Is There Child Slavery in Your Chocolate?

September 24th, 2010

We live in cynical times. We are no longer surprised when we find that a major company, like BP or Monsanto, has done something horrible, and then made things worse by hiding the consequences of its actions from the public.

But even in a day of widespread and flagrant abuse of power, there is a dark side to the operations of the Hershey company that make it particularly egregious. Hershey, which is the largest chocolate manufacturer in the world, gets most of its cocoa from West Africa. The company purchases the primary ingredient in its products from sources notorious for abusive labor practices including forced labor, human trafficking, and child slavery.

In 2009, the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University published an “assessment of child labor in the cocoa supply chain.” The study found child labor to be widespread in the very regions of West Africa, particularly Ivory Coast, where Hershey sources its cocoa, and that forced or involuntary child labor was common in these areas.

Ivory Coast, located on the southern coast of West Africa, is by far the world’s largest supplier of cocoa beans, providing 43 percent of the world’s supply. According to an investigative report by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), hundreds of thousands of children are being purchased from their parents for a pittance, or in some cases outright stolen, and then shipped to Ivory Coast, where they are enslaved on cocoa farms. These children typically come from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Destitute parents in these poverty-stricken lands sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast and then send some of their earnings home. But that’s not what happens. These children, usually 11-to-16-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, receive no education, are barely fed, are beaten regularly, and are often viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.

The beatings were a part of my life,” Aly Diabate, a freed slave, told reporters. “Anytime they loaded you with bags (of cocoa beans) and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again.”

Brian Woods has made films about some of the world’s worst human rights abuses. He tells of meeting Drissa, a young many from Mali who had been forced to work on an Ivory Coast cocoa farm. “When Drissa took his shirt off, I had never seen anything like it. I had seen some pretty nasty things in my time but this was appalling. There wasn’t an inch of his body which wasn’t scarred.”

Buying cocoa from farms that employ such abusive child labor practices enables Hershey to keep its costs down and its profits up. In early 2010, the company reported a 54 percent jump in profits because of what it called “improved supply-chain efficiencies.” Such “efficiencies” allow Hershey’s CEO, David J. West, to make $8 million a year while unpaid children are forced to labor under cruel conditions on the farms growing the company’s cocoa.

The reality of abusive labor conditions on West African cocoa farms is a longstanding and difficult problem for the entire chocolate industry. But while Hershey’s primary competitors have at least taken steps to reduce or eliminate slavery and other forms of abusive child labor from their chocolate supply chains, Hershey has done almost nothing.

Last week, on the occasion of founder Milton Hershey’s 153rd birthday, the Hershey company issued its first ever Corporate Social Responsibility Report. Long on platitudes and promises, it was classic example of the practice of greenwashing – a PR effort to mislead the public into thinking a company’s policies and products are socially responsible, when in fact they are not.

Meanwhile, on that very same day, a coalition of public interest nonprofit groups (Green America, Global Exchange, Oasis USA and the International Labor Rights Forum) issued an in-depth counter-report, titled “Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report from the Hershey Company.” This carefully researched report pointed out that the Hershey company lags well behind its competitors in taking responsibility for the impact the company is having on the local communities from which it sources cocoa around the world.

Hershey is well aware that many smaller chocolate companies in the U.S. have for years purchased only Fair Trade Certified cocoa, thus ensuring that cocoa farmers earn enough to support their families, invest in their futures and send their children to school. Hershey claims that though this is possible for smaller companies, it would be impossible for a company as large as it is.

But Time to Raise the Bar makes it crystal clear that it’s not just the smaller companies who have taken meaningful steps. “Many of the largest global chocolate corporations,” says the report, “are increasingly sourcing cocoa beans that have been certified by independent organizations to meet various labor, social and environment standards. But there has been one major exception to this trend: the Hershey Company.”

Other large companies publicly identify their sources of cocoa. But not Hershey. Other companies employ third-party certification for the cocoa they source from West Africa. But not Hershey.

Cadbury Dairy Milk in the UK, for example, was the first major brand to make all of its chocolate Fair Trade Certified. The company not only converted its top-selling chocolate bar to Fair Trade, it also extended its Fair Trade Certified Dairy Milk Bar to Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand.

Ben & Jerry’s has taken it a step further. The company has not only agreed to achieve Fair Trade certification for all its cocoa by 2013. It has also pledged Fair Trade certification for all of its other ingredients that are eligible for such certification. Even Kraft Foods and Mars, Inc., hardly icons of social responsibility, have begun to purchase cocoa certified by the Rainforest Alliance to be free from the use of forced labor, child labor, or discrimination.

If other companies can do it, why can’t Hershey? Do they think it’s okay that children are abducted and then sold as slaves to Ivory Coast cocoa farmers?

Do you think it’s okay?

Here’s what you can do:

* Purchase chocolate products from companies who only use cocoa that has definitively not been produced with slave labor. These companies include Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Denman Island Chocolate, Divine Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Gardners Candies, Green and Black’s, John & Kira’s, Kailua Candy Company, Koppers Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolates, Montezuma’s Chocolates, NewLeaf Chocolates, Newman’s Own Organics, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics, Shaman Chocolates, Sweet Earth Chocolates, Taza Chocolate, The Endangered Species Chocolate Company, and Theo Chocolate.

* Hershey has asked the public to give feedback on their corporate responsibility via an online survey. Let them know what you think. They’re asking for it. Urge them to work toward Fair Trade certification of their chocolate products. Tell them there’s nothing sweet about manufacturing 80 million Hershey Kisses a day, using cocoa that may very well have been produced using abusive child labor.

* Get a free DVD copy of the film The Dark Side of Chocolate, along with information about Fair Trade, from the dedicated people at Green America. Watch it, show it to your friends, and spread the word.

* Tweet about this article and post it to your facebook page. Tell your friends to read this article and take the Hershey online survey. The more people who do, the greater the chance Hershey will realize that the time has arrived for it to take responsibility for its actions.

How Egg Industry Greed Caused The Salmonella Outbreak

September 6th, 2010

For years, the U.S. egg industry has been telling us that there is no connection between salmonella outbreaks and the practice of cramming layer hens into cages so small the birds can’t lift a single wing. It’s been their party line for so long they’ve probably begun to actually believe it. Earlier this year, the leading U.S. egg industry trade group announced, true to form, that caging hens is “better for food safety.”

With more than 95 percent of all U.S. eggs currently coming from caged hens, and salmonella outbreaks sickening more than one million Americans every year, this isn’t merely an academic debate. Salmonella poisons people, causing a nasty, painful disease that can be fatal to the very young, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system.

