Tag Archives: organic

American Harvest Revisited

Special Contribution by Abbie Rogers

When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.

The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/
The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/

In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!

Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ
Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ

During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.

American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.

We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.

Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.

Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/
Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/

The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again.[1] This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion.[2] And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.

Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.

The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?

We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.”[3] The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.

What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:

  • Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ

Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”[4] The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.

So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.

Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers' rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org
Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers’ rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org

If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions.[5] The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.

You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.

  • Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.[6]
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy.[7]  The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties[8]–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”[9]

Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”[10] We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months. Roasted, mashed, or used in diverse dishes from around the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.

  • Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”[11]
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h

Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.

We can benefit from the wisdom of the milpa even in our own backyard gardens. Companion planting, crop rotation, and saving regionally-adapted seeds are just some of the sustainable gardening techniques that are healthy for us and for the ecosystem.

  • Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop

We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.

We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”[12]

La Via Campesina is an international grassroots movement that represents 200 million small farmers worldwide. Together, they launched food sovereignty into the global eye. Other impactful organizations working in this arena include GRAIN, Food First, the previously mentioned Food Empowerment Project, and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.


[1] Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.

[2] Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.

[3] This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)

[4] Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), 75.

[5] http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/

[6] http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html

[7] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/factsheets.html

[8] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/origins.html

[9] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/lutaladio.html

[10] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/anderson.html

[11] Phil Dahl-Bredine et al. Milpa: From Seed to Salsa (2015), 3. See also http://sustainablemilpa.blogspot.com/.

[12] Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

The Deadly Sting of Animal Agriculture

Abbie Rogers, Guest Contributor

As undercover footage from slaughterhouses and factory farms hits the news media, the public has become more aware of the harm caused by the animal agriculture industry to workers, the environment, and the animals imprisoned in the system. In this system, we breed animals for production efficiency, often using artificial insemination. We cage them, disrupt their natural social groupings and behaviors, ship or transport them over long distances with little concern for their comfort or safety en route, and cull any animal we deem unsatisfactory. We feed them unnatural and unhealthy diets, push them to produce, and routinely treat them with antibiotics to prop them up in spite of stress and illness.

These standard industry practices—routine treatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens—occur out of sight of the general public. Even more invisible is our similar treatment of the honeybee.

While some bee species lead more solitary lives, honeybees, an introduced species in the Americas, live in tight-knit colonies where each bee plays a vital role and each relies on the community for survival. For communal bees like honeybees, the life of the colony revolves around the queen, the only fertile female and the mother of all bees in the hive. The colony’s ongoing survival relies on her reproduction and, while she lays her body weight in eggs each day,[1] the other bees tend to all of her needs, including feeding her, cleaning her, directing her to prepared brood cells, and raising the next generation. In observing colony dynamics, beekeepers have discovered that they can control the hive largely by controlling the queen.

A queen can live five years or more,[2] however many beekeepers replace their queens every year or two for maximum production (similarly, egg-laying hens and dairy cows are routinely discarded as “spent” at only a fraction of their lifespans). Beekeepers generally purchase new queens from professional breeders who regularly ship queen bees, accompanied by a few attendants, in matchbox-sized cages through the postal system. As with newly hatched chicks routinely shipped to backyard chicken fanciers though the mail, the bees are subject to rough handling, temperature extremes, and abandonment at the post office. The fact that companies that ship bees have refund policies for orders that arrive dead indicates that this is not uncommon.[3]

Artificial insemination of (top to bottom) a cow, a turkey hen, and a queen bee.
Artificial insemination of (top to bottom) a cow, a turkey hen, and a queen bee.

In nature, a queen bee leaves the hive at one week old for her “wedding flight,” in which she mates with up to a dozen male drones, supplying her with enough sperm from diverse sources to fertilize her eggs throughout her life. In contrast, queen breeders, like other livestock breeders, often use artificial insemination to control a colony’s genetics, selecting for traits such as docility and honey production. Unfortunately, breeding for production efficiency also means narrowing the gene pool, which weakens the overall honeybee population. Some beekeepers further control the queen by clipping her wings to prevent the colony from swarming. [4]

Honeybees collect pollen and nectar—the latter of which is converted into honey and other glandular secretions—to feed the colony throughout the year. The honey supply is especially vital to the reduced colony that survives through the winter. Depending on the size of the hive and the winter conditions, a colony may consume upwards of 100 pounds of honey over the course of the winter. As with the unnatural grain- and byproduct-based diets of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock, bees’ diets are frequently supplemented with artificial and nutrient-lacking substitutes. In the case of bees, these substitutes include sugar water and corn syrup, fed in times of stress or when a beekeeper removes too much honey from the hive.[5]

(L-R) Beehives shipped cross-country for commercial pollination services, chickens and pigs transported to slaughter.
(L-R) Beehives shipped cross-country for commercial pollination services, chickens and pigs transported to slaughter.
The honeybee colonies trucked in to pollinate this California almond farm can only survive here as long as the almond bloom lasts.
The honeybee colonies trucked in to pollinate this California almond farm can only survive here as long as the almond bloom lasts.

Furthermore, because many large-scale beekeepers have shifted their focus from honey production to pollination services, millions of honeybees are now routinely shipped coast to coast. With monoculture now the dominant system of farming, almond, blueberry, apple, and even alfalfa farmers depend on bees shipped in to pollinate their thousands of acres of crops. No bees can live in a monoculture year-round; there is only food available to them during the crop’s two- to three-week bloom. Instead of planting diverse crops that flower successively throughout the season, farmers rent a truckload of bees to come pollinate their crop for a few weeks, and then the bees are trucked—often thousands of miles—to another farm to pollinate a different crop. This migrant existence stresses honeybee colonies, as does the unbalanced diet of a monoculture.

Humans further manipulate bees to pollinate some of their less preferred plants. In the massive USDA document Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, S.E. McGregor states that honeybee disinterest in strawberries “can be overcome with saturation pollination, or overstocking the area with colonies so the competing nectar and pollen are removed;” in other words, an imposed food scarcity can drive bees to pollinate plants they would otherwise pass over. Other suggested methods include caging honeybees with the strawberry plants to eliminate other food options, although studies indicate that caging excludes more effective native pollinators. [6]

Honeybees, like all of us, are especially at risk for disease when they are stressed, overcrowded, genetically limited, or poorly nourished. Since management of bees and other farmed animals expects high production often under these unhealthy pressures, beekeepers and other farmers turn to antibiotics and other medications to treat or prevent illness.[7] Unfortunately, reliance on drugs while continuing to compromise the animal’s overall health and wellbeing can lead to antibiotic resistance that impedes our ability to treat disease in the future.

