There are more than a few improvements McDonald’s could make to better the treatment of its customers and workers, of the animals that provide the meat it sells and of the environment. On Monday, after years of internal and external pressure, the company announced a laudable course of action regarding the sows (female pigs) in their supply chain: McDonald’s is requiring, by May, that its suppliers of pork provide plans for phasing out gestation crates. Once those plans are delivered, says Bob Langert, the company’s vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s will create a timetable to end the use of gestation crates in its supply chain. “Considering that 90 percent [of the pregnant sows] in the United States are in gestation stalls, this is a huge issue,” he says, and he’s right.
This is important for the animals and for the entire meat-selling industry. Let’s start with the sows: a gestation crate is an individual metal stall so small that the sow cannot turn around; most sows spend not only their pregnancies in crates, but most of their lives. For humans, this would qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and even if you believe that pigs are somehow “inferior,” it’s hard to rationalize gestation crates once you see what they look like. (For the record, defenders of the system suggest that crates prevent sows from fighting in group pens. There’s no space to argue that here, but it’s nonsense.)
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My column last week described how the Food and Drug Administration is declining to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. After withdrawing its own 34-year-old request/promise to restrict the routine use of penicillin and tetracyclines in farm animal feed, the F.D.A. made it crystal clear that, despite the increasingly common threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meat, it would leave the regulating up to industry itself.
Yesterday, however, the following headline appeared in this paper: Citing Drug Resistance, U.S. Restricts More Antibiotics for Livestock. Did the F.D.A. make a new year’s resolution to get off the couch when it comes to curbing antibiotics in agriculture? Not really. In fact, this is a pathetic, token, and infuriating effort.
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You might think it would be difficult to find a cheerful and optimistic farmer the year a hurricane wiped out most of the crop, but I did so in Burlington, Vt., the day after Thanksgiving. I was visiting the Intervale Center, a nonprofit that manages a 350-plus-acre flood plain not far from downtown.
The Intervale, which is on the Winooski River, has been farmland for nearly the entire time humans have lived in this region, not only because land that floods is especially fertile (think of the Nile), but because it isn’t much good for anything else. “The Intervale was always a smart place to grow food,” says Will Raap, the founder of Gardener’s Supply, headquartered in the Intervale. “It’s fertile and flat, and there’s plenty of water. And as Burlington grew it didn’t get developed because it floods.” Twenty-five years ago, part of it was planted in corn and much of the rest had become an informal dump.
Raap happened upon the land back then, saw its potential and teamed with Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders (the now-heroic Vermont senator, with whom I was touring the Intervale Center) to begin seeding and incubating small businesses and farms in the Intervale. The Center’s goals are familiar ones, but worth repeating: to use the land responsibly and sustainably, to help farmers make a living, and to make needed connections among people, farms and food.
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The Republican-manufactured budget crisis of this past summer — remember? — resulted in a “solution” that’s hijacking what little representative democratic process we have left. Equally sad is that the so-called supercommittee — charged with creating an outline for reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years — may preclude full discussion of the farm bill.
It’s the farm bill that largely shapes food and agriculture policy, and — though much of it finances good programs — ultimately supports the cynical, profit-at-any-cost food system that drives obesity, astronomical health care costs, ethanol-driven agriculture and more, creating further deficits while punishing the environment.
The farm bill is written every five years. Although the current one doesn’t expire until September, the next one may be all but wrapped up by your first bite of turkey, because the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees — a group of four, representing Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota and Kansas (do you see a pattern here?) — are working feverishly to draw up a proposal in time to submit it to the supercommittee before the Nov. 23 deadline.
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I’m not a jingoist, but I’d prefer that more of my food came from America. It’d be even better, really, if most of it came from within a few hundred miles of where we live. We’d be more secure and better served, and our land would be better used. And I’d feel prouder, as if we had a food culture rather than a food fetish.
