Professor Donicio Valdez talks about Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and Food Politics

On Thursday, GVSU hosted professor Donicio Valdez of MSU as part of the unversity’s Cesar Chavez Week. Valdez discussed Cesar Chavez, his organizing work with the United Farm Workers, and the politics of food.

On Thursday, March 29 the Multicultural Affairs office at GVSU hosted Donicio Valdez, Professor of History and Chicano studies at Michigan State University. The lecture was held as a part of Cesar Chavez Week. Professor Valdez spoke about some of the realities of food production as an introduction, particularly in California where the United Farm Workers (UFW) were born. He showed the audience some old pictures that looked at how people got to the fields; via buses, walking, and old vehicles. Grapes employed more people than any other sector. Professor Valdez then showed a picture of a worker with a bandana over his face and addresses the issue that people were never really informed about the consequences of pesticide exposure.

Cesar Chavez himself moved to California during the Depression. In 1950 he became an organizer in the CSO, organizing Mexican/Americans. Later he became involved in labor organizing. Cesar was one of 4 of the original founders of the UFW. Early on the Filipino community went on strike and convinced Chavez and the UFW to join in, which they did. The two unions merged shortly afterwards. As a union, the UFW was very family centered, with children often at meetings and part of organizing campaigns. The strike spread in California and involved many women in the organizing work as well. Women did a great deal of the education work in addition to working in the fields and taking care of children. Iconography was important to the group, using the Aztec eagle and other Mexican symbols. Many Chicanos in the country were brought in to participate in the movement, which also influenced some of the symbolism. By 1969, the strike had spread to the entire table grape industry.

Boycotts were used early on and were called “Do Not Patronize Campaigns.” The first UFW boycott was in 1965. As a way of dealing with the boycott, one of the targeted companies changed its label, which was illegal, so the UFW called for a boycott of all table grapes. Boycott committees were in communities all over the country, which led to the education of millions of people about the strike and became a major organizing tool for the UFW.

In 1968, Chavez did his first fast, the fast for non-violence. The catalyst was an act of violence, where a foreman drove into a group of strikers, with people responding by surrounding the truck and pounding on it. Chavez responded with the non-violent fast. It was a personal fast for Chavez and on day 13 of the fast he was called into court. People came to the court and since there were so many the court proceedings were delayed. A rally happened in which Bobby Kennedy attended and it was then that the UFW had asked him to run for President. Professor Valdez says that it is speculated that had the UFW not asked him to run in 1968, Kennedy might not have.

The fast caused health problems for Chavez for more than a year. After the fast he stopped smoking and became a vegetarian, even a vegan for a time. The fast really galvanized the movement and forced Chavez from a behind the scenes organizer to a movement spokesperson.

1968 was also important in terms of the studies done on food. Among the findings were that pesticides accumulate in the fatty tissue in the body. These pesticides also cause neurological problems and cancer. There was a famous case in Michigan of DDT contamination of salmon from Lake Michigan. At this time new pesticides were being introduced, including pesticides that were first developed by the Nazis as nerve gas. A farm worker-supported clinic did its first study on the impact of pesticides on farm workers. Records were not kept and businesses, politicians and academics began attacking the UFW with bogus information. The boycott continued which resulted in the table grape owners signing an agreement in 1970. One aspect of the contract was a grievance clause, one that banned DDT and other persistent pesticides, and improved working conditions. The boycott shifted to head lettuce and the UFW was undermined by the growers when they signed a contract with the Teamsters. When Jerry Brown was elected Gov. of California better laws were signed and more contracts with the union. During the Reagan years the UFW lost much ground, but this backlash also led to the next grape boycott that lasted until around 2000. In the late 1980s Chavez did another fast, but the response was different, particularly by the media, which Professor Valdez mentioned had become increasingly owned by fewer and fewer large corporations.