It is hardly a surprise that recent years have seen a decline in both managed and feral honeybee populations, an increase in newly introduced diseases in bee colonies, and outbreaks of drug-resistant pathogens and parasites. These crises came to a head in 2006, when bee keepers around the United States discovered their hives mysteriously empty, the bees simply vanished. This disappearance, termed “Colony Collapse Disorder,” has been attributed to the compounded effects of pesticides, malnutrition, weakened genetics, parasites, and other stressors.[8]

Interestingly, as far back as 1923, Austrian philosopher and founder of the biodynamic movement[9] Rudolf Steiner predicted a collapse of bee populations–and a decline in ecosystems—by the by the turn of the Twenty First Century, if human manipulation of bee colonies continued. Practices he specifically condemned included:

  • The raising of larva in separate quarters, arbitrary feeding of royal jelly to produce queens, then shipping by post to keepers.
  • Selection of bee populations for docility, de-selecting for aggression.
  • In contrast to the normal 5 or 6-year life span of a queen, “re-queening” after one or two years
  • Using chemical control agents for disease and pests.
  • Providing ready-made combs [and wax] in place of bee-constructed combs, to save work (production time) for the bees

    Commercial pollination routes.
    Commercial pollination routes.
  • Moving of hives over long distances at the will of human intention.
  • Clipping of queens’ wings.
  • Agricultural practices consisting of monocultures that wreak havoc on honeybee diets, limiting options once the dominant crop is no longer flowering.[10]
Chinese farmworkers pollinate fruit trees by hand.
Chinese farmworkers pollinate fruit trees by hand.

Steiner’s prophecy appears to be coming eerily true as we continue to treat honeybees—and the rest of the natural world, domesticated and wild alike—like pieces of machinery that technology can repair or replace. There are clear indications, however, that this mechanical approach does not work. For the last few decades, apple and pear farmers in Maoxian County in China’s Sichuan Provence have been forced to pollinate their fruit trees by hand, climbing to each of the billions of blossoms with a paintbrush and pot of pollen. A history of heavy pesticide use in the county killed off native pollinators, and commercial beekeepers refuse to bring their bees in to pollinate because of the dangerous levels of toxins.[11] While employing humans to pollinate crops does have the economic benefit of job creation,[12] it comes at a high ecological and monetary cost (hand pollination costs the farmers 8 times the cost of bee pollination).[13] If the United States were to rely on hand pollination, it would cost an estimated $90 trillion per year.[14]

Is this the future we can we expect if we continue to commodify and exploit our fellow creatures, from 1/10 gram honeybees to one ton cattle? When it comes down to it, isn’t it more advantageous—not to mention compassionate—for us to view our fellow creatures as having intrinsic value all their own, without regard to their commodity benefit to us? What would it take for us to respect other species—and individuals—as having inherent value, independent of their usefulness to us? I believe the time is overdue for us to turn the tables and give back to those from whom we take.

What can we do to help bees?

  • Plant a garden to feed pollinators and other wildlife[15]

    Bees need water, too!
    Bees need water, too!
  • Set out dishes of water for bees and other thirsty animals[16]
  • Build a bee house to shelter native bees[17] or adopt a hive of honeybees
  • Avoid the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in your yard and garden to keep bees and other visitors safe and healthy

    This simple bee house shelters native solitary bees in the midst of a garden to feed them.
    This simple bee house shelters native solitary bees in the midst of a garden to feed them.
  • Buy organic produce to limit bees’ exposure to toxic pesticides in the fields[18]
  • Watch the films More Than Honey[19] and Queen of the Sun[20] and do your own research to learn more about treatment of honeybees
  • Tell others about the inherent value of bees and all other animals.


 Abbie Rogers is co-curator of the landmark exhibit Uncooped: Deconstructing the Domesticated Chicken at the National Museum of Animals and Society, and a caregiver at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_honey_bee#Queens

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_honey_bee#Queens

[3] For example, http://www.draperbee.com/beesupplies/Package_Bee_Prices.htm and http://www.honeybeesonline.com/queens.html

[4] Swarming is a honeybee colony’s method of reproduction. Bees swarm when the colony grows too big for the hive. The queen and older bees leave to seek out a new home, leaving the old hive to the young nurse bees, who will raise a new queen. From a beekeeper’s perspective, a swarm represents the loss of the prime workforce as well as the original queen’s genetics. http://www.gobeekeeping.com/getting_started_with_queen_reari.htm

[5] http://www.americanbeejournal.com/site/epage/79349_828.htm

[6] http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/53420300/OnlinePollinationHandbook.pdf Page 682-4.

[7] http://newsatjama.jama.com/2012/10/30/after-decades-of-antibiotic-treatment-of-honeybee-colonies-tetracycline-resistant-bacteria-often-found-in-us-bees/

[8] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder

[9] https://www.biodynamics.com

[10] This is an edited list; the full list can be found at http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5356.cfm

[11] http://blog.lib.umn.edu/efans/ygnews/2011/02/hand-pollination-of-apples-tre.html

[12] http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/12/04/248795791/how-important-is-a-bee

[13] http://www.actahort.org/books/561/561_32.htm

[14] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/silence-of-the-bees/introduction/38/

[15] http://www.pollinator.org/gardens.htm

[16] http://www.foodandwaterinstitute.org/docs/bees.pdf

[17] http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife/Gardening-Tips/Build-a-Bee-House.aspx

[18] http://www.vanishingbees.com/buy-organic/

[19] http://buy.morethanhoneyfilm.com/

[20] http://www.queenofthesun.com/

Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination

For this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination, I developed a menu to highlight the harvest that has come to us through the gracious work of summer’s pollinators. I wanted to provide various portals into the beneficent hall of mirrors that is our interdependent ecosystem. As I studied the topic more, that hall of mirrors turned into a house of horrors. Thankfully, there is a way out.

One of the principal ideas behind Supper Club is that everyone who attends learns something new about the world around them. This has been a great challenge for me, too, as I must read up on topics with which I might have only moderate familiarity. It’s a crash course each month, for I must complete my research, develop a menu, plan its execution, and write an essay to guide the discussion. Suffice to say that this month’s topic has proven to be a monster. The overlaying of so many issues, the potential impact of continued negligence, the purposeful attacks by industry on our natural systems, the willing cooperation from Congress, betrayal by government agencies, and the millions of unseeing eyes and unlistening ears—it is tough to wrap one’s head around all of it.

I offer my apology up front for the length of this article. Trust me, I have left many things on the cutting floor. This really is only a peek into the stormy darkness inhabited by our most loyal of friends, the pollinators.

Please, when you reach the “Things To Do” section, believe that any one of them can make a real positive difference.


Pollinators, just through the act of being themselves, provide humanity with well over a third of its principal diet. Hiding in all that delectable food are valuable nutrients we simply cannot live without. It’s no stretch to say that our fate is linked with the fate of the bees. Yet they are facing a perfect storm of deadly factors, with the final outcome affecting more than just us and them. The fertility of the earth, and the vibrancy of life upon it, stands in jeopardy.

The facts of this brewing storm are readily available. To begin with, over 100 US and Canadian food crops require animal pollination.[1] Considering non-food crops such as cotton, ninety percent of commercial crops in North America require animal pollination. Beyond commercial crops, seventy-five percent of all flowering plants on earth require animal pollination of some kind.[2]

Animal pollinators include diverse species of bees, butterflies, moths, and myriad other insects. Birds and bats play a significant role, as do many other animals. Bees, however, are the most active commercially, in the form of professionally managed colonies which are trucked around the country from one blooming field to another.[3] In 1947 there were 5.9 million captive bee colonies in the US. In 2005, there were only 2.4 million.[4] This drastic 50% reduction is but one indicator of the storm.

