Food is (relatively) inexpensive in the U.S.

When droughts or crop failures cause food prices to spike, many Americans barely notice. The average American, after all, spends just 6.6 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. (If you include eating out, that rises to around 11 percent.)

In Pakistan, by contrast, the average person spends 47.7 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. In that situation, those price spikes become a lot more noticeable.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service keeps tabs on household expenditures for food, alcohol, and tobacco around the world.

Americans, it turns out, spend a smaller share of their income on food than anyone else — less even than Canadians or Europeans or Australians:

Food_spending_worldwide_2

Note that the map above is based on data for food consumed at home — the USDA doesn’t offer international comparisons for eating out, unfortunately. Still, even if you do include food consumed at restaurants, Americans devote just 11 percent of their household spending to food, a smaller share than nearly every other country spends on food at home alone.*

Below is a chart showing numbers for a handful of select countries. Note that this doesn’t include spending on subsidies and the like — it’s just a measure of the fraction of household expenditures devoted to food consumed at home:

How_much_countries_spend_on_food

There are a few notable points here:

1) Richer countries spend a smaller fraction of their income on food. This makes intuitive sense. There’s an upper limit on how much food a person can physically eat. So as countries get richer, they start spending more of their money on other things — like health care, or entertainment, or alcohol. South Koreans spent one-third of their budget on food in 1975; today that’s down to just 12 percent.

That said, this relationship doesn’t always hold. It depends, at least in part, on what kind of food people favor, patterns of eating out, and the specific food prices and subsidy schemes in their country. Note that India spends a smaller fraction of its budget on food consumed at home than Russia, which is much richer. Likewise, South Korea spends a smaller share of its budget on food than wealthier Japan does.

2) Americans spend less than Europeans on food. The fact that Americans spend a smaller portion of their budgets on food than Europeans do is partly a consequence of the fact that Americans are richer. But Americans spend less on an absolute level, too.

The average American spends $2,273 per year on food consumed at home, the USDA notes. The average German spends $2,481 per year. The average French person spends $3,037 per year. The average Norwegian spends a whopping $4,485 per year on food.

The USDA doesn’t explain the variation. Some of it likely has to do with different tax systems in Europe (here’s a comparison of food prices in Europe), as well as differences in eating out. But there are also dozens of forces making food in the United States so cheap — from farm subsidies to advancements in industrial agriculture that have pushed down the price of food. (Over the years, the price of meat, poultry, sweets, fats, and oils in the United States have fallen, although the price of fresh produce has risen.)

There are fierce debates about the downsides of industrial agriculture — as well as the desirability of subsidizing agriculture. But one thing this system has done fairly well is keep the sticker price of food at the grocery store down.

3) High spending on food and malnutrition seem to go hand in hand. This is another perhaps obvious point, but worth highlighting. Poorer countries that have to spend a much larger share of their budget on food also end up with much higher malnutrition rates.

Original Post

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One conclusion might be that most of us can afford to invest in a better quality of life for all by buying our food from local farmers.

 

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How Industrial Agriculture Has Thwarted Factory Farm Reforms

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Robert Martin, co-author of a recent study on industrial farm animal production, explains how a powerful and intransigent agriculture lobby has successfully fought off attempts to reduce the harmful environmental and health impacts of mass livestock production.

by Christina M. Russo

In 20Robert Martin08, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a landmark report, Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. The commission’s study condemned the way the U.S. raised its cattle, pigs, and chickens and made a sweeping series of recommendations on how to reduce the severe environmental, public health, and animal welfare problems created by the current system. Last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) released a study analyzing the fate of these reforms and reached a stark conclusion: The power of the industrial agriculture lobby had blunted nearly all attempts at change.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina Russo, Robert Martin — the executive director of the Pew Commission’s 2008 report and now the Food System Policy program director at the CLF and co-author of its recent study — discusses what went wrong and how reforms can proceed. According to Martin, the key is building public pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to demand changes from an intransigent industry that Martin describes as “having more money than Big Tobacco did in efforts to regulate cigarettes and the personality of the National Rifle Association.” One hopeful sign, said Martin, “is that there are more and more people who are concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.”

Yale Environment 360: Can you highlight the findings of your latest report?

