Sunday, April 27, 2008

Big Food Crisis Links Roundup

The past couple of months, we are suddenly hearing a great deal of panic over rising worldwide food prices and the spectre of global scarcity. Here is a collection of worthwhile reading material on the subject, from a variety of angles.

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March 6:

Jon Markman at MSN Money explains why "it's a good time to invest in agricultural stocks."

Most unusual about this phenomenon, according to BMO Financial Group strategist Don Coxe, is that until now, food crises in world history were regional concerns that arose from crop failures, war or pests. Once global trade of grains got going in the 19th century in a major way, food shortages in one country were ameliorated by imports, he said. What's happening now is a lack of supply everywhere at once.

Markman blames urbanization, income growth leading to increased meat consumption, and increased ethanol production... and recommends buying stock in Monsanto.

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March 11:

The BBC covers rising food prices in Egypt.

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March 14:

Rising wheat prices and their effect on one Kansas bakery, via The Ethicurean.

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March 19:

Tom Philpott at Grist warns of a potential fungal disaster: wheat stem rust.

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March 20:

Blog Food and Fuel America points out that, while input costs are increasing for the big food-processing corporations such as General Mills, somehow their profits are managing to rise significantly. How can this be? (I’ve read in several places that Cargill’s profits are up by more than 80% also.)

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The AP's Katherine Corcoran, covering rising world food prices, assures us:

In the long term, prices are expected to stabilize. Farmers will grow more grain for both fuel and food and eventually bring prices down. Already this is happening with wheat, with more crops to be planted in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the coming year.

Of course, this supply-will-adjust-to-demand argument assumes an infinite wealth of available land. For now, she does not deny the situation is dire.

Food costs worldwide spiked 23 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the FAO. Grains went up 42 percent, oils 50 percent and dairy 80 percent.

Economists say that for the short term, government bailouts will have to be part of the answer to keep unrest at a minimum. In recent weeks, rising food prices sparked riots in the West African nations of Burkina Faso, where mobs torched buildings, and Cameroon, where at least four people died.

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March 21:

Tom Philpott takes on the financial and food crises together and gets seriously sensible:

The first thing I'd do is end the government's absurd, expensive, and myriad biofuel subsidies, which are jacking up food prices while providing little if any environmental benefit. According to one reckoning, the federal government has committed $92 billion between 2006 and 2012 to prop up biofuel production. Attracted by this government-guaranteed market, the very same investment banks and hedge funds that brought us the mortgage debacle are now buying and selling corn and soy futures, snatching profits while consumers gape at the price of grocery staples.

Pulling the plug would cause grain and soy prices to drop, bringing down food prices but hurting farmers. To limit the latter effect, the government could step in and buy excess grain and hold it, replenishing stocks that have fallen to all-time lows. That would keep farmers in business while also improving food security.

With the massive savings that would result, the government should invest in local and regional food-production infrastructure, which has been systematically dismantled by agribusiness over the past half-century. Such a program would not only provide consumers with a ready alternative to industrial food, but would also re-establish food as an engine for building wealth within communities -- and lessen its ecological footprint.

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April 9:

David Streitfeld at the NYT reports that high grain prices are motivating farmers to pull millions of acres of land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave uncultivated habitat for birds and other wildlife.

“We’re in a crisis here. Do we want to eat, or do we want to worry about the birds?” asked JR Paterakis, a Baltimore baker who said he was so distressed at a meeting last month with Edward T. Schafer, the agriculture secretary, that he stood up and started speaking “vehemently.”
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The Guardian covers potential risks to global stability posed by soaring food prices.

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April 16:

John Vidal of The Guardian writes an excellent short piece summarizing the new International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [IAASTD] report and its relevance for the current food crisis.

Sixty countries backed by the World Bank and most UN bodies yesterday called for radical changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems.

But in a move that has led to the US, UK, Australia and Canada not yet endorsing the report, the authors said GM technology was not a quick fix to feed the world's poor and argued that growing biofuel crops for automobiles threatened to increase worldwide malnutrition.

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April 18:

Gretchen Gordon at Food First points the finger at deregulation for the food system crisis. Another terrific piece.

The impact of all this deregulation was to replace local market access for the majority of small producers with global market access for a few global producers. Thanks to non-existent anti-trust enforcement and rampant vertical integration, we’ve reached a level of concentration in our global agriculture system that would make Standard Oil blush. Three companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge—control the vast majority of global grain trading, while Monsanto controls more than one-fifth of the global market in seeds. Consumers from Sioux City to Soweto are more and more dependent on fewer and fewer producers. By eliminating the breadth and diversity of the system, we’ve eliminated its ability to withstand shock or manipulation.

