food

New Year-Round Downtown Market Being Studied

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In Saturday’s Grand Rapids Press, there was an interesting article about a study being undertaken by Grand Action to look at the feasibility of constructing and operating a downtown market that would feature fresh produce, meats, and other local goods. The market would be designed to compliment existing farmers markets in the city.

According to the article:

Frey, Spitzer and Mayor George Heartwell said leaders of the often-bustling but seasonal Fulton Street Farmers Market have supported their efforts.

A year-round market would be designed to provide space for a wider array of products than the typical seasonal market, Frey said.

Frey and Spitzer envision a place where local produce is sold alongside freshly butchered meats, seafood, breads, cookies and other items.

Artists also may have space in the facility.

“One of the goals we’ve enunciated throughout the project is to be supportive of the Grand Rapids local foods system, to develop more interest in local foods,” Spitzer said. “It is very important for us that the development of this project not harm Fulton Street or other markets. It’s really intended to expand interest in local foods.”

It’s a pretty good idea. Purchasing locally grown food is more sustainable than transporting food for hundreds of miles. Moreover, the more money that is spent locally, the more money stays in the community.

Local and Michigan Headlines: Community Supported Agriculture in Michigan; The GRPS Teacher Contract Dispute

Here’s some interesting articles pertaining to Grand Rapids and Michigan from elsewhere on the Internet:

  • Michigan Will Lead the Green Industrial Revolution – Governor Jennifer Granholm takes to the Huffington Post to talk up Michigan’s work addressing climate change. Specifically, she is championing efforts to make cars made in Detroit more fuel-efficient. I’m really as excited about it as she is, but at least she’s out there making the effort to improve Michigan’s reputation.
  • Details of new UAW deal with General Motors – Not surprisingly, the UAW leadership made many concessions to GM on the union health plan, raises, and medical benefits for retirees.
  • EPA pledges ‘expeditious action’ on Dow dioxin clean-up, but Superfund status not in the works – While promising to hold Dow Chemical accountable for dioxin pollution, the organization failed to place the contaminated Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River watershed on the Superfund list. Nevertheless, environmental groups are cautiously optimistic that the EPA will finally hold Dow accountable.
  • Employee Stock Ownership, But Not Control – While not about Michigan per se, this article looks at union stock ownership in the auto industry and what that has meant for unions. This is particularly interesting as it relates to the Chrysler bankruptcy and the likely GM bankruptcy. The article was published in Labor Notes, so it is more focused on the perspective of workers and unions than what we typically see in the corporate press.
  • Cox: Top priority as governor would be tax cut – Attorney General Mike Cox has announced that he is running for governor of Michigan in 2010. His main goal would be to enact a $2 billion tax cut which include a 50% reduction is business taxes. Less revenue? That sounds just like what a struggling state government needs.
  • Arab Americans discuss profiling with security chief – Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently met with members of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the Michigan chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to discuss their concerns about profiling of Arab Americans at Michigan’s border crossings. The groups want the Department of Homeland Security to collect statistics on the race, national origin, and gender of those stopped at border crossings.
  • Kentwood police identify Michael Sulewski as pedestrian struck on 28th Street – Another pedestrian was hit by a car recently. Drivers really need to look out for cyclists and pedestrians–this is getting ridiculous.
  • What gives in Grand Rapids Public Schools? Either union or district must budge in contract dispute – Here’s the Grand Rapids Press’ look at the ongoing dispute in the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) over contracts for its teachers. It’s a decent summary of some of the issues in the nearly two-year old labor dispute.
  • Policy change works to provide permanent housing for the homeless, rent payments to those on brink of evictionThe Grand Rapids Press reports that a new state policy shift will allow Emergency Shelter Partnership funds to go towards rent subsidies to keep people in their homes rather than shelters. The Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness applauded the move.
  • Community farms sprouting up across areaThe Muskegon Chronicle has a nice story on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and its popularity as more people look at the health and cost-saving benefits of locally grown produce.

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments.

“Humane” Meat Labels Do Little to Protect Animal Welfare

Factory Farming

In recent years, animal abuses in the meat industry have received increased attention. In response, some consumers have demanded meat produced in a “humane” fashion, giving rise to labels such as “free range,” “cage free,” and “organic.” Unfortunately, according to a new report from Farm Sanctuary, these labels are often misleading and mean relatively little in terms of animal welfare.

