Archive for September, 2009

Meet the Farmers: Artisan Cheese in Vermont

Monday, September 28th, 2009

There’s a lot of young, entrepreneurial farmers popping up in the Green Mountain State. But what more can one expect from a great state that has outlawed billboards along highways, and whose capitol city has no McDonalds?

TV personality and Chef Emeril Lagasse has a show for PlanetGreen TV that highlights local ingredients, organic food and healthful eating. This week, he went to Vermont in search of cheese farmers. He visited with the Kehler brothers, proprietors of Jasper Hill Farm, who began making cheese several years ago when they bought a run-down dairy near Caspian Lake, where their family spent summer vacations. (The Kehler brothers, incidentally, are also profiled at length in The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey P. Roberts, where you can find many other cheese makers and farmers.)

From the Burlington Free Press:

GREENSBORO — At his cheese shop in Manhattan, chef Emeril Lagasse likes to buy a certain blue cheese made in Vermont. He and his kids look for the Vermont blue on weekend shopping trips, Lagasse said.

So it was a pretty great thing for Lagasse, whose culinary exploits include TV cooking shows, to find himself on location last week at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. Lagasse was making Bayley Hazen blue with artisan cheesemakers Mateo and Andy Kehler when he had a kind of Epicurean epiphany.


Emeril Lagasse cooks in Hardwick

Emeril’s feast in the Vermont countryside

“Holy mackerel,” Lagasse thought. “I’m making the cheese I buy in New York. I totally get the connection. It’s come full circle.”

Full circle also describes the agriculture and food community, its relationships and intentions, that brought Lagasse to the Northeast Kingdom to shoot episodes for “Emeril Green,” his Planet Green broadcast. The show, usually shot in a Whole Foods store in Fairfax, Va., highlights local ingredients, organic food and healthful eating.

Lagasse, 49, traveled to the Northeast Kingdom to the tell the stories of farmers, chefs, food producers and entrepreneurs whose work is in the forefront of Vermont’s local, sustainable food system. The week long visit centered around the food and farm community that is taking root and growing in and around Hardwick.

A group of 30-something farmers, producers and entrepreneurs are growing and producing food, creating value-added products, building a diverse agricultural network, and working to strengthen the viability of the area through an ag-centered local economy.

They engage in a variety of collaborative efforts: from lending each other money to sharing a pickup-full of pork; from exchanging ideas about marketing to trading meals for glassware at Claire’s, a Hardwick restaurant.

“I’m impressed a lot, but I’m really impressed here,” Lagasse said. “It’s just really impressive what this area is doing, what these guys are contributing. It’s a region of the country that is incredibly agriculturally friendly.” [...]

Read the entire article here.

Sandor Katz on Protecting the Water Commons

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Sandor Katz says: “There is no way we can consider all the political issues revolving around food we eat without talking about water.” And right he is.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Protecting the Water Commons
Water is a precious and dwindling resource that desperately needs protection. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the water humans use. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 70 percent of water usage worldwide is agricultural, mostly for irrigation. Using “conventional” input-intensive methods, it takes as much as 250 gallons of water to produce a pound of corn and 8,500 gallons to produce a pound of grain-fed beef. Irrigation systems are often inefficient, with the majority of the water evaporating or running off the field, carrying with it agricultural chemicals into surface water supplies. Irrigation also alters soil conditions, eroding precious topsoil and depositing salts, which accumulate and eventually render the land inhospitable to plant life.

Agriculture doesn’t have to use so much water. Traditional, locally bred plant varieties and animal breeds have been adapted to local water patterns through selection over time, exhibiting qualities such as drought tolerance, which enable them to produce even without regular watering. However, high yields from “improved” hybrid seeds depend upon a considerable and consistent supply of water.

In many regions, water demand is met by pumping underground water supplies (known as groundwater, in contrast to surface supplies, such as water from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). Most of the food produced in the Great Plains of the United States is irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, a single vast underground system spanning eight states. The problem is that the aquifer is being drained much faster than it’s being replenished. In the past fifty years the aquifer has lost over a third of its volume, and each year another foot and half of water is pumped from it, though the recharge rate from surface water seepage is just half an inch per year. Food produced using water from such a slowly renewing source is doubly unsustainable, using up not only fossil fuel for agricultural chemicals and transportation but also water supplies that have accumulated over millennia and that will take many generations to replenish.

As underground water levels are depleted, surface lakes and riversoften disappear. In coastal areas, excessive groundwater pumping can lead to seawater seeping into drinking water supplies. UNESCO warns that drawing on groundwater supplies “unavoidably results in depleting the storage and has unfavourable consequences.” Nevertheless, it is common practice. Groundwater is the source of about 25 percent of the water supply, both in the United States and globally.

“The world is incurring a vast water deficit, one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast,” summarizes the Earth Policy Institute’s Lester R. Brown. In our property system, any scarce resource becomes a commodity. Water is “one of the great business opportunities,” states Fortune magazine. “The dollars at stake are huge. . . Water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth.” Indeed, speculators have begun to trade in water “futures” just as they do any other commodity.

Policymakers proclaim that market forces will lead to more rational use of water. The World Bank, as part of its overall program of encouraging governments to divest themselves of services and industries, has aggressively promoted privatization of public water infrastructure since the 1990s, promising better water services through market efficiency and private investment. Yet those water systems that have been privatized have consistently seen higher consumer prices and disappointing levels of infrastructure investment. “What has now become clear is that the major multinational water corporations have no intention of making a significant contribution to the capital needed to ensure access to clean and affordable water,” concludes a study by the U.S. consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “The rhetoric of private sector financing is a myth.”

