Category: law

Just say “no” to plastic bags

Plastic Bag Bail at Allied Waste

Photo by kuow949 [KUOW 94.9 Public Radio] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Elisabeth Rosenthal had a piece in The New York Times over the weekend on the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. She writes,

Many countries and a handful of American cities have more or less done away with this supposed convenience item, by discouraging its use through plastic-bag taxes at checkout counters or outright bans. Walk down the streets of Dublin or Seattle or San Francisco and there is barely a bag in sight. Life continues.

“It didn’t take people very long to accommodate at all,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention in Seattle, where a plastic-bag ban took effect last summer. “Basically overnight those grocery and drugstore bags were gone.”

Similarly, a newly inaugurated bag ban seems to have gone off without much of a hitch recently in Eugene, Oregon. The patchwork of dozens of local ordinances across California banning this “urban tumbleweed” may soon be supplanted by a statewide ban.

Nevertheless, across most of the country, the bags multiply at a seemingly exponential rate. This is problematic, to say the least. As Katharine Mieszkowski wrote a few years back in Salon,

The problem with plastic bags isn’t just where they end up, it’s that they never seem to end. “All the plastic that has been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces,” says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. That means unless they’ve been incinerated — a noxious proposition — every plastic bag you’ve ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn’t a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you’re dead.

Or to put it more succinctly, let me quote Alan Weisman again: “Polymers are forever.”

Rosenthal notes in her piece that old habits die hard:

“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” [Ron] Gonen, [New York City’s deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction] said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”

“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”

So far New York has used carrots, to little effect…. Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. (In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.)

For more, check out her full article here, along with Mieszkowski’s still highly relevant piece.


Raw milk in Wisconsin headlines again

Real Milk Time

Photo by Chiot’s Run [Susy Morris] via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Raw milk is making headlines again in Wisconsin. As Jessica VanEgeren reports for The Capital Times,

Former Gov. Jim Doyle may have banned raw milk sales in 2010, but that didn’t end the debate over the controversial dairy product in Wisconsin.

Indeed, as the trial against defiant raw milk seller Vernon Hershberger is set to resume Monday in Sauk County Circuit Court, state Sen. Glenn Grothman has revived the issue on the legislative front with his announcement that he will try again to legalize the sale of raw milk.

Grothman, R-West Bend, has been an advocate of legalizing raw milk for years, including speaking out against Doyle after he abruptly vetoed its sale despite earlier signals that he would approve it….

About a month after Doyle’s veto, state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) officials raided Hershberger’s property in Loganville and shut down his on-farm store. The store sold raw dairy and other farm-fresh products.

He was subsequently charged by the state with four misdemeanors: distributing milk from a dairy farm without a milk producer’s license, operating a retail food establishment without a license, operating a dairy plant without a license and selling raw milk.

Find the full story here, which includes a number of informative links.

One of those links is to Rick Barrett’s recent article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Grothman’s efforts. As Barrett describes,

With little exception, state law prohibits the sale of raw milk to the public. Those who want the law changed say that fresh, unprocessed milk contains nutrients that are destroyed by pasteurization – and that consumers should be able to decide for themselves if they want it.

Public health and dairy industry officials say unpasteurized milk may carry pathogens that cause food-borne illnesses. They also worry that any illness outbreak associated with raw milk would tarnish the reputation of Wisconsin’s dairy industry….

Details of Grothman’s new bill aren’t yet available, but it’s expected to be similar to what he proposed in 2011.

Raw-milk advocates say they’re hopeful it will be passed by the Legislature despite opposition that’s likely to come from Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm association, and dairy producer organizations.

Check out Barrett’s full piece here.

Ag Gag bills silence would-be whistleblowers

Pigs confined in metal and concrete pens

Photo by Farm Sanctuary via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I posted previously about undercover videotaping on factory farms to document mistreatment and abuse of animals (and workers). I also noted that the practice has led to efforts in several states to pass “Ag Gag” bills on behalf of large-scale agribusiness that outlaw unauthorized capturing of farm images.

Civil Eats recently shared a post from Sarah Damian of the Food Integrity Campaign that looks at the role of these laws in silencing would-be whistleblowers. As Damian notes,

Wyoming’s bill – which was introduced mere weeks after undercover video footage revealed inhumane handling of pigs at a Tyson Foods supplier in the state – threatens agriculture whistleblowers with jail time and a fine if they use a recording device on the facility’s premises.

Many similar bills introduced last year that explicitly banned the act of video recording at agricultural operations without consent failed to pass, due to free speech concerns. Others like the one in Iowa (which did pass last year, to our dismay) kept out language involving video, yet included problematic provisions that still enable a culture of silence behind factory farm doors….

One such provision is now also included in the Nebraska bill, penalizing workers who gain access to farm facilities by false pretenses or with the broadly defined “intent to disrupt the normal operations” – clearly directed at individuals who utilize video to expose abuse. It would have a chilling effect on industry whistleblowers, even established long-term employees, who witness serious violations and wish to speak up. The bill also requires animal abuse reports to be filed within 12 hours, a provision similar to New Hampshire’s proposed legislation requiring whistleblowers to report animal abuse and turn over videotapes and other documentation within 24 hours or face prosecution.

Why are these provisions problematic?

For the answer (and some great links), head to the full post at Civil Eats or the FIC website.

