Mia McDonald, A Brighter Green


Based in New York, Brighter Green is directed by Mia MacDonald, a public policy analyst and writer who has worked as a consultant to a range of international non-governmental organizations—including the Ford Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Green Belt Movement, the Sierra Club, and Save the Children as well as several United Nations agencies, among others—on issues of environment, gender, sustainable development, women’s rights and gender equality, reproductive health and population, and conservation and animal protection. She has published many articles in popular and environmental media, authored a number of policy papers and reports, and has contributed to four books, including Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai’s best-selling autobiography, Unbowed. She is a Senior Fellow of the Worldwatch Institute and has taught in the human rights program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the environmental studies program at New York University. She serves as a director on the boards of Farm Sanctuary, Food Empowerment Project, and the Green Belt Movement International – North America. She received a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a B.A. with honors from Columbia University.


Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food, thank you for listening in today. We have a really fascinating show. I want to just jump right into it, because we have a lot of things to talk about, maybe some things that you really haven’t even thought about. And yes, they’re all related to food in my opinion, so were going to talk a little more globally than we normally do. I’m going to bring on Mia McDonald, who is the executive director of A Brighter green and she is based in NY as is brighter green. She is a public policy analyst and writer who has worked as a consultant to a range of international non-governmental organizations including the Ford Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Green Belt Movement, The Sierra Club, Save the Children, as well as several United Nations agencies, among others, on issues of environment, gender, sustainable development, women’s rights and gender equality, reproductive health and population and conservation and animal protection. She has published many articles in popular and environmental media. Authored a number of policy papers and reports, and has contributed to four books, including Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai’s best-selling autobiography, <em>Unbowed</em>. She is a Senior Fellow of the Worldwatch Institute and has taught in the human rights program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the environmental studies program at New York University. She serves as a director on the boards of Farm Sanctuary, Food Empowerment Project, and the Green Belt Movement International – North America. She received a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a B.A. with honors from Columbia University.And I am so honored to be able to be talking with you today Mia. Welcome to It’s All About Food.

Mia: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Caryn: Well I visit your website ABrighterGreen.org whenever I can and I’ve seen some of your YouTube videos and this work, is-I’m out of words, it’s amazing it’s overwhelming, it’s inspiring, in some ways very depressing. There’s a lot of things are going on out there but I am glad we have someone like you who is digging in and reporting on these issues.

Mia: You are very kind for saying that, and I have a huge respect for what you are doing as well so I’m really pleased to hear that you’re looking at the website and you find the materials useful. Should we talk a little bit about what the work is?

Caryn: Yes, please, please, please.

Mia: Ok. So one of the projects that A Brighter Green has been working on for the past couple of years,a nd the work will likely continue and its related to what Caryn had just mentioned, is looking through the lens of climate change, the globalization of industrial animal agriculture. And again it’s a big mouthful of words many of you will be familiar, and Caryn you obviously know, with the term factory farming. So basically the increase in consumption of meat and dairy products, and the intensification of the methods used to produce those animals in the rest of the world. We’re specifically looking at the large developing countries. Countries like China India, Brazil and Ethiopia. So trying to really get to the bottom of and document the number of issues. So spanning as I mentioned initially climate change but also looking at issues of public health, resource use you know what does this phenomenon mean for water for land, livelihood and small farmers women farmers certainly animal welfare, issues of equity public health. Some of the diseases of affluence associated with the way we are just skyrocketing. In India there are 40 million people with diabetes is already in China almost 90 million people with diabetes and we know these kinds of conditions are preventable and yet the system we’ve developed in the U.S. unfortunately this intensive production model exploitation of animals of the environment of the climate, is being sent around the world. And so we’re trying to bring that to greater public attention policymaker attention, media attention through a series of policy papers as you mentioned as well as a number of videos. We’re actually about to upload videos for India looking at the dairy and beef Industry which are growing quite substantially even in India despite being traditionally a vegetarian nation there’s a lot of increased consumption around animals.

