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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Please go to The Rochester Dissident II

Dear readers,

Thanks for checking in - but I've just moved over to a new blog, "The Rochester Dissident II," at:

http://jackbradiganspula.blogspot.com

(Please copy-and-paste this URL into your browser; I tried to make it a link, but somehow that didn't work!)

I'll maintain my tripod site here for archival purposes. New stuff will go onto the blogspot site. See you there.

Jack


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:30 EDT
Updated: Thursday, 19 March 2009 11:44 EDT
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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Farms Without Toads: The Canary Banished from the Mine

Farming is nothing if not a set of relationships with living things, and the usual list of intimacies include the farmer and her cow, the farmer and her chicken, and so on. But who ever thinks of the farmer and her toad? Certainly this duo, echoed in fables about princesses, is as old as any working partnership since Adam and Eve.

You may soon be hearing a lot more, though, about the relationship of biped and pest-devouring amphibian. That’s because a very modern, indeed industrial-strength, issue involves the toad as metaphorical avian: the canary in the coal mine. As farmlands around the world have become more and more industrialized and saturated with toxic pesticides and herbicides, the toads (along with other amphibians) have been undergoing changes perhaps unprecedented in their previous hundred million years of evolution. In many cases, they’re wiped out by loss of habitat and food sources. But in one of scariest scenarios, they’ve become shapeshifters. Researchers, as Environmental Health Perspectives reported last year, say synthetic chemicals in the environment are acting like estrogen hormones, and these are “feminizing” male toads to the point where up to 40 percent of them in a given location can be classified “intersex.”

The EHP study, looking at cane toads in selected study sites in Florida, found numerous individuals with “as many female characteristics as… male,” including “an equal presence of both testes and ovary” and similar abnormalities. So what does this mean for us and the food on our table? Obviously, the implications are not appetizing. But what has been agribusiness’s response to the herpetological crisis? In one odd turn of events, it’s been to “exterminate all the brutes” by excluding them from agricultural habitats altogether.This has been just one of the perverse outcomes of misdirected attempts to cleanse the food system – specifically the production of leafy greens – of pathogens, in the wake of coliform (E. coli 0157:H7) contamination that in 2006 sickened hundreds of consumers in 26 states and one Canadian province and killed several people. The contamination, which was traced to highly localized sources in California, set off a continental panic, and the food industry and regulators scrambled to prevent further outbreaks. The presence of this virulent strain of E. coli (other strains of the bacteria are found in the human gut and are essential for digestion) might lead to many sources, of course – most obviously including fecal matter from feedlots – and obvious traditional methods to keep manure residues off our food. But one method, which amounts to a latter-day purification rite, involves excluding all the canaries from the coal mine.

How, and why? Briefly, the regulators and agro-industrialists have decreed that the toads and frogs, snakes and lizards, small mammals and other newly-designated interlopers are unacceptable vectors of disease and must be kept out of the vegetable patch by any means necessary. A PowerPoint put together by the Wild Farm Alliance (www.wildfarmalliance.org) presents images from the heartland that are reminiscent of Stalag 13: high-tech fencing and ground-level barriers “used to reduce foreign objects (frogs and field rodents);” closely spaced “rodent bait/trap stations” atop berms at the edges of cultivated fields; and instances of the outright removal of natural features and incidental habitats like tree lines, hedgerows, and farm ponds to deny shelter to various creeping critters.

Nor are small mammals and “herps” like toads the only targets; some safety protocols are designed to exclude large animals like deer – though admittedly farmers have good reason in any case to keep cute but leaf-hungry Bambi out of the patch. But the real irony has to do with grander concepts: if any animals pose a threat of bacterial contamination in vegetable fields, it’s those hundreds or even thousands of ruminants kept in “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), immense industrial farms that produce and willy-nilly discharge E. coli-containing fecal matter to neighboring farms and ecosystems.

The truth is, when it comes to soiling the soil, wildlife can’t remotely compete with domesticated herds housed in the ag-equivalent of concentration camps. Cows, of course, have not traditionally been the enemy. But the new industrial methods of dairy production have exacerbated – concentrated – the growth of the pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7, and federal policymaking is not addressing the toxic run-off, literally or figuratively, of CAFOs and corporate agribusiness. A statement by Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, tells why the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are looking the other way in this case. These agencies, says Libby, are not interested in regulations “to eliminate the [pathogenic] bacteria from the system, because that would mean challenging the notion of feed-lots and grain-fed beef [and by extension, dairy cows]. Instead, their idea is to isolate vegetable production from livestock to eliminate cross-contamination.”

