Thursday, February 24, 2005

Food as commodity

In business terms, a commodity is a useful item, produced in bulk, with no characteristics that distinguish it from others of its kind. What brand of DVD player do you own? Few people know. DVD players have become a commodity; they're all pretty much the same.

In commodity markets, prices tend to drop over time. Personal computers, for example, have steadily fallen in price over the past 15 years. Remember when "IBM or McIntosh?" meant something? Now it's "PC or McIntosh," and PC controls upwards of 90 percent of the market. In commodities markets, the producer that can churn out the most product at the cheapest price wins. Dell clawed its way to the top of the PC market by streamlining production and squeezing its suppliers for price breaks as it gained heft. Producing a great, innovative product had nothing to do with it.

It's counterintuitive to me that we would surrender something as sensual and poetic as food production to the brutal economics of commodity markets. Food a commodity? Nonsense! Well, it is, and the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has recently issued its biennial "State of Agricultural Commodity Markets." Time for Bitter Greens Journal, dormant this past week after a good-weather spell spurred a burst of activity on the farm, to snap to attention.

The report brims with interesting information. For example:

• Around 2.5 billion people in the "developing world" depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. (Those quote marks are mine; I've seen little convincing evidence of broad-based development in nations that have surrendered to the rules of IMF-style economic programs.) Note that in the US, something like 2 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture.
• A graph of inflation-adjusted global ag commodity prices between 1961 and 2002 (see page 11 of the report) shows a steady downward trend line, just as we've seen with PCs and DVDs. Ag commodities cost on average of a third less now than they did in 1961, adjusted for inflation. Remember, bigger is better in commodity markets. That's why Nixon's secretary of agriculture, the notorious Earl Butz, could command farmers to "get big or get out."
• The "developed countries"--essentially, the US, the euro zone, and Japan--support their agricultural "producers" (what happened to "farmers"?) to the tune of $230 billion per year. That's 30 times the amount these nations provide in agricultural aid to the "developing countries."
• Three companies (Phillip Morris, Nestle, and Sara Lee) control about half of the world's coffee roasting; the price of raw coffee plunged 70 percent between 1997 and 2001, "threatening the livelihoods of 25 million people and triggering food emergencies in several countries in Africa and Central America." The report doesn't make this point, so I'll add it: While the price of raw coffee was plunging to the despair of coffee farmers, the price consumers were paying at the grocery store for their Folgers held steady with inflation. That spelled a windfall for Phillip Morris, Nestle, and Sara Lee.
• “During the 1990s, countries that depend on cotton exports for more than 20 percent of their trade revenues increased the volume of exports by over 40 percent. But their revenues fell by 4 percent following a steep drop in cotton prices.” These countries are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The study doesn’t note this, but that same time frame coincides with a surge in profits for mass-produced clothes companies like Gap Inc.
• The report concedes that the steady fall in commodity prices is "structural, reflecting the basic forces of supply and demand that drive markets: global supplies have grown more rapidly than demand, fuelled by increased productivity and the emergence of major new producers." (That's one reason I've written so much about Brazil, which is busily, and with World Bank financing, ripping into its vast savanna and rainforest areas to clear land for soy production. Who wins that game? Not Brazil's farmers, who can be sure the price of soybeans will fall over time. Rather food processors, fertilizer/insecticide producers, and purveyors of genetically modified seeds will cash in.)
• Even as the IMF and the World Bank (and the FAO, for that matter) have promoted commodity agriculture production as a way for "developing" countries to earn foreign exchange to pay back debt (typically to developed-country banks and entities like the IMF), what the FAO calls the "terms of trade" for those countries' ag products have deteriorated. "Terms of trade" refers to the purchasing power derived from exports. Say country A sells chewing gum and country B sells SUVs. Country A will have to sell country B a lot of chewing gum if it wants to buy an SUV. Thus it has horrible terms of trade. Meanwhile, country B has wonderful terms of trade with respect to country A. Now, as ag commodity prices drop, the income developing countries derive from producing ag commodities drops. Meanwhile, the price of manufactured goods they need to buy to stay competitive with developed-country farmers--think John Deere combines--has kept up with inflation. According to the report, the value of the manufactured goods that developing countries can buy with their ag-commodity income has halved since 1961.

I could write about this report all day. The overall thrust is that submitting to commodity markets has been disastrous for developing countries. The only thing it's developed, judging from this report, is the profits of the transnational food giants. (It does make the claim that swelling urban populations have benefited from lower food prices; it forgets to add that failed ag policies have driven millions off the land.)

