Environment

Health and Workers Dying to Feed Us

This article in Scientific American is unusual among the articles defending the results of the Stanford University study finding no nutritional benefit in eating organic food in that it at least mentions the people on whom pesticides have an uncontested negative effect: the workers who tend the field (though it consistently calls them “farmers,” romanticizing the labor relationship often involved).

In a section titled, “No Need to Fear,” it twice notes that “farmers” are exposed to high levels of pesticides.

To date, there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.

What of all those studies I just mentioned linking pesticides to disorders? Well, exactly none of them looked at pesticides from dietary intake and health in people. Instead, they involve people with high occupational exposure (like farmers who spray pesticides) or household exposure (from gardening, etc). Judging pesticides safety by high exposures is like judging the health impacts of red wine based on alcoholics.

[snip]

The closest we have to studying the effects of diet on health are studies looking at farmers. However, farmers in general have high occupational pesticide exposures, and thus it’s impossible to tease out occupational versus dietary exposure. Even still, in this high-risk group, studies simply don’t find health differences between organic and conventional farmers. A UK study found that conventional farmers were just as healthy as organic ones, though the organic ones were happier.

And while the UK study–which, by its locale, leaves out some of the more dangerous chemicals used here but not in Europe–shows that organic “field and packhouse workers” were only healthier than conventional workers because they were happier, it also showed that all the 605 farm workers involved had significantly poorer health than normal in the UK.

Thus, even in an article admitting that farm workers were exposed to high amounts of chemicals that it admits are dangerous, it concludes that “there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.”

As if the health of people who work to feed me has no effect on me at all.

It reminds me of a passage from Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. Three female tomato farm workers give birth within days of each other to seriously deformed children; they had worked without protection in a field sprayed with the fungicide mancozeb days before the babies were conceived and had been sprayed with methyl bromide regularly. Lawyer Andrew Yaffa sued the owner of the field, Ag-Mart, on behalf of one of the children, a boy who had been born with no limbs and other health problems. In a deposition, Yaffa got the President of Ag-Mart to admit the chemicals used on the field caused birth defects in lab animals, but distinguished that from the birth defects of the kids born to workers who had worked without adequate protection in his field.

“So in regards to the pesticides that you use day in and day out, as your sit here today you are aware that there are, in fact, studies linking animals who are exposed to these pesticides to birth defects?”

“Yes, there are studies.”
“This isn’t new to you?”

“No, no, this is not new.”

[snip]

“You knew for years that these pesticides were linked to birth defects in lab animals. We talked about that … knowing the risk was there, why not be proactive and take that step before you have three women bearing children with such horrific defects?”

“Well, the three women were not all–I don’t believe thta–this is my belief, so I–I–don’t believe that the pesticides caused the birth defects. I believe that the pesticides have been tested to cause birth defects in animals, but I don’t believe pesticides caused birth defects in those three women.”

Sure, the President of Ag-Mart was playing a legal word game. But it’s a word game often repeated by discussions of the dangers of pesticides, an admission that pesticides are bad for the invisible–often migratory and undocumented–people who work to feed us, but a confidence that they nevertheless are not bad for our health.

As if the only effect our industrial food system has on us is via our own ingestion of the problems it brings.

John Brennan Vows to Combat the “Bad Guys” Attacking Our Critical Infrastructure

John Brennan just gave a speech, purportedly about our policy in Yemen. But it ended up being largely about infrastructure, That’s partly because his speech focused on how, rather than spending 75% of our Yemen funds on bombs, we’re now spending just 50% (having bumped up the total to include an equal amount development assistance). So a good part of his talk focused on whether or not Yemen would be able to do the critical work of rebuilding its infrastructure sufficient to combat AQAP which, in some areas, has done a better job of building infrastructure.

Of course as I noted while he spoke, a number of the infrastructure challenges Brennan confidently assured we could help rebuild–things like access to water–are challenges we are increasingly failing in our own country.

And then, because the DC attention span had had enough of Yemen, moderator Margaret Warner asked Brennan what the Administration will do now that their cybersecurity bills have been defeated. To justify his talk of using Executive Orders to address some of the infrastructure problems, Brennan talked about the “bad guys” who posed a cyberthreat to our critical infrastructure.

Nowhere did Brennan acknowledge the much more immediate threat to our critical infrastructure: in the corporations and politics that let it decline. PG&E and Enbridge, failing to invest the money to fix known defects in their pipelines. Fracking companies, depleting and degrading our water supply. Verizon, eliminating choice for Internet access for rural customers. Republicans who want to gut our Postal Service and passenger rail. And heck, even Fat Al Gore and climate change, which is not only depleting our water supply but stalling key water transport routes.