Specifically, the regulatory agencies want to promulgate “Good Agricultural Practices” (GAP) protocols that will in turn impose paperwork and other burdens on small and large farms alike. Some of these GAP requirements are Cleanliness 101: handwashing, etc. But some new requirements could be more than inconveniences. For example, Libby explains, if you’re a farmer who fails to completely segregate animal operations from the farm’s crop fields, you could get a “deduction” of points from your GAP certification score. Lose enough points, and you’re out of business.But on top of this, what happens on neighboring farms can cost you, too. In some scenarios, any livestock on farms within two miles of your own farm can lead to deductions. The regulators seem to have added a GAP escape clause for small farmers: the certification program is “voluntary.” But realistically, if you hope to sell produce to major purchasers, including the national school lunch program and the Defense Department, you’ll find that voluntary can smell a lot like mandatory.

The supposed safety regimes can backfire in other ways. At a late November “Food Safety War on Wildlife Teach-In” in Watsonville, California, representatives of the WFA and allied groups testified how the new regimes could harm humans as well as cause collateral damage among animals. They pointed to some examples that should be obvious to consumers: for example, many shoppers have grown fond of bagged salad greens, in part because the bag seems to provide a barrier to contamination. But just the opposite is true. As WFA director Jo Ann Baumgartner told the conferees, “The bag itself is a micro-incubator; many cut leaf surfaces increase areas of infection, and the washing of thousands of pounds of greens at a time can spread pathogens to scores of consumers.”

This problem – and it’s surely not the only problem associated with plastic bags – indicates that the USDA and FDA and others need to address things not covered by existing GAPs. First, they need to look at the principal source of pathogenic bacteria: industrial feedlots and the mountains of poorly-managed manure produced there. In general, says Dave Runsten, director of the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, the key is “focusing on problem areas, such as the processed leafy green product and its handling in transport and retail, rather than imposing blanket and unscientific rules on farmers.”

Observers and advocates like Runsten point to a special concern: that the new safety regimes, which will hit small farmers hard, will be especially burdensome, even fatal, for organic farms. That’s because some GAP proposals, like one that would require farmers to pre-wash their greens in chemicalized (e.g. substantially chlorinated) water rather than pure well or spring water, violate basic organic principles. (Many organic farmers and consumers prefer that produce not be pre-washed at all – in other words, that it bear traces of the living soil in which it was grown.)

Part of the life of the soil is, of course, each congenial organism that lives in it and from its bounty. Like the toad. But if this living matrix is to be preserved it will take a bureaucratic and marketing battle that requires shortening the supply lines. This will be attainable, according to Patty Lovera of the Washington-based group Food and Water Watch, through grassroots production and distribution. On this point, Lovera, who recently addressed the annual convention of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, emphasizes that safe food systems require “traceability,” to track pathogen outbreaks and prevent future ones. And nothing, she says, provides easier traceability than “direct chains” between small producers and vendors, which implies the systematic cultivation of local farmers markets and the growth of restaurants that buy and serve local, fresh (and preferably organic) greens.This sort of chain is indeed the safest as well as the shortest distance between two points – for herp and human like.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:57 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 3 February 2009 22:59 EST
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Friday, 22 August 2008
Kudos for the Omnium

All of Rochester owes the good folks at Full Moon Vista a big round of applause and a few high-fives. The Rochester Omnium, sponsored by the downtown bike shop and steered to victory by FMV owner Scott Page, has already become a local tradition - and an international attraction.

As a commuter and solo/family bike tourist, I've never been involved in bike racing, except marginally, through watching events like the Tour de France on TV - i.e. being a velo-couch-potato. But I took in all three Omnium events this year and loved every minute.

First came the time trials in Charlotte Friday afternoon. I approached the event the right way: biking out St. Paul St., then taking the designated trail through Maplewood Park and the Turning Point, and ending up at the harbor. Things were pretty quiet that morning along the trail, and also along Lake Avenue, which had been cordoned off. (What a contrast to the "other" Lake Avenue, which thunders with beer-powered motorcycles on Boys' Nights Out.) The contestants were amazing: the winning average speed over the 4.4 mile course was, if my calculator doesn't lie, a hair under 36 mph. Damn showoffs. Hell, I probably hit 36 mph for a good twenty seconds as I coasted down the big hill at the southern approach to Turning Point Park. I won't discuss the 3.6 mph I achieved on a notorious short uphill stretch on my way back.

My brother came in from Buffalo Saturday night to join me at the Criterium downtown. He's been riding the Riverwalk in Buffalo and Tonawanda and is showing more and more interest in longer excursions. But he'd never seen a live bike race - and so, as you'd expect, he was blown away. Just like anybody who considers the pure athleticism of the pro riders. Talk about muscle tone and lung capacity.