Yet even after teasing out all of this scandalous information, the FAO can only search for ways of "making commodity markets work for everyone." It suggests that developing countries remove tarrifs on goods from developed countries (which would be ridiculous) and also their developing-country peers (which makes sense). It urges developing countries to cut back subsidies to corn, cotton and soybean farmers. Fine.

But all of its policy recommendations involve ways of keeping developing-country farmers in the game of producing for global commodities markets.

Bitter Greens Journal believes that agriculture should not be a tool to pay back debt owed by a wealthy elite to a bunch of international banks. Agriculture should be concerned with growing food for people to eat. The UN is serving the corporations, not the world's people, when it urges farmers in Africa and and Latin America to produce, say, massive quantities of soybeans. A UN truly bent on helping create a just world would use its resources to identify and support local foodways. Let farmers produce for their local markets, and let Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill grow their own damned corn and soybeans.

Missing from this 60-odd page report is any discussion of what the food-as-commodity system has done to food. Let's end with a quote from the great Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution (Japan, 1978).

"If you think commercial vegetables are nature's own, you're in for a big surprise. These vegetables are a watery chemical concoction of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash, with a little help from the seed. And that is just how they taste. And commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals, and hormones. This is not a product of nature, but a man-made synthetic in the shape of an egg. The farmer who produces vegetables and eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Bush names food-industry flack as FDA chief

That's hardly a news flash. The only surprise is that Bush didn't place a pharmaceutical-industry PR man at the top of the Food and Drug Administration.

That would have been a bold move, even for Bush, given the FDA's recent record of approving dangerous drugs from the likes of pharma giants Pfizer and Merck. Of course, Bush's move was typically bold in one sense: just as he promoted his national-security adviser after she badly misinterpreted (or misrepresented) the national-security threat posed by Iraq, and he bumped up a Justice department official who disastrously promoted torture as a policy, he's chosen as FDA head a man who has been, according to the Wall Street Journal, "a high-level official at the FDA while its handling of antidepressants and other drugs has come into question."

The great paper is a bit more polite in describing the food-industry ties of the new FDA head, Lester Crawford. "Dr. Crawford, 66 years old, has worked for a food-industry group, but spent most of his career at the FDA and the Agriculture Department, as well as in academe," the paper reports. And that's the last mention of his food-industry ties.

Here's a brief bio, which reports that Crawford has been director of the Virginia Tech Center for Food and Nutrition Policy and executive vice-president of the National Food Processors Association.

A cursory web search exposes the Virginia Tech Center for Food and Nutrition Policy as an industry poodle. Here it is denying that high-fructose corn syrup is a cause of obesity; here it's commiserating with food processors about how mean Europe is for demanding labelling of genetically altered food; and here it's downplaying the well-established health-ruining qualities of partially hydrogenated oil.

The corn-syrup defense is a particularly dear topic to the barons of the industrial food system. All that cheap, subsidized corn has to go somewhere; the food industry, led by Archer Daniels Midland, has successfully kept pressure on Congress to keep sugar tariffs high, thus making high-fructose corn syrup the sweetener of choice for the food-processing industry. Richard Manning, in his book Against the Grain, lays this sordid story out. I'll be returning to this theme in BGJ.

No need to fixate much on the National Food Processors Association. Suffice to say that its board is chaired by a Kraft exec and includes representatives from the likes of Tyson, Archer Daniels Midland, Unilever, and many more.

In fairness to Bush, there's no reason to believe that Kerry would have picked an industry critic to head up the FDA.

The UN is evidently sending a banned genetically altered corn strain to Guatemala in the form of food aid. Let's hope cross-pollination doesn't let this rogue corn ruin ancient strains in the homeland of the Maya.

This WSJ article describes a polemic between the US and Mexican governments over the collapse in the monarch-butterfly population. The Mexican government blames industrial ag, including crops engineered to contain pesticides, in the US midwest; the US blames bad forest management in Mexico.

"Some widely publicized laboratory experiments, Monarch butterfly caterpillars did die after eating milkweed coated with genetically modified corn pollen. In its own studies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there probably is little risk to butterflies," the Journal says. But why wouldn't corn designed to kill bugs, kill bugs?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Roundup, ready

This post marks the debut of "Roundup, ready," a new 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.