Atlanta, Georgia, is the biggest American city to have privatized its water system. In 1998 the city signed a twenty-year, $428 million contract with a subsidiary of Suez, one of the global giants of the water services industry, to operate its water system. Once Suez took over, the company realized that it had underestimated the amount of work needed to maintain the system and demanded an additional $80 million from the city.

Atlanta’s mayor refused, because the whole reason the city had contracted out water services was to save money. Suez laid off half the water system’s employees and tried to get extra money out of the city, for example by billing routine maintenance work to the city as “capital repairs.” Maintenance was neglected, while water and sewer rates increased. Worst of all, water quality suffered, with frequent discolorations and boil-water advisories. Though the water services industry had hoped the Atlanta experience would open up the U.S. market to them, in 2003 Atlanta officials terminated the contract. Chris New, Atlanta’s deputy water commissioner, said, “My biggest concern is a lot of people have lost confidence in the water itself.

The government of Bolivia, in debt and heavily dependent upon World Bank loans, heeded the bank’s advice to privatize water; in 1999 Bolivia awarded a forty-year contract to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation for water services to Cochabamba, a city of more than six hundred thousand people. In this case, to meet the budget shortfall, water price increases went into effect immediately, with rates as much as tripling. The people of Cochabamba were shocked and angered by the dramatic rate increase. There was a four-day general strike, followed by escalating street protests. The Bolivian military took over the city and banned demonstrations. In the ensuing protests military forces injured 175 people and killed an unarmed seventeen-year-old. Government officials offered to roll back the rate increases, but the opposition leaders demanded that the contract be terminated. The Bolivian president did so, just six months into the contract. Bechtel responded by filing (but later withdrew) a $25 million lawsuit against Bolivia to compensate for “lost future profits.”

Another whole realm of water privatization is bottled water. In the United States bottled water sales more than tripled in the 1990s and continue to climb. In 2005 sales of bottled water in the United States approached $10 billion. Global bottled-water sales were $100 billion in 2004, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

One problem with this trend is that if the people who can afford to buy bottled water are drinking primarily that, the constituency for tap water is reduced, and by extension, for public investment in water systems. If the $100 billion being spent worldwide each year on bottled water were being invested in public water-supply systems, water quality and access would improve markedly. “A major shift to bottled watercould undermine funding for tap water protection, raising serious equity issues for the poor,” warns the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The long-term solution to our water woes is to fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone, and tastes and smells good.”

Another big problem with bottled water is the plastic packaging. The 6 billion gallons of bottled water that were sold in the United States in 2002 required 1.5 million tons of plastic. And around thirty million plastic water bottles are discarded each day, piling up on landfills. Obtaining the essential daily sustenance of water from disposable plastic containers is totally unsustainable behavior.

However, it is sustainable as a business opportunity. The corporations that dominate this rapidly growing industry are all household names from the food industry: Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Danone (the French-based manufacturer of Dannon yogurt). The water these corporations bottle as well as use in other beverages all comes from somewhere, and communities around the world are engaged in battles with water bottlers to keep them from extracting this precious resource.

Nestlé’s niche is springwater, and the company has been buying up springs around the United States. Wisconsin activists succeeded in legal efforts to prevent Nestlé from pumping water at two different springs in that state. In Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee (where my friend Jeff Poppen, the CSA farmer featured in chapter 1, lives), Nestlé started pumping and bottling local water in 2003, with the help of a $1 million job-creation grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The promised local jobs never materialized, but the water extraction did.

In Maine Nestlé acquired Poland Springs and other nearby sources, then sharply increased the volume of water being extracted. A local group has proposed that the state impose a water extraction fee of three cents per 20-ounce water container to fund a “Maine Water Dividend Trust.” The activists’ initial effort to place the proposal on the ballot as a voter referendum failed, but they continue working to build grassroots support for the initiative.

Not all bottled water flows from springs. Sometimes it is taken directly from municipal taps or from polluted groundwater supplies. The NRDC analyzed 103 brands of bottled water in 1999 and found that a third of them had “significant” bacterial or chemical contamination. The NRDC’s legal analysis found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of bottled water is minimal and full of loopholes, “weaker in many ways than [Environmental Protection Agency] rules that apply to big city tap water. . . . While much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water.”

In some cases, particularly in dry regions, the pumping of water from underground aquifers has dried up wells and other traditional water sources. Residents of several different towns in India have risen up against Coca-Cola bottling plants for their draining of local aquifers and polluting of local waters and land. In Kala Dera, Rajasthan, Coke’s state-of-the-art groundwater extraction resulted in a dramatic reduction of the water table. After only six years of the plant’s operation, fifty nearby villages reported water shortages as wells dried up. Many of these villages formed “struggle committees,” and together they brought together two thousand people to march on the plant in 2004 to demand that the water extraction stop. “Drive away Coca-Cola, save the water!” is their rallying cry. An Indian government hydrogeologist warns that continued extraction will lead to deterioration of water quality and ecological repercussions such as rising surface temperatures and an increased likelihood of earthquakes, caused by the earth’s upper crust drying up.

The people around Kala Dera move forward with their struggle inspired by the success of activists in Plachimada, in the Indian state of Kerala. Residents there have maintained a constant vigil at the gates of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant since April 2002, protesting similar water shortages there resulting from groundwater pumping. The state government shut down the bottling plant, on a temporary basis, during a drought emergency in March 2004, but the local village council, or panchayat, has refused to allow the plant to reopen, and Kerala state pollution officials have ordered Coke to pipe water to communities where water supplies have been lost. In addition to depleting water resources, this plant was distributing its solid waste to local farmers as “fertilizer.” Testing revealed cadmium and lead in the fertilizer, meaning that the land it had been spread on was contaminated with heavy metals; the state has since ordered Coke to stop distributing its toxic waste to farmers.