Pesticide exposure persists today. The World Health Organization says that 200,000 people die globally from pesticides and another 4 million die from pesticide contamination of water. While pesticide use increased, crop loss doubled, thus exposing the myth that pesticides are necessary for increased food production. The result was while chemical companies made huge profits the human and environmental consequences have been devastating. Another major change is that most of the farm workers are now undocumented, which allows workers to be taken advantage of by owners even more so than in previous decades. Most of the workers were citizens before, so organizing was easier in some ways.

Professor Valdez ended by talking briefly about how globalization has impacted agriculture and pointed out that under many of the current “trade agreements” worker and environmental protections have been criminalized, meaning that they are illegal under these trade agreements. He also mentioned that there are other models that have been successful. He discussed Cuba as an example and states that Cuba has created a just and sustainable food production policy that the United States could learn from.

Media Mouse also interviewed Professor Valdez, with the focus being on other organizing efforts and the public memory of Cesar Chavez. The interview is available on our audio page or as part of our podcast.

Video Explores Effects of Factory Farming in Michigan

A video produced earlier this year by the Michigan Sierra Club that explores the impacts of factory farming on Michigan is available online. The 24 minute video titled Living a Nightmare: Animal Factories in Michigan provides an illuminating examination of the water and air pollution, economic impacts, and health effects caused by the 200 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Michigan. The video explores how pollution from these industrial agriculture operations is working its way into water supplies, due in large part to the near impossibility of managing the animal waste produced at these operations, with the larger ones generating as much waste each day as a city of 62,000 people. Based on research and environmental testing, it is the official position of the Sierra Club that “CAFOs simply cannot operate without polluting and that they are causing health risks to Michigan residents.”

For more information on more sustainable forms of agriculture, visit the Sustainable Agriculture links compiled by Aquinas College’s Center for Sustainability.

Michigan Senate Bill Preempts Local Control of Fertilizers

Citing the Michigan Action Project, BlackBox Radio reports that a bill in the Michigan Senate meant to protect Michigan waterways from the effects of excess fertilizer not only does little to control the problem, but preempts local governments and communities from regulating the compounds in future. This means that all local ordinances in place throughout the State passed to reduce phosphorous runoff would in effect be nullified.

Phosphorous is the prime suspect in the return of algae blooms in bodies of water throughout the State that pollute beaches and deprive the water of needed oxygen, leading to fish die offs. Algae blooms can also contain toxic microcystins which cause illness in humans when ingested.

The current bill would allow homeowners to apply up to a half pound of phosphorous per 1000 squarer feet of lawn. A single pound of phosphorous can lead to the growth of up to 500 pounds of algae, according to the report. The Project is calling on legislators to enact laws similar to those in Minnesota which allow the use of phosphorous only after soil tests show phosphorous deficiency.

CIW Protests at McDonalds Headquarters

Protestors gathered on the street in front of McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois today while shareholders met inside. The protest was part of a national campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to compel McDonald’s to acknowledge its ability and responsibility to improve the lives of farmworkers in its supply chain. The CIW’s “Fair Food” campaign is a continuation of a four-year long Taco Bell boycott which ended in March of 2005 when Taco Bell finally committed to work toward improving the working conditions and wages of farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida. Protestors demanded that McDonald’s follow the precendent set by Taco Bell and support “real rights” for farmworkers, which include safe working conditions, fair wages and freedom from harassment and discrimination. So far, McDonald’s has launched a public relations campaign to counteract the work of the CIW but has not addressed the human rights abuses that still occur in the fields of Florida.

Photos from the protest:

protest photo

protest photo

protest photo

Media Mouse was also at a protest at the “rock and roll” McDonald’s earlier this year.

Bill Restricting Local Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops Passes House and Senate

On Thursday, the Michigan Senate voted in favor of Senate Bill 777, a bill that restricts the capacity of local municipalities to regulate or restrict the planting of genetically modified seeds. Earlier this week the House passed its version of the bill, modifying the original Senate bill to allow local governments to ban seeds if it is determined that they will harm the environment or public health. Such a ban would also have to be supported by the Commission on Agriculture. While Republicans have framed the issue in terms of allowing landowners the autonomy to decide what to plant on their land, agribusiness corporations have backed similar legislation across the country in a coordinated attempt to prevent the regulation of genetically modified seeds. Already fourteen states have passed laws preventing local municipalities from banning genetically modified seeds.