Farm Sanctuary’s report–“The Truth Behind the Labels: Farm Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices”–traces the origins to the problem of corporate-dominated animal agriculture. With consolidation has come increased mechanization and animals have come to be viewed primarily as productive units. Meat, dairy, and egg farmers are concerned with how much can be produced, not how animals are treated. This has led to a number of abusive practices such as “battery cages” and “debeaking” that allow a greater number of animals to be kept in small locations. While meaning that animals are treated worse, it has helped to secure greater profit.

In some cases, this has lead to a backlash. Animal rights activists have criticized abusive agriculture practices and there have been some successes in illuminating the abuses that happen on factory farms. In response, meat producers have responded by producing a variety of products that purport to be free of the worst abuses. This is a niche market in which consumers pay a premium for “humane” products.

Farm Sanctuary’s report analyzed these various labeling schemes and found that in many cases they mean little for animal welfare. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows produces to use a variety of terms–“cage free,” “free range,” “free roaming,” “pasture raised,” “grass fed,” “organic,” “natural,” and “naturally raised”–but they have vague and informal definitions and in most cases have no form of verifying compliance. This often means little improvement in the conditions in which animals are kept.

Two of the most common–“cage free” and “free range”–are particularly vague:

  • Farmers are not required to provide “cage free” laying hens with access to the outdoors. Often, hens are crowded by the thousands into large barns where each bird is allotted approximately one square foot of space.
  • “Free range” birds raised for meat often lead lives very similar to their factory farmed counterparts. They may be crowded by the thousands into factory-like warehouses with no flock size limits, and the outdoor area may be little more than a barren dirt lot that is difficult for them to access.

The animal agriculture industries have sought to produce their own voluntary standards and interpret federal standards in a way that allows for inhumane factory farming practices. They have taken only the most minimal steps to improve the conditions in which animals are treated and most of their labels seek only to alleviate consumer concerns rather than actually improving the conditions under which animals are raised.

Overall, Farm Sanctuary argues that it is next to impossible for consumers to know if animals are treated humanely. While some third-party standards have been developed with animal advocacy organizations, Farm Sanctuary says that even if those standards were followed, animal agriculture is by its very nature “inhumane” as it is based on commodifying and slaughtering animals.

Factory Farms a Global Food Problem, Connected to Michigan

Michigan Factory Farms

In January, Newaygo County upheld a preventative state regulation against pollution from factory farms. The Michigan Farm Bureau questioned whether the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) could require all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to obtain pollution discharge permits, as it began to do in 2003. Farm groups expressed the opinion that the DEQ should only require permits after a CAFO has actually had a discharge of manure that caused pollution.

According to the Grand Rapids Press, there are 250 CAFOs operating in Michigan, and at least 30 have illegally discharged manure into surface waters.

History of Factory Farming

Factory farming began in the 1920s, when vitamins A and D were discovered – when these vitamins are added to the feed, animals no longer require sunlight and exercise for physical growth. The majority of animals used for food in the U.S. are raised in factory farms – CAFOs that keep the animals indoors, confined to small cages and pumped full of hormones. Antibiotics and other chemicals in order increase their “productivity.”

Health and Environmental Factors

Factory farms are also cited as the cause of a considerable amount of water and air pollution that can be harmful to residents in the surrounding areas. Manure from 10,000 cows creates the sewage equivalent to a city of 230,000 people.

According to the American Public Health Association, the practices of factory farms can affect those who live far from CAFOs as well. The overuse of antibiotics given to animals in factory farms is creating antibiotic resistant bacteria that will be a threat to human health.

Lynn Henning, Sierra Club CAFO Water Sentinel and a leader of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM), spoke on CAFOs in Michigan:

“Factory farm dairies in Michigan are so bad that they’re a tourist attraction. Federal and state regulation of CAFOs is so bad that my community has been targeted for European dairy operators to move in here, buy up cheap land and operate without the kind of public health, water and air protections that are required in their countries. Showing just how bad it is in Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties is one way to advocate for stronger laws here as well as to make sure Europeans don’t weaken their laws to allow these horrible facilities to move into their communities.”

Michigan Factory Farming Information Sources

MediaMouse.org has previously written about a documentary video by the Sierra Club which brings to light how a community in Michigan has been affected by the presence of CAFOs.

