Eric Weltman is Senior Organizer for Food & Water Watch in New York. He has over 20 years of experience leading social justice campaigns and building progressive power. Eric has helped direct ground-breaking coalitions, organize high-visibility media events, write influential publications, and manage successful initiatives to pass legislation, fund programs, and elect candidates. Eric also has extensive experience conducting trainings on media outreach, advocacy, organizing, and public speaking. He has taught urban politics at Suffolk University, and written for such publications as The American Prospect, In These Times, and Dollars & Sense. A native of New Jersey, Eric graduated from the University of Michigan and earned an M.A. in Urban & Environmental Policy from Tufts University. When he’s not changing the world, Eric enjoys being with his wife, Sarah, and son, Zach, reading history books, taking walks around New York City, watching “Burn Notice” and “House,” juggling, and eating Thai food
Caryn Hartglass: Good day! I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me today and thank you for listening. And for those of you who have sent me little notes via e-mail at email@example.com or posted something on Facebook, thank you! It’s always great to hear comments and they’re all good so thank you for that.
On this show, It’s All About Food, what do we talk about? We talk about my favorite subject, food, and how food affects everything on Earth: our health, and the health of the planet, and all other life on this planet. And it’s so easy to forget that and I like to really bring it front and center because what we eat really affects everything. And we’re going to talk about some of that today. I’ve got a very interesting guest and I’m really looking forward to hear what he has to say. His name is Eric Weltman and he is the senior organizer for Food and Water Watch in New York. He has over 20 years of experience leading social justice campaigns and building progressive power. Eric has helped direct groundbreaking coalitions, organized high-visibility media events, write influential publications, and managed successful initiatives to pass legislations, fund programs and elect candidates. Eric also has extensive experience conducting trainings on media outreach, advocacy, organizing, and public speaking. He has taught Urban Politics at Suffolk University and written for such publications as The American Prospect, In These Times, and Dollars and Sense. A native of New Jersey, Eric graduated from the University of Michigan and earned an M. A. in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tucks University. When he’s not changing the world, Eric enjoys being with his family, his wife Sarah and his son Zach, reading history books, taking walks around New York City, watching Burn Notice and House, juggling, and eating Thai food.
Eric Weltman: Hi!
Caryn Hartglass: Thanks for joining me.
Eric Weltman: I’m sorry to say that Burn Notice is not in the air at the moment so we’re now watching Saturday Night Live a lot. It’s good again.
Caryn Hartglass: Saturday Night is good again. There was a long, what was it, 20 years, void until it kind of came back.
Okay, let’s get serious. So, Food and Water Watch; it does a lot of good things. I’m reading here, it works to ensure that food, water, and fish we consume is safe, successful, and sustainably produced. And that really means a lot. So there’s a number of different campaigns that are going on and you were just telling me before that there’s actually good news going on. We can easily get very depressed when we think about all the wrong that’s going on, but there is a lot of right.
Eric Weltman: Food and Water Watch is involved in an effort to ban fracking here in New York, and beyond as well. For folks who are not familiar with it, fracking is an extraordinarily dangerous technique for drilling for natural gas. That threatens our air, our water, and our food. It involves the injection of tons of chemicals in water and sand deep underground to break up in this rock formation called shale that contains the natural gas. And again, it’s extraordinarily dangerous and they’re doing quite a bit of it in Pennsylvania and other states. They have now started fracking here in New York and we’re trying to keep it out. We are taking on some extraordinarily powerful interests: the oil and gas industry, Governor Cuomo, who would like to start fracking, and as well as, unfortunately, President Obama. But we are building an extraordinarily powerful movement, that is Food and Water Watch and our allies across the state, to ban fracking in New York. And we scored a very significant success. Just yesterday afternoon the city of Buffalo, their common council, voted unanimously in support of a statewide ban on fracking in New York.
Caryn Hartglass: Woohoo!
Eric Weltman: So that’s a tremendous woohoo indeed. We’re extraordinarily proud and again, this is an accomplishment by Food and Water Watch as well as all of our allies across the state, of which we have many: farmers, teachers, grassroots groups, groups like Frack Action, United for Action, Catskill Mountain Keeper. We’re working with dozens and dozens of groups across the state and Food and Water Watch is helping build a powerful movement that’s going to take on the gas industry and win.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know where the name fracking came from? It’s a horrible word.
Eric Weltman: it came from some oil and gas industry PR person’s worst nightmare. We’ve had a lot of fun with that term.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I can see that.