Captive pollinator populations can be quantified, even if the numbers are so large that they stretch our comprehension. Wild pollinator populations, however, cannot be counted so easily. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “For most North American pollinator species, long-term population data are lacking and knowledge of their basic ecology is incomplete. These information deficiencies make definitive assessments of North American pollinator status exceedingly difficult.”[5]

The work of all these pollinators is of dire importance to us. Just consider a short list of food crops made possible by their work: apples, oranges, tomatoes, melons, peppers, squashes, cucumbers—all fruit-bearing plants whose large blossoms evolved to summon the desire of pollinators. Other food plants—broccoli, carrots, fennel, leafy greens, onions, and a host of others—need animal pollination in order to produce seeds. All of these plants add diversity and essential nutrients to the human diet, such as omega oils, antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and protein.[6]

Some plants which are not routinely consumed by humans—clover and alfalfa, for example–require animal pollination in order to produce seeds. As any biodynamic gardener will tell you, these cover crops are useful for nitrogen development in soils. They are critical, therefore, for any attempt at natural and sustainable food production.

The causes for pollinator decline are numerous, interleaved and linked in an impossible Gordian root-ball. A primary factor among native pollinators is habitat loss, due to sprawling cities and agricultural fields, industrial complexes, oil and gas exploration, mining, and coastal developments. Alongside habitat loss is habitat fragmentation, in which natural areas lie in non-contiguous pieces across a region. Loss of biodiversity, a natural result of so much human development, means less and lower quality food for pollinators. Pesticide use quite naturally diminishes pollinator populations, but the use of herbicides also takes its toll. Both of these alter the landscape significantly, greatly reducing habitable areas. [7]

In addition, diseases and parasites are spread by the interaction between migrating bee colonies being used by commercial pollination services. This not only affects commercial bees, of course: wild bees are also exposed to the pathogens. Wild pollinators work in the same fields as their migrant sisters, and authorities acknowledge that they are suffering many of same effects.[8] We just don’t know how to quantify the wild impact.

Industrial-scale monoculture also plays a large part. The almond groves in California—where 80% of the world’s almond crop is produced—cover an area the size of Rhode Island.[9] Almond trees bloom for only 2 to 3 weeks per year, which means that for the remaining 50 weeks, the area is a vast pollinator desert where no bee can survive. For this reason, 1.6 million commercial bee colonies are trucked in to service the trees as they bloom. When the blooms drop, the hives are loaded up and trucked to other US fields needing pollinators.

These pollinator deserts also exist across vast portions of the American Midwest, where wind-pollinated grains are produced. The vast ‘breadbasket’ of the nation provides no sustenance for bees. The native pollinators that once lived there have been starved out. This is repeated anywhere monoculture exists, regardless of crop. Once a pumpkin field has ceased blooming, there remains no more food for the pollinators.

The cumulative effect is this: the land has become so toxic and unsupportive that bees and other pollinators can no longer function naturally. Massive die-offs are to be expected. The term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) was coined in 2007 as a means of identifying, and hopefully diagnosing, these massive die-offs.[10]

CCD—a frightening and complex convergence of factors–is more than just a loss of bees, however. It signals a complete breakdown in the ecosystem. We haven’t just poisoned a few bugs. We’ve invoked a systemic ecological collapse.

Government and institutional reports can’t help but relate the problem in terms of economy, as if that were the only thing at stake. From the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) comes this assessment, from their 2007 report “Status of Pollinators in North America:” “Severe shortages of pollinators could cause many common food crops to become more expensive and perhaps less available, but there is no strong evidence for a current pollination crisis in agricultural production in North America. Most animal-pollinated crops can be serviced by honey bees, and farmers are accustomed to paying more for these services when necessary. Chronic pollinator shortages should lead to market adjustments and other innovations, although the demand for supplemental pollination has been strong recently, especially among California’s almond growers. Importing managed pollinators from other countries or regions can lead to the introduction and spread of pathogens and unwanted bee species.”[11]

(Their report contains such circuitous indecisiveness throughout, as if Rimsky-Korsakov were the chief editor.)

The report’s executive summary states the primary concern more succinctly: “Managed pollinator decline and rising cost of pest control could increase pollinator rental fees.”[12] But it’s a much bigger problem than the economy, and will need a bigger solution than just paying higher rent.

By the way, it’s not just human sustenance at stake, but also food which supports a vast number of other species, from bears to birds to voles. Fruits can account for 60% of a grizzly bear’s late summer diet. Roughly a quarter of all birds consume, as a major portion of their diet, fruits and seeds that result from animal pollination. The pollinating insects themselves serve as food for some birds, lizards, and spiders, and are therefore an even more integral part of the food web.[13]

The NAS report acknowledges: “There is a possibility that a cascade of ecological consequences could follow from the loss (or change in abundance) of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds—all of which can be resources for herbivores (including seed predators)—produced by plants. A broad range of herbivores and frugivores is supported by such resources, as are parasites and parasitoids of those species. Decreases in seeds, nuts, and fruits could be damaging to many species of insects, birds, and mammals, even if plant populations do not exhibit declines. More severe effects are expected if populations of mature plants become scarcer.”[14]

The Xerces Society puts it this way: “Pollinators are a keystone species group; the survival of a large number of other species depends upon them… [T]hey are essential to the reproductive cycles of most flowering plants, supporting plant populations that animals and birds rely on for food and shelter. Pollinators are also indicator species, meaning that the viability and health of pollinator populations provide a snapshot of the health of the ecosystem. As the insects that many plants require for adequate pollination disappear, the effect on the health and viability of crops and native plant communities can be disastrous.”[15]

Further, “the loss of pollinator species reduces the redundancy of pollinator services in the ecosystem, and thus its resiliency, so that further losses of pollinator species would likely have more severe consequences for the ecosystem.”[16]

All of these concerns figure into scientists’ expectations of the sixth great extinction, presently approaching our doorstep.[17]

It’s almost as if humans—in the form of corporations and government agencies–are now tinkering at the sub-molecular level in our biosphere. As if the natural world’s DNA is being genetically modified in a massive and uncontrolled experiment. The consequences are troubling, and potentially irreversible.

The momentum is fierce, and as predictable, attempts to shift the inertia meet with institutional resistance. In 2013, for example, a bill was introduced to modify the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to push for faster approval of pesticides to control parasitic pests, such as the varroa mite. While beekeepers protested that many stressors were harming pollinators, this bill only focused on the authorization of another pesticide. A House Agricultural Subcommittee hearing, however, invited no beekeepers. However, Bayer AG, developer of neonicotinoid pesticides, was invited.[18]

This only adds insult to injury, for Congress had already blocked certain pollinator species from protection under the Endangered Species Act, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.[19]

As if we didn’t already know this, it’s time for us concerned citizens to play the role of pathogens within the dominant system. We must use alternative avenues for subverting the collusion between agricultural industry and our government. One need not be an alarmist or a hyper-reactionary to understand that our system is not functioning healthfully.