The ECCSM web site shows photographs of water pollution from CAFOs in local waterways (many of which provide drinking water) in Michigan communities such as Hudson, Morenci, Adrian and Blissfield. The site also provides a map of local CAFOs and sustainable alternatives to factory farming.

Headlines: UN Accuses Israel of War Crimes in Gaza; Red Meat Increases Mortality Risk

Democracy Now Headlines: UN Accuses Israel of War Crimes in Gaza; Red Meat Increases Mortality Risk

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Senate Dems Delay Vote to Tax Bank Bonuses

The Washington Post is reporting the Democratic-led Senate is likely to delay until late next month legislation to punitively tax bonuses at banks and investment firms that receive federal aid. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision comes after the White House and Wall Street expressed concern over plans to heavily tax corporate bonuses. Last week, the House voted to levy a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid since January 1 by companies that owe the government at least $5 billion in bailout loans. On Sunday President Barack Obama said the tax code shouldn’t be used to punish people.

AIG Executives to Return $50 Million in Bonuses

The House vote came just days after it was revealed the failed insurance giant AIG was paying out more than $165 million in bonuses. On Monday, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced AIG employees have voluntarily agreed to give back more than $50 million in bonuses. Eighteen of the twenty-five AIG Financial Products employees who received the biggest retention payments had agreed to return them. Meanwhile, the Dutch banking and insurance giant ING has asked 1,200 senior employees to give up their 2008 bonuses after the firm received state aid. The company gave out $410 million in bonuses last year.

Report: Geithner Changed Plan After Pressure from Hedge Funds

The Dow Jones Index jumped nearly seven percent Monday after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner introduced a plan for hedge funds and other private investors to receive government financing to purchase as much as $1 trillion of so-called toxic assets. The Washington Post reports the Treasury made the program more attractive to private investors after listening to the concerns of hedge funds and private equity funds. The Treasury increased private investors’ share of potential profits from 20 percent to 50 percent. Critics say the plan is written to favor hedge funds and other private investors, instead of taxpayers. If the assets go up in value, the hedge funds stand to benefit greatly, but if the assets fall, taxpayers bear most of the risk. President Obama said said the plan was a key part to rebuilding the nation’s financial system.

President Obama: “As all of you know, we have been busy on a whole host of fronts over the last several weeks, with the primary purpose of stabilizing the financial system, so banks are lending again, so that the secondary markets are working again, in order to make sure that families can get basic consumer loans, auto loans, student loans, that small businesses are able to finance themselves, and we can start getting this economy moving again.”

President Obama will be holding a prime time news conference tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST.

EPA: Greenhouse Gases Pose Danger

The Obama administration appears to be moving toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that climate-warming gases, including carbon dioxide, pose a danger to human health and welfare. Frank O’Donnell of the group Clean Air Watch said, “I think it’s historic news. It is going to set the stage for the first-ever national limits on global warming pollution.”

Ehud Barak to Join Netanyahu’s Coalition Government

In news from Israel, Labor chair Ehud Barak has reportedly agreed to join Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government despite opposition from many within the Labor Party. Members of the Labor Party’s executive committee are expected to vote on the deal today. Barak had earlier pledged to stay in opposition if Labor won less than twenty seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. In last month’s election, Labor only won thirteen seats.

UN Official Accuses Israel of War Crimes in Gaza

Meanwhile, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, accused Israel Monday of committing war crimes in Gaza. Falk called for an independent inquiry to examine possible war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas.

Richard Falk: “The overall ratio of deaths–1,434 on the Palestinian side, thirteen on the Israeli side–is suggestive of the one-sidedness of the military encounter and provides a basis for challenging the legality of initiating a military assault with modern weaponry against an essentially defenseless society.”

Richard Falk also accused Israel of preventing Palestinian civilians from fleeing the military assault.

Richard Falk: “This indictment of Israeli tactics is strongly reinforced by a feature of the military operations that is unique in contemporary warfare: namely, coercively confining the Gazan civilian population to the combat zone during the Israeli military operations. This effectively denied to all Palestinians in Gaza the option of becoming refugees. Such a war policy should be treated as a distinct and new crime against humanity and should be formally recognized as such and explicitly prohibited.”

Israel dismissed Falk’s report, saying it was part of a pattern of demonizing Israel by the United Nations. The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, also criticized Israel’s attack on Gaza and suggested Israeli officials could be tried outside of Israel if Israel does not investigate possible war crimes.