Robert Martin: There was a lot of activity generated by the Pew report, and in a very important way it focused the debate in a way that hadn’t happened before. But what we found was that very little progress had been made and that in almost every case things had worsened in the last five years.

Our number one public health recommendation [in the 2008 report] was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, and we define therapeutic as treating sick animals that have a diagnosed microbial disease. We also had a provision for disease prevention — that is, if several animals in a flock or herd became sick, you should treat the whole flock or herd at therapeutic levels for very short period of time to try and kill the bacteria.

The practice that is common now is daily, low-level amounts of antibiotics added to the animal feed or water to really suppress bacteria long enough for the animals to get through the production system. And what this does is it leads to very serious antibiotic resistance issues that are housed in these operations but make their way into the human population either through flies carrying the resistant bacteria out, wild birds carrying them out, bacteria being flushed out in the waste of the animals, or by being carried out into the community by workers.

In the last five years, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York has sponsored the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban for use in animal agriculture the top seven antibiotics important in human medicine. Unfortunately, that legislation has gone nowhere. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold by weight in the country are used in food animal production. So, while we can make strides in reducing inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine, if 80 percent of the antibiotics are being sold and used in food animal production, clearly that is where we can now make the most important strides.

Yale Environment 360: What did you find in terms of the environmental impact of the Pew report?

Martin: On the environmental side there is a very troubling aspect. At the time of the release of the Pew Commission report, only about 34 percent of the waste generated by these operations was permitted under Clean Water Act permits; the only way you can regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — or CAFOs — is through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act. So the Pew Commission recommended that there be a full inventory of these operations, because we don’t even know where all of them exist. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said these operations generate 350 million tons of waste per year. The EPA says they generate 500 million tons of waste per year. And so we said ‘Look, you need to do an inventory and you need to bring more of them under permitting.’

The Obama administration had just started to find out where these operations were. But because of pressure from the industry, they abandoned that effort late last year before the election. Every [presidential candidate] gets so focused on winning Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota — states that are heavy CAFO states — that they abandoned that effort to inventory operations. And there are more of these operations coming online everyday. The environmental damage is getting worse, and the federal regulatory agencies that should be stepping up aren’t.

As for animal welfare, the animals are overcrowded and they stand either in or over their own waste all their lives. And the only reason why they don’t die in those situations is because of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. And the only reason why the overcrowding can go on from a waste standpoint is because these swine barns are built over concrete waste pits that are flushed into an open cesspool twice a day. The waste is then collected and then sprayed untreated on fields surrounding the CAFOs. So, the way these animals are overcrowded with lack of natural movement, which is a very serious animal welfare issue — it’s just really all part of one system.

In looking at all these areas, I was asked by a reporter what kind of grade I would give progress on the Pew Commission’s recommendations, and I answered that I’d give the regulatory [agencies] and lawmakers an ‘F.’ Because really no progress has been made. These are enormously powerful industries. I always say that Big Ag has more money than Big Tobacco did in efforts to regulate cigarettes and the personality of the National Rifle Association. I think it puts it in a context people can understand.

Yale Environment 360: The Pew Commission’s report was released with the hope that Obama would take the lead in industrial agriculture reform, which the Bush administration had not done. What indication did you have that the Obama administration would take these recommendations seriously to begin with?

Martin: When Obama was a candidate in the Iowa caucus, his platform really read like an aggressive support for sustainable agriculture. He talked about checking the growth of the large industrial animal operations. Then, during the North Carolina primary he was shown a copy of the Pew Commission report and he said he endorsed the findings and he would work to implement its recommendations. And I take him at his word. But when you put the former governor of Iowa as the Secretary of Agriculture — Tom Vilsack, who had stated publicly there was no problem with antibiotic use and food animal production — well, Vilsack’s interest was in not really rocking the boat.

In January 2009, as Obama was taking office, the Economic Research Service at the USDA said that antibiotics tended to be overused in large-scale animal operations. And a month or two later Vilsack said we are using them judiciously, there’s no problem. And what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems to be doing now is promulgating regulations — they are voluntary guidelines — only at the consent of the regulated. They are only willing to do what the industry says it will accept.

I would guess Teddy Roosevelt is spinning in his grave. He was more worried about the ‘meat cartel,’ as he called it, than Standard Oil and the railroads. And that’s why the Food and Drug Administration was formed.