I had an unusual experience during the Sunday road race, a 101-miler that ended with a few rousing 6-mile loops in and near Genesee Valley Park. There I was on Wilson Boulevard at the north end of the River Campus, innocently minding my own business and trying to get near the action, when I was "drafted" by an RPD officer to monitor an exit from the UR's back parking lot. Actually, I volunteered; I seen my duty and I done it - keeping errant vehicles and pedestrians from wandering onto the closed course. Well, the errant traffic never materialized, so I was left standing there, a solitary sentinel - though I did have a great view of the racers as they flew down the slope toward the boulevard. More showoffs! They ride a hundred miles in a leisurely four hours and then, as if from the ultimate caffeine rush, really pour on the speed.

When things got preternaturally quiet, I figured the race was over. And so it was: I got to the finish line, a half mile from my guardpost, just as the awards ceremony was starting. Too bad I missed the winner crossing the line, but I have no regrets. The event was a success, the weather was cooperative, and the crowd was lively. Actually, that brings up one regret. I wish more people had come out to watch the end of the road race, and I wish the same about the Charlotte time trials. Each of these deserves a crowd of thousands, the kind that swarms downtown for the "Crit." I'll bet the turnout will be better next year, because the Omnium seems to be on a steep upward curve.

This piece first appeared at RocBike.com.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:06 EDT
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Plowing through the Farm Bill: much more than empty calories

Whoever first said that "the more you watch the news, the less you know" must have been thinking of how the media treat the Farm Bill. But now that we're safely past the latest chapter of this ongoing story - a couple months back, Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact the Farm Bill of 2008 - we can make some sense out of it all.

Start with what the Farm Bill is and is not. Yes, it is indeed a $300 billion measure, as many stories have told us, including a widely circulated May 21 Associated Press story that reported on the Bush veto. But the latter report repeated a common error: it neglected to mention that the bill covers a five-year period (and some items in the bill actually cover ten years). So in terms of annual spending, which is the usual and most intelligible framework for understanding what's in the federal budget, the bill runs to average of about $60 billion.

Yes, that's still real money, but put it into perspective. It's less than an eighth of the Pentagon budget, and much less even than the annual "supplemental" outlays in recent years for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, if we look at what's actually in the bill and where the money goes, we find the bill is misnamed. Since two-thirds of the spending goes for Food Stamps (now gone higher-tech via debit cards) and other nutrition programs, we really should call it the Food Bill. This rhetorical shift would transfer the emphasis to tens of millions of American families directly impacted by provisions of the bill - and contradict the parochial view that the bill exists only to benefit special interests like the Farm Belt states, their Congressional delegations and lobbyists, and a constellation of corporatized commodity producers (corn, soy, cotton, etc.) who reap humongous subsidies.

Questions about subsidies surely need to be debated - for example, why many big farmers bring home a ton of bacon while small vegetable, fruit and dairy farms that could be saved from extinction by targeted assistance are put on a low-cal diet. But thanks to years of hard slogging by progressive advocates, there's much in the Farm Bill to celebrate, starting with things that will benefit those small farms.

In its review of the bill, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (sustainableagriculture.net) has identified many provisions worth celebrating: an enhanced Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program to boost rural businesses through "micro-credit" (analogous to development strategies in South Asia, inspired by the work of economist Muhammad Yunus, co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize); more money for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, with new targeted funds for small and medium-sized farms; more funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program; mandatory funding for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, which includes technical and other forms of assistance; and similarly, a shot in the arm for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Many people, journalists and laypeople alike, wax indignant about spending for conservation programs - usually reduced to a shorthand phrase, encouraging farmers to "idle their land." True, in worst-case scenarios this might translate to paying farmers for doing nothing. Yet the public has a real interest in conservation programs that help preserve topsoil, streambanks and watersheds, and other vital habitats/ecosystems. And the Farm Bill does some of this through its Conservation Security Program, which strikes a balance between "working farmland" and broad environmental values.

Last but not remotely least are the new Farm Bill's supports for organic agriculture, the new and quickly sprouting kid on the block. The bill has some provisions to facilitate organic conversion (that is, moving land from conventional chemical methods to certifiably organic cultivation), including a cost-share program that helps small farmers cross that potentially expensive bridge. There's also a four-year, $78-million Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative, which will, among other things, help develop new seed varieties well-suited to organic ag. And a new "classical plant and animal breeding" initiative will help organic farmers' efforts to save traditional strains of crops and livestock that conventional, industrialized ag has left to wither.