Olivier de Schutter: “We would like to emphasize that the primary responsibility of ensuring the respect of international humanitarian law lies with the national justice system. Should the Israeli military or civilian justice system adequately and transparently investigate allegations of violations of the laws of war and, if necessary, prosecute those responsible, the IDF has no reason to fear that its officers will face indictments in foreign jurisdictions.”

On Monday, Israeli Army spokesperson Major Avital Leibovich defended Israel’s actions and disputed a report that Israeli troops targeted Palestinian medical facilities.

Major Avital Leibovich: “The IDF has decided to open a thorough investigation. Investigation was not complete yet, and when it will be complete, we will be more than happy to share the details with the public. We know and we can say today for a fact that the IDF soldiers were instructed to take very good care of the different medical facilities and medical vehicles in the area in Gaza.”

Parents of Tristan Anderson Call for Israel to Take Responsibility for Shooting

In other news from the region, the parents of the American peace activist Tristan Anderson flew to Israel yesterday to see their son, who remains in critical condition in a medically induced coma. Israeli troops shot Anderson in the head with a high-velocity tear gas canister. Tristan’s mother, Nancy Anderson, said, “We are scared and really still in shock. To shoot peaceful demonstrators is really horrifying to us. What we want to ask is that the Israeli government publicly take full responsibility for the shooting of our son.” The words of Nancy Anderson.

PLO Official Assassinated in Lebanon

In Lebanon, a high-ranking member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization was assassinated Monday in a roadside bombing in Lebanon that killed a total of five people. Kamal Medhat was the deputy head of the PLO in Lebanon

37 Die in Iraq Bombings

In Iraq, a series of bombings Monday killed at least thirty-seven people and wounded five dozen. The deadliest attack occurred when a suicide bomber attacked mourners at a Kurdish funeral in a town north of Baghdad, killing at least twenty-five.

UN: Detention of Aung San Suu Kyi Violates International Law

The United Nations has ruled the continued detention of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi violates Burma’s own laws as well as those of the international community. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has spent thirteen of the last nineteen years under house arrest.

US Tried to Silence Binyam Mohamed with Plea Bargain

Newly released documents reveal US government lawyers tried to get a British resident held at Guantanamo Bay to sign a deal saying he had never been tortured and that he would not speak to the media as a condition of his release. US lawyers also wanted Binyam Mohamed to plead guilty to secure his freedom, even though he was never charged with a crime. Mohamed was released last month but did not sign such an agreement.

South Africa Bars Dalai Lama from Peace Conference

South Africa has barred the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference. Archbishop Desmond Tutu accused the South African government of caving in to China, one of South Africa’s largest trading partners. Earlier this month, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that foreign countries should stay away from any involvement in the Tibet issue. Desmond Tutu said, “We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”

Sen. Sanders Attempts to Block Obama Nominee

In news from Capitol Hill, independent Senator Bernie Sanders is attempting to block President Obama’s nominee to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs employee. Sanders said Gensler had worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of AIG and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in US history. He also worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron. Sanders said, “We need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.”

Vermont Senate Votes to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

The Vermont Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to legalize same-sex marriage. If the bill becomes law, Vermont will become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage without being forced to do so by the courts. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports several other New England states are moving forward with similar bills. The New Hampshire House of Representatives is set to vote on the issue later this week. Next month a legislative panel in Maine will hold a hearing on a bill to allow gay couples to marry, just as lawmakers did last month in Rhode Island. Same-sex marriage is already legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Obama Nominates Three to Top Treasury Posts

President Barack Obama has nominated Neal Wolin to be Deputy Treasury Secretary, Lael Brainard to be the Treasury Department’s top official for international affairs, and Stuart Levey, who will stay on as the top counterterrorism official at the department.

Labor Union UNITE-HERE Splits

In labor news, the union UNITE-HERE has split in two. On Monday, 150,000 workers left the union to form a new labor group called Workers United, which will be affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. UNITE-HERE was formed in 2004 when UNITE, representing apparel and laundry workers, merged with the larger Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, or HERE.