Caryn: Well this is very depressing Mia, because we’re trying as hard as we can, some of us are just trying to improve things in our own “great country” and people just seem to want to repeat all of our mistakes. And I would like to think that we’re at a point now where we’ve industrialized enough, realize the benefits and disadvantages and now we can hopefully start working on the things that don’t work well and it’s a big fight but I’d like to think we’re getting more information out there about how factory farming is devastating our individual health because we’re eating too much meat and dairy, it’s devastating on the environment because we know it’s a major factor in global warming, it’s horrifically cruel. We know all of these things now and yet why are people copying what were doing it’s just mind boggling.

Mia: Yea I agree with you,and there are certainly days when I find it extremely depressing. I think a couple of things are going on. I mean one is the average person in China and India or even Brazil if they really knew what the US food system and this industrial agriculture has created and especially for animals and meat and dairy products. I don’t think that they would choose that and would say “we want that in our country, give us all of the down sides” that are being documented extremely well in the U.S., but that process of documentation is not as far advanced in some of these other countries and it doesn’t mean that people don’t experience some of these realities. In China water pollution is a huge problem and a lot of that is documented to be from livestock facilities, including factory farms.So you know people experiencing climate change China had a huge drought. India has had failed monsoons in the past couple of years, which is a huge challenge for their food production for their livelihoods, for irrigation, for electricity for a whole range of development realities. So I think on the other side the forces that helped produce this system in the US are looking globally; if they can put a hamburger in the hands of 1.3 billion people in China that’s only going to increase profits and only going to increase their bottom line. Again because these costs are not accounted for. McDonald’s can operate in China, Smithfield can operate in China, Tyson can operate in China; and the unfortunate part of this is where I would say I agree with you was depressing, a lot of the government of these countries actually do support this system and do see what we’ve created the US as producing a lot of food for a lot of people at very low prices and unfortunately see what’s happened in the US as the way of the future, this is modern, this is progress this is what we have to do ourselves to become industrialized nations. But I would say that, again a number of these policymakers I don’t think are really aware of the down sides and for many of them the issue of even the relationship of climate change and animal agriculture is a new topic, because frankly it has not gotten a lot of attention in the global policy arena. And so I think that that’s partly what A Brighter Green is trying to do. but I would say to people listening the work that people are doing in the US on this set of issues is huge in and of itself, but it is extremely important for the rest of the world. Because it’s people around the world who see what we’re doing here so obviously if in the US a critical mass of people begin questioning the system, begins pushing back against the system, which may well be happening. That certainly can have an influence on how the story plays out in India in China in Brazil and even in a place like Ethiopia, which is at a very different level of development, and huge livestock producers. I think we all have to do our work where, we’re doing it, but I think there are a lot of intersections and possibilities for collaboration and solidarity between those of us working in the US and those of us working on the same set of issues internationally.

Caryn: I have a whole bunch of different thoughts and questions. So I was reading in an article on your site, and then you just mentioned how other governments are realizing they can feed a lot of people this way and cheaply. My understanding in the United States is that our meat and dairy products are so cheap because they are highly subsidized and we all pay for them with our taxes. So we’re not even seeing the true cost of these foods, and it would really be a lot cheaper to grow a bean than it would be to grow beef. And yet you wrote, in India the chicken is cheaper than the dal. Is the government subsidizing it as well how have they managed to get the cost so low.

Mia: It’s a great question. Actually some of the ways to get the cost so low, is the green is so relatively cheap. That will likely change as we see changes in world food markets and as India has to import more grain to feed livestock. And that’s a challenge that is facing many countries now. They can’t produce enough grain to feed a burgeoning population of farm animals. That’s one reason. The government doesn’t actively subsidize the industry in the way that we understand subsidies. But they certainly have put national programs in to help the industry. To provide low cost loans to encourage this intensification. Unfortunately even in India with it’s vegetarian heritage, the government sees a growing middle class that has developed a taste for western style food. It’s also being marketed to them incessantly along with other Western products. So their response is, well then we need to produce more chicken or beef-even in India, more dairy products and the governments also have their eyes on export markets and so there’s a distortion here because the full costs are not being born in terms of the cost to the environment, in terms of government easements and subsidies.

