Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Philpott lands two pieces on Grist.org

The first one, a couple of weeks ago, a cheeky piece on how to have a "green" Thanksgiving; the other, just out today, a review of legendary multi-species pastured meat farmer Joel Salatin's new book. These are independent of my regular blogging on Gristmill.org. Check them out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Philpott deemphasizes Bitter Greens, throws lot (for now) with Grist

Some readers may have noticed that I haven't been posting much lately. That's because I've essentially moved over to Gristmill, the blog at environmental Web 'zine Grist.org. I've done so not for the lure of cash--Gristmill doesn't pay its bloggers--but in search of a broader readership. While I plan to keep Bitter Greens going long-term, readers interested in following my work should check in at Gristmill. I think if you bookmark this link, you can keep track of what I've been up to. Please comment often, and check in for a couple of paid features I'll be posting there down the line. Meanwhile, the "running critique of industrial agriculture" and the "working manifesto for a liberation politics based on food" goes on.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Seedy business: A sustainable-ag champion gets plowed under at Iowa State

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and the nation's greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always had a tough row to hoe.

Imagine trying to operate an Anti-Cronyism League from Bush's West Wing, and you get an idea of what the Leopold Center is up against. Industrial agriculture runs the show in Iowa, sustained by regular infusions of federal cash and its government-sanctioned ability to "externalize" the messes it creates. The state grabbed $12.5 billion in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2004 -- second only to Bush's own home state. Iowa leads all states in hog production: It churned out 14.5 million pigs in 2001 alone, the vast majority from stuffed, environmentally and socially ruinous CAFOs (confined-animal feeding operations).

Yet since springing to life in 1987 by fiat of the Iowa legislature -- funded ingeniously by state taxes on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide -- the Leopold Center has become an invaluable national resource for critics of industrial agriculture and seekers of new alternatives.

Now, however, a sudden purge at the top has called the Center's much-prized independence from industrial agriculture into question.

The Leopold Center operates under the authority of Iowa State University's College of Agriculture. Last Friday, the college issued a press release announcing that the Leopold Center's director of five years, Fred Kirschenmann, had "accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center."

The college went on to state that it had named an interim director, effective Nov. 1.

Kirschenmann himself, however, tells a more interesting tale than what's contained in the press release's bland prose. He says his move from director to "distinguished fellow" came suddenly and without his own input.

"On Wednesday [Oct. 26] I received a letter from the interim dean asking me to resign by Friday and decide by then if I would accept the position of distinguished fellow at the center," Kirschenmann told me yesterday.

"I wrote her [the interim dean] back telling her I thought she was moving too fast, that there wouldn't be time for a smooth transition. She wrote back that it was a done deal -- she had already named a new director."

Kirschenmann says the interim dean, Wendy Wintersteen, had been on Leopold's advisory board for years and had served on the search committee that hired him in 2000. "She was always very supportive of what we were doing," Kirschenmann says. "Until about two years ago. Then she became very critical."

Her critique centered on the idea that in its work the Leopold Center was neglecting "key stakeholders," Kirschenmann adds. "But she never really clarified who those stakeholders were."

Might she have been refering to agribusiness interests? "You can draw your own conclusions," Kirschenmann says. She never cited any reason for the de facto purge, save for "some verbiage about how I would be free to pursue my own work without having to worry about administrative duties."

To be sure, Iowa State's College of Agriculture draws agribusiness cash the way a penned-up pig wallowing in its own waste draws flies. I have a call into the college for a list of corporate donors; until that call is returned, let it suffice that this is the sort of research the college commonly proffers: A study claiming to show that the genetically modified seed industry deserves a greater "level of intellectual property protection ... than what existed in the North American seed corn market in the late 1990s." Collaborators: a pair of scientists from GM seed titan Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a subsidiary of DuPont.

Here are glowing testimonials from two of the college's "partners": John Deere and Cargill.

Kirschenmann says he accepted the "distinguished fellow" position because Wintersteen assured him he could continue doing his own work on sustainable agriculture. And that work is important. Under Kirschenmann the Leopold Center bluntly criticized and rigorously documented the environmental and social calamities being wrought by industrial agriculture.

Will he continue to be able to do that work at Leopold? "We'll see how it goes," he told me.