Yale Environment 360: What are the most concerning environmental impacts of industrial farm animal production?

Martin: In the fields around these operations, it’s also an over-application of phosphorous, which over the long term will harm the productivity of the land because the phosphorous will burn out of the soil. And I think the public health link to this environmental damage is a real concern, as well: What kinds of pathogens are being carried in this waste into the waters that can make people sick?

There is also a very serious air quality problem. Studies by the University of Iowa and University of North Carolina have shown that up to five miles downwind of these operations children have an increase in asthma-like symptoms because of the particulate matter that is blown out of these barns by the ventilation systems.

Yale Environment 360: The Pew report said that, pound for pound, pigs produce four times the waste of a human. Can you describe in more detail the crude process of waste disposal at these facilities?

Martin: In a typical industrial swine operation, there may be 5,000 animals housed in two barns. The barns are built over concrete pits that are probably three feet deep. The animals stand on metal-slated floors, so their waste drops through the floor and is collected in these pits under the building. And two times a day the pits are flushed into what is called a waste lagoon, which is really an open cesspool containing the liquid and solid waste from the animals. When that pit fills up, the waste is either pumped into a truck and hauled a very short distance and sprayed on fields or pumped directly from the cesspool onto surrounding fields near the CAFO — with no treatment.

Not only is it serious environmental degradation because a lot of the waste just runs off into surface water, but swine waste contains a lot of the same pathogens that human waste does; physiologically, pigs and people are very similar. Untreated swine waste is 200 times more concentrated than treated human waste. And treated swine waste is 75 times more concentrated than human waste. But swine waste is not treated — it’s just held in these lagoons and pumped onto fields. And whatever is in that waste goes into the ground water and into the surface water.

Yale Environment 360: Do you think the environmental movement has appropriately seized on industrial farms as an environmental issue?

Martin: I think some of the national environmental groups have been a bit slow on this. It’s an interesting thing — people who live closest to these operations become environmentalists very quickly, because they see the damage not only to air quality, because of the stench, but they also see the damage because of the over-application of the waste.

Yale Environment 360: Undercover videos have shown animals being violently abused in the U.S. Are the efforts by animal welfare groups successfully bringing attention to the problems of the industrial livestock operations, even more so than environmentalists?

Martin: I would really have to commend the Humane Society of the United States for a couple of reasons. Number one, they did the really tough work going state by state — in some states to ban gestation crates for pigs or in other states to ban [confined] cages for chickens. They finally got the attention of the industry because everywhere they went up against the industry, the Humane Society won. So, they deserve a huge amount of credit for using the animal welfare concerns as the symptoms of a sick system.

Yale Environment 360: How does the recent purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company factor into this larger storyline?

Martin: The purchase of Smithfield by a large Chinese company is very concerning. Number one, it is a huge export of U.S. energy and grain and water to China in the form of pigs. There is a virtually insatiable appetite for pork in China. So I worry that we will be a net loser from an environmental and energy standpoint — and all we will be left with is the hog [manure].

One of the things the industry always says is, ‘Oh my god, we have to feed 10 billion people in 2050.’ The fact is there was a report called Agriculture at a Crossroads in 2008, and they said that we annually raise enough food calories for 10 billion people. The problem is what we are doing with those calories and the waste and spoilage of those systems. There is about 48

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percent wastage, especially in developing countries. But also about 80 percent of the corn we raise in the country is fed to animals that we then consume, which is an inefficient transfer of energy.

Yale Environment 360: There are so many actors in your report. Which actor could provide the most reform if it wanted to?

Martin: I think clearly if the president said, ‘I want to do X,’ then the agencies in the executive branch would have to follow suit. If he told the FDA that more voluntary guidelines weren’t the way to go on antibiotics, and he wanted rules and not suggestions, and he wanted a program to ratchet down and eliminate the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals, it could happen. They did it in Denmark. They eliminated the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in swine production and their productivity has gone up. They have more piglets per sow, fewer infections in the swine herd, and fewer infections in the human population.

Yale Environment 360: It’s the five-year mark of the Pew report, and your assessment is quite grim in terms of reform. So how can these recommendations be implemented in the future?