Newhouse to Close Ann Arbor News

In media news, the Newhouse family has announced plans to lay off the entire staff at the Ann Arbor News in July and then replace the daily paper with two new companies: a website called AnnArbor.com and a newspaper that will come out only two days a week. The Ann Arbor News has been a daily newspaper for the past 174 years. In addition, three daily Michigan newspapers –the Flint Journal, the Saginaw News and the Bay City Times–will soon be published only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Canadian Seal Hunt Faces Criticism

In Canada, the annual seal hunt has begun despite increasing criticism from animal rights organizations. The Canadian government has announced that hunters will be allowed to kill 280,000 young harp seals this year, a slight increase over last year. Although most animals are shot, some are killed by blows from large spiked clubs. International pressure is growing to stop the seal hunt. Last week, Russia banned the hunting of baby harp seals, weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called it a “bloody industry.” Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources called sealing “one of the most inhumane types of hunting in the world.”

Study: Lots of Red Meat Increases Mortality Risk

And a major new study from the National Cancer Institute has found people who eat the most red meat and the most processed meat have the highest overall risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer. Researchers came to this conclusion after studying the eating habits of more than 500,000 people between the ages of fifty and seventy-one. The researchers said thousands of deaths could be prevented if people simply ate less meat.

Earth Democracy Author, Vandana Shiva, Speaks at WMU

Activist Vandana Shiva Recently Spoke at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo

Indian activist and author Vandana Shiva spoke at Western Michigan University last Thursday on the theme of sustainability, the topic of one of her most recent books,Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace.

Shiva began her talk by saying that we live in extremely important times, because the paradigm of fossil fuels consumption is killing us. She also used a comment from the founder of the Indian Satyagraha movement, Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, when writing about the Western World, said that it “only promotes consumerism and comfort.” But, this model, according to Gandhi, is one that is self-destructive.

Corporate Globalization is a Dictatorship

Shiva then went on to talk about corporate globalization as a form of dictatorship. Corporate globalization uses force to achieve its goals as well as legal and institutional constructs such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). One example the author gave was how the global grain giant Cargill took control of the agricultural policies under the GATT/WTO. Shiva said they wrote the agreement and essentially represented the US at the international level to push through an agricultural policy that would allow them control of much of the world’s grain market.

Another way that Cargill has negatively impacted local agriculture is their dumping of soy oil on the market in India several years ago. Shiva said they were able to do this with huge subsidies, also part of the WTO agreements, which undercut the local market. People could not compete with the price of the soy oil, which was not nearly as good for human consumption as the dozens of other oils that Indians used. In response, women organized a Satyagraha campaign and made their own oil in defiance of the law.

Intellectual Property Rights and Seed Theft

The other main issue that Shiva addressed was the destructive consequences of intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights were essentially an expansion of traditional property rights that included seeds, humans, and any other form of life. India had a non-patent framework for products built into their constitution, but that changed with the WTO. What this has meant is that Monsanto controlls 95% of the global seed store. Seeds–which are the ultimate regeneration resource–have now been privatized.

This control of the global seed stock is being manifested in three ways. First, corporations are using genetic modification that necessitates the use of more pesticides, most of which are manufactured by the same corporations. Second, the control of global seed stock means that these corporations can control the price of seeds. So for example, last year Monsanto raised corn seed costs from $200 a bag to $300, which meant that they profited even more off world hunger. The third way they control seed stock was to legally insert into the WTO agreements the inability of farmers to save their own seeds, thus making them dependent on companies like Monsanto to buy their seeds.

One crop where this seed control has been devastating for Indian farmers is with cotton. The GMO cotton seeds that Indian farmers are now forced to buy also require large amounts of pesticides and farmer just end up going into debt. This crisis has resulted in a great deal of resistance, but it has also meant that many Indian farmers have taken their own lives. Shiva said that over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide as a protest of the seed control. One irony with this is that the highest areas of suicide are the same area of Indian where Gandhi’s campaign of homespun cotton began, a campaign that complimented a national boycott of British made clothes from cotton.

Climate Chaos or Earth Democracy

Shiva also addressed the issue of Climate Change, which she said is an inaccurate way of naming the problem. We should call it climate chaos, because with Global Warming, weather patterns have become unpredictable and destabilizing. This, the author/activist said was due to our addiction to fossil fuels.

“We are not phasing out fossil fuels, because they are now used in agribusiness. The toxic nature of fossil fuels agribusiness is killing the soil. 40% of greenhouse gases are produced because of the way we grow and distribute food.”

