Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.

 

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

GMOs: Things I didn’t know

Upwards of 90% of people think GMOs (genetically modified foods) should be labeled. Big Ag (including our own Cargill and General Mills) is strongly pushing back, insisting GMOs are safe, and have been found to be safe by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and pretty much everyone who counts.

FC9780802123466Now I have been skeptical of GMOs all along, but I did believe that the government had probably tested and approved them. But I found out while reading World Hunger: 10 Myths by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, that that may not be true.

According to Lappé and Collins (in discussing Myth 3—“Only industrial agriculture and GMOs can feed a hungry world”), the FDA has not formally approved a single genetically modified crop as safe for human consumption. The review process for new GMO plants in voluntary. The FDA relies on the producers to do their own safety and nutritional assessments. In addition, no long-term studies are required for approval. Hmm.

Two decades ago, “the FDA acceded to the industry’s requests and declared GMOs ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM-bred crops. . . ignoring the strong doubts of some of its own scientists.” Wow. I had no idea.

Nor is there a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe (note lack of long-term studies, above). Lappé and Collins report on numerous studies (with detailed endnotes and references) and statements that are cause for caution if not concern.

  • One study found pigs on a GMO diet were 2.6 times more likely to get severe stomach inflammation than control pigs.
  • Another found evidence of kidney and liver damage, hormone disruption, and more and earlier tumors on rats fed a GMO diet.
  • Nearly 300 scientists and academics signed a statement emphasizing the lack of scientific consensus on GMOs and called for long-term independent research.

And let’s face it. Big Ag is a powerful industry. Consider this:

A review of ninety-four published studies on the effects of GM food or feed products found that of the studies in which an author is affiliated with the biotech industry, none revealed either health-related risks or lower nutrient values associated with consuming GM food or feed. By contrast, almost a quarter of the studies with no author affiliation with the biotech industry did find problems associated with consumption of GMO products.”

Another supposed advantage of GMOs is that they produce higher crop yields and with fewer pesticides. But in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that after 15 years, GMO seeds have NOT been shown to increase yield potentials and pesticide use has remained steady (one study) or increased slightly (a different study). Huh.

I have also heard on occasion that farmers are choosing GM seeds over non-GM, suggesting they prefer them. Maybe, maybe not. I have also read stories of farmers looking for non-GM seeds but unable to find them. Some farmers have faced a problem with exports as many countries ban certain GMO foods/commodities, and 64 countries require GMO labeling.

You don’t have to think they’re bad to support GMO labeling. A lot of people aren’t sure. (Of course, a lot of scientists aren’t sure either.) I like to know the ingredients in my food. I like to know how many calories, how much vitamin C, and if there are trans fats. I’d also like to know if it’s genetically modified.

Reading Theme: Foreign Country; Conclusion: Yikes!

Klein bookAfter I finished No Ordinary Time, the 700+ page tome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for some crazy reason I picked up another large tome (500+ pages) the next day. Oh, truth be told, I picked it up because I couldn’t wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It has made for an extremely interesting read alongside some of the books for October’s reading theme: foreign country.

The first book it paired with in a creepy futuristic way was The Windup Girl,Windup by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, in a post-petroleum world, the U.S. is holding much of the world hostage through developing and dispersing plagues (affecting primarily crops, but animals are often fallout), and then offering genetically engineered foods and seeds which resist the plague. Does this sound scarily like Monsanto to you? Not to worry, the company is Agri-Gen (with Pur-Cal as a strong competitor). Shades of General Mills, Cargill, and ADM. NOT a future very difficult to imagine. In fact, we are already halfway there, with our round-up pesticides and our round-up-pesticide-resistant seeds. Oh, and of course the seeds are sterile. The greatest abomination against nature I can think of—to deny seeds reproduction. It is the very essence of seeds to grow and provide more seeds.

