Category Archives: Food/Nutrition

COVID-19 Crisis Failure, People Must Save Themselves and the Economy

Positive COVID-19 Test (Shutterstock)

The US is at a moment of truth. This week, Congress has to face up to a pandemic that is out of control and an economy that is collapsing. The Republican’s and Democrat’s proposals show they will fail this test. The people will need to protect themselves and lead from below.

The pandemic is worsening with more than 60,000 new cases and approximately 1,000 new deaths daily. Deaths, now over 158,000, are spiking across the sunbelt and increasing across the Midwest. By Election Day, the US could have 250,000 deaths making COVID-19 the third largest killer after cancer and heart disease.

The economy shrank at a record 32.9% annual pace in the second quarter, the largest since records were first kept in 1947. Jobless claims increased for the second week in a row with 1.4 million new people seeking unemployment benefits and continuing claims have risen to 17.06 million. More than 35 million people have lost their jobs since March.

In the face of these depression-era numbers, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are planning enough spending to rebuild the economy. President Trump, who has botched the response to the pandemic, is unable to lead but seems willing to sign anything that passes Congress.

Boxes of food are distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, at a drive thru distribution in downtown Pittsburgh, 10 April, 2020 (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.)

Republican HEALS Act Will Spread the Virus, Deepen Economic Collapse

The Republican Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act seeks to push people back to work and reopen schools even if it is not safe to do so. Their proposals to cut unemployment benefits are designed to make workers desperate so they will work in conditions that put their health at risk. A large portion of school funding is restricted to schools that physically reopen forcing unsafe schools. Here are some of the details of the bill:

Health care: The inadequacy of for-profit healthcare has been magnified by the pandemic. The loss of jobs resulted in millions of people losing their health insurance on top of almost 30 million people who were already uninsured. Republicans do not include a funding increase for Medicaid, which 70 million people rely on. The National Governor’s Association reports states are experiencing budget shortfalls ranging between 5 and 20 percent. The Republicans do not provide any funding to state and local governments to make up for this loss of income. Without new funding, states will have to cut Medicaid eligibility, reduce benefits, or reduce payments to providers at a time when the economy and virus mean more people need it.

Food: The Census reports 26 million people do not have adequate food. Food banks are reporting shortages and 14 million children are going hungry but the Republicans did not extend funding for food assistance programs. The Republicans did not extend either the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as food stamps, or the Pandemic EBT program, a benefit for households with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals, which ended in June. In contrast, they did propose a 100 percent deduction on business meals through the end of 2020.

Housing: The eviction moratorium expired last week. It protected an estimated 12 million renters in federally-backed properties. The HEALS Act does nothing to prevent evictions from restarting. There are 110 million Americans who live in rental households. Twenty percent of them, 23 million people, are at risk of eviction by September 30 according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. With the cut in unemployment benefits, the Census Bureau estimates 24 million people will be unable to pay next month’s rent, including 45 percent of Black and Latinx households.

Worker safety: As workers are being forced back to work, the HEALS Act cuts their ability to sue at a time when worker-safety is at its greatest risk in a century.  Senator McConnell calls this a “red line” that must be in the final bill. His proposal would preempt the few state workplace safety laws that exist and supersede such federal worker safeguards as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, among others. The Republican proposal would erect almost insurmountable obstacles to lawsuits by workers who become infected at their workplaces and limit damages. To be immune, employers would merely have to show they were  “exploring options” to comply with federal law, or they found the risk of harm to health could not be “reduced or eliminated by reasonably modifying policies, practices, or procedures.” A worker whose lawyer issues a demand letter and settlement offer would find themselves potentially facing litigation by the employer against them. If employers sue workers, there is no limit to punitive damages. These provisions would be retroactive to December 1, 2019, and remain in effect at least until October 1, 2024.

Student debt: The HEALS Act doesn’t extend the interest-free payment pause on federal student loans or halt debt collection on government-held student debt, two forms of relief in the original CARES ACT. Without extending the relief Congress first granted to student loan borrowers through the CARES Act, 40 million people are likely to have to resume payments on September 30, 2020 at a time when there are Depression-like levels of unemployment.

Business support: The Act provides $100 billion more for the problematic Paycheck Protection Program, which has been rife with corruption as members of Congress and the administration as well as their friends, families, and donors got payouts. Big businesses got loans even though the program was intended for small businesses, making small business owners furious. Black and minority businesses were denied loans. Money is needed for main street businesses but PPP needs major changes rather than just pouring more money into the failed program.

The bill also includes $1.75 billion for the FBI building. This was added at the insistence of the Trump administration because the president’s hotel is across the street from the FBI. Without funding to refurbish the building, the FBI could move to Virginia or Maryland, leaving the current building to be torn down and likely replaced with a hotel that would compete with Trump’s hotel.

Military spending: Nearly $30 billion in the HEALS Act would be allocated in a brazen giveaway to the military. The bill includes billions for the Pentagon including $686 million for F-35 stealth fighters, $650 million for A-10 ground attack airplane wing replacements, $1.4 billion for four expeditionary medical ships, and $720 million for C-130J transport aircraft, $375 million for armored vehicles, $360 million for missile defense, and $283 million for Apache helicopters. This is reportedly being added to make up for money taken from the Pentagon for the border wall and comes after Congress recently passed a record military spending bill.

Paramedics taking a patient into an Emergency Room at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The Democrats Fail To Use Their Power

The Democrats control the House of Representatives. Nothing can pass the Senate without Democratic Party support. The Senate Republicans are divided and Trump is desperate to sign a bill. Polls show Republicans could lose the Senate so they need to pass a good bill. The political alignment favors the Democratic Party but it still isn’t doing what is needed.

The Democrats passed the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act in May, a $3 trillion proposal compared to the $1 trillion HEALS Act. Two months ago this may have been adequate but now that figure needs to be increased as more jobs have been lost, state and city governments have lost income, and the cost of treating the virus has increased with more cases.

A “red line” for the Democrats should be funding state and local government with at least $1 trillion to continue basic services. More than 20 million people work for state and local governments such as firefighters, teachers, police, sanitation workers, and transportation workers. The Economic Policy Institute estimates 5.3 million jobs will be lost without state and local funding. President Trump and the Republicans do not want another massive increase in job loss, so the Democrats are in a strong position to make this demand.

The decrease in unemployment benefits should be another unacceptable “red line” as this will further shrink the economy. The Economic Policy Institute finds the loss of the extra $600 of unemployment benefits, which people are currently spending on basic needs, will result in the loss of an additional 3.4 million jobs.

One area where the Democrats can build on some agreement is the $1,200 COVID-19 relief payment to individuals. These payments are too small. A good COVID-19 relief package would increase payments to $2,000 per person monthly for the duration of the pandemic and recession for households earning under $150,000 as suggested by Sen. Bernie Sanders. This would slow the economic collapse and ease suffering.

It is essential to extend the moratorium on evictions not just for federally-subsidized housing, but the federal government should also cover rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crises. Otherwise, millions of families will lose their homes in an election year, which should be politically unpalatable for both parties.

Health workers give people free Covid-19 tests in Arlington, Virginia, on May 26 (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

We Need a Plan

What is missing from both the Republican and Democratic bills is a strategy to control and stop the pandemic. The virus is 7 months old and still spreading rapidly. President Trump has failed to lead so Congress must do so. The bill should include a massive investment in making rapid testing available across the country. Every business and school should have rapid testing capability before they reopen. This should be combined with hiring 500,000 public health tracers so those who have been exposed to COVID-19 can be tracked to prevent further spread of the virus.

Everyone wants to restart the economy but this must be done safely. In addition to testing and tracing, workplaces and schools must be safe. School districts should decide whether to restart or continue web-based learning and should be supported by the federal government whatever they choose. Hundreds of thousands of tutors who can do one-on-one teaching to support web-based learning are needed. With high unemployment, especially among recent graduates and college students, there are people available to take on this task.

Congress should authorize OSHA to rapidly enact stringent standards for workplaces to reopen, along with funding for necessary safeguards. There should be increased funding for OSHA workplace inspections and investigations of inadequate safety. Employers who meet the standards for a safe workplace should have legal protection from frivolous lawsuits but employees should also have the right to sue if workplaces do not meet safety standards. This approach protects both workers and employers and will reduce the spread of the virus.

Neither party handled healthcare well even before the pandemic. COVID-19 has magnified the failure of for-profit healthcare. To stop the spread of the virus, Congress needs to break away from its privatized approach to healthcare. With the widespread job loss, 5.4 million workers lost their health insurance as did millions more family members. This is the largest decline in health insurance coverage in US history. The rapid response to this healthcare crisis should be the expansion of Medicare to everyone in the United States. Ideological opposition to publicly funded healthcare should not block this essential step. The long term failure of our healthcare system and widening health disparities demonstrate why we need a community-controlled, public, universal healthcare system.

Workers strike over safety (Yahoo Finance)

he People Must Rule, and Protect Ourselves

Congress and the President are unlikely to enact the laws needed to confront the pandemic and economic collapse. As a result, both will worsen. We will have to take action to protect ourselves and build popular power to win our demands.

We need to organize mutual aid to people meet people’s basic needs, such as for food and housing. Many cities have vacant buildings owned by the local and federal governments. As homelessness rises, these should be taken over to house people. We discuss the practical steps for taking over homes with Cheri Honkala this week on Clearing The FOG, (available as a podcast on Monday).

We build popular power by taking the streets as people have been doing for over two months now across the country, only buying essentials, refusing to pay rent or debt payments, blocking evictions and by building in our workplaces for a general strike.

Our actions must not be about which presidential candidate from the two parties of the millionaires to elect. Only one serious presidential campaign is right on COVID-19 and the economy, the Green candidates Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker. Our actions need to be about building a people’s movement that grows in power before and after the November elections. No matter who is elected, the people will need to resist, create new systems and rule from below.

A Table Full of Fraud

If you log on to the website of the restaurant in which I currently work, the first words that jump out at you are local, modern, authentic. They describe themselves as a modern Italian restaurant that uses the freshest locally sourced ingredients, whose chefs are respectful to Italian cooking methods while providing their guests the most bold and authentic flavors of Italy. They also invite everyone to join them every Sunday for a contemporary Italian Brunch filled with everyone’s favorite breakfast classics and house-made mimosas. And of course, everything on the menu is advertised as being Farm to Table.

Eating at a restaurant is a matter of trust, and if you spend any time in them at all you’ll soon come to the conclusion that you are regularly being lied to. If you order the Maine lobster, the locally farmed pork loin or the organic vegetable lasagna, how can you be assured that you’re actually receiving what is advertised? The simple answer is – you can’t. Restaurant patrons are placed in the unenviable position of having to trust that either the restaurateur or corporation they purchase their food from is telling the truth about the food they’re selling – a truth that is all-too-often shrouded in deception and unverifiable to the average consumer.

One of the most fraudulent phrases the restaurant industry has pooped out in the last few years is “farm to table.” The farm to table movement has its origins in the hippie culture of the 1960s. It initially began in so-called progressive cities such as Berkeley, California and Austin, Texas and has spread into the cultural mainstream over the last 10 years or so. According to a recent survey by The National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of consumers said the availability of local food is a deciding factor in where to dine out. Another 68 percent said they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced items.

The problem is, farm to table means absolutely nothing outside of being a clever marketing term. No government regulation is required to label food farm to table, and terms like “local” and “sustainable” can have different definitions depending on the motivations of any particular restaurant owner. And at its core, isn’t all food inherently farm to table to begin with? The entire food chain – be it protein or vegetable – essentially originates from some form of farming, whether outdoor or hydroponic, and ultimately ends up on our collective tables for consumption. So championing food as being superior because it’s farm to table is a little like recommending oxygen that’s derived from photosynthesis.

“Sourcing locally” is about as disingenuous a description as you’ll ever see on a restaurant menu. The truth is, most restaurants purchase their food from a handful of the same purveyors who source their product in bulk from wherever they can buy it cheapest throughout the world, with the two largest of these distributors being Sysco and US Foods. Genuine local sourcing of food would require restaurant owners to visit farms and establish relationships with farmers – something they have neither the time nor energy to do. Plus, most farmers don’t have either the infrastructure or capacity to engage in their own sales, marketing and delivery.

Which opens the door for misleading menus.