In the meantime, I'll be doing some research about which corporations and commodity groups give what to Iowa State's College of Agriculture.

Readers can express their outrage at this violation of academic freedom and blow to independent research on sustainable agriculture by writing to the following parties.

Wendy K. Wintersteen
Interim dean, ISU College of Agriculture
e-mail: wwinters@iastate.edu

Benjamin J. Allen
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Email: theprovost@iastate.edu

This post originally appeared on Gristmill

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

New posts on Grist and MaverickEats

Check new posts on Gristmill: here and here; as well as on MaverickEats.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Note to readers: Philpott to blog on Grist

I've been invited to write about food politics on Grist.org, an environmentalist Web zine that claims 100,000 readers. While the gig pays the exact same amount that Bitter Greens pays, I can't resist the opportunity to reach a broader (by a factor of about 1,000) audience.

My plan is to do shorter, pithier pieces on Grist, and to keep doing longer, more analytical pieces here.

Here's my first post on Grist.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Dominant traits II: Why GM soy looks set to swamp Europe

Maverick Farms lies on a dirt road halfway up a steep hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Twenty years ago all the land around here was agricultural. Each family generally had a couple of milk cows, a pig or two, and a garden plot to feed themselves; for cash, they planted cabbage (to be sold to a nearby sauerkraut factory, long gone) and tobacco.

All of that has changed. The word "farm" has become a marketing tool to move real estate, and little else. The only other entity with "farm" attached to its name on our road is "Clark's Creek Farm"--a suburban-style subdivision.

Our area is a magnet for SUV-driving second-home seekers and the real-state flacks who serve them. Up the road from us, the dirt flies as machines rip into the mountainside to create new lots for fancy homes. Starting at about 7:00 a.m., the rooster's hoarse cry is drowned out by the steady roar of giant trucks careening up the mountain, carrying construction material and machinery.

Nearly everyone up there wants the road to be paved--it would make construction so much easier, and you could comfortably drive your SUV faster than 20 mph to get up and down the mountain. We say: Hell, no. We're joined in our refusal by two neighbors, people with deep family roots in the area who don't want to see our holler turned into a suburb of Orlando or Charlotte. We refuse to sign the papers that would force the road's paving.

In the end, we will lose and the developers and second-homers will win. They will have forcibly created the logic that makes the road's paving "necessary." Carve enough mini-mansions into the mountainside, cram the road with enough construction trucks and "utility" vehicles, and of course it will have to be paved. It will become a safety issue. The road as it is will have to be condemned; a handsome strip of asphalt will rise up in its place. Progress! And goodbye to our chicken shed and springhouse.

I tell this bitter story to illustrate what's going on with genetically modified (GM) food in Europe. Bear with me.

An organization called Agricultural Biotechnology Europe, a PR front for Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, et al, recently commissioned a study of the costs to food conglomerates of pursuing a "GM avoidance" strategy.

First some background. Because of high-profile campaigning from the likes of Greenpeace, a large swath of European society has rejected GM food and demands that it be labeled as such at the supermarket. Those demands have forced grain-processing giants such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill to do something they hate doing: make distinctions in what they consider to be a sea of sameness. No longer can a soybean be a soybean be a soybean. Now they must separate GM from non-GM--a service for which they naturally charge a premium.

The dilemma mostly centers on soybeans, which Europe mostly imports from the Americas. The continent grows most of its own corn, which thus far is almost totally non-GM.

When Roundup ready soybeans first sprang to life in US fields in 1996, ADM and Cargill solved the Europe problem by diverting US soybeans away from the European food market (though they kept GM soy flowing into the animal-feed market), and sent the Europeans Brazilian soy. At that time, Brazil had banned GM seeds.

In the meantime, Roundup Ready soy gained a foothold in Brazil, as farmers bought the seeds on the black market from Argentina and then saved them for future planting, thumbing their noses at Monsanto. Then, earlier this year, the Brazilian government approved the planting of GM crops. That means the supply of non-GM soy has been shrinking.

For European food conglomerates bending to consumer pressure to produce "non-GM" food, that will mean higher prices for non-GM soy, the study argues. Already, the study reckons that 51 percent of the soy grown globally is GM; and fully 90 percent is "dominated by GM-origin material," meaning soy that's stored without any careful separation of GM and non-GM material. So supplies of non-GM soy are already tight.

