Friday, May 24, 2013

Feeding the World with Test Tube Cows

Heifer International boasts of having “the most important gift catalog in the world.”  They provide calves and goats for poor farmers to feed their families, right?  Not exactly. Here are some other places your Heifer money goes:

In 2009, Heifer funded the development of Kenya’s first test-tube calf using a technique called in vitro embryo production (IVEP).  The International Livestock Research Institute, which is creating these franken-foods, explains that with traditional breeding, cows can produce only 10-15 offspring in the course of a normal lifespan, whereas “IVEP can produce up to 300 offspring per life span.”

Why would you want to boost a cow's reproduction rate by 2000 percent?  Because, according to the ILRI, “livestock is the fastest growing sub-sector in the world, as increasing trends of 114% in demand for meat and 133% for milk attest. To improve on food security, it is essential to double livestock production in the developing world by 2020. IVEP is clearly one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this.”

Never mind that countries like Mexico and Taiwan which have shifted to a meat centered diet have lowered food security.  And never mind that the Kenya Meat Commission is already exporting 500 tons of food per week out of the country.  Test tube cows must be the answer, according to the Heifer funded project.

“Doubling livestock production through traditional breeding techniques increases pressure on natural resources: water, land and biodiversity,” according to the report. “Again, IVEP, which requires only laboratory equipment in the production process, comes to the rescue.”

Huh?  In terms of environmental impacts, I’m not sure how breeding calves in the lab improves on mother nature.  What I am sure about is that we’re a long way from the Heifer catalog covers with photos of smiling children holds lambs.

Maybe it’s time chuck “the most important gift catalog in the world.” 


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Everyone Loves To Hate The Tax Man

Face it, nobody likes the Tax Man, so it’s easy to lambast the Internal Revenue Service, which is just about as popular (but just as necessary) as a regular colonoscopy.

Lately, the IRS has taken a hit for targeting “Tea Party” organizations with heightened scrutiny when those groups applied for tax-exempt status.   The head of the IRS resigned, the President apologized profusely and Congress is holding hearings to investigate how such an outrage could occur.

But what’s the problem?  There’s a well-established rule that only non-partisan groups are eligible for tax exemption.  As a clergyman, I know this rule well. It means no endorsing candidates from the pulpit.  No telling my parishioners how to vote.  No fund raising for Democrats, Republicans, or others seeking electoral office.  As a minister, I’m advised, I’d better not even wear a campaign button for Markey or Gomez (the current senatorial candidates in Massachusetts, the state where I'm currently living).  To do so might mean jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of my church, which would then be crossing the line between a religious, charitable organization and a political action caucus.

So if I were an IRS bureaucrat faced with thousands of applications from outfits seeking tax exemption, I might very well use a computerized key word search to sort through the pile.  Anything group with “party” in its name (“Tea Party,” “Patriot Party,” “Citizens’ Party”) would probably get flagged for special attention.  Parties, by definition, are partisan.  That’s the definition of a party, and it describes many groups—perhaps most—under the Tea Party umbrella
An internet search, for instance, shows at least 69 societies in Massachusetts calling themselves “Tea Party” affiliates.  Here in Worcester, there is the “Seven Hills Tea Party” which seeks to “encourage involvement in campaigns for like minded candidates (local, state and federal).”   The Berkshire Tea Party describes itself as working “in cooperation with the GOP.”   Several others in the Massachusetts Tea Party network declare their heartfelt intention to rid the country of President Obama.  You may agree or disagree with their agendas.  But do these parties sound non-partisan to you? 

Such groups have every right to organize, of course, and to take a role in civic life.  But should they be tax exempt?  Not under current law. 

So the IRS doesn’t need to apologize.  The ones apologizing should be the media and our current leaders—Republicans and Democrats--who are trying to raise their own poll numbers by attacking the one person everyone loves to hate …

The Tax Man: a real pain in the patootey. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bomber Deserves Burial

The body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves a burial.  The corpse of the Boston Marathon bomber has been under refrigeration since Friday at a funeral home in Worcester on south Main Street, with protesters gathered outside and no local cemetery willing to accept the remains.  This situation is indefensible.

Since ancient times, proper interment of the deceased has been the mark of a civilized society and a universally recognized moral injunction.  

In Sophocle’s play Antigone, the king of Thebes, Creon, brings down the wrath of the gods upon his own family when he refuses to allow the heroine for whom the drama is named to bury her brother Polynices, who had rebelled against the state, ruling the body must be left to rot on the plain.   Transgressing the king’s decree, heaping earth upon her slain sibling, Antigone proclaims to Creon that no “mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.”

In Christian tradition, the same rule applies.  The Romans, known for the cruelty of their punishments, returned the crucified body of Jesus back to his disciples and family members to be put to rest according to Jewish custom.  Ascertaining that Christ had indeed succumbed, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Pontius Pilate allowed the corpse to be claimed by Joseph of Arimithea, who “bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.”

Even in wartime, an interval when the laws of humanity and common decency are otherwise suspended, fighting armies will momentarily suspend combat so that each side may retrieve and bury their casualties under a flag of truce.  The Geneva Conventions, based on centuries of internationally accepted law, stipulate that “the dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained.”

Given such precedent, is it too much to ask a cemetery in Worcester to accept the remains of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? 

Whether you consider him a heinous murderer, a misguided soul, a terrorist, or all of the above, he was also a human being: not an animal, an object or a piece of refuse.  I have zero tolerance for his cause and condemn his actions, even as I grieve his victims and sympathize with the families of those who were killed or injured by his crimes.

But this is one of those decision points that reveals our own character as a people.  Are we brutes, or are we members of a civilized nation? 
Only the residents of Worcester can decide.    

(Rev. Kowalski is currently serving as interim minister of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts)