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Over the last several months, I have conducted a research project with my friend Sam Lipschultz, who recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College.  Our research focused upon farm to institution collaboration in the United States, and particularly upon Farm to Hospital programs.  Below is a brief introduction to our final report, and you can download a full PDF file of the report by clicking here, or on the link that follows the introduction.  We hope our work might serve as an inspiration and as a resource for hospitals in the United States.  Your attention and feedback is appreciated!     

Real Food, Real Health: Reasons and Resources for Starting Farm to Hospital Programs in the United States

U.S. hospitals spend over $5 billion each year on food.  The average hospital serves over a million meals each year.   If shifted to support the healthiest, freshest food, this buying power would help hospitals meet their most basic goal, of nourishing human health, while supporting the food system infrastructure required to increase and maintain access to healthy food for years to come. 

Connecting farms with nearby hospitals has positive implications far beyond environmental and human health.  Farm to hospital programs create a niche market for the types of farms that are often left out of both the conventional food system, and alternative local food systems.   Small farms, often farming with some variation on certified organic practices, tend to gravitate toward direct retail markets, such as farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture groups.  Large farms, often practicing chemical intensive farming, tend to produce for export to other regions or countries.  It is the mid-size farms that are disappearing fast.  And it is those mid-sized farms that are perfect for the wholesale market of farm to hospital programs.  Farm to hospital programs provide an increase in nutritional value and taste of food; a heightened capacity for accountability over food safety and worker conditions; increased food access and food security by offering fresh, healthy food to the entire spectrum of community residents; and key contributions to the much needed infrastructure for thriving local food systems.

For healthy food in hospitals to become the norm, hospital stakeholders must begin to act on their awareness of the pitfalls of producing and consuming conventional food, and on their knowledge of the advantages of purchasing locally grown and sustainably produced food.  The following study considers the unique and strategic location of farm to hospital  programs on the frontier of local, equitable and sustainable food systems.

FULL REPORT: Real Food, Real Health, by Annie Myers and Sam Lipschultz

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This is one in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.

The latest two interviews conducted for this project presented a rather revealing story.  The first was with the organizer of a small delivery company that links farmers to restaurants in New York City.  The second was with a representative of a Brooklyn District Public Health Office (DPHO), who is involved in the Brooklyn Coalition of the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership.

Representing the small delivery service, the first interviewee eagerly told me about how her company works.  She gave me the nuts and bolts, the logistics, the schedule.  The farmers post their products on Fridays, the restaurants order on Mondays, the farmers harvest to order on Tuesdays and deliver to a drop-off site that night.  The truck is loaded that same (Tuesaday) night, the driver departs early Wednesday morning, the city driver takes over by sunrise, and the restaurants receive all their deliveries before Wednesday evening.  The company works with farms in a single county.  They deliver to about twenty restaurants.  They charge their farmers a fee that leaves them (the farmers) with a higher percentage of the price of their produce than they would ever receive from a wholesaler or mainstream distributor.  The interviewee herself is essentially a vibrant link, on the phone, answering farmers’ questions, dealing with chefs’ neurosis, solving the little crises that occur when the truck breaks down or the traffic is bad or the frost lingers longer than is ideal.  She told me about the possibilities for the company’s growth, who might be served, how service could be expanded and made more efficient, what additional farmers she might work with, what additional clients she might seek.  We spoke for nearly two hours about the potential and possibilities of the model her company has pioneered. 

Of course, the small delivery company serves relatively high-end restaurants that are committed to buying fresh, local products, and of sourcing through a short, transparent supply chain.  Such restaurants are willing to pay a premium for the high quality (and marketability) of these products, as are their customers.

The bodegas of Central Brooklyn are a different story altogether.  They are no more able to pay a premium for perishable produce than they are to charge their customers $4/lb for tomatoes.  But they’re still a part of the same food system.