As you’ve probably heard, we are now in the midst of the latest in a long series of salmonella outbreaks caused by bad eggs. More than 500 million eggs have been recalled in the last two weeks. And once again, industry representatives are claiming the problem has nothing to do with the practice of housing hens for their entire lives in cages where they are barely able to move. Anyone who would tell you otherwise, they say, is probably an animal rights zealot with a hidden agenda.

But wait a minute. The editor-in-chief of the trade journal Egg Industry is certainly not what most people would call an animal rights advocate. What is his opinion of the industry position that squishing living birds into tiny cages has no bearing on public health? Such claims, he wrote recently, not mincing his words, are “invalid… unconvincing, unsupportable and easily refuted.”

Though his remarks might not be popular at the next gathering of egg industry moguls, they are in fact correct. There have been nine scientific studies published on the issue in the last five years in peer-reviewed journals. Every single one of them has found increased salmonella rates in eggs coming from facilities that confine hens in cages.

Summing things up, an article earlier this year in World Poultry, aptly titled “Salmonella Thrives in Cage Housing,” found that eggs from hens kept in cages consistently carry an increased risk of salmonella.

This morning, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) began an ad campaign pointing out that every one of the more than half a billion eggs involved in the current recall came from hens crammed into cages. The practice of forcing egg-laying hens to live their entire lives in tiny cages isn’t just an animal welfare concern, say the ads. It is a public health issue. Housing hens in cages so small they can’t take a single step is not just inhumane. It is a public health menace.

Should we be suspicious of the HSUS? The group is, of course, fundamentally an animal protection organization. But does that automatically mean they are stretching the truth? Not according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study suggests that by switching to cage-free production systems the egg industry would likely reduce the risk of salmonella to the American public from bad eggs by 50 percent.

How do you think the egg industry is taking all this? They frankly would just as soon not be bothered. They are doing quite well with things just the way they are, thank you very much.

Are they afraid of being held financially accountable for the damage to human health caused by their tainted products? No, because they know that America’s food safety systems have been superbly designed not to protect public health, but to protect agribusiness from liability.

So why rock the boat?

Except that the boat is already rocking. As of January, 2012, it will be illegal to house laying hens in cages anywhere in the European Union. In the U.S., the states of Michigan and California have already passed laws phasing out the practice of confining hens in cages. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill requiring that all whole eggs sold in the state be cage-free by 2015. And other states are considering similar legislation.

The egg industry defends the status quo by threatening that healthier eggs from better treated birds would be vastly more expensive, and thus would mean more malnutrition among the poor. It’s a powerful argument, except it’s not true. If you factor in the economies of scale, going cage-free need add only about a penny an egg to the retail price.

This is why a number of major fast food companies, including Burger King, Subway and Wendy’s, and retailers including Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Wal-Mart, have made various levels of commitment to purchasing or selling cage-free eggs. And why major food companies like Hellmann’s mayo, which uses 350 million eggs a year, have announced they are going 100 percent cage-free.

McDonald’s in the U.S. has been a little slower to get the message. One of the burger giant’s executives recently said he didn’t think hens “should be treated like queens.” But does going “cage-free” mean the hens will be treated like royalty? Far from it. Cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. But at least cage-free hens will have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens. And unlike caged hens, they will be able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and turn around.

From an animal welfare point of view, cage free eggs are far from perfect, but they are better. And from a public health perspective, cage-free eggs are a necessary and urgently needed improvement.

What can you do?

1) Take the HSUS “cage-free pledge.”

2) If you are going to eat eggs, seek out organic and free-range eggs.

3) Never eat raw eggs.

4) Don’t spend extra for brown eggs. They aren’t any more nutritious than white eggs, they are just from a different breed of hens.

5) Don’t be fooled by eggs that claim they are produced without “added hormones. That sounds nice, but is meaningless. No hormones are currently approved for use in U.S. egg production.

6) Beware that the egg industry has been eager to co-opt the language of humane farming. As awareness of the horrors of egg factory farms has been growing in recent years, the industry trade group United Egg Producers responded, not by improving conditions, but by labeling cartons of eggs “Animal Care Certified.” In actuality, this “certification” was only the industry’s misleading attempt to whitewash its tarnished image. After legal action forced them to remove the meaningless label, the industry came up with yet another bogus attempt to hoodwink the public. Egg cartons that say “Produced in Compliance With United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines,” are designed to help you feel safe and confident as you purchase eggs that come from filthy disease mills, including the very facilities whose salmonella-infected eggs are the target of the current recall.

7) Users of craigslist may have seen the warning: “Deal locally with folks you can meet in person. Follow this one simple rule and you will avoid 99 percent of…scams.” This principle applies to eggs, too. If you are going to eat eggs, try bypassing the supermarket entirely, and get them from local farmer’s markets. To find one near you, see Localharvest.org.

At the moment, cage-free, free-range and organic eggs are indeed more expensive. Are they worth the added cost? That’s up to you to decide. But the more you learn, the more able you are to make informed choices. When you include the risk of salmonella poisoning, when you take into account the differences in flavor and nutrition, and when you factor in the degree of animal cruelty involved, getting away from eggs that come from concentration-camp chickens starts to seem less like a luxury. The more you know, the more it seems like an ethical and health imperative.

A Question About the Amish

August 30th, 2010

Dear John,

The kind of lifestyle you advocate isn’t just Spartan, it’s downright masochistic. Your way of life seems more like a prison to me. It’s only for the Amish, or others who make self-denial into a lifestyle. I think people like you are crazy.

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Each of us are responsible for our own choices. I understand that eating with more restraint feels like too much for you right now. Who knows? Maybe at some point down the line you might feel more interested in the benefits you could obtain. Or maybe not.

But could I ask that you not judge others so harshly for making different choices than you wish to make? What for you feels like self-deprivation may feel very different to someone else. One person’s tyranny is another person’s discipline — and another person’s freedom.

I’m reminded of a time that my son, Ocean, was 12, and a relative mocked him for not eating meat. “You don’t know what you’re missing by not eating chicken,” he was told. “That’s true,” he smiled. “I don’t. But you don’t know what you’re missing by eating chicken.”

Just as you can only truly see the stars when you turn out the electric lights, sometimes there are treasures that are only ours when we forego certain things.