Eric Weltman: It’s been extraordinarily fun making up all kinds of signs, and slogans, and chants. Some of which are a little bit off-color but I don’t know if they can be repeated on Internet radio, but nonetheless we’ve had a lot of fun. I’ll just add, if folks are more interested in learning more about fracking, Food and Water Watch has a website, www.foodandwaterwatch.org. We’ve got a plethora of materials, reports, fact sheets, what have you, that are available to download, and videos too.
Caryn Hartglass: It always boggles my mind. Now, I love technology and I realize that life for many of us has improved in so many ways because of technology. But one thing that I find is, so often we come up with some great new something or other and we don’t complete the job: we don’t connect the dots, we don’t finish our work, and we leave a mess. It’s like playing with toys and not putting the toys away because there’s always something left over. So a lot of technologies, a lot of improvements, have left behind problems: we have pollution as a result or all of these factories that doing incredible things and on and on and on. So fracking, is there even a way, in the ideal world, if everyone really did their homework and dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s and did the best job they possible could, is there a way that fracking could be safe?
Eric Weltman: You raised a very, very provocative question. One little tidbit of history that I’m fond of is back in the early 20th century, there was actually, in Britain, a royal commission established to study what might be the negative impacts of cars. And what they concluded, again this was the early 1900s; they concluded that the worst possible impacts might be the dust raised by cars on unpaved roads. So there you go, that says a little something about our capacity for technological assessment.
Our concern, this is Food and Water Watch … What Governor Cuomo’s proposal to open up New York to fracking is basically threefold and this does get to your question, which is extraordinarily important. First of all, that Gov. Cuomo, as was the industry, extraordinarily exaggerates the so-called benefits of fracking, which includes exaggerating the number of jobs created, particularly for New Yorkers. So they’ve exaggerated the good, so to speak, from fracking, as well as the claims of promoting energy independence. Food and Water Watch has concluded that much of this gas would be produced for export. So we’ve really knocked the legs out of a lot of the so-called benefits of fracking. Second is, the Cuomo administration has very much underestimated the negative, the tremendous negative associated with fracking, which include the damage done to existing industries, whether it’s agriculture, and tourism, the impacts on public health. The third most fundamentally, is we believe that fracking is inherently dangerous. Food and Water Watch believes that fracking is inherently dangerous and beyond our capacity to safely regulate. We just think the nature of the process, which again involves injecting chemicals underground, bringing back …
Caryn Hartglass: Toxic. Toxic chemicals.
Eric Weltman: …bringing back to the surface. There’s toxic chemicals, along with radioactive elements that otherwise had been more or less safely sequestered underground, natural radioactivity. Bringing that up to the surface, beyond our capacity to treat, leaving tons of toxic chemicals underground, which could migrate into aquifers, the risks of earthquakes… It’s just tremendous amount of pollution, conventional air pollution that contributes to smog and health problems like asthma, the methane leaks that contribute to climate change. For folks who don’t realize this, methane, which is basically what natural gas is, is an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas. So it contributes to climate change.
Caryn Hartglass: It uses a lot of water too, doesn’t it?
Eric Weltman: It uses a lot of water.
Caryn Hartglass: And there’s no real plan on how to treat all that water that gets contaminated with the toxic chemical?
Eric Weltman: Not at all. Not at all. Our bottom line, Food and Water Watch’s bottom line, is there are safer alternatives to natural gas but there are no alternatives to water. There are safer alternatives to natural gas but there are no alternatives to water. And we encourage people again to visit our website, foodandwaterwatch.org. There’s a lot of tremendous organizing that’s happening here in New York. We have colleagues working in other states, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, beyond, to try to ban fracking in those respective states, as well as try to enact a statewide, nationwide, ban as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Your first point, you said that you’ve discovered that the majority of the gas that we’re going to be getting from this fracking purpose is going to be for export?
Eric Weltman: Yeah, it’s interesting to see …
Caryn Hartglass: I mean, that’s just like, “Whoa, wait a minute …”
Eric Weltman: What’s interesting to see…Are you familiar with …
Caryn Hartglass: Export to other states or export out of the country?
Eric Weltman: Out of the country, to China, to India. Are you familiar with liquefied natural gas, or LNG, terminals? There’ve been a number of them in the recent years that have been constructed. Originally, they were going to be for importing natural gas so natural gas, in liquefied form, which would then be turn back into a gas for domestic consumption. These LNG facilities are now being converted, in a manner of speaking, into export facilities. This is natural gas for export. And again, check out…There’s a white paper on the Food and Water Watch website, if folks are interested in learning more about this particular issue as well as other fracking-related issue. But we do have a white paper of the Food and Water Watch website documenting the evidence that this fracking, were it to occur in New York or otherwise, would not be for purposes of promoting energy independence; it would be for purposes of export.