Brennan promises to help rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure. But not only can’t he implement his plan against the bogeyman “bad buys” threatening our infrastructure, he seems completely unaware that those “bad guys” aren’t anywhere near the biggest threat to our infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the Administration’s decision to dedicate money to Yemen’s infrastructure, even if I think a 50/50 split, aid to bombs, is still woefully inadequate. But until we begin to see what “bad guys” pose the biggest threat to our own infrastructure, I’m skeptical our efforts in Yemen will be any more successful than they were in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Is Obama Worried that Fat Al Gore’s Drought Will Threaten His Reelection?

I’m beginning to wonder whether Obama is worried the drought–particularly in the Midwest–could imperil his reelection campaign. I say that because he seems to be avoiding addressing it on the campaign trail. (Compare that to the way he has addressed other tragedies, such as his well-received conversations with the victims of the Aurora shooting.)

To the best of my knowledge, this July 18 photo is as close as Obama has gotten to publicly expressing concern about the drought. And in a press briefing on the drought the same day, both participants–Tom Vilsack and Jay Carney–avoided addressing questions about whether Obama would visit drought affected areas.

Q Secretary, should we be expecting that you and the President will be heading to a drought-stricken area soon? That’s normally a path that you take when you’re trying to show something is a priority.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I can’t speak obviously for the President’s schedule, but I can tell you that actually I was in Pennsylvania yesterday. We do have the Deputy Secretary going to Georgia tomorrow. We’ve got the Under Secretary of the Farm Service Association traveling to several states that are drought-impacted and affected.

[snip]

Q Is the President going, Jay, to go anywhere –

MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any scheduling updates for the President to provide to you today. If and when I do, I’ll provide them.

Now, I’m not trying to concern troll about the President’s schedule, in the way Republicans are criticizing Obama for not meeting with his Jobs Council. Nor am I saying Obama’s not responding to the drought; the USDA has been making low-cost loans available to those in areas declared a disaster, as well as certain other things that may provide immediate if not long-term relief.

Rather, I’m raising it because I really do think it might affect the election. Consider how many swing states are affected by the drought (conditions have gotten better in MI of late).

And while IA has not been included among the counties in which Vilsack has declared a disaster, its corn harvest has been affected (with 40% deemed poor or very poor on July 22). And their livestock will be affected as well.

Continue reading

The Only Terrifying Math That Gets Any Attention Is Defense Spending

Bill McKibben had a long piece on climate change this week, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” that has justifiably gotten a lot of attention. The terrifying math of the title is this:

  • Almost the entire world agreed in 2009 that we must keep global temperature increases below 2°C
  • Since then, the 0.8°C increase in temperature we’ve hit has brought far more damage than scientists expected
  • Humans can introduce no more than 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere if they want to keep the temperature from rising that 2°C which now seems too high
  • Fossil fuel companies already have in reserve–and plan to develop–2,795 gigatons of carbon fuels

The math means, McKibben explains, that to keep global warming within the consensus but already too high limit of 2°C, we’ve got to find some way to force the fossil fuel companies not to develop their existing reserves.

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.

[snip]

According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.

From this McKibben proposes a solution: Tax carbon to make it cost prohibitive to develop these reserves. To tax carbon you’ve got to undercut the fossil fuel industry’s power, and to do that you’ve got to villainize them, but heck that’s easy because they really are villains, since their business model will kill the planet. And so a movement like the South African divestment campaign can make it toxic to own fossil fuel stocks.

That’s a gross oversimplification–please do read the full article for a nuanced version.

Now, there’s nothing in the article that I disagree with. I’m all for making fossil fuel companies pay for the waste their industry creates. I’m all in favor of villainizing them to make that more likely.

But I’ll note that McKibben doesn’t utter the words that would both make it easier to villainize the fossil fuel industry and explains some of the underlying reasons why that’s not going to be enough.

“National security.” Or even “security.”

In that silence, McKibben is a mirror image of the same fault in Obama’s own strategy and discussions more generally about threats to this country, even fairly realistic ones.

Sure, all the details McKibben cites about evident and likely effects of climate change imply this is a security issue: 356 homes gone in Colorado Springs, spiking food prices, even entire countries disappearing.

But until we start using the language of national security, we won’t properly demonstrate the treachery of those who refuse to deal with this. Continue reading

Obama Brings Bankster and Oil Curses to Burma

After I read Obama’s Executive Order opening up trade with Burma, I joked,

Wait. We’re exporting FINANCIAL SERVICES to Myanmar? This is considered a favor to them?

Seriously. Sending our financial services to another country is, these days, the equivalent of bombing them.

Just as–probably more–troubling though are the concerns Josh Rogin lays out about Obama green-lighting investment in the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, off of which the military profits.

[Aung San] Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma’s parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.

“The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) … with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present,” she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. “The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi’s lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.