You mention the Amish. These are people who came to America with little more than the clothes on their backs, and who make some of the finest hand-crafted solid wood furniture in the world — including my family’s own kitchen table. It is true that they forego many things (including computers, electricity, and automobiles) that most Americans take for granted and couldn’t imagine doing without. But their way of life offers rewards that most Americans can only dream about. For example:

  • Virtually every adult in the Amish community has an independent livelihood as the owner of a farm or a business.
  • There is almost no crime, no violence, no alcoholism, no divorce, and no drug-taking.
  • They accept no government help with health care, old age assistance, or schooling after the 8th grade. (They were forced by the government to accept first through eighth grade schooling.)
  • The success rate of Amish in small businesses is 95%, compared to the U.S. rate of 15%.
  • All Amish children are offered an expense-paid sabbatical year away from Amish life when they arrive on the verge of adulthood, so they can see the world and decide for themselves if they want to remain in the community and follow its ways. Eighty-five percent of all grown children choose to remain in the community.
  • The Amish are extraordinary neighbors. They are the first to volunteer in times of crisis and need. They open their farms to ghetto children and frequently rear handicapped children from the non-Amish world whom nobody else wants.
  • They farm so well and so profitably without chemical fertilizers or pesticides that Mexico, Canada, Russia, France, and Uruguay have hired them as advisors on raising agricultural productivity.

If you don’t want to make any such sacrifices, that is certainly your privilege. But please don’t put others down for making choices they find fulfilling. My experience is that there are pleasures in life that are healthy and life-affirming, that enhance our ability to experience joy and gratitude. And there are also pleasures that, the more we indulge in them, the less able we become to enjoy life. The first kind of pleasures give us life; the second kind drain us. I think that wisdom has something to do with being able to tell the difference.

Your friend,
John

Is Your Favorite Ice Cream Made With Monsanto’s Artificial Hormones?

August 22nd, 2010

Monsanto has been in the news this week, with a U.S. District Court Judge ruling that the USDA has to at least go through the motions of regulating the company’s genetically engineered sugar beets. Monsanto, you may know, is not likely to win any contests for the most popular company. In fact, it has been called the most hated corporation in the world, which is saying something, given the competition from the likes of BP, Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.

This has gotten me thinking about, of all things, ice cream, and of how Monsanto’s clammy paws can be found in some of the most widely selling ice cream brands in the country. These brands could break free from Monsanto’s clutches. So far they haven’t, but maybe this is about to change.

Ben & Jerry’s gets all their milk from dairies that have pledged not to inject their cows with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Why, then, can’t Haagen Dazs, Breyers and Baskin-Robbins do the same?

Starbucks now guarantees that all their milk, cream and other dairy products are rBGH-free. So do Yoplait and Dannon yogurts, Tillamook cheese, Chipotle restaurants, and many others. But ice cream giants Haagen Dazs, Breyers and Baskin-Robbins continue to use milk from cows injected with rBGH, a hormone that’s been banned in Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and all 27 nations of the European Union. As if to add insult to injury, Haagen Dazs and Breyers have the audacity to tell us, right on the label, that their ice cream is ” All Natural.”

We have Monsanto to thank for rBGH. Monsanto developed the artificial hormone and marketed it aggressively for years, before selling it in 2008 to Elanco, a division of the Eli Lilly drug company. Of course, Monsanto (and now Elanco) wants us to think the hormone is in every way completely satisfactory and safe. Monsanto’s party line has consistently been that there is “no significant difference” in the milk derived from cows who have been dosed with the hormone compared to those who haven’t.

Pardon me for not swallowing Monsanto’s hooey, but if that’s so, why have so many countries outlawed rBGH? Are these countries all run by ignorant Luddites who oppose technology and progress? Or might there actually be compelling reasons?

There are, indeed. One of them is that injecting the genetically engineered hormone into cows increases the levels of a substance called IGF-1 in their milk. Monsanto’s own studies found that the amount of IGF-1 in milk more than doubled when cows were injected with rBGH. Studies by independent researchers show gains as much as six-fold. (Scientific citations in support of the statements in this article can be foundhere.)

Does it matter whether there are excess levels of IGF-1 in milk? It decidedly did to the European Commission’s authoritative international 16-member scientific committee. Their report said the excessive levels of IGF-1 found in the milk of cows injected with rBGH may pose serious risks of breast, colon and prostate cancer.

How serious is the increased risk? According to an article in the May 9, 1998 issue of the medical journalThe Lancet, pre-menopausal women with even moderately elevated blood levels of IGF-1 are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with lower levels.

As if these risks to human health weren’t enough reason for nations to prohibit the use of rBGH, there are more. The artificial hormone is also notorious for causing the cows much pain and distress. It does this by increasing painful and debilitating diseases like lameness and mastitis in cows who are injected with it. And because it increases udder infections in cows, it has greatly increased the use of antibiotics in the U.S. dairy industry. If you wanted to design a system to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, you’d be hard pressed to do better.

Does the increase in udder infections have an effect on the milk, and thus any ice cream, cheese or other product made from it? Most definitely, according to Dr. Richard Burroughs, a veterinarian deeply familiar with rBGH. “It results in an increase of white blood cells,” he says, “which means there’s pus in the milk!” The antibiotic use, he adds, “leaves residues in the milk. It’s all very serious.”

How, then, was such a dubious and tainted product ever approved for use in the U.S.? The answer provides a glimpse of how successful Monsanto’s efforts have been to exert control over our nation’s food policies.

By all accounts, the FDA’s 1993 decision to allow the use of rBGH was one of the most controversial in the agency’s history. Made amid widespread criticism from scientists, government leaders and farmers, including many researchers and officials inside the FDA, the decision was overseen by Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Policy from 1991-1994.

Was Taylor unbiased? Prior to holding that position, he was an attorney at King & Spaulding, Monsanto’s law firm, where he presided over the firm’s “food and drug law” practice. After the decision was made which gave the green light to rBGH, he left the FDA and resumed working directly for Monsanto, as vice president and chief lobbyist.

How significant was Taylor’s role in getting rBGH approved? As of August 15, 2010, his Wikipedia entry said that he “has long been hostile to food safety,” and “is widely credited with ushering recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) through the FDA regulatory process and into the milk supply — unlabeled.” (This statement was removed from Wikipedia immediately after I referred to it in a comment following an article I wrote last week for The Huffington Post on the topic. Apparently, if you can get your people in and out of key positions at the FDA, messing with Wikipedia is a piece of cake.)

