Banned Books Week: Vive le Livre!

September 26th to October 3rd marks the 27th annual Banned Books Week, a celebration of sorts for freedom of expression and for all the books that have been harassed and threatened with extinction because of perceived offensiveness and/or danger to society.

The complaints come in many forms, and offer interesting insights into cultural fears and anxieties. Books have been challenged because of inappropriate language, race portrayals, ethnic portrayals; because of political or religious subversion, occult or satanic allusions, or suspect family values; because of drug use, excessive language, violence, or sex.

Often, these charges are coupled with the challenge that a book is "unsuited to age group." It seems what people most often fear is a book's alleged ability to indoctrinate children with some value or belief system that challenges one's own. "Our children are at stake!," the banners cry, never considering the unfortunate effects of such censorship.

In defiance of such short-sighted hucksters, crack open a banned book and indulge in its excessiveness today.

The American Library Association offers many resources for Banned Books Week:
A list of challenged or banned books in 2008-2009
A proclamation for local libraries
A letter you can send to your local newspaper
and more!

Image by florian.b on

Too Many Corporations in My Food

That the food supply is contaminated with corporate politics and chemicals, we know. That advertising is often deceitful, especially when it comes to the faddish "natural," we know. Why, then, was it so disappointing to read a recent article from the Chicago Tribune about Big Food quietly and insidiously buying up small organic food companies?

It turns out that the big companies go to great lengths to hide their ownership of their organic brands. The packaging remains the same, the "story" remains poignantly the same (as the article points out, the story behind a farm or family is a carefully crafted marketing pitch), and the buyer is none the wiser. While the corporate invasion has served to boost the organic industry and to make organic foods more affordable, it has also further blurred the definition of organic, making it all a matter of semantics rather than safe ingredients.

Here's a list of some commonly found organic brands, and their big business parents:

Pepsi: Naked juices
Kraft: Back to Nature; Boca Foods
Nestle: Tribe Mediterranean Foods
Dean Foods: White Wave/Silk; Alta Dena; Horizon; Organic Cow of Vermont
General Mills: Muir Glen; Cascadian Farm
Conagra: Lightlife; Alexia Foods
Kellogg: Kashi; Morningstar Farms; Gardenburger; Bear Naked
Coca-Cola: Odwalla juices
M&M/Mars: Seeds of Change
Hershey Foods: Dagoba chocolate

You can read the entire article on the Reading Eagle website.

Against the Grain: The World Seed Conference

Early last week, the 2nd annual World Seed Conference convened in Rome, Italy, with the seemingly innocuous aim of addressing agricultural challenges in the context of increasing populations, climate change, energy consumption, and scarcity of land. The official "declaration" of the conference reads: "Urgent government measures and increased public and private investment in the seed sector are required for the long term if agriculture is to meet the challenge of food security in the context of population growth and climate change."

The actual consequences of these developments to the "seed sector" are nicely laid out by Robin Willoughby of the NGO Share the World's Resources. One of the disturbing issues he explains is the implementation of intellectual property laws to "protect" the rights of agribusinesses:

Under the guise of innovation and progress, breeding companies suggest that seed varieties developed in laboratories in the North and then sold to poorer farmers in the South can raise yields in crops, increase nutritional values, reduce pesticide and fossil fuels use as well as conserve biodiversity. In the words of one participant at the conference, his company utilised ‘the art and science of changing the genetics of plants for the benefit of humankind.'

Advocates from industry argue that to safeguard their investment in these manipulated ‘seed innovations' governments should use a form of legal construction (intellectual property rights) to prevent farmers from re-using and changing seeds that are a ‘product' of agribusiness. Industry lobbyists also suggest that such monopoly rights should extend to developed plants varieties that business cannot easily control by technology - for example due to natural reproduction.
As we have seen in different contexts, the negatives far outweigh the positives of such a situation that does little, in the end, to address the problem it sets out to solve. With agri-giants such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta leading the way, it is just another instance of placing profit over people.

Read the entire article on ZNet.

Chipotle Rewards Tomato Pickers

Back in July we posted about the film Food Inc., wherein we criticized Chipotle for not signing on to an agreement to pay tomato pickers in Florida an additional 1 penny per pound. Companies like Whole Foods and Bon Appetit had signed on to the agreement, and Chipotle's refusal seemed to go against their mantra of bringing more sustainable foods and "food with integrity" to their customers.
Well just a few days ago, MarketWatch reported that Chipotle agreed to its own deals with one of Florida's largest tomato growers, East Coast Farms, and of course, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was involved. Under the agreement, tomato pickers will receive the additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked, which turns out to be a surprising 64% wage increase. So why is this deal significant, and why did Chipotle broker their own deal? According to the article:
"Similar agreements between other large tomato buyers, like Chipotle, and the CIW have been blocked by a Florida tomato industry cooperative. Under most of those agreements, money earmarked for farm workers is accumulating in escrow accounts rather than reaching the farm workers for whom it is intended. By working directly with East Coast Farms, Chipotle will be able to pass the additional wages directly to the workers."
It looks like this could be a nice victory for CIW and the workers that they represent. Chipotle representatives are certainly talking a good game, and this development certainly supports their 'food with integrity' mission. Said founder Steve Ellis,
"This agreement will make a difference in the lives of workers who pick tomatoes for Chipotle, but our commitment goes well beyond this. We are constantly looking at all of the ingredients we use, and how we can use our purchasing power to improve conditions for farm workers, raise animal welfare standards, and minimize environmental impacts. These choices come at a price, giving Chipotle the highest food costs in the industry. But we continue to think it is the right way to run our business. It's how we are changing the way people think about and eat fast food."