Martin: The chairman of the Pew Commission was the former governor of Kansas and he had a saying that I quote all the time: ‘A politician begins to see the light when he feels the heat.’ Our conclusion in the report was that an informed and engaged public is essential to getting the attention of policy makers and regulatory officials. So a hopeful sign, actually, is that there are more and more people who are concerned about where their food comes from and are interested in how it’s produced. I think the only optimistic thing is the growing number of people who are worried about the food system.

POSTED ON 19 Nov 2013 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Central & South America North America

The Plight of the Honeybee

Jennifer S. Holland for National Geographic News – Published May 10, 2013

Bees are back in the news this spring, if not back in fields pollinating this summer’s crops. The European Union (EU) has announced that it will ban, for two years, the use of neonicotinoids, the much-maligned pesticide group often fingered in honeybee declines. The U.S. hasn’t followed suit, though this year a group of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the EPA for not doing enough to protect bees from the pesticide onslaught.

For the last several years scientists have fretted over the future of bees, and although research has shed much light on the crisis, those in the bee business—from hive keepers to commercial farmers—say the insects remain in deep trouble as their colonies continue to struggle.

The current crisis arose during the fall of 2006 as beekeepers around the country reported massive losses—more than a third of hives on average and up to 90 percent in some cases. Bees were flying away and simply not coming back; keepers would find boxes empty of adult bees except for a live queen. No bee corpses remained to tell the tale. The losses were unprecedented and fast.

Now it’s five years later, and though colony collapse disorder (CCD)—the name given to the mysterious killer condition—has dwindled in the manner of cyclical diseases, bees are still battling for their lives and their colonies are weaker than ever. The latest data, from the 2012-2013 winter, indicate an average loss of 45.1 percent of hives across all U.S. beekeepers, up 78.2 percent from the previous winter, and a total loss of 31.1 percent of commercial hives, on par with the last six years. (Most keepers now consider a 15 percent loss “acceptable.”)

Unprecedented Pollinator Crisis

Why keep worrying over the fate of a bunch of pesky stinging insects? Bees in their crucial role as pollinators are paramount. Western nations rely heavily on managed honeybees—the “moveable force” of bees that ride in trucks from farm to farm—to keep commercial agriculture productive. About a third of our foods (some 100 key crops) rely on these insects, including apples, nuts, all the favorite summer fruits (like blueberries and strawberries), alfalfa (which cows eat), and guar bean (used in all kinds of products). In total, bees contribute more than $15 billion to U.S. crop production, hardly small potatoes.

No, we wouldn’t starve without their services—much of the world lives without managed pollinators. But we’d lose an awful lot of good, healthy food, from cherries and broccoli to onions and almonds. Or we’d pay exorbitant costs for farmers to use some other, less efficient pollination technique to supplement the work that healthy natural pollinators could do. Plus, bee health can tell us a lot about environmental health, and thus about our own well-being.

 Collecting honey from a honeycomb of the giant honeybee using smoke.

A man uses smoke to harvest honey from a honeycomb.Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

 

Today’s pollinator crisis, which has also hit Europe and now parts of Asia, is unprecedented. But honeybees have done disappearing acts on and off for more than a century, possibly since humans began domesticating them 4,500 years ago in Egypt. In the United States, unexplained colony declines in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s baffled farmers, and in 1995-1996 Pennsylvania keepers lost more than half of their colonies without a clear cause. The 1980s and 1990s saw various new parasites that hit bees hard; Varroa and tracheal mites became major killers, and they continue to plague hives and keep beekeepers up at night.

When CCD appeared, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture joined forces to study and fight the assailant, but a half-dozen years later they still lack a smoking gun. Recent work reveals higher loads of pathogens in the guts of bees from collapsed colonies versus healthy ones—making viral infections a likely culprit.

But this isn’t a case of one cause, one effect. Bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland likens the situation to HIV/AIDS in humans. “You don’t die of AIDS; you die of pneumonia or some other condition that hits when your immunity is down,” he says. Today’s bee mortalities may be behaving slightly differently. “But we’re pretty sure in all these cases, diseases are the tipping point” after bees’ immune systems are compromised.

So what makes bees vulnerable to those diseases, what’s killing their immunity, continues to be the $15-billion question.

Problems Piling Up

Zac Browning is a fourth-generation beekeeper based in North Dakota. His mostly migratory commercial operation runs about 22,000 hives in three states—meaning he trucks his bees to different locations at different times of year, renting out their pollination services to big farms like those producing almonds in California and canola in Idaho.