Shiva believes that the only way to move away from this addiction to fossil fuels, as it relates to agriculture, is a shift to localism, “The local level is where the change must happen, with food production and energy creation. Local food systems are very important and are even an antidote for wars,” Shiva said. “Why did the US go to war in Iraq? Oil. The same is true for Afghanistan and other parts of the world.” She then said that a shift to bio-fuels is not a sustainable solution either. “If all of the corn that is grow in the US right now is used for bio-fuel it would only provide 7% of the fuel needs. So, if the appetite of resource consumption continues then wars are inevitable.”

The author/activist said that the only viable transition away from this corporate structure is what she calls earth democracy:

“The current economic system is based on theft. We have to restore our economy. I started the seed saving group Navdanya as a way of defending life. Life is to be shared, not bought and sold. The earthworm does not eat up the soil that it lives in, it enriches it. We need to catch up to these other species. We need to look to them as teachers, these species, the soil, because that is where life gets renewed. The soil is an alternative to the collapsing economy, to the fossil fuel destruction, and it is an alternative to wars.”

Shiva concluded by saying that earth democracy is different than electoral democracy because in electoral democracy you expect someone else to do it for you, but with earth democracy we must make the changes ourselves.

Protest Demands “Fair Food” at Subway

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On Saturday, Calvin College’s Social Justice Coalition organized a protest outside of the Subway in Eastown to urge the company to take a stand in support of higher wages for farm workers.

Subway is the latest target of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)–a farm worker organization out of Florida that has an impressive record of winning concrete gains for farm workers. Subway is the latest target of the group, which has already won victories against Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Burger King. Subway is a major purchaser of tomatoes from Florida and as such, the CIW is calling on the company to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Currently, farmworkers picking tomatoes sold to Subway earn an average of $10,000/year and are paid virtually the same piece rate (40-50c per 32-lb. bucket) as they were in 1978.

Throughout the CIW’s history, college students such as Calvin College’s Social Justice Coalition have played a key role in the organizing by acting in solidarity with the CIW, as they are one of the target demographics for fast food companies.

Photos from the protest (with faces blurred in accordance with MediaMouse.org’s photo policy):

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There is a long history of student organizing in solidarity with the CIW in Grand Rapids, including a protest last year at Burger King organized by the same Calvin group. The now defunct Grand Valley State University Students Against Sweatshops also organized for several years against Taco Bell.

Website Promotes Locally Grown Foods

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A new nationwide website called Eat Well Guide aspires to be the source free online directory to help people find local, sustainable, and organic food, stores, and farms. It’s got all the latest Internet bells and whistles–user submissions, ratings, and widgets–which come together to create an incredibly useful website with a lot of potential.

For Grand Rapids, Michigan, the guide offers a number of farmers, farmers markets, and stores. The listings are a little skimpy, so it would be helpful if people submit restaurants, stores, and farms not on the list. It also features a guide to seasonal foods in Michigan–something that will be considerably more useful in the spring–and a map of rBGH free dairies in the state.

The website is similar to the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council’s online and print West Michigan Food Guide, but is easier to use.

Monsanto Executive Speaks at GVSU

Earlier today, Monsanto executive Kevin Holloway spoke at Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Seidman College of Business Alumni Association.

As many people know, Monsanto is a company that has attracted controversy over the years, from its production of Agent Orange and Aspartame to its current role in producing genetically modified seeds. Holloway opened his talk by explaining that Monsanto’s primary goal is to help solve the global food crisis, which it believes can only be solved through technology. Holloway said that this has brought attention from activists and others and that the company has occasionally been the target of activist campaigns and inaccurate news reports. He said that in response he would share resources at the end of the presentation for those who wanted additional information. When he shared those “resources,” it was simply a link to a page on Monsanto’s website that provides rebuttals to common criticisms of the company.

Following these remarks, Holloway showed a brief PR video produced by Monsanto that emphasized the company’s commitment to “sustainability.” The video had interviews with numerous farmers talking about higher yields from Monsanto crops and how their farming requires fewer resources due to Monsanto’s technology. The video emphasized the companies “responsibility” and painted the company as one that was motivated by altruism to tackle growing food demand.

Holloway said that Monsanto is now focused exclusively on agriculture and has a goal of sustainably confronting rising food prices. He acknowledged problems facing agriculture–rising energy prices, increased demand for food, global warming, and environmental concerns–and said that despite these, Monsanto is making a serious effort to help double worldwide food production in the next 50 years. He said that agriculture is currently inefficient and that farming methods are too demanding.

