Monday, July 9, 2012


The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.


“As soon as a value-added aspect was established, it didn’t take long before corporate America came knocking,” Mr. Potter says. He says he gets at least one e-mail a week from someone seeking to buy Eden, which is based in Clinton, Mich., and does about $50 million a year in sales. “Companies, private equity, venture capital, even individuals,” Mr. Potter says. “The best offer I ever got came from two guys who had money from Super Glue.”

Between the time the Agriculture Department came up with its proposed regulations for the organic industry in 1997 and the time those rules became law in 2002, myriad small, independent organic companies — from Honest Tea to Cascadian Farm — were snapped up by corporate titans. Heinz and Hain together bought 19 organic brands.

Eden is one of the last remaining independent organic companies of any size, together with the Clif Bar & Company, Amy’s Kitchen, Lundberg Family Farms and a handful of others.

“In some ways, organic is a victim of its own success,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who has documented the remarkable consolidation of the organic industry. Organic food accounts for just 4 percent of all foods sold, but the industry is growing fast. “Big corporations see the trends and the opportunity to make money and profit,” he says.

BIG FOOD has also assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods. Major corporations have come to dominate the board that sets these standards.

As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.

The board has 15 members, and a two-thirds majority is required to add a substance to the list. More and more, votes on adding substances break down along corporate-independent lines, with one swing vote. Six board members, for instance, voted in favor of adding ammonium nonanoate, a herbicide, to the accepted organic list in December. Those votes came from General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms, which had two votes at the time.

Big Organic lost that round. Had it prevailed, it would have been the first time a herbicide was put on the list.

Joe Stiglitz warns the 1% to consider self-interest; with such widening inequality, the center cannot hold:
There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves. The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.


Many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society. They know that something has gone wrong, but they underestimate the harm that inequality does even as they overestimate the cost of taking action. These mistaken beliefs, which have been reinforced by ideological rhetoric, are having a catastrophic effect on politics and economic policy.

There is no good reason why the 1 percent, with their good educations, their ranks of advisers, and their much-vaunted business acumen, should be so misinformed. The 1 percent in generations past often knew better. They knew that there would be no top of the pyramid if there wasn’t a solid base—that their own position was precarious if society itself was unsound. Henry Ford, not remembered as one of history’s softies, understood that the best thing he could do for himself and his company was to pay his workers a decent wage, because he wanted them to work hard and he wanted them to be able to buy his cars. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a purebred patrician, understood that the only way to save an essentially capitalist America was not only to spread the wealth, through taxation and social programs, but to put restraints on capitalism itself, through regulation. Roosevelt and the economist John Maynard Keynes, while reviled by the capitalists, succeeded in saving capitalism from the capitalists. Richard Nixon, known to this day as a manipulative cynic, concluded that social peace and economic stability could best be secured by investment—and invest he did, heavily, in Medicare, Head Start, Social Security, and efforts to clean up the environment. Nixon even floated the idea of a guaranteed annual income.

So, the advice I’d give to the 1 percent today is: Harden your hearts. When invited to consider proposals to reduce inequality—by raising taxes and investing in education, public works, health care, and science—put any latent notions of altruism aside and reduce the idea to one of unadulterated self-interest. Don’t embrace it because it helps other people. Just do it for yourself.
Stiglitz discusses other costs of inequality in another essay:
Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.

The great recession has exacerbated inequality, with cutbacks in basic social expenditures and with high unemployment putting downward pressure on wages. Moreover, the United Nations Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, investigating the causes of the great recession, and the International Monetary Fund have warned that inequality leads to economic instability.

But, most importantly, America's inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not "with justice for all", but rather with favouritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

America can no longer regard itself as the land of opportunity that it once was. But it does not have to be this way: it is not too late for the American dream to be restored.
In these debates about inequality, as Stiglitz notes, is a battle for America's heart and soul and the very nature of the country we want to be:
The intellectual battle is often fought over particular policies, such as whether taxes should be raised on capital gains. But behind these disputes lies this bigger battle over perceptions and over big ideas—like the role of the market, the state, and civil society. This is not just a philosophical debate but a battle over shaping perceptions about the competencies of these different institutions. Those who don’t want the state to stop the rent seeking from which they benefit so much, and don’t want it to engage in redistribution or to increase economic opportunity and mobility, emphasize the state’s failings. (Remarkably, this is true even when they are in office and could and should do something to correct any problem of which they are aware.) They emphasize that the state interferes with the workings of the markets. At the same time that they exaggerate the failures of government, they exaggerate the strengths of markets. Most importantly for our purposes, they strive to make sure that these perceptions become part of the common perspective, that money spent by private individuals (presumably, even on gambling) is better spent than money entrusted to the government, and that any government attempts to correct market failures—such as the proclivity of firms to pollute excessively—cause more harm than good.

This big battle is crucial for understanding the evolution of inequality in America. The success of the Right in this battle during the past thirty years has shaped our government. We haven’t achieved the minimalist state that libertarians advocate. What we’ve achieved is a state too constrained to provide the public goods—investments in infrastructure, technology, and education—that would make for a vibrant economy and too weak to engage in the redistribution that is needed to create a fair society. But we have a state that is still large enough and distorted enough that it can provide a bounty of gifts to the wealthy. The advocates of a small state in the financial sector were happy that the government had the money to rescue them in 2008—and bailouts have in fact been part of capitalism for centuries.

