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Category: Agricultural Law

Addictive by Design

I was honored to see Prof. John Banzhaf weigh in on a recent post on wellness programs. That post suggested parallels between the addictiveness of tobacco, and that of many food products. Little did I know the NYT was about to publish a blockbuster article on exactly that issue:

[In a 1999 meeting of food industry leaders,] [t]he first speaker was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. . . . As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides — 114 in all — projected on a large screen behind him. The figures were staggering. More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population — 40 million people — clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980.

Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”

Fast food lawsuits are looking more prescient by the day.

Illustration: Via Engadget article on interactive ad patents.

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Food, Hunger, Science, and Data

Recent readings and the time of year lead me to two lessons. First, for those of us who can, let’s give to those in need. Second, let’s use science, data, and reason to guide policy. Extreme views for or against modes of farming and issues of the environment lead to mistrust, failures, and, in this case, starvation. Starvation should not be an issue on the table for the 21st century. Questions of efficacy and safety can be addressed. The information is here. The time to use it is now.

Maybe it is the time of year when food feasts like Thanksgiving and the season of holiday giving make me think about simple, direct need and especially hunger. Whatever the reason, today that fundamental issue is upon us more than ever. The Times reports “Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes during the economic crisis, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program.” The numbers are stark: “The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the meals program. Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and Tennessee, had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.” More than 3 years ago I wrote about the problems of a stigmatized school lunch program. I don’t know whether that system has evolved, but “apparently many of these formerly middle-income parents have pleaded with school officials to keep their enrollment a secret.” Society’s tendency to look down on the less fortunate is absurd. I am not sure what can be done about that. But perhaps we can reconnect with efforts to provide food across the world. The hard part could be the tensions between industrial farming and the organic movement. Yet, good science and data could show us a way out.

A Long Now Foundation seminar by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future shows that rather than combat, we can sue data and reflection to marry these efforts. Sustainable food should: Provide abundant safe and nutritious food…. Reduce environmentally harmful inputs…. Reduce energy use and greenhouse gases…. Foster soil fertility…. Enhance crop genetic diversity…. Maintain the economic viability of farming communities…. Protect biodiversity…. and improve the lives of the poor and malnourished. (He pointed out that 24,000 a day die of malnutrition worldwide, and about 1 billion are undernourished.)

That is a tall order. As the speakers noted organic farming works well and mitigates the problems of pesticides, (Data point: “Every year in the world 300,000 deaths are caused by the pesticides of conventional agriculture, along with 3 million cases of harm.”). But organic techniques can’t address all the diseases and pests out there and “Its yield ranges from 45% to 97% of conventional ag yield. It is often too expensive for low-income customers. At present it is a niche player in US agriculture, representing only 3.5%, with a slow growth rate suggesting it will always be a niche player.” Genetic engineered plants (often not allowed under current regulation) can fill the gap.

According to the report of Dr. Ronald’s part of the talk, “One billion acres have been planted so far with GE crops, with no adverse health effects, and numerous studies have showed that GE crops pose no greater risk of environmental damage than conventional crops.” Examples include, cotton, papayas, and rice. “About 25% of all pesticide use in the world is used to defeat the cotton bollworm. Bt cotton is engineered to express in the plant the same caterpillar-killing toxin as the common soil bacteria used by organic farmers, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt cotton growers use half the pesticides of conventional growers. With Bt cotton in China, cases of pesticide poisoning went down by 75%. India’s cotton yield increased by 80%. Other pest management techniques are needed but genetics can do much work. Hawaiian papaya was going extinct from ringspot virus, but a GE solution inoculated the fruit and the saved the industry. As I have written, basic food supply is a huge problem and rice is a key example of that. Dr. Ronald’s work on rice is impressive. The data: “Half the world depends on rice. In flood-prone areas like Bangladesh, 4 million tons of rice a year are lost to flooding—enough to feed 30 million people.” Her work developed “a flood-tolerant rice (it can be totally submerged for two weeks) called Sub1. At field trials in Asia farmers are getting three to five times higher yield over conventional rice.”

Seems compelling to me.

The Jungle Comes to Minnesota

I highly recommend Ted Genoways’s shocking investigative report on the impact of a leading factory meat processor.  The piece focuses on Quality Pork Processors Inc. (QPP), in Austin, Minnesota.  One worker alleged that the workers in the plant felt nearly as disposable as the animals:

“I feel thrown away,” Miriam Angeles says. “Before, I worked hard and willingly for QPP, but after I got sick and needed restrictions, they threw me away like trash.”

Rest assured, many other employers may be planning to emulate that example.  Sickness and exhaustion are apparently a common problem at the plant. As the article notes, “The line speed at QPP had increased from 750 heads per hour in 1989 to 1,350 per hour in 2006, while the workforce barely grew.”  It’s the “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” model of management.  Few parts of the production process, from cutting and slicing legs and other parts to vaporizing swine brains, are easy.  Health effects are dramatic:

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Ag-Gag: A Black-Boxed Food Supply

I recently discussed the OIRA’s contribution to some terrible incidents in egg safety. Denis Sterns has written a challenging article on the bigger picture, explaining “Why Food in the United States May Never be Safe:”

This article . . . interrogates the idea of food safety by opening the question of whether a rational economic actor in a free market for food can reasonably be expected to invest in improving the safety of the food products he makes and sells. It is precisely the lack of (cr)edibility in the market – i.e., the absence of reliable quality signals, the lack of traceability, the high degree of anonymity, and the destruction of trust – that creates the structural impediments and powerful disincentive for improving the quality and safety of food. . . . Recall the huge public uproar, and swift policy changes, that followed the release of video of “downer” cattle being abused at a California meat plant. To obtain the video, the Humane Society had to sneak someone inside the plant to secretly record the offending conduct.