No legislation this massive and comprehensive can be all "wins," of course. Organic advocates like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture lists some notable losses, from a progressive point of view. For example, regarding contamination of crops by "genetically modified organisms," which is an increasingly serious problem for organic farmers located near conventional farms, the bill failed to assign liability to those responsible for the contamination - namely, 800-pound companies like Monsanto that develop and patent the risky, aggressive genetic invaders.

So the next time you get news about the Farm Bill -  make that the Food Bill - remember there's almost certainly more to the story than what you're hearing. And if you deplore some of the bill's priorities, remember that in many significant respects the bill is right on the money - and that much of the money will pay back the taxpayer many times over, in terms of environmental, personal, and community health.

This article, which was commissioned by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (nofa.org), first appeared at RochesterEnvironment.com and CounterPunch.org.

 

 


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:00 EDT
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Monday, 14 July 2008
Notes from Italy

It seems like I've been away from my blog for a long time - and yes, it's been more than a couple weeks since I even checked in. But my absence was for a good cause: a trip to Italy, with lots of biking there (I brought my Dahon folder, which fits easily into a couple suitcases for air travel) and now some impressions to pass along.

My trip took me to several northern Italian cities: first to Modena, home of fabled tenor Luciano Pavarotti, almost equally fabled soprano Mirella Freni, and oddly fabled, expensive, gas-guzzling Maserati, whose headquarters are not far from downtown. Modena's population is about 177,000, and I'll bet the figure includes about 40,000 regular cyclists. As in many European communities, regular Modenites in huge numbers get around by bike, doing the shopping, dropping around to the caffe/café, going on dates (two per bike, and not on tandems), and otherwise getting through the day. If you wander the deliciously narrow and pedestrian-friendly streets and alleyways of the old parts of town, you see hundreds of bikes locked up everywhere. The bikes tend to be utilitarian, affordable models, some of them decades old and well-worn. (It's only out in countryside, on the beautiful but narrow ancient roadways, that you see helmeted, bright-jerseyed riders on fancy road bikes.) Partly for economic reasons, and helped along by a human-scaled urbanscape and bike-friendly traditions, Italians depend heavily on appropriate transport technology.

The principle held true for two other communities I visited: the small city of Vignola, the mid-sized Parma, and sizable Bologna (ca. 400,000 people in the urban core). I recommend all three to bikers and walkers - again, it's the traditional urbanscape that makes the difference. Bologna, with plenty of piazzas and 38 km of "arcades," i.e. Gothic-arched covered walkways, is especially attractive to pedestrians. I think this town's Renaissance and Baroque architects could teach our RenSquare planners a thing or three. (And isn't it odd that not long ago, Rochester was courting Parma interests for a deal to redevelop Midtown Plaza - without so much as considering the physical features that makes the city of Parma a resounding success?)

Not that Italy is a total Paradiso for bikers. At least in the Emilia Romagna region that I toured, the secondary highways are miserably clogged with trucks and cars moving at excessive speed, and there's precious little space for bikers or pedestrians. But in town, everything's rosy: ample bike paths and lanes, urban traffic that's respectful of cyclists, and an official commitment to alternative transportation. Modena also has begun a bike-borrowing/rental program. You just put down a deposit and get a key, then access publicly-owned bikes at any number of parking stations around town. There's no fee for the first three days - perfect for travelers, though I must say the bikes themselves are a little stodgy in design, not suitable for serious riding.

Well, I'm now coping with transpo-culture shock. I went to the Rochester Public Market last Saturday, as usual, and did a few errands. Amazing how few bikes you see around the market (I counted about a dozen), considering the huge turnout (thousands on- or just off-site) on a Saturday morning. Part of this is the durability of the Auto Craze, part is the result of the Rochester's failure to create the infrastructure that would seduce people into going to the market by bike. Why, the city only recently added another parking lot, this one on Railroad St. And still - as any competent traffic planner should have foreseen - the cars and "light trucks" jam the access roads and turn the market grounds into ground zero for air pollution and conflicts with mere persons who make such daring, self-indulgent moves as trying to cross a street! Maybe RocBikers (check out RocBike.com, by the way), joined by Critical Massers and others, should target the market for some kind of actions. City Hall shouldn't be allowed to ignore or downplay bike issues any longer. (I note with pleasure the departure of Dumbass Supremo Steve Minarik, the Republican boss who did something to offend everyone - and did everything to maintain the status quo that barely acknowledges alternative transport. Not that I expect M's replacement will be much better.)

One last note: Italian towns also are home to vast numbers of motorbikes and scooters. This was especially evident in Bologna. But the odd thing is, I didn't hear any straight-pipe monstrosities like those that take over Rochester-area roads every summer. Interpret that as you will.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 08:17 EDT
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