Cary Hartglass: Remember that … I’m normally just exploding and want to scream at everything but this is just …I’m speechless because so much that you see that’s trying to promote fracking, it’s to give us energy independence; it’s to squeeze out whatever we can left of this whole …
Eric Weltman: Again, there’s three mess associate with fracking: one, to create a lot of jobs; two, it’s about energy independence; and three, that natural gas is clean and green, and that it’s a bridge fuel, so to speak, to a sustainable future. None of those three claims are true; they are false …
Caryn Hartglass: And does Cuomo know that?
Eric Weltman: Well, I haven’t talked to Cuomo. But here’s the thing, I’m going to give you a phone number, 866-961-3208. And I’ll repeat it: 866-961-3208. That is a phone number that will link you to Cuomo’s office. And as it happens, I mentioned earlier that we scored a significant success, Food and Water Watch and our allies, yesterday in passing a resolution in Buffalo to swear a statewide ban on fracking. As a consequence of that, we’ve decided to generate a whole bunch of calls to Cuomo tallying that success and urging him to support a statewide ban on fracking. So again, that number is 866-961-3208. That’s a special line that will enable us to track the number of calls that we generate. So we urge people, here in New York or otherwise. One not-so-hidden secret is Cuomo’s running for President on 2016. So if you’re listening in Pennsylvania, or Florida, or California, or wherever the case may be, your calls count too.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s talk about Pennsylvania.
Eric Weltman: Let’s talk about Pennsylvania.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about Pennsylvania because they frack there. Is that the correct conjugation? Can you use it? It’s a noun and it’s a verb, right?
Eric Weltman: Yes, exactly.
Caryn Hartglass: I frack, you frack, we all frack.
Eric Weltman: They’re all fracked up in Pennsylvania.
Caryn Hartglass: So, they have fracking there and there’s fracking in some other states too. So we have some history. And are they happy fracking, in those other states?
Eric Weltman: I think the oil and gas industries are happy but the folks that live there aren’t particularly pleased. One recommendation for folks who have access to the Internet or members of Netflix, there’s an extraordinarily powerful documentary called “Gasland,” made by a local filmmaker named Josh Fox. It’s about fracking and it’s a horrific, absolutely horrific, exposé about the horrors of fracking. It was actually nominated for an Academy Award in 2011, and Josh is actually in the midst of making a sequel and he was famously arrested a few weeks ago for trying to film a Congressional hearing on fracking. So that made a little bit of news. But again, Josh Fox, and the documentary is called “Gasland.” I highly, highly recommend it. Please rent it, show it in your home with your friends or family, and if you’re interested in doing a public screening, you can contact Food and Water Watch and we have the rights to allow public screenings. But is shows the impact of fracking in Pennsylvania and across the country. They’re doing quite a bit of it in Colorado. Food and Water Watch has a report called “The Case For A Ban On Gas Fracking.” It’s available on our website and on the inside cover, when you download it, you’ll see a map that shows where there is shale in the United Sates. And where there is shale, is where there could be fracking because shale is where the natural gas is trapped, which requires the fracking technology to extract it. And you’ll see a large area called the Marcellus Shale Formation and that’s what underlies much of New York State where the industry wants to frack. And you see it covers quite a bit of Pennsylvania, as well. It seems to avoid New Jersey somehow.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Oh, look at this very lovely map.
Eric Weltman: But the impacts of fracking are horrific, which is why we need everyone to help us keep it out of New York State. Check out the Food and Water Watch website, foodandwaterwatch.org. Call Governor Cuomo at 866-961-3208. If you want to get more involved, again my name is Eric Weltman. I work at the Food and Water Watch office in Brooklyn and my phone number is 718-943-9085 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the impacts associated with fracking include, and this is one of the famous images from “Gasland” is methane contamination of drinking water wells. Again, the image from “Gasland” that some people may be familiar with is someone’s tap water catching on fire, as a consequence of methane contamination. And that is certainly one of the more powerful and evocative images from the film. And there’s a number of scenes, which show people using a lighter to catch their tap water on fire.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s exciting.
Eric Weltman: It’s a fun party trick.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m a little … I have a gas stove and I just get a little nervous that I have access to gas just in the stove alone, and that’s all very nicely contained.
