use) unless it's obvious to all that only peasants, with no conceivable "dual purposes" have been blasted to bits. Wednesday last saw the mad NATO supreme commander, Wesley Clark, utter his most deliberate and obvious lie to date, when he said that "There was a military convoy and a refugee convoy. We struck the Serb convoy and we have very strong evidence that the Serbs then retaliated by attacking the column of refugees." By the next day it became clear that there was no "Serb convoy," no "very strong evidence" and that an Albanian column of refugees on tractors had been killed by NATO bombers.
And three years later, the demonize-and-bomb (but only as "a last option") scam worked to perfection in another venue. Except, uh, the bombs are still falling....

Juan on Iran

Juan Cole's Fishing for a Pretext to Squeeze Iran is a necessary inoculation of reason against the relentless framing of Iran as a rogue nation:
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows Iran to develop civilian nuclear energy, and the United States itself urged Iran to build reactors in the 1970s. Iran does not have a heavy-water breeder reactor, which is the easy way to get a bomb. It does have light-water reactors for energy production, but these cannot be used to get enough fissionable material to make a bomb. Although Vice President Dick Cheney has made light of an oil state seeking nuclear energy, it would be a rational economic policy to use nuclear energy for domestic needs and sell petroleum on the world market. Certainly, the NPT permits such a policy.

The difficulty for those concerned with proliferation is that for Iran to independently run its light-water reactors, it needs to complete the fuel cycle of uranium enrichment. The ability to produce nuclear fuel is only one step away from the ability to refine uranium further, to weapons-grade quality. Still, it is a step away and could not easily be done in secret with inspectors making visits. Iran is experimenting with refrigerator-size centrifuges as a means of enriching uranium, but would need 16,000, hooked up in a special way, to produce a bomb. It has 164, and one of its proposals to defuse the crisis with the U.S. is to limit itself to no more than 3,000. Otherwise, it says it ideally would have 50,000 centrifuges.

No signatory of the NPT that allows regular IAEA inspections has ever moved to the stage of bomb production. Inspections have been extremely effective tools. United Nations weapons inspectors discovered and dismantled Saddam Hussein’s weapons program after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The IAEA was even able to detect trace plutonium on Iranian equipment that came from Pakistan, which manufactures bombs. Those who remain suspicious of Iran’s ultimate intentions are not completely without a case. But there is good reason to believe that Iran’s nuclear program could have been monitored successfully.

The Bush administration has arbitrarily taken the position that Iran may not have a nuclear research program at all, even a civilian one. This stance actually contradicts the guarantees of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington officials continually intimate to the press that Tehran has an active weapons program, which is speculation. And, of course, the United States itself is egregiously in violation of several articles of the NPT, keeping enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world several times over and actively pursuing new and deadly weapons, even dreaming of “tactical” nukes. Its ally in the region, Israel, never signed the NPT and was helped by the British to get a bomb in the 1960s.

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in summer 2005 estimates that if Iran did have an active nuclear weapons program, and if the international atmosphere were favorable to it being able to get hold of the requisite equipment, it would still be a good 10 years away from a bomb. But the international atmosphere is actively hostile to such a development, and anyway it has not been proved that there is such a weapons program.

If the Supreme Jurisprudent of theocratic Iran has given a fatwa against nukes, if the president of the country has renounced them and called for others to do so, if the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of a military nuclear weapons program, and if Iran is at least 10 years from having a bomb even if it is trying to get one, then why is there a diplomatic crisis around this issue between the United States and Iran in 2006?

The answer is that the Iranian nuclear issue is déjà vu all over again.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Taking the brakes off the spread of viruses

The mainstream media, always in love with the idea of a big scare, are helping to feed bird flu hysteria.

Not to overlook the fact that H5N1 the potential to mutate into something horrible, but the consequences of overselling the threat could also be—in fact have already been—disastrous. If the solution continues to be destroying and prohibiting small-scale free-ranging flocks of chickens, it could be a calamity for the world's poor who depend on their chickens, and for all of us, who stand to be driven even further into dependence on an appalling and unhealthy factory chicken-producing system.