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April 21:

From the NYT business section… biotech takes advantage of growing desperation.

In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that “all resistance” to [GE] crops “be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production.”

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Take-home message? Industrial agriculture and the unregulated free market, dominated by a few big food corporations, have created the dire emergency that some of us have long anticipated. There's an opportunity here: the public, even in relatively wealthy countries, is suddenly paying attention to the food system, and may be open to new ideas and structures. But there's also a very great danger that the big players will convince a fearful populace that they must place their trust in the hands of "the experts" or face famine, and use the crisis merely to ramp up their own profits and wreak more destruction. Let us come down firmly and loudly in favor of opportunity.


[Update]:

April 27:

Grasshopper Planet by Devilstower at Daily Kos.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Crisis in Organic Dairy Prices

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) issued a substantial press release in March, complaining that milk prices paid by big companies such as Stonyfield Farm are too low to support organic dairy farmers at current fuel and feed costs.
“There is a very serious situation going on right now and some of our very best farmers are looking at bankruptcy,” says Darlene Coehoorn, Wisconsin farmer, Organic Valley member-owner and President of the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (MODPA), “and we need Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm, HP Hood, and Horizon Organic to recognize that our families are suffering. While the major brands are signing on new farmers with bonuses and incentives, they need to take care of their farmer-owners and farm partners by paying us a price for our milk that allows us to support our families and pay our farm bills.”
Shortly thereafter, Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield published a reply at Grist, basically arguing that market pressures currently prevent Stonyfield from raising the cost of its products enough to pay farmers more profitably, and that the company has been extremely supportive of organic dairy in general. Ed Maltby of NODPA responded once again. Grist's Tom Philpott summed up his own thoughts on the matter here.

If you'd like to hear more, Boston's WBZ radio interviewed both Maltby and Hirschberg on April 22. Listen via the NODPA site.

Quick Links, 4/26/08

Mmmm... test tube meat. I really can't think of much less respectful of animal life than growing lumps of senseless flesh in a laboratory for consumption. PETA needs to take a good hard think here.

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The Farm Bill is extended for another week, until May 2.

The package currently still includes Sen. Baucus' disaster relief program as well as significant boosts to nutrition programs. Funding offsets include raising Customs user fees and lowering a tax credit for ethanol processors. FarmPolicy.com has much, much more.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Once Again... the Farm Bill

Still the Farm Bill limps along, one short extension at a time, while lawmakers try desperately in conference to hammer out something which will satisfy the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, House leadership, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the obstructionist White House. Among other people.

House conferees are here.
Senate conferees here.

The latest 1-week extension has been signed with a great show of reluctance by President Bush, giving the Conference Committee until next Friday, April 25, to come up with a workable bill. (If that successfully comes to fruition, an additional 2-week or so extension will be arranged in order to get the bill passed through the House and the Senate and-- hopefully-- signed by the President.)

If funding for the Farm Bill were unlimited, few sticking points would remain, but pay-as-you-go rules demand a bill whose funding sources are carefully delineated. This means there are two major areas of conflict: 1) with a limited budget, the powerful players are struggling over whose pet program(s) will see short shrift, and 2) even when the congressional players are in agreement about finding additional funding for a program, the Bush White House usually takes issue with the proposed offsets and threatens a veto of the entire bill.

I don’t use the word “obstructionist” lightly: rather than standing on some particular principle, the White House seems determined to keep throwing wrenches in the works of the Farm Bill.

Negotiations are in disarray as lawmakers from the House and Senate are squabbling over how to pay for the legislation. House and Senate negotiators have suggested a number of different ways to come up with an extra $10 billion needed for the bill, including some ideas the White House has backed previously. But administration officials have rejected most of their ideas, saying they would rather use the money for other priorities.

As for the programs at issue in the Conference Committee, controversy is focusing on a priority of my own Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee as well as sitting on the Agriculture Committee, has had tremendous power in negotiations so far. Sen. Baucus insists on the inclusion of a $4-billion disaster relief program for farmers (in Montana, for instance, “disaster” might come in the form of drought), a price tag at which the House has balked. (The Environmental Working Group points out that “[b]ased on their historical share of ad hoc disaster spending, of the twenty states represented on the Senate Finance Committee, just four stand to gain over half (55 percent) of the committee’s allocation of disaster aid expenditures under a permanent fund: North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa and Montana.”) The House is also reluctant to come up with offsets for the Senate-proposed $2.5-billion bundle of agriculture-related tax cuts championed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). (Speaker Pelosi, in particular, feels strongly that – even should an additional $2.5 billion be located—such funds would be better used for beefing up nutrition and food stamp programs.)