As a result of the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Fitness Partnership, the second interviewee participates in many meetings and conferences regarding the regional food system, and in particular, related to the high rates of diabetes and obesity in the neighborhoods within her district of Brooklyn.  Her DPHO, along with the one in Harlem, recently conducted research that shows a correlation between a lack of access to healthy foods and health risks.  The research found that most community members buy their food from bodegas that rarely offer fruits, vegetables, or milk, but instead primarily provide the residents with cigarettes, alcohol and soda.  This research led the NYC Department of Health’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program to partner with local bodega owners to expand the availability of healthier food choices in target neighborhoods the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the city (Harlem, South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn).

As the second interviewee explained the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, she did not lose her eagerness to share her experience, but her words were not hopeful.  “The distribution network does not exist,” she said, “to make it feasible for local, small grocery stores to source foods from local farmers, even if fresh produce were financially accessible.  It would be great if the farmers who sell at markets in nearby [more wealthy] neighborhoods,” she continued, “could just come here at the end of their day, and sell their leftover produce at a discounted price to a distributor at a central drop-off/storage location, rather than trucking it back home.  Storeowners could then purchase the produce from the distributor, at a lower price than is possible at the moment.  But this system is not set up, and at the moment, the farmers don’t have the incentive to come here!”

So the story goes: When enough high-end restaurants begin to demand fresh, local produce, a delivery company emerges to cater to their demand, trucking quality products straight to their door from upstate New York.  When community residents demand fresh, local produce, they work to change policy.  But their bodega-owners can’t “demand local produce” because there isn’t an efficient distribution system in place to make fresh produce convenient and affordable enough for their business.  The community demands may change policy – in some ways, they already have.  But only purchasing power can inspire the creation of a distribution system.

The second interviewee had never considered the effect it would have to encourage the purchasing of fresh, local produce in the hospitals of Central Brooklyn.  Yet the main tool she has to work with, besides policy, is purchasing power.  Bodegas may provide many people with “food,” but they are small and unorganized, and have no set choreography for collaboration.   Their purchasing power, as individual entities, is negligible.  Meanwhile, several local hospitals serve thousands of meals a day.  The patients in these hospitals are the same mothers and fathers and children who so are so gravely affected by obesity and diabetes as the customers at the local corner stores.  If anything, hospitals are deeply invested in their patients’ health, and the correlation between human health and consumption of fresh produce has been proven!  The latest draft of the New York City Council’s “Global Warming ‘Foodprint’ Resolution” sets a goal for 20% of food served in city-run institutions to be local and preferably organic produce within ten years, and provided a budget allocation to make this possible.  As policies like these develop, centers of demand for fresh produce are powerful tools for inspiring the development of a stronger local food system.  Hospitals are hubs of such demand.  We who understand (and are so eager to learn!) how we might connect our nearby farmers with the city….we have to talk to the hospitals.


Some other cities and regions at work…

Plow to Plate: New Milford, CT

Center for Food and Justice: Los Angeles, CA

Local Food Plus: Toronto, Ontario

Grow Montana: Montana State  

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This is the first in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.

During a recent conversation with Christina Grace, of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), my research questions prompted her to mention the common food service providers of hospitals and prisons. In many cases, these institutions are serviced by providers like Aramark, Sodexo, and Chartwells. The usuals. Of course they are, yet it wasn’t something I’d thought about. Christina’s was the first interview Sam and I had done, in our work concerning farm-to-hospital and farm-to-prison distribution.

My first reaction was to want to whip our project clear around and embark again in the opposite direction.

