RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

All The News That Didn't Fit

The media's top 10 stories for the year are always the shockers that brought in the most adver-dollars: Martha Stewart's stock finagling; Michael Jackson's baby dangling; Wall Street on the skids; and the horrifying war whoops of the Bush boys.

But for ordinary consumers and taxpayers, the life-changing news is way back in the paper, on slow news days, when all the P.R. firms are on break. Here are the real top ten stories for 2002:

Story Number 10: On Oct. 21, USDA rules came out to define "organic." On Oct. 22, growers and consumers realized that the word "organic" is now completely discredited. For one thing, the rules allow fertilizer from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which could contain any amounts of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides. For another thing, the rules ban genetically-altered ingredients but it's virtually impossible to keep genetically-altered crops out of the food system (See story #8). Finally, "organic" is often taken to meant "healthy," even if the food is highly processed, highly fat, salted and sugared -- salsa-flavored organic corn chips, anyone? No, thanks -- just pass me the cheese from the farmer's co-op. I know those guys, and I know their standards.

9. Washington State bans biotech fish: It's just a baby step -- one state bans the cultivation of one fish, but the banning of transgenic salmon (also called "GE," "GMO" or "Frankenfish") is important. The phony fish grow faster than the natives. To grow more, they eat more. If they got into the wild -- and there is no doubt they would -- see story #8 -- they'd destroy the habitat for the real salmon. For the first time, a state has stepped to the plate to preserve their native species AND the state's home-grown industry. Meanwhile, in Illinois, the state Farm Bureau office warned farmers against planting biotech crops that haven't been tested and accepted by buyers in the European Union. Conclusion: When environmentalists, producers and buyers -- hey, that's, us! -- get together, the effect is huge.

8. ProdiGene, a biotech company, was fined $250,000 by USDA for nearly letting a biotech corn that contained "foreign genes" into the food supply, but before you say "Starlink," consider the complexity of the ProdiGene case. The corn was planted and harvested in 2000, and the field planted in soybeans in 2001. The contamination came when the beans were harvested and the pharmers learned that some corn left in the field a year earlier had grown and appeared in the harvest. Can biotech grain pass through a CAFO, fertilize an organic field and spring up again? Heck yes. So much for the promise that experimental crops will stay in the laboratory.

7. Three outs earns another pitch: Convicted of transporting illegal aliens, environmental degradation, and a falling stock price, Tyson did the only thing the nation's largest meat manufacturer could do. It opened a lobbying office in Washington, and hired top lobbyists in the meat industry. Obviously, if you can't operate within the law, the best thing to do is lobby to corrupt the law. Altogether now, to the tune of "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Treating us like family? We shall not be fooled ..."

6. California's Central Valley farmers lose water rights: Even though most of our tomatoes, lettuce, banana and apples already come from other continents, California's Central Valley still managed to buck the trend and raise food for American consumers rather than taxpayer-subsidized grain for feedlots. But from now on, fast-growing San Diego and Los Angeles will get the agricultural water. Result: Our veggies will come from farther and farther away, meaning that we'll become more and more dependent on transportation for our food supply. Is there a way we could have both cities and agriculture? (Interesting fun fact: In 1900, an average person used five gallons of water per day. Today, we each use between 50 and 100 gallons.)

5. Robot tractor plows Illinois prairie: "What we needed, so to speak, is an artificial human," said the inventor from the U of Illinois. The tractor runs from the garage to field, plants straight rows, applies chemicals, and runs day and night without a nap. 'Nuf said.

4. Greens and Libertarians spark up a ho-hum election: Democratic candidates lost because they aligned themselves with the president. On the other hand, in Missouri, G and L senate candidates were allowed into one televised debate. Their ideas made the D and R runners "appear relatively close on the political spectrum" opined one Missouri journalist. Earth to Ds: We want a voice, not an echo.

3. Bowling for dollars: While Bowling For Columbine has grossed the most money of any documentary ever, viewers gripe that it's all bad news, no answers. But that's the genius of the flick which asks, "Why do Americans kill each other?" and follow-up questions: Is it our media? Our government? Our educators? Our diverse population? Why are we so scared? What are we afraid of? Way back in the '90s, Wendell Berry suggested that the answer lies in community: "... a good community, as we know, insures itself by trust, by good faith and good will. by mutual help ... It depends on itself for many of its essential needs ... " (from What Are People For?)

2. Twenty-six American cities pass resolutions for peace: For the first time, Americans are tying to stop a war before it starts. Citizens in Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco, among others, have petitioned their city councils and won the declaration that the cities are against war with Iraq. Protesters show up on street corners in many American cities every week, and a coalition of women's organizations are in vigil around Congress, with celebrations to culminate on March 8. Peace Advocacy Groups like Veterans for Peace and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) are adding new chapters and, hey, just who wants war anyway? And who gets phoned on those polls that give the president an 80% approval rating? Hey, Honey, it's the president -- we have to change our number again.

And the number one story of 2002 is: We consumers care about the environment, workers and the land. We won't choose quasi-digestible industrial-flavored food, no matter how cheap. Proof: After reducing prices, and reducing them some more, McDonald's still can't bulk up sales. For the first time in 47 years, it's planning to shrink -- abandoning markets, closing stores, and laying off staff. Blaming rather complicated accounting problems, they didn't say that consumers have finally figured it out.

Be it resolved: In 2003, inquiring folks will continue to seek out and support our local communities.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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