Wendy Orent, author of Plague, has been a voice of reason on this topic. First, as she pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the idea of Bird Flu having the potential to mutate suddenly, naturally, into something like the 1918 pandemic betrays an ignorance of how that flu became lethal. It took a disease factory—"the trenches, the trucks, the trains and the hospitals of World War I," according to evolutionary biologist Paul W. Ewald of the University of Louisville—to create the conditions for the virus to mutate from something harmless to something deadly. A few chickens or wild birds can't make that happen.

Writes Orent: "To think that the 1918 flu started out as a harmless intestinal bird virus that jumped directly from its wild host into human beings and immediately turned into an explosive respiratory killer is to believe that hippos fly."

It so happens that our age has its own disease factories as well as a difficult-to-regulate virus distribution network. In arguing that the price of cheap chicken is bird flu, Orent cites Earl Brown, a University of Ottawa flu virologist, who states that "lethal bird flu is entirely man-made, first evolving in commercially produced poultry in Italy in 1878. The highly pathogenic H5N1 is descended from a strain that first appeared in Scotland in 1959."
People have been living with backyard flocks of poultry since the dawn of civilization. But it wasn't until poultry production became modernized, and birds were raised in much larger numbers and concentrations, that a virulent bird flu evolved. When birds are packed close together, any brakes on virulence are off. Birds struck with a fatal illness can still easily pass the disease to others, through direct contact or through fecal matter, and lethal strains can evolve. Somehow, the virus that arose in Scotland found its way to China, where, as H5N1, it has been raging for more than a decade.

... Brown says the commercial poultry industry, which caused the catastrophe in the first place, stands to benefit most. The conglomerates will more and more dominate the poultry-rearing business. Some experts insist that will be better for us. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota, for instance, contends that the "single greatest risk to the amplification of the H5N1 virus, should it arrive in the U.S. through migratory birds, will be in free-range birds … often sold as a healthier food, which is a great ruse on the American public."

The truly great ruse is that industrial poultry farms are the best way to produce chickens — that Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods and Charoen Pokphand are keeping the world safe from backyard poultry and migratory birds. But what's going to be on our tables isn't the biggest problem. The real tragedy is what's happened in Asia to people who can't afford cheap, industrial chicken. And the real victims of industrially produced, lethal H5N1 have been wild birds, an ancient way of life and the poor of the Earth, for whom a backyard flock has always represented a measure of autonomy and a bulwark against starvation.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Corrupt Congress dumps local food protection

There is no other way to put it. It's all about sleaze and corruption, plain and simple. In the words of the senior Senator from my state, the most ardent defender of palm-greasing perhaps of all time, "Spending is speech." If you agree with that, you get what's coming to you.

The 283 Congressmen who voted for the National Uniformity for Food Act, H.R. 4167, have been, in the words of the Organic Consumers Association, "bought and sold." $367 million in agribusiness contributions since 1990 have finally paid off. This is a sweetheart of a deal for big ag and big food producers, and it was passed without a single public hearing.

Sponsored by Republicans, naturally, the party of "states' rights" when it suits them to strike that pose, the bill is opposed by environmental and consumer groups, as well as 39 (!) state attorneys general. It will knock 200 consumer-protecting state laws off the books and cost taxpayers an extra $100 million over the next five years (according the Congressional Budget Office).

"The House is trampling crucial health safeguards in every state without so much as a single public hearing," said Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This just proves the old adage money talks. The food industry spared no expense to assure its passage."

A new report released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Shredding the Food Safety Net," finds that the the proposed bill would preempt shellfish safety standard laws in at least 16 states, milk safety laws in all 50 states, and, restaurant and food service establishment safety laws in 50 states.

"The bill also targets a law limiting levels of toxic lead in candies, a law requiring warnings to consumers about excessive levels of toxic chemicals in foods that cause cancer, birth defects, or developmental problems, and laws requiring labeling of fish as farm-raised or wild," the report states. "Shredding the Food Safety Net" can be found at:


Headline of the day

From Bloomberg:
Bush's Defeat on Ports Dents Image of Competence, Exposes Republican Rifts

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The world's oldest profession?

... well, we all know the answer to that one.

And then along came the first entrepreneur—the genius who saw that the world's first professional needed ... management and representation. The first pimp invented white-collar work.

The second oldest racket? I'd put my money on the protection shakedown.