CCD devastated his hives a few years back, but “we’ve seen losses more recently from everything imaginable,” he says. “Pests, parasites, pesticide exposure, starvation, queen failures, you name it.”

In addition to these problems piling up, “our inputs have gone up one-and-a-half times in the last decade,” he says. “We now have to try to sustain bees [with extra food] when natural food is scarce, dearth periods that didn’t exist before.”

Part of the problem is keepers have to boost hive numbers to meet demand, “but the carrying capacity of the environment hasn’t changed.” In fact, it’s gone down. The amount of undeveloped land with good bee forage just isn’t enough to sustain the masses, he says.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that colonies with access to the best pollens (with more than 25 percent protein plus essential amino acids), which occur in diverse plant habitats once common across the landscape, are more robust and more resistant to disease than those in pollen-poor environments.

The Threat From Pesticides

Another adversary in the bees’ battle, as the EU reminds us, is pesticides. Pesticides themselves aren’t necessarily a death sentence for bees—and debate rages over whether, when properly applied, these chemicals can be used safely among pollinators. But exposure to them seems to open the door to other killers.

For example, bees exposed to sublethal doses of neonicotinoids—the type the EU is banning and that are used routinely in the U.S. on wheat, corn, soy, and cotton crops—become more easily infected by the gut parasite Nosema.

Meanwhile, last year a French study indicated that this same class of chemicals can fog honeybee brains and alter behavior. And a British study on bumblebees, a natural pollinator in decline in many places, reported neonicotinoids keep bees from supplying their hives with enough food for queen production.

 A queen bee.

A man shows his hive’s queen bee.Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

 

“Honeybees are complex,” says Browning. “If you reduce their lives by even just a few days, the colony itself never thrives, never reaches its maximum potential. Sublethal effects that don’t kill adults outright may still render hives weak and lethargic. And those hives might not survive the winter.”

What takes down the individual bee doesn’t necessarily wipe out the colony, vanEngelsdorp explains. And pesticides, like other factors, do their worst when combined with other chemicals or stressors, not necessarily all by themselves. “It’s synergism,” he says. “One plus one may equal 10 with the right two products or insults together.” (Samples of bee-collected pollen typically contain residue from numerous pesticides.) In the end, then, an immune-suppressed colony faces a downward spiral, unable to cope with stressors that weren’t a problem during healthier years.

The chemicals of modern agriculture have long been vilified, and they certainly represent a vital and active line of inquiry: The number registered for use in the U.S. exceeds 1,200 active ingredients distributed among some 18,000 products, and state pesticide use records are mostly unavailable, leaving a lot of question marks. No one knows much about how low-level exposure to various chemicals over time or how various combinations affect the insects. Meanwhile, migratory colonies likely have very different chemical exposure than those who stay put. The landscape is messy.

A New Concern

In newly worrisome findings, a study from a team at Penn State has revealed that “inert” ingredients (adjuvants) used regularly to boost the effectiveness of pesticides do as much or more harm than the active “toxic” ingredients. In one study adjuvants were shown to impair adult bees’ smelling and navigation abilities, and in a separate study they killed bee larvae outright.

The formulas for these other ingredients “are often proprietary information and not disclosed by the companies,” says Penn State’s Maryann Frazier, who wasn’t an author on the study, “so they cannot be independently tested and assessed for toxicity. When [the] EPA screens pesticides for registration, they only consider the active ingredient,” she says.

In addition, “there are no requirements by [the] EPA for companies to test the impacts of pesticides on immature stages of pollinators,” she says, “only adults.”

The EPA participated in a stakeholder conference last year to discuss honeybee health (a report is just out from that event). An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but noted that the agency has been working to speed up its review of research related to neonicotinoids and their effect on honeybees. It is also tweaking existing regulatory practices to address various concerns including pesticide dust drift, product label warnings, and enforcement of bee-kill investigations.

Barrage of Stressors

So in addition to a changing climate and bizarre local weather systems, bees are threatened by chemical exposure in untested and unregulated combinations, disappearing foraging habitat with increasing monoculture that requires trucking bees from place to place, and fungal and viral intruders, plus the dreaded Varroa mite.

