Archives for category: consumerism

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

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Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Values

A.V. Walters–

I’m not one much for the celebration of artificial holidays. Generally, if the way in which a holiday is celebrated suggests that one should shop, I’m not interested. I make exceptions for food (especially if it’s fresh, organic and local! I think that holidays should be about great food shared with loved ones and the appropriate celebration of season.) It’s no mistake that breaking bread with others—the root of the word communion, is also the root of community. It’s probably fair to say that I’m a Grinch about Christmas.

Not that I don’t shop. (Good Lord, I’m building—sometimes it feels that all I do is shop!) But shopping, in the retail sense, has become a recreation activity in our culture. North Americans have more stuff than we can house—I know this because my day job is about self-storage, an industry that has burgeoned over the past few decades. We have too much stuff.

What we don’t do, is shop wisely. Americans shop for values in the dollar sense, not for values in the real sense. Everybody likes a bargain—but at what cost? I note that Costco (a company I like because they have decent labor policies and are responsive to members’ environmental concerns) is having a sale on Georgia Pacific paper (a company that I despise for its political culture and rampant environmental abuses.) Will other Costco consumers stop and think about the impact of each individual selection? I doubt it. I have to pause, and recognize that the very economies of scale that make Costco successful, work against local economies—and encourage the very unbridled consumerism that decouples our relationship with the planet. It’s a matter of degree. It’s about taking the time to look below the surface—on any individual purchase—as well as with any particular company. Even though limited individually, our dollars collectively, are the second most powerful political and policy tool we have at our disposal. The first is our vote.

I also know that the very economic policies supported by our corporate economy have squeezed consumers in ways that make globally-unwise shopping the average consumer’s primary option. Think about Walmart and its devastation on small town economies— the fact is that their pay is so low as to force employees onto food stamps and public programs. There is an implicit trap in the Walmart cycle—they prey on the poor. By the time a community realizes that Walmart is not a good deal—it’s too late. All of the local businesses have closed. There are no other shopping options. Behind the scenes, the profits go to the Walton family, the production jobs go offshore, and consumers are left with shoddy products that will not endure. Go ahead, buy it, and then buy it again when it breaks. Adding insult to injury, our tax dollars help to support their full-time workers who cannot live on what Walmart pays. Where’s the value in that?

Is it too much to ask North Americans to look deeper into where their dollars go? I hope not. Buy local. Buy from your farmer’s market or co-op. Support local tradespeople and service companies—before you head to the chain store with your coupons. Fix it, instead of buying a new one, and tossing the old into the trash. Research your larger purchases on the internet—and make sure that your dollars support your real values. Buy used goods, or surplus goods—you’ll save money, reduce waste and decrease our reliance on the retail culture. Make, or build, things yourself, when you can. This is the strength of the American dream. Since when did self-sufficiency become passé? Let your dollars support your ideals.

Oh yeah, and Happy New Year.