Low soy prices feed Smithfield profits
As I wrote last week, soy prices have plunged. Monday, Smithfield Foods, the top U.S. hog producer and pork processor, signaled its fourth quarter 2004 profits had come in much higher than expected.

These two trends are not unrelated; soybeans are the key input in the industrial production of hogs, of which Smithfield produces about 14.5 million annually.

Another reason for the stellar profitability, it must be said, is that Smithfield has such a tight grip on labor costs that it recently inspired a blistering Human Rights Watch report.

The company's Monday press release hailing its 2004 profits was merely a preview; on March 1, it will deliver its full profit report. Bitter Greens Journal will be ready.

Rhymes with dung
Bunge (rhymes with dung, which is what farmers should be using instead of the company's chemical fertilizers) also reported fourth quarter results bolstered by Brazil's soybean explosion.

Bunge is a key player in the global industrial food chain. By its own reckoning, it ranks as the world's largest oilseed processor; the world's largest seller of bottled vegetable oil to consumers and a leading supplier of premium edible oils to the U.S. foodservice industry;
the world's largest corn dry miller; the largest manufacturer and seller of fertilizer and a leading supplier of animal feed in Brazil; the largest exporter of soy products to Asia; and a leading biodiesel producer. It generates in excess of $20 billion in annual revenue and boasts a stock-market value of around $5 billion.

The company reported operating profit for the fourth quarter of 2004 of $181 million, down 4 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. But things would have been worse without Brazil's burgeoning demand for fertilizer, which it needs to as cultivate soybeans on its marginal lands.

While overall operating profit was deteriorating, profit in the company's fertilizer segment bulled ahead 60 percent, from $68 million in the fourth quarter of 2003 to $109 million in fourth-quarter 2004. Fertilizer sales leapt 40 percent, from $593 million to $830 million.

While the company does not break out its results by region, it hinted strongly that Brazil drove its success in fertilizers.

Alberto Weisser, the company's CEO, said in Bunge's quarterly report that he expects worldwide soybean demand to rise 4 percent per year long-term. "“Demand will encourage production, and South America, especially Brazil, will enjoy the
majority of this growth. Brazilian soil needs nutrients so fertilizer sales should increase steadily as well," he said.

He added some interesting info on the supply/demand situation for soy. "This year’s U.S. soy crop is approximately 85 million tons, which represents a 27% increase over last year’s crop. The 2005/2006 Brazilian soy crop is forecast at 64 million tons, a 23% increase over last year, and the Argentine crop is forecast at 39 million tons, a 13% increase over 2004. ... Demand is strong. The USDA projects global soybean meal consumption in 2005 at 140 million tons, an 8% increase over 2004."

If global demand rises 8 percent and the world's dominant producers boost production 20 percent and more, sounds like more low prices for soy farmers, and more good tidings for the processors who buy their goods.

Ag Sec Johanns to address soy, corn farmers
Bitter Greens Journal is slowly getting the lowdown on Mike Johanns, the former Nebraska governor Bush tapped this year as the new agriculture secretary.

Oh, how we'd love to be in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 25 when he addresses the combined convention and trade show of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and the American Soybean Association (ASA), known appropriatley as the Commodity Classic.

These farmers, like their Brazilian counterparts, are the industrial food system's foot soldiers. Using gigantic John Deere combines, genetically altered seeds from Monsanto, and fertilizers from Bunge and insecticides from Syngenta and others, they produce the inputs that are processed into food ingredients by Archer Daniels Midland, for later use in processed foods by food giants like Kraft. These farmers also help supply the main input to the industrial animal-farming sytem, as represented by above-mentioned Smithfield Foods.

Whereas Brazil's soy farmers take a hit when the price of soy plunges, these guys get cash payments from the U.S. government. Now Bush is muttering darkly about severely cutting those time-honored subsidies.

These farmers will raise legitimate questions about where the industrial food system will be if a subsidy reduction causes many of them to fail. I'm afraid the answer is: in Brazil, buying soybeans. How will Johanns spin this one? These guys form the basis of the Republicans' support in the quote-unquote blue states. If they pull back in the 2006 mid-term elections, some GOP Congressmen could be fidning themselves led to slaughter as unceremoniously as one of Smithfield's hogs.

I'll be closely watching media accounts of that speech; would any on my Austin readers like to cover it for me? I would try to arrange press credentials.

AP buzzes bee crisis

I've criticized the Associated Press for playing down the role of insecticides in a budding nationwide agricultural crisis caused by a shortage of bees.