I've recently been coming around, in sort of a nebulous way, to thinking of of the Military Industrial Complex as perhaps the most sublime iteration of the protection racket.

In an article titled "It's an Awful Lot of Money to Makes Us Less Safe and Less Free," an anonymous defense analyst named Werther takes up this Pentagon-as-protection-racket meme in in a (depressingly) cutting manner:
Let us be plain. Any organization that employs lethal force, operates in secrecy, always gets what it wants, and is unaccountable to the citizens is indistinguishable from a protection racket. And if, in return for surrendering their wallets, the citizenry is made less safe (as the more objective intelligence reports have repeatedly warned about the $300+ billion Iraq war), then some hole-in-corner reform is not going to get us anywhere.
What will it take to tame the beast? Werther offers no solutions, but states that superficial reforms ain't gonna cut it. Sadly, I agree.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Chasing the wrong chickens...

A new report by the sustainability/biodiversity-focused NGO Grain is a must-read, given the recent barrage of hysterical media coverage blaming bird flu on small-scale poultry farming.

Would it surprise anyone to learn that the main culprit in the spread of bird flu is the transnational poultry industry's factory farming techniques?

Here is the Grain press release:

Small-scale poultry farming and wild birds are being unfairly blamed for the bird flu crisis now affecting large parts of the world. A new report from GRAIN shows how the transnational poultry industry is the root of the problem and must be the focus of efforts to control the virus.

The spread of industrial poultry production and trade networks has created ideal conditions for the emergence and transmission of lethal viruses like the H5N1 strain of bird flu. Once inside densely populated factory farms, viruses can rapidly become lethal and amplify. Air thick with viral load from infected farms is carried for kilometres, while integrated trade networks spread the disease through many carriers: live birds, day-old-chicks, meat, feathers, hatching eggs, eggs, chicken manure and animal feed.

"Everyone is focused on migratory birds and backyard chickens as the problem," says Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN. "But they are not effective vectors of highly pathogenic bird flu. The virus kills them, but is unlikely to be spread by them."

For example, in Malaysia, the mortality rate from H5N1 among village chicken is only 5%, indicating that the virus has a hard time spreading among small scale chicken flocks. H5N1 outbreaks in Laos, which is surrounded by infected countries, have only occurred in the nation's few factory farms, which are supplied by Thai hatcheries. The only cases of bird flu in backyard poultry, which account for over 90% of Laos' production, occurred next to the factory farms.

"The evidence we see over and over again, from the Netherlands in 2003 to Japan in 2004 to Egypt in 2006, is that lethal bird flu breaks out in large scale industrial chicken farms and then spreads," Kuyek explains.

The Nigerian outbreak earlier this year began at a single factory farm, owned by a Cabinet minister, distant from hotspots for migratory birds but known for importing unregulated hatchable eggs. In India, local authorities say that H5N1 emerged and spread from a factory farm owned by the country's largest poultry company, Venkateshwara Hatcheries.

A burning question is why governments and international agencies, like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, are doing nothing to investigate how the factory farms and their byproducts, such as animal feed and manure, spread the virus. Instead, they are using the crisis as an opportunity to further industrialise the poultry sector. Initiatives are multiplying to ban outdoor poultry, squeeze out small producers and restock farms with genetically-modified chickens. The web of complicity with an industry engaged in a string of denials and cover-ups seems complete.

"Farmers are losing their livelihoods, native chickens are being wiped out and some experts say that we're on the verge of a human pandemic that could kill millions of people," Kuyek concludes. "When will governments realise that to protect poultry and people from bird flu, we need to protect them from the global poultry industry?"

Links: summary/full report

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What we want (and aren't getting)—no nukes anywhere!

On nuclear weapons, I believe people of the world have chosen abolishment, but the governments are ignoring the wishes of their people. So, we have entered the second nuclear arms race, led by current US Administration and being followed by many other countries. If our governments don't, at this point in our history, take seriously their international obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to start decommissioning all nuclear weapons, there will be a serious proliferation within the next few years and we will truly be unable to abolish nuclear weapons. We will pass a frightful legacy to our children and grandchildren, a legacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear debt that will endanger them and their world. It is not only the next generation we will burden, but the cost of nuclear weapons in the past and today has robbed the materially poor of their rightful inheritance to be nurtured with basic rights of food, education and health care.