Meanwhile, nature is not sitting still. The diseases that are taking out immune-suppressed bees are quick to evolve resistance to farmers’ attempts to protect their bees. “Based on our management surveys last year, not one commercial product against Varroa worked consistently,” says vanEngelsdorp, citing numerous examples.

With the barrage of stressors bees face, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re no longer as resilient as they once were. And honeybees, vanEngelsdorp points out, are among the most robust pollinators. The native insects, such as bumblebees, stingless bees, and flies, may be in worse shape, though their plights—and role in the ecosystem—are far less well known.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit against the EPA is just revving up (the first hearing was March 15), and scientists continue to push hard to get more information on the unregulated ingredients in agrochemicals that are proving harmful. “Unless we can get at what’s actually being used on fields, we can’t analyze their effects,” says toxicologist Chris Mullin, a co-author of the Penn State adjuvant study. And some products, he says, “are nearly 100 percent adjuvant. Illogically, they are considered safe until proven otherwise.”

Other voices have risen strongly against current land use practices. “Honeybees need habitat,” Browning says. “That’s any floral source with good nutrition. And that’s not wheat, corn, or soy, crops that take up well over 60 percent of U.S. farmland.” We’ve traded bee needs for biofuel, he laments, and we’re paying the price.

“We also need good cooperation from [the] EPA—and from farmers and pesticide applicators—to implement and enforce best management practices,” he says. Also on his wish list: a better battery of tools to effectively combat the Varroa mite, the bane of all beekeepers.

“Bee culture has adapted to fit monoculture, and that’s not healthy,” says Browning. “If we can instead invest in good sustainable practices in agriculture, we can still thrive.”

But his confidence in the future, along with that of many of his fellow beekeepers, is declining with his hives. “We’re just about tapped out,” he says. “Without some real action we’ll see this industry dwindle away.” And as the industry goes, so go the little yellow insects that put so much good food on our plates.

Jennifer S. Holland, a contributing writer to National Geographic, wrote about pollinators in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic.

Original Post

Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives establishes loan fund

NORTHAMPTON – With Wall Street at a low point in public opinion, a group of local worker cooperatives is building a fund to help its members as well as new cooperatives trying to get off the ground.

Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives has nine members throughout the Pioneer Valley, from Holyoke to Greenfield. Each of the business is owned and operated by the people who work there, giving them powers and responsibilities not found at other places of work.

Adam and Stever from Collective Copies

Adam and Stever from Collective Copies

“You’re able to use your values and determine where your money is going,” said Adam Trott of Collective Copies, one of the founding members of the group, which has been in existence since 2005.

The latest member is Simple, a Holyoke-based cooperative that offers compostable diapers and chemical-free linen laundering. With Simple about to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Trott said it’s a good time for other cooperative ventures.

“People are more ready for something new when there are difficult economic times,” he said.

To this end, the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives is establishing a fund that can loan money to new and existing cooperatives. As Trott explained it, each member contributes 5 percent of its annual profits toward the fund. The Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives has also recently partnered with the Cooperative Fund of New England, availing itself of the fund’s expertise and staff.

The Cooperative Fund of New England, Trott said, has cooperative members throughout New England and eastern New York, and more than $1 million in assets. The local group of cooperatives will look to it for help in vetting and procession loan applications.

“They’re great,” Trott said. “It’s a totally solid organization.”

Original Article

Few American food industry workers are treated well, report says…

 A Los Angeles waiter prepares to deliver lunch. A new report found that such workers often go without sick pay, promotions or healthcare.

By Tiffany Hsu

Chicago Tribune reporter

6:09 a.m. CDT, June 6, 2012

The roughly 20 million workers involved up and down the American food chain make up a sixth of the country’s entire workforce — a fifth if you exclude public employees. But they’re not treated especially well, according to a new report.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance interviewed some 700 workers and employers in food production, processing, distribution, retail and service sectors for its study. That includes employees at farms, slaughterhouses, warehouses, grocery stores, restaurants and more.

Researchers found that food sector workers outnumber healthcare, education and manufacturing employees and are responsible for annually producing $1.8 trillion in goods and services, more than 13% of gross domestic product.

But just more than 1 in 10 of them earn a livable wage. The vast majority don’t get basic benefits from their employers and don’t have many opportunities for advancement. The food industry, according to the study’s authors, could be endangering its workers and customers by forcing employees to operate in conditions of high stress and little payback.