India is such a low cost producer of chicken that it’s looking for export markets. So we have a huge irony of a country like India increasing wealth for some but dire poverty and malnutrition for millions of people in India still that may well use its resources: grain, water, land, everything else to export cheap chicken to wealthier countries. When you look at something like that it does feel like we live in a crazy helter, skelter world. We know we do in many ways.

Caryn: In India where they have all kinds of food security issues what would be some of the solutions to feed that population, and I certainly don’t believe it’s making more chicken, but how do we get food to the poor in India?

Mia: Again a very good and a very important question. One thing I think that might not be as well known, and I didn’t know as much about this until I really dug into the research. Even though when we think of an Indian restaurant here in the United States, is a huge array of vegetables, and pulses and just a great variety of food. In India itself that wide variety of vegetables and even sometimes legumes, pulses, beans, lentils are not broadly available to an average poor person, if there is such thing as an average poor person. That relates to you know long time agricultural policy. We can bring in the green revolution here, which really stressed producing a large quantity of specific grains. So wheat, rice, corn, soy production is increasing in India but again it’s not to make tofu it’s really for animal feed so there’s been many decades of an agricultural policy again pioneered in the West and promoted by some of our institutions globally, to poor countries to really invest in these large commodity crops. One could argue that that perhaps has provided India with some food security but in terms of issues of malnutrition in terms of where does the country go, how does it use it’s resources. It still has a growing population, so water, land is under pressure as we speak and that will only increase. One of the things that we recommend is the government really look at food security and prioritize assuring that every Indian can have a variety of nutritious plant based foods. So not basing food security on increasing animal products and the production of animal products really looking at many of the cuisine in India How varying they are in nutritious greens, in legumes and ensuring that people have access to that. Which actually at this point they don’t. That’s one because of prices others because of availability, sometimes because of infrastructure and also because many farmers have shifted to growing these commodity crops, and do not cultivate vegetables, do not cultivate fruit.

I just saw some research that only about 3 percent of India’s land is planted with vegetables and more than half of its land is planted with these large commodity grain crops that I’ve mentioned. So I think that’s an important facet. I think in terms of public health as I mentioned in the beginning, things like diabetes, obesity are rising extremely rapidly in India, as they are in China. That’s also another issue the government needs to get its hands on more in creating incentives for consumption of healthier food. And that may well mean things like subsidies. So that chicken is not cheaper than dal. Which if you really look at the cost of producing those to the land, pesticides, everything else, it could not turn out that way. That it really makes more sense, even from an economic case, given the environmental case to produce chicken so cheaply. So it’s a false economy at this point, and unfortunately it has multiple ramifications.

Caryn: Well we hear government and corporations talking about solutions to food security all the time. Monsanto is famous for promoting their genetically modified foods, saying that they’re going to solve all the world’s hunger problems. And yet the issues that you brought up in terms of access, distribution. None of those things are solved with any of these newer foods, meats or genetically modified foods. So the same poor people, how do they get any of those foods?

Mia: Right. Absolutely, and that again, to me is government policy, it’s civil society holding governments accountable, demanding more rational, more equitable policies on food security, not allowing these false solutions, that you just laid out, to go unchallenged, because that’s obviously an argument for things like factory farming. The meat and dairy industry will say, look at population growth, there’s going to be 3 billion more people on the planet by 2050, they have to be fed. We can’t have 100 billion free range chickens, we have to bring them all inside. But obviously that is based on an assumption that animal based foods, have to be at the center of people’s diet, and that it’s ethical to do so. And also that there are enough natural resources to produce and support that population of animals. And again, I think unfortunately, even in a country like Ethiopia, where there’s huge issues of land degradation. because there are many, many livestock, principally free range at this point. But there are so many of them, that the land is degraded from overgrazing and also there’s been drought in recent years, much for it. On the one hand the government can see, and there is some evidence that this is the case, well let’s move the animals inside, then we don’t have to worry about them destroying the land. but of course as we see in the United States, one is obviously the cruelty many pollution problems with concentrated feeding operations as they are so euphemistically called. But also the challenge of how are those animals to be fed? The grain has to be produced. Where is it going to be produced, and what kind of ecological and social cost is that. Now I will tell you something that might make your hair stand on end. Cargill a U.S. and actually a global grain giant. Officials from Cargill have been seen in Ethiopia scoping out, is this a place where we could produce grain.