These water and waste struggles in India have been bolstered by international solidarity. In the United States and Europe, college students are boycotting Coke and organizing campaigns to kick Coke off campuses. I believe that a boycott of Coca-Cola is a fine idea, but I think that boycott should extend to all global corporate food. It’s not like drinking Pepsi is a more sustainable alternative.

Wherever we live, we must acknowledge our dependence on the flow of water and honor and protect the sources that sustain us. Those sources are the source of all life, a common heritage that must remain in the public domain. Water is a biological necessity, recycling endlessly, and our bodies are part of its cycle. Water transcends commodification, just as the earth does. We are of it, so how can it be our property? [...]

Cauliflower: A Cabbage with a College Education

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Autumn has officially arrived, and that can only mean one thing (well, it could mean several thousand things, actually, but let’s not quibble): it’s cauliflower season!

This is very exciting news, as I am and always have been deeply, hopelessly in love with this charismatic member of the cabbage family. (And I make a mean stewed cauliflower, if I do say so myself.) Let’s dig in, shall we?

The following is an excerpt from Whole Foods Companion: A Guide for Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods by Dianne Onstad. It has been adapted for the Web.


(Brassica oleracea botrytis)

Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.

—Mark Twain

The Latin name Brassica derives from the Celtic bresic. The term oleracea refers to a vegetable garden herb that is used in cooking, while botrytis is a Greek word meaning “clusterlike” or “grapelike.” The English word cauliflower comes from the Latin words caulis, meaning “stem” or “cabbage,” and flos, “flower.”

General Information
Cauliflower, like its cousin broccoli, is a member of the cabbage family, and it took centuries of cultivation to produce a tight head of clustered flower buds in place of the compact leaves of the cabbage head. Thousands of tiny white flower buds are closely packed into even larger buds, forming the florets that make up the single large round head or “flower.” Cauliflower was introduced into medieval Europe by the Arabs during their occupation of Spain, and by the twelfth century Spaniards were eating as many as three varieties of the vegetable. In sixteenth-century England, cauliflower was called “Cyprus coleworts,” probably because it was first imported from the island of Cyprus. A new green variety has been developed commercially that is a cross between conventional cauliflower and broccoli. The head resembles cauliflower, but the color is chartreuse, rather than the dark green of broccoli.

Buying Tips
Quality cauliflower is creamy or snowy white, clean, heavy, firm, and compact, with outer leaves that are fresh and green. Avoid any that has the appearance of being ricelike or granular, speckled, or spotted, or that has yellowing leaves. The size of the vegetable has little to do with its quality. Keep cauliflower in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Culinary Uses
Cauliflower can be served either raw in salads and vegetable dip platters or cooked as a vegetable on its own or combined with other vegetables. However, if cauliflower is cooked too long, its sulfur compounds will decompose and form an offensive odor. Green cauliflower has a pleasant taste, cooks more quickly than the white variety, and is less apt to give off the usual cabbagelike odor while cooking. Since cauliflower is a type of cabbage, the leaves, flower stalk, and midveins of the big leaves make excellent eating.

Health Benefits
pH 5.60–6.80. Cauliflower is not as nutrient-dense as many of the other cabbage family vegetables. Its white color is a sign that it contains far less of the beneficial carotenes and chlorophyll, but it is a good source of boron because cauliflower does not grow well in boron-deficient soils. Cauliflower helps purify the blood, aids bleeding gums if eaten raw, and is helpful in cases of asthma, kidney and bladder disorders, high blood pressure, and constipation. Because its high sulfur content may cause indigestion and hinder the assimilation of food, cauliflower should be used in moderation and not combined with other sulfur-rich foods. All Brassica genus vegetables contain dithiolthiones, a group of compounds that have anticancer, antioxidant properties; indoles, substances that protect against breast and colon cancer; and sulfur, which has antibiotic and antiviral characteristics. This family of vegetables also mildly stimulates the liver and other tissues out of stagnancy.

9 Environmental Boundaries We Don’t Want to Cross: Wired

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Remember the good old days, when all we had to worry about was a rapidly warming planet and its associated climatological disasters? Well, sure, we still need to work on transitioning away from fossil fuels and somehow bringing the CO2 in the air down to manageable levels. But it turns out, says Nature, that ecologically speaking there are a few other boundaries humanity was never meant to cross. And right now we’re driving with the petal to the metal and no brakes.

Climate change threatens to turn the planet into a stormy, overheated mess: That much we know. But according to 28 leading scientists, greenhouse gas pollution is but one of nine environmental factors critical to humanity’s future. If their boundaries are stretched too far, Earth’s environment could be catastrophically altered — and three have already been broken, with several others soon to follow.

This grim diagnosis, published Wednesday in Nature, is the most ambitious assessment of planetary health to date. It’s a first-draft users’ manual for an era that scientists dub the “anthropocene,” in which nearly seven billion resource-hungry humans have come to dominate ecological change on Earth. The scientists’ quantifications are open to argument, but not the necessity of their perspective.

“It’s a crude attempt to map the environmental space in which we can operate,” said Jon Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and one of the paper’s lead authors. “We need to keep our activities in a certain range, or the planet could tip into a state we haven’t seen in the history of our civilization.”

Thresholds for atmospheric carbon dioxide and ozone have already been described, and are widely known to the public. But the scientists say five other factors are just as important: ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, land use, freshwater use and biodiversity. They say chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosols may also be essential, but can’t yet be quantified.