Farm Bill past expiration date

Photo by reallyboring (Eric Allix Rogers) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Author Daniel Imhoff had a piece at Slate a couple days ago about the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill this year:

Why did Congress let the Farm Bill expire on Sept. 30? You might suspect this piece of mega-legislation collapsed under its own colossal weight: over 700 pages, with 15 different spending categories totaling $100 billion per year, touching everything from corn subsidies to organics research to food stamps to rural enterprise development…

Admittedly, the Farm Bill has gotten creaky. Born in the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it was intended to protect our food and farming systems from the fickle forces of the weather, price fluctuations, and the global economy. Loans, price supports, and grain reserves helped family farmers receive fair return for their crops. Conservation incentives rewarded farmers for doing things like idling cropland and maintaining hedgerows that prevented erosion and provided natural habitat for birds and wildlife. Nutrition assistance programs tried to ensure that every American got something to eat.

Eighty years later, all of these seemingly straightforward, reasonable goals have become complicated and controversial. Farm Bill subsidy programs lavish landowners with billions of dollars regardless of whether they grow crops. There are essentially no meaningful limits on how much income a farmer can make and still earn subsidies, or on how much assistance a farmer can receive. Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts. Representatives from these districts have gotten the bill passed every five years or so by cutting a deal with congressional champions of food stamps and nutrition assistance, crucial programs that, as of 2008, account for 80 cents of every Farm Bill dollar spent. Conservation is the odd man out: Environmental programs are first on the chopping block whenever budgets need to be tightened. Mounting pressure to cut federal spending has only made passing this legislative behemoth even less popular.

Yet early this summer, the full Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that seemed to move food policy, however incrementally, in a positive direction.

For the story on why that bill went nowhere after things looked promising (I’m looking at you, Republican-controlled House of Representatives), as well as Imhoff’s take on why the farm bill matters and what ought to be done with it, check out his full post.

And for a look at the impact of the farm bill’s expiration on dairy farmers, check out this article from Lisa Rathke of the AP.

Pollan on Prop 37

Photo by Nuclear Winter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last Friday I posted about Mark Bittman’s trip to California’s Central Valley that was featured in the current Food and Drink Issue of The New York Times Magazine. Today I thought I’d link to one more entry from that issue: Michael Pollan’s piece on the voter initiative in California called Proposition 37, which would require labeling of most genetically modified foods.

As Pollan writes,

Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.

These are precisely the issues that have given rise to the so-called food movement. Yet that movement has so far had more success in building an alternative food chain than it has in winning substantive changes from Big Food or Washington….

Yet. Next month in California, a few million people will vote with their votes on a food issue. Already, Prop 37 has ignited precisely the kind of debate — about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food; about transparency and the consumer’s right to know — that Monsanto and its allies have managed to stifle in Washington for nearly two decades. If Prop 37 passes, and the polls suggest its chances are good, then that debate will most likely go national and a new political dynamic will be set in motion.

As usual, it’s an engaging and thoughtful essay, so check out the full piece here.

For more on Prop 37, check out just some of the editorials and reporting at these links. Finally, view the (pro-Prop 37) video below and join the campaign to tell the FDA to require agribusiness to “Just Label It.”

Baker helps effect change in cottage food law

Photo by babe_kats via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to Helena Bottemiller, a reporter for Food Safety News, I came across this recent piece from Cami Joner for The Columbian (Vancouver, Washington’s daily newspaper). Joner reports how Felicia Hill, a part-time baker working out of her home, helped get Washington state to update its laws that govern proprietors of small-scale, direct-sales food operations.

As a sidebar explains, “The Cottage Food Operations Law allows people to make low-risk food products in their own home kitchens and sell directly to consumers. Until this change, no [commercial] food processing has been allowed to take place in home kitchens.”

Joner reports that

For her work last year outlining the rules behind Washington’s Cottage Food Act, Hill will ceremoniously receive the first legal permit to sell low-risk foods made in the home.

The Washington state Department of Agriculture expects more than 1,000 potential small businesses across the state to apply for permits to sell baked goods, nuts, jams and jellies at farmers markets and through other direct-sales avenues. The permit is available for bakeries that generate no more than $15,000 in gross sales annually….

Washington is among three states to recently enact a cottage food law, putting the rule in place just before South Carolina and Colorado, which both passed similar legislation this year. In all, 26 states now have cottage food laws, breaking away from traditional models of production in which food is sold to consumers who have little or no idea where it came from.

For more, check out the full article here.

Factory farms victorious in Wisconsin Supreme Court

As reported by Dinesh Ramde of the AP last night, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that localities cannot enact stricter regulations on large-scale animal farming operations (such as rules limiting water pollution) than those that are in place at the state level. As Ramde writes,

The ruling was believed to be the first decision by a state Supreme Court in about a half-dozen cases pitting neighbors and small farmers throughout the Midwest against so-called factory farms, which can have hundreds or even thousands of animals. Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, and the decision was closely watched.

Farm groups cheered the ruling, saying it will allow farms to grow and expand under predictable and consistent terms applied statewide. But clean water activists said it will only encourage the growth of huge farms, with thousands of animals producing more manure than the land can handle and runoff that contaminates rivers and underground water sources.

The story also notes that large animal operations are a literally growing concern: “There are about 240 mega farms in Wisconsin, up from 219 two years ago and 138 in 2005, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The state considers mega farms those with 714 or more dairy cows.”

Head here for the full story. If you are so inclined, you can also read the 35-page opinion yourself as either HTML or PDF. In addition, the majority opinion at those links is immediately followed by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s 17-page dissent (joined in part by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley), which includes juicy bits like “The majority opinion’s interpretation of the Siting Law reaches an absurd result.”

Photo by Friends of Family Farmers via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)