Eric Weltman: I understand. I share that sentiment. I have a four-year old and I get worried as well. That’s obviously one of the more evocative images from the film. That’s not necessarily a concern we have for most New Yorkers. It’s more the impacts again on water, as well as air quality, and on food, as well as the prospects of earthquakes. I mean there’s any number of ramifications, horrific ramifications, associated with fracking, which is why we need to send a message to Governor Cuomo, as well as to our legislators. It’s worth noting that here in New York, and in other states as well, that there are bills that we’re trying to push through, move through the legislators. We need our state Senators; we need our state assembly members to support these bills as well. Here in New York we’re working with Senator Avella, Senator Tony Avella form Queens, who’s the chief sponsor of the ban bill on New York State Senate. And in the assembly, the New York State Assembly we’re working with Assembly member William Colton, a Democrat from Brooklyn, who’s the chief sponsor of the ban bill in the assembly.
We need people… We started, in the program, talking about reasons for optimism, and there are a number of them, and we’re building an amazing movement. Just this January we were able to generate over 60,000 comments to the Dept. of Environmental Conservation, most of which were in opposition to Cuomo’s plan to frack New York. Over 60,000 comments; that’s extraordinary. We had 6,000 people at hearings across the state in opposition of fracking; that’s extraordinary. We had a rally a couple of weeks ago at St. John the Divine, with over 1,000 people against fracking; that’s extraordinary too. We are up against the oil and gas industry, the world’s most powerful industry. So we need all the help we can get. We need to engage more people in making these calls to Governor Cuomo, in helping us petition, in engaging more constituencies, whether it’s unions, whether it’s small business people, whether it’s farmers, whether it’s religious institutions, we really need to build the power of this movement.
Caryn Hartglass: The numbers really matter. And it’s just like drops in a bucket. We all individually feel kind of helpless and insignificant, but every drop matters and they all add up and they fill that bucket. They respond to big numbers.
Eric Weltman: They respond to big numbers and they also respond to … particularly constituencies as well, which is why some of what we’re doing is mobilizing, for example, Food and Water Watch help instigate a network called Jews Against Hydro-Fracking, engaging various religious institutions, religious leaders. We’re trying to do more outreach to farmers and to laborers. We also helped instigate a network called Chefs for the Marcellus because chefs, obviously, someone celebrity in nature like Mario Batali, they have a certain amount of cache and clout and influence. So if you happen to be a famous chef, give us a call.
Caryn Hartglass: The point is, that the food that we eat, the water that we drink, matters. We can’t live without it and when it’s contaminated it affects our health; we’re seeing that, unfortunately, more and more. And we just all need to speak up. I talk a lot about how it’s important to speak with your dollar, by the purchases you make. But for some issues, we need to do more. And picking up the telephone and making a call, and writing to our representatives, has to happen. This one is really so important.
Eric Weltman: And you raised a good point because some of what we, as individuals, can do is vote with our dollars, vote with our forks. But a lot of what Food and Water Watch is about is enacting policy, whether it’s laws or other legislation or regulations that benefit all of us, even those who don’t have the wherewithal to buy organic food or buy water from Fiji or wherever the case may be. So that’s the importance of the work that Food and Water Watch, in particular, does is not so much about encouraging individuals just to buy healthy for themselves but to use our powers as citizens, as voters, as community members to organize and take on the influence of these corporate giants, whether it’s Exxon Mobile, or Monsanto, or Wal-Mart. There’s a lot of them.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, there’s not a lot. There’s actually just a handful of them and they got a lot of power.
Eric Weltman: That is true, that is true.
Caryn Hartglass: So the places that the fracking is done, typically, these companies come in and buy water rights or rights for underground people’s homes?
Eric Weltman: Leases. Yes. They lease the right to frack on the land. And there’s some … there’s communities in New York where people are already leasing even though there’s no fracking yet in New York. So there is leasing that’s happening in New York but hopefully those leases will never bear fruit, so to speak.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. So the people get a nice amount of money by leasing.
Eric Weltman: At least what seems to them a nice amount.
Caryn Hartglass: But there are some personal consequences that could happen to them, aside from the water flashing, I mean the water blowing up, in their faucets.
Eric Weltman: I mean, let’s say they take the check and move to Florida, which in my understanding, some of them are doing that.
Caryn Hartglass: Real estate values can drop.
Eric Weltman: Absolutely. It’s extraordinary actually the number of sectors, economic sectors that is, that have concerns about fracking. That includes everything from tourism, the New York State BNB, Bed and Breakfast Association, has come out against fracking. So there’s a lot of people associated with tourism. Breweries. There’s a wonderful brewery in Cooperstown, Ommegang Brewery, that’s threatened to close up shop.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know when fracking started?
Eric Weltman: Excuse me?
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know when we started fracking? When this technique started?
Eric Weltman: This particular technique of fracking started some time in the last ten years or so. I’m sorry; I can’t pinpoint it. It’s relatively new.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, It’s pretty new. I’m just hearing about it a lot now because of New York. I was just wondering how long we’ve been doing this?