But at least it's covering the crisis. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have not touched it. And here comes the good old AP again, releasing its third story in the last several weeks about how a shortage of bees is seriously threatening fruit and vegetable farming in the U.S.

As for the angle that I think is most interesting--that heavy insecticide use has created a super-resistant mite that's savaging bees--the article has this to say: "Beekeepers once used a plastic strip coated with one of two miticides placed in the hives when the bees are dormant. But the mites became resistant to both."

It adds: "Scientists are working on several possible solutions....One is formic acid, a hazardous material that has proved difficult to apply safely. They are also looking at oxalic acid, which is found in lettuce and is more benign."

Does anyone else care about this story but me and the Associated Press?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Brazil's losing game

It's the devil's bargain of industrial agriculture: A farmer uses debt and high-dollar inputs to jack up production, and then hopes for a bonanza on international commodities markets.

It worked in Brazil, for a time. This NYT article from December, unfortunately only available for a fee, describes the country's meteoric rise as an agricultural export power:

"Brazil's advantages start with the availability of large amounts of cheap land, especially here in this region of well-drained tropical savanna known as the cerrado. Larger than the American grain belt but dismissed as useless for farming until barely a quarter of a century ago, the cerrado cuts across the heart of Brazil, and its vastness permits economies of scale that are the envy of producers elsewhere."

It goes on to say that the farmers there have embraced soybeans as the crop on which to hang their fortunes: "Until recently, for example, soybeans were not thought to flourish in tropical soils and climates. But researchers at Embrapa and similar private or state institutes have developed more than 40 varieties of soy specially adapted for the cerrado. Soybeans now account for nearly half of Brazil's farm exports and are the main crop in this region" (emphasis added).

The agribusiness giants have swooped in, the article goes on:

"The Brazilian bonanza has been eagerly welcomed by the main international agricultural trading companies, which have been quick to seize new opportunities. In this town of 30,000 [Lucas do Rio Verde, in the heart of the cerrado], Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill not only have built huge warehouses and silos along the main highway, but have also provided credit to farmers on a scale far beyond the means of the Brazilian government."

This is interesting. These companies are the middlemen of the international agricultural commodities markets. They buy vast amounts of soybeans, corn, cotton, etc., and sell them to the big processors. Their trading operations make their money off the "spread," or the difference between what the pay for the goods and what they sell them for. They're willing to finance the farmers because more production means lower prices for the goods.

The Times article is generally celebratory--the author is Larry Rohter, longtime NYT Latin American correspondent, notorious in the '80s for his apologia for Reagan's policies in Central America. The article doesn't mention, as this recent Dow Jones article does, that one quarter of Brazil's soybean output comes from genetically modified seeds, nearly all of them Monsanto's Round-Up Ready variety.

And it mentions only in passing the severe drop in soybean prices, caused by that scourge of farmers locked into the industrial system, overproduction.

Leave it to the good old Financial Times to set the record straight. This outstanding article should be read by any farmer who's considering scaling up into the big leagues as a business model.

"Another bumper soya crop is being harvested [in Brazil]," the article states. Nevertheless:

"The collapse of international soyabean prices and a big rise in production costs caught Mato Grosso's highly indebted farmers off guard, plunging many into deep losses after years of big profits." The economics are brutal. It costs Brazil's farmers $10.30 to produce a bag of soybeans, among the lowest in the world. Last year, when strong demand from China pushed the market price to $16 per bag, the farmers thrived. But overproduction has sinced halved the price, meaning that the farmers are selling their goods for $2 per bag less than production costs.

Remember those trading houses mentioned above by the NYT's Rohter? Get this:

"Some farmers complain that consolidation in the agriculture business has made them dependent on a handful of trading houses, which provide financing for seeds and fertiliser, storage and purchase agreements. But last year, when prices started falling, trading companies did not offer purchase contracts, the farmers say. 'They financed us but didn't buy our product - now it's worth half of what it was,' says Rodrigo Stechow, head of the rural association in Campo Verde."

See how it works? If the big trading houses get together and stop buying, then prices tumble, and the farmer is left with interest obligations that perhaps can't be met by the falling cost of his/her goods.

The article states that the farmers are forming cooperatives that would give them more pricing power to stand up to the big trading houses, which is a step in the right direction. But they're playing a losing game.