Values for the proposed boundaries are still just estimates, and don’t account for how pushing one could affect another — how, for example, acidification that kills plankton could make it harder for the ocean to absorb CO2 and rebound from nitrogen pollution. Ecological models still can’t capture the entirety of Earth’s biological, geological and chemical processes, and it’s impossible to run whole-Earth experiments — except, arguably, for the experiment that’s going on now.

Despite those uncertainties, one aspect of Earth’s behavior is becoming clear. Records of global transitions between geological ages, and of regional changes between environmental stages, suggest that planet-wide change could happen relatively quickly. It might not take thousands or millions of years for Earth’s environment to be altered. It could happen in centuries, perhaps even decades.

Exactly what Earth would look like is difficult to predict in detail, but it could be radically different from the mild environment that has prevailed for the last 10,000 years. It was temperate stability that nurtured the rise of civilization, and it should continue for thousands of years to come, unless humanity keeps pushing the limits.

“The Earth of the last 10,000 years has been more recognizable than the Earth we may have 100 years from now. It won’t be Mars, but it won’t be the Earth that you and I know,” said Foley. “This is the single most defining problem of our time. Will we have the wisdom to be stewards of a world we’ve come to dominate?” (more…)

Beware the Sirens of Big Oil

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Riki Ott, a rare combination of commercial salmon “fisherm’am” and PhD marine biologist (and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill), knows very well the impacts of oil companies’ broken promises. She lived in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez, in 1989, spilled most of its cargo and despoiled thousands of miles of shore, and experienced firsthand the oil industry’s 20-year trail of pollution and deception that predated the tragic spill–not to mention the disruption to the fishing community of Cordova, Alaska over the following 19 years. And still the fight persists.

From The Huffington Post:

Cordova, Alaska. In the early 1970s, Big Oil wooed Alaskans with a seductive chorus promising jobs, riches, and risk-free oil development, pipeline transfer, and tanker transport. Alaska politicians fell under its spell.

Today Big Oil generates more than 85 percent of Alaska’s operating revenues – and the song has changed. The tune is now militant and strident, as the industry demands ever more opportunity to drill and ever less regulation. This “opportunity” comes at the expense of deeply rooted indigenous cultures, family lifestyles, and businesses like commercial fishing and tourism that rely on Alaska’s abundant natural resources.

But the same enchanting Siren music once tailored to Alaskans is currently playing for Floridians, Californians, and others who live on our seacoasts. From my perspective as a survivor of North America’s largest oil spill–the 1989 Exxon Valdez–it seems too many politicians are falling under its spell. My advice to coastal residents in the Lower 48: Take heed.

We learned the hard way that Big Oil’s promises were good only until authorizing laws were passed and permits approved. The industry promised, for instance, in the early 1970s to double hull its tankers to minimize the risk of spills. But it will take until 2015 – more than 40 years – for it to make good on this promise. That’s too late for those of us in Prince William Sound. Ironically, too, 2015 will arrive long before the last of the toxic oil that spilled from the single-hulled Exxon Valdez is gone from our beaches–and long before our herring even begin to recover.

credit: 2009 Dave Janka.
Relatively unweathered Exxon Valdez oil from the 1989 spill 20 years ago lingers just beneath the surface of beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The buried oil has delayed recovery of the ecosystem as it is often encountered by wildlife such as sea otters and sea ducks that forage for shellfish on intertidal beaches.

The once thriving multi-million dollar herring fisheries are nonexistent and the wildlife that feed on herring–well, it will recover whenever the herring recover. Maybe. Scientists make no promises.

Read more at:


Read the entire article here.

Spotlight on UK’s Green Books: Now Available through Chelsea Green

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Chelsea Green, your go-to publisher for all things sustainable, certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on sustainability. Our friends across the pond, the UK’s venerable Green Books, has been producing the kind of sustainable content Chelsea Green champions for over two decades: on everything from local food to the transition movement to gardening and ecology.

Chelsea Green Publishing is proud to be their US distributor, and we wanted to let you, dear reader, know about the very latest Green Books to make their way to our little bookstore. These newly available books will set you up with the tools you need to fight climate change and financial collapse, help you grow your own food year-round, and even use herbs for first-aid of common illnesses. Check ‘em out:

Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis
by Keith Farnish

Time’s Up! is about changing our behavior. The book describes how our actions affect the very things on Earth that we depend on for survival, at scales that we rarely contemplate. It arms us with the tools to free us from a culture that has blinded us for centuries, and which will allow us to live in a way that will give Earth, and ourselves, a viable future.


The Polytunnel Handbook
by Andy McKee and Mark Gatter

The last decade has seen an unprecedented rise in demand for organic fruit and vegetables, and each year more of us are discovering that homegrown food is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious than food shipped in from elsewhere. A polytunnel can be used as an affordable, low-carbon aid to growing your own food all year round, from crispy salads and fresh vegetables in the dead of winter to juicy melons and mouthwatering grapes in high summer.


Money & Soul: The Psychology of Money and the Transformation of Capitalism
by Per Espen Stoknes

In the twenty-first century, our major concerns include social cohesion, global warming, and environmental destruction. Per Espen Stoknes shows how new forms of money can be developed that will encourage us to act in ways that protect these critically important aspects of our world that are currently excluded from the money system. He shows how currencies for natural and social capital could work in tandem with the manufactured capital that defines our monetary system to the exclusion of all else.