Right now, non-GM soy draws a 5-10 percent premium over GM soy on the market. As supplies dwindle, the study says, the premium could go as high as 25 percent. (Interestingly, Brazilian farmers get no premium for growing non-GM soy; all the extra cash now accrues to the processor, the study reports.)

Bottom line: If you want GM-free processed food, you must pay Archer Daniels Midland a nice premium. I predict that as the premium grows, European consumer resistance to GM food will fade--and Monsanto's seeds will take over the Brazilian savanna much as they have the Midwestern plains and the pampas of Argentina.

And here is where we arrive at the conceptual link between land politics in my area of North Carolina and food politics in Europe. Just as developers and vacationers here have created the necessity of fulfilling their goal--turning our road into a suburban-style throughway--the GM seed trusts have overwhelmed the food system with their seeds, creating conditions that will eventually force acceptance.

Like so many BGJ posts, this one will end with a plea for consumers to remove themselves from the commodity system as much as possible by avoiding the supermarket and seeking sustenance at the farmers market and from backyard and neighborhood plots.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dominant traits: Can the seed trusts be busted?

According to a recent study by ETC Group, the world's ten-largest seed vendors control about half of the global seed market.

By the standards of late capitalism, that's a modest concentration level. In the United States, for example, the top four beef packers pack more than 80 percent of the nation's beef. Microsoft famously owns more than 90 percent of the world's computer operating system market. Consolidation of suppliers is as American as the SUV and the Apache helicopter.

Nevertheless, seeds lie at the heart of all organized food production, and thus at the heart of human culture for the past 10,000 years. Perhaps the seed trade deserves a closer look.

At the top of the seed pile, the above-linked ETC report shows, we find Monsanto, the former "life-sciences" giant that mutated into a gene-splicing agribusiness behemoth . It vaulted over rival Dupont as the world's largest seed supplier in March, when it snapped up fruit-and-vegetable seed titan Seminis for $1.4 billion. Below Monsanto and Dupont we find Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness firm. The three companies, like genetic experiments they might conjure up in one of their labs, share at least two sinister traits.

The first is that they are all among the world's largest pesticide companies. I'll address that topic another time.

The other shared trait is this: In addition to peddling physical seeds, they also peddle what's known in the business as "traits." This is the precise genetic coding that's artificially inserted into a seed's germoplasm to create a desired characteristic--say, the ability to withstand herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, which otherwise obliterate all plant life on contact. These companies can and do license these "triats" and sell them to other seed purveyors.

To put it in computer terms, we're looking at a kind of software/hardware model: the seeds are the hardware and the traits are the software.

In the computer world, these functions tend to be distinct: Microsoft dominates desktop software; Dell tops the market in PCs. Even Bush's Justice Department and SEC, both of which operate squarely under the heel of Wall Street in anti-trust matters, might squack if those two behemoths merged. In seeds, however, the giants perform both functions without raising a regulatory eyebrow.

At first glance, comparing the the seed market to the PC market looks like a stretch. Microsoft owns nearly 100 percent of the desktop software market, while Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta together control only about a quarter of the seed market.

But a closer look at individual at the fast-emerging genetically modified (GM) seed market shows Monsanto weilds a Microsoft-like heft. The ETC report reveals that 88 percent of the world's GM crop acreage is planted with seeds containing Monsanto-owned traits. More than 90 percent of the world's genetically modified soybean crops contain Monsanto's genetic goodies. For maize (field corn, the stuff that's ground into industrial-food inputs like high-fructose corn syrup or fed to confined livestock, not the food you eat off the cob), that number is 97 percent.

As for cotton, Monsanto traits account for 61 percent of the GM seed market. In April of this year, Monsanto spent $300 million to snap up Emergent Genetics, the third-largest cotton seed company in both India and the US.

Let's think about what that deal means. Before its sellout, Emergent, like many independent seed purveyors, could buy GM traits from the three giants: Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta; it could shop around for the best price. Now, it will presumably only use Monsanto traits.

By selling both physical seeds and traits--hardware and software--Monsanto puts itself in the position of cornering individual markets. That's the sort of thing that used to set an attorney general's teeth on edge. Our last couple of AG's though, have been much more interested in spying on citizens and justifying torture of suspected enemies of the state.

