Immokalee diary, part II

In industrial-tomato country, workers suffer squalid living conditions and even slavery

Note: Last week, I visited Immokalee, Fla., with nine other food-politics writers and activists. We were there to check out conditions in the area where 90 percent of winter tomatoes consumed in the U.S. originate. Part I of my diary is here. --------- Update [2009-3-13 15:3:13 by Tom Philpott]: After refusing for two years, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has agreed to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Fort Myers News Press reports. --------- In the area around Fort Myers, Fla., the collapsed real-estate market has plunged the economy into depression. Home prices have fallen 80 percent from peaks in some exburbs, entire blocks of houses lie empty, and families are queuing up at church breadlines in increasing number, The New York Times recently reported. Walking through Immokalee's housing trailers. About an hour inland in Immokalee, my fellow food-justice delegates and I witnessed a much different real-estate scene. Walking through town with Coalition of Immokalee Workers leader Lucas Benitez, we saw very little apparent vacancy in the dense thicket of rusted trailers and dilapidated shacks that make up most of the farmworker housing. As we toured Immokalee on this cool, sunny March morning, residents milled about here and there. Because of the real-estate meltdown in places like Fort Myers, construction has stalled. The building boom had drawn thousands of tomato pickers to the coast for higher-paid construction work. The bust has propelled them back to the tomato fields -- where a worker glut idles about a quarter of the workforce every day, Benitez estimates. If the labor market has soured in Immokalee, rents have held up just fine. According to Benitez, workers pay $800 per week for the largest two-room trailers and shacks available. That's $3,200 a month, for a space that looks like it might comfortably fit a family. That's a rate that might make a Manhattan landlord grin. The dwellings are unheated and uninsulated -- no fun during chilly winter nights. How do farmworkers, who make $50 on a good day, manage? As the old marketing slogan goes, volume, volume, volume. In order to bring rent to a manageable level, they often live 16 people per structure. That makes rent about $50 per person per week. That's how the people who pick 90 percent of winter tomatoes consumed in the United States live.

Food scare!

Would new food-safety legislation 'criminalize organic farming'? No

The Internets are abuzz with accounts of a House bill, allegedly sponsored by Monsanto and pushed through Congress by its lackeys, that would "criminalize organic farming" and even backyard gardening. The object of frenzy: H.R. 875, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, a bill that attempts to bolster the broken food-safety system. Here's how one critic, whose work circulates widely on sustainable-food listservs, characterizes it: The bill is monstrous on level after level -- the power it would give to Monsanto, the criminalization of seed banking, the prison terms and confiscatory fines for farmers, the 24 hours GPS tracking of their animals, the easements on their property to allow for warrantless government entry, the stripping away of their property rights, the imposition by the filthy, greedy industrial side of anti-farming international "industrial" standards to independent farms -- the only part of our food system that still works, the planned elimination of farmers through all these means. Wait, did she just say "the planned elimination of farmers"? I've been reading hysterical missives about H.R. 875 for weeks. I could never square them with the text of the bill, which is admittedly vague. For example, the bill seeks to regulate any "food production facility" which it defines as "any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation." But then again, the USDA already regulates farms. And "24 hours GPS tracking of ... animals"? Not in there. "Warrentless government entry" to farms? Can't find it. More recently, reading around the web, I found more reasoned takes on H.R. 875. The bill may not be worth supporting -- and from what I hear, it has little chance of passing. But it hardly represents the "end of farming," much less the end of organic farming. The Organic Consumers Association, an energetic food-industry watchdog, recently called the paranoia around H.R. 875 the "Internet rumor of the week."

Jellyfish and chips?

The case for — and against — eating those suddenly pervasive, stinging sea creatures

In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night. Beach menace — …

Serious about change? End the Jungle 2.0

We need to reform America's food safety system from the farm up

Another day, another disaster... In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his classic book The Jungle, awakening America's consciousness to the horrors of corruption in the U.S. meatpacking industry with the story of Chicago's stockyards. The Jungle so shook the American people's confidence in how their meat and food was processed, that President Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration to quell public outcry. Fast-forward a hundred odd years later and all evidence points to the fact that we are living in an era of food crisis that rivals that of the turn of the last century. Regretfully, America's modern food system has become The Jungle 2.0. Indeed, there have been prodigious grumblings from Washington, D.C., over food safety issues in the past months. Thanks to the current peanut butter fiasco from the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America, our nation is once again in the throes of a record food safety recall, signaling that we need a serious overhaul of our nation's food safety system and the industrial food model. America's current food system has the potential to create an epidemic food safety crisis much larger than that even Sinclair or Teddy Roosevelt could imagine. For a variety of reasons, including the corrosive influence of agribusiness corporations and lack of government funds, staff, and training, we now live in a world where food safety in America is on the verge of facing a collapse similar to those of our recent financial, mortgage, and housing industries.