[snip]

Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments.

While the Treasury version of today’s news imposes human rights (but not profit) controls on investments over $500,000 and threatens sanctions on anyone threatening the peace in Burma (this is akin to the sanctions passed on Yemen),

The order provides new authority to impose blocking sanctions on persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with or at the recommendation of the Secretary of State:  to have engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burma, such as actions that have the purpose or effect of undermining or obstructing the political reform process or the peace process with ethnic minorities in Burma;

Ultimately, it’s Treasury–one of the entities that overrode the human rights advocates in this debate and has proven unable to regulate our own banksters–that gets to decide what constitutes peace.

There’s a very long, almost universal history of bad outcomes associated with big investments in oil. And yet the only safeguard Obama has put in place to prevent the oil curse from spoiling this really superb development–the opening of Burma–is the diligence of the Treasury Department that refuses to even reign in our own cursed industries.

Fat Al Gore Colludes with Banksters in the Midwest

There’s an ominous storm brewing in flyover country that may amount to little more than higher food and fuel prices, or may amount to something else.

First there’s the drought. Last week’s heat wave and the last month’s dry weather hit just as much of America’s corn crop was set to pollinate. And if the corn doesn’t pollinate, it never grows kernels. Even as I’ve been writing this post, USDA sharply cut forecasts for the corn harvest.

As a result, corn prices (soy prices too) are rising sharply. Which will, for better and worse, have repercussions on all the aspects of our super-processed life that relies on corn.

“The drought of 2012 will be one for the records,” said Peter Meyer, the senior director for agricultural commodities at PIRA Energy Group in New York, who forecasts a drop in output to 11 billion bushels if the hot, dry spell lasts another three weeks. “Whether it’s ethanol or livestock, no one is immune from this impending disaster. The ramifications will be widespread, affecting everything from your food to your gasoline.”

And all that’s before any follow-on effects, if the drought continues. Even in Grand Rapids, we’ve had some unusual fires. Rivers that were experiencing historic floods last year are approaching record lows this year; traffic on the Mississippi has already slowed.

Yet all that–even with our country’s industrialized reliance on corn–might be no more concerning than other droughts, such last year’s drought in Texas.

Meanwhile, banksters keep stealing farmers’ money–first via MF Global and now with Peregrine.

The U.S. futures industry reeled as regulators accused Iowa-based PFGBest of misappropriating more than $200 million in customer funds for more than two years, a new blow to trader trust just months after MF Global’s collapse.

Continue reading

Why Does Fat Al Gore Hate Flower Festivals?

This is not really my beat, but after spending the weekend in an unseasonably warm DC and returning to even warmer temperatures here in MI, I felt it deserves a post.

In DC all weekend, people were enjoying the gorgeous cherry blossoms, but bemoaning the fact that the peak bloom pretty much has preceded the Cherry Blossom Festival. Now in Holland, MI, they’re facing the likelihood that not even moving up its Tulip Fest will ensure there are still blooms on the stems come May.

It is 85 degrees here at the moment (though there’s a pleasant breeze coming off the river), and predicted to climb higher. Tomorrow it is predicted to break 90. Nine. Zero. In March. In MI.

(If posts are thin tomorrow, you can presume McCaffrey the MilleniaLab and I have gone to the beach.)

As the map above makes clear, temperatures this week are 25 degrees above where they’re supposed to be this time of year.

And while I realize Mr. Pricky Cactus will show up and boast about how hot and dry it is in AZ, things are just so far outside of the norm here it’s creepy (though pleasant). Wunderblogs notes that some of the the “coldest places” in the nation are setting repeated record highs.

Summer in March continues for the Midwest
The ongoing March heat wave in the Midwest will continue to set all-time heat records through Thursday, gradually shifting its peak intensity eastwards during the week. Continue reading

Clear and Present Climate Blindness

This Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen essay, attacking the “threat inflation” in foreign affairs, is generating a lot of buzz. DDay wrote about it here, and Paul Pillar has a worthwhile addition here. At one level, I’m positively thrilled that this sentiment is being expressed in the bible of the foreign policy establishment, Foreign Affairs.

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks. A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of members of the Council on Foreign Relations believed that for the United States at that moment, the world was either as dangerous as or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Similarly, in 2008, the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 foreign policy experts and found that 70 percent of them believed that the world was becoming more dangerous. Perhaps more than any other idea, this belief shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

But there’s just one problem with their argument. “It is simply wrong.”

This is an over 5,000-word article, 16 pages long.

And while Zenko and Cohen discuss non-military threats–primarily health and economics and cybersecurity–they [update (see below)--almost] never discuss climate change.

That’s largely a reflection of the paradigm of foreign policy. After all, climate change doesn’t pose a unique, comparative threat to the US. It’s a real, pressing threat to the entire globe at once.