Eric Weltman: Yeah, it’s a very relatively new technology. But I’m saying there are a number of sectors that are very concerned about fracking, ranging from bed and breakfasts to breweries, to real estate industry, agriculture. There’s a lot of farmers who are very concerned, including organic farmers, who are very concerned about the consequences of fracking on food production, as well as chefs. I mentioned the Chefs for the Marcellus, chefs like Mario Batali and others who are very concerned about the impacts of fracking on food.
Caryn Hartglass: So Buffalo recently just did this ban on fracking. So that means in all of Buffalo they’re not going to frack?
Eric Weltman: Well, there’s actually a couple of things happening. There are a growing number of communities across New York that are instituting bans on fracking within their own communities that …
Caryn Hartglass: That was what my question leading to, how can we work in our own community to get a ban?
Eric Weltman: The second point is that what happened in Buffalo was they went beyond that and they called for Governor Cuomo to support a statewide ban. So this was a very powerful political statement, extraordinarily powerful. Certainly, the city of Buffalo doesn’t have the authority to ban fracking statewide; it would be nice if they did but obviously, that’s not going to happen.
So Food and Water Watch has been providing a lot of resources to the national movement, and statewide movement, against fracking. We have a host of reports and fact sheets, stickers and signs, and other materials to anyone and everyone who’s involved is welcome to get from us. We serve as resource for a lot of grass roots groups across the state that are working on local initiatives, local bans, and so forth. That said, Food and Water Watch is primarily focused on advocating for a statewide ban. So the piecemeal approach is extraordinarily important. Don’t get me wrong; we are all thrilled every time we hear about another town that’s banning fracking. It just makes it all the more difficult for the industry to even consider fracking here. It builds our power. It builds our movement. It’s a tremendous shot in the arm when this happens. But we’re still pushing Governor Cuomo and our legislators here in New York to enact a statewide ban, which is why we urge people to pick up the phone. 866-961-3208. One more time: 866-961-3208. That’s the number for Governor Cuomo. Please call and urge him to support a statewide ban. And also, while you’re at it, please consider calling your legislators as well, and urge them to support legislation to ban fracking in New York.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so while you’re making that call, we’re going to take a quick break and then we’re going to talk about some other things related to water and food and all these things we should be watching. I’m Caryn Hartglass and we’ll be right back. Make that call!
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass and we’re back with It’s All About Food.
Back to my guest, Eric Weltman with Food and Water Watch. And he has agreed to talk about the Farm Bill. Tell me, what’s going on with the Farm Bill?
Eric Weltman: Thank you. Eric Weltman with Food and Water Watch. And just to let folks know we just produced a new publication called Farm Bill 101 that’s available on our website, www.foodandwaterwatch.org.
Caryn Hartglass: I can download it?
Eric Weltman: You can download it. Or if you want, you can give me a call and we’re happy to mail you a nice printed copy. My phone number in Brooklyn is 718-943-9085.
So for folks who are not aware, the farm bill is basically the legislation that governs our nation’s food system. It’s really the single greatest influence on what we eat, with perhaps the exception of advertising, I suppose. But in terms of policy, for sure, it’s the single greatest influence on what we eat and on what’s produced and how it’s produced. So again alongside fracking, which we discussed previously, Food and Water Watch is going up against some extraordinarily powerful interests that have a tremendous economic stake in this status quo, from Monsanto to Cargill, to Wal-Mart … It’s sort of a familiar theme, which is why Food and Water Watch, we’re all about organizing. We’re all about building movements to take on these powerful interests, which is why we need your listeners to join us and to get involved. With respect to the food sector, FWW is involved with a number of campaigns, some of which relate back to the farm bill, which again is a federal policy. We’re involved in the campaign to encourage, or shall we say pressure, Wal-Mart not to sell genetically modified sweet corn that Monsanto is intending to produce. So again Food and Water Watch is putting the heat on Wal-Mart, our nation’s largest food retailer, to not sell GMO’s sweet corn produced by Monsanto.
A second related initiative, particularly here in New York City that is, is to keep Wal-Mart out of the city. Wal-Mart again is our nation’s largest food retailer. They have yet to open a store in New York City. They’re trying to open one and Food and Water Watch has teamed up with some of our laborers and community and food allies to oppose Wal-Mart opening up their first store in New York City.
Caryn Hartglass: They’re the largest food retailer? But most of the food that they sell is probably not what I call food. It’s in boxes, most of it.