A Brazilian ag official told the FT that: ""It was easy to make money at $16 a bag [of soybeans] but we may never see that again. Now it is time to prove Brazil can still produce the best and cheapest farm products in the world." Somewhere, a Cargill exec is rubbing his hands together and grinning.

Note to readers:: I try to be as concise as possible in this blog. If I there’s ever an economic concept I don’t sufficiently explain, please let me know, and I’ll take another crack at it. One of the factors that maintains the global political-economic order is the vast obfuscation that surrounds it. I’m here to cut through the obfuscation, not contribute to it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Bush whacks sustainable ag

Evidently, when you blow on $5 billion a month waging war and "nation-building", boost non-war defense spending 5 percent, and slash taxes, you have to cut spending elsewhere.

Election's over; time to start lecturing the special interests about deficits. Reagan tried something like that in the 1980s, although he was lecturing about deficits even before he began his tax-cut and military-spending binge. (He ended up creating huge deficits anyway.) Now Bush II is having his go at transforming the federal government into an essentially pure military machine.

Predictibly, farm spending sustains a heavy blow from Bush's proposed 2005 budget.

The major media have all focused on the plan to cut agriculture subsidies by $5.74 billion (more than a month's mayhem in Iraq) over the next 10 years. I don't much care about that. The subsidy system is geared toward large-scale industrial farming; much of that cash gets recycled into the coffers of agribusiness giants like John Deere, and into banks in the form of interest payments from farmers trying to scale up. And the subsidies give U.S. farmers a price advantage in global commodities markets, wreaking havoc, for example, on domestic Mexican corn production. Also, the IMF, et al, hector farmers in Africa to gear production toward export, even when they can't compete on price with vast-scale U.S. farmers.

But there's no reason not to reform the subsidy system to favor small farmers looking to feed their local areas. Economies of scale, lack of local food-processing infrastructure, consolidation of wholesale buying into a few hands, rising land prices near urban areas, scarcity of markets away from the yuppie havens--all of these conspire to give factory farms an advantage over small farms.

And here's where we get to the real scandal of Bush's budget viz. farming. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has produced a concise list of complaints regarding the proposed budget. Essentially, the president is gutting every small-farm program activists managed to squeeze into the 2002 Farm Bill.

Big-scale farmers and agribusiness interests have powerful allies in Congress, including some Republican senators in the south, who will battle to preserve their flow of D.C. cash. Who will stick up for the small farmers? Democrats?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A well-diversified company

Many readers may already know this, but I had no idea until today: In addition to its thriving biotech-seed business line, Monsanto is the largest--and only!--producer of recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH for short. This Mother Jones article documents a Maine dairy farmer's fight to label his milk rBGH-free.

"We state what we are trying to do, simply and honestly," the farmer, Portland-based Stan Bennett, tells Mother Jones. "It's my right--and obligation--to inform [customers] of the facts."

Not so, according to Monsanto. In a gesture well-known to many vegetable farmers (147, according to the Center for Food Safety), Monsanto is suing Bennet. The charge: "deceptive" and "misleading" advertsing.

One of these days, Bitter Greens Journal is going to tell the story of what a disaster rBGH has been for small dairy farmers since its introduction a decade or so ago. It's led to a glut of milk on the market, pressuring raw milk prices and providing a windfall for large-scale milk processors. And jacked-up production is making cows' milk-production capacities burn out faster than new milk cows can replace them, leading to a cow shortage. I got that critique of growth hormones from an excellent food conference I attended in New York a couple of years ago, in a seminar hosted by master cheese maker Jonathon White of Bobolink Dairy.

Just as biotech crops are being sold as a panecea for vegetable farmers world-wide, rBGH was pitched as the savior of the small dairy farm. Things didn't work out that way.

Amazingly, Monsanto was also among the main companies involved in the creation and marketing of Agent Orange, the herbicide the US military used in the Vietnam War to defoliate jungles, to devesating effect on Vietnamese civilians and U.S. soldiers alike.

Monsanto in Mesopotamia

As part of large-scale privatization scheme, shrewdly enacted before anyone got a chance to vote, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq last spring issued Order 81, which governed "patent, industrial design, undisclosed information, integrated circuits and plant variety law." (Here's a list of links to all the orders--fascinating stuff.)

Appropriately for these times, the edict placed seed germoplasm within the rubric of industrial process, assigning it private ownership to be leveraged perpetually for profit. It was a neat and brazen trick: An occupying army, with the stroke of a pen, institutionalizes its brand of agriculture in one of the birthplaces of agriculture. It was as if Bush and his army had sacked Rome, and handed all the architectural decisions over to Century 21.