Yet simple acts on our part can lead to better conditions. If we do not feel we are changing the dominant inertia, we should be confident that we are acting as preservers, holding on to the things that do work, so that they will be vibrant at the moment that they become vital.

Here are several accessible and sustainable acts everyone can perform. Collectively they will establish alternative habitats, safe houses for our companions, the pollinators.

What To Do:

Put out water for bees. This is something we all can do, starting today. As habitats are compromised, bees have a difficult time finding fresh water. Use a shallow pan, and place small stones in it so the bees have a place to light while they drink.

Support organic agriculture, even if it the fields are thousands of miles away. “Organic” is far more important than “local.” Can you explain why this is true?

Plant food gardens. With the food gardens, you are feeding pollinators as well as yourself, thereby lessening the reach of industrial agriculture. By growing what you need throughout the summer, you are providing a progression of diverse blooms, which all pollinators need.

Support a CSA or similar farm, one which grows diverse crops that flower throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. Organic small-scale farms provide environments where pollinators thrive.

Create habitats, specifically with native flowering plants, like wildflowers. You’ll find planting guides at two of the websites listed below.

Adopt a bee colony. Although it is a recent development, there are vegans who keep bees simply to provide them a good home. This is no different than adopting a hen, goat, pig, or dog from a sanctuary or shelter.

Learn more. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

The Organic Consumers Association has countless articles regarding bees and issues they face. These links lead to a few of them.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/bees.cfm — The main page of the bee section.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5356.cfm contains a list of ways in which we’ve meddled with the natural lives of bees.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_25288.cfm provides an overview of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Pollinator Partnership: http://pollinator.org/index.html
They offer comprehensive planting guides for supporting pollinators: http://pollinator.org/guides.htm#guides
https://www.pollinator.org/SHARE.htm The Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment program provides a wonderfully accessible way in which everyone, anyone, can provide natural habitat.

The Center for Food Safety covers a multitude of topics, including pollinators-related challenges.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org, exists specifically to help insects survive in a world that seems determined to eradicate them. They have extensive guides for planting and preservation, such as this one: http://www.xerces.org/pollinators-great-lakes-region/

The Pesticide Action Network has a current campaign focusing on pollinators and pesticides: http://www.panna.org/current-campaigns/bees

More Than Honey, a film by Markus Imhoof, provides a powerful and spell-binding look into the modern world of bees. http://www.morethanhoneyfilm.com/about.html

Attracting Native Pollinators, by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, published by Storey Publishing, 2011. This book is an easy-to-read and informative guide for protecting our native bee and butterfly populations.

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, a joint effort between the Pollinator Partnership and the USDA Forest Service. Apart from beautiful illustrations, it contains many practical ideas for helping bees. It is available in free PDF form here: http://www.pollinator.org/books.htm

Status of Pollinators in North America, by the National Research Council (comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine), published by the National Academies Press, 2007. Available for free download: http://www.nap.edu/download.php?record_id=11761. The Organic Consumers Association has a review/synopsis on their website: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_9255.cfm

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, New York Times, Nov. 24, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0

Declining Bee Populations Pose A Threat to Global Agriculture, a Yale e360 report, April 30, 2013: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/declining_bee_populations_pose_a_threat_to_global_agriculture/2645/

End Notes:

[1] Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, Xerces Society, 2011; page 5

[2] Status of Pollinators in North America, National Academies Press, 2007, page 1

[3] Itinerant colonies of bees are nothing new. The Egyptians regularly barged hives up and down the Nile, following the blooming plants along the river. Today’s commercial operations truck thousands of hives from the US Southeast over to California, up to the Great Plains, to Maine, and back down to Florida. For a peek into the practice in the late 1800s, see the American Bee Journal, Volume 14, No. 1, here. A more contemporary view can be found at www.beyondpesticides.org/pollinators. Click the link entitled “Economic Value of Beekeeping.” It will launch a PDF report.

[4] “Declining honey bees a ‘threat’ to food supply,” Associated Press & NBC News Report, May 2, 2007; http://nbcnews.to/Y3qN1u.

[5] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 1

[6] From the Status of Pollinators in North America report, pages 104-105: “An evaluation of experimental evidence for pollination requirements of 107 globally traded fruit and vegetable crops (representing 40 percent of global plant-based food production) by Klein et al. (2007) shows that animal pollination improves production in 75 percent of the crops studied. Most cultivars of another 10 percent of the crops require animal pollination. Another 8.5 percent of the crops do not benefit from animal pollination and its role in production of the remaining 6.5 percent crops is not known. Many crops, however—notably the staple grains that form the foundation of most human diets (rice, wheat, maize, sorghums, millets, rye, barley)—are self-pollinating or pollinated by the wind. Together, species that do not rely on pollinators account for most of the world’s food supply by weight (FAO, 2005).

“Pollinator declines, therefore, do not fundamentally threaten the world’s caloric supplies. However, fruits and vegetables, which add diversity to the human diet and provide essential nutrients, tend to depend heavily on pollinators (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1990; Roubik, 1995). Seven of the nine crops that provide at least 50 percent of the vitamin C available to the human diet globally depend partially or entirely on animal pollination for the production of fruits or seeds (oranges, cabbages, green peppers, tomatoes, melons, tangerines, watermelon) (FAO, 2005; Free, 1993; McGregor, 1976; USDA-NASS, 2006b)

“… Although estimates of the proportion of the human diet that is attributable to animal pollination are occasionally attempted and frequently cited (for example, McGregor’s 1976 estimate that one-third of the human diet can be traced directly or indirectly to animal pollination), the proportion likely varies among countries and regions and depends on dietary preferences, seasonal availability, cultural practices, and economic status of consumers.”

[7] Attracting Native Pollinators, pages 74-76; a more extensive list is given in Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 93-94.

[8] Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 87-93

[9] United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014, California Almond Objective Measurement Report, available here.

[10] Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators, United Nations Environment Programme Report, 2010: http://pollinator.org/PDFs/CCD_Colony_Disorder_Threats.pdf. A concise overview of CCD can be found on the Pesticide Action Network website: http://www.panna.org/current-campaigns/bees. The Organic Consumers Association has an entire repository of articles on the topic: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_25288.cfm

[11] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[12] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 6

[13] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 8

[14] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 127

[15] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 11

[16] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[17] The Sixth Great Extinction is Underway, and We’re to Blame, Time Magazine, July 25, 2014, available here: http://time.com/3035872/sixth-great-extinction/

[18] “New Pollinator Bill Helps Pesticide Industry, Not Bees or Beekeepers,” Center for Food Safety press release, September 12, 2013, available here: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/3459/new-pollinator-bill-helps-pesticide-industry-not-bees-or-beekeepers

[19] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 12


Daily Diet of Civil Rights

Civility at the dinner table has long been a value of mine. Taking care not to speak ill of others, engage in arguments, or discuss disturbing news contributes to a pleasant dining experience. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to view it as much more than having decent manners and keeping conversations positive. The food on our plates can undermine all that politeness, making eating one of the most uncivil acts we can perform. In a world where our ethics overlap in complicated ways, sometimes a bit of knowledge can make a monumental difference.