I worked several years at a large, national Italian-themed restaurant chain that specialized in family-style portions that were marketed as being made from scratch daily by a cadre of culinary specialists who faithfully recreated recipes lovingly coaxed out of Italian mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Twice a week a Sysco semi-trailer would pull up to our loading dock and deliver multiple pallets of pre-packaged marinara sauce, frozen fish, cryovac-sealed steaks, canned vegetables, frozen pre-made pasta as well as various bulk spices and whatever else was necessary to concoct granny’s authentic recipes. The culinary specialists who combined all this stuff together in the prep kitchen were in actuality minimum wage warriors who faithfully followed the sugar-and-salt laden recipes designed by corporate so-called culinarians several states removed from us. The only thing scratch that ever occurred in that kitchen was when a prep cook had an itch and needed to address it appropriately.

Most national restaurant chains utilize their economy of scale to negotiate bulk pricing with national distributors which allows them to keep their food costs in check. There is, however, little or no government oversight regarding the genuineness of how they market the ingredients they buy and resell. So the same pre-packaged marinara sauce that gets churned out in a factory somewhere in the Midwest can be marketed as locally-sourced and organic in California while simultaneously being labeled homemade in Texas. Legally, you can advertise a fish selection as fresh if it was flash-frozen when it was taken out of the water – which adds a entirely new take on the term bait and switch. When you see the term “free range chicken” on a menu, it doesn’t mean anything. There really is no difference between free range and regular chicken – the USDA says you can call them free range if you give them access to the outdoors and slightly more space per chicken to roam. However, if you visit one of the farms you will see that the free range chickens, while they have a door to go outside, stay huddled up in packs inside, identical to the regular chickens. Both free range and regular chickens are fed the same diet and fully raised for slaughter in just five weeks. As always, it’s about the money. If I can purchase something at $1.99 per pound and sell it as is for $2.10, I make a 11 cent profit. But if I repackage it and call it humanely raised, GMO and antibiotic free, I can sell it for $2.40 per pound, thus raising my profit to 41 cents per pound.

Another culinary scam used by restaurants is the proliferation and promotion of truffle oil as an ingredient. This is essentially a cheap additive used to elevate the perception and price of mostly common dishes such as soups and French fries. Truffle oil has as many truffles in it as the average Donald Trump tweet has truths – which is none. Truffle oil is essentially a chemical, entirely manufactured in laboratories using the same process as perfume. The most common source of “natural truffle” flavor in the oil is a chemically altered form of formaldehyde called 2,4-dithiapentane. Famous chef and TV host Gordon Ramsay has called truffle oil, “One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chefs.”

And what of those increasingly popular champagne brunches sometimes accompanied by the endless trough of bottomless mimosas? To quote Donnie Brasco…Fuhgeddaboudit. Finding real champagne on a champagne brunch is as likely as Jared Fogle being featured in another Subway commercial. According to Wine Spectator magazine, approximately 99 percent of Americans are under the perception that Champagne is a sparkling wine that is produced in a specific region of France. That, however, is incorrect. It is now perfectly legal for U.S. winemakers to label their sparkling wines as champagne with no oversight whatsoever. So the restaurateur who purchased a bulk buy on numerous cases of swill at two dollars a bottle can pawn it off as the champagne you’re supposedly washing your bacon and eggs down with.

One of the easiest menu items for a restaurant to swindle you with is seafood. That’s because by the time it ends up on your plate it resembles nothing like it did when it was caught and is usually slathered with sauce or other accoutrements. So there’s a better than average chance that your Wild Caught Salmon actually came from a farm and was pumped full of antibiotics, your Red Snapper is actually Tilapia and your Grouper is really Asian Catfish. A new study from researchers at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University checked the DNA of fish ordered at 26 Los Angeles sushi restaurants from 2012 through 2015, and found that 47 percent of sushi was mislabeled. So if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck…It’s probably a cat.

Part of the problem is that the USDA and FDA don’t hold restaurant businesses to the same standard as they do the grocery industry. If you purchase a USDA Prime Ribeye from Whole Foods, you can legally be assured that’s exactly what you’re getting. But the minute you set foot in a restaurant, that’s where the assurances end. Any restaurant can get away with labeling their items with enticing adjectives such as Prime, Cage-Free, Angus, Hormone-Free, Grass Fed or Organic without being required to empirically back up these claims. Granted, it’s a risky proposition on their part to engage in this deception – especially if they get caught doing so – but how many consumers realistically require a paper trail evidence from their waiter that the chicken cordon bleu sitting in front of them never spent any of its past existence in a cage?

Even with packaged foods, deception runs as rampant as a right wing Supreme Court Justice attempting to mask his disdain for Roe v. Wade. Grated Parmesan cheese has been shown to contain up to nine percent wood pulp to prevent clumping, burned sawdust combined with water can be added to certain foods to give them a smoky flavor, silicon dioxide – sand – is an ingredient found in powdered foods to prevent them from clumping, human hair and duck feathers are used to make L-Cysteine which is an ingredient used in mass-produced breads, Shellac – “confectioner’s glaze” – is used to make candy shiny and is made from bug secretion, and vanilla flavoring is often created using beaver urine. All of which ends up on your plate awaiting your willing and unknowing consumption.

Just because your orange juice is labeled being fresh-squeezed on the menu doesn’t mean someone lovingly crafted the contents of your glass to order. Instead, it more than likely means that the distributor picked the fruit, machine-squeezed it that afternoon or the following day, froze it, warehoused it until an order for it was processed, shipped it and marketed it as fresh-squeezed where it now awaits your palate. And at that point, who is ultimately responsible for the deception – the distributor or the restaurateur? Or both? And though there are such things as Truth In Menu Laws, the majority of overworked officials placed in charge of enforcing them end up being more concerned with sanitation of the food prep areas they oversee rather than the food itself. That’s because the focus is on “food that’s fit for consumption,” and this focus is justified by examples such as mass food-poisoning outbreaks like the recent Chipotle E. coli fiasco that sickened customers in multiple states and the salmonella outbreak at high-end chain Fig & Olive. From that perspective, whether there’s one scrap of actual Angus in your burger seems relatively unimportant.

Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a certain point of no return with the way our food is marketed and presented to us whenever we go out to eat. As long as restaurants are legally allowed to perpetuate deceptive organic myths designed primarily to separate patrons from their money, the one thing we’re all destined to consume all-too-often is fiction and fraud. As always, education is the best defense against deception, and it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide the extent of the relationship we choose to have with the food we eat.

Food and Agroecology: Coping with Future Shocks

The food crisis that could follow in the wake of the various lockdowns that were implemented on the back of the coronavirus may have long-lasting consequences. We are already seeing food shortages in the making. In India, for instance, supply chains have been disrupted, farm input systems for the supply of seeds and fertilisers have almost collapsed in some places and crops are not being harvested. Moreover, cultivation has been adversely affected prior to the monsoon and farm incomes are drying up. Farmers closer to major urban centres are faring a bit better due to shorter supply chains.

Veteran rural reporter P Sainath has urged India’s farmers to move away from planting cash crops and to start cultivating food crops, saying that you cannot eat cotton. It’s a good point. For instance, according to a report that appeared on the ruralindiaonline website, in a region of southern Odisha, farmers have been pushed towards a reliance on (illegal) expensive genetically modified herbicide tolerant cotton seeds and have replaced their traditional food crops. Farmers used to sow mixed plots of heirloom seeds, which had been saved from family harvests the previous year and would yield a basket of food crops. They are now dependent on seed vendors, chemical inputs and a volatile international market to make a living and are no longer food secure.

But what is happening in India is a microcosm of global trends. Reliance on commodity monocropping for international markets, long global supply chains and dependency on external inputs for cultivation make the food system vulnerable to shocks, whether resulting from public health scares, oil price spikes (the industrial global food system is heavily fossil-fuel dependent) or conflict. An increasing number of countries are recognising the need to respond by becoming more food self-sufficient, preferably by securing control over their own food and reducing supply chains.

Various coronavirus lockdowns have disrupted many transport and production activities, exposing the weaknesses of our current food system. While one part of the world (the richer countries) experiences surplus food but crop destruction due to farm labour shortages, millions of people elsewhere could face hunger due to rising food prices — or a lack of food availability altogether: the story of India’s migrant workers returning to their villages from the cities has been one of hardship, hunger and even death.

If the current situation tells us anything, it is that structural solutions are needed to reorganise food production. In his final report (2014) to the UN Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter called for the world’s food systems to be radically redesigned. His report concluded that by applying agroecological principles to the design of democratically controlled agricultural systems we can help to put an end to food crises and poverty challenges. De Schutter argued that agroecological approaches could tackle food needs in critical regions and could double food production in 10 years. However, he stated that insufficient backing seriously hinders progress.

In addition to De Schutter’s 2014 report, the 2009 IAASTD peer-reviewed report, produced by 400 scientists and supported by 60 countries, recommends agroecology to maintain and increase the productivity of global agriculture. Moreover, the recent UN FAO High Level Panel of Experts concluded that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture.

As a model of agriculture, agroecology is based on traditional knowledge and modern agricultural research, utilising elements of contemporary ecology, soil biology and the biological control of pests. This system combines sound ecological management by using on-farm renewable resources and privileging endogenous solutions to manage pests and disease without the use of agrochemicals and corporate seeds.

Agroecology can also offer concrete, practical solutions to many of the world’s problems. It offers an alternative to a prevailing system of doctrinaire neoliberal economics that drives a failing model of industrial agriculture which is having devastating impacts on the environment, rural communities, public health, local and regional food security and food sovereignty.

Agroecology outperforms the prevailing industrial food system in terms of diversity of food output, nutrition per acre, soil health and efficient water use. In addition, by creating securely paid labour-intensive agricultural work in richer countries, it can also address the interrelated links between labour offshoring by those countries and the displacement of peasant farmers elsewhere who end up in sweat shops to carry out the outsourced jobs.

The Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology by Nyeleni in 2015 argued for building grass-root local food systems that create new rural-urban links, based on genuine agroecological food production. It added that agroecology requires local producers and communities to challenge and transform structures of power in society, not least by putting the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of those who feed the world.

It would mean that what ends up in our food and how it is grown is determined by the public good and not powerful private interests driven by commercial gain and the compulsion to subjugate farmers, consumers and entire regions to their global supply chains and questionable products( whether unhealthy food or proprietary pesticides and seeds). For consumers, the public good includes more diverse diets leading to better nutrition and enhanced immunity when faced with any future pandemic.

As Florence Tartanac, senior officer at Nutrition and Food Systems Division of the UN FAO, stated in April 2018:

… agroecological markets bring an increase in the availability of more diverse food, especially of local varieties, that are linked to traditional diets. Therefore, consumers’ awareness should be increased on the importance of diet diversification and its effects on physical and mental health as well as on the positive impacts of sustainable, local and traditional consumption on the social, economic and environmental compartments.

She made these comments during the second FAO international symposium ‘Scaling up Agroecology to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’. And it’s a valid point seeing that the modern diet has become less diverse and is driving a major public health crisis in many countries.

Across the world, decentralised, region and local community-owned food systems based on short(er) food supply chains that can cope with future shocks are now needed more than ever.

Only the Poor Starve: Hunger in the Time of Covid

Additional to the global health crisis and the coming worldwide economic collapse, Covid-19 is fuelling a humanitarian crisis. The World Food Program (WFP) warns that, “millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.” The WFP’s view that the biggest impact of the pandemic will not by caused by the virus directly, but the hunger that flows from it, is in line with other concerned groups.

In a recent statement the WFP warned that “unless swift action is taken”, by the end of the year we “will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger…in low and middle-income countries.” This is made up of 135 million already facing food shortages, plus an estimated 130 million people (it could well be more), as a result of Covid-19. This would take the total number of people who go to bed hungry every night to over a billion – approximately, for all such statistics serve as a guide only; inevitably they miss the hidden hungry, people living on the fringes of society in every country, rich and poor.

In addition to the ‘130 million’ there are the tens of millions of casual workers who can only eat if they work. “Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs,” says Dr. Arif Husain, chief economist at WFP, “it only takes one more shock – like Covid-19 – to push them over the edge.”

Countries dependent on food imports and the export of oil are particularly at risk of increased levels of hunger, as well as communities that rely on remittance income from overseas, and tourism. In addition there is the uncertainty around foreign aid as donor countries face the prospect of recession. Those in greatest danger are in 10 countries affected by conflict, economic crisis and climate change – all of which are interconnected. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises highlights Yemen (where two deaths from Covid-19 have already been reported), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti. Drought and the worst locust infestation for decades (triggered by climate change) have already caused food shortages in South Asia and the Horn of Africa, where according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 12 million people are living under the frightening shadow of food insecurity.