Farm Workers March on Rock and Roll McDonalds in Chicago

On Saturday in Chicago, farm workers and allies with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) held a 5-mile march and rally outside of a prominent McDonalds as part of the group’s campaign to encourage McDonald’s to use its leverage in the fast food industry to improve conditions for farm workers supplying its tomatoes. The campaign against McDonalds is a follow-up to the CIW’s successful campaign against Taco Bell.

march photo

On Saturday in Chicago, 300 to 400 members of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their allies participated in a five-mile march to demand that McDonalds improve the working condition and pay for farm workers supplying tomatoes to the restaurant. Marchers chanted “Down, Down with McSploitation, Up, Up with the Fair Food Nation,” “Exploitation makes me Grimace, we won’t stop until it’s Finished,” “Si Se Puede, and “Hey Mickey, you won’t last, you won’t last, we’ll kick your ass” (sung to the tune of the song “Hey Mickey”) as they marched from Plaza Tenochtitlan in Pilsen to the “Rock and Roll” McDonalds in downtown Chicago. Along the way the march stopped and briefly rallied at McDonalds restaurants, culminating with a large rally at the Rock and Roll McDonalds.

At the rally, the CIW announced that it is expanding its campaign to target Chipotle Mexican Grill, a “Mexican-style” restaurant that McDonalds retains 70% ownership of after a public stock offering in January of this year. Chipotle, who touts their corporate philosophy in the manifesto “Food with Integrity,” describes how they want to “revolutionize the way America grows and gathers food” by “working back along the food chain” beyond distributors to encourage healthy production of vegetables and humane living conditions for animals used by Chipotle. While calling for improved production of vegetables and animals used by the company, Chipotle says nothing about the conditions under which farm workers supplying the company work. Consequently, the CIW is calling on Chipotle to expand their mission to include “work with dignity” and is demanding that the company act to improve the labor conditions of farm workers supplying the restaurant by increasing the amount they pay farm workers by a penny per pound of tomatoes picked.

The CIW’s campaign against McDonalds, launched in December of 2005, is a follow-up to their successful boycott of Taco Bell that ended last year with Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, agreeing to increase the amount that Taco Bell pays for its tomatoes and to take a role in improving the conditions for farm workers in the tomato industry. McDonalds, who is one of the largest corporations in the fast-food industry, has refused to work with the CIW to expand on the precedent set by Taco Bell, and instead has ignored calls to improve the conditions for workers supplying its tomatoes. While the company has undertaken some steps towards “social responsibility” in the past few years with the decision to purchase fair-trade coffee for 650 of its restaurants and the establishment of a code of conduct that guarantees labor rights for workers supplying the company with toys, it has failed to do so with farm workers in the United States. As part of this effort, the CIW has engaged in a number of tactics that they fine-tuned during the Taco Bell boycott, including pray-ins, connections with student groups, and the development of an extensive coalition to pressure McDonalds. Additionally, as they did during the campaign against Taco Bell, the CIW conducted a “Truth Tour” where they visited 16 cities across the country educating and organizing allies and potential constituents while protesting at McDonalds restaurants along the way. The tour ended in Chicago with a meeting with representatives of McDonalds at their corporate headquarters outside Chicago.

Photos from the Chicago March and Rally

Send an email to McDonalds urging them to improve conditions for farm workers

Seed Bill Likely to Emerge in House after Senate Bill Stalls

After faltering in the Senate, activists expect that a bill designed by industry to prevent the regulation of genetically engineered crops by local municipalities will soon appear in the Michigan House of Representatives.

