J500 Media and the Environment

Knock Knock…It’s the Death Reaper for Organics!? Pt. 2 by jkongs

Workers package Earthbound Farms lettuce for shipment.


The organic movement was started as an alternative to commercial agriculture, an alternative to the homogenization of our food crops, to free market domination by corporations, as a way to beat the Man – right? As organics becomes more popular, it also becomes more mainstream and commercialized.  Now we are in a sort of tug-o-war: should organic products keep growing, or will this type of unlimited growth compromise the original values behind the organic movement?  Using my not-so foolproof Oreo science in Part 1, it’s clear that the commercialization of the organic movement is a complicated issue, complete with blind turns and detours.

One thing is clear: Wal-Mart’s ability to determine market prices for organic products does not sit so well with many farmers who run smaller organic operations.  For many farms, including the two-acre plot run by the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (KCCUA), the price premium consumers pay for their organic produce is reflective of the labor premium they put into the production.  These small, intensively managed operations allows for a stunningly diverse harvest from a surprisingly small area; a stark contrast with the expansive fields of lettuce managed by Earthbound Farms.

Volunteers working at KCCUA.


Many consumers, including UC Berkley’s renowned food journalist Michael Pollan, are worried that as organics gets bigger, its original values will disappear, and that “going organic” will be nothing but a passing fad.  Already, lobbies for large companies have worked to allow synthetic substances into organic processed foods (like my Oreos).

To lower prices, imported organic produce shipments from China could continue to increase. The environmental costs of food transportation are astronomical, so the benefits of converting tracts of land to organic production methods are arguably outweighed with the amount of fuel burned to ship the food across the Pacific Ocean.  Unfortunately, organic foods produced on a small scale for local consumption are not likely to get any cheaper.  The truth of the matter is that the cost of most foods on the grocery shelves is artificial: government subsidy handouts to large farms mean low prices on the shelf.  The high costs to the environment and to us as taxpayers, who provide the money for the subsidies, are not represented by the totals on our receipts.

So is the organic movement standing on its last leg?  Will Wal-Mart – and other marketplace giants – succeed in devaluing ‘organic’?  If you have an opinion, make your voice heard as Congress continues to reformulate the Farm Bill, an incredibly important piece of legislation that determines the placement of those subsidies funded by our tax dollars.  You can also head to the Downtown Lawrence Farmer’s Market, where you can meet and greet with the farmers as you buy your produce.  We don’t have to sit back and watch the clock, your voice will help decide if the organic movement answers the grim reaper’s knock on the door.

–Jennifer Kongs


Knock Knock… It’s the Grim Reaper for Organics!? Pt. 1 by jkongs

Organic Produce at a Wal-Mart.

Credit: bdunnette at flickr.com

I like Oreos. I grew up eating them dunked in milk, making wishes and predictions about my secret crushes as I twisted them in half, eating them in peanut butter after watching Lindsay Lohan do it in The Parent Trap – ah, those years as an impressionable teen. Now, my much older, mature self tries to eat organic foods (meaning I go at least a few weeks between performing Oreo prophesies about potential relationship prospects).

In a recent perusal of the shelves at the grocery store, I noticed a new face of Oreos – besides the colored Easter variety. I saw a fantastic culmination of my love of cream filling sandwiched between two branded chocolate cookies and my attempts to eat organically: the organic Oreo. (In my head this experience was accompanied with celestial lights and singing, but I might be making that up).

Not only are many common snack foods adding a pesticide-free variety to their product lines, but big players like Wal-Mart are bringing organic products en masse to their stores’ shelves. Organic is going mainstream, spreading from its humble beginnings in one-room natural food co-ops to the expansive shelves of national supermarket chains. The terms “organic” and “healthy” now go hand-in-hand, and the increasing demand for organics is pushing farmers to their limits. Just in 2006, demand for organic milk exceeded supply by nearly 10% – there just weren’t enough udders to fill the bucket so to speak.