Congressman Bernie Sanders was specifically referring to Taylor when he said “the FDA allowed corporate influence to run rampant in its approval of BGH.” Documentaries including “The World According to Monsanto” and “The Future of Food” present Taylor’s pro-Monsanto actions at the FDA as a dramatic example of the how corporate influence has exerted massive control over the FDA. Today, Taylor again works for the FDA, now as Deputy Commissioner of Foods.

Things have taken a different turn in Canada, but not for want of effort on the part of Monsanto. During Canada’s scientific review of Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH, Canadian health officials said Monsanto tried to bribe them, and government scientists testified that they were being pressured by higher-ups to approve rBGH against their better scientific judgment. But in 1999, after eight years of study, Canadian health authorities rejected Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH.

In the U.S. today, Monsanto continues to wield massive influence over U.S. food policies. In spite of, or perhaps in response to, Monsanto’s toxic and tenacious grip on our nation’s food policy, a movement is afoot. Every day more and more people are refusing to buy ice cream and other dairy products made with rBGH. And every day another organization adds its name to the growing list of groups campaigning against Monsanto’s influence, and calling for the FDA decision allowing the use of rBGH to be revoked.

Late last year, the prestigious American Public Health Association officially called for a ban on rBGH. The Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports has likewise taken an official position opposing rBGH. So has the American Nurses Association, Health Care Without Harm, Food and Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, National Family Farm Coalition, Family Farm Defenders and many other groups.

At this very moment, the plucky Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is leading anationwide effort to persuade Breyers (whose brands include Good Humor, Klondike Bars and Popsicle), and Dreyer’s (whose brands include Haagen Dazs, Nestle and Edy’s) to go rBGH-free. The campaign focuses on Breyers and Dreyer’s because they are the two largest ice cream producers in the country today.

If you want to strike a blow against Monsanto’s efforts to control the world food supply, you can follow me on Twitter, post this article to your facebook page, spread the word and get engaged.

Monsanto and its allies have a grand vision. They are intent on controlling the world’s food supply. Don’t let them. And don’t let them cram their genetically engineered products down your throat. Even in a product as tempting and sweet as ice cream, that’s no treat.
John Robbins is the only son of Irvine Robbins, the co-founder and co-owner of Baskin-Robbins, and was groomed by his father to run what was at one time the world’s largest ice cream company. But John walked away from the company and the wealth it represented in order to advocate for a healthier and more compassionate way of life. To learn more about his journey along his own “rocky road,” see The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. John is also the author of The Food RevolutionDiet for a New America and six other books. For more info, see johnrobbins.info

John’s father died in 2008, and there are no longer any members of the Robbins or Baskin families involved with the company.

Female Infants Growing Breasts: Another Disaster From Hormones in Milk Production

August 12th, 2010

People are very upset about this, and for good reason. Female infants in China who have been fed formula have been growing breasts.

According to the official Chinese Daily newspaper, medical tests performed on the babies found levels of estrogens circulating in their bloodstreams that are as high as those found in most adult women. These babies are between four and 15 months old. And the evidence is overwhelming that the milk formula they have been fed is responsible.

Synutra, the company that makes the baby formula consumed by these babies, says it’s not their fault. They insist that “no man-made hormones or any illegal substances were added during the production of the milk powder.”

Then what is the source of the hormones? A Chinese dairy association says the hormones could have entered the food chain when farmers reared the cows. “Since a regulation forbidding the use of hormones to cultivate livestock has yet to be drawn up in China,” says Wang Dingmian, the former chairman of the dairy association in the southern province of Guangdo, “it would be lying to say nobody uses it.” Bovine growth hormones are used in China, as they are in the U.S., to promote greater milk production.

An extraordinary number of food products sold in the U.S. today come from China. Could some of this tainted formula be making its way to the U.S.?

There is currently no way for consumers to know whether infant formula they might purchase has been made with milk products from China.

If this problem appears in the U.S., who will be held responsible? The retailers? The importers? The Chinese producers? Will anyone be called to account?

As I describe in my books The Food Revolution and Diet For a New America, and on my website, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In the 1980s, doctors in Puerto Rico began encountering cases of precocious puberty. There were four-year-old girls with fully developed breasts. There were three-year old girls with pubic hair and vaginal bleeding. There were one-year-old girls who had not yet begun to walk but whose breasts were growing. And it wasn’t just the females. Young boys were also affected. Many had to have surgery to deal with breasts that had become grossly swollen.

Writing a few years later in the Journal of the Puerto Rico Medical Association, Dr. Carmen A. Saenz explained the cause. “It was clearly observed in 97 percent of the cases that the appearance of abnormal breast tissue was…related to local whole milk in the infants.”

The problem was traced, and found to stem from the misuse of hormones in dairy cows. When Dr. Saenz was asked how she could be certain the babies and children were contaminated with hormones from milk rather than from some other source, she replied simply: “When we take our young patients off… fresh milk, their symptoms usually regress.”

Along with China, the U.S. is today one of the few countries in the world that still allows bovine growth hormones to be injected into dairy cows. Though banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe, the use of these hormones in U.S. dairy is not only legal, it’s routine in all 50 states.

The U.S. dairy industry assures us that this is not a problem. But there is a very real problem, and its name is Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). Monsanto’s own studies, as well as those of Eli Lilly & Co., have found a 10-fold increase in IGF-1 levels in the milk of cows who have been injected with bovine growth hormone (BGH).

Why is that a problem? A report by the European Commission’s authoritative international 16-member scientific committee not only confirmed that excessive levels of IGF-1 are always found in the milk of cows injected with BGH. It also concluded that excess levels of IGF-1 pose serious risks of breast, colon and prostate cancer.

How serious is the increased risk? According to an article in the May 9, 1998 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, women with even a relatively small increase in blood levels of IGF-1 are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with lower levels.

IGF-1 that is consumed by human beings in dairy products is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It isn’t destroyed by human digestion. And pasteurization is no help. In fact, the pasteurization process actually increases IGF-1 levels in milk.

What’s a consumer to do?

If at all possible, breast-feed your babies, and support breast-feeding friendly workplaces and other environments. It’s hard to overstate the health advantages of breast-feeding for both mother and baby. They are enormous, and particularly so today, when the possibility exists that commercially available infant formula could be contaminated with excess hormones.

If you are going to buy dairy products, try to get them from organic sources. Organic milk products by law can’t be produced with bovine growth hormone (BGH). Or look for dairy products that specifically say they are produced without BGH (also called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST). Starbucks only uses dairy products that have not been produced with the hormone. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream likewise uses only milk and cream from dairy farms that have pledged not to use BGH.

