Monday, February 15, 2010

Truly Happy Cows

The organic label has lost some of its cachet in the last few years, supplanted by the local food movement. Largely thanks to Michael Pollan, who pointed out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that organic certification does not necessarily preclude industrial production methods, awareness of organic shortcomings has grown immensely. Even as Wal-Mart and other mainstream supermarket chains introduced organic foods into their product lines, foodies reached a general consensus that localism is the most ethical way to eat.

They argue that industrial agricultural corporations, through influence in the business-friendly Bush administration, watered down organic rules to allow corporate farms to masquerade as small, sustainable producers. In the dairy industry, for example, organic rules only required that cows have “access” to pasture during the growing season. With such intentionally vague wording, farmers with thousands of grain-fed cows could keep their animals indoors as long as some obscure route outdoors existed. Such rules saved them the time and expense of moving the cows at the expense of health and happiness. Nobody likes a concrete bed.

As I wrote in a February 2008 post, Horizon Organic, which plasters its products with a drawing of a cow leaping in front of the earth while holding a flag that reads “organic,” exemplifies this cynical behavior. It began supplementing its production from individual farm members with milk from several enormous indoor operations that it set up in Idaho and Maryland. While plenty of alternative companies resist such methods (Organic Valley is the best-known), Horizon’s growth has been phenomenal. Indeed, in 2003, it was snapped up by the giant agribusiness corporation Dean Foods. (Aurora Organic Dairy, Wal-Mart’s main supplier, is even worse – apparently even the Bush USDA had to crack down on it for the way it treat its animals.)

Thus it was gratifying to read earlier this week that the USDA has at last clarified the meaning of access. Now, cows must spend the entire grazing season on pasture and consume at least 30% of their food from pasture during that time.

I’ve been aware of this issue ever since I started research on my undergrad thesis in 2004. There is nothing the USDA could do to help small organic dairy farmers against their industrial competitors more than issue these new rules. While there have been many disappointments so far in the Obama administration, I have only good things to say about the actions of the USDA and EPA under his leadership. Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, has turned out to be a more zealous advocate for consumer rights, and in this latest decision, the hand of Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA Undersecretary who came from Tufts and once helped write the Organic Food and Production Act while a staffer for Patrick Leahy, is pretty clear.

A writer in The Times notes that the rules also pertain to cattle operations except during finishing . This is a fairly useless point, since ranchers only confine cattle and feed them grain during that last period just before slaughter. However, I vaguely recall reading that the USDA is also taking a hard look at pesticide use in feed lots (I cannot find a related news clip, unfortunately). Given its aggressive posture so far under Obama, I would not be surprised if the USDA goes after this particularly filthy and cruel aspect of American agriculture—if Obama lasts eight years.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mount Abigail Adams?

The toponymy of the White Mountains is typically early American. The settlers who displaced the local Abenaki chose for the most part to honor political, scientific, and local leaders in the names that they bestowed on the peaks, rivers, and notches. A few landmarks reflect the physical landscape (Whiteface, Tripyramid), and a couple even commemorate indigenous leaders, though of Chocorua, Tecumseh, and Osceola, only the first was actually Abenaki.

Note how few females are memorialized in the landscape. By the 20th century, the Forest Service and local clubs began to name a few landmarks after women—the Dolly Copp Campground or the Kate Sleeper Trail, for example—but such monuments are still rare.

The paucity did not escape Bethany (Benny) Taylor, a former AMC croo member who is now finishing up grad school in Montana. Noting one of the peculiarities of the toponymy of the Presidential Range, she has proposed changing the name of the bump now known as Adams Four to Mount Abigail Adams.

Mount Adams, the second highest peak in the Whites, has several satellites, of which the two largest, John Quincy Adams and Sam Adams, are fairly well known, as the Gulfside Trail traverses past them on its way to Mts. Madison and Jefferson. Adams Four, which rises to the northwest of the true summit at the end of Nowell Ridge, is somewhat smaller. Along with its even more diminutive sibling Adams Five, it completes the Adams Family. While the use of numbers in the names of these nubbles perhaps adds a remote quality to the local landscape (think K2), Benny has espied an opportunity to add a little gender diversity to the Presidentials.

Abigail Adams is best-known of the early Presidential wives due to the survival of the prodigious correspondence that passed between her and her husband. David McCullough’s biography of John (not to mention the HBO miniseries that aired a year or two ago) brought a wave of attention to the relationship. Abigail is an easy woman to like, as her letters reveal a lively wit and an engaging intelligence. Additionally, she was outspoken in her opposition to slavery and advocated for women’s rights such as property ownership.

Benny submitted a proposal to rename Adams Four to Mount Abigail Adams a few months ago. If you favor the change, please write an email in support to the USGS. The relevant email is