Wal-Mart, with its sheer size and purchasing power, can put pressure on suppliers to switch to organic practices. Many small organic farms now produce on a commercial scale. Earthbound Farms, once a family-operated fruit stand, now has 28,000 acres planted with 100 types of fruits and vegetables. You can now buy their packaged salad greens at grocery stores across the country.

The term “organic” and “expensive” often go together, too, implying that eating healthily means paying a premium. (It also means buying the Oreos with a weird “natural” finish on the bag.) Wal-Mart, known for its low prices, has the potential to make organic foods more affordable – meaning you don’t have to frequent Whole Foods or the Merc to buy a variety of pesticide-free foods.

I wonder if one of my Oreos can foresee the future of organics (since they have failed in accurately predicting my love life): Could Wal-Mart, a price-gouging free market bully, suck the breath of life out of the organic movement?

Stay tuned for Part Two – I have to run a best out of three Oreo trials, to ensure accuracy of course.

–Jennifer Kongs

Conversations with a Hippie by kimwallace

A funny thing happened when I went home to Arkansas a few weekends ago. I was having lunch with a friend from high school when we got to talking about my job and my classes. Obviously, I couldn’t not mention Media and Environment to him. The conversation went kind of like this:

Him: What’s up with that weird polka-dot can in your purse? Do you carry that thing everywhere?

Me: I don’t want to have plastics leaching into my body every time I want to drink water! This aluminum can is cleaner and better for the environment.

Him: Leach? Is that the right word to use? Wouldn’t leach mean, like, sucking something out of you, not putting something into you?

Me: Shutup.

Him: So, is this whole environmental thing real, or is it just a fad? Is someone paying you to do this?

Me: It’s real! I’ve made a big turnaround the past year, because of my job, my classes and where I live.

Him: You’re a hippie now.

It’s a typical conversation with my friend, a comedian-type. But it made me open my eyes: These stereotypes really do exist. Before, I figured that people, especially young people, were catching on to the environmental movement faster than ever because of the exposure and education on it. But still, there are skeptics. I don’t think my friend is a skeptic, but just someone who has to be convinced. Of course, my shutup response to him wasn’t one of engaging conversation, but that’s kind of how our relationship is.

Maybe it’s not evident from the above, comedic conversation, but this class has taught my how to talk about the environment every day with people who care and people who could care. My friend is a smart, receptive guy, and we did get into a more intelligent conversation about energy use, the nuclear power plant in Arkansas and other green issues. I was taken aback by how I was able to roll with the punches in our 1-2 conversation.

That same weekend in Arkansas, I was speaking at a high school journalism convention in Rogers (Rogers, Bentonville, all of where I’m from = Wal-Mart Country). During my stay at the Embassy Suites, I noticed that the Wal-Mart Sustainability Conference was going on as well.

Normally, I am unenthusiastic about anything that has to do with Wal-Mart (I come from a town that has three SuperCenters and a Neighborhood Market, so you can see how refreshed I am living in Lawrence where there is SuperTarget and local business), but I was intrigued by this conference. Of course, I wasn’t able to sneak in and catch a glimpse of Adam Webach or any other Wal-Mart SuperHeroes, but I was impressed that I knew that if I did run into somebody like that at the hotel, I would be able to have a conversation with a little depth.

And that’s the biggest, most important thing that I will take away from this class: The power of conversation. Not lectures, not discussions, not talks. Conversation. From Wiki:

Conversation is the verbalization of concepts involving abstractions and concrete objects which make up the world we live in.

A conversation is communication by two or more people, or by ones self. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views of a topic to learn from each other.

I can’t wait for these conversations to catch fire even more. It’s going to be an exciting adventure in the world of environmentalism. Soon, “the world” will be able to mean the same thing as “the world of environmentalism.” I’m so happy to have had a running start because of this class. We just need to keep the conversation rolling.