Grown in Detroit: Urban Farming and School Gardens in the Motor City

Detroit's urban farming initiatives are clearly gaining traction. An award-winning documentary is traveling the festival circuit and will soon be aired on TV: Grown in Detroit, by Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk. The film shows how nature has taken over Detroit's abandoned landscape, how farms, bee colonies, and native flowers now nourish a growing revolution. The film focuses on the gardening/farming program at the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for pregnant and parenting teens. The filmmakers present the case that the students' initial resistance disappears when they reap the rewards of their bounty.

Watch the trailer at

An Unsuccessful Marriage: Monsanto and the Drug War

A little over a month ago, we talked about the recent failure of Monsanto corn to go to seed on South African farms. Another Monsanto crisis is unfolding on another continent, as laid out by Meg White on Buzzflash. This time the trouble is in South America, where Monsanto's chemical herbicide glyphosate (better known as "Round-Up") is being blamed for increased levels of cancer and birth defects, as well as for thoroughly complicating the "war on drugs."

It turns out that the U.S. military sprays glyphosate from airplanes onto coca crops in South America, which has the adverse effect of wiping out food crops as well, unless the seeds are of the Monsanto's specially-genetically modified-Round-Up-Ready variety. The strange and unexpected twist to the situation, however, is that coca plants seemed to have evolved (either on their own or not) -- to be glyphosate resistant.

All around, it seems the plan is backfiring. Read the full article by clicking here. It's a very interesting and well-laid-out analysis of Monsanto's practices and their effect on the "war on drugs."

Also be sure to check out the petition calling for an anti-trust investigation into Monsanto. "Monsanto -- through acquisitions and cut-throat business practices -- has cornered 90% of the soy, 65% of the corn, and 70% of the cotton market, and has a rapidly growing presence in the fruit and vegetable market, all without government anti-trust officials raising an eyebrow." It appears that we have a case of another corporation increasingly out of control.

Giroux: A Culture of Cruelty

If you have wondered why violence is often glorified in media, or what this might have to do with anti-healthcare reform crusaders and hate crimes, read Henry Giroux' excellent article "Living in a Culture of Cruelty." Part of the problem, he argues, is the normalization of violence and cruelty through political policies that are largely based on a market fundamentalism that values wealth over people. His discussion proves to be a helpful way to understand the intersection of everyday life, the political and the production of cultural meaning.

Here is an excerpt that talks about power in a culture of cruelty:
The growing dominance of a right-wing media forged in a pedagogy of hate has become a crucial element providing numerous platforms for a culture of cruelty and is fundamental to how we understand the role of education in a range of sites outside of traditional forms of schooling. This educational apparatus and mode of public pedagogy is central to analyzing not just how power is exercised, rewarded and contested in a growing culture of cruelty, but also how particular identities, desires and needs are mobilized in support of an overt racism, hostility towards immigrants and utter disdain, coupled with the threat of mob violence toward any political figure supportive of the social contract and the welfare state. Citizens are increasingly constructed through a language of contempt for all noncommercial public spheres and a chilling indifference to the plight of others that is increasingly expressed in vicious tirades against big government and health care reform. There is a growing element of scorn on the part of the American public for those human beings caught in the web of misfortune, human suffering, dependency and deprivation.
And another excerpt that brings in popular culture:
Underlying the culture of cruelty that reached its apogee during the Bush administration, was the legalization of state violence, such that human suffering was now sanctioned by the law, which no longer served as a summons to justice. But if a legal culture emerged that made violence and human suffering socially acceptable, popular culture rendered such violence pleasurable by commodifying, aestheticizing and spectacularizing it. Rather than being unspoken and unseen, violence in American life had become both visible in its pervasiveness and normalized as a central feature of dominant and popular culture.
It might be interesting to place Giroux' argument next to Rene Girard's theories of violence (from his book Violence and the Sacred) to give a sort-of historical trajectory of the role of violence in society. Same thing with Foucault's Discipline and Punish. I think all three talk about the spectacle of violence and cruelty and the different ways it is absorbed and assimilated.