Eric Weltman: Yeah. You name a product and they’re probably just about the largest retailer. I mean, that’s maybe a slight exaggeration but whether it’s waste paper baskets or bananas, they sell it and they sell a lot of it. So it may very well include some good things that you like.
But nonetheless the point from our perspective, and this is Food and Water Watch, is that Food and Water Watch believes that the crux of the problem with our food system is the growing corporate consolidation and control within the sector, within the food sector. Which means that companies like Wal-Mart, in theory I suppose, could use their market power for good and that’s some of what they’re claiming, for example, teaming up with the First Lady. As folks may be aware a number of months ago, she was very concerned about obesity and they did some big press thingamajiggy where they, like I said, they would sell food that would make kids so fat. But the point is, with their power, with their unchecked power, they have the capacity to dictate what’s produced and how it’s produced and it’s actually for the most part, not for the good. The fact that they are squeezing literally, or figuratively rather, squeezing their workers, squeezing food producers, dictating what’s produced, how it’s produced, where it’s produced, driving the consolidation of our food production into more of a corporate agro business model. That’s fundamentally unhealthy and it’s fundamentally wrong. That’s one of the reasons why Food and Water Watch is working with allies here in New York including United Food and Commercial Workers, including New York Communities for Change and other community groups and food groups in opposing Wal-Mart coming into New York City.
It’s why FWW is the main element of our work on the farm bill, is pushing for a new section, a new chapter, or as it’s called title, on competition. So Food and Water Watch is trying to encourage Congress to include a new section of the farm bill that would promote competition and that would dismantle some of this growing consolidation and control of the food sector by corporations like the Monsantos, like the Cargills, like the Smithfields, like the Wal-Marts.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you went back to the Farm Bill because I was wondering what is it in the farm bill that would prevent Wal-Mart from doing what it’s doing?
Eric Weltman: So Food and Water Watch is working, particularly here in New York State, to encourage Senator Gillibrand, Kirsten Gillibrand, to be a strong champion of a fair farm bill. Sen. Gillibrand happens to be on the Senate Agriculture Committee so folks here in New York, we have an extraordinarily important opportunity to have an influence on the farm bill. There are other key states as well. In Michigan, for example, if anybody out there is from Michigan, one of your Senators, Debbie Stabenow, is actually the chair of the Agriculture Committee. Folks in Pennsylvania, there is Senator Casey. Obviously, folks can go online if they want to figure out who’s on the Agriculture Committee. But here in New York, Food and Water Watch is very focused on encouraging Sen. Gillibrand to be a champion, not just a supporter, but also a champion of the Fair Farm Bill. And again encouraging her to introduce a new section of the farm bill to promote competition and to take on some of these pernicious, absolutely pernicious, and destructive corporate consolidation and control that’s wreaking havoc on our food system, wreaking havoc on family farmers, and wreaking havoc on our environment.
Caryn Hartglass: Does the Farm Bill take into consideration the subsidies? Is that part of the bill or is it something else?
Eric Weltman: The Farm Bill is massive. There’s a wonky term called the omnibus bill and the Farm Bill is the mother of all omnibus bills. It includes, for example, food stamps. The food stamp program is actually the lion’s share, the largest, largest, largest share of funding that’s within the farm bill. Here’s the scoop on subsidies: Food and Water Watch has a very, shall we say, nuanced role, excuse me, nuanced perspective, on food subsidies, farm subsidies. We believe, Food and Water Watch believes, that the government has an extraordinarily important role in maintaining the health and safety of our food system, in enacting rules and regulations then ensure fairness, then ensure competition that protect the safety of our air, our water, our food, our fish. We believe, Food and Water Watch believes, that the government has an important role, a necessary role, in shacking the power of corporate giants that threaten the safety of our food, the health of our water and so forth.
And so, all that’s to say is that we believe the nature of food production is such that there is a need for government to help farmers sustain themselves in times of, whether it’s bad weather or other unforeseen problems that disrupt their food production. This goes back to the Great Depression, folks. The first Farm Bill came out of the New Deal when Roosevelt recognized a need to help sustain and support family farmers. Family farmers, not corporate farmers, family farmers. So yes, do we want to see giant corporations weaned from federal subsidies? Absolutely. But does Food and Water Watch see a role for the federal government in sustaining and supporting family farmers? Absolutely. Absolutely. Just like we see the need for a minimum wage for workers, we see the need for a minimum wage, so to speak, for farmers.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m all for subsidies. I just want to see subsidies going to the production of healthy food: broccoli, fruits, vegetables, and the foods that don’t have a big marketing budget out there. They need all the help they can get if we want Americans really to be healthy. I don’t want to see it going for meat production or for the food production that is used to feed animals: the soy, the alfalfa, and the grain crops that we use to feed animals.