Unless we prepare and act now – “to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade,” the WFP statement state, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”

If the virus takes hold in locations where war is raging, in countries which have weak health care systems, the UN has warned that it would be impossible to limit the impact and/or deliver much needed humanitarian supplies, including food. In an attempt to safeguard these countries the UN Secretary general António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire. While some 70 member states, regional partners, non-state actors, civil society networks and organizations,” have so far endorsed his plea, “there was”, he said, “still a distance between declarations and deeds in many countries.”

If a ‘Pandemic of Hunger’ is to be avoided, in addition to peace and humanitarian access, supply chains, which have been disrupted, must remain open and fluid, allowing food to be transported easily. And, as WFP makes clear, states must not introduce export bans or import duties, which would lead to price rises.

These are urgent steps that must be taken to meet the immediate threat. But these measures will not feed the 800 million or so suffering from chronic hunger. The primary cause of hunger in our world is not conflict or access to food, it is poverty – there is nowhere in the world where the rich go hungry. To banish hunger for good, lasting fundamental change must be introduced. Systemic change and behavioral change, and the two are inextricably connected.

A perfect storm

Even before Covid-19 the head of the WFP forecast “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.” He cites wars in Syria and Yemen; the crisis in South Sudan, Burkino Faso and the Central Sahel region in Africa, where UNICEF says, “4.3 million children are now in need of humanitarian assistance,” the economic crisis in Lebanon, as well as countries like Ethiopia, the DRC and Sudan. The list, he says, ‘goes on…we’re already facing a perfect storm.’

The ‘perfect storm’ is an extreme consequence of a series of interconnected causes; many, if not all of which flow from the all-pervasive socio-economic order and the divisive values and attitudes that are promoted. Crystallized as it is, the system is a construct of the consciousness of the past. It is not of the now or the time we are moving into, nevertheless it dominates all life. Like many of our structures and forms it needs to change, many know this and Covid-19 is highlighting the need for change and presenting an opportunity. It is acting as a mirror, an agency of revelation, bringing issues into focus and pouring fuel on already simmering fires, insisting we attend. With businesses closed large numbers of people are being forced to slow down, to stop consuming, stop travelling. A space has opened up in which to reflect and examine how we live, individually as well as collectively.

A range of festering issues, known but either ignored or inflamed, are being brought to the surface; interrelated crises that have been percolating for decades demanding attention and a new approach. The man-made environmental crisis, which is the pressing issue of the age, and the outdated economic structure, inadequate or non-existent public services, the crisis of wealth/income and power inequality and social injustice among a number of other pressing social wounds.

After the pandemic has retreated and lockdowns are released the world economy is, by all predictions set to crash. The IMF estimate The Great Lockdown, as they are calling it, will result in the “worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis.” But as the head of the body, Kristalina Georgieva admits, it could be worse, they don’t know. If the coming crash is met, not with desperation and despair, but with creative imagination and compassion, it may, indeed could, bring about widespread liberation, allowing for a new and just, long overdue, reorganization of the socio-economic and political spheres.

The Age of Reason

Consistent with the new time we are moving into, a shift in collective consciousness is taking place among large numbers of people all over the world. To accommodate this shift, this new awareness that is slowly emerging, new ways of thinking, new institutions and structures are badly needed, including crucially a radically overhauled socio-economic system. A flexible evolving model anchored in certain Principles of Goodness: Unity, sharing and justice.

This common-sense trinity is interdependent and encourages values of cooperation and understanding, responsibility and tolerance. By the expression of one quality the other is strengthened, reinforced, expanded. Key is unity, the recognition that all of life is interconnected, whole, that humanity is one and that all have the same and equal rights. That we all have a responsibility to one another and the natural world and our actions should proceed from a position of awareness. Any new system must have sharing at its core. Sharing would end for good the abomination of men, women, and children dying of starvation – with or without a pandemic –, or living stunted crippled lives due to malnutrition in a world overflowing with food. Acknowledging what each nation has to offer the world at large (natural resource, including food and water, knowledge and skills, etc.) and what it lacks, what it needs from others. And thirdly, Justice, – social and environmental justice –, under the doctrine of the present order there is neither. The system is inherently unjust and cruel, benefiting these that have, punishing and abusing those that are vulnerable and have not. The natural environment – forests, rivers, oceans, habitat, all are sacrificed or exploited for profit. All need to be protected, nurtured, and allowed to heal, as does humanity.

Through the introduction of sharing as the primary organizing principle underlying the socio-economic order and animating widespread change, trust would be created, relationships built, divisions eroded, allowing for peace to come into being. Peace and freedom are perennial ideals held within the hearts of mankind. Sharing, unity and justice are the means of entry into a world in which they become not just hopes and  unrealized dreams, but vibrant qualities animating all modes of living.

If Farm Workers Are “Essential,” Why Are They Treated So Badly?

On March 19, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spurred to action by the coronavirus pandemic, issued a memorandum that identified the nation’s 2.5 million farm workers as “essential” workers.  Soon thereafter, agribusinesses began distributing formal letters to their farm laborers, also declaring that that they were “essential.”

Of course, it shouldn’t have required a government-business effort to establish this point.  Without farm workers, there is no food.  And the American people need food to survive.

But, remarkably, over the course of U.S. history, farm workers, although essential, have been terribly mistreated.  Whether as slaves, indentured servants, sharecroppers, or migrant laborers, these millions of hardworking people endured harsh and brutal lives, enriching others while living (and usually dying) in poverty.

Nor is the situation very different today.  Farm labor remains hard, grinding physical toil, often requiring long hours of bending and repetitive motion to gather crops under conditions of extreme heat.  Back strain, poisoning by pesticides, and other injuries, sometimes leading to death, contribute to making agriculture one of the nation’s most hazardous industries.  Employment is often seasonal or otherwise precarious.

Some problems hit portions of the farm labor force particularly hard.  Roughly half of all farm workers are undocumented immigrants, a status that places them in constant fear of being arrested, deported, and separated from their families.   Furthermore, women farm workers face high levels of sexual harassment, thereby confronting them with the difficult choice of reporting it and facing the possibility of being fired or remaining silent and allowing the harassment to continue.

In recent decades, the federal government has prosecuted numerous growers and labor traffickers in the Southeastern United States for what one U.S. attorney called “slavery, plain and simple.”  These cases revealed farm workers were lured to the United States under false pretenses and, then, deprived of their passports, chained, held under armed guard, and forced to work.  If they refused, they were threatened with violence, beaten, drugged, raped, pistol whipped, and even shot.  In 2015, President Obama awarded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which exposed these practices, the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combatting Modern Day Slavery.

Although people performing some of the hardest and most essential work in the United States certainly seem to deserve a break―or at least reasonable compensation―they have not received it.  In 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a quarter of all farm workers had a family income below the official poverty level, while most of the others teetered just above it.  Most of them were forced to rely on at least one public assistance program.  Even after some of the more progressive states raised the state minimum wage, the average wages of farm workers remained abysmal.  In 2019, they earned only a little more than half the hourly pay rate of all American workers.

Moreover, they now face enormous danger from the coronavirus pandemic.  Greg Asbed, a leading voice for agricultural laborers, has pointed out that, for farm workers, “the two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread―social distancing and self-isolation―are virtually impossible.”  Many farm workers live, crowded together, in decrepit, narrow trailers or barracks, ride to and from their workplaces in crowded buses, have little access to water and soap once in the fields, and cook and shower in the same cramped housing facility.  Rapid contagion is almost inevitable, and very few have access to healthcare of any kind.

Despite the heightened danger, though, working―even working while sick―is the only practical option for farm workers, for, given their impoverishment, they cannot afford to be unemployed.  Very few receive paid sick days.  Some, to be sure, will be assisted by the one-time $1,200 payment Congress voted for members of low and middle income families.  But undocumented workers, who constitute so many of the nation’s millions of farm workers, are excluded from the provisions of that legislation.  Nor are undocumented workers eligible for unemployment insurance―although, of course, they pay the taxes that fund these programs, as well as the programs that are now bailing out America’s multi-billion dollar industries.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is getting set to deliver yet another blow to farm workers.  Almost a tenth of that work force is comprised of Mexican guest workers, legally admitted to the United States for short periods under the U.S. Agriculture Department’s H-2A program.  As America’s big agricultural growers are perennially short of laborers to harvest their crops, they have pressed hard for the admission of these guest workers.  But they dislike the fact that, to avoid undercutting the wages of American workers, the H-2A program sets the wage level for guest workers at local American wage standards.  And in states like California, the state’s rising minimum wage has lifted the wages of farm workers considerably beyond the pitiful federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.  As a result, the growers have fought for years to reduce the wages paid to guest workers.  Finally, in April 2020, the news broke that their dream of cheap labor would soon be realized, for the Trump administration is now laying plans to lower the guest worker wage rate to $8.34 an hour.  These plans, made at the same time that farmers and ranchers are about to receive a $16 billion federal bailout, will cut between $2 and $5 per hour from the pay of guest farm workers.

Naturally, small labor organizations like the United Farm Workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee are fiercely resisting the continued exploitation of the 2.5 million people who grow and harvest America’s food.  But there are severe limits to their power, given the greed of the agribusiness industry, plus the nakedly pro-business policies of the Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress and many states.  For the time being, at least, farm workers seem likely to remain essential, but expendable.

The Sides of Beef: Humans and Meat Eating

For the purposes of preserving any status quo in the present day United States, nothing surpasses a strategy of any question or issue ‘cultural.’ This has the immediate effect of splitting even slight difference of opinion into hostile camps and deliberately provokes absolutist, visceral responses. Such exchanges, particularly in the sewer of social media or cable news shows fiercely competing with each other as much of this as can by squeezing as much as this as possible into a given timeslot, provoke further tribal response and so it goes until we have things like ‘Red States vs Blue States’, the ‘rural-urban divide’, and ‘flyover country’ vs ‘elite’ cities.

Hence the amount of political energy vested in what are considered cultural issues. Is the right to an abortion, with little or no restriction, an inherent part of women’s rights? Does the 2nd Amendment provide a citizen with a basically unlimited right to own and carry guns? According to opinion polls there are acceptable compromises that could at least mitigate these questions for a while. However such compromises inevitably run into militant factions strenuously defending their respective ‘cultures.’ Such a dynamic has an additional benefit of creating enough tribal feeling to evoke a group-think that spreads from issue to issue. Homo sapiens are always complicated, yet for many it is obvious that uncovering their view on abortion or guns one can gather much or all of the rest of their worldview. Thus the stalemate endures.

Perhaps nothing provokes cultural sentiment more than food. The act of experiencing a distinct culture often begins with its cuisine. Indeed as Italian historian Massimo Montanari put it, food is culture. The food consumed with family and friends at gatherings and holidays is not only culinary pleasure, it also could serve as an emotional link to the past or be the material expression of religion.

Given all that it was no surprise that after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced their Green New Deal proposal in February 2019, the Republican counterattacks aimed straight for the public’s stomach. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, made a point of holding up a hamburger during a news conference. Before taking a bite he railed, “If this goes through, this will be outlawed.” Sen. Josh Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Environment and Public Works, proclaimed, “Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches. American favorites like cheeseburgers and milkshakes would become a thing of the past.” Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, joked “Chick-fil-A stock will go way up” because Democrats are “trying to get rid of all cows.” Such attacks are obviously hysterical, the Green New Deal mentions nothing about banning beef (the only mention of beef from Ocasio-Cortez herself was: “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), but they are also obviously deliberate. While managing to leave out apple pie, can anything encapsulate American cultural mythology (certainly in it suburban post-World War II form, the root of much present day mythology) than burgers and milkshakes? What should stimulate a more militant cultural response than a policy that seeks their elimination?

Yet food must come from somewhere. Where there is food there is production and there an open mind finds a gateway to a labyrinth. With charges of banning cows came jokes about kooky fears of cow farts. In reality, gas discharges from cows, burbs more than farts, come in the form of methane. Methane warms the Earth up to 84 times faster than CO2 (the process is called ‘enteric fermentation’ — when cows eat grass the microbes in the rumen break down and ferment it making methane as a by-product). On a planet that contains many millions of cows for slaughter, this is a lot of methane. The EPA estimates that gashouse emissions from agriculture made up 9 percent of U.S. gas emissions in 2016. Globally beef production emits by far the largest amount of greenhouse gases of any type of food production (even more substantially if combined with dairy production).