To illustrate, consider a report recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) regarding the effectiveness of state educational systems in delivering civil rights education.[1] Three states received ‘A’ letter grades. Interestingly, these three states were in the old South: Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. Fourteen states received failing grades, many of which are in the traditional north and the west.

The report explains: “Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, many states continue to mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students…Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the movement.”

It seems fitting that here in North Carolina, a center of civil rights activity in the 1960s, there is a museum dedicated to the movement. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro is dedicated to preserving the memory of a specific event–the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that began in February 1960.[2] Name-checking Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and others, it pays tribute to those whose work is done. But it stops there. It issues no rousing call-to-action for the many civil rights violations that occur daily. It seems to not know of the ongoing struggle among American agricultural workers in the same state. However, civil rights are not only a Black and White issue.

In light of the SPLC statement about proximity, it seems odd that farm workers are not mentioned: agriculture is the state’s 3rd largest industry.[3]

Organic plant agriculture contributes to a fair world for all beings.
Organic plant agriculture contributes to a fair world for all beings.

The problem is not unique to North Carolina, by any means. In my previous home state of New Mexico—a state with a very active border—biases were frequently strong against agricultural workers. I recall having an animated conversation with an editor there, one whose most recent work was on a manuscript with a strong civil rights edge. I stated my frustration over the fact that many agricultural workers are routinely denied medical treatment. She reacted angrily, offended by my suggestion that they be cared for. Simply put, they were illegal and had no rights. She, however, was a hard-working American.

Her response laid bare the sticky center of the problem: we have conflated the terms ‘agricultural worker’ and ‘foreign national.’ Additional terms, such as ‘guest worker,’ ‘migrant farm worker,’ and ‘what-about-Americans-doing-farm-work?’ only cloud the issue. It’s easier to put them all in the same category—‘illegals’–and justify institutionalized civil rights abuses. If they’re not citizens, they don’t have rights. And tagging them all as non-citizens instills plenty of distance between us and their problem.

But just as civil rights are not only a Black and White issue, they are also not a citizenship issue. The question of citizenship is really a moot point, to be honest. Regulations that govern the agricultural industry endanger the well-being and lives of all workers, domestic and imported.

Consider that child labor in agricultural settings is permitted by the Fair Labor Standards Act.[4] All workers are exposed to unregulated pesticides in the name of research.[5] Many states exempt agricultural workers from disability and workers’ compensation.[6] Overtime hours are not paid.[7] The rights infractions go on and on, in regulations which apply to American citizens, in an industry with the highest occupational fatality rate in the country and an astronomical rate of chemical-related illnesses.[8]

Cesar Chavez: Farm Labor Leader, Civil Rights Worker, and Vegan.
Cesar Chavez: Farm Labor Leader, Civil Rights Worker, and Vegan.

It is true that the problem is enormously exaggerated when the H-2 guest worker program is also considered. H-2 workers are denied the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. They are bound to the employers who hired them. They can be subject to deportation or other retaliation, without recourse. They live in squalid conditions and are denied medical treatment for on-the-job injuries. Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel declared the guest worker program to be the closest thing he’d ever seen to slavery.[9]

Rarely do those of us who enjoy the fruits of all this hazardous labor ever see the workers themselves. The fields are far removed from our neighborhoods, cities, and perhaps even our states of residence. As the SPLC observed, the farther away the problem, the less attention it is given. Most of us will never see an industrial farm worker with our own eyes. We’re not really sure of where they actually work.

So, being a determined civil eater, what am I to do about this unseen problem? Well, to begin with, I can get educated, just as the SPLC urges.  The more I know, the more I can fight for changes long term. I can lobby, I can petition, I can call my representatives. I can support organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Organic Consumers Association, and Farmworker Justice–groups who are fighting against this almost impenetrable wall that protects industrial agriculture from the growing indignation of consumers.

But I must realize that it will take decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections. The recent GMO labeling battles in various states illustrate this all too vividly.

Perhaps more immediately, however, I can take charge of my own dinner plate, defiantly placing on it only the foods which will support positive change.

It’s an easy challenge to state when the terms are left sufficiently vague. Let me be more specific, then, and present a more progressive tactic: I will place on my dinner plate only foods that are grown organically. Further, due to the accumulation of toxins, labor abuses, and other worker hazards[10]—not to mention environmental degradation and a greatly imbalanced energy-to-calorie ratio[11]–none of that food will be animal-based. I will employ an organic diet of plant-only foods. Not only at dinner, but for breakfast and lunch also.

It should be very plain to all of us: Eating is a much bigger act than simply putting food in one’s mouth. It is but one component of a tightly-integrated and interminable cycle. My eating must consider the well-being of soils, waterways, and workers. I can influence changes in the larger world by making changes in my very small world. When I sit at my table and regard all the people that provided my sustenance, one thing is very clear: rewarding a system that endangers them is grossly uncivil.

Is it all I can do? No, but it is something that everyone can do. And while it might take years for the industry to catch up, in the meantime I’m reinforcing the good that is out there, and I’m not empowering the bad. Individual actions do matter. They add up so much that even Wal-Mart—a corporation with a deplorable labor relations record–is quickly becoming a major player in the organic game. Which means that I will have more to learn, and more adjustments to make. The fight for civil rights is far from over, and it requires constant attention to detail.

And by the way, the problem isn’t as far away as we might think. For me, it’s as near as my dinner plate.

Additional Reading:

The SPLC report on civil rights education is here: http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

The SPLC also has a vast collection of writings regarding agricultural guest workers. http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/close-to-slavery-guestworker-programs-in-the-united-states

Civil rights are human rights, and Human Rights Watch provides other useful reports and suggested actions. http://www.hrw.org/

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been fighting for agricultural laborers since 1993. www.ciw-online.org

The National Center for Farmworker Health, at http://www.ncfh.org/

Farmworker Justice, at http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/

The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance, http://foodchainworkers.org/?p=1973

Inventory Of Farmworker Issues And Protections In The United States – March 2011, By Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation United Farm Workers; http://www.ufw.org/_board.php?b_code=res_white

What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/IndustrialAg502.cfm

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States; http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

[2] International Civil Rights Center & Museum; https://www.sitinmovement.org/founders/index.asp; my comments regarding the museum’s presentations are drawn from a personal visit made in August of 2012. A blog entry about my visit can be found here: http://redfalcon.com/blog1/?p=180

[4] http://www.dol.gov/whd/childlabor.htm; the Fact Sheet entitled “Farm Jobs” gives a succinct synopsis. Also see “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/05/05/fields-peril-0

[5] http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/workers/wps-exemptions.html; the consent of the worker is not required.

[6] Inventory Of Farmworker Issues And Protections In The United States – March 2011, By Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation United Farm Workers; http://www.ufw.org/_board.php?b_code=res_white

[7] Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, As Amended; http://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/applicable_laws.htm; exemptions begin on page 27.

[8] International Labour Organization, Agriculture: a hazardous work; http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/WCMS_110188/lang–en/index.htm

Plate-Based Activism Preview

In ten days I’ll be presenting at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival. It’s an honor to be invited…not to mention a great responsibility to uphold.