A Renewable World: Policies, Practices & Technologies
by Miguel Mendonça and Herbert Girardet

Climate change and energy shortages are set to become the greatest challenges for humanity in the twenty-first century. While a few reports have given some indication about what can be done to come to grips with these problems, very little has been written about how these necessary changes can be brought about. A Renewable World outlines the key steps needed to make the crucial transition actually happen.


Herbs for Home Treatment: A Guide to Using Herbs for First Aid and Common Health Problems
by Anna Newton

This user-friendly guide to herbs and their medicinal properties explains how to deal with common illnesses—including digestive, respiratory, circulatory and nervous system conditions. Newton suggests essential herbs everyone should have on hand, and offers advice on how to get the best out of herbs for general health, including how to maintain your energy level, increase your stamina, and improve your mood. Inside you’ll find information on dosages, possible allergies, and clues for when it’s time to seek professional help. Also included is guidance on how to make your own apothecary, how to concoct a first-aid kit for when traveling abroad, and a list of herb retailer and professional herbalists.

5 Things the Mainstream Media Won’t Tell You about Marijuana

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Why is it that the mainstream media loves stories that reinforce the government’s longtime anti-marijuana propaganda campaign but won’t touch stories of scientific studies that call the conventional wisdom into question or refute it altogether? It seems they’re only interested in reinforcing their audience’s biases and pre-formed ideas. Pot is bad. Everybody knows that.

Call me crazy, but “because everybody knows and never mind the facts” doesn’t seem like a good model for unbiased journalism. Maybe that’s just me.

Author Paul Armentano (Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?), writing for AlterNet, presents his list of 5 things the corporate media isn’t telling you about marijuana.

Writing in the journal Science nearly four decades ago, New York State University sociologist Erich Goode documented the media’s complicity in maintaining cannabis prohibition.

He observed: “[T]ests and experiments purporting to demonstrate the ravages of marijuana consumption receive enormous attention from the media, and their findings become accepted as fact by the public. But when careful refutations of such research are published, or when later findings contradict the original pathological findings, they tend to be ignored or dismissed.”

A glimpse of today’s mainstream media landscape indicates that little has changed — with news outlets continuing to, at best, underreport the publication of scientific studies that undermine the federal government’s longstanding pot propaganda and, at worst, ignore them all together.

Here are five recent stories the mainstream media doesn’t want you to know about pot:

1. Marijuana Use Is Not Associated With a Rise in Incidences of Schizophrenia

Over the past few years, the worldwide media, as well as federal officials in the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S. have earnestly promoted the notion that smoking pot induces mental illness.

Perhaps most notably, in 2007 the MSM reported that cannabis “could boost the risk of developing a psychotic illness later in life by about 40 percent” — a talking point that was also actively promoted by U.S. anti-drug officials.

So, is there any truth to the claim that pot smoking is sparking a dramatic rise in mental illness? Not at all, according to the findings of a study published in July in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

Investigators at the Keele University Medical School in Britain compared trends in marijuana use and incidences of schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005. Researchers reported that the “incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining” during this period, even the use of cannabis among the general population was rising.

“[T]he expected rise in diagnoses of schizophrenia and psychoses did not occur over a 10-year period,” the authors concluded. “This study does not therefore support the specific causal link between cannabis use and incidence of psychotic disorders. … This concurs with other reports indicating that increases in population cannabis use have not been followed by increases in psychotic incidence.”

As of this writing, a handful of news wire reports in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. have reported on the Keele University study. Notably, no American media outlets covered the story.

2. Marijuana Smoke Doesn’t Damage the Lungs Like Tobacco

Everyone knows that smoking pot is as damaging, if not more damaging, to the lungs than puffing cigarettes, right?

Wrong, according to a team of New Zealand investigators writing in the European Respiratory Journal in August.

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand compared the effects of cannabis and tobacco smoke on lung function in over 1,000 adults.

They reported: “Cumulative cannabis use was associated with higher forced vital capacity [the volume of air that can forcibly be blown out after full inspiration], total lung capacity, functional residual capacity [the volume of air present in the lungs at the end of passive expiration] and residual volume.

“Cannabis was also associated with higher airways resistance but not with forced expiratory volume in one second [the maximum volume of air that can be forcibly blown out in the first second during the FVC test], forced expiratory ratio, or transfer factor. These findings were similar amongst those who did not smoke tobacco. … By contrast, tobacco use was associated with lower forced expiratory volume in one second, lower forced expiratory ratio, lower transfer factor and higher static lung volumes, but not with airways resistance.”

They concluded, “Cannabis appears to have different effects on lung function to those of tobacco.”

Predictably, the scientists’ “inconvenient truth” was not reported in a single media outlet.

Read the whole article here.


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Howard Dean: Reform without a Public Health Insurance Option Is Not Real Reform

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform: How We Can Achieve Affordable Medical Care for Every American and Make Our Jobs Safer by Howard Dean, Faiz Shakir, and Igor Volsky. It has been adapted for the Web.

Reform without a Public Health Insurance Option Is Not Real Reform

For the great majority of Americans, staying just one step ahead of mounting medical debt is a constant struggle. Medical crises contribute to approximately half of all home foreclosure filings. According to a recent study published in The American Journal of Medicine, 62 percent of all bankruptcy filings in 2007 were partly the result of medical expenses; 78 percent of those who filed for bankruptcy actually had health insurance but found that insurance inadequate to cover their bills.

Even as skyrocketing healthcare costs are bankrupting millions of Americans, however, the earnings of private health insurance firms are rising. In most areas of the country, the insurance market is dominated by one or two large providers. Rather than bargaining for lower rates, large insurer conglomerates are transferring the high prices charged by hospitals to patients and padding their profits. As premiums soared, the profits of the top ten insurance companies grew by approximately 1,000 percent. During the same period, insurers merged more than 400 times, but employee premiums increased nearly eight times faster than average U.S. incomes.