Now, so far, Monsanto's dominance extends only to the largest, most lucrative, and (not coincidentally) heavily subsidized crops: soybeans, cotton, corn. What happens if it turns its R&D attention to fruits and vegetables? Can the debut of GM bitter greens be far off? (Rather than sue me, maybe Monsanto should corner the market on the seeds of arugula, watercress, Tokyo bikuna, etc. That would bring Maverick Farms to its knees!)

Here we run against the sinister implications of Monsanto's Seminis buy. To date, attempts to genetically alter fruits and vegetables have failed miserably. A few years ago, Monsanto magnanimously bestowed upon Kenya the gift of a GM sweet potato, designed in a lab to increase yield. It was easy, then, to paint GM opponents as racist. The trouble was, the Monsanto sweet potato proved a bust in the field, as this article shows.

And Seminis itself grew out of the dashed GM hopes of a Mexican plutocrat named Alfonso Romo, whose late 1990s buying binge eventually made Seminis the world's largest fruit and vegetable seed company. (Romo is part of that generation of Mexican businessmen, the leading figure of which is the telecom baron Carlos Slim, who attained lavish wealth in the 1990s aided by a great burst of state-sponsored cronyism applauded by the IMF, Wall Street, and Washington.) Here's how the Wall Street journal described Romo's GM dreams in 1999:
[Romo] envisions creating utopian vegetables: non-browning lettuce, broccoli with enhanced cancer-fighting properties, and produce of all kinds that won't wrinkle, spoil or blemish. Whether his own scientists or others develop the means to accomplish those goals, he believes he will benefit. "Seeds are software," he says. "And we have the seeds."

The above-linked article hails a joint venture between Romo's company and Monsanto to create Roundup Ready lettuce--an effort that seems, thankfully, to have gone bust. Romo's company claims responsibility for those ignominious and flavorless "baby carrots" one finds stuffed into bags on supermarket shelves, and it brought to market seeds for a "cucumber that yields a hamburger-size pickle slice designed to lie perfectly between a pair of buns," the Journal reports.

That's bad stuff; but what I really found offensive was that "Mr. Romo's company lowered the heat factor of the jalapeno pepper, helping salsa pull even with ketchup in the U.S. in dollar sales." The man seems intent on breeding any flavor at all out of American food.

Luckily, to my mind, the market eventually frowned on Romo's efforts. Within two years of the Journal article, the U.S. business press had knocked Romo from his pedestal. His biotech schemes faltered on the supermarket shelf or on the petri dish, and his company became sodden with debt.

Here is Business Week in 2001:
Today, it's a chastened Romo who surveys the wreckage of his worldwide empire. The 50-year-old, hailed as a visionary seven years ago when he first invested in agricultural biotechnology and seed companies, now is struggling to pay creditors and remain afloat. An agreement restructuring Romo's corporate debt is expected with the banks any day. But Romo's problem remains: He grew too big, too fast.

Eventually, Romo restructured his seed holdings and created Seminis, which, as stated above, he recently sold to Monsanto for $1.4 billion. A corporate tightrope walker, he managed to stay on as chief of the division.

The deal immediately posed moral problems for small-scale farmers, including Maverick Farms. Both of our main seed suppliers--Johnny's and Fedco--buy and resell seeds from Seminis. As this thoughtful articleby Matthew Dillon of the Seed Alliance shows, Johnny's and Fedco will likely have to continue buying certain seeds from Seminis; its market heft is so great that it essentially holds a monopoly position in certain varieties, including heirlooms like Early Girl tomatoes.

And it's that market heft, combined with Monsanto's R&D muscle, that conjures a dire picture: What if Monsanto plunges seriously into GM vegetables? Many Wall Street analysts thought Monsanto wildly overpaid for Seminis, a slow-growing business with loads of debt. The only way the deal made sense was if Monsanto really thought it could cash in on GM veggies. Will it be allowed to dominate both the vegetable seed market and germoplasm market?

Today's Senate approval of the pro-industry zealot John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court bodes ill for the future of U.S. antitrust law.

Ladies and gentlemen of the small-scale sustainable-farming world, it's time we got more serious about seed saving.