These political battles, in turn, rest on broader ideas about human rights, human nature, and the meaning of democracy and equality. Debates and perspectives on these issues have taken a different course in the United States in recent years than in much of the rest of the world, especially in other advanced industrial countries. Two controversies—the death penalty (which is anathema in Europe) and the right to access to medicine (which in most countries is taken as a basic human right)—are emblematic of these differences. It may be difficult to ascertain the role the greater economic and social divides in our society has played in creating these differences in beliefs; but what is clear is that if American values and perceptions are seen to be out of line with those in the rest of the world, our global influence will be diminished.
On a related note, a journey climbing up the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the only individual profiled with any animosity towards others is the richest of the bunch with plenty of misplaced aggression towards those on whose backs his wealth is created.

So it should come as no surprise that being rich makes you as asshole:
How does living in an environment defined by individual achievement—­measured by money, privilege, and ­status—alter a person’s mental machinery to the point where he begins to see the people around him only as aids or obstacles to his own ambitions? Piff won’t name a tipping point after which the personality transformation kicks in, only that his studies of ethical behavior indicate a strong correlation between high socio­economic status and interpersonal dis­regard. It’s an “additive” effect; the fever line points straight up. “People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” he says. Piff’s research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort. No matter how much money you actually have, you’re likelier to behave unethically if you check the “agree” box next to the following statement: “In order to be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity.”

Unlike the discovery that the Earth is round or that lifesaving medicine can be made from mold, the results of this new field of inquiry hardly challenge human intuition. Philosophers and writers going back at least to Aristotle have had something to say about the potentially corrupting influence of wealth. Jesus warned that one might more easily push a camel through the eye of a needle than encounter a rich man in Heaven, and Dante designed the fourth ring of his Inferno for the greedy. Scrooge, Lily Bart, and ­Sherman McCoy are modernity’s Virgils, guides to the hell of living too much in money’s thrall. But science looks for solutions, and though affluence has been held up as a potential hazard to the soul, it has not in the United States been, empirically speaking, a problem. (The health and fortunes of the poor, by contrast, have been abundantly studied.) Rich people are thinner than poor people and have better cardiovascular health. They live longer. They’re better educated. They score higher on standardized tests. “They have more money,” as ­Ernest Hemingway was said to have quipped. Experiments over the past three years have shown that wealthier people suffer less from mood disorders than poorer people and that they have less cortisol in their saliva, a sign that they feel more impervious to threat.
And over at Rolling Stone, we see what the collapse of America's middle class means for people actually living through it. Indeed, the American Dream just seems dead and out of reach for too many.

A great visualization of global croplands, irrigation, and efficiency — based in large part of the work of my colleague, Chad Monfreda.

Indian lands are disproportionately exposed to dirty energy. (And George Will doesn't give a shit.)

Growing wildfire risks in Colorado, thanks to the convergence of climate change, years of fire suppression, and continued infringement of suburbia into conflagration-prone forested areas.

Central cities are outgrowing suburbs.

Unwalkable communities are often unhealthy communities.

Creating sustainable communities, with help from the feds.

Sustainability concerns regarding a growth in palm-oil plantations.

What's greener than LEED? It's the Living Building Challenge.

Green your city by banning plastic bags.

The big questions we must answer in order to more sustainably manage our water resources.

Will Steffen on Rio+20 and planetary boundaries.

A sequel of sorts to Josh Fox's Gasland:

Josh Fox gets into a debate with Andy Revkin on fracking. Revkin, ever the middle-grounder, refuses to take Fox seriously.

And some responses to the Fox-Revkin debate.

Small farms and local ag: a new (renewing an old?) economic model for agriculture.

Conservative theology and free market fundamentalism meet the realities of wildfire.

Obamacare: turning two decades of conservative health care policy thinking into law.

Tom Tomorrow cartoon about Lisa Brown
Some questions for the fearmongers on the right about the ACA.

What happens if a state opts out of the Medicaid expansion?

Well, the feds can just foot the bill, right? Nope.

Screwed over by medical research? Well, learn to take care of yourself.

If we fully implement the ACA, we might be able to reach Rwanda's levels of coverage.

The Constitution and the feds' powers to deal with collective action issues.

Richard Posner: the GOP has gotten crazy, and I've gotten less conservative.

7,000 words on the 15 minutes of confusion over SCOTUS' ACA decision. (h/t Wifey)

Having it all? Women among the working poor are nowhere close.

More than 150 years after Dickens' Little Dorritt, we've still got debtor's prisons.

Structural impediments to recognizing the rights of the working class and vacation time.

The STEM jobs aren't there. (h/t Marci)

Danny Kahneman tells us what he knows.

Science takes on Big Food.

Why are we fat?

Expelling people from their own homes: ‘I am an illegal alien on my own land’

One language disappears every two weeks.

Publishers are being assholes when it comes to e-books and libraries.

In defense of the “conscious pause.”

More on the New Yorker and the “f-word.”

Dream Team vs. Dream Team: the greatest basketball ever played. And pretty much no one ever saw it. (h/t Wifey)

Banana slugs and their penises.

Heather's Happy Link Of The Day: Ohio is the Underpants State and more things we can learn from the shapes of states.

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