Of course, global warming isn’t the only issue found in the production of meat. There is always the large question of animal rights. Perhaps a significant percentage of the population would insist that they pay no mind, or even resent, the question of animal rights, particularly when it comes to food. This doesn’t alter the reality that the question is omnipresent.

Even casual consumers of news come across their fair share of it. This past November New York City joined California in banning foie gras, the French dish made up of duck or goose livers that are fattened through force feeding. A steel pipe is inserted down the throat with the liver fattened to as much as 10 times the normal size. The ban is scheduled to take effect in 2022, over the objections of some prominent chefs (Chicago had banned the dish in 2006 only to overturn the ban two years later). In July 2019 Japan caused controversy by announcing that it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling. The IWC banned commercial whale hunting in 1986, though Japan continued whaling under the banner of scientific research (other countries also probably continued to some extent on an undercover basis). Within days of the hunt resuming, meat cut-offs from two minke whales sold for up to 15,000 yen ($140). In this same arena, those old enough in the late-1980s, can recall the tuna controversy involving dolphins being caught as bycatch. Public outrage led to the creation of the ‘Dolphin Safe’ label. Subsequent years have shown the label has been largely fraudulent, a recent study showed that dolphin numbers in the Indian Ocean have declined by 87 percent since 1980, however the public sentiment is real. Obviously this sentiment didn’t extend to the tuna destined for cans.

The whale and dolphin examples perhaps show what could be close to a collective consciousness: the more intelligent, therefore perhaps the more human-like, the animal, the less it is eaten or hunted. They also make the obvious point that tastes and standards change and in both directions. In colonial America, lobsters were so looked down upon they were eaten only by the poor and imprisoned. In fact, at a time when the words ‘prisoners rights’ were many decades from being a mainstream expression, several states had laws on the books forbidding the feeding of lobsters to prisoners more than once a week. Given their appearance, their sheer number at the time, and their habit of feeding on dead things, lobsters were seen in the same vain as rats or pigeons. Now not only is lobster chic, lobsters have the additional honor of being boiled alive before being consumed.

Picture a fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 80 kilometers per hour and able to navigate entire oceans, thousands of miles a month; a warm bodied creature that can practically maintain the body temperature of a mammal a kilometer below the sea surface; a fish so mechanically efficient that when scientists endeavored to build a mechanical fish this same fish was used as a model. A generation or two ago, Bluefin Tuna was barely food, at least for humans. Its only solid market was as pet food for dogs, cats, and horses or as game for fisherman to battle with then bury after the catch. Last year in Tokyo, a 612 pound tuna sold at auction for $3 million on its way to becoming Akami and Toro. The demand for Bluefin Tuna has grown so much the majestic fish is now threatened (the Atlantic Bluefin is listed as endangered, the Pacific Bluefin as ‘vulnerable’).

circa 1875: A group of men killing buffalo from the top of a railroad train. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

So it goes: Bison were hunted to near extinction on the U.S. Plains the 19th century after it was discovered that its skin made excellent belts for driving stationary steam engines and other machinery. Plus Bison being the pillar of the Indigenous people’s diet an unwritten policy was in effect of making Indigenous peoples dependent on the U.S. government for food. The bison’s docile nature made it very easy pray for hunters on horseback (often supplied by the military with ammunition). Skinners left bison carcasses whole to rot in the sun. Fast forward to the present and bison meat occupies a sizable and growing niche market.

Horse meat has a long, strange history. As the industrial revolution raged in Europe, the population expanding and the price of meat high, there was a push by elites to convince the masses to eat it. With thousands of workhorses dropping dead from exertion, their carcasses being turned in glue and leather, there was a ready supply of meat. The movement had more success in France than England. In the U.S. consumption flared briefly during the World Wars also when the price of beef skyrocketed. At times it was passed off as beef. The last facilities in the U.S. for processing horse meat closed in 2007 after Congress passed the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Slaughtering horses wasn’t outlawed but funding for federal and commercial inspections was cancelled, shutting down the industry. This was actually repealed in 2011 but the industry had a difficult time finding towns that had the stomach to host facilities and horse meat remains a very rare sight on American menus. In 2018 a ban on slaughtering horses for meat was renewed with bipartisan support. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, a Republican and co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus, proclaimed ‘The slaughter of horses for human consumption is a barbaric practice that must end.’ Meanwhile plenty of horses are still exported for slaughter and horsemeat continues to be eaten in many countries ranging from China, to Mexico, to several regions in Italy.

If all this is dizzying there is still the problem of pigs. Pigs have old reputations in popular culture. While it hasn’t been all bad, think ‘piggy banks’, ‘this little piggy’, and Charlotte’s Web (ironically Charlotte the spider saves Wilmer the livestock pig from slaughter), it has been mostly bad. There is a decent chance ‘pig’ is the oldest, most used childhood insult. After childhood, its uses cover every insult or negative description adults hurl at each other: eating too much, being overweight, dirty in an unhygienic sense (the Islamic ban on eating pork stems from this), dirty in a sexual sense, low class (‘happy as a pig in shit’), even outright evil (ask cops).

It is remarkable just how off this is in reality. Pigs are actually very clean creatures. If given enough space they will go out of their way not to soil the space they sleep or eat. There is no chance for anyone to ‘sweat like a pig’ given that pigs do not have sweat glands. The mud thing is what pigs do when they need to cool down (the resulting layer of caked mud probably serves other good functions as well including preventing sun burns and acting as insect repellent).

In 2015 the International Journal of Comparative Psychology published an essay titled “Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus.” The survey, which is available online, ‘identified a number of findings of pig cognition, emotion, and behavior which suggest that pigs possess complex ethological traits similar, but not identical to dogs and chimpanzees.’ Evidence strongly suggests pigs have good memories- experiments at the University of Pennsylvania from the 1990s trained pigs to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and use the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned this task as fast as chimpanzees. Scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands conducted an experiment that showed that pigs are capable of empathy (i.e. sharing the emotional response someone else is having) by reacting to the behavior, both pleasant and stressful, of other pigs. They are able to plan ahead and recognize other pigs as individuals. Lists along the lines of ‘The World’s Smartest Animals’ are bound to be simplistic clickbait, but such lists consistently rank pigs near the top.

The obvious parallel is dogs. Humans eating dogs has a long history. Hippocrates himself promoted dog meat as a source of strength. The main source of food for the Aztecs was Mexican hairless dog. Present day China still has the annual Yulin dog meat festival (racist rumors of dogs and cats being served in local Chinese restaurants under the guise of chicken or pork were once endemic in working class neighborhoods in the U.S.). Dog eating can be found in the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Korean Peninsula. About 2.5 million dogs are raised on farms in South Korea though a large majority of South Koreans don’t eat dog meat. Lest this be consigned as an Asian thing, a 2012 investigation by Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger uncovered the practice in rural Switzerland (it was outlawed officially in 2015). Dog meat is consumed to some extent in a number of countries in Africa (20 more or less) for pleasure and alleged medicinal purposes.

As for the U.S., a point made wittily well by Jonathan Safrar Foer in his book Eating Animals, there are mountains of dogs begging to be eaten. While the number has actually declined significantly over the past decade, the ASPCA estimates that 670,000 dogs are euthanized every year (1.5 million shelter animals if the 860,000 cats are added). That amounts to millions of pounds of meat discarded. That meat would even cover some progressive bases: humanely sacrificed and local. As Foer puts it: “It would be demented to yank pets from their homes. But eating those strays, those runaways, those not-quite-cute-enough-to take- and not-quite-well-behaved enough-to-keep dogs would be killing a flock of birds with one stone and eating it, too.”

Obviously such a plan will not come to pass. It is difficult to see a great majority of even the most committed carnivores digging into dogs. Dog eating figures to remain taboo in most circles in the world and become taboo in others as time passes. Given that pigs are as intelligent, if not more, is there a way to square the fact that pork has consistently remained the most consumed meat in the world?

In the present age, factory farming, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is where all these issues play out. When first published in 1987, Gregory Stock’s Book of Questions asked readers: “Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill a cow?” If that question is meant to provoke squeamish contemplation and discussion, what sentiment reveals itself with the question “Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill and/or dismember thousands of cows a day?” We call cow meat ‘beef’ and pig meat ‘pork‘, not as George Bernard Shaw suggested the ‘scorched corpses of animals.’ Is it possible to picture a food festival celebrating locally produced food that includes viewing the chickens or cows being killed as part of the experience? Make no mistake, if the word brutal has any real meaning, factory farming is brutal. The scale is of it is truly mindboggling. At the moment 70 billion animals now exist as objects for consumption, 60 percent of mammals on Earth. According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the American meat industry in 2017 processed 9 billion chickens (equaling 42.2 billion pounds of meat), 32.2 million cattle and calves (26.3 billion pounds), 121 million hogs (26.6 billion pounds), and 241.7 million turkeys (5.9 billion pounds- roughly 20 percent are eaten on Thanksgiving).

One need not be a card carrying member of PETA to have an uneasy feeling about what it takes to pull this off. ‘Debeaking’ boiler chickens due to the fact that maximum commercial efficiency requires very large populations of chickens to be confined in very tight quarters which could cause the chickens to go crazy and peck each other to death (needless to say the debeaking process is automated). The same kind of efficiency is at work in ‘docking’ hogs tails. Bored, crammed together hogs would be tempted to chew the tails off each other. Unless they are used for breeding, hogs are castrated because it makes the subsequent meat smell better (the odor, known as ‘boar taint’, does not affect the safety of the pork but the Department of Agriculture doesn’t allow it into the food supply).

Another practice that the industry can’t seem to get rid of is the use of gestation crates. These crates are where most breeding sows (female hogs) spend the entirety of their near four month pregnancies. The crates are roughly two-and-half-by-seven-foot, meaning the sows are unable to turn around, suffer decreased bone density from lack of movement, and often develop sores. Hens used in egg production face a similar life. Shoved into “battery cages”, roughly ten hens to a cage, 18 inches by 24 inches, the light in the houses is manipulated to maximize egg production and for a couple of weeks the hens are fed less to induce an extra cycle of laying. Hens in their natural environment lay 20 eggs a year. On a modern farm with a high protein diet and constant lighting manipulation they lay 500, all while living a small portion of their natural lifespan before dying of exhaustion. That’s female chicks. As for male chicks, egg farms for years have simply ground up or gassed them right after they hatch since they don’t lay eggs or grown big enough to sell for meat. That is many millions of chicks per year. The egg industry claims this practice at least is due to end this year.

Then there has long been the use of antibiotics, both to ward off disease, or better as a cheaper alternative to keep animals healthy, and to attain unnatural growth. Here there seems to have a spot of progress. The FDA issued a regulation on January 1st 2017 that antibiotics that are significant for human health can no longer be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency. According to an FDA report published in 2018, domestic sales of medically important antibiotics for use in livestock decreased 33 percent from 2015 to 2016, 28 percent from 2009, the first year the FDA started collecting data. Still a majority of antibiotics are used on food animals. At the current rate, worldwide by 2030 over 200,000 tons of antibiotics will be used on food animals. This raises big problems for people. It is a main source of the expanding crisis of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention report on Antimicrobial Resistance Threats reported that more than 2.8 million antibiotic resistant infections occur in the U.S. every year, with more than 35,000 deaths.

Add pollution to the mix. In a year on a typical factory farm cattle produce in the neighborhood of 344 million pounds of manure; pigs around 7.2 million pounds, chickens 6.6 million. This can only be estimated because factory farms are exempt reporting requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and no federal agency keeps consistent, reliable data. Generally, farms dispose of animal waste by spraying it as fertilizer and storing the excess in huge underground pits or open-air lagoons. The lagoons are full of chemicals like ammonia, methane, CO2, and hydrogen sulfide. Sulfur-eating bacteria often turn the mixture bright pink. Since cropland can absorb only so much, a good amount of the waste ends up in rivers, streams, and groundwater. Rain can cause overflow (the massive pork industry in North Carolina Factory, over 2020 hog CAFOs, regularly face the threat of hurricanes) and the tanks can crack. It is no surprise factory farms are the largest polluters of lakes and rivers in the U.S.

