Thursday, October 27, 2011

Agriculture, Sustainability, and Child Labor

I graduated from High School in 1979 from Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wisconsin, a small rural community between Chicago and Milwaukee.  Many of the kids I went to school with were from farming families.

Volunteer T-Shirt from Farm Aid 25
Between the year I graduated from high school and 1985, the first year of the noted concert, Farm Aid, many in the U.S. lost or sold their farms.  Their families moved to cities, or they sold all the land but their houses.

Why did this happen?  The family farm was no longer profitable.  Some of the kids my age went to school for agricultural science where they learned the techniques associated with improving agricultural yields.  They ended up working not for their family, but for large agricultural organizations that were slowly taking over agriculture in the U.S.  There is no doubt that the industrial approach to agriculture improved efficiency, but at what cost?

In 1987, shortly after Farm Aid, the UN published a report called, Our Common Future.  Also referred to as the Brundtland Report, it was the first time that an international organization focused on long-term sustainability of the planet.  In it, the report defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present while considering future generations.  The report also defined sustainability within the context of the three e’s:  environment, economic development, and equity.

The report also highlighted concerns over the early stages of globalization.  What was happening to resources, workers, flows of capital, etc. within the context of globalization was troubling.  Food issues and hunger were highlighted.

Pigs in a factory farm.
No one could have anticipated the significant changes to food production since 1979, Farm Aid, or the publication of the Brundtland Report.  We have factory-raised animals in this country that live their lives in tiny cages and that have a life that can only be imagined within the pages of Poe or Shelley.  We have massive land holdings and co-ops managed by small numbers of international organizations that control the kinds of fertilizer, herbicide, etc that are applied to the land.  The husbands of the land are not the farmers with long-term familial interests on the land, but corporations interested in short term profits and stockholders.

We also have a society that is highly divorced from the production of food.  Worldwide, we are seeing urbanization trends and an abandonment of rural landscapes to an every-increasing corporatized food production system.  The noted geographer John Fraser Hart wrote about this land use transformation in the American south in 2010.

The separation of us from our food supply system creates an environment where we are not in touch with our sources of food.  Overall we do not care how our food is produced.  We do not know how the animals were treated during life, how they were killed, how the food was handled.  We do not care how the land was treated to grow crops and we do not care about additives or how crops are processed or who processes them. 

Instead, we want easily available cheap food.  We have the Food Network and food magazines that celebrate the variety of cheap food available to us.  At the same time, we have The Biggest Loser and we have seen an increase in obesity, an epidemic of diabetes, and a proliferation of other food related problems, including the recall of tons of meat and outbreaks of diseases associated with poor handling of cantaloupe.

Last night at Hofstra University’s Day of Dialogue, I was introduced to another issue of concern regarding food production related to childhood farm labor.  Currently, because of the changing face of agriculture, most children working in agriculture are not part of a family farm operation.  Instead, they are often part of a globalized labor force that includes seasonal documented or undocumented workers.  There are very few safety regulations for children engaged in agricultural labor.

Agricultural landscape in America.
Currently, the Department of Labor is seeking to change the labor laws to prevent children under 16 years of age from working in highly dangerous areas of agricultural operations such as handling pesticides and working in manure pits.  The agricultural lobby is fighting this law by saying that it hurts the family farm by preventing farm kids from working on the farm.  The truth is that there are exceptions that allow children of farm owners to conduct this work and the objections are a red herring to allow farms to continue to hire underage workers (often children of migratory documented or undocumented workers) in very dangerous farm enterprises.

The current child labor law is 40 years old and highly out of date in the modern industrialized farm system.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Last Rhino in Vietnam

Photo by Peter Zumthor
The last rhino in Vietnam was recently killed for its horn.  It is now extinct.  I think that there are many scientific reasons to protect animals and plants from extinction.  But, it is through an ethical system of valuing them that truly protects them.  In many ways, I think that Thoreau and other environmental transcendentalists were on the right path.  We need to appreciate the value of nature not for monetary or personal gain we can get from it.  Instead, we need to embrace nature and value it for what makes us human.

In the current era, I have heard many discussions around the value of ecosystems services and the price of protection of habitat in order to make the case to decision makers about the monetary value of nature to society.  I understand this approach, but I find it troubling.  Why do our decision-makers not see that there is value in nature that is not monetary in value?  Do we want elected officials who only see nature within the context of a budget?  If one follows this monetary approach, it makes sense to kill the last rhino in Vietnam for the value of the horn.  The rhino has very little monetary value to society as a rhino.  But the horn has value and can be added to a spreadsheet.  In this logical argument, it makes sense to kill the last rhino in order to add value to society.