The order was, from what I can tell, widely ignored in media. Naomi Klein, in her excellent Harper's article dissecting the privatization scheme, didn't mention it. There has been a lot of loose analysis of order 81 on the Internet, characterized by this this writer, who declared that: "This order prohibits Iraqi farmers from using the methods of agriculture that they have used for centuries. The common worldwide practice of saving heirloom seeds from one year to the next is now illegal in Iraq. Order 81 wages war on Iraqi farmers. They have lost the freedom and liberty to choose their own methods of agriculture."

That's overstated. Here is a careful analysis of Order 81 from Grain, an international NGO that promotes sustainable agriculture. Here is the kernel of the report:

"The CPA has made it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law. Iraqis may continue to use and save from their traditional seed stocks or what’s left of them after the years of war and drought, but that is the not the agenda for reconstruction embedded in the ruling. The purpose of the law is to facilitate the establishment of a new seed market in Iraq, where transnational corporations can sell their seeds – genetically modified or not, which farmers would have to purchase afresh every single cropping season."

So while Order 81 doesn't ban seedsaving per se, it creates a rigorous framework for enforcing the claims of biotech seed companies when they do establish a presence in Iraq. The order awards Monsanto and its ilk a much more generous deal than what's being hammered out, for example, in Argentina, which has generally been heroic over the past couple of years in pursuing its own economic interests over those of the global investment class.

Order 81 gives patent holders a 20-year monopoly over germoplasm; last I checked, Argentina was considering offering only seven years. Degrees of obscenity, to quote J.M. Coetzee.

It will not likely be long before Monsanto is cashing in on this handiwork. According to the Grain piece, a government organization called the US Agency for International Development has been implementing an Agricultural Reconstruction and Development Program for Iraq (ARDI) since October 2003. Think they're encouraging farmers to save heirloom seeds? A little push from ARDI plus a bit of cross-pollination should spell a nice market for Monsanto.

Like all the Orders delivered by fiat of L. Paul Bremer, former occupation chief, Order 81 remains in effect unless and until the new Iraqi government specifically overturns it. Am I being cynical in assuming that the election process will throw up politicians sympathetic to the interests embedded in Bremer's scheme?

Let's close with a summary from Klein in her Harper's piece, discussing the U.S.'s pre-election economic reorganization of Iraq:" If these policies sound familiar, it’s because they are the same ones multinationals around the world lobby for from national governments and in international trade agreements. But while these reforms are only ever enacted in part, or in fits and starts, Bremer delivered them all, all at once."

Friday, February 04, 2005

Cheap food, cheap labor, fat profits, part II

In a recent post, I wrote about how the U.S. Department of Labor had unceremoniously halted its annual study of working and living conditions among the nation's migrant farm workers.

The study is critical in allocating aid money to help stabilize the lives of these workers and their families, who are, after all, part of the hidden backbone of this country's economy. These people tend to be among those thrown off the land by the Nafta-codified destruction of Mexico's traditional food system; their presence here is vital to the workings of our industrial food system, whose model of mass-producing cheap food relies heavily on a steady supply of cheap labor. It's ironic, unconscionable, and utterly unsurprising that the Bush administration, an enthusiastic supporter of the present food system, would treat these people so cavalierly.

Click here to get the United Farm Workers' take on this travesty; the link also contains info on how to let the Bush administration know how you feel about its dubious decision.

Of mites and men (and bees)

A reader named Liz commented recently that: "The decline in beekeeping, along with the severe decline in wild bee populations, is of great concern to state agricultural folk. It's not uncommon for "pollinators" (people who keep bees primarily to pollinate crops, not necessarily to produce honey) to carry a tractor-trailor load (500 hives) across the country to pollinate California crops, because there aren't enough local beekeepers there."

And then I noticed this AP story about that very phenomenon.

It's interesting the way pesticides play into accounts of the bee crisis. The mite looms over these stories like the monster Grendel in the Beowulf tale: fierce, mysterious, unstoppable. "A tiny pest is decimating honeybee colonies across the country, worrying beekeepers and farmers who depend on the insects to pollinate their crops," the article opens.

Several paragraphs down, we get this: "Experts think the mites may have arrived in the mid-1980s from Asia, where they coexisted with local honeybees." Uh-oh. Yellow menace! But wait, did that just say "coexist"?