NYU works with Aramark, as do many public and private universities and colleges across the country. In the early stages of our ongoing efforts to change the food sources in our school dining halls, Sam and I and many students, primarily organized by the Real Food Challenge, learned how to read our food service provider’s contracts. We may have primarily looked for the date on which the contracts would end, but many students – particularly those from large schools like NYU – learned how to negotiate, to wade through the bureaucracy, to talk to company representatives about releasing their purchasing data, to discuss whether the company executives might approve sourcing from a small distributor that might feed one ingredient to one college, rather than the entire kitchen to the entire nation. The results were not negligible – NYU now has a pilot local and organic dining hall, fair trade coffee in all seven dining halls, and Aramark may eventually work with the New York farmers markets. But working towards these changes felt mildly like convincing Wal-Mart to sell Organic, or Starbucks to buy Fair Trade. Aramark would certainly strategically adjust, but their heart would never be in it.

Now, in the initial stages of our new project, Sam and I have focused upon learning from alternative Farm-to-Institution distribution programs around the country, with the ultimate goal of writing a proposal (for a policy, or an organization, or a business) that will create a Farm-to-Institution program in New York State, particularly to service hospitals and prisons. I have been excited to think of this as very different from our work with our individual universities – a different constituency, a different structure, a different (more invisible) need, a different sort of potential for change. And so when I heard Aramark, I wasn’t excited. I had wanted to do something more creative than propose the same changes in a different contract.

The other interesting aspect of the conversation with Christina was that although she had a lot to say, she switched her focus early on to her work with public schools. She spoke of the numerous initiatives of the School Food program, of the sliced apples and the carrot coins, the yogurt, and the school gardens. There are certainly scattered projects across the country addressing hospitals, and prisons, and NYSDAM is looking at starting something with hospitals in New York, but there’s nothing on the ground yet. The School Food program, after all, is an ongoing struggle, and it only started in 2002. But it was disappointing to hear that there haven’t been more efforts to serve other institutions.

It took two days for the underlying conversation to rise above my superficial discontent. I’ve never heard much about patients and prisoners getting access to local, organic, fresh, healthy foods in New York. That was part of my motivation for this project. But I hadn’t realized what an integral puzzle piece they were in the food movement; how perfectly, predictably, they are a part of the big picture. New York policy has really only acted upon concern for school children. The 2002 school food legislation demands that, “The State Education Department should collect information from schools and other educational institutions that are interested in purchasing New York farm products and share that information with interested farmers and farm organizations across the State….The schools would then be notified by the State of the availability of the products.”

This bill was and is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it significantly ignores the interconnectedness of all major institutions, considering the vast number of meals they must provide, the few providers they source from, the purchasing power they possess together, and the potential benefit of a policy like that of 2002 for the State Departments of Education, of Health, and of Correctional Services – all together! This sort of demand would no longer clamber up the big bad supply chains, reaching for a chance to make a difference. This sort of demand would be a Giant for those beanstalks. A new distribution system would have to grow to serve it, stronger, and closer to the ground.

The idea that specific institutions can band together to make their demands heard is not a new one. So far, primarily, public schools have come together with public schools, and universities with universities, to demand access to the local products that are available. These focused efforts have not been easy nor yet “successful,” and it may feel as though broadening their focus will only complicate and slow the progress that has already been made. This may be true. But as the force behind a movement that claims a sort of holistic integrity, the community working to create a more sustainable food system cannot neglect the state of our health care system nor ignore the industries that control our prisons. These are the trademarks of an era we have in fact elected to end, but now it is our job to connect ALL the dots.


Department of Agriculture & Markets News. Governor signs bill establishing farm-to-school initiative. Press release (Feb 13, 2002).

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The following paper was written for Effecting Social Change, a semester-long course attended by the fellows and scholars of the 2007 Reynolds Program, and taught by NYU Professors Rogan Kersh and Margaret Scott.  The course focused upon three modalities of social change: the individual, the institution, and the movement.  The assignment for this final paper was simply to address these three elements within the subject considered.

