Sunday, August 07, 2005

Roundup, ready

"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Bush, cotton, and free trade
GW Bush claims to view free trade as a sort of all-healing panacea--similar to the way he has talked about accepting Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior. Here is what the president declared last week on signing Cafta, or the Central American Free Trade Agreement:

By leveling the playing field for our products, CAFTA will help create jobs and opportunities for our citizens. As CAFTA helps create jobs and opportunity in the United States, it will help the democracies of Central America and the Dominican Republic deliver a better life for their citizens. By further opening up their markets, CAFTA will help those democracies attract the trade and investment needed for economic growth.

My purpose now is not to debunk those faith-based banalities--I partially did so a while back here--but rather to establish that this is a president with a strong rhetorical commitment to what he calls free trade. What follows will show that this commitment is purely rhetorical--it evaporates when the dictates of free trade conflict with big-money U.S. industrial interests.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an astonishing piece about US cotton farmers' efforts to win favor with their counterparts in Africa, who for years have been undercut by US agriculture subsidies.

Between 1995 and 2003, US cotton farmers received more than $14 billion in federal handouts. Last year alone, the Journal reports, the government doled out $4.5 billion in cotton subsidies.

That means that US cotton farmers can afford to sell their wares on global markets at a fraction of the cost of production. African farmers, who produce cotton much more cheaply, are therby squeezed out of world markets and into misery. It's important to note here that global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization have for years prodded African farmers to produce for the global commodity markets--it helps their governments earn foriegn exchange to pay back debts run up by national elites.

As it stands now, the Journal reports, US cotton farmers, whose production costs are among the world's highest, export three-quarters of their produce and own 40 percent of the global market.

Clearly, here is a situation that violates the tenets of free trade. Forced to compete without government support, the US cotton industry would likely collapse--what the free traders hail as "creative destruction." To a zealous free trader, the situation described above is tantamount to thundering the Lord's name in vain during Sunday service (or, to allude to recent news item, flushing a Bible down the toilet).

So how does our White house-enthroned Adam Smith acolyte react to these desecrations being committed by his government at the service of big cotton farmers?

Rather than kick them off the dole like a bunch of welfare mothers, he's sending USDA flacks out to Africa, accompanied by worthies from the National Cotton Council, to sweet-talk African farmers into not challenging US subsidies at the World Trade Organization.

The Journal article opens:
WEREKELA, Mali -- Drummers and dancers greeted Jim Butler when he arrived at this settlement of dirt roads and mud houses in January. The deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with local cotton farmers and promised American help to boost productivity. He presented the village headman with a pewter paperweight embossed with a USDA seal. The headman, who has neither a desk nor paper, hid it for safekeeping.

The trip was part of an extraordinary effort to lend a hand to African cotton farmers. But the prime motivation wasn't altruistic. West African nations, newly assertive in global trade negotiations, are agitating for the abolition of subsidies essential to the prosperity of many American farmers. By offering tips on improving mills, analyzing dirt and chasing away bugs, the U.S. cotton industry is hoping to win some regional goodwill and maintain its domestic privileges a little while longer.[Emphasis not in original]

I find it remarkable that neither the Journal reporters nor their editors saw anything odd about the conflation of the USDA and the US cotton industry. Sure, the USDA exists to promote the interests of domestic farmers. But it has clearly gone to extreme lengths to promote a single kind of farming--the vast-scale sort that's more interested in conquering foreign markets than feeding and clothing people.

Not surprisingly, the USDA/cotton industry's African charm offensive has largely fallen flat among the continent's cotton farmers. Here is the Journal again:

Several months after Messrs. [Cotton Council official John] Pucheu and [USDA official] Butler visited Werekela, the villagers' enthusiasm had dissipated. "If we all go to the market together, the Americans have no problem with the low price, because they get subsidized support," says Mr. Traore, who is missing his front teeth. "But for us, cotton sales are all we have."
He's sitting under a big shade tree with five other farmers escaping the afternoon heat. Chickens scratch in the dirt at their feet. "The Americans," he says, "promised they would help us develop. But they never mentioned subsidies."
Adds fellow farmer, Niantili Fomba: "The only thing we've gotten since is lower prices [for their cotton]."


The joys of industrial dairy
It's a little-known fact that California recently passed Wisconsin as the nation's most prodigious dairy-producing state.

California's San Joaquin Valley alone boasts 2.5 million dairy cows--about a fifth of the nation's total herd. It also ranks right up there with Los Angeles and Houston among the areas with the country's most polluted air.

Coincidence? As this LA Times article shows, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District says no. After a recent study, the agency concluded that "the average dairy cow produces 19.3 pounds of gases, called volatile organic compounds ... [these] gases react with other pollutants to form ground-level ozone, or smog." Multiplying 19.3 by 2.5 million gets us about 50 million pounds of cow gas wafting into the Valley's atmosphere each year.

"The dairy industry will be forced to invest millions of dollars in expensive pollution-control technology in feedlots and waste lagoons, and may even have to consider altering animals' diets to meet the region's planned air-quality regulations," the paper reports.

Aha! Here is an attempt to charge the dairy industry for what are known as "externalities"--costs that are normally pushed off the ledger of industrial farming and onto that of society as a whole. (Right now, citizens of the Valley are bearing some of those burdens in the form of an extremely high asthma rate, the Times reports.) If industrial farming had to pay for the messes it creates, I think we'd see a huge push toward valuing small-scale, sustainable-minded farming.

In the Land of Arnold, however, the industry stands an excellent chance of rebuffing this bold attempt to hold it responsible for its reaking, hazardous mess.