Fumigating our way to climate change?

Popular fumigant found to be a potent greenhouse gas

Update [2009-3-14 16:17:10 by Tom Philpott]:The original version of this post, titled "Strawberry Surprise," contained errors that I regret. I had mistakenly read the below-linked account of an MIT study to mean that sulfuryl fluoride was registered for use by the EPA as a pre-planting fumigant for strawberries. Actually, the chemical is registered only for post-harvest use on food, as well as a structural fumigant for termites. I also reversed the phrases "methyl bromide" and "methyl iodide" on two occasions. Again, I regret these errors. ----------------- Chemical fumigants are a staple of the industrial-food system. They're used to sterilize soil before planting large monocrops, and also to control pests in stored food like grain and dried fruit. The building industry, too, uses them, mainly to fight termites. In the past, fumigants have caused much environmental damage, and tend to be quite toxic for humans, too. Now comes news that the building industry's new favorite fumigant -- sulfuryl fluoride -- is a greenhouse gas 4,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to a recent MIT study.

The cookie crumbles

Tom Vilsack shows you how to get to Sesame Street

Politico followed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday as he made an appearance on Sesame Street with Cookie Monster. See the video for some shameless pandering to cookies, and a jab at beets:

Less is almost as much

Using less fertilizer has no meaningful effect on yield

Speaking of limiting the use of synthetic fertilizer, allow me to throw a little science your way courtesy of Science Daily and the USDA's Argriculural Research Service: From 1998 to 2008, the researchers evaluated and compared potential management strategies for reducing nitrogen and nitrate nitrogen levels in soil and groundwater. The first study showed that onions used only about 12 to 15 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen applied to the crop. Much of the remainder stayed in the top six feet of soil. The next year, Halvorson and his colleagues planted corn on the same land and found that it recovered about 24 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen that had been applied to the onion crop. Following that study, the scientists grew alfalfa on the land for five years, then followed it with a watermelon crop, followed by a corn crop. In the first year that the corn was grown, an unfertilized control plot yielded about 250 bushels of corn. By comparison, a plot fertilized with 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre yielded about 260 bushels, a small increase that required a significantly higher investment of time and money. Additional corn studies following onion in rotation showed corn was a good residual nitrogen scavenger crop.

Spoiled indeed

Paul Roberts' MoJo article on farming gets big idea right and details wrong

I like Paul Roberts. I liked his book The End of Food. But I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by his recent article on sustainable farming in Mother Jones, "Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008." That's not to say there's nothing to recommend it. His central premise -- that we way we're farming today isn't sustainable and that no large-scale model of what sustainable agriculture would look like currently exists -- is valid and important (as anyone who hangs out around here is well aware). And any article that gets its money quote from sustainable ag guru Fred Kirschenmann is certainly on the right track. Said Kirschenmann, "We've come to see sustainability as some kind of fixed prescription -- if you just do these 10 things, you will be sustainable, and you won't need to worry about it anymore." Which isn't true, of course. But that title! Shouldn't it be "conventional agriculture" that's so 2008? Meanwhile, there were far too many straw men in the article for my tastes (ever eaten a straw man? Blech!) Take, for example, the thought experiment supplied by environmental scientist Vaclav Smil on the effect of totally eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizer: Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming -- making this clearly only a theoretical notion." That's probably accurate as far as it goes. But it's unclear how he modeled this version of organic agriculture - at a minimum it appears to be a vast oversimplification. And his conclusion then becomes the basis upon which to reject the whole organic concept. Meanwhile, look at one of Smil's central assumptions -- that "dietary habits remain constant," i.e. in his experiment we're all eating as much meat, high-fructose corn syrup, and processed foods as we are now. Well, to take one example, you don't have to look far to find folks who will tell you that current meat consumption, especially red meat consumption, is the sine qua non of unsustainability -- Roberts himself held forth at length on that very point in his book. By holding that constant, you've just pre-determined the outcome of your thought experiment. And look at a crucial element in Smil's calculation -- that he's trying to determine "the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure)." Now I don't know for sure if he presumes the forage will be pasture or cereal (aka corn), but either way that's a pretty high bar he's set.

Immokalee Diary, part I

The human cost of industrial tomatoes

Do you know who picks your tomatoes? As Tom Philpott discovers during a trip to Florida tomato country, farmworkers suffer low wages, squalid living conditions, and even slavery.