If you’re going to eat cheese, remember that American-made cheeses are likely to be contaminated with BGH and excess levels of IGF-1 unless they’re organic or labeled BGH-free. Most cheeses that are imported from Europe are safe, though, since much of Europe has banned the hormone.

Have you ever wondered why dairy products made from cows injected with the hormone aren’t labeled? It’s because Monsanto, the original manufacturer of BGH, has aggressively and successfully lobbied state governments in the past to make sure that no legislation is passed that would require such labeling.

As if that wasn’t enough, Monsanto has also insistently sought to make it illegal for dairy products that are BGH-free to say so on their labels, unless the labels also included wording exonerating BGH. How does Monsanto justify such a ban? They say that allowing retailers to tell consumers that a dairy product is BGH-free shouldn’t be allowed, even if it’s true, because it unfairly stigmatizes BGH.

Monsanto acts as though accurately labeling products would make them the victim of some irrational cultural bias. But the company’s products are, in fact, responsible for untold damage to human health.

My compassion is not for Monsanto. My heart goes out to the babies in China and their families, to the children in Puerto Rico and their families, and to the millions of others who have been or will be adversely affected by the abuse of hormones in dairy production.

To learn how to steer clear of potentially dangerous foods and household products, and how to make healthier, safer, cost-saving choices, read The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less.


Photo by ADDPhotography

The Dark Side of Vitaminwater

August 10th, 2010

Now here’s something you wouldn’t expect. Coca-Cola is being sued by a non-profit public interest group, on the grounds that the company’s vitaminwater products make unwarranted health claims. No surprise there. But how do you think the company is defending itself?

In a staggering feat of twisted logic, lawyers for Coca-Cola are defending the lawsuit by asserting that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”

Does this mean that you’d have to be an unreasonable person to think that a product named “vitaminwater,” a product that has been heavily and aggressively marketed as a healthy beverage, actually had health benefits?

Or does it mean that it’s okay for a corporation to lie about its products, as long as they can then turn around and claim that no one actually believes their lies?

In fact, the product is basically sugar-water, to which about a penny’s worth of synthetic vitamins have been added. And the amount of sugar is not trivial. A bottle of vitaminwater contains 33 grams of sugar, making it more akin to a soft drink than to a healthy beverage.

Is any harm being done by this marketing ploy? After all, some might say consumers are at least getting some vitamins, and there isn’t as much sugar in vitaminwater as there is in regular Coke.

True. But about 35 percent of Americans are now considered medically obese. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Health experts tend to disagree about almost everything, but they all concur that added sugars play a key role in the obesity epidemic, a problem that now leads to more medical costs than smoking.

How many people with weight problems have consumed products like vitaminwater in the mistaken belief that the product was nutritionally positive and carried no caloric consequences? How many have thought that consuming vitaminwater was a smart choice from a weight-loss perspective? The very name “vitaminwater” suggests that the product is simply water with added nutrients, disguising the fact that it’s actually full of added sugar.

The truth is that when it comes to weight loss, what you drink may be even more important than what you eat. Americans now get nearly 25 percent of their calories from liquids. In 2009, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finding that the quickest and most reliable way to lose weight is to cut down on liquid calorie consumption. And the best way to do that is to reduce or eliminate beverages that contain added sugar.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in its vitaminwater line, paying basketball stars, including Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, to appear in ads that emphatically state that these products are a healthy way for consumers to hydrate. When Lebron James held his much ballyhooed TV special to announce his decision to join the Miami Heat, many corporations paid millions in an attempt to capitalize on the event. But it was vitaminwater that had the most prominent role throughout the show.

The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, alleges that vitaminwater labels and advertising are filled with “deceptive and unsubstantiated claims.” In his recent 55-page ruling, Federal Judge John Gleeson (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York), wrote, “At oral arguments, defendants (Coca-Cola) suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitamin water was a healthy beverage.” Noting that the soft drink giant wasn’t claiming the lawsuit was wrong on factual grounds, the judge wrote that, “Accordingly, I must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true.”

I still can’t get over the bizarre audacity of Coke’s legal case. Forced to defend themselves in court, they are acknowledging that vitaminwater isn’t a healthy product. But they are arguing that advertising it as such isn’t false advertising, because no could possibly believe such a ridiculous claim.

I guess that’s why they spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertising the product, saying it will keep you “healthy as a horse,” and will bring about a “healthy state of physical and mental well-being.”

Why do we allow companies like Coca-Cola to tell us that drinking a bottle of sugar water with a few added water-soluble vitamins is a legitimate way to meet our nutritional needs?

Here’s what I suggest: If you’re looking for a healthy and far less expensive way to hydrate, try drinking water. If you want to flavor the water you drink, try adding the juice of a lemon and a small amount of honey or maple syrup to a quart of water. Another alternative is to mix one part lemonade or fruit juice to three or four parts water. Or drink green tea, hot or chilled, adding lemon and a small amount of sweetener if you like. If you want to jazz it up, try one-half fruit juice, one-half carbonated water.

If your tap water tastes bad or you suspect it might contain lead or other contaminants, get a water filter that fits under the sink or attaches to the tap.

And it’s probably not the best idea to rely on a soft drink company for your vitamins and other essential nutrients. A plant-strong diet with lots of vegetables and fruits will provide you with what you need far more reliably, far more consistently — and far more honestly.

To learn about inexpensive and healthy foods and beverages, and practical steps you can take toward greater quality of life and economic freedom, read John Robbins’ critically acclaimed new book The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less.

Why Factory Farms Threaten Your Health

July 23rd, 2010

One of the techniques modern factory farms routinely use to increase weight in livestock is to give all of the animals a dose of antibiotics with every meal. When this is done, the bacteria in the animals’ guts that are susceptible to the drugs are killed. When this practice is ongoing, it creates a microbial vacuum in the animals’ intestines that gives an extraordinary competitive advantage to any bacteria that develop resistance to the antibiotics. If your goal was to breed bacteria that could not be controlled by antibiotics, you could hardly design a more effective system. It is not entirely an exaggeration to say that as a result, factory farms have become biological weapons factories.

Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, and their discovery ranks with the great medical achievements of history. But even Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who first discovered penicillin, warned that overuse of the drug would lead to bacterial resistance. And indeed, the drugs have been heavily overused, with increasingly alarming consequences. This year, between 70,000 and 100,000 Americans will die from infections that could once have been cured with common antibiotics.