To remedy this situation, Monsanto is investing considerable money in researching seeds and creating genetically modified seeds. Monsanto spends $3 million per day on research and development according to Holloway. He said that the company’s research is directed towards three goals aimed at helping to feed the world’s population. The first goal is producing better food, which it is doing by producing seeds that will double yields in corn, soybean, and cotton by 2030. Second, Monsanto is seeking to produce seeds that require one-third of the resources that are currently needed. Lastly, the company wants to “improve farmers’ lives” by selling farmers better seeds. In speaking about this, Holloway also talked about a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at getting drought tolerant corn to African farmers for free (two former Monsanto executives work for the Foundation).

Holloway’s talk–like any talk by a corporate executive–was essentially a PR piece. It gave a flattering portrayal of Monsanto as a benevolent actor seeking to stop global food shortages and sidestepped controversy.

During the question and answer period, those asking questions tended to be a little skeptical of the company. There were questions focusing on alternative agricultural practices such as rotating crops or organics, the long-term health effects of GMOs, milk labeling, and initiatives in developing countries. As he did during his presentation, Holloway continued to portray Monsanto in a positive light and gave vague answers. He told a questioner that there are no known health effects from GMOs and said that such products–including Monsanto’s rBGH–are extensively tested. However, he did not go into the controversy surrounding these products and the policies that regulate them (for example, the government sees such foods as no different than traditional cross-breeding). Similarly, on rBGH–a milk hormone formerly produced by Monsanto under Holloway’s watch–he said that there are no adverse health effects. Critics have pointed to possible health effects, such as increased levels in certain hormones, but Holloway said that rBGH is simply a synthetic version of a hormone that is already found in milk. He also responded to Monsanto’s opposition to labeling milk as “rBGH free” by saying that they were opposed to inaccurate labeling and that the label allowed some milk companies to profit without passing the profit onto farmers.

He also told the audience that Monsanto has several initiatives aimed at developing countries. He said that they are developing a type of rice that would help overcome vitamin deficiency and are providing scholarships to students. Of course, the source of the funding probably wouldn’t help the company appease its critics. The funding comes from a program that allows farmers to turn in other farmers illegally using Monsanto’s seeds. Under Monsanto’s licensing contracts, farmers cannot use the traditional method of saving seeds.

Overall, while there was some lip service paid to concerns over Monsanto’s business practices and the larger questions surrounding biotechnology, Holloway’s talk provided a resoundingly positive portrayal of Monsanto.

Monsanto Official Speaking at GVSU

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Monsanto. It’s a company whose name is synonymous with genetically engineered food. Since the early 1990s, the company has aggressively marketed genetically modified seeds around the world, often attracting significant protests and outrage in the process.

Next Tuesday, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is hosting Kevin Holloway–head of animal agriculture at Monsanto–who will deliver a lecture titled “Monsanto: The Business of Feeding the World.” Holloway is speaking at an event in downtown Grand Rapids organized by the Seidman College of Business Alumni Association. Other than that, no further information on the particulars of the talk is available.

While working at Monsanto, Holloway–who formerly worked for Michigan based Dow Chemical–has played a key role in one of the company’s most controversial efforts–marketing milk containing the genetically modified growth hormone rBGH (also sometimes known as rSBT) which was sold under the brand POSILAC. The hormone, which was developed by Monsanto and approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, has been a lightning rod for criticism by consumers and health advocates. The United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission upheld a ban on the product in the European Union, while Canada banned the hormone.

Health related concerns about rBGH are numerous and fuel much of the opposition to the hormone. Critics argue that the hormone changes the chemical composition of the milk via the increased presence of a hormone called “insulin-like growth factor-1″ (IFG-1). According to the Center for Food Safety, numerous studies now demonstrate that IGF-1 is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. The hormone is also harmful to cows, leading to increased instances of mastitis, contamination of the milk with pus, and a 50% risk of lameness due to hoof and leg problems.

Monsanto–who sold the POSILAC brand earlier this year–argued that the hormone greatly enhanced the efficiency of milking cows. According to a company website, “The benefit of POSILAC is its ability to increase milk production significantly and, in doing so, to lower farm fixed costs over units of milk produced.” The hormone yields an average of 10 additional pounds of milk per day, per cow according to Monsanto. Additionally, it can increase lactation.

