Tuesday, August 26, 2008

88 Years & Counting to Equality for Women

Today is the 88th anniversary of the day U.S. women won the right to vote. For me, it is a day for mixed feelings of celebration on the one hand and disappointment on the other. It is also a reminder that for millions of women around the world the right to vote pales in importance to their continuing  bondage in families, communities and countries controlled by men of brutality and warped thinking.

Years ago, before 9/11, before the U.S. government showed any concern for the enslavement of women by the Taliban, I realized that no woman, anywhere, should feel free as long as any woman had to accept enshrouding in a burka and gross limitations on her very freedom to move about in her own community.

I also can not wholeheartedly celebrate the status of women in America, despite the progress we have made. The United States is still one of only 8 countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (known as CEDAW). This is both a bill of rights for women and an agenda for action. It deals not only with civil and legal rights but also reproductive rights, and therein lies the rub for U.S. approval. Parties to this international treaty are supposed to guarantee that women have the right and the information "to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children." 

Of course, signing is easy, and better that the U.S. not be hypocritical in signing and then , as is the case with other countries that have signed, including--and this blows my mind-- Afghanistan continue to discriminate against women.

There's another reason many American women can not celebrate today: Hilary Clinton will not be the one crowned as the Democratic nominee for president. As a life-long feminist, I share the feeling of opportunity missed, of not experiencing the thrill in the gut of seeing a woman at the pinnacle of power. But I was one of the feminists who could not support Clinton because she refused to acknowledge her mistake in supporting the Iraq War. For me, this ruinous, cruel war, made possible by deceit and deception, trumps women's rights. I believe that Hillary, not Obama, would be accepting that nomination if she could have admitted her failure to see through the Bush Administration lies and denounced them.

So what now? Should feminists who hoped to see a woman in the White House spite themselves by supporting McCain and the Republicans who disdain women's rights? Please, no. With Obama we have a chance at least of seeing the U.S. not only sign CEDAW but maintaining and perhaps--if we elect enough liberal members of Congress-- expanding our reproductive rights. With McCain, we'll go backwards.

As we watch Obama accept the nomination in the coming days, we should take a moment to meditate on the efforts of all the women who have struggled to give us the freedom we do enjoy today. And in that meditation, find the strength to continue that struggle, even if we must wait again to see a woman president.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Why is Biodiesel Still So Expensive?

In my recent article for The Nation, I wrote that the U.S. biodiesel industry is operating at only 20% of capacity and focused on one of two main reasons for that: the lack of facilities at wholesale terminals for blending the biofuel with petroleum diesel.

The other big reason is the price of soybeans and soybean oil, the primary feedstock used to produce biodiesel in America. Even with petroleum diesel selling at even higher prices than gasoline--hovering around $5 a gallon where I live on Long Island, in New York--soybean biodiesel is still even more expensive.

And that, says Dr. Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, has a lot to do with speculation. 

Many news reports in mainstream media keep quoting industry experts who deny that speculation has driven up the price of commodities including crude oil, corn and soybeans, but the fact is that they have no real evidence to prove their assertion. In testimony two months ago to the Senate Commerce Committee, Cooper pointed out that much of the trading in oil and commodities now takes place outside of regulated exchanges. Therefore, we really don't have the information we need to know who is trading and how much they are trading because these transactions are hidden from public view. That's why there's such disagreement about the role of speculation in driving up these prices.

But we do know that people like biodiesel producers--who actually want to use the physical commodities to make something real--have been priced out of the market. "Public policy has made speculation much more attractive than investment in genuinely productive enterprise," concludes Cooper. 

 His prescription is "vigorously enforced registering and reporting requirements(that) will chase the bad actors out of the commodity markets" and "margin and tax policies (that) will direct capital out of speculation and into productive long term uses."

That sounds eminently sensible, but will Congress listen and the President sign corrective legislation?

Seems to me we'll have to wait until we have a new President and a new Congress.

Monday, August 4, 2008

" Animal Welfare Approved:" A Gold Standard for Humane Animal Treatment

Thanks to a comment from reader, Emily, I've learned about a really robust humane animal certification program that allows complying farmers to label their eggs and meats "Animal Welfare Approved."

The good news on the budget side is that you can find products with this label at Costco. You can also find them at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Trader Joe's and Fairway.

The requirements are stringent. Under this program, laying hens must have access to the outdoors, must be able to engage in all kinds of natural behavior inside or outside, can't be starved to get them to produce more eggs, and get to keep the tips of their beaks--no beak cutting allowed. The standards are extensive, but this certification does not require organic feeding. 

Thanks again, Emily.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Egg Labels: What do they really mean?

If you have a dog, cat, any pet, or any empathy for animals in general, then you probably want to make sure that the food you buy didn't come with a side-dish of cruelty. The food industry knows this very well, and therefore uses food labels to lull you into thinking all is well.

Starting with this post, I'm going to tell you what some of those labels actually mean. Let's start with eggs. 

The issues here are whether the laying hens are kept in so-called battery cages, unable to nest, perch and dust-bathe, and what kind of food they get to eat. 

Cartons of standard eggs, of course the least expensive variety of eggs, make no statements about either question. But most producers follow the guidelines of United Egg Producers.  This usually means that the hens spend their lives together inside wire cages.  The point of their beaks is sliced off so they can not hurt each other. They can also be forced to produce more eggs by being starved periodically, or by having their food rations reduced, and then allowed to eat again. (This practice goes by the less shocking name of forced molting: they lose all their feathers because they are starving.) United Egg Producers claims the hens have enough room to spread their wings and are healthier because they can not catch diseases outdoors. (Maybe we should keep people inside too?) They can be fed antibiotics and their food may have been treated with pesticides.  

The more expensive eggs have a variety of labels that are not defined on the packages, and which seem to be overlapping or very similar. Here's what they really mean:

Cage Free: No battery cages for these hens. They are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may not have access to the outdoors. So at least they can move around. Beak-cutting and starvation are permitted. This label implies nothing about what the hens eat. No one audits growers to make sure the hens are really kept this way.

Free Range: Essentially the same as Cage Free, but the hens are presumed to have some access to the outdoors.  No auditing.

Certified Humane: The big difference here is that the egg farmers are audited by Certified Humane, a program of Humane Farm Animal Care. Surprisingly, however, the treatment of the hens is essentially the same as Cage Free--there's no requirement that the hens get to go outside. But there are standards for the number of hens kept inside the space and the number of perches and nesting boxes available to them. And, while beak-cutting is permitted, starvation is not. No guarantees about the quality of the diet they receive.

Certified Organic: They are uncaged, must have outdoor access, and eat an organic all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. But beak-cutting and starvation are allowed. This is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is enforced through third-party auditing.  

A word about another label claim that has nothing to do with animal cruelty: omega-3 enriched eggs. These come from hens that have been fed a diet rich in these fatty acids, often from flaxseed. The egg yolks from hens on this diet contain more of these healthful omega-3s. 

The price of cage-free or organic eggs can be 50 percent or even more than for standard eggs.  But consider the price the hens are paying! Wealthier folk should pony up the extra $ to push the industry in a more humane direction. Eventually, perhaps, the era of factory farming will be just a bad memory.

Next time: meat and dairy labels.