When they are willing to acknowledge that this problem exists, the livestock industry pins the blame on the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals. And they have a point. The amount of antibiotics used in US. hospitals today is hundreds of times greater than it was 50 years ago. As the levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria have been rising, hospitals have tried to cope by using higher doses and employing ever more antibiotics, particularly the broad-spectrum types. But even with the greatly increased use of these drugs in hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices and other medical settings, the use of antibiotics in factory farms still accounts for the overwhelming majority of all antibiotic use in the country.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, only about 30 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are administered to people to treat diseases. The other 70 percent, the vast majority, are administered to U.S. livestock, primarily to compensate for the unnatural and unhealthy conditions of factory farming. “Industrial livestock systems,” the organization concludes, “are hog heaven for resistant bacteria.”

Now Congress is considering a bill that would attempt to save the remaining viability of our antibiotics. It is H.R. 1549, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), it would prohibit several types of antibiotics from being used routinely in animal feed.

It’s not the use of these medicines to treat sick animals that would be banned, but rather the practice of routinely administering these drugs to healthy livestock as “growth promotants.” Livestock that aren’t raised in confinement rarely need antibiotics, but factory farming has grown utterly dependent on the use of the drugs.

Representatives of the modern meat industry argue that if the animals were not routinely fed antibiotics, rates of illness might increase and more antibiotics would be needed to treat the sick animals. But this would occur only if nothing was done to improve the extreme overcrowding, lack of basic sanitation, and other unhealthy conditions that typify factory farms.

The farm lobby and the drug industry are fighting H.R. 1549, because they know that it would take away a critical support for large scale intensive confinement animal agriculture. They want to retain the right to continue the widespread use of the drugs, even though this practice has repeatedly been proven to cause resistance among bacteria, jeopardizing human health and causing diseases that are difficult or impossible to cure.

Jeffrey Fisher, M.D., a pathologist and consultant to the World Health Organization, explains how severe the problem has become: “The pendulum has incredibly begun to swing back to the 1930s. Hospitals are in jeopardy of once again being overwhelmed with untreatable infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, meningitis, typhoid fever and dysentery.”

How, you might wonder, does the livestock industry manage to defend their current practices? It isn’t easy, but they always seem to find a way. If denial were an Olympic sport, their spokesman in the congressional hearings held this week, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), might well have earned a gold medal. “So far,” he proclaimed, “there’s nothing that links use in animals to a buildup of resistance in humans.”

Actually, the scientific consensus regarding antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been conclusive for many years. In 1989, the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, stated that the use of antibiotics in factory farms was responsible for antibiotic resistance in bacteria and was seriously undermining the ability of these agents to protect human health. Three years later, the Institute of Medicine stated that multi-drug-resistant bacteria had now become a serious medical concern. The Institute of Medicine laid the problem squarely on the doorstep of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms.

In 1997, the World Health Organization called for a ban on the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock. A year later, the journal Science called the meat industry “the driving force behind the development of antibiotic resistance in species of bacteria that cause human disease.” In 1998, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) blamed the serious emergence of Salmonella bacteria that had become resistant to no less than five different antibiotics on the routine and non-medically necessary use of antibiotics in livestock.

By then, many nations, including the Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany and many other European countries had banned the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock. In the United States, bills have repeatedly been introduced in Congress to follow suit, but lobbying by the meat industry has successfully prevented these bills from becoming law.

Now H.R. 1549 is raising the matter again, and many Congressional Republicans are lining up with the livestock industry against the bill. But Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy acknowledged that the scientific consensus is becoming incontrovertible. “The vast majority of evidence in the last three decades,” he stated this week in Congressional hearings, “points to a linkage between routine, low-level antibiotic use in food animals and the transfer of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to people.”

Seventy percent of all health-care related infections in the U.S. are resistant to at least one antibiotic, Murphy said, which already costs the nation’s health care system $50 billion a year. He added that one antibiotic resistant infection, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), now kills more Americans each year than HIV-AIDS.

CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric recently ran a story on the topic, reporting that: “This week on Capitol Hill, critics are worried that giving antibiotics to livestock, unless medically necessary, may be creating dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria that can be passed on to humans.”

The livestock industry, as you might imagine, was not pleased with Ms. Couric.

“Oh Katie, were you ever really a journalist or always just a wannabe?” huffed a spokesman for the beef industry. He called her report a “witch hunt” that was biased “against the concept of healthy farm animals.”

But when it comes to obstinate denial, you really do have to hand it to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Unperturbed by something as minor as the nearly unanimous opinion of every public health expert and organization in the world, the organization tells us that, “antibiotic use in animal agriculture makes a very small contribution to the resistance issue.”

Very small? Not according to Dr. Frederick J. Angulo, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Public health is united in the conclusion,” he says. “There is no controversy about where antibiotic resistance in food-borne pathogens comes from. It is due to the heavy use of antibiotics in livestock.”

Such is the influence of the modern meat industry, though, that H.R. 1549 is unlikely to become law this year, and may not even make it out of committee. This is a shame. Dr. Ali Khan, Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress this week that the evidence implicating the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture in the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is “unequivocal and compelling.”

Without legislation, we are left with the FDA “urging” the industry to voluntarily limit their use of antibiotics. But producers aren’t going to hold back on using the drugs if they think doing so will put them at a competitive disadvantage compared to other producers who continue to use them. Meanwhile, bacteria are continuing to develop resistance, and we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to life-threatening diseases that we can no longer successfully treat.

The widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does slightly increase the yield and profit margin obtained by factory farms. But do the American people really think that preserving the profitability of factory farming is more important than the future viability of what may be the most significant medical tool ever developed?

To participate in the campaign to pass H.R. 1549, click here.

The Dark Side of Happy Cows

July 13th, 2010

This past week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will essentially prohibit, starting in 2015, any egg from being sold in the state that comes from caged hens. This bill became law 20 months after a majority of California voters approved Proposition 2, making it clear that concern for the living conditions of livestock is no longer the province of animal rights activists alone.

Recognizing how widespread concern about the humane treatment of farm animals has become, the California Milk Advisory Board has recently ramped up its 10-year “Happy Cow” advertising campaign with a new series of ads proclaiming that “Great milk comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows come from California.” These ads are now being shown across the nation.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the ads. For one, they weren’t filmed in California at all. They were filmed in Auckland, New Zealand.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Current Milk Board ads claim that 99 percent of the state’s dairy farms are family owned. But in order to arrive at this figure, they count as “dairy farms” rural households with one or two cows. Meanwhile, there are corporate-owned dairies in the San Joaquin Valley which have 15,000 or 20,000 cows. It is these far larger enterprises that produce the vast majority of California’s milk.