However, while some farmers jumped at the opportunity to increase the “profitability” of their herd via POSILAC, consumers were more skeptical of the hormone. Aside from bans in Canada and the European Union, rBGH milk was dropped by several major retailers including Kroger and Wal-Mart. Moreover, consumers consistently supported labeling the milk–80% according to one Consumer Reports survey–much to the chagrin of Monsanto.

Kevin Holloway, the head of Monsanto’s animal agriculture division, played a role in the company’s efforts to fight against the labeling of milk. In response to dairies that labeled their milk as “rBGH-free,” Monsanto launched an aggressive campaign aimed at stopping the labeling. The company filed lawsuits and attempted to stop dairies from labeling milk. As part of this effort, Kevin Holloway frequently spoke out against labeling, arguing that the use of hormones was one of farmer choice and that labeling milk resulted in unfair marketing practices:

“This milk is positioned as a specialty product with labels that say things like ‘no hormones or antibiotics’, ‘not produced with rbST’ and a variety of other statements that imply it may be better than conventional milk.”

Holloway also argued that stores demanding rBGH-free milk should pay a premium to farmers:

“The point of this decision guide is that buyers of specialty milk should pay a premium if they want to limit dairy farmers’ choice to use safe, effective technology. At a minimum, this premium should be guaranteed to pay for lost profitability, handling and verification costs of specialty milk. This guarantee should last as long as a producer is required to give up the choice.”

Aside from efforts coming directly from Monsanto, the company also engaged in more shady campaigns aimed at winning consumer support for rBGH milk. Monsanto was instrumental in the creation of American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology a front group created by the PR firm Osborne & Barr to promote rBGH. According to Sourcewatch.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Osborne & Barr was hired to handle Monsanto’s POSILAC brand in 2006. In 2007, Monsanto and several key dairy organizations met via conference call to plan the formation of the faux grassroots group. Monsanto has admitted to funding the group. Monsanto has also attempted to silence journalists investigating rBGH.

For critics of Monsanto, the company’s rBGH milk is just one example of what is a very troubled history. Since its founding in 1901 as a chemical company, Monsanto has been dodged by controversy. It manufactured Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide that was sprayed by the US during the Vietnam War, contaminating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and US soldiers. Agent Orange is believed to be linked to birth defects in thousands of Vietnamese due to dioxin exposure from the chemical. The company also produced PCBs and DDT, both of which are highly toxic chemicals. Behind these chemicals is a legacy of pollution.

In recent years, Monsanto has attempted to position itself as an altruistic company, with its website emphasizing such virtues and values as “sustainability,” while making lofty statements about improving the lives of farmers and lessening the environmental impacts of agriculture through technology. For Monsanto, this technology has meant genetically engineered seeds–with the company making 90% of the world’s genetically engineered seeds.

Of these genetically engineered seeds, Monsanto’s most controversial is the “Roundup Ready” soybean, which is engineered with a gene to make it resistant to Monsanto’s “Roundup” herbicide. “Roundup Ready” soybeans can be sprayed with the herbicide and they will not die, while all weeds in the area will be killed. The genetically engineered food is rapidly entering the food supply, with some 60% of soybeans in the US being “Roundup Ready.” Monsanto has also been the target of criticism for pursuing and researching “terminator” seeds that are engineered to be sterile after the first year, making it impossible for farmers to save seeds.

Like it has with rBGH, Monsanto has aggressively campaigned to win public support for its “Roundup Ready” soybeans. At the same time, it has gone after farmers who attempt to save seeds or who’s fields unknowingly become contaminated with genetically modified crops. Monsanto has sued farmers and initiates investigations into potential violations of its licensing agreement by contracting with investigative firms to conduct samples of farmers’ fields.

In order to gain approval for genetically modified seeds, Monsanto has maintained a close relationship with the US government. Several government regulators that have been involved in approving Monsanto products have formerly worked for or consulted for Monsanto, raising questions about the scrutiny given to Monsanto’s products.

Monsanto has also aggressively marketed genetically engineered seeds in other parts of the world, although it has often met strong opposition than it has in the US. Still, several notable controversies have developed. In India, Monsanto has sold a form of genetically modified cotton called “BT Cotton” that has been aggressively marketed and is supported by the Indian government despite numerous problems. Moreover, around the world genetically modified crops are contaminating non-GMO crops, most notably in Mexico.

When Holloway speaks at GVSU next week, it’s likely that much of this controversy will be left out. Those attending the speech likely will be treated to a glossed over, PR friendly version of Monsanto’s past and present.