To top all this off there is simply land. According to data by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Bank statistics, glaciers make up 10 percent of global land; 19 percent of land can be categorized as barren, land in which less than one-third of the area has vegetation- deserts, rocks, salt flats. Given that we spent almost all out time among our fellow humans (or watching each other on TV) it is perhaps strange to know that things like cities, towns, and villages make up only one percent of the Earth’s land; as does fresh water (lakes, rivers). Shrub makes up eight percent, forests still make up 26 percent. Subtract animal feed and the land devoted to growing the crops we directly consume (fruits, vegetables) makes up seven percent. Do the quick arithmetic and find that there is 27 percent of the planet’s land remaining, the largest amount, that between growing food crops, grazing, and production it goes into producing meat and dairy. Or to consider it another way, livestock production consumes 58 percent of the biomass humans annually draw from the biosphere.

Again there has been some progress on this front in recent times. The FAO estimates since the turn of the century 74 million less hectares are being used for pasture. North America, Australia, and Europe have less pasture land now than in 1961. Some of this was no doubt offshored to poorer places in the world but more recently pasture area has begun to plateau in countries like China and Brazil (in Brazil this is under major threat by the Bolsonaro government’s policy toward the Amazon). This decline has occurred as meat production has increased. The cattle industry, by far the largest user of pasture globally saw meat and milk yields grow by 29 percent and 22 percent since 1961. The decline is due a steady increase in feed efficiency, the amount an animal produces per unit of food consumed, and more efficiently managed grazing. Needless to say given everything else that’s being explored here, any progress in land usage doesn’t inherently benefit the animals. If cattle aren’t allowed to graze in wide open spaces, they graze in tighter, nastier quarters.

Questions about things like land usage need not lead to anti-humanist sentiment. Geologists are increasingly calling for the current epoch to be renamed the Anthropocene to reflect the profound impact that humanity has on the Earth. This should be seen as cause for humble pride rather than a grim tragedy. Despite the delusions of some environmentalists there never was a ‘balanced’ nature before humans or outside of human activity. Extinction has always been omnipresent in nature. Earth’s history has featured five mass extinctions, defined as a period of time when a large percentage of known living species go extinct. Most famous is the K.T. Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. It just didn’t take the dinosaurs though — around 75 percent of species also went. One enduring result was the extinction of dinosaurs allowed mammals (like us), the largest of which during the time of dinosaurs was probably the size of raccoon, to eventually grow and expand given that there were no longer towering dinosaurs to hunt them.

The K-T Extinction wasn’t even the largest mass extinction. That honor goes to the Permian Extinction around 250 million years ago. An estimated 96 percent of species went extinct. It doesn’t just happen during periods of mass extinctions either. Shark Week addicts know that probably the coolest shark ever on the planet, Megalodon, went extinct for reasons that aren’t yet clear. A few million years after the dinosaurs fell, the fossils of the Titanoboa appear in what is now Colombia. Titanoboa was a snake 40-50 feet long weighing well over a ton that used constriction to squeeze the life out of its victims (the warmer weather of the Paleocene allowed for huge reptiles). Again, the only way we’ll ever see it is if we decide for some reason to try to recreate it. And that is the point. Glorious actions like preserving and returning land to forests or reintroducing species result from human action. The planet itself has no need to be saved from global warming. As Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1924 book Literature and Revolution regarding the future of human technology:

He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of rivers and he will lay down rules for oceans. The idealist simpletons may say this is a bore, but that is why they are simpletons…. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times.

In that spirit, and getting back to the issue of land usage, it is hard to imagine a global democratic decision would allocate so much land to meat production. Since meat production at this point takes up too much land, contributes a lot to global warming, makes tons of pollution, and is quite brutish to the animals it makes meat out of, the obvious question arising is should people be vegetarians. In the Western world vegetarianism always had its notable defenders. The Pythagoreans back in the 6th century BCE didn’t eat meat. Pythagoras is quoted as saying, “As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”1

If it would be ideal for humans to get their protein from beans, legumes, and soy, materially speaking we confront this fact: in 1970 the average American ate roughly 200 pounds of meat per year. Today the number is roughly 20 pounds more, not less. More significantly from where we sit now is the trend that has proven to be a truism worldwide: the more a country develops, the more meat its people consume. Meat consumption has skyrocketed in China in recent decades. Since 1990 it has nearly doubled in Brazil. Argentina and Australia rank near the top (the one partial exception to this has been India due to the influence of vegetarianism in Hinduism). This does not figure to change any time soon. For low-income countries meat is still of luxury. Luxuries being desirable they turn into necessities whenever possible. The FAO estimates that consumption of beef, pork, and chicken in Africa will all increase by at least 200 percent by 2050.

Perhaps with all that, it is inevitable to see meat consumption as natural for our species. After all there are plenty of backsliding vegans in the world. Vegetarianism could be a real challenge, at least at first. Practically the entire Western diet is based off dishes having a protein. Umami is one of the basic tastes to which are tongues are sensitive along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Scientifically speaking, Umami refers to the taste of glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate and it is prominent in animal protein. Hence the menus of vegetarian establishments are often full of dishes that directly aim to replicate the texture and taste of meat. The Impossible Burger’s success is directly due to its likeness to a real burger. Meat is packed with a wide range of vitamins, including b12 which is not found in plants, or at least in a form active to humans (vegans are often advised to take a b12 supplement). While anti-vegans have often overstated the importance of our teeth design for meat eating, our teeth are nothing compared with many of our mammalian cousins, there is no question that our bodies are evolved to process fats better than the other great apes.

Our earliest ancestors were at least largely vegetarians. Serious meat eating entered the picture about 2.5 million years ago. In her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Years Obsession With Meat, Marta Zaraska describes that this was at least in part due to climate change. Between 2.6 and 2.5 million years ago, the planet got significantly hotter and drier. As it did previously lush rain forests of Africa turned into grassland. Grassland had less of the green plants our ancestors were used to eating but more abundant grazing animals. More dead grazing animals laying in the grasslands meant more opportunity to experiment with meat.

One quite popular theory, first put forward by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler in 1995, known as the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis, posits that the switch to calorie-dense meat and marrow, with less bulky plant fiber, particularly after somebody figured out meat could be cooked with fire, allowed our ancestors to develop smaller guts (less need for a long digestive tract for processing plant matter). The energy freed up here was used by our brains to grow. Our brains, 2 percent of our body mass, use 20 percent of our body’s total energy, compared with dogs and cats 3-4 percent (other apes’ brains require 8 percent). If true then eating meat is indeed what made us human (it was not that our ancestors’ diet had to shift to meat per se for it to happen, meat was simply the available diet that made it happen). Like all theories this one has been challenged. Some scientists theorize it is our muscles, either in their size or distribution, which paid for our bigger brains. Others theorize that it was a combination of factors.

Whatever the case, we did evolve powerful enough brains that behavior need not be completely deterministic. A Financial Times headline from December 26, 2019 read, “Have we reached peak meat?” There is some evidence of a shift. The emergence of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, along with the hipster passion for almond and oat milk, has the meat and dairy industries fearful enough to be launching lawsuits to deny such products the label of ‘milk’ and ‘meat’ thereby relegating them to less trafficked market isles. On the other hand, while these companies have lit up the stock market and plant based burgers are appearing on big name fast food menus, their sales are still miniscule next to meat. If $800 million in U.S. plant-based sales in the past year sounds like a lot, the meat market in the U.S. was valued at $74 billion; globally $1.2 trillion. The number of outright vegetarians and vegans is fuzzy, but probably tops out at only 5 percent of the population. For years FAO has promoted eating insects as a sustainable source of protein. Being coldblooded they require less energy to stay warm- therefore less feed, thus making them more efficient. Insects make up 80 percent of the world’s living species and, safe to say, are thought of as most unhuman (though they can still be quite magnificent). In the case of eating probably alien to a fault. Look for places selling insects and they can be found in U.S. cities but at this point it seems Americans would still eat them more on a dare than a desire.

So if the planet isn’t destined to turn vegan, could it be convinced to at least eat meat at more sustainable levels? This has happened in the U.S. to some types of meat. Veal consumption peaked in the U.S. in 1944 at 8.6 lbs. per person. While veal is still popular in Europe, in the U.S. it is now at about 0.2 lbs. (‘Milk Fed’ veal, known as more tender and desirable than ‘Pink’ veal, is another poignant example cruelty. It results from deliberately giving calves anemia). Americans actually eat less beef than we used to; beef consumption peaked in the mid-1970s. From 2004-2015 it declined by nearly 20 percent (still it is 4 times the world average). Pork consumption has been more stable but has declined slightly from pre-1950 heights. It is chicken production and consumption that has exploded the past 40 years; paradoxically for being a low fat, healthier alternative to red meat and for being eaten as ‘wings’ covered with fatty skin and thick BBQ sauce or fried as ‘fingers’ (McDonalds unleashed the very influential McNugget in 1982, it has more fat than their hamburgers).

An EAT-Lancet Commission report argues that a transformation to healthy, sustainable diets will require a greater than 50 percent reduction in things like sugar and red meat, primarily by reducing consumption in wealthier countries. Any overt attempt to reduce meat consumption in the U.S. will run into a predictable ‘Don’t Thread on Me’ reaction. Whatever the virtues of such sentiment it suffers from an endemic shortcoming. While militantly declaring the right to choose from a menu it largely neglects questions of how and why the menu was put together in the first place.

For instance, the U.S. government owns and controls 640 million acres of land, a great majority of it in the West. On 229 million acres of this public land, the federal government, for a fee, allows livestock operations and cattle producers to use the land for grazing. These fees are much less than it would cost to graze livestock on private land, in fact, the fees are less than 7 percent of what grazing would cost on private lands. The costs lost to this boondoggle are covered by tax dollars amounting to $125 million a year.

Beyond that the federal government (not even including state and local governments) fund the agriculture industry to the tune of over $20 billion a year. These subsidies have roots going back to the Great Depression, an age when farming employed more people and there were simply more family farms, with the idea being to assist farmers through the uncertainty of farming (weather, commodity price swings) to ensure the food supply was stale. Nowadays the largest, richest farms receive the lion’s share of funding. From 1995 to 2017 the top 10 percent of richest farms got 77 percent of it (the top 1 percent pulled in 26 percent). For a long time there was direct payments to farmers, mainly those growing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. These were eliminated in 2014, however other subsidies were expanded. The EWG Farm Subsidy database calculates that from 1995 to 2019 a total of $391 billion worth of subsidies, including insurance, loans, and research has been paid out. Subsidies for corn artificially cheapen its price, enable overproduction, and allow very cheap feed for livestock.

In Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon estimates that for every dollar in retail sales of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, the industry imposes an external cost of $1.70. That comes to $414 billion a year. This would make the true cost of a fast food hamburger $11. While that is perhaps pushing it to far (the book incorporates health care costs into the estimate and it’s impossible to pin down the precise effects eating meat has on heart disease and cancer) the overall point remains. Making food producers swallow the full cost of production, including environmental costs, is a crucial reform.

Is there a way out of all this, for humans to have their meat and eat it too? The specter of lab grown meat has lingered over the industry for years. It first officially appeared in 2013. Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post, Chief Scientific Officer of Mosa Meat, unveiled what was billed as the first hamburger made by growing cow cells, rather than slaughtering a cow. The cost to produce it was $325,000. Costs are falling slowly but surely. The basic idea is stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal via a small biopsy under anesthesia. The cells are mixed with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and growth factor and left to multiply. That’s it. No greenhouse emissions, no slaughterhouses, and it figures a lot of land that could be used for more noble purposes or simply returned to forest where we can not only reintroduce species but witness the emergence of new ones. A slew of startups are working to bring it to market soon.

Questions will be legion. Will lab grown meat become culturally accepted immediately or will the label ‘Frankenmeat’ stick? No doubt there will be lawsuits by the industry over whether lab grown meat should even be classified as meat. On what kind of scale can it be produced? Any food system will be responsible for feeding a global population expected to stabilize at around 9.8 billion in 2050. Most importantly, will it taste as good as traditional meat? One can only hope the answer to all these questions is loudly affirmative. It isn’t difficult to imagine future generations looking back in disbelief and disgust at our epoch of factory farms, perhaps even in the same light to how we now view slavery. It should be our task by any means to become modern day abolitionists.

  1. Attribution to Pythagoras by Ovid, as quoted in The Extended Circle: A Dictionary of Humane Thought (1985) by Jon Wynne-Tyson, p 260.