The Choice to Farm: Of Five Farmers, and the Movement They’ve Joined

Over the past seventy-five years, the industrialization of agriculture in the United States has included widespread farm consolidation, expanded commodity production, the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, the genetic modification of seeds, and a considerable drop in the percentage of Americans’ disposable income spent on food.  Government agricultural policy has decisively disregarded the environmental, social, and health-related implications of the large-scale agricultural practices it continues to encourage and support.  A long-standing resistance to the practice of industrial agriculture has recently gained momentum,  through an increasing popular awareness of climate change and the limits of natural resources, and has developed into a full-fledged movement for the agro-ecological cultivation of food. 

New and aspiring farmers, particularly those under fifty years old, fundamentally contribute to the social movement gathering around sustainable agriculture.  The declining number of farm operators, the ongoing loss of farmland, and the increasing average age of farmers in the United States all constitute an urgent need for a new generation of farmers to emerge.

The Choice to Farm: Of Five Farmers, and the Movement They’ve Joined is a small research paper devoted to the stories of farmers whom the author identified as college graduates with former non-agricultural careers or ambitions.  This criteria was chosen to narrow the pool of farmers consulted to those individuals who decided to start farming even while they had every opportunity to do something else.  The Choice to Farm tells the stories of five farmers who have recently made this choice.  The paper concludes with a brief analysis of new farmers as part of a national community working towards agricultural and food policy change, and the force of this community’s momentum as a social movement.

FULL REPORT: The Choice to Farm, by Annie Myers

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Over the last two months, I have conducted a research project focused upon urban farms and city planning, for the course City Planning 252 (“Land Use Controls”), taught by Professor Fred Etzel at UC Berkeley. Below is a brief introduction to this work in progress, and you can download a full PDF file of the current report by clicking here, or on the link that follows the introduction. Your attention and feedback is appreciated!

 

Vitalizing the Vacant: The Logistics and Benefits of Middle- to Large-Scale Agricultural Production in Urban Land

For decades, community and backyard gardens have been a source of fresh produce for America’s city dwellers. During World War II, the government encouraged the country to plant Victory Gardens, and 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally. Since the mid-1990s, the increasingly detrimental effects of industrial agriculture upon environmental and human health have come to the attention of US consumers. Urban populations across the country have begun to demand access to affordable, nutritious, chemical-free foods, grown by trustworthy farmers, within one to two hundred miles from their homes. Urban planners have learned to design spaces for farmers markets and other venues where fresh, regionally grown produce can be sold, and to incorporate these designs into their city plans. More than a few city dwellers, however, have increased their access to clean, healthy foods in a way that is yet more resourceful, hands-on, and close to home.

Urban farms are gaining ground in cities across the country.

An urban farm is considered to be one or more sites within the boundaries of a city, where the soil is cultivated for edible plants, and where the food produced is shared (whether for-profit or not, by sales or donation) with individuals other than the farmers themselves. The existing sites currently known as urban farms usually occupy a total of at least 1/4 acre (or 10,890 ft2) and have established a formal food distribution system, often selling through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), at farmers markets, and to local restaurants. Urban farms are organized, productive, stable operations, and often serve their surrounding communities through educational workshops, job training programs, and other activities.

This study was compiled to provide planners with six existing models of urban farms, and to aid in the development of city plans that prioritize local food production. Vitalizing the Vacant considers the logistics and benefits of putting urban land into agricultural use, and highlights six farms all located within the urban boundaries of major cities across the United States.

 

FULL REPORT: Vitalizing the Vacant, by Annie Myers

 

 

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Last weekend, a few close friends of mine who care about where their food comes from, and appreciate those who produce the food they enjoy, voiced their curiosity as to whether the whole “local food thing” was just another diet fad. 

These friends, Bekah and Raphi, are a couple in their twenties living in Berkeley, working in music and magazines.  And it’s not as though I hadn’t heard the same type of curiosity before, but I sort of let my heart sink below my pelvis, sitting there in their conversation.  There are many occasions when I must explain how I feel about sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and how wonderful and important I feel it is to support them.  But I realized I’d rarely had to explain my total confidence and trust that I will be able to (not to mention, must) devote the rest of my life to work that is based upon these convictions.