According to the coalition of small farmers, environmentalists, and consumers that successfully campaigned to stop a bill in the Michigan Senate that sought to limit the capacity of local municipalities to restrict the use of genetically modified seeds, the bill will likely reemerge in the state’s House of Representatives. Already, Republican representatives Neal Nitz and John Proos, both of whom are members of the House Agriculture Committee, are circulating a version of the Senate bill to recruit co-sponsors in an effort to pass a House version of the bill before drawing the public attention that effectively defeated the Senate bill.

The Michigan Senate bill (SB 777), sponsored by Republican Gerald Van Woerkom, would prevent local communities from enforcing an ordinance prohibiting or regulating the labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, use, or planting of genetically modified seeds. According to reporting in the Michigan Citizen, Van Woerkom says that while large agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto would benefit the bill they are not behind it and that the impetus for the bill instead comes out of concerns for farmers who could benefit from the use of genetically modified seeds and questions about the abilities of local governments to regulate and evaluate genetically engineered crops. Van Woerkom has also claimed that he has the support of the Senate Agriculture Committee citing the working relationships he has with other Committee members and conversations that suggest only Democratic Senator Liz Brater opposes the bill. While Van Woerkom says that he did not introduce the bill on behalf of industry, it is worth noting that Van Woerkom receives extensive political contributions from industry political action committees (PACs), many of whom are among Michigan’s top PACs.

The legislation, which is being promoted in Michigan by the Farm Bureau, has likely come at the behest of industry despite Van Woerkom’s comments to the contrary. Across the United States, agri-business corporations and lobbying interests are supporting “preemption” bills as a way of preventing cities from restricting genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Industry has taken this course in response to citizen initiatives around the country that have sought to restrict GMOs, including successful initiatives involving three California counties and one-hundred New England towns that have GMOs. In 2005, seventeen states introduced legislation removing local control of plants and seeds and the common language between the bills has suggested a coordinated effort by industry. The effort is believed to have originated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group, where an industry proposal for a “biotechnology state uniformity resolution” was first discussed in May of 2004.

Aside from issues of local control and corporate involvement in the legislative process, the legislation is also opening old questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods. As has historically been the case, environmental and human concerns are being raised with activists pointing out that there has been little human study on the long-term safety of GMOs which frequently produce allergic or toxic effects in people. The allergy threat has been highlighted with by the accidental introduction of StarLink corn in 2000 that was subsequently pulled from stores due to allergy concerns. Moreover, there is no pre-market safety testing for GMO foods, a fact that has led campaigners to argue that restricting municipalities’ capacity to regulate GMOs undermines the so-called “precautionary principle” whereby thorough investigation of new technologies should be conducted before their adoption.

Particularly in Michigan, much of the opposition to GMOs has been in terms of their potential environmental concerns. Genetically modified crops can contaminate neighboring crops without providing any visual clues, a process which may have devastating effects on local ecosystems. This concern is particularly acute with experimental crops, which are frequently “field tested” in Michigan. The biotechnology industry began field testing in the 1980s as a way of determining the impact of new crops on the environment and how they function, but the USDA has failed to adequately regulate the tests leading to the introduction of nonnative organisms in ecosystems, soil damage, so-called genetic pollution, and the development of new viral strains in response to virus-resistant plants. In Michigan, some 750 open-air field tests of GMOs and biopharmaceuticals have been conducted. Since the introduction of field tests, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has only rejected 3.6% of the total applications—a number that has caused critics to question the capability of the USDA to oversee such tests. These concerns gained additional validity last month when the USDA’s inspector general released a report finding that the agency has failed to properly oversee trials. The report was released shortly before the Center for Food Safety sued the USDA for its failure to adequately analyze the public health, environmental, and economic consequences of its release of genetically engineered alfalfa.

Questions of oversight, along with opposition from consumers, activists, university professors, and cities, are what ultimately caused the Senate bill to stall in committee. Already, activists are organizing against a similar bill in the House, beginning their effort before such a bill is introduced. As part of this effort, there is currently a letter writing campaign targeting the Michigan House Agriculture Committee.