My concern, let me emphasize, is not with small-scale family farms. I have no problem with the many hard-working families who treat their cows well, take care of the land and try to bring a healthy product to market. My problem is with the much larger agribusiness enterprises, the factory farms to whom the animals in their care are nothing but sources of revenue.

Thanks to the practices they employ, the amount of milk produced yearly by the average California cow is nearly 3,000 pounds more than the national average. This increased production may seem like a good thing, but it is achieved at great cost to the animals. The cows are routinely confined in extremely unnatural conditions, injected with hormones, fed antibiotics, and in general treated with all the compassion of four legged milk pumps. Roughly one third of California’s cows suffer from painful udder infections, and more than half suffer from other infections and illnesses.

Although genetically engineered bovine growth hormone is banned in many countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and much of the European Union, it is widely used in California’s largest dairy operations to increase milk production. Unfortunately, it also increases udder infections and lameness in the cows, markedly raises the amount of pus found in milk, and may increase the risk of cancer in consumers.

The natural lifespan of a dairy cow is about 25 years, but one-fourth of California’s dairy cows are slaughtered each year (typically at four or five years old), because they’ve become crippled from painful foot infections or calcium depletion, or simply because they can no longer produce the unnaturally high amounts of milk required of them.

The Milk Board ads present the California dairy industry as a bucolic enterprise that operates in lush, grassy pastures. Some of the ads employ the slogan “So much grass, so little time.” But California’s dairy industry is concentrated in the dry and barren Central Valley. Here, the cows are typically kept in overcrowded, dirt feedlots. Some never see a blade of grass in their entire lives.

The ads show calves in meadows talking happily to their mothers. But the calves born to California dairy cows typically spend only 24 hours with their mothers, and some do not even get that much. Here is a video that reveals what actually happens to the calves:


The ads propagate the image that California dairy cows live in natural conditions and the practices of the dairy industry are in harmony with the environment. But the amount of excrement produced each year by the dairy cows in the 50-square mile area of California’s Chino Basin would make a pile with the dimensions of a football field and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it rains heavily, dairy manure in the Chino Basin is washed straight into the Santa Ana River and some makes its way into the aquifer that supplies half of Orange County’s drinking water.

The large-scale factory dairies in California’s Central Valley produce more excrement than the entire human population of Texas. About 20 million Californians (65 percent of the state’s population) rely on drinking water that is threatened by contamination from nitrates and other poisons stemming from dairy manure. Nitrates have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

The Milk Board defends the ads by saying they are entertaining, and are not intended to be taken seriously. But the Milk Board is not in the entertainment business. It has not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this ad campaign to amuse the public, but to increase the sales of California dairy products. Besides, does misleading the public become legitimate just because it is done in an entertaining way?

The Milk Board knows that showing calves being taken away from their bellowing mothers and confined in tiny veal crates won’t sell their product. Neither will showing emaciated, lame animals who have collapsed from a lifetime of hardship and over-milking, being taken to slaughterhouses and having their throats slit. But this is the reality for animals in the large-scale factory farms that produce most of the state’s milk. Covering up this misery with fantasy ads of happy cows who are actually in New Zealand is not amusing. It is perpetrating a sham on the public.

This is why I have joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a lawsuit that challenges the Milk Board’s ads as unlawfully deceptive. Thus far, the Milk Board has prevailed in court, even though it’s obvious that the ads lie to the public. Why? Because the California Milk Advisory Board is the marketing arm of the California Department of Agriculture, a government agency. And in California, in a truly Orwellian twist, government agencies are exempt from laws prohibiting false advertising.

Should we hold our advertisers, even if they are government agencies, accountable to reality? Should we require that what they tell us have some resemblance to the truth?

This month, PETA has erected billboards throughout the state that read, “California Cheese Comes From Miserable Cows.” PETA, of course, is an animal rights group, but this issue is increasingly being recognized as one that concerns not only vegetarians and animal advocates. Consumers who want the animal products they buy to be from humanely raised animals can be found in every segment of society.

Consideration for the plight of animals is a central part of the American character. It is an essential part of who we are as a people. The “happy cow” ads are an insult to the legitimate humanitarian concerns of millions of people. As consumers, do we want to reward this sort of behavior with our hard-earned dollars?

Abraham Lincoln was speaking not only for vegetarians or for animal rights advocates when he said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog or cat are not the better for it.”

How The GDP Is Leading Us Terribly Astray

July 6th, 2010

The number of unemployed Americans has more than doubled in the past two years. Unemployment is now worse than at any time since the Depression of the 1930s. Millions of people have lost their homes to foreclosure. And tens of millions more have lost their savings, their pensions, and their retirement security.

These statistics are grim, but they say nothing of the human toll, the families torn apart and the lives destroyed. The numbers give no indication of the pain, the rage, and the hopelessness that now permeate so many people’s lives.

How do we measure our nation’s economic performance? The answer, for more than seventy- five years, has been the gross national product (GNP) and its nearly identical twin, the gross domestic product (GDP).

No numbers have mattered more to the thinking and decisions of our policy makers. So central and so basic to our economic thinking has the GDP become that virtually every nation on Earth uses its GDP as its fundamental measure of economic progress, as its primary way of assessing whether its economy is flourishing or not. The reason the United States is considered the world’s most prosperous nation is because it has the largest GDP. Economists, politicians, and other leaders take for granted that the higher a nation’s GDP, the better off are its people.

Unfortunately, using the GDP to measure prosperity and assess economic well-being is leading us terribly astray. It is a statistical index that is guaranteed to mislead us, and relying on it as we have done has added greatly to the economic misery in people’s lives. Two months before he was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy eloquently explained why:

“Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods, and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm, nuclear warheads, and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

How can we develop a healthy relationship to wealth and to genuine progress when our most fundamental gauge to assess economic well-being is so askew? The GDP, like the GNP, simply adds together all monetary expenditures. The GDP does not care one whit what it is we’re consuming, about how equitably distributed a country’s wealth might be, nor whether the money we spend is ours or is borrowed from future generations. It doesn’t care about infant mortality rates or the amount of violence in a society. It doesn’t take into any account how many people are homeless, unemployed, or hungry. It is entirely possible for the nation with the world’s highest GDP to also have the world’s highest poverty rate, the highest amount of unemployment, and the world’s highest level of national debt.