Another occasion came, however, early this week, when a man whom I very much admire, who is acting to support local farmers in the most creative and permanent of ways, responded to my enthusiasm for his work with the eyes of a starving poet, suddenly inspired.  “Are there other people your age, who are actually considering regional food systems, as a field in which to work?  A goal upon which to focus their lives?”

Well, the fact is: Yes.  There are many of us.  For now, we are committed teenage gardeners, tireless volunteers, students doing related research, young farmers with the valuable gift of land of our own, and small business entrepreneurs.  We are learning how to mend the broken web of our current food system, a web upon whose strength we believe our future depends.  I learn something every day, maybe every hour, that assures me we are neither misleading ourselves, nor misdirecting our future.   My reasoning follows, and is based (finally!) not in the East, nor the West, but across the country, and around the world.

Of course, I must start where I (most recently) started.  This January in Berkeley, the first page in my little notebook had a list written, of several Bay Area organizations involved in urban agriculture.  I outlined several of these organizations in the essay New Yorkana, and their directors and offices were the first names and addresses I learned in California.  Little by little, one name linked to another.  A friend in Cartography class recommended I meet Nathan, a Ph.D Candidate in Geography, who’s doing a project similar to Diggable Cities in Portland, and who told me to contact Alethea, a close friend of another classmate and landscape architect, Nadine.  Alethea’s thesis work was for People’s Grocery, but she is now working with Sibella at SAGE (formerly of CUESA).  Sibella put me in contact with Eric (at Food First), who informed me of the HOPE collaborative.  My City Planning professor, Fred, put me in touch with Heather, whose thesis was an Oakland Food System Assessment.  Everyone knows Severine, who in ten minutes’ time, while biking me to her office from the Cheeseboard, rattled off a list of contacts that included David Ralston of CEDA, Raquel Pinderhughes of the Ecology Center, and Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers.  Severine is making a film about young farmers (you may have seen her quoted in the recent NYTimes Fashion Article), and attending her fundraiser/dinner party meant meeting dozens of youthful growers, working land no more than an afternoon’s drive away from San Francisco.  Through a brief internship at BALLE, I had learned of and joined the COMFOOD listserve, and as I began research on urban agriculture for my courses here, Severine reminded me to post a query on COMFOOD.  Enter the rest of the country.   Suddenly I came in touch with such a number of urban agriculture projects that listing them now might remind you of Michael Pollan’s list of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread ingredients.  I filled in multiple excel sheets (god help your pen-and-paper author: she uses the computer too often now) with lists of inspiring projects and names and contacts, all within a day.

But of course, the devil has still to be advocated.  For it’s not entirely surprising that there are local food enthusiasts across the country, and even supporters of urban agriculture in particular.  Working towards a regional food system has its perks (good food, to be specific), and it’s become a popular and trendy effort to support.  Many “urban agriculture” projects are just plots in which optimistic, political vegetarians plant their hopes and dreams.  And many of the people I’ve met and spoken to could still wind up in obscure non-profits, going nowhere and constantly fundraising for a goal that has gone out of style. 

Idealist organizations and activists, however, aren’t all that’s out there.  Communities like Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illiniois; demonstration farms like Somerton Tanks in Philadelphia; and urban food production and distribution like that coordinated by 47th Ave Farm in Portland: entire cities are focusing their development upon human and environmental health, and thus farms, CSAs, gardening education programs, and foods produced by their residents.  The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007.  Centers of research like Public Health Law and Policy are publishing guides like How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans that include “Nutrition” elements, outlining the need to assess “Access to Healthy Foods,” “Number of Fast Food Restaurants and Offsite Liquor Retailers,” “Local Agricultural Resources,” and “Food Distribution” (as related to local produce).  The planning policy goals include “Providing safe, convenient access to healthy foods for all residents,” by identifying sites for farmers’ markets, linking efforts to preserve local farmland with the development of diverse markets for local produce, and encouraging farmers’ markets to accept credit and food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. 