Cheap labor, cheap food, Part I: A farm labor crisis?
Bitter Greens Journal has long argued that US society relies on a cheap, plentiful supply of labor from points south to maintain its beloved cheap-food system.

No good nativist should enjoy a $5 lunch from McDonald's without reflecting on the contribution illegal immigrants make to delivering such a hefty dose of calories for so scant a price.

Are these patriots on the verge of delivering a decisive blow to the American way of eating? Are their efforts to "secure our borders" going to spark a rise in food prices?

It's way too early to tell. But as this well-researched, nuanced article from the Fresno (California) Bee shows, trouble is brewing in Big Ag's trenches. Once again, San Joaquin Valley, that (evidently quite aromatic) epicenter of vast-scale West Coast farming, displays industrial agriculture's logical extremes.

Here is the Bee:

The supply of farmworkers is shrinking in the San Joaquin Valley, and some farmers are concerned it will take longer for workers to finish picking crops this summer.

They also worry the labor shortage will intensify in the coming years.

Farmworker crews are typically made up of 20 to 25 people. But on some farms this year, there are as few as 13 workers per crew, says Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League.

The article cites the California Institute For Rural Studies for this startling fact: "More than 400,000 farmworkers toil in San Joaquin Valley fields, and more than 40% of them are illegal immigrants."

Yet the number of illegal immigrants streaming into the Valley has decreased for five years running, as it has in the nation as a whole. The article states that annual illegal immigration into the US peaked at about 750,000 people in the late 1990s and now stands at about 700,000. (This reflects the number of people who sneak in each year, not the total number living in the US).

The reason: "Fewer migrant workers are crossing the border illegally because of more border patrol agents, human smugglers raising their prices and the Minuteman Project that put civilian patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border, workers and federal officials say."

And the ones who do make it in are increasingly spurning agriculture in favor of higher-paid fields like construction and landscaping, the article states.

Farmers tell the Bee that they've been able to harvest their crops despite the labor shortage. Long-term, however, they fear they'll have to pay more to attract more workers.

That could spark a crisis. As grocery retailing consolidates--and Wal-Mart gobbles up more market share in the industry--the number of large-scale buyers falls. That gives buyers like Wal-Mart tremendous leverage to demand low prices from farmers. Thus farmers in place like the Joaquin Valley will find themselves squeezed between rising labor costs and stagnant prices for their goods.

One possible scenario is that the Wal-Marts of the world will simply buy more and more produce from countries like Mexico and Chile. That will mean farm closings on in the Joaquin Valley.

Another, more likely scenario is that the US government will ease up on patrolling the border. That has been its traditional response to labor shortages within industrial agriculture.

Cheap labor, cheap food, Part II: Bitter chocolate
Have Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Nestle been knowingly buying cocoa beans from farms that utilize slave labor?

That's what a lawsuit filed by three people from Mali claims, according to this AP article.

The lawsuit charges that:

[T]he plaintiffs were each forced from their homes in Mali in 1996 while still in their teens to toil without pay at cocoa bean plantations in the neighboring nation of Ivory Coast.

The plaintiffs, who worked in separate plantations, claim they worked 12 hours a day or more, were barely fed and were subject to beatings if they didn't work properly or attempted to escape.

All the while, the deep-pocketed transnationals knew of these conditions in the cocoa fields and looked the other way, the suit claims.

"It is unconscionable that Nestle, ADM and Cargill have ignored repeated and well-documented warnings over the past several years that the farms they were using to grow cocoa employed child slave laborers," said a lawyer for the plaintiffs told AP. "They could have put a stop to it years ago, but chose to look the other way. We had to go to court as a last resort."


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8/08/2005 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great feature. Of course I'm angry and on fire right now!

8/12/2005 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Kievsky said...

This is why when it was time to settle down and get a house, I insisted on a multi-acre or nothing. I am doing my own small scale farming -- another gnat trying to eat the elephant, another hippie tilting at the windmill of agribusiness. But hey, what can one do?


8/17/2005 07:57:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

Tom, I'm a free-marketeer who is angry with Bush for violating this ideal on such matters as govt money to subsidize big ag (or even any ag). The biggest problem isn't that Bush violates this ideal, but that the other viable party (the Dems) do also. This leaves us free marketeers to choose the republicans as merely our best of the viable options.

Both parties also unify in trying to keep me from purchasing un-pasturized dairy and juices.

They also link arms in that wretched "anti-drug" war, which must surely have dreadful consequences for sensible agriculture. Have you explored this topic, yet? Consumers who which to purchase maryjuana, cociane, heroin, etc., get products that are even more adulterated than your average national brand salsa. And what of the impact on the lands sprayed to kill these crops? And the people who could be profitably and happily growing these crops, were the "Free Market" permitted to assert itself legally?

8/30/2005 12:34:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

The best way I believe for wealthy nations, like the US, to "help" poor nations is to freely open markets. This would mean eliminating US govt subsidies to domistic ag. I have come to believe that sending cash or loans to poor nations results in a waste to both the giver and the reciever.

For example, when India essentially had a socialist economy, they experianced the expected drastic poverty, which resulted in both zillions of western handout dollars, and no reduction in poverty. But now that capitalism is ascending there, India is becoming wealthy enough to waste its own tax dollars by sending handouts to African nations still beset by retarded economic policies.

Therefore I believe that those of us calling for truly free international trade should include not only free marketeers, but also those who now call for sending handouts to poor countries. I reckon that these kind-hearted souls are calling for the wrong thing. I suggest that they take up the Adam Smith cause that Bush II (and Bush I and Clinton) is violating.

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