The U.S. healthcare market is broken. Large insurers have little incentive to bargain for lower prices. Smaller insurers do not compete on premiums to gain market share; instead, they follow the pricing of the dominant insurer and compete on risk. As the Urban Institute has pointed out, “Competition in insurance markets is often about getting the lowest risk enrollees as opposed to competing on price and the efficient delivery of care.”

Health reform must restore competition into health markets and reorient the business model toward quality of care. To do this, President Obama has proposed a new public healthcare insurance plan that, as I have noted, would look much like Medicare.

Medicare: A Model for a Public Option

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Social Security Act of 1965 and enrolled former President Harry Truman as its first beneficiary. To this day, the program is financed through a payroll tax of 2.9 percent, split evenly between worker and employer. It makes every citizen or permanent legal resident who has been in the country for at least five years and is over the age of sixty-five eligible for Medicare. People under sixty-five who require dialysis or suffer from certain debilitating diseases can also enroll.

Medicare is divided into four parts: hospital insurance (Part A); medical insurance, covering physicians and other services (Part B); managed care plans (Part C); and prescription drug coverage (Part D). Part B costs extra and covers outpatient medication. Part D, which is a drug benefit, is far from comprehensive and requires enrollees to pay large out-of-pocket fees beyond a certain amount.

Medicare is easy to understand. All of your working life, you are taxed 1.45 percent of your income; this amount is matched by your employers. When you turn sixty-five, you become eligible for hospital insurance (Part A). Part B is voluntary, but the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries with Part A are also enrolled in Part B. The program includes limited cost sharing. People who wish to have outpatient coverage pay about $100 a month. People who have incomes greater than $85,000 ($170,000 for married couples) encounter greater costs. Beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Part B may also elect to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C), a stand-alone prescription drug plan (PDP), or a Medicare Advantage prescription drug plan—programs that are channeled through Medicare but administered by private insurers.

Overall, Medicare provides comprehensive benefits at a reasonably low price. It enjoys high user satisfaction and, given its low administrative overhead, delivers care more efficiently than insurers in the private market.

Still, there are weaknesses in the system. One is that billing criteria and rules are not always clear to physicians. The costs of Medicare are also rapidly increasing. While it is far more efficient than for-profit private health insurance companies, it is a very large program. According to the latest Medicare trustees report, the Medicare trust fund for hospital expenses “will pay out more in benefits than it collects this year and will be insolvent by 2017.” The worsening economy is certainly a contributing factor, but the real cause of Medicare insolvency is “the ever-escalating cost of health care.”

These problems are not Medicare’s alone. In recent years, private health insurance has also begun to under-reimburse physicians, sometimes paying even less than Medicare. The bureaucracy of private insurance companies has increased dramatically. In addition, insurers have resorted to selling contracts to other insurance groups that were not originally physician partners and lowering the reimbursement to physicians when they do so. In both the private and public systems, we’re spending too much money on hospital care because we don’t invest enough in preventive care—catching a disease early and preventing the need for hospitalization in the first place. Baby boomers, for instance—who make up 17 percent of non-elderly adults but account for 26 percent of those with at least one chronic illness—have a hard time finding affordable/continuous health coverage and contribute to increasing healthcare costs.

Unless we can reform the whole system—using the public system as a lever to ensure cost controls in the private sector— the continuing financing problems will only worsen.

What Would a New Public Health Insurance Option Look Like?

A healthcare reform initiative that includes a new Medicare-like public option would permit individuals who do not receive coverage through an employer to choose from a menu of private and public coverage options. Enrollees would pay a subsidized premium (should they qualify for a government subsidy) and receive the coverage of their choice. The new public health plan would build on the existing Medicare infrastructure and negotiate with hospitals and doctors for the best healthcare prices. Costs would be set through a process of competitive bidding in which all of the different healthcare plans (public and private) would participate to provide standard benefits.

The new plan would also use its inherent advantages to do what private insurers have only promised: control costs over the long term. Unlike private companies—which typically spend between 20 and 50 percent of healthcare dollars on expenses such as administration, executive salaries, advertising, and shareholder return on equity—Medicare has low administrative overhead and the ability to bargain for volume discounts, as the new public plan would have.

Remember, the private sector’s high administrative spending is responsible for a good portion of the excess spending in the healthcare system. According to an analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, excess spending on health administration and insurance accounted for as much as 21 percent of the estimated total excess spending ($477 billion in 2003). Eighty-five percent of this excess overhead “can be attributed to the highly complex private health insurance system in the United States.”

The new public health insurance option could use its ability to negotiate for lower prices and volume purchasing capacity to muscle private insurers into lowering their administrative spending and using more healthcare dollars to provide actual healthcare. According to a report from the Commonwealth Fund Commission on a High Performance Health System, these kinds of proposals would slow health-spending growth by $3 trillion by 2020, simplify the medical billing process (thus pleasing doctors and patients alike), and allow small businesses to finally enroll their employees into a health insurance program that provides comprehensive health benefits. Estimates also indicate that “premiums for the public plan would be at least 20 percent below those currently available for a comparable benefit package in the private market.”

Better Care, Efficiency, Cost Reduction: The Benefits of Going Public

Traditional public health insurance plans such as Medicare have been a source of important payment innovations that private plans have often adopted. A new public healthcare plan could therefore serve as an agent of innovation and quality improvement. Simply having universal healthcare formularies (lists of less expensive drugs that doctors can prescribe) by every insurer, both private and public, could make a difference. This innovation has been talked about for decades, but it has never been realized.