I’ll be speaking about activism, but not in the form of leafleting, nor paying people to watch a factory-farm video. There’ll be no call to march, no organizing of a picket. These are all very powerful activities, and each brings its share of progress.

What I’ll be talking about is a very individual, almost private, form of activism, asking each person to focus on their dining plate. I call it Plate-Based Activism, and it’s as simple as this: It’s pledging that one will only put goodness on his or her plate.

“Goodness” can be defined in myriad ways. Nourishment, kindness, compassion, goodwill, influence, progressiveness, absence of harm…and I mean all of these. Wrap all the above in deliciousness, and it’s a win all around.

Given the present state of agriculture—whether growing and harvesting of plants or of animals—“goodness,” to me, points to a very concrete manifestation: The plate should contain organic plant-based food.

Plate-based activism is the key to beating Monsanto. It is the way to win the war against GMOs. It leads to a decisive victory over the factory farming of animals. These causes are nothing new. However, we often overlook the rampant disenfranchisement of American agricultural workers, which is at the core of the industrial machine. (See my previous post, below.) Plate-based activism can lead to victory there, too.

It’s not a difficult thing. The most challenging aspect is awareness—but this is a deep-rooted trait among alternative and subversive cultures. The other test comes at the market, when we make our purchases. Often we compromise due to economics. And this is when the multi-national agro-industrial corporations win. This is when goodness loses.

Think of it as a bus boycott: Do not pay the fare—even if it is cheap and the bus is a convenient form of conveyance—in hopes that the system will change. Do not be intimidated at the size of the system, nor ashamed at the smallness of the fare. Exert your economic power. If only for the sake of your own conscience.

It’s a form of saying ‘grace’ at meals: Look at your plate, take inventory of the goodness that you are propagating, acknowledge the absence of wrong-doing, and believe that all can be well.

For those of you who can attend, I’ll be presenting at 11:05 on Saturday, March 2. I’ll expand on all the above points, offer sources of information, and hopefully provide momentum for all of our personal progress.

A Diet of Farmworker Wellness

I was recently invited to speak at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, on a topic which is close to my heart: How does one have a diet that promotes wellness?

I probably don’t need to specify that I spoke about a plant-only diet of organic, whole foods. I touched upon several concerns: The primary one, regarding my own well-being; secondarily, the well-being of animals, both wild and domestic; and thirdly, the well-being of the soil and water of our fair planet.

To me, these concerns interweave with and support one another, providing a beautiful and robust justification for having an organic plant-only diet. To be honest, they are on equal footing, not one of them being more important than the other.

But there was another concern I brought to the discussion, one which I believe should be given equal time and prominence with the other reasons. It is the well-being of agricultural workers.

Plainly put, industrial, chemical-based agriculture has a monstrously devastating impact on the people working in the fields.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job [annually] due to pesticide exposure. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that farmworkers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group: 5.6 per 1,000 workers.” (1)

The International Labor Organization has this to say about agricultural work:

“In terms of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health, it is one of the three most hazardous sectors of activity (along with construction and mining). According to ILO estimates, at least 170,000 agricultural workers are killed each year. This means that workers in agriculture run twice the risk of dying on the job compared with workers in other sectors. Agricultural mortality rates have remained consistently high in the last decade compared with other sectors in which fatal accident rates have generally decreased. Millions more agricultural workers are seriously injured in workplace accidents involving agricultural machinery or poisoned by pesticides and other agrochemicals. Furthermore, widespread under-reporting of deaths, injuries and occupational diseases in the agricultural sector means that the real picture of the occupational health and safety of farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate.” (2)

These summary level figures indicate the fomenting ‘perfect storm’ conditions in which field workers labor.

One factor that contributes to this maelstrom is that we do not even know the total number of agricultural workers in the US:

“The number of total migrant and seasonal farmworkers [in the US] is estimated as from 2.5 to 5 million.” (3)

Neither do we know the number of pesticide related illnesses, due to a paucity of information and neglect of reporting at various government levels.

“The difficulty of determining rates of pesticide illness is exemplified by the lack of ability to estimate the number of cases of acute pesticide illness. Although 30 states require reporting of occupational pesticide-related illnesses, many cases are not reported. Only 8 states have surveillance programs for these illnesses, and poison control center data can also lead to underascertainment. At this time only 5 states have legislation requiring extensive reporting of pesticide use, and 4 of these states require growers to report pesticide use on crops. Data collected from these pesticide use reporting programs include product name, amount applied, location, and crop type. Pesticide use reporting systems can then be linked to episodes of pesticide illness, but clinicians often are not aware when pesticide illness reporting is required in their state.” (4)

In addition to these hard-to-determine figures, the US has no national incident reporting system. This is a critical gap, since half of all agricultural workers travel from state to state, and therefore are not likely to show up in state databases.

Further, state workers’ compensation programs, which could conceivably provide estimates on such incidents, vary drastically among the states, even to the point that some completely exempt agricultural workers from benefits.

Disability programs are also inconsistent from state to state. In my current home state of New York, farmworkers are not eligible for disability pay. This complete ineligibility carries with it the absolute lack of reportage.

Health insurance information, a potentially rich source of information for epidemiologic studies, functions poorly in this regard because most farmworkers—about 70% of them–lack health insurance.

As a final insult, even death certificates, which often list the cause of death as well as the occupation of the deceased, cannot be relied upon.

“The transient nature of farmwork may have important implications with respect to studies done using death certificates… Death certificates may not reflect the contribution of farm work to a worker’s total work life.” (5)

At best, we can only say, with gross understatement, that we have a massive problem. While the lack of information is a problem for those who track the diseases, the diseases themselves are the problem of the workers. In the absence of workers’ compensation, disability pay, and insurance, all they can do is suffer through it all.

While they are suffering, working conditions worsen.

The EPA and other government organizations do regulate, if minimally, the use of pesticides and other hazardous materials. However, they provide frightening loopholes. For example,

“The Worker Protection Standard does not apply when pesticides are applied on an agricultural establishment…for research uses of unregistered pesticides.” (6)

In essence, this one exception makes American agricultural workers into laboratory test animals.

There’s more:

“Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires that pesticides sold or distributed in the United States be registered by the EPA. Under this statute, the EPA can only register a pesticide if it determines that the pesticide, when used in accordance with its label, will not cause unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment, taking into account the risks and benefits to the agricultural economy. …Since FIFRA mandates the use of a cost-benefit analysis, even health risks ‘of concern’ have been disregarded when the EPA determines that the benefits of using a pesticide outweigh the risks.” (7)

In the cost-benefit analysis, benefits are measured in terms of money. The costs or risks are measured in terms of illnesses or deaths. As has been mentioned above, these are unlikely to present themselves. It’s a bargaining process, pitting Pedro against Monsanto, like a cage match between David and Godzilla.

David, in this case, might even be a minor, perhaps even under 10 years of age. Children are very active in American fields—and these aren’t the fields of the family farm. These are industrial fields, in one of the world’s most hazardous occupations, where the only connection to family is their mother or father working alongside them for substandard pay with the exclusion of all social benefits.