Here are some of the report’s more dramatic findings:

  • The median wage for a food industry worker is $9.65 an hour. Compared with the 8.3% of American workers on food stamps, 13.8% of food industry employees depend on the aid.
  • Eighty-three percent say their employers don’t offer health insurance. More than 3 in 10 use the emergency room for primary care.
  • Seventy-nine percent either don’t get paid sick days or don’t know if they do. Three in 10 don’t always get a lunch break.
  • Eighty-one percent have never received a promotion. Minorities and immigrants face especially high levels of discrimination and segregation and rarely advance beyond the lowest-paying positions.
  • Fifty-seven percent have suffered an injury or health problems on the job. More than half have picked, processed, sold, cooked or served food while sick — an average of three days a year.
  • Of the 47 small and mid-size food system employers interviewed, many told researchers that competition from corporate conglomerates has stressed their bottom line. Some have adapted by focusing on niche markets, offering local, sustainable and organic products. Most, however, have lowered labor costs and boosted productivity to survive.

This spring, the California Supreme Court ruled that while employers must make it possible for workers to take scheduled breaks, they can’t be held liable if employees decide to work instead of rest. The issue had caused tension for years in the restaurant industry.

We need 100,000 farmers!

FROM:  Holistic Management International Blog

Why we need 100,000 new farmers/ranchers

Published on April 30, 2012 by

The why:  People are hungry – they need food and they need jobs

  1. Globally, We need to double total food production by 2050 to meet the world’s needs – farmers and farm rangeland are needed to grow that food – in the world, hunger kills more people than aids, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
  2. In the U.S., 49 million Americans live in food insecure households – meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from – New Mexico  is dead last on that list. One in six Americans struggle with hunger. 36% of households defined as food insecure have at least one working adult, and only 10% of food insecure households are homeless.
  3. Rural counties are disproportionately high in food  insecurity and hunger
  4. In New Mexico, only about 3% of food grown in state reaches the mouths of in-state consumers.
  5. Of the $2.5 billion received by New Mexican farmers each year, 80% is earned either from exports of dairy products and cattle or from sales of the grains to support these  animals.  Most of the remaining agricultural products in the state, such as pecans, onions, and chile, are exported as well.
  6. Food localization means New Mexicans, while continuing their food-export industries, would consume more of the raw foodstuffs grown or raised in the state.

Residents also would purchase more processed foods from local manufacturer, buy more of all kinds of food from local grocery stores, and eat out more selectively in local restaurants.

Why does that matter? It’s the ripple effect – and there are extensive studies- One simple example.  New Mexicans spend $124 million on fresh vegetables, but well over 90% of all vegetables grown in the state are exported.  Expanding the vegetable sector by 90% to meet local demand, while continuing to produce for export, would create 700 additional jobs.

I’m not here today to argue food localization vs. large, so called “industrialized” agriculture – although many people question the sustainability of that industrialized food system — pointing to:

  •  It consumes vast quantities of natural resources
  • It is heavily dependent on fossil fuel to produce synthetic fertilizer and process  package and transport food
  •  It consumes huge volumes of water
  •   It degrades soil

Many of my best friends are big ranchers and farmers, currently enjoying record farm/ranch  income and one of the strongest agriculture markets in decades. The Big farming and ranching folks are happy right now — and they are nervous.

Talking to a big rancher just yesterday he feels the “bubble” – the money won’t last, the drought is driving people out business, mad cow, pink slime, tagging and and other regulations make it challenging – in addition to the cost of transport to feedlots — the challenges of a beef diet – it goes on and on.

That said — realistically — big production is not going away anytime soon. It may change and adapt – but it will be there as part of the agricultural landscape, in one form or another.

With the smaller and medium sized guys, however  —- The question is one of sustainability, not just of the land or cattle – but of the people.

The average American farmer is 58 years old. The average cattleman is 61 years old.

And, oh, by the way —- according to Beef USA, 90% of all U.S. cow herds have less than 100 cows. So there is a declining population of people, with small herds, with growing challenges – and despite the current bubble — a disincentive to carry the ranch forward another generation, in the face of hunger and a growing demand for food.

That is why Secretary Vilsack says we need 100,000 new farmers and ranchers in the next 5 years.