Eric Weltman: You raised a very extraordinary point. Food and Water Watch, and again we have all kinds of information documenting this and detailing this on our website…. But there’s all too much evidence that it’s not the farmers that are benefiting from these subsidies and certainly not the consumers; it’s the corporate middlemen, the corporate giants that are using these subsidies as an excuse to not pay farmers what it cost to produce the food they are producing. So it’s the corporate giants that are benefiting form these subsidies, not the farmers, not the farmers. And they shouldn’t be blamed for these subsidies. And again, Food and Water Watch maintains that there’s a need for a role for the federal government in maintaining and supporting a healthy food system. And part of that are policies in the farm bill that we’re encouraging Senator Gillibrand to support.
Caryn Hartglass: Family farmers. When people hear that expression, family farmers, we have this warm feeling of a nice family in overalls, and plaid flannel shirts, sleeves rolled-up, and getting up in the morning, and working hard, and sitting around the table at night having dinner. It’s a family; they’ve grown up on the farm and they worked the land. But there are so many people, I think actually corporations that abused the term family farmers. There are people that say they are part of a family farm and it’s huge. It’s not a family so I think we need some clarification on what a family farm really is.
Eric Weltman: I suppose there are legal definitions. There are certainly federal standards, I believe that define the scale of a farm. But what we’re talking about, that is Food and Water Watch, is a need for two things: first of all, to break up the power of these corporate giants and their capacity to dictate what’s produced and how it’s produced, and promoting, again this is something of a wonky term, more of a regional food system where we’re promoting all the good things: rooftop gardens, CSAs, organic food, farm-to-school programs. There’s, particularly here in New York City, there’s a plethora of activity around helping reconnect urban consumers with world producers. That’s what we were talking about, is the need for subsidies and support for that kind of food system, which again a lot of foodies, in particular, are starting to promote more broadly. But unless we take on this corporate power, we are just tinkering around the edges.
Caryn Hartglass: Wal-Mart is …Well, we don’t know what they’re going to do about Monsanto sweet corn but Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have already agreed that they’re not going to sell this Monsanto sweet corn. That’s great, especially for all of us that buy from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. And what’s the demographic of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s? I’m just going to guess that it’s middle class, maybe upper middle class, people with more income to spend on quality food, people that are educated and care. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart feeds a community of a much larger percentage of economically disadvantaged people, maybe people that aren’t as informed about their food. It’s a very … It’s a very sad thing, indeed.
Eric Weltman: Yes, which is why Food and Water Watch, notwithstanding the occasional corporate campaign, to try to encourage Wal-Mart to not sell the GMO sweet corn. Our primary emphasis is on policies that would benefit everybody. So hence, a statewide ban on fracking, not just a ban in certain communities. Hence, a support for a farm bill, a fair farm bill, that reforms the food system in a way that benefits all consumers, not just those who may have the wherewithal to shop at a parks of food co-op, or a whole foods or what have you. Or have … Lord knows there’s plenty people that don’t even have supermarkets in their community so food […] is a very important issue that we need to be concerned with.
Caryn Hartglass: Now when we talk about genetically modified corn, unfortunately we’ve been growing genetically modified corn for at least a decade. And it’s been approved for animal consumption so animals have been consuming genetically modified corn and people that consume animals can very well be getting those genetically modified organisms in their food and eating it. Okay, maybe you care about that, maybe you don’t. And the other thing is that the pollen from this corn has been contaminating our other corn. A lot of our organic corn has been contaminated and there are companies that don’t like organic corn from the United States anymore; they get it from Europe because they can guarantee a larger percentage or of being pure without genetically modified corn in it. So the corn issue has been around for a while and Syngenta, I think, is the company that made some of the genetically modified corn, makes some genetically modified sweet corn that has been approved. And now Monsanto kind of want to get into the business so it’s kind of gotten into the news lately because Monsanto was approved recently to grow their genetically modified sweet corn but there has been other sweet corn that’s already been approved. And that’s some of the difficulties, knowing you have precedent going around that gets harder and harder to fight.
Eric Weltman: Ultimately, Food and Water Watch, in addition to striving to get Wal-Mart not to sell the GMO sweet corn being produced by Monsanto, we’re also going to be pushing for labeling. And that’s something … I do encourage people again to go to the FWW website and sign up for our email list because we are going to be involved in an effort to be labeling these GMO foods. And we suspect that consumers are going to want to buy the non-GMO foods.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. There’s been all kinds of interesting studies about labeling and how, whether it’s true or not in a product, if it’s labeled a certain way people will go for it. And if it’s labeled with a green label, kind of implying that it’s healthy or greener, people go for it. So labels do make a difference.