Next, capitalism. I’ve only just started Lost and Found in Russia, but as Russia moved away from Communism they applied “Shock Therapy”—the approach favored by the World Bank and grounded in Western economic theory (think Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics). As a result of this recommended approach, prices shot up, with inflation reaching 2000%. Within a year, over 40% of Russians were living in poverty (compared to 1.5% before the “economic revolution”). The seriously dark side of capitalism.

L PerdidaEven the graphic novel I’m reading, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, brings up issues of capitalistic dominance. A Mexican says to a visitor from the States, “You grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right! . . . I am also upset at the government of the United States and el NAFTA! They do not leave me alone! . . . [Y]ou represent the invasion of American Hollywood and imperialism of cultural and economics.”

Eula Biss, in Notes from No Man’s Land, also mentions NAFTA. (I meant to read this for theBiss award-winning books theme for last month—it won the National Book Critics Circle Award—but I didn’t finish it until early October. An excellent book focusing on racial issues, and the best book on race by a white person that I’ve read yet.) After a trip to Mexico, Biss reflects on the American-owned power plants and maquiladoras on the U.S-Mexican border, and the opposition of the Zapatistas and the Indian peasants in Chiapas to NAFTA.

While Clinton was promising that NAFTA would “lift all boats,” the Zapatistas warned that NAFTA would bring falling prices for corn, falling wages for workers, and the loss of land to foreign investors. That is exactly what happened. Because Iowa corn imported into Mexico is heavily subsidized by the United States government, the price of corn in Mexico fell by half during the first ten years of NAFTA. More than a million farmers were displaced from their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the United States, where they became day laborers, picking U.S. crops.

So wouldn’t you think that Mexico would just give preference to local corn? Well it turns out that they can’t. It’s illegal. I have learned from Klein’s book that under the rules of the World Trade Organization, supports for local industry are considered protectionist. In fact, favoring local industry constitutes illegal discrimination. Whoa. Yes! “[T]he most basic rule of trade law is that you can’t privilege domestic over foreign.” Have you ever heard such a cockamamie law? Not to mention destructive—to our local workers, our local economies, our environment, and the world.

We always (at least I always) want to blame the Republicans for these huge agreements thatclinton 2
benefit the rich at the expense of pretty much everyone else but most especially the poor and even more especially, poor farmers. But no, this time it was the Democrats—Bill Clinton, specifically, with the support of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, National Audubon Society (that just breaks my heart), Natural Resources Defense Council (they used to be my #1 national charity), and the World Wildlife Fund. (In case you want to know who didn’t cave to Al Gore and big business, that would include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and a lot of small organizations.)

We have a very serious uphill climb ahead of us. It’s not all doom and gloom. Naomi Klein is even cautiously optimistic. If we act now, in a very serious, concerted way, actually privileging the planet over the economy, we could avoid the tipping point. We don’t have to return to the neanderthal stage. Though if we don’t do anything, we probably will. I haven’t gotten to the optimistic part of the book yet. I’ll get back to you.

GMOs and Cargill: The Winds ARE Shifting

SoybeansA couple of months ago I blogged about Cargill’s declining profits as their GMO products were rejected by China. Cargill saw a 28% decline in earnings in the first quarter of 2014, due in large part to China’s rejection of GMO corn. I’ve been hoping that this, plus public attitude (52% think GMOs are unsafe while an additional 13% are unsure, which means a mere 35% of the public embraces GMOs), might cause Cargill to shift away from GMOs. This is a tough thing to do in the United States, where 94% of soybeans and 88% of corn are GMO.

However, Cargill has General Mills in its back yard (both have their corporate headquarters here in the Twin Cities), and several months ago General Mills announced GMO-free Cheerios. (Not a huge step, since oats are the main ingredient and oats are not GMO. They only have to replace the GMO corn starch and the GMO sugar cane. Still.)

Not to be outdone, Cargill has announced plans to introduce a GMO-free soybean oil. This is just a little bit tougher than General Mills’ Cheerios gambit, since soybean oil is made pretty much just from soybeans, and 94% of soybeans are GMO. And of course it’s all about profits, but that’s where consumer voices come in. According to Cargill’s press release,

Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GM ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators.