We have a shrinking supply of  production , that is farmers/ranchers – with a growing demand for output – that is, food.

The good news is there is a new generation coming on that wants to farm and ranch and they are exploring new paradigms – problem is they often can’t afford the land, and there are programs with land trusts, USDA and others to assist — and they desperately want training — not only in production but management to run a smaller, efficient, profitable healthy enterprise. And interestingly many are doing it. Many of them are women – 30% of the 3 million farms are operated by women – today, women are twice as likely to take over an existing enterprise or starting a new one than men.

Even Some Bankers Think Big Banks are Dangerous

Last week I published a blog titled Don’t wait for the federal government to fix the economy – relocalize your money now!”  Most readers agreed in general with the theme that we can’t afford banks “too big to fail” (of course most of my readers are progressives).   In conversation with some friends this weekend however, there was a sense that the big banks are inevitable “evil” and the Occupy Wall Street response too unfocused to matter.

While I disagree (as I suggested in the blog) I do understand the feeling that changing the situation given the federal government’s support of centralized power and money will be difficult.  Then I read this article that was published this weekend in the Wall Street Journal and felt a spark of hope!

I’ve reproduced the article in full below, but if you really want to understand this issue go to the source of this viewpoint which was published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas!

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The Wall Street Journal

March 24, 2012, 9:51 p.m. ET

Too Big To Bank There

  • By AL LEWIS

Columnist's name
We have finally reached the point in our financial history where even bankers hate bankers.Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas issued its 2011 annual report with a 34-page essay, “Why We Must End Too Big To Fail—Now.” The report stops short of calling our nation’s largest banks terrorists, but it does dub them “a clear and present danger to the U.S. economy.”

It begins with a letter from regional Fed president Richard Fisher. “More than half of banking industry assets are on the books of just five institutions,” he complains. “They were a primary culprit in magnifying the financial crisis, and their presence continues to play an important role in prolonging our economic malaise.”

This is not the Tea Party. This is not Occupy Wall Street. This is not some disgruntled Goldman Sachs guy firing off a nastygram to the New York Times on his last day. This is a member of the Federal Reserve itself—an institution that bears responsibility for our banking system devolving into an untenable oligarchy that buys off politicians, captures regulators and eats up our money. This is a member of the establishment saying Too-Big-To-Fail, or TBTF, must die.

“The term TBTF disguised the fact that commercial banks holding roughly one-third of the assets in the banking system did essentially fail, surviving only with extraordinary government assistance,” the essay reads.

Their executives paid themselves fortunes to execute failed mergers and acquisitions and accumulate unimaginable piles of toxic debts. We saved them to save the financial system. But now we must break them up so they don’t put us in this ridiculous situation again.

These banks are “a hindrance to the very ideal of American capitalism,” Mr. Fisher writes. And capitalism requires “creative destruction.”

I would add that most of these TBTF banks are criminal enterprises and deserve the death penalty, anyway. The record is clear: They’ve paid millions of dollars to settle fraud allegations, often without admitting or denying guilt. And to crib a line from Gregg Costa, a federal prosecutor who recently won a conviction against Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford: “Fraud is just theft wearing a business suit.”

To keep everyone honest, capitalism demands the kind of competition that big banks love to crush.

“When competition declines, incentives often turn perverse, and self-interest can turn malevolent. That’s what happened in the years before the financial crisis,” the Fed essay says.

“A financial system composed of more banks—numerous enough to ensure competition but none of them big enough to put the overall economy in jeopardy—will give the United States a better chance.”

So how do we get there? The Dallas Fed doesn’t offer many clear solutions, but one way to go may be as simple as a variation on a 1960s anti-Vietnam War mantra: “What if there was a bank and nobody showed up?”

If you hear that your delusional, oversized banker is threatening the nation’s economy, why do you still bank there? Have you no patriotism?

You can’t wait for the next Democrat or the next Republican or the next Ron Paul to take action. There is only one thing you can do: Find a well-managed community bank or a credit union that hasn’t been bailed out or settled allegations of fraud and put your money there.

You don’t have to take it from the left or the right, or even me. Take it from the Dallas Fed: “Achieving an economy relatively free from financial crises requires us to have the fortitude to break up the giant banks.”

—Al Lewis is a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires in Denver. He blogs at tellittoal.com ; his email address is al.lewis@dowjones.com