My best,

Kim Wallace

One little blog, one BIG step for environmentalism. by Sarah
April 28, 2008, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , ,

Photo: MacGBeing, Flickr

A “media and the environment” class is been something that I would have never seen myself signing up for a year ago. I was about the farthest thing away from a “green” person. And if you said the word “sustainability” to me, I probably would have given you a blank stare and moved on with my life. But as we learned in our last meeting, living sustainably – can’t really be defined. WE are the ones that define it for ourselves. In our interview with Adam Werbach, however, he said it best though when his definition of sustainability was “a harmonious relationship between human culture and the living world.” Congratulations Adam, we have spent an entire semester trying to define it like that, and you did it in like, 15 seconds, and it was a beautiful.

I looked back at my first post, where I was talking about taking baby steps in my own life and how that was how I was going to live sustainably. Today, I still believe that. I still believe that people need time to change, and they need to find some sort of comfort in making those changes. So if Clorox wants to gradually convert it’s consumers to “green products,” then I applaud them for doing so. If Wal-Mart is STARTING to make changes to be more eco-friendly, I applaud them too. I’m not going to be a pessimist and say they will never be a “green” corporation. I choose to be an optimist. I choose to believe that they will continue to make their corporation more environmentally friendly, and become an example for other corporations to follow.

I also choose to believe that what we did in this class HAS made a difference. By just talking about these issues, and making ourselves known on this blog – I think we accomplished what this class was all about. People are starting to change the way they live, companies are realizing how important it is for them to be sustainable, and “living green” is starting to be a way of life for more people.

As our class is coming to an end, I am taking away so many things I have learned from all of you. I have met people who truly care about the environment, and I’m proud of the huge conversation we have begun as a class. I look forward to continuing that conversation in the future.

-Sarah Nelson

Okay, which one of you is the corporate spy? by rarab

photo courtesy of flickr.com

Photo courtesy of found_drama

Fellow classmates, the next time we meet for class on Thursday, take a good look at the person sitting to either side of you–chances are one of them is a corporate mole!

At least, that might have been the case if we had held this class between 8 to 10 years ago.

A recent Mother Jones article revealed that several major corporations (among them Wal-Mart and Taco Bell) hired security firms to spy on environmental groups:

A private security company organized and managed by former Secret Service officers spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings. According to company documents provided to Mother Jones by a former investor in the firm, this security outfit collected confidential internal records—donor lists, detailed financial statements, the Social Security numbers of staff members, strategy memos—from these organizations and produced intelligence reports for public relations firms and major corporations involved in environmental controversies.

The story goes into great detail about the methods these firms used to spy on groups like Greenpeace, and the ominous-sounding Center for Food Safety, methods which mostly consisted of infiltrating groups with undercover agents, leaking information about their efforts to the corporate enemies they were battling, and digging through their trash for financial records and office memos (silly corporate spies, don’t they know environmental groups have minimal waste).

True, this happened years ago (back when we were still searching for the answer to, “Who let the dogs out” Who? Who? Who? I still don’t know…), but that doesn’t mean we should simply forget it.

I mean, we always knew that Wal-Mart liked to spy on its own employees, but is it somehow okay that they were spying on environmentalists, too?

It all makes me think of Adam Werbach’s efforts to green the retail giant. I understand why he would try to “change the system from within,” but at what point do we acknowledge that the “system” is far too nefarious to fix?

That is, I took great offense to Werbach comparing his consumer-friendly revolution to that of previous anti-imperialistic struggles, most notably that of Gandhi in India. As he states:

Gandhi rallied a nation against imperial British rule with the simple and radical call for a march to the sea to make salt.

Gandhi’s call for a salt march was more about sustainability than economics. His purpose was not to alter the marketing patterns of the British Empire, but to show that, through sustainable practices such as creating their own salt or spinning their own cotton they could eventually circumvent–and remove–a powerful empire. Big difference. It’s not like Gandhi was trying to get the British to create a more “colony-friendly” empire–he wanted them gone. So, unless Werbach is secretly trying to bring down Wal-Mart from within, I’m really not too interested in their latest “Green” efforts.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone should be attempting to live a green lifestyle–but I won’t suddenly jump up and down because one of the giant retailers decides to get on board. I’m glad changes are being made, but I think the bigger issue is teaching Americans that they simply don’t have to consume as much as they think they do–and that we can’t “buy” our way out of our environmental problems, no matter how eco-friendly the products are.


