Thursday, December 20, 2007

Haze in the D.F.

My experience in Latin American cities is pretty limited, but on a superficial level, Mexico City, or the D.F. as the natives know it, fits the superficial stereotype. It is vibrant, crowded, seemingly unorganized but actually quite hierarchical, and highly polluted. At 7,000 feet, it lies in a mountain bowl, surrounded by some of the biggest peaks in North America.

I felt the altitude on my way up to the third floor of the Hotel Montecarlo, having carried with me a surplus of baggage for my return to the New England winter. On the streets, my breathing was fine, though Robert (a wonderful old college friend who visited me in Austin before I helped him kick off his month in Mexico) and I noticed a number of people wearing surgical masks over their mouths. Neither SARS nor bird flu was threatening Mexico City—these folks were simply worried about the particulates in the air.

On our first full day, we climbed the pyramids of Teotihuacán, enormous stone edifices built in the first century by the Olmecs. It was December 12, the anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance back in the 16th century, and the sound of firecrackers reverberated through the air. Though a sunny, relatively dry day, it was difficult to even see to the horizon. Indeed, I never really got a sense of the city’s massive scale because every vantage point, even from the plane, was compromised by smog.

When I checked my email and the headlines over the course of the week, there was plenty of news about the failure to agree on reducing CO2 emissions at the Bali conference. While C02 isn’t particularly responsible for impacting visibility, its source and the slow but sustained nature of its effects are quite similar to the compounds impacting visibility and health—nitrates, carbon monoxide, and ozone.

While the evidence of global warming and its causes are by now obvious, the lack of an immediate crisis such as panda bears dying or local, fatal cases of asthma makes policy solutions far more elusive. Congress just passed an energy bill raising car mileage standards significantly, but another mandate to produce 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 was stripped out because Republicans objected to raising taxes on energy companies to pay for the new investments. When, during a time of extraordinary profits for the oil and coal industries, Congress can’t muster the votes for what, in the grand scheme, is quite a small increase in renewable fuels, the situation appears hopeless.

Few people would be surprised by the amount of air pollution in Mexico City. But I’ve also seen disgusting levels in supposedly wild and pristine places this year. Up at Galehead, the smog floating in from the Ohio River Valley was so bad that we didn’t want to go outside sometimes for fear of the clear brown streaks in the sky. At Big Bend, as I’ve written about on this blog, despite being the most remote National Park in the lower 48, I could barely see the Rio Grande, only 15 miles away from the highest of the Chisos Mountains. The maquiladoras near Ciudad Juarez emit a stream of emissions that sails directly east into the park.

On my last full day in Mexico City, Robert and I took a bus up to the Paseo de Cortes, a mountain pass between two of the huge volcanoes east of the city. It is from this point, in 1519, that Cortes first beheld the city of Tenochtitlan, the marvelous Aztec capital. It was the Venice of the Americas, a series of islands grouped around a main temple complex, connected by canals and several long causeways to the mainland. Of course, less than fifty years after the Spanish conquest, the entire lake had been filled in to make room for the new Spanish city. Today, many of the older buildings tilt dangerously due to their shaky foundations on fill.

Needless to say, the city was invisible from our lofty vantage point, despite having gotten ourselves all the way up to 12,000 feet. On our way down, the sunset was magnificent—but such is the beauty of a hazy landscape at dusk.

PIctures: Robert and me on the Pyramid of the Sun, with the Pyramid of the Moon in the background, the view from the Pyramid of the Moon, a warning about volcanic eruptions, a tilting church in the Palacio Nacional, and sunset from the mountains to the east of the city.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New grass fed rules

In mid October, the USDA released new rules for labeling grass-fed beef. The timing is indicative of the past decade’s remarkable surge of interest in healthy food. Fueled by increased access through stores such as Whole Foods and interest-generating books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma, the organic business is now worth $17 billion and the Farm Bill is currently instigating, if not a raging debate, at least a buzz of interest. With its grass fed program, the USDA believes it is protecting consumers and aiding producers trying to distinguish themselves from the competition. But like the USDA’s rules on organic certification, the unveiling of the new guidelines was accompanied by a series of salvos from industry and advocacy groups. What exactly is grass fed beef, and what does the debate illuminate about the forces buffeting the industry?

Interest in grass fed beef has intensified as some medical studies have shown omega 3 fatty acids, which occur abundantly in grass but not grain, to reduce risk of heart disease. Some prefer the taste of grass fed beef, while others find it too tangy, leading many producers to “finish” the cattle with grain. This is supposed to improve taste, but it diminishes omega 3 fatty acids. Personally, I am unable to detect the difference—give me a fresh steak, and I will happily polish it off, whether grass or grain fed.

The USDA’s definition of grass fed beef is surprisingly straightforward. To meet the minimum standard for grass fed labeling, a producer must feed his cattle grass or forage for their entire lives, except for milk they consume before weaning. Grain is not allowed as a substitute. Finally, the animal is required to have access to pasture during the growing season.

Simplicity is appealing, and unlike the organic standards, which it developed over twelve years in response to a Congressional directive, the USDA issued them on its own initiative. Unlike the USDA’s rules on organic certification, red tape is essentially non-existent. But therein lies the problem—like so many of the Bush administration’s environmental and health initiatives, grass fed labeling certification is voluntary. A producer who labels his grain fed cattle grass fed faces no penalty. The only way to punish the liars is through consumer activism. Essentially, by shifting responsibility to consumers, the grass fed guidelines take the opposite approach from the organic rules, requiring producers to pay for certification.

Were most cattle producers trustworthy, that should not be great cause for alarm, but a parallel case within the dairy industry shows that many are not. Since 2002, two companies have dominated the dairy sector—Horizon Organics of Boulder, Colorado and Organic Valley of La Farge, Wisconsin. As their headquarters suggest, Organic Valley is much more decentralized—it is a cooperative, in fact—than Horizon, which is corporate. While Organic Valley relies on hundreds of small dairy farms, fulfilling the spirit of organic dairy rules, Horizon confines its cows to enormous feedlots. Its cynical interpretation of the USDA rule obliging “access to pasture” ensures that the only interaction its cows have with the elements is through a small open door. Of course the cows are reluctant to explore beyond the known confines of their pens.

Luckily, through consumer boycotts and an excellent marketing strategy, Organic Valley has held its own against Horizon. Nonetheless, the implications for grass fed beef are serious. Lacking a definition of access in the voluntary guidelines, feed lots will be the prime source of grass fed beef because forage can be brought to confined cattle. No doubt some responsible producers will allow their cattle to roam during the summer, but the big-retailers will favor the cheapest beef. The new USDA label enables corporate agriculture to subvert the public’s obvious desire for cattle that graze freely.

aIn fact, the new label characterizes grass fed so narrowly that it permits giving cows growth hormones and antibiotics. Such flaw is clearly designed for exploitation by feedlots. Without ways to bring cattle to maturity quickly at a minimum risk of disease, they would quickly become obsolete.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA), which has spearheaded criticism of the new guidelines, has announced that it will set up an alternate certification program incorporating standards on growth hormones, antibiotics, and pasture access. Hopefully, as the USDA forfeits its oversight responsibility, consumers will continue to demonstrate commitment to truly healthy cattle and beef by recognizing the more meaningful AGA grass fed label.