Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Citizen Democracy

Here in New Mexico, a new legislature is in session. With half a dozen other members of my congregation, I went to speak with our Senator from Taos, Carlos Cisneros. We talked mostly about renewable energy and how to shift our economy from nuclear and fossil fuels to more sustainable model. 

 There’s a proposal afoot to create a permanent nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad, in the southern part of our state. Unfortunately, the Senator told us, this is a federal matter under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and people who actually live on this land have very little leverage. But he worried aloud that the private corporations profiting from these operations would eventually go bankrupt, reaping their short term profits and then leaving local taxpayers to pick up the long term costs of clean up when the inevitable “accidents” occur. 

 Isn’t it interesting that no private insurance firms (all of whom specialize in managing risk) will insure a nuclear power plant or the repositories for radioactive waste? Maybe they know something we don’t! 

 We also talked about establishing a tax credit for installing solar. The problem, Senator Cisernos explained, is that tax credits reduce revenue that might be available for other worthy causes like education and children’s health. But how do you really measure the cost of a policy initiative like this? I noticed a framed certificate on the Senator’s wall honoring his long service as a volunteer firefighter in the town of Angel Fire. I’m also a firefighter. So I commented to the Senator that fire seasons are becoming longer and more intense here in the Southwest, largely due to global warming. How do we offset the short term costs of offering tax credits for solar against the long term price of devastating fires and loss of life to residents and first responders in woodland communities? The price tag for California’s recent Camp Fire is likely to top $19 billion with thirty-one dead. But costs like these get externalized, never recorded on the balance books. 

 What’s the answer? I don’t have it. But go talk to your own local legislators about the issues that concern you. The conversations are the only way to restore our democracy and find a common way forward.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What's Wrong with the Heifer Project?

As Christmas nears, many of you will be receiving a gift catalog from Heifer International, inviting you to help the poor by donating an animal to a family farmer in Africa, Latin America or Asia. The photos in the catalog are warm and fuzzy and the message is appealing. But there's another side to the story.

So What's Wrong With The Heifer Project? I think Heifer does some good work--they are committed to small scale, local agriculture as opposed to factory farming. But the emphasis on raising animals for food contributes to a general misunderstanding among North Americans about the causes of hunger, which are very much related to our consumption of a meat based diet.

Heifer Project International provides cows, sheep, and other livestock to rural families around the world with the aim of fighting hunger. They claim to have more than 300 projects in forty countries. With endorsements that cross the ideological spectrum, from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, Heifer is virtually a sacred cow—an organization that everyone seems to love. But there are problems with exporting animal agriculture to the Third World.

Globalizing American farming methods is as big a mistake as cultivating a taste for lamb chops and barbecue among the world's poor. Neither is the answer to starvation. Did you realize that an acre of prime agricultural land can produce 40,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots, or 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, but only 250 pounds of beef? The grain that could feed twenty people suffices for just one cow. Peasants cannot afford this kind of waste and inefficiency.

Thus in country after country, food security has suffered as people switch from rice, beans, and corn to eggs, dairy and meat to satisfy their nutritional needs. Worldwatch Institute documents the trend in Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment. The authors point out that Taiwan increased its consumption of meat and eggs by 600% between 1950 and 1990. While the island nation was a grain exporter at the beginning of this forty year span, it depended on massive imports of grain by the end of the period in order to feed its growing population of livestock. Food self-sufficiency is undermined when people increase their reliance on animal protein. The pattern has been repeated in the Middle East and Central America.

Mexico is one of the countries where Heifer works. Fifty years ago, livestock consumed only 6% of that nation's grain. By 1990, the figure had climbed to 50%, as increased numbers of cattle required more imported feed. Most of the meat produced in Mexico and other Latin America nations is exported for dinner tables north of the border while the little that remains at home is usually priced out of reach of the poor.  A Methodist minister who is a friend of mine, and a big supporter of Heifer, told me that the organization constantly faces problems convincing poor families in Mexico to feed the grain they produce to their own children, rather than to the livestock provided by Heifer, because the cattle are considered cash commodities.

Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Among blacks, the numbers are even higher. Writing in "Science in Africa," Dr. Harris Steinman points out that approximately 90-95% of Africans lack the enzyme lactase and are unable to metabolize milk sugar. The common symptoms of this genetic predisposition are nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping. Despite this, Heifer is spending millions on initiatives like the Small Scale Dairy Project in Zimbabwe, when the last thing that a hungry child in Africa needs is a milk cow.

Heifer seems wed to the belief that animal agriculture is the answer to the world problems, even when evidence indicates the contrary. American's over consumption of beef is damaging our health and ravaging the environment, a fact that Heifer's public information officer readily admits. But then why is Heifer spending $123,558 to fund the "St. Helena Beef Cattle Project" in Louisiana, whose stated purpose is to boost beef production among American farmers? And isn't it a mistake to encourage people in developing countries to emulate a diet that we know is unsustainable?

A United Nations Environment Program survey counted 6,500 distinct breeds of domesticated mammal and birds in 170 countries across the planet, including cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and even ostriches. Unfortunately, much of this variety being lost because of programs like those funded by Heifer, which is introducing Irish goats into Kenya. In China, their "Pixian Dairy Cattle Importation and Improvement Project" is using imported cattle to provide "high quality semen and embryo transfer ...for dairy development," supposedly to increase the quality of the breeding stock. But the effort to "improve" the gene pool with foreign imports can have unforeseen consequences. "The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries," says the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, "which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds." Loss of diversity puts animals (and the people who depend on those animals) at heightened risk.

So that's my beef with Heifer. The roots of world hunger are systemic and usually lie in an unfair distribution of land, which is itself related to an imbalance of economic and political power. Addressing these underlying causes of malnutrition is essential.  Hunger is not caused primarily by lack of food. In fact, the world currently produces enough calories to feed every person on earth an adequate diet. Unfortunately, too many of those calories are fed to cows and pigs rather than getting to the people most desperately in need.

Heifer is now branching into praiseworthy efforts at reforestation and water purification. But the charity's insistence on putting animal agriculture at the center of their mission hampers their otherwise laudable goal of "ending hunger, caring for the earth."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Is There A War On Christmas?

Every December, liberals like me rankle under the accusation that we are waging a “War on Christmas.”  During his presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump made it a major talking point, vowing to “make Christmas great again” and promising that "If I become president, we're going to be saying Merry Christmas at every store.”  He wasn’t the first.

Notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford raised the issue back in 1929 in a pamphlet he published titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, complaining that “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth.”  Ford insinuated that Jews were secretly running the world, apparently oblivious to the fact that Jesus himself was of the very tribe he so despised.

Fast forward thirty years to 1959, when the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society warned of an “assault on Christmas” by United Nations fanatics who wanted department stores to replace baby Jesus with symbols of international cooperation and global peace.  (Heaven forbid!)

Now, in this digital age, the alleged “War on Christmas” is a predictable part of the blogosphere every holiday, as conservatives stir fears that sinister conspirators (Muslims, Democrats, secular humanists or the bogeyman de jour) want to rob Christians of their right to worship or express their beliefs in public.  When the clerk at Home Depot says “Happy Holidays” or your neighbor wishes you “Season’s Greetings” or the U.S. Postal Service releases a new December stamp featuring a glowing candle rather than a cross, commentators on Fox News automatically assume they are plotting to establish a secular republic that will stamp out God, ban the Bible and likely feed Sunday School teachers to the lions. What rubbish!

The truth is I love Christmas. In my experience, it was great long before the Donald came along.

I grew up singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” in church on Christmas Eve, and in my opinion that is exactly where these songs and symbols belong: in church, not in a public school classroom and not in a creche erected on the town plaza.  Because much as I love Christmas, I also respect my neighbors who have other beliefs and other traditions than my own.  Whether Jewish or Muslim or non-religious, whether they celebrate Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa or Bodhi Day, commemorating the Buddha’s enlightenment, they are all Americans and welcome in this spiritually diverse land where there is no official or established church, but where all are guaranteed the freedom to follow their own conscience in matters of faith.  

So instead of waging any kind of war or quarrelling over friendly salutations, how about toning down the rhetoric working together for a little more peace on earth this December, with good will for all?  Wish me Merry Christmas or Feliz Navidad or Joyeux Nöel if you like; I won’t take offense.  And on December 25th, attend the church or visit the Chinese restaurant of your choice.