Today’s Medicare program, for instance, promotes quality reliable care alongside cost containment. Medicare’s refusal to pay medical care providers for “never events”—when a patient suffers a knowable and catastrophic mistake—is something other major insurers are now adopting. Similarly, Medicare’s development of its provider-payments systems and its investments in measuring and reporting quality care indicators are being copied by private insurers. A new public plan has the potential to do even more “to drive improvements in the health care system” and set the standard for developing new payment models and investing in preventive care and care coordination.

How Will Private Insurers Compete?

When most conservatives and insurance industry insiders read about increased efficiencies in the public arena, they only see red. Conservatives charge that private insurers could never compete with a new public option on a level playing field. The Heritage Foundation argues that “with the government plan, taxpayers would presumably absorb all of the risks, losses, and liabilities of such an enterprise, while private health plans would absorb their own risks, losses, and liabilities. Consequently, from the beginning, such a competition could not possibly be fair in any meaningful sense.” The public plan could use its advantages to outcompete the private insurers and drive them out of business.

As Jacob Hacker, a University of California-Berkeley professor and public plan architect, explains, what the critics of the public option really mean is that “they do not want a new public health insurance plan to have any inherent advantages.” That’s akin to criticizing Home Depot for outcompeting other home improvement stores by using its market clout to negotiate for better prices. Stripping a new public plan of “inherent advantages”—like the right to use its market share to bargain with providers or its lower overhead and administrative spending—“is at odds with true competition, which does not require competitors to be equal but that they have an equal chance to succeed if they are equally good at doing what consumers want,” Hacker writes.

Hacker explains that giving all healthcare plans the same opportunities to attract new enrollees would require the following:

  1. The public plan could not be run by the same authority that governs the new regulated menu of private and public health plans.
  2. All plans should play by the same rules: charge the same rates to all subscribers (guaranteed community rating), take everyone who applies (guaranteed issue), provide objective information (comparative effectiveness research), offer the same basic package of benefits, hold adequate reserves, and clearly state their terms.
  3. The public plan cannot dip into general government reserves to cover its losses.
  4. Plans should be paid different amounts based on the risk of their enrollees. At the end of the year, funds could be redistributed among the plans to ensure that those with very sick people are protected.
  5. Plans should bid to provide benefits within specific regions. “Once the premiums were set through competitive bidding, subsidies for low-income enrollees . . . should be based on some weighted average of public and private premiums within the region.” This way, lower-income enrollees are not always stuck with the lowest-bid plan.

Of course, if the Medicare-like public option could use its efficiency to deliver high-quality, cost-effective care, it would attract more enrollees. After all, this is the crux of why conservatives and the private insurance industry so vigorously object to a public plan. Their real concern is sacrificing profits to competition. Insurance companies, as we know, have increased their profits—and their administrative costs—over the last decade while spending a decreasing percentage of their revenue on their policyholders’ healthcare. Forcing private insurers to shave off some administrative costs and compete with a public option may very well reverse that trend.

Their argument essentially amounts to the notion that they are entitled to be inefficient. I don’t believe such a constitutional entitlement exists, nor do I believe this Congress approves of entitled inefficiency in the private sector.

More Americans will likely enroll in the new Medicare-like public option, but the goal isn’t to eliminate private insurance. In fact, private plans would fill an important niche within the new competitive environment.

According to a Lewin Group analysis of Jacob Hacker’s public-option-centric healthcare proposal, 28.1 million Americans would find coverage through the exchange in private plans, 65.6 million would enroll in the new public option, and 113.6 million would keep the insurance they receive from their employer. Moreover, in the public plan, “the average premiums would be about 23 percent lower than comparable private insurance for the same set of benefits for the same population.” The average enrollee costs in Hacker’s public plan would be about $3,250, compared with $4,230 under a private insurance product.

As Hacker explains, “Private insurers certainly will have a great role in providing more integrated coverage options than the public plan would provide.” Private plans would also have a “brand advantage” (in the same way that a lot of people would rather have the branded drug than the generic) and “could play an important role” as alternatives that look like the public model but provide “better customer service, nicer marketing and better brochures, but they might also be doing other things in terms of quality improvement or care management that the public plan wasn’t.”

What Will Policy Makers Choose: Public Plan or Private Monopoly?

Policy makers now have a choice to make: design a system that promotes the general welfare by “providing basic services, protecting the poor and the sick, and ensuring a well-working economy,” or protect the monopoly of private insurers and continue redistributing as much income as possible to the wealthy. As economist Dean Baker concludes, “These competing views of government are coming to a head in the debate over national health care reform.”

Fortunately, President Obama and 73 percent of voters strongly support a new public health insurance plan.The Congressional Progressive Caucus has even threatened “to vote against any health plan that doesn’t include a public plan option.” “We have polled CPC members very carefully in recent weeks and a strong majority will only support comprehensive healthcare reform legislation that includes a public plan option on a level playing field with private health insurance plans,” explained CPC co-chairs Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). But some lawmakers have indicated that a public plan may not be part of the final reform legislation. One senator has recently said that the public plan is just a bargaining chip to “encourage the private health insurance industry to move in the direction it knows it should move toward—namely, health insurance reform, which means eliminating pre-existing conditions, guaranteed issue, modified community rating.” “I think we can accomplish [healthcare reform] without” a public plan, this senator commented in an interview.