Some good news: So far the supply is limited, but what they have has been pretty much bought up. More good news for us (bad news for Cargill) is that it’s difficult to produce non-GMO crops because they need to develop “processes to avoid co-mingling with bioengineered crops during harvesting.” Corn with Wind Why is this good news? Because if Cargill doesn’t want seed drift (this is where GMO seeds get blown about—as seeds will do—and start appearing in fields that are supposed to be non-GMO), Cargill is in an excellent position to do something about the vagaries of this seed drift problem. Monsanto sues farmers who let GMO seed blow onto their non-GMO farms. I’ll be interested in seeing Monsanto sue Cargill.

I still am not overly fond of Cargill. But I’m very pleased with this development.

Sugar Beets, GMOs & Cargill: Are the Winds Shifting?

Winne bookI’ve recently finished Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cooking Mamas, by Mark Winne. What most caught my attention in this book was a fight that took place in Boulder, Colorado, several years ago (the book was published in 2010). Not a fistfight; more of a showdown between the industrial food system and the alternative (be it organic, grass raised, free range, humane, or simply slow as opposed to fast). Here’s the deal: Six farmers asked the county for permission to plant genetically modified sugar beets on publicly owned farmland.

They held a public hearing. Of 58 citizens who testified, 47 were adamantly opposed. They were particularly concerned about “seed drift,” where GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops (they don’t have to be organic to be contaminated by GMOs). A big concern about seed drift is that GMO food is unwelcome in a lot of markets (the European Union and China would be significant examples), and non-GMO crops that get contaminated by seed drift are no longer non-GMO, and cannot be sold in many markets (and to make matters worse, the non-GMO farmer is open to being sued by Monsanto for “growing” their crops).

One of the farmers was already farming 1,300 acres on public land. Of that, 14% was sugar beets (conventional seed), but they accounted for 32% of his income. And the farmer said,

By removing Roundup Ready sugar beets you have essentially delivered the death blow to another independent farmer.

Say what? The citizens didn’t want to deliver a death blow to a farmer. They just didn’t GMO sugar beetwant their public land planted with GMO crops. Public lands in particular shouldn’t contaminate other farmers. So what’s the big deal here? Just plant conventional crop like you have on the public land you’re already farming. That seemed rather obvious and the perfect solution.

Oh, a snag: The sugar beet farmers weren’t able to purchase conventional seed. Two years prior, 60% of the sugar beet seed on the market was GMO. At the time of their GMO sugar beet request, it was 95%.

Does that scare you? It scares the shit out of me. Farmers going out of business simply because they can’t purchase seeds that aren’t genetically modified? What kind of democracy is this?

Imagine if the entire world food supply was controlled by one or two persons. Or one or two companies. One of these companies would almost certainly be Cargill, practically in my back yard.

Oh, but who cares about farmers, anyway? Let’s talk about Cargill instead.

China has refused shipments of U.S. corn since November of last year because of GMOs (almost all U.S.-grown corn is GMO). This is a huge concern for Cargill, since China is the world’s fastest growing market for corn.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Cargill saw a 28% decline in earnings in the first quarter of the year, due primarily to the rejection of its GMO corn.

It would seem that the United States is pretty much the only country in the world that loves GMOs. Most developed countries have restrictions. (But then again, most developed countries have healthcare systems that cover pretty much everyone. I am thinking these two facts are not completely unrelated.)

However, if we want to trade with the rest of the world, we might want to produce the kind of products that they would like to buy. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If your trade partners don’t want GMOs, and most of your captive audience doesn’t want GMOs (52% think GMOs are unsafe while an additional 13% are unsure, according to an ABC News poll), you’d think that maybe the GMO winds are shifting. And not only because of seed drift.

corn

And while I know little about the World Trade Organization, already I realize that wanting to please the potential customer is naive. There is no goodwill here. This is all about control. And Cargill has a lot of control. Including a lot of control in the World Trade Organization.

I have much to learn.