The GDP rises whenever money changes hands. When families break down and children require foster care, the GDP grows, but not so when parents successfully care for their children. People who max out their credit cards buying things they don’t need make the GDP look good. People who save their money and live sensibly don’t. Seen through such a lens, the most economically productive people are cancer patients in the midst of getting acrimoniously divorced. Healthy people in happy marriages, in contrast, are economically invisible, and all the more so if they cook at home, walk to work, grow food in a home garden, and don’t smoke.

The more people drive, the higher the GDP rises, due to the greater production of gasoline and cars. No account is taken of the number of hours wasted in traffic jams or the pollution unleashed into the atmosphere. In recent years, the GDP has gotten substantial boosts from toxic waste spills and the boom in prison construction. The whole thing is reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s reflection that “growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.”

Meanwhile, anything that doesn’t involve monetary exchange simply does not register to the GDP. Unpaid service such as housework and child care might as well not exist. Natural resources such as rivers and oceans, topsoil and forests, the ozone layer and the atmosphere, are seen as essentially valueless, unless, of course, they are exploited and converted into revenue. But even then, the GDP measures the resulting economic activity in a manner that is fundamentally misleading. As economist Mark Anielski points out, by counting the depletion of natural resources as current income rather than as the liquidation of assets, the GDP “violates both basic accounting principles and common sense.”

At this moment, we are experiencing the worst financial crisis in the last seventy-five years. One of the reasons the crisis took so many economic experts by surprise is that the systems we use to measure our economic well-being failed us. They did not register that the euphoric growth performance of the world economy prior to the 2008 downturn was, in fact, utterly unsustainable. It is clear now that much of the then-heralded economic growth was a statistical mirage, based on real estate and stock prices that had been grossly inflated by bubbles. If we had had a better measurement system, would we have seen the problems earlier? Would governments have been able to take precautionary measures to avoid or at least minimize the present turmoil?

If we employed a better way of assessing economic conditions, would we have fewer broken lives and less despair?

What Ever Happened to Public Transportation?

July 2nd, 2010

In 2009, National Geographic conducted an annual study measuring and monitoring consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption in seventeen countries around the world. The resulting “Consumer Greendex” found that Americans ranked as the world’s least green consumers. Of all the nations surveyed, we have the lowest percentage of people who use public transit on a daily basis. And we have the highest percentage of people who never, ever, take public transit.

How did this happen? Are we Americans that antisocial? I don’t think so. But our public policies have had unintended consequences.

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 produced an enormous network of highways across the United States. The largest public works project in American history to that date, it paid for a vast suburban road infrastructure, making commutes between the suburbs and urban centers much easier and far quicker. In part, the system was justified for reasons of national defense. It provided roads big enough to carry our tanks, in case the Russians invaded.

But it also had several unanticipated results. It furthered the flight of citizens, businesses, and investments from inner cities. It led to huge increases in the population of suburbs and a decline of walkable cities with good public transit systems. It greatly increased the use of petroleum and consequently the amount of air pollution. And it ushered in an auto age in which almost every transportation decision has been oriented around private cars and trucks driving on public highways.

The bias is built into our language. We speak of “investing” in highways and “investing” in freeways and parking spaces. But we “subsidize” trains and buses. Officials criticize bus, rail, and other public transportation alternatives for “losing money.” Lost in this language is the fact that public transit is a civic necessity. Buses, railroads, and other forms of public transportation can no more “lose money” than roads and highways.

Today, with the exception of a few of our larger cities, most notably New York, U.S. public transit systems have been profoundly neglected. A third of all mass transit users in the entire United States use the New York City system, which is why New York is the only city in the country where more than half of the households don’t own a car. And even New York, widely acknowledged to have the best public transit system in the United States, falls far short compared to systems in Tokyo, Moscow, Taipei, London, Seoul, Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Copenhagen.

Public transit in the United States has not always been so neglected. In the 1920s and 1930s, almost every town in the country had a light- rail system trolley service. Mass transit was convenient, cheap, and plentiful.

But in the years between 1936 and 1950, there took place one of the sorriest events in our nation’s history–what has become known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.” A number of large corporations, including General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum, operating secretly through front organizations, conspired to purchase streetcar systems in forty- five major U.S. cities, including Detroit, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. The consortium then proceeded to completely dismantle the trolley systems, ripping up their tracks and tearing down their overhead wires.

For this, General Motors and its corporate allies were indicted in 1947 on federal antitrust charges. For two years, the workings of the conspiracy and its underlying intentions were exposed in federal court. Eventually, despite being represented by the best attorneys money could buy, the defendants were found guilty by the federal jury.

Amazingly, the executives who secretly contrived and carried out the demolition of America’s light- rail network were fined a grand total of one dollar each. Having destroyed the mass transit network that would otherwise have been their competition, the auto and oil companies quickly acquired dominion over the transportation policies of the country. The subsequent rise of the car culture and the abandonment of public transit in the United States were made possible by a series of public policy decisions that benefited the very industries–big oil and big auto–that had conspired to destroy the country’s light- rail service.

To cite one prime example: Lobbyists from the oil and auto industries persuaded state and federal agencies to assume responsibility for the tremendous expenses involved in building and maintaining roads. This created the illusion that driving was much less costly than using public transport. If the auto and oil companies had been required to pay even part of the cost of roads, just as trolley companies had to pay to lay and maintain track, the true cost of the private automobile would have been more apparent, and public transportation would never have been suppressed.

Another example: Governments at every level have required businesses, as a condition of their licenses and permits, to provide ample parking spaces. What if instead local zoning ordinances required workplaces to be located within walking distance of public transit?

One final example: It has long been considered a basic legal principle that if a product causes harm by design, the producer may be held legally responsible. And it’s well known that rates of cancer, asthma, emphysema, and other lung diseases are higher in smoggy cities and worse yet in neighborhoods that include heavily trafficked highways. Why, then, has no car or oil company ever had to pay a cent to cover the medical costs their products have caused? Instead, points out the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes, “Consumers and, ultimately, taxpayers have always footed that bill–a subsidy worth trillions of dollars” to the car and oil industries.

Now we’re seeing where our obsession with the private car and truck has taken us–into gridlock, pollution, and dependence on imported oil. We’ve come to a turning point in history, in which serious questions are ours to answer. How can we best support alternative modes of transportation that are better for the environment and for public health? How can we create climate-and community- friendly transportation systems?