Let’s be clear. There can be no real healthcare reform without giving Americans the choice of a public health insurance program. What could be more American than letting Americans choose for themselves, instead of having employers, politicians, bureaucrats, and insurance companies do it for them, as they do so often under the present system? Moreover, we should not waste $600 billion on reforming the healthcare system and expanding access to care if we can’t contain costs in the long term. Without a public healthcare plan, health reform is simply unsustainable.

And there has been no effective cost control of healthcare over the last thirty years. Even though primary care physicians, in particular, have suffered and complained greatly, with more than a little justification, that their working conditions and salaries have dropped significantly under the heels of enormous downward pressure from insurance companies, overall health insurance costs have continued to rise at two to three times the rate of inflation every year for thirty years. In the Medicare plan, while costs are still rising at greater than the rate of inflation, the rate of increase is not nearly as great.

The Lewin Group points out that administrative costs would be significantly lower under a public plan. “First-year national health spending would drop slightly (100 million in 2007—the year projections were done) despite broadening of coverage, new federal spending would be $49.3 billion in 2007. Most of savings come from administrative costs (-25 billion), changes in reimbursement (-7.4 billion), negotiated drug discounts (-8.8 billion) and more efficient models of delivering care (-11.7 billion).”

While those figures are at some variance with the widely accepted notion that Medicare administrative costs are closer to 4 percent of covered benefits, the difference is still stark. Private insurance costs more than twice as much to administer as does a public insurance plan.

The question that this raises is: Why not require everybody to be in a public insurance plan if it is much cheaper? The answer is simple. You can’t take choice away from Americans. This country was founded on the idea that individuals can make their own choices and are free to make their own mistakes.

Furthermore, there will be inefficiency and bureaucracy in any plan, public or private. There will be, inevitably, Americans who are dissatisfied with their plan, whether they’ve chosen the public or private option. They should be free to change plans. If you have only one plan, no change is possible.

Those who advocate for a pure single payer with no choice for America are most likely correct in terms of the inefficiency of the system, but they don’t fully understand the American psyche. Americans want to choose.

Single-payer advocates will not deny Americans choices and in the end legislators won’t either—or they will pay an enormous price at the polls, as their constituents are reminded daily that these lawmakers refused to allow citizens to choose and, instead, made their choices for them. If individual Americans are willing to bear the extra costs of private insurance, there is no reason not to let them.

It is incredibly important to understand that the opposite must also be true. If individuals are willing to sign up for a public option, they should be allowed to do so. Votes against the public health insurance plan are simply votes for the health insurance industry. That has not served us well over the last thirty years and it has sought to substitute its own judgments—along with those of its allies in Congress, who have received generous campaign contributions over the years—for the judgments of the American people. There will be a price to be paid for that at election time.

There have been proposals for “public options” that are not really public options. One such proposal calls for copying state plans that feature private insurance companies from which individuals can choose; the bills are split among the state, employers, and employees. The problem with this is that these same for-profit health insurance companies still have to supply a return on investment, large executive salaries, and advertising and administrative costs, all more expensive than in the public sector.

A real public option gives real choices to the American people. A “fake” public option run by insurance companies is not real reform.

Believe It Or Not: McDonald’s is “Local”…Technically

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

When I think of the word “local”, I think of the farmer who lives down the road from me, who just harvested his massive pumpkin patch. I think of the sugarmaker who trucks maple sap with a horse-drawn sled. I think of my own eggs from my own hens. But let’s face it–I’m not the norm.  “Local“, in most cases, is the nearby gas station with a Taco Bell adjacent. It’s the DQ off the county road. It’s an Arby’s by the soccer field. How far away are you, for example, from a McDonald’s?

According to a blogger named Stephen Von Worley (with a h/t to Huffington Post), the place in the U.S. furthest from a McDonald’s, is “Between the tiny Dakotan hamlets of Meadow and Glad Valley lies the McFarthest Spot: 107 miles distant from the nearest McDonald’s, as the crow flies, and 145 miles by car!” So it’s not, in fact, me (I’m only 15 miles from the nearest Mickey D’s.)

When it comes to the growing “local” food movement, I’m skeptical of corporate food co-opting it. Why? Because of the overuse of terminology. “Local,” “organic,” and “farm fresh,” are clever marketing keywords in many cases.  I think this map from Von Worley’s blog really sums up the paradox. How do we really define what’s local? The colored portion represents the distance to the nearest McDonald’s:


To read more about Von Worley’s findings, click here.

In GMO Superbeets Case, Court Hands Monsanto a Defeat

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Score 1 for environmental justice. (For once.)

A U.S. Federal Court has ruled the U.S. government failed to adequately evaluate the environmental risks of Monsanto’s new Franken-crop, the Roundup-Ready “superbeet.” As you may know from the film Food, Inc., the Monsanto Corporation is known for some truly monstrous practices, not the least of which are wreaking environmental havoc and driving small farmers to ruin. Well, here’s one fight they haven’t won (yet?).

From Reuters:

The U.S. District Court for the northern district of California ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) violated federal law by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement before deregulating genetically altered sugar beets.

Monsanto developed the biotech beets to be resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup, and promotes the sugarbeets as “Roundup Ready.”

The plaintiffs include the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds. The groups filed the lawsuit in January 2008.

About 1.1 million U.S. acres were seeded this year to Roundup Ready sugar beets in the fourth year of commercialized production.

Critics say the Roundup Ready beets are dangerous for the environment because they promote the emergence of “superweeds” or weeds that cannot easily be killed because they also develop a tolerance to weedkiller. They also say that organic and convential beet farmers are damaged because the genetically altered sugar beets are wind-pollinated and inevitably cross-pollinate related crops grown nearby.

Read the whole article here.


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