The killing of the last rhino in Vietnam takes us away from the essence of what makes us human and civilized.  Don't the arguments that solely place monetary value on natural processes do the same thing?  Don't we need to value nature for nature's sake?

Monday, October 24, 2011

National Food Day

Today is National Food Day. 

Goat farm in Suffolk County, New York.  Photo by R. Brinkmann
The goals of Food Day are to:

1.  Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
2.  Support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness
3.  Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
4.  Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms
5.  Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
6.  Support fair conditions for food and farm workers

I fully support the goals of Food Day as they are good sustainability goals.  But, it is worth noting that in this economy, there are many families going hungry.  This article from the Port Washington, NY Patch details the hunger problems on Long Island.  For those of you who work in a sizable organization, please consider starting a food drive in your office over the next month or so.  There are plenty of local organizations that will help you with information and advertising materials.  Many food banks will pick up the items your organization collects.  If you are on Hofstra's campus, you can donate non-perishable food in the Global Studies and Geography Department in 209 Roosevelt Hall.  The food will go to Long Island Harvest.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Romanticism, Science, and the Environment

Last week I attended the Geological Society of America annual meeting where I gave a paper on the romantic and transcendental art and literature movements in 19th century America and their relationship to the development of cave and karst science.  I just submitted the paper I gave for review to a journal and I hope that it will be published soon.  However, the preparation for writing the paper caused me to reflect on how science and culture are intertwined and influence each other.

Let's take a few pieces of American art and from the 19th and 20th century to examine how romanticism may have influenced science. None of these pieces are part of my paper, but serve to illustrate how the character of science developed.
First, let us examine this piece of art.  It is by noted Hudson River School artist, Asher Durand and is called Kindred Spirits.  This piece shows a portion of the Catskills within a distinctly heroic and idealized setting.  A geologist of the time could be enthralled by the lithologic expression and dramatic landscapes ripe for analysis and interpretation.  While the romantic and transcendental artists and writers sought to elevate man by their presentation of the beauty of the landscape, they also portrayed a bare landscape open for geologic inquiry.  It is no wonder that early geologists sought the dramatic.  Indeed, it is not surprising that the explorer of the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell, was named the second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1881.
This portrait of John James Audubon places the scientist directly within the heroic American landscape.  This copy of a painting (done in 1841) of an original by Audubon's sons places him within the landscape making him a part of the scene.  Thus, he is not an observer, but instead, he is elevated and represented as part of the ideal of that must be observed.  Given that the painting was completed by his sons, one assumes that this representation was intentional.  He was not painted in his studio, but within the romanticized and transcendental American landscape.  Nature is somehow conquered with a gun.  Man is at rest and comfort with a dog by his side.
We can now turn to an image from the post-romantic era in America.  By this time, the impacts of the industrial revolution were being felt.  Americans became aware of pollution, extinctions, ecological devastation, genocide of Native Americans, and man's role in the destruction of nature. This self portrait by American artist Thomas Hart Benton shows man as dominating the landscape.  Nature is present, but frames the participants who seem utterly uninterested in nature except as a source of pleasure (swimming).  Yet, nature is hardly heroic here.  It is man who has taken over.  One observes man as heroic and transcendental.  Thus the significance of the landscape was gone and now it was man who was to elevate, to inspire, and to awe.

The dominion over nature is certainly a theme in twentieth century art and science.  We had better living through chemistry and separation from nature through radio, television, and the Internet. The Space Age made us think that we were not place bound.  In the current age, I am hearing more about ecoservices valuation, the costs associated with carbon capture and renewable energy, and the harmful financial impacts of environmental regulations on industries.  It is a time of cognitive dissonance where truth and reality are commoditized, politicized, and constructed.  Take a look at this Village Voice  list of best art shows from 2010 and you'll see a number of themes emerge. Some have to do with despair and uncertainty.  In some ways, this reflects what we are seeing as a result of the economic downturn, but it is also true that the scientific promises of the Space Age have only partially been realized.  We are seeing that there are some limits to science.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Top Five Reasons to Go Meatless on Mondays

1.  It's good for the environment.
2.  It's healthy.
3.  Over the span of your life, you will save the lives of hudreds of animals.
4.  It causes one to reflect on one's food choices.
5.  It saves money.