I want to just…we have maybe 8 or 9 minutes left and I want to talk about bottled water. I’m sitting here with a bottle of water next to me. I want to say that at home I use tap water but I don’t drink it from the tap. I distill it, and then I vitalize it and then I put it in glass bottles. And that’s what I personally drink.
Eric Weltman: Wow.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. But let’s talk a little bit about how we shouldn’t drink bottled water.
Eric Weltman: Absolutely. Food and Water Watch, for folks who have been listening, is very concerned, as listeners may be aware, with corporate consolidation, control, and ownership of public resources like water, which is one of the reasons again why we’re opposed to fracking. We’re working for a statewide ban on fracking here in New York and beyond. We’re very much involved again with respect to the farm bill and opposing the consolidation and control of our food sector. And likewise we’re very concerned with corporate control of our drinking water.
Needless to say, there is any number of environmental arguments about why bottled water is bad. There’s the production of the plastic, which is very polluting. There’s the transportation of the water from far-flung ends of the earth, which obviously has a carbon footprint. There’s the bottles themselves, which some may get recycled and many of them sure don’t. So there’s any numbers of environmental impacts associated with that. There’s also the concern that by drinking more bottle water, there’s a weakened support for maintaining and sustaining and repairing our drinking system, our public water system. So the more, to be blunt about it, the more yuppies that buy bottled water, the less buy-in there is for maintaining our public water system, which we certainly all rely upon, presumably for cooking and cleaning and bathing. But that many people can’t afford bottled water will rely for drinking as well. So we’re very concerned with maintaining the public support for the public drinking system. We just don’t want to see corporations owning public resources. It’s morally wrong and it ultimately will end up, we believe, harming consumers and harming the environment, if we have a situation where corporations are owning our water.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, absolutely. We’ve seen what happens when corporations own water in other countries and it’s not a good thing. Of course, there’s that grand story in Bolivia, what happened and all the promises that were made for better schools and more jobs, and what happened was the price of water went up and it was untouchable and the people just went out into the streets.
Eric Weltman: Absolutely. And last night, as it happens, I was in Rockland County, which is just north of New York City, at a jam-packed hearing with about 500 people, opposing a proposal by United Water, which is owned by Suez, which is a French company, one of the largest private water companies in the world, opposing a proposal to build a desalination plant for Rockland County, which we believe, and many residents of Rockland county believes, will be a giant wasteful corporate boondoggle. So this is an example where a private water company is running a public water system.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Eric Weltman: So that’s something FWW is opposing.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m going to have to read up about that. So they’re going to take water where? From the ocean?
Eric Weltman: No, from the Hudson.
Caryn Hartglass: The Hudson …
Eric Weltman: And there’s a lot of concerns about the environment, and public health. It’s right near Indian Point. There’s concerns about radionuclides, contaminated water, impacts on the environment. But again, from FWW perspective, we distrust the motivations of United Water.
Caryn Hartglass: Will they be selling this water ultimately?
Eric Weltman: Yeah. This will be water produced for the public drinking water system. FWW, and again we encourage people to find out more by visiting our website, www.foodandwaterwatch.org. We have a lot of information there about concerns over the privatization of our drinking water systems, including the problems with United Water, which again in Rockland County New York, we’re opposing their proposal to build a desalination plant.
Caryn Hartglass: There are a lot of people that want less government. And we just have a couple of minutes left but they want less government because the see how corrupt things are, they see all the tax that its going to who knows what. And I will never say that. I want a government and I want a government that works and I want a government that guarantees everyone of us clean air, clean water, food, healthcare would be nice, education, and that’s what I want our government to do. And I want a govt. I don’t want to run around in anarchy because I know what humans will do, some of them anyway, when they’re not watched.
Eric Weltman: And giant corporations, in particular, they need to be reined in, they need to be regulated. In some cases, they need to be dismantled
Caryn Hartglass: Yup, amen! Okay, Eric, this was such a delight. Thanks so much for joining me.
Eric Weltman: Thanks! And check out our website, foodandwaterwatch.org.
Caryn Hartglass: And make that phone call, 866-961-3208 to Governor Cuomo.
Eric Weltman: Urge him to support a ban on fracking in New York.
Caryn Hartglass: Great! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. And remember to visit my website, responsibleeatingandliving.com. That’s where things are really yummy and all kinds of wonderful fun things about food. And that’s all for today so have a delicious week. Bye-bye!
Transcribed by Diana O’Reilly, 2/11/2013