Two paragraphs later--number 10 in the story overall--we get to the meat of the story: "Reproducing quickly and in a closed environment, the mites have developed a resistance to pesticides — a trait they've been able to spread to their progeny faster than scientist have been able to develop new compounds to fight them off."

So North American pesticide companies have created a super-mite that their compounds can't sort out, and they've caused what appears to be a real nationwide agricultural crisis. Shouldn't that be the story’s lead, maybe even on the front page of the NY Times?

Now, before our friends over at the Center for Science in the Public Interest start chiding Monsanto to conjure up a super-bee that can stand up to the super-mite, they may want to read this piece. It details the way that bio corn, engineered to contain a pesticide, is working to create super-resistant pests. (This phenomenon is clearly in Monsanto's interest; the company can sell farmers the solution to the problem it created. But it's devastating for us organic farmers.)

Meanwhile, coca growers in Colombia have surrendered to the appeal of genetic modification. (What company is toying with the proud old coca plant?)

And, to prove that I'm a gourmand and not just a scold, here's a piece on a delicious phenomenon the NYT calls "natural wine."

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Surrendering to biotech crops

In an important recent report, which has yet to receive the full airing it deserves here, the Center for Food Safety lays out Monsanto's strategy for winning the war over GMO crops. First, buy up every major seed supplier, thus gaining a powerful share of the market; then patent everything in sight; and then require farmers who buy your product to sign away their right to save seeds, forcing them to repurchase your stuff each year. The coup de grace: since seed germoplasm is spread naturally through cross-pollination, farmers who never agreed to plant biotech seeds will be effectively using your stuff--and can be extorted into paying you licensing fees. And indeed, Monsanto drops $10 million a year for a 75-person-strong shake-down team, which runs around the country monitoring farmers for possible patent violations.

The study quotes Don Westfall, vice president of food consultancy Promar International (see below), in a frank assessment of the strategy: “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.”

Evidently, more and more farmers are surrendering; biotech crop acreage worldwide is growing at a robust 20 percent annual clip; my friend in Brazil gave a stark example of how the process works in the so-called developing world.

Moreover, the liberals are surrendering, too, removing yet another obstacle for biotech's leveraged buyout of global agriculture. The latest evidence: a craven report, released today, by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Now, I've never found much use for the CSPI; it's always been one of those do-gooder groups that lectures the public on the importance of eating one's spinach, without questioning whether that spinach was doused with pesticides or trucked across country from a factory farm. It's forever chiding the fast-food industry to offer more low-fat items, without stopping to consider the ruinous thrust of the entire fast-food project, or the brutalizing effect "low fat" has had on the American palate.

But I would have expected a more nuanced view of biotech than what the company served up Thursday morning.

Apparently, Monsanto has not been effective enough in promoting its agenda. CSPI is annoyed that Monsanto has only transformed a few big commodity markets. " The industry promised a bounty of beneficial crops, but the biotech cupboard remains pretty bare, except for the few crops that have benefitted grain, oilseed, and cotton farmers,” the report's author complains. Moreover, the biotech-friendly Bush government should speed up the approval process: "Just 13 .. approvals were granted from 2000 to 2004, and again, it took APHIS [one of the government's oversight agencies] almost twice as long—13.4 months on average—to grant approvals."

Clearly, the answer to the biotech crop shortage is government cash. Here is the CSPI's press release heralding the report: "In the report CSPI also recommends increasing public investment in GE [genetically engineered] crops, particularly by applying existing technology to non-commodity crops and by expanding research on biotech crops that would benefit consumers. CSPI also urged increased government support for research on crops that would be important to developing countries." To be fair, the report does lodge a couple of complaints against the industry: it's not innovating fast enough (despite Monsanto's $430 million annual R&D budget), it opposes "sensible biosafety regulations in the U.S. and abroad," and it should "make its proprietary technology freely available for public research and development efforts."

Meanwhile, all the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) can do is incessantly call for "monitoring."

Thus the biotech juggernaut charges ahead, its wheels oiled (GMO canola, no doubt) by the faint complaints of its would-be critics.

Note: Styling itself a “problem solver to the food chain,” above-mentioned Promar boasts a client list that reads like a most-wanted list of U.S. corporate food criminals.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Note to readers

Bitter Greens Journal will not be able to publish a new post today, and hopes to return to its regular schedule (at least one post each weekday) tomorrow.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear comments and reactions to what's been posted so far.