The Farm Bill [PDF], which is currently under negotiation for renewal — and is dangerously close to being pushed through without real debate — needs to address this issue head-on. But by subsidizing commodities, the existing bill (and food policy in general), pushes things in precisely the opposite direction. The vast majority of our farmland grows corn (we’re the world’s largest producer), soy and wheat, and these, along with meat and dairy, make us net exporters of foodstuffs.
Incredibly, however, we are net importers of fruits and vegetables, foods that our land is capable of growing in abundance and once did. Most of our imports are from Mexico, Chile and Canada, but fresh fruits and especially vegetables are shipped here from all over the world, with significant quantities coming from as far away as India, China and Thailand. And those imports are growing.
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Last month, I stood in the midday sun a few miles north of Anthony, N. M., and Anthony, Tex. — a town divided by the state line created in 1854 — staring out over a 15-acre plot of land that didn’t look like much. In this part of the world, it was once almost as easy to travel from the United States to Mexico and back as it is to go from one Anthony to another. Now the trip can drive you crazy, with long waits and inspections; if you’re undocumented and unlucky, it can kill you.
I’d spent a couple of days touring El Paso and Las Cruces, the cities of El Paso del Norte, as well as the colonias. (These are unincorporated settlements largely inhabited by Mexicans whose ancestors lived here when it was New Spain, joined by more recent immigrants.) Here, I learned that the border isn’t the only thing that’s become complicated around here; food is another.
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Maine, to the outsider’s view, seems as food-conscious right now as California. (The Winter/Spring issue of Maine Policy Review, devoted to food and with a very cool cover, is 250 pages, some of which are even worth reading.) Of course it’s all whom you talk to, but it sure was easy enough to meet people who wanted to talk food. (And that, as we know, is happening everywhere, increasingly. Good.)
I was encouraged to come up by Ingrid Bengis-Palei, who’s been supplying top chefs in New York and elsewhere with Maine scallops, lobsters, sea urchins and more, for more than 20 years. (She has kept FedEx profitable.) I first encountered her name when Eberhard Müller was chef at Le Bernardin; that, I think, was in 1988. (Eberhard and I went scalloping that winter on Nantucket, not because we were afraid of Maine but because we were after bay scallops, not the huge sea scallops for which Maine is justifiably known.)
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North Haven, Me.
When Brenna Chase was farming in Connecticut a few years back, new farmers weren’t always welcome by oldsters. The pie, she says, just wasn’t big enough. “But now,” she said to me here, where she now farms, “the feeling is that the pie is getting bigger and that the more people that get into this the better it will be for everyone.”
By “this,” she means sustainable farming (here I use the term interchangeably with “organic” because many ethical farmers can’t afford organic certification), and the poised 33-year-old, who began farming in high school, is representative of young people I’ve met all over the country. These are people whose concern for the environment led to a desire to grow — and eat — better food. And although chefs still get more attention, the new farmers deserve recognition for their bold and often creative directions.
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In May, I went to Iowa, primarily to learn more about so-called conventional agriculture, those thousand-acre farms growing corn and soybeans, planted, tended and harvested largely by machine. (We have plenty of the other type — what’s variously called traditional, or alternative, or non-conventional — in the Northeast.) But thanks to an auspicious combination of topsoil, climate, topography and weather, Iowa is among the best locales for farming in North America, and I saw a wide range of practices.
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(Photo Credit: Quentin Origami via Flickr)
If you’re not already anti-factory-farming, this will do it: The Humane Society just released an undercover investigation (watch the video if you can stomach it, or scroll down the link to find the full report) into the obscene abuses of female breeding pigs and piglets by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest (and probably most profitable) producer of pork. The video leaves me pretty much speechless.(More links here, at Vegan.com.)
I’m usually not one to cry “boycott,” but if you, like Paula Deen, are a Smithfield supporter – in fact, if you’re still eating industrially raised pork (or chicken or beef or fish for that matter) – get real. Any industry (and Smithfield is hardly alone, though it does seem to be performing most egregiously) that operates with such infuriating disregard for the welfare of their animals deserves all the trouble we can muster.