Caryn: Is this a place where we could rape and make lots of money?

Mia: Yes. And grain is principally for animal feed, and biofuels to some degree, and those have enormous ecological and social causes. And as you mentioned previously, the benefits of this kind of development model, of economic model, basically goes to the have’s. The people that already have things, will have more of them. As opposed to spreading the benefits more broadly across the population. And again I think that that’s an issue, that issue of equity that needs more attention and some more sunlight on it.

Caryn: Ok. I am beyond convinced about the horrors of factory farming and how terrible it is, and the idea that it’s expanding is a terrible nightmare because it should be globally illegal to have these places. But then to free-range, free-graze animals, certainly there’s not enough landmass to grow the quantity of animals that are being eaten today. So people would have to eat less, and the trend certainly looks like people are eating more. But you mentioned this thing about land degradation from animals grazing, and I know there’s organizations-you must be familiar with Heifer International. And I don’t know if you have any thoughts about them, but I know that they’re very popular in schools today in the Unites States and appeal to a lot of the sensitivities of very compassionate people who want to help this food security issue. And the idea is to get animals to poor people so that they can have a livelihood, get milk, and help them. Do you agree with this concept, or is there a better way to go?

Mia: Well I think that there are a number of things going on there as well. One thing you mentioned, grazing, and I guess what I should also say, in a number of countries, India, China, many we can name. Because of the pressure on the land, because of the hunger for land, among a growing population, and also large agribusiness is quite keen to plant more soy, or more corn, or more wheat, or more, even biofuel crops. There is a trend to what is called, zero grazing, that you might be familiar with. So actually instead of the cow being out grazing on it’s own, or in a herd for most of the day, that cow would be penned. So it’s not a factory farm, but it basically a cow, or let’s say three or four cows or maybe ten cows, in a small pen. So they basically live in that pen most of their life, and they are fed from either fodder, which could be grass or the different crops that are grown. Or in some cases commercial feed is brought to them.

So my understanding is that some of the heifer project, especially the ones that have cows and goats and sheep, is that those animals would actually be part of a zero grazing system. So a place like Rwanda, a woman might have a couple cows, but they are basically penned in, so on animal welfare grounds, we can say, well that’s not very good, in terms of raising animals for food, we can also object to that on many levels, but it is no longer a free-range animal anymore. I think the argument that Heifer makes, I think it is appealing to people, because it seems low cost. It seems like a charitable endeavor. I have talked to people at Heifer. One thing I should say, is that the scale of Heifers effort at this point is not enormous so in terms of, if we look at trends of factory farming and intensification the Heifer animals are a drop in the bucket.

Caryn: Ok

Mia: Nonetheless I think that there are certainly questions about the Heifer model, in terms of animal welfare, also in terms of environment. Because in a place like Rwanda, where I know Heifer is quite active, and I’ve heard some great things about their program there, But Rwanda is a very densely populated country. And already there is a huge shortage of land from people who want land to grow crops, or produce crops on a small scale level. So to bring a significant population of cattle or to add to the population of cattle in a place like Rwanda strikes me as problematic. In terms of, how are those animals going to be fed? What are the trade-offs in producing feed for those animals versus producing feed for people. Another trend of course, and I think Heifer is part of this, I don’t know exactly for sure. Is in many of these countries there are indigenous breeds of animals, but they have not been bred to be milk machines, or dairy machines, or egg machines, but as agribusiness comes in, and as the Western model comes in, those animals are being replaced by Western bred animals.