Stop Tightening the Thumb Screws: A Humanitarian Message

Protester’s sign decries sanctions, “a silent war” (Photo Credit: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2013)

U.S. sanctions against Iran, cruelly strengthened in March of 2018, continue a collective punishment of extremely vulnerable people. Presently, the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy severely undermines Iranian efforts to cope with the ravages of COVID-19, causing hardship and tragedy while contributing to the global spread of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif urged member states of the UN to end the United States’ unconscionable and lethal economic warfare.

Addressing UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif detailed how U.S. economic sanctions prevent Iranians from importing necessary medicine and medical equipment.

For over two years, while the U.S. bullied other countries to refrain from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranians have coped with crippling economic decline.

The devastated economy and worsening coronavirus outbreak now drive migrants and refugees, who number in the millions, back to Afghanistan at dramatically increased rates.

In the past two weeks alone, more than 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran, increasing the likelihood that cases of coronavirus will surge in Afghanistan. Decades of war, including U.S. invasion and occupation, have decimated Afghanistan’s health care and food distribution systems.

Jawad Zarif asks the UN to prevent the use of hunger and disease as a weapon of war. His letter demonstrates the  wreckage caused by many decades of United States imperialism and suggests revolutionary steps toward dismantling the United States war machine.

During the United States’ 1991 “Desert Storm” war against Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, – at first, living at in a “peace camp” set up near the Iraq-Saudi border and later, following our removal by Iraqi troops, in a Baghdad hotel which formerly housed many journalists. Finding an abandoned typewriter, we melted a candle onto its rim, (the U.S. had destroyed Iraq’s electrical stations, and most of the hotel rooms were pitch black). We compensated for an absent typewriter ribbon by placing a sheet of red carbon paper over our stationery. When Iraqi authorities realized we managed to type our document, they asked if we would type their letter to the Secretary General of the UN. (Iraq was so beleaguered even cabinet level officials lacked typewriter ribbons.) The letter to Javier Perez de Cuellar implored the UN to prevent the U.S. from bombing a road between Iraq and Jordan, the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief. Devastated by bombing and already bereft of supplies, Iraq was, in 1991, only one year into a deadly sanctions regime that lasted for thirteen years before the U.S. began its full-scale invasion and occupation in 2003. Now, in 2020, Iraqis still suffering from impoverishment, displacement and war earnestly want the U.S. to practice self-distancing and leave their country.

Are we now living in a watershed time? An unstoppable, deadly virus ignores any borders the U.S. tries to reinforce or redraw. The United States military-industrial complex, with its massive arsenals and cruel capacity for siege, isn’t relevant to “security” needs. Why should the U.S., at this crucial juncture, approach other countries with threat and force and presume a right to preserve global inequities? Such arrogance doesn’t even ensure security for the United States military. If the U.S. further isolates and batters Iran, conditions will worsen in Afghanistan and United States troops stationed there will ultimately be at risk. The simple observation, “We are all part of one another,” becomes acutely evident.

It’s helpful to think of guidance from past leaders who faced wars and pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19, coupled with the atrocities of World War I,  killed 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S. Thousands of female nurses were on the “front lines,” delivering health care. Among them were black nurses who not only risked their lives to practice the works of mercy but also fought discrimination and racism in their determination to serve. These brave women arduously paved a way for the first 18 black nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps and they provided “a small turning point in the continuing movement for health equity.”

In the spring of 1919, Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton witnessed the effects of sanctions against Germany imposed by Allied forces after World War I. They observed “critical shortages of food, soap and medical supplies” and wrote indignantly about how children were being punished with starvation for “the sins of statesmen.”

Starvation continued even after the blockade was finally lifted that summer with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hamilton and Addams reported how the flu epidemic, exacerbated in its spread by starvation and post-war devastation, in turn disrupted the food supply. The two women argued a policy of sensible food distribution was necessary for both  humanitarian and strategic reasons. “What was to be gained by starving more children?” bewildered German parents asked them.

Jonathan Whitall directs Humanitarian Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without Borders. His most recent analysis poses agonizing questions:

How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How are you supposed to implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee or containment camp? How are you supposed to stay at home if your work pays by the hour and requires you to show up? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are you supposed to get tested for #COVID19 if the health system is privatized and you can’t afford it? How are those with pre-existing health conditions supposed to take extra precautions when they already can’t even access the treatment they need?

I expect many people worldwide, during the spread of COVID – 19,  are thinking hard about the glaring, deadly inequalities in our societies, wonder how best to extend proverbial hands of friendship to people in need while urged to accept isolation and social distancing. One way to help others survive is to insist the United States lift sanctions against Iran and instead support acts of practical care. Jointly confront the coronavirus while constructing a humane future for the world without wasting  time or resources on the continuation of brutal wars.

Toxic Agriculture and the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 and has $46.8 billion in assets (December 2018). It is the largest charitable foundation in the world and distributes more aid for global health than any government. One of the foundation’s stated goals is to globally enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the CGIAR system (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) — a global partnership whose stated aim is to strive for a food-secured future. Its research is aimed at reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources.

In 2016, the Gates Foundation was accused of dangerously and unaccountably distorting the direction of international development. The charges were laid out in a report by Global Justice Now: ‘Gated Development – Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?‘ According to the report, the foundation’s strategy is based on deepening the role of multinational companies in the Global South.

On release of the report, Polly Jones, the head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, said:

The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed.

She added that this concentration of power and influence is even more problematic when you consider that the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of ‘corporate America’:

The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.

The report’s author, Mark Curtis, outlines the foundation’s promotion of industrial agriculture across Africa, which would undermine existing sustainable, small-scale farming that is providing the vast majority of food across the continent.

Curtis describes how the foundation is working with US agri-commodity trader Cargill in an $8 million project to “develop the soya value chain” in southern Africa. Cargill is the biggest global player in the production of and trade in soya with heavy investments in South America where GM soya monocrops (and associated agrochemicals) have displaced rural populations and caused health problems and environmental damage.

According to Curtis, the Gates-funded project will likely enable Cargill to capture a hitherto untapped African soya market and eventually introduce GM soya onto the continent. The Gates foundation is also supporting projects involving other chemical and seed corporations, including DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer. It is effectively promoting a model of industrial agriculture, the increasing use of agrochemicals and patented seeds, the privatisation of extension services and a very large focus on genetically modified crops.

What the Gates Foundation is doing is part of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) initiative, which is based on the premise that hunger and malnutrition in Africa are mainly the result of a lack of technology and functioning markets. Curtis says AGRA has been intervening directly in the formulation of African governments’ agricultural policies on issues like seeds and land, opening up African markets to US agribusiness.

More than 80% of Africa’s seed supply comes from millions of small-scale farmers recycling and exchanging seed from year to year. But AGRA is promoting the commercial production of seed and is thus supporting the introduction of commercial (chemical-dependent) seed systems, which risk enabling a few large companies to control seed research and development, production and distribution.

The report notes that over the past two decades a long and slow process of national seed law reviews, sponsored by USAID and the G8 along with Bill Gates and others, has opened the door to multinational corporations’ involvement in seed production, including the acquisition of every sizeable seed enterprise on the African continent.

Gates, pesticides and global health

The Gates Foundation is also very active in the area of health, which is ironic given its promotion of industrial agriculture and its reliance on health-damaging agrochemicals. This is something that has not been lost on environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason.

Mason notes that the Gates Foundation is a heavy pusher of agrochemicals and patented seeds. She adds that the Gates Foundation is also reported to be collaborating in Bayer’s promotion of “new chemical approaches” and “biological crop protection” (i.e. encouraging agrochemical sales and GM crops) in the Global South.

After having read the recent ‘A Future for the World’s Children? A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission’, Mason noticed that pesticides were conspicuous by their absence and therefore decided to write to Professor Anthony Costello, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, who is the lead author of the report.

In her open 19-page letter, ‘Why Don’t Pesticides Feature in the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission?’, she notes in the Costello-led report that there is much talk about greater regulation of marketing of tobacco, alcohol, formula milk and sugar-sweetened beverages but no mention of pesticides.

But perhaps this should come as little surprise: some 42 authors’ names are attached to the report and Mason says that in one way or another via the organisations they belong to, many (if not most) have received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is a prominent funder of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Gates has been the largest or second largest contributor to the WHO’s budget in recent years. His foundation provided 11% of the WHO’s entire budget in 2015, which is 14 times greater than the UK government’s contribution.

Perhaps this sheds some light on to why a major report on child health would omit the effects of pesticides. Mason implies this is a serious omission given what the UN expert on toxics  Baskut Tuncak said in a November 2017 article in the Guardian:

Our children are growing up exposed to a toxic cocktail of weedkillers, insecticides, and fungicides. It’s on their food and in their water, and it’s even doused over their parks and playgrounds. Many governments insist that our standards of protection from these pesticides are strong enough. But as a scientist and a lawyer who specialises in chemicals and their potential impact on people’s fundamental rights, I beg to differ. Last month it was revealed that in recommending that glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used pesticide – was safe, the EU’s food safety watchdog copied and pasted pages of a report directly from Monsanto, the pesticide’s manufacturer. Revelations like these are simply shocking.

Mason notes that in February 2020, Tuncak rejected the idea that the risks posed by highly hazardous pesticides could be managed safely. He told Unearthed (GreenPeace UK’s journalism website) that there is nothing sustainable about the widespread use of highly hazardous pesticides for agriculture. Whether they poison workers, extinguish biodiversity, persist in the environment or accumulate in a mother’s breast milk, Tuncak argued that these are unsustainable, cannot be used safely and should have been phased out of use long ago.

In his 2017 article, he stated:

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most ratified international human rights treaty in the world (only the US is not a party), makes it clear that states have an explicit obligation to protect children from exposure to toxic chemicals, from contaminated food and polluted water, and to ensure that every child can realise their right to the highest attainable standard of health. These and many other rights of the child are abused by the current pesticide regime. These chemicals are everywhere and they are invisible.

Tuncak added that paediatricians have referred to childhood exposure to pesticides as creating a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability. He noted that exposure in pregnancy and childhood is linked to birth defects, diabetes, and cancer and stated that children are particularly vulnerable to these toxic chemicals: increasing evidence shows that even at ‘low’ doses of childhood exposure, irreversible health impacts can result.

He concluded that the overwhelming reliance of regulators on industry-funded studies, the exclusion of independent science from assessments and the confidentiality of studies relied upon by authorities must change.

However, it seems that the profits of agrochemical manufacturers trump the rights of  children and the public at large: a joint investigation by Unearthed and the NGO Public Eye has found the world’s five biggest pesticide manufacturers are making more than a third of their income from leading products, chemicals that pose serious hazards to human health and the environment.

Mason refers to an analysis of a huge database of 2018’s top-selling ‘crop protection products’ which revealed the world’s leading agrochemical companies made more than 35% of their sales from pesticides classed as “highly hazardous” to people, animals or ecosystems. The investigation identified billions of dollars of income for agrochemical giants BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC and Syngenta from chemicals found by regulatory authorities to pose health hazards like cancer or reproductive failure.

This investigation is based on an analysis of a huge dataset of pesticide sales from the agribusiness intelligence company Phillips McDougall. This firm conducts detailed market research all over the world and sells databases and intelligence to pesticide companies. The data covers around 40% of the $57.6bn global market for agricultural pesticides in 2018. It focuses on 43 countries, which between them represent more than 90% of the global pesticide market by value.

While Bill Gates promotes a chemical-intensive model of agriculture that dovetails with the needs and value chains of agri-food conglomerates, Mason outlines the spiraling rates of disease in the UK and the US and lays the blame at the door of the agrochemical corporations that Gates has opted to get into bed with. She focuses on the impact of glyphosate-based herbicides as well as the cocktail of chemicals sprayed on crops.

Mason has discussed the health-related impacts of glyphosate in numerous previous reports and in her open letter to Costello again refers to peer-reviewed studies and official statistics which indicate that glyphosate affects the gut microbiome and is responsible for a global metabolic health crisis provoked by an obesity epidemic. Moreover, she presents evidence that glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals – diseases skip a generation then appear.

However, the mainstream narrative is to blame individuals for their ailments and conditions which are said to result from ‘lifestyle choices’. Yet Monsanto’s German owner Bayer has confirmed that more than 42,700 people have filed suits against Monsanto alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

Mason says that each year there are steady increases in the numbers of new cancers and increases in deaths from the same cancers, with no treatments making any difference to the numbers; at the same time, she argues, these treatments maximise the bottom line of the drug companies while the impacts of agrochemicals remains conspicuously absent from the disease narrative.