The secrecy of some food suppliers is very troubling. Stearns proposes constant surveillance of their actions: “With video cameras always in place . . . one can only expect that most of the shocking conditions that are found after the fact of an outbreak would be less likely to occur in the first place.” Stearns also criticizes FDA’s “wholly voluntary and largely ineffective” traceback regulations, which would make it easier to find the source of contaminated food. (Maybe the FDA is too busy chasing down raw milk co-ops.)

Unfortunately, Big Meat appears all too eager to hide their actions from both concerned citizens and animal rights activists. Consider the rash of legislation designed to deter actions like the Humane Society’s:

The animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals sent an undercover investigator to E6 Cattle Company in Texas, where he filmed calf abuse over a two-week period. To prevent such whistleblowing, several states have passed so-called “Ag-gag” laws that would make it illegal to clandestinely film inside slaughterhouses, sparking what animal rights activists fear will be a nationwide trend. . . . “They’re trying to criminalize someone being an eyewitness to a crime,” Jeff Kerr, [PETA]’s general counsel, said.

One of Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei’s biggest “offenses” against the Chinese government was trying to publicize the names of the children killed when shoddy schools collapsed after an earthquake. Criminalization of exposes of contamination and animal abuse in America’s heartland could be one more step toward the convergence of Chinese and US politico-economic structures. Read More

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Church-owned Cows and Inflation

I recently taught Sherwood v. Walker, the famous case involving a Michigan cow named Rose 2nd of Aberlone, as well as a number of other mistake cases in contracts dealing with cows. I’ve got bovine jurisprudence on the mind. It seems that the same is true for Eugene Volokh, who recently noted a case involving a “church owned cow.” The cow in question was owned by the Mormon Church and seems to have negligently collided with a motorcycle. In the interests of extending our jurisprudential understanding of cows, I can’t resist adding another twist to the church-owned cow story.

The Mormon Church’s involvement in agriculture is a legacy of the nineteenth century practice of Mormons paying tithing in kind to the church. As a result of this practice, in the nineteenth century, the church acquired large herds of cattle as well as other food stuffs. It then issued so-called “tithing scrip,” which was in effect private currency. The holder of scrip could redeem it for foodstuffs, including beef, at church storehouses. The scrip then circulated as money, in effect providing liquidity to the perpetually cash starved economies of the Intermountain West in the nineteenth century. Because the currency was in effect backed by cows, however, it was subject to some odd monetary pressures. For example, when a particularly harsh winter killed off a large proportion of the church’s cattle herds, it was forced to reduce the purchasing power of tithing scrip at church storehouses because there simply wasn’t as much beef available as previously. The result was price inflation as the value of the scrip declined.

As part of its efforts to raise revenue during the Civil War, the U.S. government passed a series of banking acts designed to decrease government borrowing costs. All nationally chartered banks were required to hold their reserves in the form of treasury bonds, and non-federally chartered institutions were hit with a heavy tax on the notes that they issued. The effect was to slap a punitive tax on any bank depositor who did not loan his or her savings to the U.S. government. During the 1880s federal prosecutors in Utah decided that the various scrip-issuing bodies of the Mormon church were subject to this tax, and demanded decades of back taxes, eventually killing off the scrip and replacing it with currency issued by federally chartered banks.

Taxes. Regulation. Inflation. Cows. Some things never change.

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Death on a Factory Farm

I caught a few minutes of HBO’s new documentary Death on a Factory Farm the other night. It focuses on an undercover investigation of a hog farm in Ohio, the graphic footage of abuse it revealed, and the legal case that followed. It was so disturbing that I actually had to turn it off, but then again I’m a vegetarian – it’s those who are not that need to watch.

Is Anyone for the Farm Bill?

I just got the following action alert from OxFam:

The Senate bill being considered, like the House version that passed, favors a relatively small number of producers at the expense of most farmers and rural communities, and it falls short of meeting its obligations to families that depend on food stamps and to conservation programs that protect rivers and streams. To make things worse, the Farm Bill would actually hurt poor farmers in developing countries. . . . [Meanwhile,] millionaire farmers . . . receive unfair subsidies.

My question is: is it mainly interest group politics and campaign finance transactions that permit bills like this to pass over and over? Or do they naturally flow from a Senate that may overrepresent big agribusiness? Tom Geoghegan notes that “the 50 Senators from the 25 [least populated] states represent 16 percent of the population.”

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Agriculture and the Pharmaceutical Industry

In this policy brief, the Oakland Institute argues that “The enormous public resources invested in agriculture have benefited [pharmaceutical] companies by promoting the sale of [genetically engineered] seeds over and above their actual value and by allowing them to multiply their research efforts at minimal cost through collaborations with public institutions.” It’s an argument that I’ve seen before, although this is perhaps the most reader-friendly version that I’ve seen.

What I find interesting is the framing of subsidies as occuring through the (semi-)public works of “public-private partnerships and the patenting of university generated knowledge,” because it seems analogous to earlier public-works agricultural subsidies: that is, big water projects. What I also find interesting (and maybe it’s because of my relative newness to this field, and my focus more on the agricultural/environmental side of things) is its emphasis on the companies as part of the pharmaceutical industry, rather than on companies as part of Big Agriculture (which is more of what I see in the agricultural literature). I think this further highlights the importance of promoting dialogue between agricultural reform advocates (who often focus more on direct subsidies) and biotech patent reform advocates, as well as a reassessment of earlier public works projects and their unintended detrimental effects.