Caryn: Machines.

Mia: Holstein cows that produce, ten, twenty, thirty times as much milk as an average Indian cow would. Again we know they’ve been bred, we know they’ve been manipulated to do that. So that’s a challenge ethically I think. But also they need to be fed, so much more to maintain that level of production. So again in terms of an ecological footprint, it’s much, much heavier. So I think that to question some of the programs of Heifer and others on those grounds is also legitimate. We also have global warming, and so we know cows contribute a lot to that. A factory farmed cow contributes more because it’s being fed more. But as these breeds from the U.S and Europe become embedded in agriculture in developing countries, the emotions per animal is also going to rise. That is the logical challenge. That’s what I would say on that.

Caryn: Ok. I like it. There’s a word that you use in one of your papers, “soyanization”, it’s something I haven’t seen before I don’t know if it’s a very popular world, but can you talk about what that is?

Mia: Yea. Thank you for that and I think we put the word in quotes because it isn’t a term of common usage. But “soyanization” is a phenomenon that has been identified, principally in Latin America so far, where much of the agriculture, or the agriculture economy is increasingly dominated by soy. So Argentina is a huge producer of soy, which has crowded out diversity of other crops. Also tied Argentina so closely to global trends in demands for soy, prices for soy. There’s been a lot of criticism among farming communities in Argentina, of why has the government and agribusiness, promoted this “soyanization” because it has multiple down sides. We’re losing diversity, when the soy price falls, farmers are really burdened. They could be burdened by debt, there’s a huge amount of chemicals and pesticides used to produce soy. There’s obviously GM soy, roundup ready soy that is becoming increasingly popular, produced by Monsanto. So the critiquing is so heavily tied to soy. We see a similar phenomenon in brazil, where the production of soy is rapidly increasing. And again just to underline a point that we’ve been talking about through the program so far. This soy is not for the tofu eaters of the world. It’s for livestock. But it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, so that’s why the term “soyanization” is used and why it’s increasingly criticized.

Caryn: Ok. Now I’ve been reading lots about things going on in Africa. And I read something about Hillary Clinton, saying that we should be giving them more funding to help their food security issues. And I’m just wondering, how much is the funding from the United States involved in any of these projects, and are we doing good things for food security, or are we helping to support the corporations that are continuing these problematic ways of making food?

Mia: I think we’re doing both actually. It’s interesting because when you see Obama, who has been on his tour in the Midwest talking to farmers and talking about, I want to help farmers. Sometimes we hear him say it, sometimes we don’t actually hear it. but part of that process is opening markets for U.S. farm product. Now on the one hand we might say, “that’s great.” If an apple grown in Washington State can go to China that’s good, but for climate change implications, that’s a complex topic. But part of that is increasing markets for U.S. beef, for pork, for chicken, for soy, for corn. So in that way U.S. policy is promoting one could say intensification of animal agriculture, rising meat consumption in countries over seas. A couple years ago there was a big fight between the U.S. and South Korea over beef, and South Korea had banned that because of fear about Mad Cow Disease. There was some criticism that the Korean government was trying to protect Korean beef producers. Again many issues going on. But Tom Vilsack the current Secretary of Agriculture, paid a visit to Korea, and one of his main points was trying to reopen that market for U.S. beef. And as we know in the U.S. that is going to be absolutely almost all feedlot raised, factory farmed meat. So that is a problem. And when Hilary Clinton traveled some places, sometimes there are agribusiness executives along on those trips, whether it’s Monsanto, Cargill or others. That’s certainly a negative part of it. On the other hand, I would say, from what I understand, and I am actually not an expert on U.S. food policy in terms of aid for developing countries. I do think there is a growing awareness in some of the inequities in how agricultural funding has been doled out in the past years, that it has tended to go to large producers, that there is a crisis of food security in poor countries, in Africa, in Asia, and other regions, and that there is a refocusing on some of these core issues of how do we really create food security that is ecologically sustainable. Now I think that that process is probably in the early stages. How far that goes, how long that goes, I couldn’t say at this point.