This sort of planning is just one field into which the “local food thing” has been incorporated.  It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t just excitement, or hype, or marketing, for a trend that will fade out in a few years.  It is realistic, practical preparation for the future we recognize is not just not our children’s, but our own.

 The permanence of the movement to support local systems – and it will always be a movement, it will never stop moving – is apparent too in the variety of forms in 

which it has taken root.  College kids often consider eating locally grown and organic foods as a socially responsible diet, something they’ve learned through reading Michael Pollan’s book.  But our grandparents are reminded of the age of Victory Gardens during WWI, when the gardening of 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally.  Many families in the South already have gardens and mini farms incorporated into their housing lots and city neighborhoods, and consider growing their own food an element of their heritage, part of a tradition of cultivation.  Many Native American communities have worked for decades to preserve their culinary traditions through growing food for themselves.  And immigrant communities across the nation attempt to preserve the home-country flavors of their cooking by growing the foods that they know mustn’t be genetically-modified or processed or shipped overseas. 

All of that is in the  US.  And whether we are growing our own food or supporting our  regional small farmers, ours are all merely preliminary steps towards the sort of food sovereignty movements underway in South America, Central America, Africa, and India.  The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has supporters worldwide, much like Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement stretching across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  The Fairtrade Certified cooperatives in the Americas and Africa present only a sampling of the small farmers who have come together to ensure just compensation for their work.  In 2007, in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali, the Forum for Food Sovereignty brought together nearly 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers and environmental and urban movements.  All these came together to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty.

So, yes: there are people my age (and older) who are considering regional food systems as a field in which to work, and who regard eating locally to be slightly more than a diet fad.  We are no longer – we never were, really – just idealist students, determined activists, gardeners waiting to be forced off vacant land, and small farmers soon to go out of business.  We have a future to look forward to.  And we have developed a movement that will not go static.  The strength of our local webs will recede no longer, but will grow, till little webs string ‘round the world.

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The Wrong Research

At this point it’s widely acknowledged that biofuels made with corn and soybeans are not the solution to our addiction to oil.  Farmers clear huge tracts of land to grow monocrops destined for biofuel production where once natural ecosystems thrived, or where they had grown food for their families.  Multinational biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta provide these farmers with genetically engineered crops (GMOs) that irreversibly destroy agricultural biodiversity.  The machinery and chemicals used to grow these crops have their own destructive effect upon the environment, and the production of the fuel itself produces carbon emissions.

 

bp.jpgLast year, UC Berkeley accepted an offer of $500 million in research funds from British Petroleum, “to develop new sources of energy, primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops.”  For ten years, this money will support the new Energy Biosciences Institute, a joint operation between UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and BP.  The major alternative fuel to be studied is corn-based ethanol. 

 

The Student Organic Garden where I will be working this Spring sits on a little plot by campus, adjacent to an entire block of land used for testing and experimentation by the Center for Analytical Biotechnology.  We gardeners are grateful to be at the top of the hill, so any runoff produced from the Center will flow away from our food.  But it feels like we’re the pea under the corporate princess’ pillows.  I won’t be at all surprised if our organic operation is threatened soon, by the powers of more “profitable” research.

We haven’t found the solution to our energy needs, and currently, clearly, extensive time and money are being devoted to the wrong research.  I write now not with an answer, but at least with the hope that other universities in this country will see UCB’s partnership with BP as a drastic mistake.  We must ask the brilliant minds of our country to turn their attention towards productive projects. 

This isn’t just an issue of a university acting like a corporation, or organic kids complaining about toxic materials.  It’s about the vast potential of academic research to result in creative solutions to climate change.  We mustn’t waste it!  We haven’t got the time.

 

Check out:

Professor Miguel Altieri: “UC’s Biotech Benefactors”

New York Times: Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

 

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