“Current US law provides no minimum age for children working on small farms so long as they have their parent’s permission. Children ages 12 and up may work for hire on any farm with their parent’s consent, or if they work with their parents on the same farm. Once children reach age 14, they can work on any farm even without their parents’ permission. Outside of agriculture, children must be at least 16 years old to work, with a few exceptions: 14- and 15-year-olds can work in specified jobs such as cashiers, grocery baggers, and car washers, subject to very restricted conditions…Children [in agricultural fields] often work 10 or more hours a day: at the peak of the harvest they may work daylight to dusk, with few breaks.” (8)

This problem is as old as industrial agriculture itself, exacerbated by enough variables to make one’s head ache. But the most unforgiveable of these variables is this: children working in agriculture are explicitly exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. (9)

The plight of children in agriculture has been the focus of extensive studies by the Human Rights Watch group, who issued comprehensive reports in 2000 and 2010. Many people in our affluent, developed, and progressive society might be surprised that a worldwide human rights watch group wants to protect our children. They wouldn’t need to do so if we ourselves would.

All of these problems comprise an almost insurmountable and impenetrable wall, a barrier which protects industrial agriculture corporations from the growing indignation from the public. But no matter how angry the public becomes, it take will decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections.

Asking an agricultural worker to find her wellbeing in the current scenario is like asking her to find a strand of hay in a needle-stack. We force her into this impossible and excruciating task every time we consume the products from chemical-based agriculture, especially animal products.

According to the massive landmark report from the UN in 2010, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials:”

“Animal products are important because more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.” (10)

The magnitude of this figure cannot be exaggerated. It means, literally, that half of what we are doing is unnecessary. We are poisoning agricultural workers, children included, as a matter of choice. When we choose to eat animal products—beef, pork, mutton, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and countless derivatives—we are supporting needless sickness and dying among the legally defenseless people who grow our food. Is there a dietary choice that is more monstrous?

By choosing a plant-based diet, we can immediately cut this impact in half. If we go further, and choose only organically produced grains, vegetables, legumes, and seeds, we are approaching eradication of the problem. We seldom have such power in our own hands.

A diet that truly promotes wellness includes regard for everyone involved. My plate does not exist in isolation. It is the product of low-paying manual labor from millions of foodworkers, whose efforts result in my own sustenance at the sacrifice of their own wellbeing.

Our sustenance has always been dependent upon others. It is only fair that we treat with respect those who feed us. To those who might bristle at such hints of altruism, consider this piece of rational-self interest: it is not wise to poison those who are responsible for our food supply.



This is not an immigration issue, legal or otherwise. The regulations were written for citizens, of course. And the chemicals are quite non-discriminatory. They will affect anyone who picks your supposed “Clean Fifteen.”

This is not about whether workers in a third world country are being fairly treated. This is about whether workers in our own developed, educated, privileged, enlightened country are being fairly treated.

As for immigrant farm labor, we have been dependent upon foreign-born workers since the founding of our country—and the problem has never been resolved satisfactorily. Our current immigrant and farm labor problems are extensions of 19th century farm-worker issues, which became exponentially more complex in the 20th century.


For further reading on the issues faced by agricultural workers, please see the following books, reports, and websites.

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press

The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance, http://foodchainworkers.org/?p=1973

What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/IndustrialAg502.cfm

The National Center for Farmworker Health, at http://www.ncfh.org/

Farmworker Justice, at http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/



1. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice, http://farmworkerjustice.org/content/pesticide-safety

2. “Agriculture: a hazardous work,” International Labour Organization,  http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/WCMS_110188/lang–en/index.htm

3. “Studying Health Outcomes in Farmworker Populations Exposed to Pesticides,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1480483/

4. Ibid.

This report further illuminates the problem: “For farmworkers to be counted in the systems mentioned above as having pesticide-related illness, clinicians must both diagnose and report these illnesses. Most clinicians receive little training in occupational and environmental health (Graber et al. 1995; Schenk 1996). The National Strategies for Health Care Providers, a working group organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that clinicians do not generally receive specific training in diagnosing pesticide poisonings or other pesticide-related health effects (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation 2002). One study of Washington State clinicians demonstrated that few appeared to be well versed in the diagnosis or treatment of pesticide poisonings. Even clinicians from agricultural areas on average could identify only 75% of pesticide symptom questions correctly.”

5. Ibid.

6. EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for Agricultural Pesticides,  http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/twor.html

7. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice, http://farmworkerjustice.org/content/pesticide-safety

8. “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/05/05/fields-peril-0

9. US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Fair Labor Standards Act,  http://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa/index.htm#.UHYUrFFB0_w

10. “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” United Nations Environment Panel,  http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/PriorityProducts/tabid/56053/Default.aspx

Making the Most of the Summer Markets

The Farmers’ Markets here in NYC are riotously abundant now, and I have to contain my enthusiasm as I walk the aisles. I simply want to buy every vegetable and herb I see.

Kohlrabi and Garlic Scapes
Kohlrabi and Garlic Scapes

I don’t have a garden this year, not having discovered a way to transport to Brooklyn the Hudson Valley garden I built last year. But I’m a long way from despair: my lack of a garden means that I can benefit from all the other farms in the region.

To help me manage my enthusiasm, I have developed this short guideline for “marketing.” Perhaps it will be of use to you, too.

Take an experienced guide

The Field Guide to Produce is a fantastic little book that can accompany you to the market. Photos and descriptions of over 200 fruits and vegetables are provided, as well as handling and preparation tips and seasoning suggestions. Not sure what to do with kohlrabi? Don’t even know what it looks like? Then this book is for you!

Know the schedule

Near my apartment in Brooklyn, there are markets happening on three days of the week. As a stupendous bonus, I work near Union Square, where one of the best greenmarkets happens on four days each week. In fact, the only day on which I might have trouble getting something is Thursday. In other cities where I’ve lived, markets have been held on multiple days of the week, too. So if you’re in NYC, Dallas, Denver, Santa Fe, Saugerties, Mendocino…anywhere, get to know the schedule and make it a part of your weekly routine. I guarantee you that it’s much more pleasant than ducking into Whole Foods, not to mention enormously “greener.”

Go early, go often

If you can manage it, get to the market just as it opens. The greens and herbs will be fresher, and all the produce will have been handled the least. However, if you’re going to buy potatoes or carrots or other more ‘durable’ vegetables, go just as the market is closing. You can possibly score a better price, as the farmer would rather sell than pack it all back home. Also, if you’re buying delicate items like greens and herbs, purchase only what you’ll need for the next 3 or 4 days. Nothing is more de-motivating than watching things go bad in the fridge. When you’ve reached the end of the salad greens, hit the market again. It will become a very pleasant and peaceful routine, not onerous at all. Plus, you will have a wonderful variety of foods in your diet and on your palate.

Eggplant and Okra
Eggplant and Okra

Try something you’ve never had

Find a bouquet of epazote? Or some purslane? Go for it. Don’t fear the arugula. Embrace the amaranth. Honor the okra. And of course, love the lovage. Imagine the call you can make to your partner: “Honey, I’m feeling like some shishito tonight. How ‘bout you?”