AP:

At a farm bill meeting in Rangel's office Thursday, shouting could be heard behind closed doors. Several senators, including Baucus, left angrily.

"Let's just say it wasn't good," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said afterward.

Reuters cites Tom Harkin on the set of possible outcomes:

If there is no breakthrough, said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, he will order votes on Tuesday to settle the matter. Harkin is in charge of the talks.

"We'll see if people really want to bring the farm bill down to have a tax package," said Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "At some point, it has to end."

By the end of next week, Harkin told reporters, the farm bill will be wrapped up or there will be a decision to either extend the 2002 farm law or to let the farm program revert to 1949 law, with land controls and high grain subsidy rates.

As an aside, the entire amount of the disputed funding—disaster relief plus tax cuts-- is worth about the cost of a week and a half in Iraq.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some Old Business

I keep thinking someday I'll be more than an intermittent blogger, but will life ever stop kicking my ass on a more-or-less regular basis? Not likely. Anyhow, the loads of things I'd wanted to write about are piling up in the meanwhile, and a thoughtful piece on each and every one is just not going to happen. So I'll start throwing out some important links that have come my way in March, in acceptance of the fact that they're already beginning to moulder.

Oh, and I have every intention of a full blog design update, but when on earth is that going to happen?

Here are the first couple of stories, and then I must rush off again.

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From the March 1 NYT, Free Lunch Isn't Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry:

Lunchtime “is the best time to impress your peers,” said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a subsidized meal, he said, “lowers your status.”

San Francisco school officials are looking at ways to encourage more poor students to accept government-financed meals, including the possibility of introducing cashless cafeterias where all students are offered the same food choices and use debit cards or punch in codes on a keypad so that all students check out at the cashier in the same manner.

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Also from March 1 NYT... My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables):

Farmer Jack Hedin explains some of the bureaucratic barriers to converting commodity cropland to fruit and vegetable production.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

[...]

The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not even the rain has such small hands

Those of us with school-aged children probably respond especially strongly to stories about child laborers around the world, children much like ours but without the protections of law or economic security against exploitation, abuse, and exhaustion. My six-year-old daughter has terrific manual dexterity and loves sewing and crafts. Right now she fits these pursuits into her limited free time between school and activities, comfortable regular meals and bedtimes. Under other circumstances, she might be putting in 16-hour days making beaded clothing for a pittance. It’s an unbearable thought.

The March 10 Forbes has an extensive article on child labor, mostly in agriculture, and in particular detailing the problems of the GE cottonseed industry, undertaken by Indian farmers contracted to companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. According to the article, there are between 12 and 50 million children under the age of 14 working in India.

Cottonseed farmer Talari Babu is a slim, wiry man dressed, when a reporter visited him, in black for a Hindu fast. "Children have small fingers, and so they can remove the buds very quickly," he says, while insisting that he no longer employs the underage. "They worked fast, much faster than the adults, and put in longer hours and didn't demand long breaks. Plus, I could shout at them and beat or threaten them if need be to get more work out of them." He could also tempt them with candy and cookies and movies at night. Babu says that pressure from Monsanto and the MV Foundation, an NGO in Andhra Pradesh backed by the Dutch nonprofit Hivos, forced him to quit using child labor.

But many farmers still use children for this delicate and dangerous work.

The pollination work lasts for 70 to 100 days and is followed by cotton-picking staggered over several months. Children's hands are ideal for the delicate work with stamens and pistils. Their bodies are no better at withstanding the poisons. At least once a week, says Davuluri Venkateshwarlu, head of Glocal, farmers spray the fields with pesticides like Nuvacron, banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and endosulfan, methomyl and Metasystox, considered by the EPA to be highly toxic. Venkateshwarlu ticks off the effects of overexposure: diarrhea, nausea, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, headaches and depression.

In other parts of India, children are producing GM tomato, eggplant, okra and chili seeds for the American market, again under heavy pesticide regimens, and earning 5 to 10 cents per hour. Other young kids are doing dangerous stone work in quarries, turning out decorative stones and cobbles for American yards and gardens. The garment industry, of course, is a familiar offender, as well as producers of handmade carpets and decorative items. Here’s one group of very young boys who live together in a tiny Delhi room room making sparkly picture frames with sequins and bits of glass:

In one such room, where the only piece of furniture is a low workbench, 10-year-old Akbar sits on the floor and mixes two powders into a doughy adhesive, his fingers blackened by the chemicals. Another boy spreads a thin layer of the mixture on a photo frame and a third, seated on his haunches, starts pasting tiny pieces of mirrors and sequins along the border. He sways back and forth, a habit most kids have developed to keep the blood flowing through their limbs as they sit for several hours. Decorating one 5-by-5-inch frame consumes six child-hours. The boys, who all live in the room and cook their own food here, typically work from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. for $76 a month. Many have teeth stained from cigarettes they smoke and tobacco they chew to relieve the tedium.

