May 31, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Smithfield Hams, Monsanto Wheat, Wal-Mart and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Smithfield has merged with Shanghui

Wal-Mart breaking our bank? The Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce released a new report about what the low wages at Wal-Mart cost Americans. According to the report, one Wal-Mart store alone costs taxpayers $1 million every year in higher usage of public-assistance programs by Wal-Mart employees and their dependents. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the committee, is the author of H.R. 1010, a bill that would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.00 per hour in three steps. You can follow him on Twitter via @askGeorge.  In his recent book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer paints a rather bleak picture of the deterioration or disappearance of family farms, factories, quality public education, and neighborhoods and their replacement over the last fifty years by “organized money.” Dwight Gardner, in his book review in the New York Times, identifies Sam Walton and Wal-Mart as one of the principal villains in the “unwinding.” He writes, “If a solitary fact can stand in for Mr. Packer’s arguments in “The Unwinding,” it is probably this one, about the heirs to Walton’s Walmart fortune: ‘Eventually six of the surviving Waltons,’ the author writes, ‘would have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans.’” The time is way overdue for Wal-Mart to pay a livable wage so their workers can have a decent life without having to rely on the fraying, taxpayer-supported, safety net.

The Chinese do Smithfield. The U.S. pork producer Smithfield will merge with Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Shanghui was implicated two years ago in a scandal involving pork tainted with clenbuterol, a veterinary drug that makes the animals leaner and places the human consumer at risk for increased risk of cardiovascular problems. Smithfield has said, “It will be business as usual—only better—at Smithfield. We do not anticipate any changes in how we do business operationally in the United States and throughout the world. We will become part of an enterprise that shares our belief in global opportunities and our commitment to the highest standards of product safety and quality.” I find this not only ironic but also objectionable. As far as I can tell, business as usual comprises destroying the environment, committing environmental injustice, and treating sentient animals as objects. And the Chinese pork industry seems to think nothing of dumping dead hogs in the river supplying drinking water to Shanghai, as I addressed in an earlier blogpost. So we end up with a merger between a Chinese company that cares nothing about food safety and an American company that cares nothing about the welfare of animals, the safety of workers, the degradation of the environment, and the rights of its neighbors to clean air and clean water. Talk about an unholy alliance. And the sad reality is that the proposed merger will inevitably increase the proportion of U.S. hogs raised on factory farms—already at 95 percent and rising.

Monsanto omnipresent? A farmer in Oregon found a variety of GMO wheat growing in his field, but GMO wheat, which this “Roundup Ready” wheat is, was developed by Monsanto years ago and has never been approved for commercial planting. Monsanto dropped the trial in 2005, eight years ago. The USDA is investigating how the wheat got there. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, and the European Union have suspended buying U.S. wheat futures. Monsanto shares dipped. Perhaps that will get Monsanto’s attention.

Monocropping and biodiversity. A new U.N. panel on biodiversity called attention on Monday to an increasing decline in the biodiversity of the world’s plants and animals. Out of 3,000 global crops, only 30 account for 95 percent of the energy that humans get from food. A lack of biodiversity puts plant species at greater risks for disease and humans at greater risk for food shortage—consider the Irish potato blight, which spread rapidly through the monocrop that also served as the primary source of food energy for the Irish. Maybe Monsanto’s monocropping isn’t such a good idea after all. Along with declining plant biodiversity, many animal species, both wild and domesticated, are at risk of extinction.

Marching against Monsanto. Growing consumer demand for GMO labeled and GMO-free foods is leading to an increased demand by companies for GMO-free certification. In line with this movement, two million passionate consumers in 52 countries marched in protest of Monsanto on May 25, and three states (Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine) are making progress in state legislatures to require the labeling of foods that include genetically modified ingredients.

Right to food. The NYU School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) released a report on the U.S. food security crisis, Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the U.S. It’s a timely report as Congress debates cuts to funding for SNAP programs in the farm bill. I was pleased to see that the IHRC thanks Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, for his support and guidance on the report. His brilliant Dodge lecture in 2011 can be viewed here.

Hope in Cuba. An organic farm in Cuba demonstrates a success story in Cuba’s challenged agriculture sector. The farm provides benefits to its workers, food to the community, and teaches citizens about healthy food. Growing food domestically will also help boost the economy; last year the country spent over 1.633 billion dollars on food imports. The Caribbean countries, which are net food importers, are suffering the greatest impact in the hemisphere as worldwide food prices skyrocket.

Industrial ag. I was pleased to read a letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, authored by Raymond Tarpley, a veterinarian and former MPH student at the Bloomberg School.  An informed critic of several policy positions taken by the AVMA, he addresses the social costs and increased demand associated with industrial agriculture. To quote Raymond, “Rather than concern ourselves with diets of affluence, with their attendant nutritional and ecological penalties, we might do better to direct our efforts to the more than one billion in the current global population, including children in 10% of US households, who lack food security despite the current efficiencies of industrial agriculture.”

Women and sustainability. This week the Women Deliver 2013 Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, focused not only on women’s rights, poverty, social change, and development, but also addressed critical issues of population and sustainability. CLF friend Danielle Nierenberg liveblogged from the event: check it out at FoodTank or follow the event on Twitter via #WD2013. The Chinese are famous for saying that women hold up half the world. The reality is that about 70 percent of the world’s farmers are women. Anything that can be done to improve their education, access to better seeds, fairer prices in the marketplace, and more control over their own reproductive choices will benefit their children, their families, and their societies.

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