Caryn: So we are pretty much at the end of the half hour, and maybe you could sum things up, or tell the listeners some things that they could do, and some inspiring things. To make a brighter green place.

Mia: If people would like to come to the website and read some more about the issues I discussed. So we have these policy papers as well as these short versions of them, policy briefs and the videos that Caryn mentioned, looking at India, China, brazil and Ethiopia. So you can get a sense of how these issues that you may well know quite a bit about them in the United States, are playing out in these different countries. In these large important countries, we should care about because of their size, their influence, and also because millions and millions of people live in them and we’re all obviously living on the same planet. I would also say to educate oneself about what’s happening globally, can be quite important as people have conversations in their own arenas in the United States. Whether it’s with colleagues, whether it’s with policymakers, whether it’s with media. To try to bring greater awareness. We’ve seen these things in the United States. This intensification, this commodification, the downsides of it. It’s happening globally and we also need to be aware of that. Even if we aren’t working on it actively, I think there are a lot of areas for information exchange.

Caryn: I’m thinking of one more thing that I wanted to mention. I know you’re familiar with T. Colin Campbell’s work The China Study. It’s just so frustrating, because he worked with the Chinese, and studied so many and discovered all their great health benefits in those that at a lot of vegetables and less meat, and now we see their health is degrading so much over there, with al the diabetes you’re talking about.

Mia: I agree with you, and unfortunately that’s not inspiring, but his work is.

Caryn: But his work is getting attention here now, so that’s very hopeful.

Mia: And I was in China earlier this year and my colleagues and I also talked about Colin Campbell’s research. I would say, it’s probably not as well known in China as it could be among this generation of policymakers. And I know that he is working on that, and others are working on that. And I think there is unfortunately a huge power of meat and dairy association with affluence, with modernity, with the vision of progress, that I do think government officials are very entranced by. And that’s where I think it is up to many of us to try to sort of take the scales of their eyes, and show them what the reality is.

Caryn: Well we still have that a lot here too, that same image. That is changing a little bit with popular celebrities that are starting to talk about plants, as being healthy and being slim and giving us longevity. But a lot of people still equate meat and dairy with making it.

Mia: Precisely and unfortunately that association, which probably has roots somewhere in many cultures, but has been amplified by the role of meat and dairy in the U.S. culture and economy unfortunately. Now in terms of inspiring. I would say that even if I talk about the global litany of ills around this set of issues, there are people in China, in Brazil, in India, who are working on this from different angles. Whether it’s animal welfare, water pollution, food security, there are a number of vegetarian restaurants in china, and the number is increasing, and a number of the people who actually own those are activists on this set of issues. So to me that is encouraging.

This is a global challenge, many people in the U.S. have done some important work on this over the past twenty years. And it’s great to see that getting attention. And Caryn as you say these issues getting more media focus and more popular currency. So on the one end, yes we have a huge challenge and the train is out of the station globally. But there are people in the rest of the world, in the developing world, who are aware, who are working on this. And I think what I want to explore further, and I hope other will as well. Is looking for the ways that we can share information, that we can support each other so that we can be in a network of solidarity. So experiences here have reliance in other countries, and similarly experiences in other countries have relevance for what we do here, and how we understand ourselves and our world in this set of challenges.

Caryn: Thank you so much Mia. Mia McDonald, Executive director of A Brighter Green. Please visit the website BrighterGreen.org, and download those wonderful position papers, there’s a lot of great information there. If you’ve got kids in high school that need to report on the environment, this is the place to get a lot of wonderful information, and we need to be sharing it. So thank you so much.

Mia: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

Transcribed by Josh Nisenfeld, 7/25/2013

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