But that doesn’t mean the US–and every other country–is as safe as Zenko and Cohen claim. It just means the risk–one that transcends boundaries and nationalities, though is exacerbated by the latter–doesn’t fit the framework foreign policy wonks work under. And until the foreign policy community gets that climate change should be today’s key foreign policy issue–one that will disrupt the current paradigm of international relations, sure, but as such (particularly given all the very legitimate points Zenko and Cohen make about other threats) really ought to represent an opportunity as well as an imperative.

Update: I apologize to Zenko and Cohen: They do too mention climate change: once, in the following passage.

Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks—all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking. [my emphasis]

My point still stands though: Climate change is not a catalyst to severe challenges, it is in fact, itself, a challenge (and also contributes to instability and migration and food insecurity which will be catalysts to insecurity).

So I apologize to Zenko and Cohen for accusing them of being “blind,” though I still think the claim that no real threats face the US to be “simply wrong.” And thanks to Cohen for alerting me of my initial error.

I Always Hated Pink, Anyway

From when I was 6 until I was 16, in two different houses, my bedroom was painted pink. I don’t think I ever liked the color, but I learned to loathe it along the way, even if it was just my parents’ half-hearted attempt to encourage me to be girlie.

But I suspect that’s only a part of the reason why, as a breast cancer survivor, I learned to hate the pink ribbons purportedly serving my interests.

It may have been when Eureka developed an ad campaign around the pink ribbon. I was less than thrilled that Eureka tried to use my cancer as a reason to sell women more vacuum cleaners along with their stale gender stereotypes.

But I think the moment when I most realized that the cancer industry was about turning breast cancer patients into profit centers came when I went to a Komen-funded Young Survival Coalition conference. The organization itself–focused on breast cancer resources for those diagnosed under the age of 40–was a godsend. But the conference insisted on calling us patients and survivors “customers.”

Customers, I thought (as I got the swag bag full of drug marketing gimmicks). I’m a customer because I have cancer?

Though we conference attendees had our revenge at the session sponsored by Genentech, the maker of the anti-nausea drug Kytril. As the speaker thanked “Genentech, maker of Kytril,” someone yelled out “it doesn’t work.” And another. Then me. And another. And another. It took getting a bunch of us in a room together to compare notes and learn that a bunch of us found the $50/pill medicine to be less effective than older drugs.

You have to be a shrewd customer to survive cancer without getting fleeced.

Komen just pretended to reverse its decision defund Planned Parenthood’s cancer screening services (it promises only to consider PP applications in the future, not to fund them). And, as Greg Sargent reports, they deny that Nancy Brinker did anything wrong.

But now that everyone has become aware of Komen’s sleaziness, it’s time to look at what they–and the cancer industry–do more generally. They fund efforts to diagnose and find a cure but–as this excellent diary describes–they work against things like prevention. They also tend to push back against research that shows we’ve been over-diagnosing and over-treating breast cancer. (I know such studies are controversial, but as someone who learned only after my treatment that European countries would have treated my case very differently, for a fraction of the cost and invasiveness, but with statistically equivalent outcomes, I take them seriously.)

One of the leading breast cancer doctors and advocates, Susan Love, had this to say Tuesday.

Rather than putting politics into the breast cancer movement, lets rise above the political divisions and work together. Let’s redirect all the money that will be spent on investigating Planned Parenthood into funding studies looking to find the cause and prevent the disease once and for all. Let’s redirect our anger to making mammograms unnecessary because we know how to prevent the disease.

We ought to use this scandal to examine more closely where cancer money gets spent–on treatment, turning cancer patients into customers–and rarely on prevention.

While I appreciate the gesture, pink ribbons to me have come to symbolize cancer patients as profit centers, both for consumer goods capitalizing on an association with the goodwill (and Komen), as well as for ungodly expensive drugs that don’t always provide better outcomes. They’ve come to symbolize the same kind of passive compliance I think of when I remember those damn pink walls.

It’s time we aspired to stopping cancer, not just throwing tons of increasingly expensive drugs and consumer products at it. And that, in turn, means finding some other entity besides Komen to take the lead.

Drowning Government in Antibiotic Tainted Chinese Honey

Marion Nestle describes that the USDA is cutting back on basic research.

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.

I was struck, in particular, by this report on the cutting block.

Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate

Which I believe is this report:

This file contains the annual report of the number of colonies producing honey, yield per colony, honey production, average price, price by color class and value; honey stocks by state and U.S.

Why, at a time when people are struggling to understand colony collapse, would the government eliminate a report on how many colonies are producing honey? This is like eliminating a report on how many canaries die in coal mines just to make sure people don’t become worried about imminent explosions.

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