She states that we are exposed to a lifetime’s exposure to thousands of synthetic chemicals that contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested – “a global mass poisoning.”

Gates Foundation in perspective

As part of its hegemonic strategy, the Gates Foundation says it wants to ensure global food security and optimise health and nutrition.

However, Rosemary Mason alludes to the fact that the Gates Foundation seems happy to ignore the deleterious health impacts of agrochemicals while promoting the interests of the firms that produce them, but it facilitates many health programmes that help boost the bottom line of drug companies.  Health and health programmes seem only to be defined with certain parameters which facilitate the selling of the products of the major pharmaceutical companies which the foundation partners with. Indeed, researcher Jacob Levich argues that the Gates Foundation not merely facilitates unethical low-cost clinical trials (with often devastating effects for participants) in the Global South but also assists in the creating new markets for the “dubious” products of pharmaceuticals corporations.

As for food security, the foundation would do better by supporting agroecological  (agrochemical-free) approaches to agriculture, which various high-level UN reports have advocated for ensuring equitable global food security. But this would leave smallholder agriculture both intact and independent from Western agro-capital, something which runs counter to the underlying aims of the corporations that the foundation supports – dispossession and market dependency.

And these aims have been part of a decades-long strategy where we have seen the strengthening of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF ‘structural adjustment’ directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas.

While Bill Gates is busy supporting the consolidation of Western agro-capital in Africa under the guise of ensuring ‘food security’, it is very convenient for him to ignore the fact that at the time of decolonisation in the 1960s Africa was not just self-sufficient in food but was actually a net food exporter with exports averaging 1.3 million tons a year between 1966-70. The continent now imports 25% of its food, with almost every country being a net food importer. More generally, developing countries produced a billion-dollar yearly surplus in the 1970s but by 2004 were importing US$ 11 billion a year.

The Gates Foundation promotes a (heavily subsidised and inefficient – certainly when the externalised health, social and environment costs are factored in) corporate-industrial farming system and the strengthening of a global neoliberal, fossil-fuel-dependent food regime that by its very nature fuels and thrives on, among other things, unjust trade policies, population displacement and land dispossession (something which the Gates Foundation once called for but euphemistically termed “land mobility”), commodity monocropping, soil and environmental degradation, illness, nutrient-deficient diets, a narrowing of the range of food crops, water shortages, pollution and the eradication of biodiversity.

At the same time, the foundation is helping powerful corporate interests to appropriate and commodify knowledge. For instance, since 2003, CGIAR (mentioned at the start of this article) and its 15 centres have received more than $720 million from the Gates Foundation. In a June 2016 article in The Asian Age, Vandana Shiva says the centres are accelerating the transfer of research and seeds to corporations, facilitating intellectual property piracy and seed monopolies created through IP laws and seed regulations.

Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in CGIAR seed banks, Shiva adds that the Gates Foundation (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in a facility in Svalbard in the Arctic — the ‘doomsday vault’.

The foundation is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global initiative to take patents on the seed collections through genomic mapping. Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks.

Shiva says that DivSeek could allow five corporations to own this diversity and argues:

Today, biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology. It is done by taking patents by ‘mapping’ genomes and genome sequences… DivSeek is a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks. It robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to ‘code’. It is an extractive project to ‘mine’ the data in the seed to ‘censor’ out the commons.

She notes that the peasants who evolved this diversity have no place in DivSeek — their knowledge is being mined and not recognised, honoured or conserved: an enclosure of the genetic commons.

This process is the very foundation of capitalism – appropriation of the commons (seeds, water, knowledge, land, etc.), which are then made artificially scarce and transformed into marketable commodities.

The Gates Foundation talks about health but facilitates the roll-out of a toxic form of agriculture whose agrochemicals cause immense damage. It talks of alleviating poverty and malnutrition and tackling food insecurity but it bolsters an inherently unjust global food regime which is responsible for perpetuating food insecurity, population displacement, land dispossession, privatisation of the commons and neoliberal policies that remove support from the vulnerable and marginalised, while providing lavish subsidies to corporations.

The Gates Foundation is part of the problem, not the solution. To more fully appreciate this, let us turn to a February 2020 article in the journal Globalizations. Its author, Ashok Kumbamu, argues that the ultimate aim of promoting new technologies – whether GM seeds, agrochemicals or commodified knowledge — on a colossal scale is to make agricultural inputs and outputs essential commodities, create dependency and bring all farming operations into the capitalist fold.

To properly understand Bill Gates’s ‘philanthropy’ is not to take stated goals and objectives at face value but to regard his ideology as an attempt to manufacture consent and prevent and marginalise more radical agrarian change that would challenge prevailing power structures and act as impediments to capitalist interests. The foundation’s activities must be located within the hegemonic and dispossessive strategies of imperialism: displacement of the peasantry and subjugating those who remain in agriculture to the needs of global distribution and supply chains dominated by the Western agri-food conglomerates whose interests the Gates Foundation facilitates and legitimises.

The full text of Rosemary Mason’s 19-page document (with relevant references) — ‘Why Don’t Pesticides Feature in the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission?’ — can be accessed via the website)  

Apocalypse Now! Insects, Pesticide and a Public Health Crisis  

In 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, produced a report that called for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and move towards sustainable agricultural practices.

In addition to the devastating impacts on human health, the two authors argued that the excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, the destruction of the natural enemies of pests and the reduction in the nutritional value of food.  They drew attention to denials by the agroindustry of the hazards of certain pesticides and expressed concern about aggressive, unethical marketing tactics that remain unchallenged and the huge sums spent by the powerful chemical industry to influence policymakers and contest scientific evidence.

At the time, Elver said that agroecological approaches, which replace harmful chemicals, are capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed and nourish the entire world population, without undermining the rights of future generations to adequate food and health. The two authors added that it was time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.

The authors were adamant that access to healthy, uncontaminated food is a human rights issue.

And this is not lost on environmental campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason who has just sent a detailed open letter/report to Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in the UK – ‘Open Letter to the National Farmers Union About Fraud in Europe and the UK’. Mason’s report contains a good deal of information about pesticides, health and the environment.

Health impacts aside, Mason decided to write to Batters because it is increasingly clear that pesticides are responsible for declines in insects and wildlife, something which the NFU has consistently denied.

In 2017, the Soil Association obtained figures from FERA Science Ltd under a freedom of information request. Using data extracted for the first time from the records of FERA Science Ltd, which holds UK Government data on pesticide use in farming, it was found that pesticide active ingredients applied to three British crops have increased markedly. The data covered British staples wheat, potatoes and onions. Far from a 50% cut – which the NFU had claimed – the increase in active ingredients applied to these crops range from 480% to 1,700% over the last 40-odd years.

Health of the nation

Mason’s aim is to make Batters aware that chemical-dependent, industrial agriculture is a major cause of an ongoing public health crisis and is largely responsible for an unfolding, catastrophic ecological collapse in the UK and globally. Mason places agrochemicals at the centre of her argument, especially globally ubiquitous glyphosate-based herbicides, the use of which have spiralled over the last few decades.

Batters is given information about important studies that suggest glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals (diseases skip a generation before appearing) and that it is a major cause of severe obesity in children in the UK, not least because of its impact on the gut microbiome. As a result, Mason says, we are facing a global metabolic health crisis that places glyphosate at the heart of the matter.

And yet glyphosate may be on the market because of fraud. Mason points out that a new study has revealed the Laboratory of Pharmacology and Toxicology (LPT) in Hamburg has committed fraud in a series of regulatory tests, several of which had been carried out as part of the glyphosate re-approval process in 2017. At least 14% of new regulatory studies submitted for the re-approval of glyphosate were conducted by LPT Hamburg. The number could be higher, as this information in the dossiers often remains undisclosed to the public.

In light of this, Angeliki Lyssimachou, environmental toxicologist at Pesticide Action Network Europe, says:

The vast majority of studies leading to the approval of a pesticide are carried out by the pesticide industry itself, either directly or via contract laboratories such as LPT Hamburg… Our 140+ NGO coalition ‘Citizens for Science in Pesticide Regulation’ regularly calls on the (European) Commission to quit this scandalous process: tests must be carried out by independent laboratories under public scrutiny, while the financing of studies should be supported by industry.

Mason then outlines the state of public health in the UK.  A report, ‘The Health of the Nation: A Strategy for Healthier Longer Lives’,  written by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity found that women in the UK are living for 29 years in poor health and men for 23 years: an increase of 50% for women and 42% for men on previous estimates based on self-reported data.

In 2035, there will be around 16 million cases of dementia, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and cancers in people aged 65 and over in the UK – twice as many as in 2015. In 10 years, there will be 5.5 million people with type 2 diabetes while 70% of people aged 55+ will have at least one obesity-related disease.

The report found that the number of major illnesses suffered by older people will increase by 85% between 2015 and 2035.

Ecological collapse

Batters is also made aware that there is an insect apocalypse due to pesticides – numerous studies have indicated catastrophic declines. Mason mentions two scientific studies of the number of insects splattered by cars that have revealed a huge decline in abundance at European sites in two decades. The research adds to growing evidence of what some scientists have called an “insect apocalypse”, which is threatening a collapse in the natural world that sustains humans and all life on Earth. A third study which Mason mentions shows plummeting numbers of aquatic insects in streams.

The survey of insects hitting car windscreens in rural Denmark used data collected every summer from 1997 to 2017 and found an 80% decline in abundance. It also found a parallel decline in the number of swallows and martins, birds that live on insects.

Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of the charity Buglife, says:

These new studies reinforce our understanding of the dangerously rapid disappearance of insect life in both the air and water… It is essential we create more joined up space for insects that is safe from pesticides, climate change and other harm.

Of course, it is not just insects that have been affected. Mason provides disturbing evidence of the decline in British wildlife in general.

Conning the public

Mason argues that the public are being hoodwinked by officials who dance to the tune of the agrochemical conglomerates. For instance, she argues that Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has been hijacked by the agrochemical industry: David Cameron appointed Michael Pragnell, founder of Syngenta to the board of CRUK in 2010 and he became Chairman in 2011.

She asserts that CRUK invented causes of cancer and put the blame on the people for lifestyle choices:

A red-herring fabricated by industry and ‘top’ doctors in Britain: alcohol was claimed to be linked to seven forms of cancer: this ‘alleged fact’ was endlessly reinforced by the UK media until people in the UK were brainwashed.

By 2018, CRUK was also claiming that obesity caused 13 different cancers and that obesity was due to ‘lifestyle choice’.

Each year there are steady increases in the numbers of new cancers in the UK and increases in deaths from the same cancers. Mason says that treatments are having no impact on the numbers.

She argues that the Francis Crick Institute in London with its ‘world class resources’ is failing to improve people’s lives with its treatments and is merely strengthening the pesticides and pharmaceutical industries. The institute is analysing people’s genetic profile with what Mason says is an “empty promise” that one day they could tailor therapy to the individual patient. Mason adds that CRUK is a major funder of the Crick Institute.

The public is being conned, according to Mason, by contributing to ‘cancer research’ with the fraudulent promise of ‘cures’ based on highly profitable drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies whose links to the agrochemical sector are clear. CRUK’s research is funded entirely by the public, whose donations support over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses across the UK. Several hundred of these scientists worked at CRUK’s London Research Institute at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Clare Hall (LRI), which became part of the Crick institute in 2015.

Mason notes that recent research involving the Crick Institute that has claimed ‘breakthroughs’ in discoveries about the genome and cancer genetics are misleading. The work was carried out as part of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project, which claims to be the most comprehensive study of cancer genetics to date. The emphasis is on mapping genetic changes and early diagnosis

However, Mason says such research misses the point – most cancers are not inherited. She says:

The genetic damage is caused by mutations secondary to a lifetimes’ exposure to thousands of synthetic chemicals that contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested – a global mass poisoning.

And she supports her claim by citing research by Lisa Gross and Linda Birnbaum which argues that in the US 60,000-plus chemicals already in use were grandfathered into the law on the assumption that they were safe. Moreover, the EPA faced numerous hurdles, including pushback from the chemical industry, that undermined its ability to implement the law. Today, hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested – in the US and beyond.