Of Michigan’s 125 food crops, 90% of soy is genetically engineered, as is 32% of the corn crop. On the national level, 85% of soy and 45% of corn is genetically engineered while about 70% of processed foods are believed to contain genetically modified ingredients.

Local Food Event Raises Awareness About Food’s True Cost

Around 100 people gathered last night at the Wealthy Street Theatre for screenings of two movies, the Sierra Club’s The True Cost of Food and What Will We Eat?, a documentary by Christopher Bedford, president of Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon. Both films dealt with the massive environmental impacts of factory farming, the average of 1500 miles produce travels from farm to plate, and the corresponding lack of freshness and increased use of fossil fuels, and the effects of pesticide use on consumers, among other issues. After the movie, an hour long question and answer session took place. The event was an important one in that it raised awareness about what the growing, shipping, and selling of food entails and that there are alternatives to food that involves such destructive and unhealthy processes.

To find local food near you, use’s local food finder.

Cow Diseases and Mad Humans

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Since late March the corporate media has been giving us “stories” about what the dead cow industry calls “Mad-cow” disease. From the very beginning only two issues have even been discussed; how does this effect the dead cow industry and will this disease harm humans. Certainly i am not unconcerned about human health and well being. but the media coverage to this point has laid the blame at the feet of cows. According to Jeremy Rifkin’s book Beyond Beef “Scientists suspect that Bovine spongeform encephalopathy (BSE also known as mad-cow disease), which is incurable, is caused by feeding cattle offal (butchered sheep parts) from sheep infected with scrapie.”(pg. 143) If we follow Rifkin’s position on this, the “mad-cow” disease has in effect been manufactured by the systematic breeding of cattle by humans for human consumption. This systematic breeding has produced all kinds of diseases and suffering for the animals that will eventually be killed for human consumption. But now that the disease could harm human, and more importantly, harm corporate profits the media has decided to make it an issue.

This “mad-cow” disease has struck Europe before. In 1986g it hit British herds and within 4 years had caused the death of 16,000 cattle. What BSE does is eat away at the cow’s brain, “causing it to become spongelike in appearance.” Nowhere have we seen in the corporate media any honest discussion of what pain and suffering this causes the cattle: This should be of no surprise since millions of animals are murdered daily for the sole purpose of human consumption and that is not really even viewed as a relevant topic for discussion.

On a local level these media sins of omission take on an added dimension of disgust. On Wednesday, March 20, a local group known as West Michigan for Animals organized a public gathering for National Meat-Qut day. This was in conjunction with actions taking place all across the country calling upon people to abstain from eating animal flesh. Some 30 people gathered outside of a McDonalds on Michigan Ave. to hold signs and pass out flyers.

The group was primarily made up of high school and college age folk who brought with them their energy and rage on behalf of non-human animals. The only corporate media coverage was that of Channel 8 and they provided no reporter only a camera person. They did run a short sound bite at l1:00pm, but did not take advantage of making any connection to the current “scare” surrounding the “~-cow” disease. The Gran4 Rapids Press is always whining about not .covering events unless there is some local connection. What better opportunity to McDonalds, that most sacred of places for fast food devotees. Certainly can not be, demonstrating in front of BIG business. Maybe it was because the participants were young and outwardly rebellious. Of course, if they had been youth engaged in denouncing abortion or making a pledge of abstinence from sex the media would surely have been there en masse. In the end it seems to me that the corporate media does not want to discuss or allow others to discuss cow or any other animal humans consume; because they refuse to discuss the horrific-suffering and carnage that is perpetrated by humans, mad and sane alike, against animals.

“With BSE there are two issues where agriculture is vulnerable to media scrutiny. These are the practice of feeding rendered ruminant products to ruminants and the risk to human health.

The mere perception that BSE might exist in the US could have devastating effects on our domestic markets for beef and dairy products… How the American public and foreign markets respond will depend on their confidence in the US Government and particularly in APHIS (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). The media will play a tremendous part in conveying this information to the public. Thus, our relations with the media will play a vital role in this issue.”