Ask the experts

Having bought that glorious bundle of purslane, feel free to ask the farmers themselves what to do with it. They wouldn’t be growing it without knowing some great ways to use it. Also, most markets have cooking demonstrations, recipes, and a website full of information about the produce.

Master a few techniques

You’ll need some hardcore skills to prepare all this bounty. Be ready, at a moment’s notice, to: rinse, peel, slice, scoop, crank a salad spinner, shake a jar. Most of all, master the art of low oil sauté. When in doubt, this is the way to go with most summer produce that you’re not eating raw. Put a good pan on medium high heat, add a little oil, toss in the prepped vegetables, and then toss them another time or two. If you want them a little more done, then cook them till they’re a little more done. You are the master!

Have sketches instead of recipes

Since the produce at a market will fluctuate more than that at a traditional supermarket, apply some flexibility to your recipes, too. If you have a great recipe for Melon & Cucumber Soup, remember that with little effort it can be transformed into a Cantaloupe & Raspberry Soup. Pasta Primavera—in Italy it’s called “greengrocer’s pasta”– is about the most flexible idea around: buy the currently available fresh vegetables, pair them with pasta, and add a light sauce. For this, a simple herbed aioli will support all the variations. Even more than Pasta Primavera, summer salads are open doors for just about any herb, flower, fruit, or vegetable: garlic scapes, nasturtiums, squash blossoms, beets, celery root, berries, apples, fresh uncooked peas or corn. Recipes are great for generating a shopping list, but the shopping list shouldn’t be bound by the recipe.

Market Leeks

Market Leeks

Buy mindfully

To me, this means “buy organic.” Make your own decision, based on your own principles and in keeping with your budgetary limits, but remember that conventional agricultural methods contribute to depleted soils. As a consequence, nutrient levels in foods have been dropping over the past 50 years. Organic methods, such as those espoused by the Real Food Campaign, produce richer soils, and therefore richer foods. Your body gets more of what it needs. If improving your health isn’t enough, you’re also supporting the health of the farm workers themselves.

Even if you’re not missing last year’s garden, I encourage you to seek out the Farmers’ Market in your area. Many of us talk about eating seasonally and locally, and practicing a more healthy intercourse between our bodies, our foods, and our lands. There’s no better place to enact this than at the Farmers’ Market. We often hear the phrase, “vote with your dollar.” There’s no better way of doing this than handing that dollar to the farmer who grows your tomatoes—thereby enabling her or him to make the most of the summer market as well.


Experiencing Local Love

One reason that life is such a groove in Mendocino.

One of the most satisfying relationships I’ve established while here in the Hudson Valley is the one I have with a purveyor, Kingston Natural Foods Market. It’s no stretch to classify it as a ‘love interest.’

Love comes in many forms, it’s true, and unfortunately the word itself is subject to overuse. I am not one to throw it around with indiscretion. I don’t “love my warm socks” or “love my new phone.” I do appreciate them, I do hold them in regard. But love? No, I save that for truly unique things. I can always buy more socks; the ones I’m wearing now will be forgotten, regardless of how much I might love them today. And the minute a critical call doesn’t go through, well, I don’t really love my phone. There’s no reason to invite such fickleness.

But my relationship with this market is another matter. It is love, derived from many a splendid thing (with apologies to Han Suyin).

Before I get to talking about KNF, let me say a few things about similar love affairs of the past. There are some common traits and behaviors, of course.

When I was in Denver, I had a strong affection for a small shop that sold specialty teas, herbs, spices, and kitchen gear. Owned and staffed daily by Michelle Bontrager and her brother Ethan, Lily’s Kitchen and Garden was truly a unique place. I wrote an article about them for a quickly-defunct arts magazine. By ‘article’ I mean ‘open love letter.’

What I admired about the shop was the sense of ‘connection’ that permeated all they did. From selection of products—they tested or used every single item themselves, seeking worldwide for just the right things—to engagement with customers, to personal attention, to remembering (mentally, not electronically) someone’s tea preferences. The proprietors were deeply committed, not just to their retail space, but to everyone that walked in the door.

As I wrote in the article:

It’s a simple chain of goodwill and quality: Lily’s works with distributors that treat them well. They in turn treat their customers well. The cumulative goodwill translates into high quality experiences while using the products at home. It’s a reminder of the reason merchandise is often referred to as “goods.”

A few years after that article, I moved to Mendocino, California. As if living in a coastal village Paradise weren’t enough, I found several small local shops where I could trade love for love.

For example, Corners of the Mouth is a tiny organic grocer, located in an old converted chapel. Quite apropos, the choir loft contained their bulk teas, herbs, and spices. I would cloister myself there frequently, blending some specialty brews or reading up on some unique herbs. They had the same commitment as Lily’s, expressed in their focus on local organic produce, connection with their customers, and concern for quality. It was obvious that they valued relationships.

I drifted southeast from there, landing in Santa Fe, another local, indie Mecca. From the La Montanita Coop to the truly exceptional Farmers’ Market, I was sustainably surrounded. Due to my role at Tree House Pastry Shop and Café, I was constantly in touch with the farmers, valuing the direct line from their field to my kitchen. There is no better experience.

Coming to the Hudson Valley, with its focus on small, locally supported farms, I felt like I was taking another trip to Eden. As I procure things for the program here at CAS, I find that I’m connecting with growers and seed libraries and markets with the same spirit I found in Denver, Mendocino, and Santa Fe.

Of course. It’s the way that the best work is always done. Person to person, face to face. I need something, I know you provide it, and we agree to an exchange. Trust runs through the entire experience, and our values complement each other. It is apparent—obvious—that we care for each other’s well-being. It is important to us that both parties thrive.

So it is when I shop at Kingston Natural Foods. It was clear from the moment I stepped in the door that it was a place where I’d be happy to trade. You know how it is: once you’ve been in love, you learn to recognize all the signs.

It’s in the first hello, the engaging introductory chatter, the subtle but strong affinity. She (the market, as represented by its proprietor, Jennifer) and I (um, represented by me) find this initial exchange to be beneficial. There will be more.

The same characteristics run through all these establishments: attention to products and clients; focus on doing something well; commitment to clearly-defined core values. Demonstrating—by doing—that every choice makes a difference, and that every dollar spent is significant. Every transaction has a strong identity—I know when I hand over a 20 that it will go through the market to the farm that grew the produce. I know the farm’s name, because Jennifer has posted it with the produce. On any given visit, I might meet the baker who brings that wonderful artisan bread, or the person who made the day’s hot soup, or perhaps the guy who drives the delivery truck.

As I meet these people, I build a social circle. I become an integral part of their lives, just as they are part of mine. I can thank the baker, looking her in the eye, for what she does. She can thank me for buying it. We both can turn and thank the proprietor. We are all thankful for the relationship.

So yeah, it’s easy to call this love. At the very least, friendship—and that is another great thing about trading this way. Every time I go to the market, I get to catch up with a friend.


In writing this piece, I looked to see what Michelle and Ethan are doing these days. It is no surprise that they have transformed their shop into another unique retail experience: Best Tea Time in a Bike Shop

Check out their blog, too.