Mason refers to another study by Maricel V Maffini, Thomas G Neltner and Sarah Vogel which notes that thousands of chemicals have entered the food system, but their long-term, chronic effects have been woefully understudied and their health risks inadequately assessed. As if to underline this, recent media reports have focused on Jeremy Bentham, a well-respected CEO of an asset management company, who argued that infertility caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals will wipe out humans.

Mason argues that glyphosate-based Roundup has caused a 50% decrease in sperm count in males: Roundup disrupts male reproductive functions by triggering calcium-mediated cell death in rat testis and Sertoli cells. She also notes that Roundup causes infertility – based on studies that were carried out in South America and which were ignored by regulators in Europe when relicensing glyphosate.

Neoliberal global landscape

Mason draws on a good deal of important (recent) research and media reports to produce a convincing narrative. But what she outlines is not specific to Britain. For instance, the human and environmental costs of pesticides in Argentina have been well documented and in India Punjab has become a ‘cancer capital’ due to pesticide contamination.

UN Special Rapporteurs Elver and Tuncak argue that while scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge, especially given the systematic denial by the pesticide and agro-industry of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals.

In the meantime, we are told that many diseases and illnesses are the result of personal choice or lifestyle behaviour. It has become highly convenient for public officials and industry mouthpieces to place the blame on ordinary people, while fraudulent science, regulatory delinquency and institutional corruption allows toxic food to enter the marketplace and the agrochemical industry to rake in massive profits.

Health outcomes are merely regarded as the result of individual choices, rather than the outcome of fraudulent activities which have become embedded in political structures and macro-economic ‘free’ market policies. In the brave new world of neoliberalism and ‘consumer choice’, it suits industry and its crony politicians and representatives to convince ordinary people to internalise notions of personal responsibility and self-blame.

Readers are urged to read Rosemary Mason’s new report which can be downloaded from the website.

Street Wise and Worldly

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States. For many the Reagan Administration is remembered for Reaganomics and ending the Cold War. Yet the poor and homeless of the time remember it rather for a dramatic reduction in housing and social services, Boss Tweed politics, and constant reminders that a mythical “welfare queen” in Chicago and exaggerated “welfare cheats” across America made their poverty their fault. “Mr. Reagan and Congress’s housing cutbacks are directly responsible for the homeless problem,” Mitch Snyder once said of the Administration.

On Thanksgiving Day 1981, tents appeared in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. A sign amidst the spread of tents read “Reaganville: Reagonomics at Work.” The tent city, an intentional throwback to the Hooverville encampments of the Great Depression, held 20-25 homeless persons and activists each night for the next four months. For many observers, a fine line had been drawn between what is real and what is theater. Such was precisely Snyder’s desire.

In addition to being an activist, Snyder was a self-proclaimed actor. A master of social pageantry and what now would be dubbed “street theater,” Mitch was famed for his insatiable motivation to cause a public scene. Among his exploits, he orchestrated a blood spattering of the Capitol steps, sloshed through the world’s biggest pie yelling “It’s all mine,” sat outside the White House in an old Irish tradition of waiting outside the home of someone who had wronged you without appropriate remorse, often jumped the White House fence, and, most infamously, fasted, nearly unto death three times. These actions gained significant attention to Mitch, the cause of homelessness, and helped to energize and unify many homeless persons and advocates.

— “I Don’t Mind Stealing Bread” … Remembering Mitch Snyder  (Hymns of Social Justice), Chris Henrichsen, July 24, 2013

Talking with John (he prefers a pseudonym), I know tagging this 48-year-old as a “victim of circumstances” won’t stick. He prefers to be called a vagabond. We talk about intelligent design, quantum physics, zoning laws, solutions to housing precarity.

He’s been going state to state for seven years. His own life philosophy is complicated, but in one sense is can be whittled down to – “Here today and gone tomorrow.”

“I am not a loner, don’t get me wrong,” he tells me while we share coffee. “I’ll associate with anyone who’s kind regardless of their station in life.”

Like many on the road, John doesn’t want many specifics revealed. He grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was probably a foster child. No siblings. He has no connection to his parents. The effects of a bullet to the lung and one to the hip at age 22 (both removed) are taking a toll on his ability to work long and grueling jobs.

Terry, 50, in Waldport, OR, on the streets and literally under a bridge at night.

He’s thrown in as a line chef, in carpentry, cabinet-making, demolishing structures and even was paid a penny a word for research through an on-line university.

He thinks labeling anyone with “mental illness” is both incorrect (“we can have mental issues and problems, but it is not a disease”) and a quick way to control people and taking away their rights.

John is skeptical of government services for homeless, saying, “The secular institutions aren’t capable of helping the homeless. When people help me, it’s members of the community. Religious institutions should be helping out much more.”

He’s not atypical in that he had his ID stolen in 2016, and has had major difficulty securing a copy of his birth certificate (from California) to get the process going for an ID. His California driver’s license, he said, was taken by police.

Working under the table isn’t always easy. He isn’t asking for any handouts, but when I pressed him about his immediate needs, he said:

  • somewhere to get out of the rain
  • a place with a source of heat
  • a place to cook food
  • a place to get out of the cold.

“It seems like the powers that be want us to freeze to death. Sometimes it’s just a place to get out of the cold that can make the difference,” John said.

Larry, right, 74, from California, went to Humboldt State, and he’s been without a home for fifty years. Both Larry and Terry (left) are the tip of the iceberg, so to speak: they are on the streets, have signs — “Anything will help” — and talk with locals. Citizens. Homeowners. The issue with homelessness yawns its monster mouth when we take into account couch surfing, basement living, folks with families in garages, those living in fifth wheels and vans and cars.

Two-part series in the local rag — “Behind the Faces of Lincoln County’s Homeless.”

Part of my impetus doing this sidebar is to get the word out, but in so many cases, I feel as if I am a babe in the woods. There are not real forums where strong, focused arguments about the failures of capitalism can be voiced. You see, the fewer opportunities for social-people-environmental-cultural justice to be voiced and delineated, the quicker this retail/consumer society will tank.

From the bottom up, of course, since we have a system of corporate welfare that sucks the very blood from people. Imagine, no outrage about food stamps — a program if run right, STIMULATES local economies, local food purveyors, local community building.

Instead, a million more people off the measly program, while those pigs of capital get cash hand over fist billions for military-surveillance-prison-banking complex.

Children already in bad schools — bad because they teach incompetence, small mindedness, compliance, stupidity, chaos, genuflection to lies about history and about the Empire — need real food, real veggies, real fruit, real nutrition. Instead, more children left behind.

And, then, who knows how many end up like these men in a decade, or two decades.

Imagine systems of oppression in schools, in communities, with police forces, with the broken and dictatorial social services, working to put more and more people through the ringer.

Yep, people come to Lincoln County (like hundreds of other counties) to find a place in the sun. To find work. To get away from the urban core of a Portland.

They find seasonal work, tourist industry low paying service jobs, no transportation system, no community gardens, no community centers, nothing, really, and alas, the worst part, they have no housing.

Think how hard communities of every size and shape give away trillions in tax abatements, free land, loopholes, entitlement program, federal dollars, the whole works. Yet, do we have cooperative housing so these businesses can keep people here with the low wages they shell out?

Insanity is believing the tip of the iceberg is the iceberg, so seeing these down and out men (and some women) on the streets and then calling it good when crappy hot chocolate is donated on a windy cold day, when a pile of toothbrushes is given out, when a Oregon Ducks used sweatshirt if thrown at them!

PhD’s on food-stamps! Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants living in cars, tripling up, while football coaches and a million other superfluous employees at universities get big pay, big tenure rewards, big retirement benefits.

I have been around enough to have talked with plenty of faculty (I was a freeway flyer with a spouse, so we threw in together, with some help from my mother and her parents buying our only child “things” that would have cost us an arm and a leg) who are living in their vans. I have been around enough to have worked as a social worker with clients living in cars, in tents, in abandoned garages and shacks. These homeless people ARE workers, man — cutting Dole’s fruit, loading a million consumer goods onto pallets, answering phones at call centers. Tons and tons of people working the Amazon Fascist Smile Warehouse gig living in a beat-up 20 foot RV.

Tickets on their windows for parking in “illegal zones.” Tickets for expired plates. Tickets for garbage neatly boxed outside the RV. Tow truck operators making bucks, judges getting paid, cops getting retirement benefits.

Being poor, as John attests, costs a lot of money. “If I have no place to cook and heat up food, what does that leave me? Chips and bad food. I can’t go into a restaurant like this an pay $12 for an enchilada plate.”

Larry is so down and out he has cancerous growths on his face, on his back. His clothes are so bad that he gets shooed away from businesses just being outside. He is in need of massive intervention, and on the surface that intervention might look like mandatory “commitment” to a program or suite of programs. But he is in pain, dying on the streets, a constant reminder of the failure of so many systems in this wacko survival of the fittest/dog-eat-dog/Christ Let’s The Poor Inherit The Earth mumbo-jumbo.

Mumbo-jumbo that drive policy. I have met a hundred social workers (females) who have crucifixes around their necks, who believe in their own personal angels. I have met dozens of male social workers who believe in tough love, in turning off someone’s food stamps to get them to come into the office for their monthly face-to-face.

These are the evil people, the Little Eichmann’s, the banality of evil that is a country like USA. Or any country that values the rich and the material over the majority of people in their midst, over the land, over the ecosystems.

John believes the churches will step it up. He thinks the government is too strong, and that churches — the Xmas kind — should have power in this country. he’s a smart guy, deep thinker, been around but over the years it’s been those ministries that have given him a spare blanket, a dime, food.

That’s the odd thing about smart homeless people — they have undying faith in their personal protector, their big daddy in the sky. Many see their lives in this constant chaos and estrangement from “norms” as part of some big plan.

Some, that is, believe that.

But, just last night — a woman, forty, with two girls, on her own, getting disability security checks for the autistic child. She’s in subsidized housing. She has no money for car insurance. Getting a job means something right across the street from her subsidizing housing. An 11 year old at home with a daughter who just turned 18 receiving the $1300 a month for housing and disability compensation.

If this woman — the daughter — goes over $15 or more a month, she loses payments. Already the food stamp allotment has been cut by $85 a month. Imagine, a family of three, and that is a big cut big time.

The average person spends $75 a month on coffee at Starbucks. But the average person in the other category — really precarious, on the edge, without many employment options — they end up in a life and death situation. Less nutrition.

Now, some redneck type might ask where’s the father? Oh, where is that father who ended up in the US Army, got injured twice, with 300 pounds of antifreeze coming down on his head? Yep, ya think that man is cognitively okay? Divorced and left with the two children at a young age, this woman is not getting back child support.

The cogs of the machinery not only do not turn, they are frozen in place.

Recrimination abounds in the world I travel through — it’s her fault for having kids; it’s her fault for having a bad spouse; it’s her fault for not going to college’ it’s her fault she was born into a bad family with no father figure; it’s her fault she carries extra pounds on her frame; it’s her fault the kids have no extras, no activities to do outside of school, walks on the beach and TV; it’s her fault for being here on the coast.

A lot of faults, a lot of recriminations, a lot of what most people of “good upbringing” say among themselves or to themselves while passing this woman by as she walks with her daughters and the passerby is in her SUV.

As a writer-journalist-advocacy thinker-biased human being, I can say not enough gets said in meetings, not enough passion is passed around by the stakeholders and powerful. Not enough calling the kettle black, man.

This society where I enter — so many different demographics, activities, realms, professions, people types — is still deluded into believing the crap of American Exceptionalism. They really believe there was great time in USA, when it was a Great White City on the Hill.

In the end, trauma-trauma-trauma. Many end up precarious because of the trauma. Misanthropes like a Trump or Bloomberg or Zuckerberg, well, there might have been trauma-trauma-trauma in their lives (all three have exacted millions of traumas to others) but these archetypes are able to “overcome” them and become the cruel and ruthless and demeaning hucksters they have become. That the average Joe and Jane like or respect any of these folk — cult of celebrity is a death sentence of intelligence — is amazing still to me.

But the daily survival of John — he has so many skills a Trump of Bloomberg do not have — is both elegant and real. He is getting close to fifty, and he may look like a regular guy on some walkabout, he still knows things could be much better for him.

He laments how women who are homeless have it worse than the men. “Look, I have seen women come into an area after an assault. The cops don’t care. There are missing women all the time. There’s a new poster out in Newport of a young woman missing. How many of them are murdered, left in the woods. The police don’t pursue these rape cases, these missing persons cases. It’s a tragedy, a crime.”