The whole article is worth reading.

While India has passed some limited child labor laws, they are only loosely enforced. Likewise, the many familiar corporations mentioned in the article—not only Monsanto and Syngenta, and Bayer, but the Gap, Lowe’s, Target, Ikea, Bloomingdale’s, and other importers of goods-- have policies against buying from contractors who exploit child labor. Clearly, having a policy on the books does not constitute sufficient oversight.

In the seed industry in particular, it is important to remember that a plant grown in the U.S. may still spring from seed harvested across the world by very young laborers, on behalf of companies who reap giant profits from the transaction.

One of many reasons to know where your food comes from.

Monday, March 10, 2008

At Large



I figured it was time to educate myself on the state of the MT-AL House race, a seat held for the past 4 terms by mediocre Republican Denny Rehberg, whose most recent legislative accomplishment according to the Library of Congress was introducing a resolution to recognize the 125th birthday of Billings. It was referred to committee nearly a year ago.

More about Rehberg as a Very Serious Person, in a Daily Kos diary I’d previously missed, here. What an ass.

Montana, besides having a popular Democratic governor, is also (since the election of Jon Tester in 2006) represented by two Democratic U.S. senators. Sen. Max Baucus (often mentioned here, due to his degree of influence in agricultural policy) should coast to an easy reelection. The time is right to focus on targeting Rehberg this November.

As of February 12, we have a declared Democratic opponent for Rehberg: consumer and personal injury attorney Jim Hunt of Helena.

Hunt is a fourth-generation Montanan and retired lieutenant colonel in the Montana National Guard. The Missoula Independent explained why he’s likely immune to some traditional stereotypes that work against Democrats:

Born on the Hi-line in Chester, Hunt doesn’t need to do any phony acting to come across as a genuine Montanan. He’s a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, an avid sportsman, a true conservationist, and a Chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Taken together, that background deflects about 90 percent of what Republicans have traditionally shot at their Democrat challengers. No, Hunt isn’t going to take your guns away, and yes, he does know how to use them—and he won’t be posing like John Kerry if he shows up in goose-hunting gear. Moreover, he realizes the value of maintaining a clean and healthy environment—just like our state promises—and not just for hunting and fishing, but for all the myriad reasons the drafters found it necessary to include such a groundbreaking provision in our 1972 Montana Constitution.

A little on his law practice:

We represent clients all types of personal injury, wrongful death, and related accident cases including Auto and Truck Accidents, Medical Malpractice, Brain Injuries, Slip & Fall Accidents, Construction Site Accidents, Work-Related Accidents, Semi-Truck Accidents, Dog Bites & Animal Attacks, Dangerous & Defective Products, Motorcycle Accidents, Premises Liability, Nursing Home Negligence & Elder Abuse. We do not represent businesses, corporations or insurance companies in Montana. We represent real people with real physical, emotional and financial problems caused by an injury or death.

Spokesmen for Rehberg distance him from the damaged Republican party, saying that he “votes for Montana's interests, regardless of whether a proposal is supported by the president, Republicans or Democrats.” However, in the 110th Congress, Rehberg voted with his party 92% of the time, putting him well above average for party loyalty among Republicans, and GovTrack.us characterizes him as a “rank-and-file Republican.” Hunt could get some real traction with civil liberties issues: Montanans have a strongly libertarian streak, and Rehberg’s alignment with Bush administration surveillance priorities could hurt him. From yesterday’s Great Falls Tribune:

Hunt also criticized Rehberg's support of a bill that would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that aided the Bush administration in spying on Americans with warrantless wire taps.

"He and I dramatically split on that," Hunt said. "Montanans don't want people tapping into their phone records, getting into their medical records, getting into their gun records. Montanans are private people."

Hunt is also critical of Rehberg’s support of the Administration on Iraq.

"Rehberg has voted with Bush ... right down the line on the war to the point where he said, 'it's not my job to second-guess the president on the Iraq War,'" Hunt said. "It is absolutely the job of Congress to second guess the executive branch on those types of issues. He's dead wrong on that approach."

Jim Hunt’s issues page.

You can contribute here.