Attention (anti) Wal-Mart Shoppers by jenh

When I skim through the vitriolic comments that follow Adam Werbach’s recent speech, I begin to doubt my critical thinking skills. I don’t accept everything that Adam proposes, but as with his much debated “Death of Environmentalism” speech I appreciate the super complex picture he’s trying to bring into focus. For those who haven’t read Adam’s most recent call to arms, he essentially says the environmental movement needs to meet people where they are, as consumers. If you can’t tap into the Everyday Joe and Jane who shop at Wal-Mart, juggle work and raising kids, you’ll fail to create real, sustainable, long-term change, in other words.

I know that although my personal strategy is to consume less and support local businesses when I can, that doesn’t mean everyone else has that choice nor that they are informed about the ripple effects of their choices. This is one of the reasons Adam – despite the shortcomings of his consumer-tailored BLUE movement – appeals to me. I would like to entertain the idea that if you can reach people to help them understand the process behind their choices, they will make different ones if they have the means, and the all mighty market will sort out the rest (neverminding the fact that the price of goods versus income affects those choices enormously). Or as one person commented, “if people start to understand enough about the manufacturing process to be able to differentiate greener processes from dirtier ones, then they may start to become interested in the manufacturing/industrial system as a whole, and then we can move toward “industrial literacy.'”

Of course, first you have to get through to them, and Adam would have you doing that by appealing to them through shopping.

On Saturday, Lawrence’s farmers’ market opened for the 2008 season amid frigid winds and spiraling snowflakes. A few die-hard folks including me wandered by the market (800 block of New Hampshire, downtown) to see what was there so early in the season. I picked up a dozen eggs and talked with the vendors and a couple of shoppers. People were excited for the prospects for the year. They like participating in something that makes them feel good about the way they feed themselves and their families. I think that’s at the heart of Adam’s argument in some twisted way: consumers who feel good about the (informed) choices they make are going to be the root of change. Ignoring that just because you might want people to consume less won’t get us any closer to an idea of a sustainable future. – Jen Humphrey

Generic Brands say BUBBYE to rBST in Milk by shemme

Dairy Cow

Photo by *~Laura~* on Flickr.com

Wal-Mart, the largest grocery retailer in the US, made a bold move last week when it announced that its Great Value brand milk will be sourced exclusively from hormone-free dairy cows. Other “budget” retailers like Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. have changed their house brands to using exclusively hormone-free milk, too.

Why are budget groceries making the switch? Because customers have demanded it.

Not everyone can afford to purchase organic milk, often costing more than $3 for half a gallon as compared to around $1.70 for conventional milk. Store brands, or “generic” brands, offer the same kinds of products that national brands do, but at rock bottom prices. For consumers concerned about what’s in their milk, hormone free options from some of the most affordable brands in the US, like Great Value and Kroger, make a nice economic middle ground between conventional and certified organic.

Growth hormones, often referred to as rBST or RBGH, is marketed under the name Posilac by Monsanto, a giant agricultural company that also makes herbicides, insecticides, and genetically modified seeds. Some of you may remember that just this month Monsanto was lobbying in Kansas to keep milk producers from putting “hormone free” on their labels. We’re not the only ones. Monsanto has been waging big battles in other states as well (see this NY Times article).

Monsanto, are you listening? Consumers don’t want milk from cows treated with your product.

Monsanto may create front groups, lobby our government, and even try to control the media…

But we can all take comfort in knowing that in the end, it’s us – the consumers – who can stop a Goliath like Monsanto by simply voicing our concerns and putting our money where our mouth is. Thank you Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway and others out there who are listening!

Learn more about the issues surrounding Monsanto and rBGH at Sustainable Table.

~ Sarah H

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